Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Whole New Way

A Whole New Way
Jn. 6:35, 41-51[1]
For several weeks we’ve been exploring the role of faith in our lives.  Faith challenges us to move beyond believing only what we can see to entrusting our lives to God. It is a whole different way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, the possibility of light shining in the deepest darkness, and the possibility of hope in the midst of despair. Faith is a challenge because it takes something of a leap for all of us to really entrust our lives to something like that.  Faith is also a choice.  To embrace faith is to choose to look at reality from the point of view that God is making all things new.  Besides that, faith is also a response.  It is a response to our experience of something beyond us, something that perhaps even strains our ability to understand or even imagine.
Ironically, I don’t think faith plays a very significant role in most of our lives these days.  For all the rhetoric of faith in our culture, I don’t believe it is the primary motivation behind much of what we do.  I think we’re motivated much more significantly by other things.  Things like ambition: we want to succeed, we want to achieve something great.  Or we’re motivated by competition: we want to be seen as better than others, or to see ourselves as better than others.  Some of us are motivated by the desire for prestige, seeking recognition or even fame.  Others are driven by greed: thinking somehow that the quality and quantity of our stuff defines our worth as individuals.  And then there are those who are obsessed with power:  wanting to control our own lives and the lives of those around us.  And many of us are motivated by fear.  We fear being alone, we fear losing our livelihood, we fear losing our health, we fear losing our stability, and so we try to protect ourselves from what we fear in any way we can.
But the reality is that a life motivated by these things is no life at all.  They are relentless taskmasters that always ask us for more and never give us the life we hoped to gain through them. I think that’s one of the lessons Jesus was trying to teach the people of his day and ours through the “Bread of Life” discourse.  In one puzzling verse, Jesus brings this into focus by saying that he’s going to give his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51).  Some people take that literally and believe that you have to actually eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood in order to have eternal life.[2] But I think what that misses the fact that Jesus is speaking metaphorically.  There are many places in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks about laying down or giving his life for the world.  In all of them, he’s pointing to his death on the cross as an event that changes everything for everyone, everywhere.[3]  Unfortunately, we run into some obstacles here as well.  The traditional view of Jesus’ death on the cross is that, by pouring out his life’s blood on the cross to satisfy God’s wrath against us, he makes  it possible for us to live forever in heaven rather than being condemned to hell for our sins. 
But that seems to me to stray far afield from what Jesus is talking about here.  In John’s Gospel, he talks about giving people eternal life, but it is a life that begins now.  It is a full and abundant life here and now.[4]  It is a whole new way of living.  And so I think we have to ask ourselves, from that perspective, how it is that Jesus giving his life for us makes it possible for us to have this life here and now.  For one thing, I think Jesus’ own faith in God that enabled him to endure such suffering for our sakes explodes the false motivations that control our lives. When it comes to ambition, what level of “success” or “achievement” could ever compare with Jesus’ sacrifice of his very life?  And it seems to me that all our superficial measures for competing with each other just fall away when we really comprehend the depth of love Jesus expressed in that one act. Again, when you think about the fact that Jesus gave up his very life, our greed for more stuff can’t even come close to satisfying us.  And then there’s power: it seems to me that Jesus exploded the myth of power by showing what true power is—the power of love that is willing to sacrifice itself for others.  And finally, Jesus’ courageous faith in the face a terrifying death inspires us to overcome the fears we face.
In short, it seems to me that when we seek to follow in the footsteps of the faith that enabled Jesus to give up his life for the life of the world, it frees us for a whole new way of living.  When we embrace that kind of faith, we discover a life that is free from the relentless taskmasters that never deliver what they promise.  We discover a whole new way of living, one that is motivated by compassion and giving, by mercy and caring, by faith and hope and love.  It’s a whole new way of living that is full and abundant and free—a life that is truly worth living.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/12/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Ernst Haenchen, John: Commentary on the Gospel of John, 298-99, points out that the letters of Ignatius show that the early church saw this as the only way to “guard against the gnostic heresy that Jesus’ body was only an apparition.”  Cf. also Gerard S. Sloyan, 73.
[3] Cf. John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, on 6:51; cf. also Haenchen, John, 294; and George. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 93.  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:274, where he refers to Question 76 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which raises the question of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, and answers that it means “to embrace with a trusting heart the whole passion and death of Christ” and to be “united more and more to his blessed body by the Holy Spirit.”
[4] Cf. Beasley-Murray, John, 94: “It is characteristic of this Gospel, however, that the emphasis in the passage falls not on Christ’s death for sin but on his death for life.”

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