A New Hope

Inspired by John 14:15-21

In our Gospel reading for today we get another snippet from Jesus’ looong goodbye. If you were not here last week and didn’t listen to my sermon online, well, first of all, shame on you! I’m kidding! Last week I mentioned that Jesus looong goodbye, which spans four plus chapters in John’s Gospel, occurred on what we now celebrate as Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, when we remember the last supper, the foot washing, and Jesus command to love one another as Jesus has loved us. These are Jesus final words to his disciples before his arrest and execution. That is the context with which we are to hear this short passage from Jesus looong goodbye. And I’m hoping you’ll see why this context is important by the time we’re done. So let’s dive in.

There are two major points that I want to highlight for you from this short passage. The first is the very first sentence. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” A better word, rather than keep, might be the stronger word obey. If you love me, you will obey my commandments. Keep is a bit too passive. So, this is a hard one for many of us to wrap our heads around. It sets the bar really high. Cuz let’s be honest, how many of us are keeping Jesus’ commandments? How well do we obey Jesus’ commands? I’m hoping we can all agree that we could all use a little work in that department. Otherwise this sermon will be pointless if we can’t at least agree on that. I mean, it’s the reason we begin most worship services with confession and forgiveness around the baptismal font!

So, if we believe that we are not doing very well at obeying Jesus’ commandments, then what do we do with this? Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So what are you saying Jesus? We don’t love you? What if the answer to that question is a simple yes, that Jesus is saying we don’t love him? Why would you say such a thing pastor? Of course we love Jesus, why else would we be here every week! Ok, calm down, and stay with me here. Waaaay back in February, I know, a long time ago, we read a passage from Matthew where Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. And in that sermon I talked about how love is actions, not feelings, not thoughts, actions. If you don’t remember that sermon or weren’t here, it’s online. Ok, stay with me.

Going further back, waaay back on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent, I know, I’m really testing your memory here, we read another passage from Matthew, this time, a story about a king who said to those on his left, “‘Get away from me. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’

Jesus here is referring to himself as the king, and in doing so is commanding his followers to feed, quench, welcome, clothe, and visit his people. In other words, Jesus commanded his followers to love his people. And by serving others, by loving others in this way, we will be serving Jesus, we will be loving Jesus. Which brings us back to today, as Jesus says to us, “If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments.” Loving others is how Jesus want to be loved. And remember, love is not a feeling, or a thought, it’s action. Jesus doesn’t need our warm fuzzy feelings for him. Jesus doesn’t need our undying devotion to doctrines and rituals. Jesus needs us to love the world. So, how well are we doing with that?

There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. 2.2 billion people who are followers of Jesus! If 2.2 billion Christians were doing their job as followers of Christ in the world, would we have the hunger crisis that we have today? Would we have the homeless crisis that we have today? Would our prisons be disproportionately filled with our brothers and sisters of color? Would women be paid 80 cents for every dollar that a man makes? By the way, the answer to all those questions is no, and if you disagree I’d love to have a conversation with you about it sometime, but not back there when I’m trying shake hands and say good morning to people, that’s not the time or the place to critique my sermons thank you very much.

So, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments” and we ask, “So what are you saying Jesus, we don’t love you?” I think we need to accept the answer to that question is yes! Own it! Only then we can do something about it. Ok, let’s move on, that was just the first thing I wanted to point out from this passage! The other will be quick, and way more hopeful. After that we need to end on something positive right? So the rest of the passage is about the Holy Spirit. As this is Jesus’ long goodbye, Jesus here attempts to reassure them that they will not be left alone. Very tenderly Jesus says, “I won’t leave you as orphans.” The Holy Spirit is something we Lutherans are not in the habit of talking about a whole lot unfortunately.

We’re great at talking about God the Father, and God the Son, but we get kind of tongue tied when it comes to God the Holy Spirit for some reason. But Jesus says something right after this that helps. He says, “I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you.” Immediately after talking about the coming of the Spirit, the companion, he says, “I will come to you.” Hmmmmmm. Almost as if Jesus saw himself returning, just in a different form, as the Holy Spirit of truth. Right before this he did call himself the way, the truth and the life, as we heard last week!

This reminds me a lot of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars A New Hope. And if you’re not a Star Wars fan, I’m sorrynotsorry for losing you here. It is 40 years old, I think it’s safe to use as a pop culture reference by now! Anyway, at the end of A New Hope, the hero, Obi Wan Kenobi, fights the villain Darth Vader, and buys some time for his friends to escape. He then tells Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” And then with a sly smirk, he allows Darth Vader to kill him and his friends escape. We later learn that Obi Wan becomes a powerful spirit that can still communicate and guide his friends, even better than he could before he “died.” Hmmmmm. Who does that sound like?

Though, Jesus’ looong goodbye is emotional, fraught with dread and sadness, especially on the part of Jesus, the foundation of his goodbye is hope, a new hope for a continued future with them, with us. Though Jesus begins by laying down that “If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments” gauntlet, he never intended on leaving us alone to do it. Maybe we Lutherans aren’t as bad as talking about the Holy Spirit as we thought. Maybe every time we speak of Jesus’ work in the world, we are speaking of the Spirit’s work in the world—the spirit of truth, the spirit of Jesus. I like to think of Jesus saying his long goodbye, with that same sly smirk of Obi Wan Kenobi, knowing full well that he would return, more powerful than we could possibly imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.


