Like Family | Proper 17

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

1 Keep loving each other like family. 2 Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. 3 Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. 4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. 5 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. 6 This is why we can confidently say,

The Lord is my helper,

and I won’t be afraid.

What can people do to me?

7 Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

15 So let’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. 16 Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. (CEB)

Like Family

The final chapter of Hebrews might as well be labeled Discipleship 101. If we were to give the class a title, it might be: It All Starts with Love. In fact, in Greek, the word in the first sentence is (φιλαδελφία) philadelphia. You may have heard of it before. There’s a city in Pennsylvania that houses a broken bell that goes by that name. Rocky Balboa was from there, too, if you need a more recent cultural reference from the last five decades.

There was also an ancient city in the Decapolis called Philadelphia, which is now called Amman, Jordan. (I’ve been to that one. I’ve even eaten at the Hard Rock Café in that one. But I haven’t been to the one in Pennsylvania).

The word philadelphia is a compound word of philos, which means love or beloved, and adelphos, which means brother or a person viewed as a sibling. Philadelphia is brotherly love, familial love, love between people who know each other well.

Philadelphia defines a kind of love between people within a certain delineation, whether it’s within a family, close friendships, or a religious community. So, when the author of Hebrews tells us to keep loving each other like family, that word philadelphia is pointing to those within the church. We Christians are to love each other and commit ourselves to loving each other continually. Yes, there will be breakdowns and disagreements, arguments and divisions over certain issues, but those matters are not an excuse for us to let our love for each other falter or fail.

Our congregation members do a fairly good job of loving each other like family. There’s always room for improvement, but we do pretty well. We keep each other uplifted in prayer through an email prayer chain. We really like to get together to eat, whether it’s hosting a dinner for grieving families, enjoying one another’s fellowship at a pig roast, breakfasting together on Saturdays, breaking bread for a mission meal, a fish fry, a Wonderful Wednesday, or a Terrific Tuesday.

I think we could easily add a Fried Chicken Friday to that list. We even have a meal at a Sunday School seminar series. You all let Dr. Mike and me lecture to you because you get to eat. I think some of us would sit through anything as long as we got to eat.

But eating together is only one part of how we love each other like family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of church members giving other church members rides to the hospital or to doctor appointments. You write cards and letters to shut-ins. You visit people in the hospitals and nursing homes. You genuinely care about the people sitting around you in this room.

“Keep loving each other like family” (Hebrews 13:1 CEB).

I know I’ve already mentioned some Greek language stuff—and this sermon is just getting started—but I have a reason for doing so. In verse 2, there is one more Greek word that we need to examine. The Common English Bible translates the beginning of verse 2 as “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests.” The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”

The word in question is another one of those compound words, (φιλοξενίας) philoxenias. You already know that philos means love. Xenia, in Greek, is hospitality, and it’s derived from the word xenos, which is foreigner, alien, stranger. A love for hospitality—philoxenias—is what we are required to display on behalf of foreigners, strangers, and aliens—xenos. So, we’re told by the author of Hebrews that our mutual love—our love as family—must extend beyond our inner circle to those who are strangers, foreigners, and aliens. We’re reminded not to neglect a love for hospitality. This is a love that aims us outward, beyond our communal family.

By showing such love to foreigners, aliens, and strangers, we might well serve as host to God’s messengers without even realizing it. There are stories of such encounters throughout the Biblical narrative: Abraham in Genesis 18, Lot in Genesis 19, Gideon in Judges 6, Samson’s mother in Judges 13, and, if you have a Bible that includes the Apocrypha, you can read about the angels Tobit and Tobias encounter. Hospitality that is given without a hope or expectation of a return is faithful behavior, and we might not realize just who we’re extending our love of others to when we offer it.

When we host these incredible little kids at the nursery school, do we realize how beautiful the love and care our staff pours into those children really is? When we host kids at Thrive, do we fully grasp how profoundly our hospitality as a church is affecting them? Some of them come from situations that we, in our comfort, can scarcely imagine. Hospitality—and not mere hospitality, but a love for hospitality—philoxenias is exactly what Disciples of Jesus Christ are required to offer.

And, I almost hesitate to use the word required because when you, personally, see the results of these ministries in the lives of Mount Vernon children, it doesn’t feel like an obligation at all. A love of hospitality, itself, becomes a source of joy that fills and nourishes us as well as those whom we host.

