Tuesday, May 28, 2013

God's Delight

God’s Delight  
Prov. 8:22-31[1]
  When I was in college, one of the required readings in Sophomore Literature class was Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edwards was one of the driving forces in the “First Great Awakening” in the early 1700’s with his insistence that we recognize and repent of our sin.[2]  But the image of God in this sermon is one that seems positively sadistic.  God is depicted as dangling sinners over the fires of hell like someone might dangle a spider over an open flame.[3]  Not an image that makes you want to get very close to God.  In fact, I’d say it’s an image that makes you want to run as far away from God as possible.
  But the biblical view of God is very different.  The Bible presents us the God of love, the God of relationship, and the God of community.[4] In fact, God himself is depicted in this way, which is why we believe in one God who is three.  As one of our confessions puts it: “One God who is the Creator and Sustainer, the Savior and Lord, the Giver of life within, among, and beyond us”[5]  Since love requires a counterpart, it should come as no surprise that God has counterparts in the Bible—especially Jesus the Christ and the Holy Spirit.  This one God who is three exists in a relationship of love and community with one another.  This is central to our faith, because the love it represents is the basis for everything God does—including both creation and salvation.
  We sometimes skip over creation with all our focus on salvation, but creation is the basis for our faith as well.  God creates everything out of the same love that motivates him to save.  Creation comes from God’s desire to have a relationship with those who can choose to return God’s love and share God’s love.  Our lesson from Proverbs for today is a beautiful image of all this.  In it, God creates as a master craftsman, as a skilled artist.  And like a skilled artist takes delight in a sculpture or a painting, God takes great delight in the creation.[6]
  And surprisingly, though it pre-dates Jesus by several centuries, there is already hint of God having a counterpart.  Our lesson describes “Wisdom” as God’s companion in creation.  But more than that, Wisdom is God’s counterpart, not only applauding with joy at every aspect of creation but also working with God to make sure everything fits—as a “master craftsman.”[7]  I like the way Gene Peterson translates it in The Message : “ I was right there with him, making sure everything fit. Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, Delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family” (Prov. 8:30-31).
  The interesting thing about Wisdom in Proverbs is that Wisdom is more than just practical knowledge; wisdom is personified as a woman crying out in the streets, seeking those who are simple-minded and going astray from the truth to return and live the life God intended for them. I find it fascinating that a book of the Bible from the days when women had few rights portrays the one who acts on God’s behalf to call people to the truth, the one who is God’s counterpart in creation, as a woman![8]
  In the New Testament, Jesus has pretty much assumed the roles of “Lady Wisdom” in proverbs.[9]  But there is another counterpart of God’s that gets overlooked at times—the Spirit of God.  According to our lessons from John’s Gospel recently, the Spirit is the one who will comfort the disciples in Jesus’ absence, who will remind them of all he taught them, who will guide them as they seek to continue his work, and who will empower them to do even greater works. I don’t know about you, but it sounds to me that in our day and time, the work of “Lady Wisdom” from the Book of Proverbs has been assumed by the Spirit of God.[10]  Does the Spirit of God also have the feminine quality of Wisdom? [11]  It’s hard to say for sure.  But there’s something about the Spirit that seems to fit a feminine image in my mind.  For me, the idea of the Spirit as a feminine image enhances the comfort of knowing that we are constantly supported by God’s presence.
  In our day, not many people have much use for the idea of God as Trinity.  It seems an abstract and far-fetched concept for theologians to debate.  But I think nothing could be further from the truth.  The point of our belief in the Trinity is that God is a God of love—not just love that cherishes from afar, but love that acts for us and among us.  Love that reaches out to us and seek a relationship with us.  “One God who is the Creator and Sustainer, the Savior and Lord, the Giver of life within, among, and beyond us.” This is an image of God who takes great delight in the beauty of the natural world, and takes great delight in the human family.  That’s right—all this means we are all a part of God’s delight!

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/26/2013.
