Sunday, May 13, 2018
"In Life and in Death We Belong to God" (Sermon)
“In Life and in Death We Belong to God”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
The more time I spend with John’s gospel, the more I really feel John’s desperate love for the desperate community to whom he writes. They’re in crisis, because by the end of the first century, the young church is having to absorb some gut-wrenching realities.
For one, they’re realizing that Paul’s testimony concerning Jesus’ immediate return appears to have been wishful thinking. Life as the Christian community won’t be about waiting for Jesus. It’ll be about participating in his ongoing work. While it will be about spiritual growth, it’ll also be about engaging the world, just like Jesus did.
As the years separate them further and further from first-hand remembrances of Jesus, the Church is also learning that not everyone remembers the same things, and not everyone processes Jesus’ story the same way. So, Jesus’ followers have begun to splinter into factions based on differing emphases and opinions. And divisions cause tension.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that worldly powers are not warming up to the new faith community. Threatened by the Church’s loyalty to Jesus before to Caesar, the powers-that-be treat Christians as subversive and dangerous.
In a couple of centuries, Constantine will gather the Church under his wing and begin to domesticate Christian theology and practice. He will effectively say the same thing Jesus is saying to his disciples: I am yours, and you are mine. By casting Rome as the benefactor and protector of the Church, emperors will strip Christians of their spiritual fierceness. Constantine will pave the way for the misconception that to belong to the Church is to belong to the state. The misconception that what Jesus calls “the world” is as much savior as Jesus himself.
Maybe both Jesus and John see this coming. When reading John’s account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples, one can feel the anguish. Jesus is preparing his followers to live in a world in which they will face tribulation without benefit of his physical presence. The tone is not “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” A defiant Jesus goes toe-to-toe with the world in general, and thus with Rome in particular in claiming the Church as his own. The Son says to the Father:
6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me
9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (Jn. 17:6-19 NRSV)
Jesus’ prayer reminds the disciples and the early Church that their experience of God and witness to God depend on maintaining their identity in God. That’s not to say that God abandons them to punish them when they’re not faithful. It’s just to say that only by remaining connected to God through prayer, fellowship, and Christlike service do they continue to experience God as real, relevant, and powerful. That’s a tall order when the world is breathing down your neck. And that’s why Jesus prays for them. And his prayer illustrates what Paul meant when he said, “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26)
John wants his readers to see that their overwhelming sense of dis-orientation in a hostile world mirrors that of Jesus’ disciples on the eve of the crucifixion. He wants the community to remember that, come what may, God is faithful, and that they are beloved and gifted. And like all who are blessed by God, they’re not blessed for their own sake or because they’re more deserving than anyone else. Blessedness is the God-given capacity to serve as a sign and source of blessing for others.
Blessed to be a blessing describes our identity as servants who belong to God and who are sent out by God. And to believe what Jesus teaches means far more than signing on to some theological proposition. Identifying ourselves as children of God and followers of Jesus means accepting the call to live as signs of the presence and love of God at work in the world – which God so loves.
As the Ecclesia, the Called-Out Ones, we are not removed from the world. “I have sent them into the world,” says Jesus.
Throughout the Farewell Discourse and the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus is charging and commissioning his disciples to turn their hearts and minds toward the demanding task of discipleship. He’s challenging them to lead the community in continuing his gospel work of healing the sick, reaching out to the outcast, speaking up for the voiceless, loving the unlovable, rejoicing in the creation, and confronting worldly systems of violence, domination, and exploitation. And they – WE – must do all this holy, kingdom-of-God work in a sanctified spirit, a spirit of penitence, gratitude, vision, and humble courage.
Jesus’ prayer sounds a lot like an ordination prayer, doesn’t it? He lays a very specific claim and identity upon the disciples. He also offers comfort and hope, because throughout this section of John, Jesus keeps mentioning, and, indeed, promising, the gift of The Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Holy Spirit, the Church simply doesn’t exist. The Spirit not only fills us, the Spirit fills the spaces in-between us with the empowering gifts stated in our ordination vows: “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” As we continue to discern who we are and what God is calling us to be and empowering us to do at any given moment, the Spirit is holding us together like surface tension. As contexts change, the specifics of our calling evolve. We either respond, “walk[ing] by faith, not by sight” (2Cor. 5:7), or we blind ourselves with superficial distractions. And when we forsake vision and risk, we fade into irrelevance.
“We don’t understand why our youth aren’t coming to church,” say the elders. “We give them pizza!” Doesn’t the world offer the same?
I’ve said this before: Jesus does not come in order to prepare us to be dead. In John 10 he says, “I have come that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s a here-and-now promise. Life after this life is in the hands of God who is more gracious, forgiving, and trustworthy than any of us can imagine. As participants in and stewards of this life, we are caretakers of one another and the earth. Most of all, we’re caretakers of those who have no caretakers – whoever they may be. Discipleship is a long-haul commitment to be handed down, generation to generation.
“As for prophecies,” says Paul, “they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” (1Cor. 13:8)
“It is he,” says Isaiah, “who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” (Is. 40:22a, 23)
Scripture is not subtle in affirming that sanctification means, as the opening line of A Brief Statement of Faith declares, “In life and in death we belong to God.” That is, we do not belong to Pharaoh or Caesar. And for those who find our God-given identity in Jesus, that means carrying on his mission in the world, fearlessly proclaiming in word and deed that God is Love, and that Love, and only Love, has no end.