The next verse, verse 3, shows us how far this love for showing hospitality must be willing to go. In today’s world, whenever something bad happens, we always hear about how “thoughts and prayers” are with those afflicted by the tragedy of the day. But the author of Hebrews lets us know that “thoughts and prayers” alone don’t cut the mustard. Instead, the writer is clear that we need to ask ourselves how we might meet the immediate, physical needs of those for whom we’re praying and thinking. For the author of Hebrews, it gets down to very flesh-and-blood stuff.

We’re told to remember prisoners as if we are in prison with them, and to remember those who are tortured as if we, ourselves, are being tortured. There is something co-carnational even syn-carnational about those who make up the body of Christ Jesus and those outside of it. (And yes, I just made those words up). Remember, being a Christian is about showing love for those inside and for those outside the Christian community. The implication is that, in all of humanity, we must see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. Each member of the body that makes up the whole human race is not only a brother or sister, but our very own flesh and blood. When they hurt, we hurt—whether we feel it directly or not. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

One question we might consider is how are Christians still failing to act not only as brothers and sisters but as one, singular, undivided body?

One thing that got me in recent headlines is how some big names on the Christian Right—leaders who call themselves Evangelicals, those who proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ—are all up in arms because the president has been using the Lord’s name in vain at campaign rallies. These same leaders didn’t say anything about the “Send her back!” chant at the rallies, and I’ve barely heard a word from these same leaders about the profound mistreatment of human beings on our southern border, or the resident aliens in our midst. But they sure got riled up because of what some of them described as the president’s blasphemy because he said a certain word.

And I’m not criticizing the President by mentioning this, I’m criticizing these leaders of the church.

When we care more about the illusion of propriety than we care about members of our human family whom we must view as our own flesh and blood… it takes a lot of theological blindness to do that. It takes a lot of theological blindness for a person to identify themselves as a follower of Jesus Christ and be fine with the violation and mass incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers on our border. It takes a lot of theological blindness to call oneself a Christian and be silent about the evils of white supremacy and racist ideology. It takes a lot of theological blindness to put country or politics ahead of any part of our human family.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to bring God’s kingdom, God’s dominion, God’s rule and reign. If that’s what we’re praying for—if that’s what we really desire—then we cannot, at the same time, support policies or ideologies that are antithetical to God’s values. We will find ourselves on the wrong side of judgment if we do.

Speaking of judgment, the author of Hebrews reminds us that even the most intimate parts of our lives are connected to the rule of love and the reign of God. Verse four turns to the subject of marriage and covenant within our communities. “Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery” (Hebrews 13:4 CEB). If we make a vow before God, we’d better keep it. After all, if we can’t honor our commitment to our own spouse whom we see every day, how can we honor our commitment to God whom we can’t see? How can we profess to love God if we cheat on our spouse and dishonor our marriage?

The love of money, too, is mentioned. Paul described the love of money as the root of all kinds of evil (c.f. 1 Timothy 6:10). When our love is attached to the wrong things—or to things instead of people—then we’re going to make decisions that benefit our acquisition of money over and against the right kind of care, love, and hospitality for other members of our human family.

We don’t need to put our love or our trust in money because, as Deuteronomy 31:6 states, God will never leave us or forsake us. We can sing with the Psalmist, “The LORD is for me—I won’t be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Psalm 118:6 CEB). We can and should put our confidence in the Lord and find satisfaction in God’s providence for us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to seek a better life for ourselves, but it does mean that money and wealth are not our end goals. Discipleship 101 teaches us that love is our end and our beginning.

And, as if the author of Hebrews knows that these words aren’t going to be pleasing to some people’s ears, he reminds us to remember our leaders and those who preach the word of God to us. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. This is not the place where I get to say my congregation, Hey, look at me! Listen to me! Look how great a Christian I am! I’m all too familiar with my own failings.

Nope. This is where I can only hope that my dedication to God’s realm, the way I love, and the way I live is somehow acceptable to God and a faithful example to the church I serve. Jesus Christ doesn’t change with time, nor do God’s values change. Jesus is the same now and will be the same always. Love matters. How we worship and praise God, matters.