[3] Edwards says, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”  Cf. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.sinners.html.
[4] Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, 101: The biblical image of God is “God in community, rich in relationships. ‘God is love.’”
[5] Presbyterian Church in the United States. A Declaration of Faith. 117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991.
[6]Cf. Pheme Perkins, “Beside the Lord,” The Christian Century (May 17, 1989) 522: “The Lord rejoices in her [Wisdom] as she rejoices in all of creation, including the human race. This image of creation is very different from the mechanical putting-it-together activity that we might regard as part of making something. Creation is shared. It is an object of beauty, order and delight.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 311.
[7]Cf. William P. Brown, “Proverbs 8:22-31,” Interpretation 63 (July 2009) 288: Wisdom is God's full partner in play, and all creation is hers to enjoy. The world was made for her sake, for her flourishing and delight, and it is her delight that embraces the world.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, 9: “Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation. He does not merely confront it in his transcendence; entering into it, he is also immanent in it.”
[8] Cf. Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs, 280.
[9] Cf. Moltmann, God in Creation, 95, for a description of the “Wisdom Christology” that attributes creation to Jesus as the Logos.
[10] Cf. Moltman, God for a Secular Society, 103: “According to Wisdom literature, this creative Wisdom can also be called God’s Word or God’s Spirit. But it is the presence of God in all things which is invariably meant, a presence immanent in the world.”  Cf. Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom, 185.
[11] cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom, 185: “According to Wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, for example), this creative Wisdom can also be called God’s Word or God’s Spirit. But what is meant is always the presence of God immanent in the world and present in all things.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 46.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Doing What Jesus Did

Doing What Jesus Did
Jn. 14:8-17[1]
  To the average person looking at the church from the outside, Pentecost must be the strangest of our celebrations.  According to the account in the book of Acts, a bunch of guys have flames coming out of their heads and start talking in every imaginable language.  It sounds like some kind of drug-induced hallucination that even Timothy Leary would have been proud of![2]  Christmas is somewhat acceptable to the outside world, because of the spirit of giving and peace.  Of course, that ignores the most important meaning of Christmas, but it’s palatable.  Easter is more of a stretch, but the Easter Bunny has become the focus for most people.  Again, it ignores the point, but it’s the cultural version of Easter that has become acceptable. 
  But there’s no cultural version of Pentecost.  I’m not sure there’s any way to have a cultural version of Pentecost.[3] And yet, in its own way Pentecost is just as important to our faith as Christmas and Easter.  At Pentecost, God pours out his Spirit on all people.  And this has special significance for the church, because the Spirit creates the church by producing faith in our hearts, by gathering us together in community, and by empowering us with gifts to serve one another and those around us.
  I’m afraid, however, that as with most of the supernatural aspects of our faith, we tend to take an all or nothing approach to Pentecost.  There are many in our day and time who look at events like this with skepticism.  After all, it’s not something that happens every day.  And the Bible is full of stories about events just like Pentecost.  For some people, that’s what makes it really hard to take the Bible seriously.  They tend to assume that stories about supernatural events must be some kind of myth.  In a very real sense, from this point of view it would seem that God is barely involved in our lives.
  Others take a completely opposite approach.  Every supernatural event, even what most strains our ability to accept, is taken as literally, factually true.  And not only that, but it would seem that similar events take place all the time.  God actively causes everything that happens in all of our lives on a daily basis.  In a very real sense, from this point of view, God waves a “magic wand” to grant our wishes.
  As with most aspects of our faith, I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  While I certainly don’t believe in a God who waves a magic wand, I also don’t believe that God is separate from our lives.  I believe in the God of creation.  From the very beginning, God chose to “get his hands dirty,” so to speak, by creating a world full of flawed and fallible people.  And I believe in the God of covenant.  In calling Abraham and Sarah (some 4,000 years ago!), God determined to work through them and their descendants (both physical and spiritual) to redeem the world of humanity.  And I believe in the God of incarnation.  When the time was right, God became one of us in Jesus the Christ in order to take on our brokenness and transform it into a new life of peace and freedom and love. 
