THE THIRD WEEK IN LENT
March 19-26, 2017
John 14:1-7 Romans 4:13-25
I love that line, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Indeed, they are words of love. We usually hear them at a funeral service, in the context of our ultimate enemy, Death. Those words mean more to me in day to day living. They are spoken to quell the clouds of anxiety. I have learned that when a non-anxious, or more accurately, a less-anxious person enters a room, everyone in the room gets better.
Somehow that seems integral to what John means when he has Jesus say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “The Way” he is talking about has to do with “walk where he walks, stand where he stands.” Another way Jesus could have put it is, “Stand where I stand and you will see The Way. Walk with me and you will know The Way.” It should be interjected that the language of faith is being employed here, which has been learned through the grace of God.
There are some key words in the Romans reading that help us with this, “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…” John Wesley might say that it takes some prevenient grace that enables a person to, in faith, make the first steps along The Way. Wesley thought of prevenient grace as something that happens deep inside us that prepares us to take a leap of faith in order to live the next moment to the fullest.
Paul, here in Romans, uses Abraham as an example of one who, having no map of The Way, took a leap of faith as though it was a part of his DNA, actually, as though he had a promise from the One who had given him life, that the leap would lead him to fullness of life. Abraham believed in the truthfulness of the promise. “Hoping against hope,” he took the leap of faith! And he found The Way, a Jesus moment in the Old Testament. Or, is this reading just as much an Abraham moment in the New Testament? Maybe both Abraham and Jesus are agreeing, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…” It is the truth. It is the life.
To be sure, we will still die; we won’t stop dying because Jesus rose from the dead. We just no longer have to fear death as a threat to life. We can see it as a New Beginning. We can trust the future. That makes The Way Jesus is talking about far more than a set of directions, a list of rules, a covey of legalisms.
The John, who has Jesus say, “I am the Way,” stands on the same side of the Empty Tomb that you and I stand on. The ultimate outcome has been decided. It is going to work out all right. Julian of Norwich got it, “All shall be well.” But first, there is the leap…
When we respond in faith and say, “Yes, I believe that the ultimate outcome of my life is going to be all right, then those battles that are yet to be fought will be fought in a different way than if we did not have faith. Is it any wonder that one of the earliest names for the Christian movement was, “The Way”?[i]
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
THE SECOND WEEK IN LENT
March 12, 2017
John 8:12; 10:7-17 Romans 1:16-17
On a warm summer day a college student was hiking in the country side. He noticed that clouds had begun to gather. It looked like a thunderstorm was on the way. Before long he was being drenched by rain. Through the rain he could see lightning in the distance. He heard a loud clap of thunder and shortly a crack of lightning struck nearby, scaring him. He fell to his knees and impulsively blurted, “St. Anne, save me, I’ll become a monk.”[i]
What do you think happened? Did St. Anne save him? Did his religion work? I will come back to that in a moment. Within the first three months after my graduation from seminary I remember having a quaking sensation that my religion wasn’t going to work. I had done very well in seminary and I felt prepared for ministry---or so I thought.
Yet, as I was driving across New Orleans from one of the two churches I was serving to the other, a bulletin came over the car radio announcing that a young man had been found shot to death in his car. The car was found on the top of the Huey P. Long Bridge that connected the East and West banks of New Orleans. The announcer gave the name of the young man. He was the president of the youth group of one of the churches I was serving! He had just graduated from High School earlier that week.
That is when I had that quaking feeling that my religion wasn’t going to work. I was not going to have any words to say to that family. What could I do? My straight A’s in New Testament did not mean a thing at that moment. Nonetheless, I turned the car around and went straight to that home simply because I knew that was where I was supposed to be.
Let us return to the college student who petitioned St. Anne. The lightning did not strike him. He was saved. He did become a monk in his twenty-second year. And twelve years later, early one October morning, he strode across the town square and nailed ninety-five theses or propositions to his parish church door in Wittenberg, Germany. These were matters that concerned him that he wanted the Roman Catholic Church to look at more deeply. He was questioning his religion.
The young man, who impulsively prayed to St. Anne to help him, was repudiating the cult of saints in several of those theses. He, who vowed to become a monk, was later to renounce monasticism. He nailed those theses to his church door because his religion was not working. In his head and in his heart he knew there was not anything wrong with God; there was something wrong with his religion. His name was Martin Luther, a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church, who shattered the structure of medieval Catholicism. A priest and Bible scholar, he became the leader of the Protestant Reformation.
In his Biblical study Luther had come to understand that faith was not simply an acknowledgment of certain propositions because they could be proven to be true. He knew that no matter how well we may memorize and how fervently we may say the Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…,” that alone does not make us a faithful person. Faith is not belief in something because it can be proven to be true, but for some other reason.
When he opened his New Testament to the Book of Romans he knew what it said well enough to translate it from its original language to his native German. There was a passage he underlined, “The just shall live by faith.” Boldly, in the margin of his Bible he wrote an additional word, “ALONE.”