Verses 15 and 16 connect our praise of God with our lips, and our worship of God in the way we love by doing good deeds. That has been a theme in the Scripture texts over the last several weeks. We cannot separate word from action. We can’t forget to love those inside the community, and we can’t forget to love those outside the community. The Lord is over every aspect of our lives. Family love, love for hospitality, faithfulness, contentment with what we have, humility to remember our leaders and learn from them: these are the lessons covered in Discipleship 101.

So, if you had to give yourself a grade today, what would it be?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Return | Proper 13

Hosea 11:1-11

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols.

3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them.

4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me.

6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes.

7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up.

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment.

10 They will walk after the LORD, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.

11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. (CEB)

Return

In some of the most deeply emotional poetry in all of Biblical prophetic literature, Hosea tells one of the oldest stories in human history. The story gets told in many different ways throughout the pages of the Bible, beginning in Genesis and continuing through Revelation.

As a storyteller, myself, I’ve heard experts in the field of fiction writing, at almost every writing conference I’ve attended, drill into our collective heads the phrase, Show, don’t tell. Show us what happens in the scene, don’t tell us. Don’t tell the reader what happened by saying, Christopher picked up his pen and notebook and began to write a story about another world. It might be exactly what happened, but it’s boring.

Instead, put the reader in the scene by showing what happened. Say, The saga of life on an alien world poured from Christopher’s mind as his black pen scrawled slanted letters, hurried and barely legible even to himself, across the pages of his notebook. Showing is much harder work than telling, but the result is worth it. Showing is painting a portrait with words. Showing allows the reader to see in their mind’s eye, feel in their heart, and perceive in their soul what’s unfolding on the page they’re reading.

This story is about God, who loves us completely. God created us. God provides for us and delivers us when we’re in trouble. But the more God pursues us, the more we turn away. This is a story about our shame. Yet, as much as this story is about our shame, it’s even more a story of God’s grace. Hosea proves himself a master storyteller who doesn’t tell us so much as he shows us. He puts us in the scenes of human existence from God’s perspective and allows us to feel the depth of God’s pain as the tragic story of divine love and human rejection unfolds.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:1 CEB).

Yet, it was God who taught Ephraim to walk. Hosea shows us a scene in which a mother and father hold out their arms to a child who can now stand and encourages them, “Come on. You can do it. Come to me.” The child grins and takes a step before crashing to the floor, wailing. That mother or father quickly scoops their child up in their arms and kisses the small hurts until their child is comforted and calm. The child won’t remember this moment: neither their fall nor their parent’s healing touch. But the mother and father will remember.

How many times did a scene like that unfold until the child could walk? How many of the child’s unremembered wounds would God kiss away?

The next scene shows a child who can now walk, and a mother and father who lead the child carefully, gripping the child’s chubby fingers as she or he toddles unsteadily at their parent’s sides. The parents walk at the child’s pace because that’s all the child can manage. Getting anywhere would be quicker if Mom or Dad simply picked the child up, but the child wants to walk, and the mother and father savor how their little one is growing and learning. Soon, their child will walk on their own, but mothers and fathers secretly hope their child will still want to hold their hand when their child is older; to maintain those cords of human kindness and bands of love throughout their lives.

Another scene shows us those tender moments when a mother and father pick up their child and hold them close against their cheek. Quiet snuggles. Soft kisses. Maybe even blowing gentle raspberries on the child’s chunky tummy rolls to get them giggling. It’s love that this scene portrays. Amazing, perfect, love.

The next scene shows a mother or father feeding their child, perhaps making a game of it with zooming noises as they move the spoon around and around until sticking it in their child’s mouth and laughing. Maybe it’s also the memory of a mother breastfeeding their child close-held to her body, or (for us more modern fathers) maybe it’s a father feeding their child with a bottle while the child is cradled in his arms.

These are scenes of deep intimacy that only an involved parent knows. These are scenes of parents who love their child in the most profound ways; parents who would do anything to protect and care for their beautiful child. This child is adored, and these parents have pledged everything for the child in their care. Because this child is theirs. Their love for their child flows in ways they never imagined possible, because the parents made this child. They’re a family.

Hosea shows us story after story in a child’s life that the child can’t remember when grown. But the mother and father remember. God is that mother and father. We are that child.