  The idea of God who can magically fix any problem is comforting to most people.  I think a lot of people in our world assume that’s what it means for God to be “God.”  But if you think about it, if God could have just waved a magic wand, why did he go to all this trouble?  It would seem to me the answer is that’s not the way God works--it’s not the way God has ever worked.  God has always gotten involved in the ordinary experience of human beings. And at least part of the reason why God has chosen to work in this seemingly frustrating way is that God wants us to respond to him in love--as a choice that we make freely.  God doesn’t want puppets he can manipulate.  He wants people who choose to accept his love, and who in turn choose to share that love with others. 
  That’s why God created all this world in the first place--as an act of love.  And that’s why God entered our human existence in Jesus--to demonstrate what that love looks like in the life of a flesh-and-blood person.  And the whole project is designed to develop you and me into people who freely choose to share that same love with those around us.  That’s what God’s design has been from the very beginning--shaping us into people who try to be like Jesus in our daily lives.
  And, in my mind, that’s what Pentecost is all about. Notice that in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples that when the Spirit lives in them, they will “do the works I do, and in fact will do greater works than these” (Jn. 14:12).  I’m not sure what “greater works” Jesus had in mind, but I can think of no “greater work” than people living out the character of Jesus, doing the things he did, relating to people with love as he would.  And it seems to me that was the purpose for God pouring out his Spirit on “all flesh” at Pentecost.[4]
  This may sound like a much tamer version of Pentecost that we’re used to.  We’re used to the whole idea of the Spirit poured out as a means of enabling mere humans to work miracles.  If you read the Book of Acts from a certain perspective, that’s the impression you can get. But John’s version of the Spirit coming to create the church gives us a different perspective with which to view the Acts of the Apostles, and the whole Christian life, for that matter.[5]  Throughout the story of the Church there have been people who have become so filled with the Spirit that it’s almost as if they become the living presence of Jesus himself in our midst.  I think that’s the point of it all--creation, covenant, incarnation, and Pentecost: to enable us to live our lives by doing what Jesus did.[6]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/19/2013.
[2] On Timothy Leary’s advocacy of expanding the consciousness through hallucinogens, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Leary.
[3] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath,” Journal for Preachers 26 (Pentecost 2003):37, where she observes the lack of “Pentecost Cards” in the Hallmark line.
[4] Cf. Adreas J. Köstenberger, “The ‘Greater Works’ of the Believer According to John 14:12,” Didaskalia 6 (Spring 1995): 41, where he says that it is the Spirit poured out on the disciples “who continues the revelation and work of Jesus who is now exalted. ... The ‘greater works’ are thus works of the exalted Christ through believers.”  Cf. also Gordon Fee, “John 14:8-18,” Interpretation 43 (April 1989): 174, where he says that “the ‘abiding Spirit’ is also the key to their continuing the ‘works’ of Jesus.”
[5] cf. Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath,” 39, where she observes that, according to John’ story of the birth of the church, “the church has received the Holy Spirit, the world has not, and it is the church's job to bring the Spirit into the world.”
[6] Cf. St. Augustine, Tractates on John, 71.3, where he explains the “greater work” of the Apostles by saying “it is all by His doing such in or by them, and not as if they did them of themselves.”  Cf. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.lxxii.html.

That The World May Believe

That the World May Believe  
Jn. 17:20-26[1]
  It’s not hard to see the breakdown of community all around us.  It’s especially pronounced in the major urban centers like ours, but I think you can see it in small towns across the country.  Families are in some cases literally spread from coast to coast.  Even when they’re not, the “modern family” seems to struggle to stay together in these days.  And the concept of a “neighborhood” is just about gone, relegated to the days of the 1950’s and 60’s.  We barely know the people we live around.  Rather than the community of the past, we tend to see ourselves as individuals, living as individuals, concerned with our individual welfare.  As a result, we isolate ourselves, immersed in the virtual reality of television, internet and video games.  Not much of a substitute for real flesh and blood relationships.