I Am the Way and You Are Not

Inspired by John 14:1-14

To give you some context, today’s Gospel reading comes from, what scholars have called Jesus’ farewell discourse, what I call, Jesus’ loooong goodbye. And when I say long, I mean long! Jesus’ long goodbye takes up four plus chapters in John’s Gospel! Now, I’m all about saying goodbye but come on Jesus! In fact, one of the things my family instilled in me was, whenever you leave a place, you have to say goodbye to everyone! That still remains with me today. When I leave the office every day I have this instinctual need to find everyone and say goodbye, even though I know I’ll see them tomorrow, God willing, I’ll feel guilty if I don’t. Now, I draw the line if they are in the bathroom, because boundaries, but I’ll still text them a goodbye! I know, I’m weird. And I’m your pastor!

But back to Jesus’ long goodbye. I believe I’ve recommended this movie before but it’s worth repeating. I didn’t appreciate the Gospel of John properly until I saw the 2003 movie called The Gospel of John. I highly recommend it because by the end of the movie, you will have heard the entire Gospel of John, as all of the dialogue of the movie come from John’s Gospel. Nothing added, nothing taken away.

Now, it’s a long movie, but it’s not as long as Titanic! And one of the things that you’ll notice when watching that movie is the number of times that Jesus launches into a long speech, whether he’s at the temple, in the garden, or just walking down the street. His disciples were probably like, oh, there he goes again. Someone interrupt him! This farewell discourse, that we get a piece of today and another small piece next Sunday, comes from one of those times when Jesus launched into a long speech.

Now, here’s a little more context for you, and maybe this is even more important than Jesus’ long goodbye. This occurred on Maundy Thursday. These words of Jesus occurred during the Last Supper, after Jesus had just washed all of the disciples feet. Sitting around the evening meal, Jesus, fully knowing what tomorrow will bring, according to John anyway, shares his final thoughts, his lasting hopes for them, with words of hope and encouragement, all while not holding back just how difficult the days ahead would be for them. Around his last meal with them, he has this very intimate, relational moment with them. Not just to say goodbye, but also to give them a model for them to emulate, a direction to take. More on that in a minute.

Let’s take a closer look at the text itself to see how we get there. Jesus begins with “Don’t be troubled.” I don’t know about you but when someone begins with that I get troubled! And maybe that was the point. He continues with, “Trust in God. Trust also in me.” Jesus then goes on about spare rooms for them in God’s house, about how he will prepare a place for them, and he won’t stop there. After he prepares that place he will come back and take them there himself!

Now, I had an odd real world connection to that the other day at the Auburn True Value Hardware. I asked for some help finding something and the woman said, “I know exactly where those are, I just stocked that shelf! Let me take you to them.” I would have been content if she had just pointed me in the right direction, Lord knows that’s the usual assistance you get in stores today. But no, she insisted on walking me across the store to the item I was looking for, in spite of how busy she clearly was. Likewise, Jesus is always willing to go above and beyond the call of duty for us. Not only does he build the spare room for us, not only does he prepare that room, but then he takes us to it himself! More behavior for us model.

Then he tells them, “You know the way to the place I’m going.” Now Thomas, God bless him, I don’t know if Thomas interrupts Jesus with his question or if Jesus was just going to end it there by saying you know the way to the place I’m going but Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.” I imagine Thomas looking at the other disciples as he asks this like, am I the only one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus remains calm, maintains his patience, and proclaims in no uncertain terms, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Now this can sound very exclusionary. Lord knows that this passage has been used by Christians for centuries to exclude many groups of people, beginning with our Jewish brothers and sisters.

But this remark of Jesus doesn’t have to be taken that way. Christians have just chosen to take it that way because in doing so it helps them to come out on top. Here’s another way to hear it. Remember last week when we talked about the phrase, “You are God and I am not?” And then we turned that into, “You are the gate and I am not.”

What if, Jesus is simply saying here, I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and you are not—knowing full well that we are going to be tempted to make ourselves central, to make our doctrines central, to make our practices central, to make our rituals central, to make our worship styles central, to make our translations and interpretations of scripture central. What if, this was simply Jesus way of saying, I am central and nothing else. Not us, not our ways, not our truths, only Jesus.

Here’s another way to think of it, we hear the word journey and we look for a path, when the journey is actually a person, Jesus. We hear about a way and we look for a direction, when the way is actually a person, Jesus. We hear the word truth and we listen for facts, when the truth is actually a person, Jesus. We hear Jesus speak of life and we look for things like good health, success, pleasure, or dare I say, increased worship attendance and heavier offering plates, when that life is actually a person, Jesus. Whoo, just got real there at the end didn’t it? Yikes!

Then Phillip, God bless him, Phillip says, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” Now Jesus starts to lose his patience, probably thinking how dense are these guys? Jesus responds, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” And more than that they have seen his works, all that Jesus had done up to that point. Jesus says, “Trust me” there’s that word again, “trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves.” In other words, if you can’t believe what I am saying, then at least believe in what I’m doing! And here’s why, because “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father.”