“The just shall live by faith---ALONE.”
He recommended that we memorize the first eight chapters of the Book of Romans. Luther hammered home the distinctively New Testament understanding of the way life is built: We are able to live because God loves us, not in order to do the things that will convince God to love us. There is no bargain that we can strike with the One Who Gives Us Life. There is nothing we can give or buy or promise that will obtain for us what God gives to us freely---our lives, our very selves. When we really believe that, it changes the way we face the next moment of our lives.
When I arrived at the home of the president of my youth group, I did not say anything about Jesus being the Light of the world. Nor did I feel like the gate-keeper of heaven or the good shepherd. I do not remember what I said. Actually, I do not remember saying very much. I was just there.
Through the days that followed, the funeral service itself, being with the members of the family, dealing with the press---it went on for months, literally, because authorities could find no clues that would solve the mystery of this death. Somehow we all got through it.
The family was incredible. They had more questions than answers and were in worse shape in regard to that than I was, and yet, they held steady. It was because they held so steady that I was able to hold steady. I wish it was the other way around, but it wasn’t. They held on and they won through and together we came to understand that there are some answers that can only come as we live through the experiences themselves.
In an ancient book
I have read of innocents being thrown into a lion’s den.
I have learned it is so,
But I have trusted.
One whom I believe has said,
“Rain falls on the just as well as the unjust.”
I have learned it is so,
But I have trusted.
Now this has happened.
Still, I trust.
Yes, still I trust.
For it is in trusting
that I am alive to the utmost,
It is in loving that I am most fulfilled,
It is in hoping that I live to see a better day.[ii]
15 Here I Stand, Roland Bainton, page 21, Abingdon, Nashville, 1950.
16 For All Seasons, John Winn, page 48, Preachers’ Aid Society of New England, Plymouth, MA, 2011.
THE FIRST WEEK IN LENT
March 5, 2017
John 6:30-36 Romans 1:8-12
Not only is there a radical shift from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday and Lent, there is also a radical shift, from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), to the Gospel of John. That is why I chose John as the gospel portion of the selections for Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter.
One only has to read a few chapters in John to see the difference between his work and the synoptics. There was upwards of a hundred years distance between the Gospel of John and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The historical context had changed drastically. He is least interested in writing an historical account, but he is most interested in spelling-out the meaning of the Christ Event experienced in Jesus of Nazareth for the context in which he finds himself and for future contexts.
His writing has more of a theological, even philosophical dimension to it. John has had a longer time to digest the Christ Event and he begins to fashion the universal and eternal nature of its meaning into a theology to live by. One only has to read his opening words to be grasped by the radical shift his approach takes. Instead of a birth story we get,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and
the word was God…What has come into being in him was life, and the
life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and
lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a
father’s only son, full of grace and truth…The law indeed was given
through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one
has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the
Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
Now, I ask you, does this writer know the end of the story as well as the beginning? Clearly, John interprets the Jesus of history through the lens of the Christ of faith. He sees the Christ Event as the “hinge of history,” to borrow the title of Carl Michalson’s wonderful book that makes this point emphatically.[i]
It seems only natural that the epistle readings correlating to John would be Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul, too, is interested in spelling-out the meaning of the Christ Event for the context in which he finds himself and for future contexts. His theology reaches its full fruition in Romans. Paul’s distinction between law and grace is not unlike that which we find in the Gospel of John. They are a good fit for each other.
But where to begin? Hardly had I asked myself that question than the “I Am” sayings of Jesus, found only in John, came readily to mind. They would be the gospel readings for the Sundays of Lent. It seems to me that in all of the “I Am” sayings, John is attempting to deal with the question, “What is the nature of the risen Lord and what does that reveal to us about the nature of God?”
Interestingly, John chooses to put the first of these sayings immediately following the story of the feeding of the five thousand. This is his way of pointing out that he is really not concerned with fulfilling bodily appetites, though that is what impressed the people. Rather, there were ancient rabbinical sayings that when the messiah comes, he will give a sign that he is, indeed, the Messiah. Another saying has it that when the Messiah comes he will bring manna from heaven.
John is convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah, so it is no problem for him to tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand with manna that seems to be heaven-sent. But---there is more---this is not merely a “sign,” rather the very nature of the risen Christ is to be a sign, not to bring a sign, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Being trumps everything. It is the very nature of God, as revealed in the risen Christ, to come to us with the kind of fulfillment that exceeds our physical needs and makes it possible for us to face the next moment of our lives. That is the language of faith. And it is faith that Paul is talking about in his words from the first chapter of Romans. Faith is deepened, even kept alive, when we share our stories with each other, when we come together to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
That is what happens when the church is really being the church and worship is really something that we do and not something that is done to us. But first, you have to show up. Then you will hear, “Take this bread…Drink this cup…” It is the language of faith.