  Unfortunately, the individualism of our society has made its way into the church.  Rather than the common good, we are mainly concerned with “what I get out of it,” when it comes to church life.[2]  We can talk a good game when it comes to our congregations as “families” and “communities,” but I’m afraid the reality in most cases is very different.  I doubt very much that Jesus had in mind the church where people fight over the color of carpet in the sanctuary or vie for control of multi-million dollar institutions run by official or informal hierarchies.  And when it comes to TV personalities who build their own empires, I think that goes way outside the pale.
  When you look at our Gospel lesson for today, we find that Jesus had something very different in mind.  He prayed for his disciples and those who would believe through their witness that they might be one.  If you look at the church today as a whole, you would be hard-pressed to say that we are “one.”  Even when it comes to individual congregations, it’s hard to find a church where everyone is on the same page.  It’s not this way for lack of efforts at creating unity.  But it seems to me that our efforts at creating unity are ineffective at best and at worst adventures in missing the point.[3]
  In many of the churches of our day, the method for promoting (or enforcing) unity is through agreement regarding what we believe.[4]  While the essential beliefs of the Christian Faith are important, trying to promote and/or enforce doctrinal agreement has failed to produce the kind of unity Jesus had in mind.  If anything, it seems to me that this has actually contributed to the fragmentation of the church.  Then there are those churches that seek to promote (or enforce) unity through organizational uniformity.  In some contexts, this occurs through a ladder of authority that works from the top down.  In other contexts like ours, we seek to promote (or enforce) unity through a policy manual.  We call it the Book of Order and it seems that we have been obsessed with it every since we established it. 
 But these well-intentioned but misguided efforts at promoting (or enforcing) unity really haven’t succeeded at producing the intended result--a church that is one.  I think part of the problem is that we’re looking in the wrong direction for unity.  We think somehow that we can find unity through our own efforts.  But Jesus pointed us in a very different direction when it comes to our unity.  Jesus called the disciples to a unity that is grounded in the unity of love between Father and Son.[5]  Jesus prays, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (Jn. 17:21).  He says it in several different ways, and the repetition can be confusing, but essentially Jesus prayed for the disciples “that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (Jn. 17:22-23).  Clearly, what creates a real and lasting unity in the church is the love of the God among us. 
  As we have been discussing the ways in which Jesus envisioned his followers demonstrating the reality of the new life of the resurrection to the world, it seems to me that this is also a crucial factor.[6]  Jesus voiced it this way, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn. 17:23).  The truth of the matter is that it is the love that unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit that brings unity to the church.[7]  Given the wide variety of personalities, cultures, worldviews, and expectations among those of us who actually make up the church, it seems reasonable that the love of God is the only thing that can possibly unite us.  As we turn our attention away from all our efforts at promoting unity and focus on the love of God that binds us together, then we have the opportunity to become a community that lives in such a way that the world may believe.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/12/2013.
[2] Cf. Craig B. Anderson, “Community Reconsidered,” The Living Pulpit 3 (Oct-Dec 1994) 8: “Much of our concern for community, owing to a felt loss of it, is rooted in a misunderstanding of community as an aggregate of individuals in service to the individual.”
[3] cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 775-76, where he discusses the various suggestions scholars have made to interpret this unity in human terms.
[4] That this is significant emphasis in the Johannine literature cannot be denied.  Not only in John’s Gospel, but also in the letters of John, right belief, especially regarding Jesus, is an essential basis for the identity of the community.  Cf. Brown, John XIII-XXI, 778; Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 198.