Remember, this is part of Jesus long goodbye. Jesus is preparing them for his absence, as best as anyone can. Jesus will soon be gone and the works that they’ve seen him do, will now be there responsibility to carry on. The works that we have heard about, are now our responsibility to carry on, and not just them but greater works. How could that be? Because we will do those works together, as Bethlehem, as Lutherans, as followers of Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, across the entire globe. That’s how we will do greater works than Jesus.

And that’s why Jesus began this farewell with “Don’t be troubled.” We don’t have time to be troubled! There’s too much work to do! That’s why Jesus began this long goodbye by reminding us of his spacious house, with prepared spare rooms, that when the time is right we will be taken to by Jesus. In other words, don’t worry about your futures, all is taken care of, besides, there’s a lot of work to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Consider the Source

Inspired by John 10:1-10

As you may or may not remember, the fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always good shepherd Sunday, when most of the readings highlight the role of Jesus as shepherd. Sometimes it can seem a bit contrived, a bit forced, but I think most of us, especially those of us who have no experience in the actual work of shepherding, find this particular role of Jesus to be quite comforting. And don’t worry, I’m not going to destroy that image for you today, you can relax!

I’d actually like to focus on something else from this passage from the Gospel of John, which by the way we will be reading from for the rest of the month, he just won’t go away. Anywho, I’m more interested in what Jesus calls himself before he calls himself the good shepherd, which doesn’t even occur in this passage anyway!

That happens in the very next verse after this passage when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But in this passage we are not there yet. In this passage Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Now, some of us, including myself, may get a little nervous when we hear Jesus speak of himself as a gate. But I think that nervousness comes less from scripture, and more from our own use of gates.

We know how we humans use gates. Unless you’re in prison or being held hostage, we use gates to keep people out. Just think of the various ways we use different kinds of gates: the security gate at the airport, a gate on a driveway, a gate on an apartment complex, security at a country’s border crossing, or even your front door—all different kinds of gates that we use to keep people out.

So it stands to reason that God uses gates the same way we do right? Well, that kind of reasoning only works when we make God in our image. Thankfully, that’s not how it works. We are made in God’s image. Now whether we live into that image or not is a discussion for another sermon but if we are honest with ourselves, we transfer our own behaviors and beliefs on God all the time. Our default position is to assume that God behaves the way we do, believes the way we do, feels the way we do. You know those old bracelets that say “What would Jesus do?” They should be called, “What am I about to do and then assume that Jesus would have done the same thing” bracelets! But that doesn’t fit on a bracelet. Oh well. But back to gates!

The assumption that God uses gates the same way we do is just that, an assumption, but it’s also a dangerous one—not to mention an assumption that has hurt a great many people over the ages. Just think of all the ways in which the church has misused the role of Jesus as the gate, the gate to keep people out. This can happen in seemingly “innocent” ways like, let’s all come to church dressed in the very best clothes we own, because Jesus would like that, no no, better yet, because we honor and respect Jesus so much.

Do you remember those days? Coming in your Sunday best? Yeah, good times, good times. Well, not for everyone. How did that make people feel whose best clothes didn’t even come close to the church membership’s best clothes? Did they feel welcome? No. Did they feel like they’d fit in? No. Did dressing in their Sunday best become a gate that many couldn’t cross? Yes.

Now, like I said, that’s one of the more “innocent” ways, or maybe a better word would be silent ways the church has used gates to keep people out. But over the centuries there have certainly been more direct, open, and vocal ways that the church has used gates, used Jesus, to keep people out. Some examples include: if you’re a woman this is not the place for you. If you’re not white, this isn’t the place for you.

If you’re not straight, this isn’t the place for you. If you don’t believe exactly the way we do, this isn’t the place for you. If you’re not successful then there must be a reason God hasn’t blessed you with success and whatever that reason is probably means this isn’t the place for you. Those are all messages from the thieves and outlaws that snuck over the wall that Jesus was talking about.

And if you think any of those examples I just gave are exaggerations, then I’d encourage you to read up on some church history, because the church has a pattern of making certain groups of people over the ages feel unwelcome at best, or intentionally slammed the gate on their face at worse. But if this passage from John teaches us anything, it’s that this is not our role. You know the saying, “You are God, and I am not.” Well, today it’s “You are the gate, and I am not.” You are the gate and I am not. As we heard during Holy Week, our job is to love, to love as Jesus loved us. Not to play gatekeeper, not to create hurdles for people to jump over in order to be part of our community, not to determine who is in and who is out—just to love. That is our one job.

But pastor, how do we know who is going to heaven and who is not? How do I know if I’m going? Well, theologians have devoted their whole careers to those questions, volumes have been written! But I’m just a simple pastor, and so I give this simple answer—consider the source. Consider who the gate is, and all you know about him. All the stories, all the work he did during his short time on earth, the miracles, the sacrifice, the cross and empty tomb, and all the work that Christ continues to do in the world today. Christ “came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” Consider the source. Consider who the gate is. And rejoice! Amen.