[5] Royce Gordon Gruenler, “John 17:20-26,” Interpretation 43 (Apr 1989): 180: “The disciples of the new society are to go generously into the world with the same hospitality that motivated the Father to send the Son, and the Son to send the disciples. This progression of love reveals the inner relationship of the divine Community as selfless hospitality to the other: Father and Son are utterly at the disposal of one another in selfless and dynamic love, and manifest this generosity to the new society, which in turn is empowered to pass it on to others.” Cf. also Bruce D. Marshall, “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today 50 (Apr 1993) 80: “The unity of the church is the unity of God. In other words, according to Jesus' prayer the church is to be unified, made into one, by sharing in the very bond of being, knowledge, and love by which Jesus is unified with the Father.”  Cf. similarly, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:235-36; Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:794-95.
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:677: “The disunity of the Church is a scandal.”
[7] cf. Marshall, “Disunity,” 85: “What makes the church to be, and so to be one ... is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church.”
[8] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:795: “The community’s oneness, like the incarnation itself, makes visible and tangible the love of God.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 345: “unity is not merely an attribute of the church; it is the church’s task in the world as well.”  Cf. similarly Ernst Haenchen, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, 155: “the unity and unanimity of Christians ought to convince the world that Jesus is really he whom the Father has sent.”

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Keeping Our Word

Keeping Our Word
Jn. 14:23-29[1]
  There was a day when “your word is your bond” was one of the primary codes of our culture.  I doubt anyone would say that these days.  I don’t believe that integrity has completely vanished from our society, but for most of us, these days the watchword is, “don’t believe everything you hear!”  Keeping our word sounds simple, but there are so many ways in which life in our world complicates things.  Sometimes keeping our word is relatively easy—you make a promise to do something and you do it.  But “keeping our word” goes beyond that, it seems to me.  Integrity means living a life that is the same in private as it is in public.  That’s a different matter altogether.  That kind of “keeping our word” isn’t so easy or straightforward.
  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives us another of the characteristics that are to define those who follow him: they keep his words (Jn. 14:23).  Earlier in the chapter, he said it a little differently: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15).  That might sound strange to those of us who are used to the language of grace promising us freedom from the bondage of living by rules.  But in Jesus’ day and time, “keeping” the commandments was a perfectly normal way of expressing a life of faithfulness to God.[2]  “Keeping” God’s word meant internalizing the teachings of Torah to the extent that they shaped every aspect of one’s daily life.  It meant living in harmony with God’s truth and God’s justice, with God’s love and God’s mercy.[3]
  I think people get confused about all that these days.  We tend to fall into one of two extremes—we either obsess about every little detail of Scripture in an compulsive effort to obey God perfectly, or we ignore biblical teachings altogether and “fly by the seat of our pants.”  It seems like we have an “all-or-nothing approach” to “keeping” God’s word.  Unfortunately, life is rarely that cut-and-dried.  We are often placed in situations where the “correct” answer is far from clear.  That’s when the true test of “keeping” God’s word comes out.  If we’ve really internalized the central principles of Scripture—principles like doing justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—then we can follow them as guideposts when we are uncertain.  In our ever-changing world, we are going to be placed more and more into situations where we have to live somewhere between “all” or “nothing” when it comes to keeping God’s word. 
  One of the challenges this lesson presents us with is that Jesus doesn’t exactly say to “keep” God’s commands, he says those who love him will keep his commands.  I think many of us still think that Jesus’ commands are easier than God’s.  With Jesus, all we have to do is believe, love God, and love others, and we’re just fine.  But a quick overview of just a portion of Jesus’ teachings--the Sermon on the Mount--makes it clear that Jesus doesn’t make it easier for us to obey God, he makes it harder.  When it comes to the commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus said not only should you not kill another, you should also not give in to the hateful anger that devalues the life of others by the way you speak to them!  Time and again, Jesus didn’t make it easier to live a life of “keeping” God’s word, he made it harder. [4]  And for the record, there’s really no distinction at all between the essential commands of God in the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Throughout the Scriptures, the calling is to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s infinitely harder than a checklist of “do’s and don’ts” that you can mark off.  I don’t think any of us will ever be able to mark off that we “loved our neighbor as ourselves” in every circumstance of life.  And when it comes to “loving God with all our being,” I don’t think we even have to go there. 
  And yet, Jesus said that one of the distinguishing marks of those who follow him, of those who love him, is whether or not we “keep” his word.[5]  This doesn’t mean that our relationship with God is something we have to earn by our obedience.  Rather, it’s like a relationship where two people love each other and want the best for each other—not because of some external rule or code of conduct, but because of the love they have for each other.  Jesus said that if we love him, we’ll follow his teachings, his way of life, his example—simply because the love we have for him compels us to do so.[6]  That’s how we practice the kind of integrity where our private lives match up with our public lives.
  Jesus said that one of the ways we can demonstrate the new life of the resurrection is through the way we put his teachings into practice.  When our love for God and for Jesus Christ truly define who we are, then our lives will be public display of what it means to keep God’s word.[7]  Fortunately, it’s not a do-it-yourself project.  Jesus promised the disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). [8]  With the Spirit’s help, we can live a life of keeping God’s ways, which means a life of fulfilling our promise to follow Jesus.  When we keep our word in that way, then we can truly demonstrate a new and different way of living to the world around us.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/5/2013.
[2] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 638; cf. also Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:746.
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 127; Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 323.
[4] Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John. , 127: “The ethic of the spirit is not ethical anarchy, but a true ethic with the highest requirements one can imagine: the unlimited sacrifice, like the love with which Jesus loved them in his entire human existence”
[5] Cf. Brown, Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 646: “love and keeping the commandments are but two different facets of the same way of life.”  Cf. also O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” NIB IX:747: “the sign of faithfulness to Jesus’ commandments is to live a life of love grounded in Jesus’ own love.”
[6] Cf. the Heidelberg Catechism 4.090-091, which defines eternal life as “Complete joy in God through Christ and a strong desire to live according to the will of God in all good works.”  Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 69: “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience”; cf. also ibid., 76: “Only those who obey can believe, and only those who believe can obey.”
[7] Cf. Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 183: “Obedience is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples, the proof that they love”; cf. also
[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2:277–278, where he uses Paul’s teaching in 2 Cor. 3:12-18 about the Spirit of the Lord changing believers into Christ’s likeness as a means of understanding what it means in John’s Gospel to “keep” Jesus’ word and/or commandments (Jn. 8:51; 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10).

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Tough Love

Tough Love
John 13:31-35[1]
  As I mentioned last week, it is unfortunate that the church doesn’t have a very positive image in our culture.  I think if you set up a kiosk at Baybrook Mall and interviewed people who don’t go to church, you’d be disappointed at what they had to say about those of us who do go.  There are a lot of people out there who have been burned by church people at some point in their lives.  Some of them might say that we who go to church are hypocrites, overlooking our own sins while we sharply criticize the sins of others.  Others might point out how church people are always fighting with each other over the most insignificant things.  Unfortunately, most of what I think you’d hear wouldn’t be the full story.  There are plenty of people in church who practice the compassion and mercy of Christ on a daily basis.  But sadly, that doesn’t translate into the perception most people have about us.
  In our gospel lesson, Jesus told the Apostles that the defining mark of their life as his disciples was to be their love for one another.  Now, I’m sure we can all sing the song, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.”  But I’m afraid the warm, fuzzy feelings we may have when we sing that song fall far short of the kind of love Jesus had in mind.[2]  He told them, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34).  He had in mind a very specific kind of love.  In fact, he demonstrated that love for them earlier when he washed their feet.[3]  It was a kind of love that was so different from what they expected that Peter insisted, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn. 13:8).
  I think we can all appreciate the difficultly Peter must have had with the idea of Jesus washing his feet.  In the first place, it is a very personal thing to have someone wash your feet.  But more than that, in that setting it was a task that you normally did for yourself, or one that a slave did for you.  It certainly was not something you would expect from your teacher, your mentor, and the one you believed to be the Messiah--God’s agent of redemption in the world!  That kind of thing went way beyond the bounds of what Jesus’ disciples would have considered an expression of love.[4] 
  And yet there Jesus was, washing their feet, doing for them all what none of them would ever have done for each other.  In fact, when Peter objected, Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn. 13:8).  Peter misunderstood this as well.  It would seem that what Jesus was trying to impress on him and on the rest of the disciples was that this was the quality of love that defined God’s very character.[5]  It was the quality of love that God shared with Jesus.  It was the quality of love that Jesus had shown to them.  And it was the quality of love that Jesus commanded them to show one another. 
  Even at this, we might still be able to get over the menial nature of washing someone’s feet--or the modern-day equivalent.  But so that we can see the true nature of the quality of love that Jesus expected us to show one another, we have to remember the situation.  He had just washed the feet of 12 men, one of whom was about to betray him.  Another of them, Peter, would publicly deny even knowing Jesus.  And the rest of them would abandon him and run for their lives when the crucial moment came.  It would seem that Jesus knew all of this ahead of time, and still he demonstrated his love for each and every one of them by washing their feet. 
  This is the kind of love that Jesus said would be the defining mark of those who claimed to follow him.  It is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling we have when we sing familiar songs together.  It is the willingness to humble ourselves to do for one another what we would not normally do.  It is the decision to give ourselves away for the sake of one another.  It is the commitment that our lives are to be lived not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of one another.  It is a love that is incredibly difficult.  It is the ultimate “tough love.” The love that Jesus modeled for is a love that is willing to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of one another.  It is a love that leads us to make sacrifices for one another, even when it is unconventional, or inconvenient, or even uncomfortable.[6]  The love that Jesus commanded has always been tough love.
  I believe this is one of the most important ways that we can bear witness to our new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[7]  In our day and time, Christians are divided by race, divided by class, divided by politics, divided by dogma.  All of these divisions contradict what Jesus said should be our defining trait: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).  Because we come from different perspectives and backgrounds, the kind of love Jesus commanded us to show one another is tough.  It takes all that we have to give.  But in a world that seems increasingly lacking in love, it seems to me that maintaining this tough love for one another is the most important way that we can demonstrate the new life of our risen Lord.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/28/2013.
[2] Cf. Margaret Guenther, “No Exceptions Permitted,” in The Christian Century (May 3, 1995): 479: “Yes, love can be warm, enfolding and sheltering. Yes, love can feel good. But love can also be strong and difficult. It can be an impossible challenge.”
[3] Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 117.
[4] Cf. Mary L. Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (Jul 2004):408.
[5] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:723: the foot washing “draws the disciple into the love that marks God’s and Jesus’ relationship to each other and to the world.”  Contrast Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 568, where he presents the idea that “Jesus performed this servile task to prophesy symbolically that he was about to be humiliated in death.”
[6] Cf. Guenther, “No Exceptions,” 479: “I tend to love with my fingers crossed. I'm ready to love almost everyone, .... Surely I am allowed one holdout, one person whom I may judge unworthy of love. But the commandment has no loopholes”
[7] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:235-36, where he argues that the essential revelation in the Gospel of John is the mutual love between the Father and the Son which Jesus demonstrates as a love that draws the world into this fellowship.  On that basis, then, he can say that “He Himself is the pledge” that is “the world which is loved by God and loves Him in return” even in spite of its ignorance of that fact.  He continues, “And with Him, as His disciples, those who believe in Him, the community of His followers, are a similar pledge.”  He concludes, “It is, therefore, the love which is in God Himself, which goes forth and breaks into the world in the existence of the man Jesus, and which is first actualised in those who believe in Him that they should be its witnesses—it is this love which the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel reveals as He manifests His glory.” And it is this love that draws others to faith.
[8] Cf. Richard B. Hayes, “Emergency Directive,” in The Christian Century (Apr 22, 1992): 425: “Sacrificial love ... presents a transformative witness to a world where the pursuit of self-actualization is the highest value, a world where self-asserting violence is the norm.” Cf. similarly George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 264