The next scenes are moments that we, as that child now grown, might want to not see again. Scenes of when we ran when God called. Scenes of the tantrums we threw, the hateful things we shouted in the heat of the moment. Scenes of the promises we broke. Scenes of the wreckage we made of our life and our relationships. Scenes of our violence, our hatred, our self-loathing, our often self-made despair.

We are children who were loved from the start. We’re also children who turned away from God. God, our loving mother and father, ran after us calling our name as we sped away but, in our rejection of the one who loves us more completely than we can possibly know, we kept going. We sought our own path. We are the children who broke God’s heart.

Verses five through seven show a God whose heart continues to break because God’s child has continued to rebel. Hosea describes how God sees the consequences the child will bear because of that rebellion. The child turned to other nations when God was right there in their midst. And those consequences are dire. “The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up” (Hosea 11:6-7 CEB).

We might wonder at the harshness of these words, that the God who loves so profoundly won’t raise the people up when they call. But, in reality, there comes a time in our rebellion when it’s too late. This is like finally realizing we should have listened to Mom and Dad only after the judge has slammed the gavel post-sentencing. We can call out all we want as the bailiff takes us away but, at that point, Mom and Dad are helpless and heartbroken. And we’re stuck paying for the consequences of our actions. In Hosea’s story, that’s exactly what God sees happening to Israel.

And God’s heart is shattered. God is in agony. God is the one who cries out now, saying, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment” (Hosea 11:8-9 CEB).

If you don’t recognize the two cities mentioned here, Admah and Zeboiim were two cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah (c.f. Deuteronomy 29:23). How can God, as a loving parent, can give up God’s own child? The very idea causes God’s heart to recoil. God can’t give Ephraim up. Instead, God’s compassion grows warm and tender.

Yes, the portrait Hosea paints is one that shows God as angry. Every parent knows that anger is a part of being a loving parent.

God, in this moment, is deeply wounded by Israel’s rejection. God is ready to give Ephraim a spanking, but God pulls back and chooses not to come in wrath. That, too, is love.

One of the stories I wrote, The Sign of Psyche, is about young woman named Eupeithis who offends Eros, the god of love. Eros curses her to fall in love with the first man she sees, so the goddess, Psyche, protects Eupeithis with a blindfold. Eupeithis runs for freedom with a hunter she befriends, but Eros pursues her, and his pursuit—for a long time—looks to Eupeithis like hatred. But, eventually, Eupeithis changes her mind about Eros’s anger. Here’s an abridged excerpt of that moment of realization:

—–

“Why did Eros come to me?” I ask. “He was angry, I know, but what was the reason for his anger? Was he truly motivated by hatred and revenge, as I have most often thought, or was he motivated by what he, himself, is?”

“You mean love?” Orthios asks.

“Yes, exactly! Did Eros truly hate me, or was his anger a form of himself?”

“I’ve never thought of anger as a form of love,” Orthios says.

“What is anger but love at its most sorrowful moment?” I ask. “When our hearts are broken, what’s our response?”

“Ah. I see.” Orthios squeezes my hand. “Anger.”

“Yet, the hope of anger—love when it’s injured—is reconciliation. How can a child know the difference between anger borne of love and anger borne of hatred? Often, the child sees a parent’s anger as hatred because their understanding of love is too limited for them to see the true reason: that their parent loves them, wishes the best for them, and desires to teach them so they can grow out of childhood.” I sigh heavily.

Orthios stays silent.

I turn my face toward him. “If Eros had not come to me in his hot wrath, what would have become of me? I might even now be dead, having suffered some horrible end. I was so foolish, Orthios. As it is, his anger—and punishment—brought me to you.”

I touch my blindfold. “In one sense of the matter, Eros’s anger became my greatest protection. If his nature is love, then how can Eros hate me? Is hatred not counter to his very being? I’ve begun to think his anger came upon me as a shield, and that Love, himself, has given me you.”

—–

We shouldn’t be surprised when we read in Scripture that God gets angry. When someone loves as deeply as God loves, anger will happen when that love is wounded. But love pursues the beloved even through anger. That’s what God does for us. That’s why God came to us and continues to come to us every day.

While the consequences of our rejection and betrayal of God would inevitably lead to our own destruction, God’s compassion for us will not allow us to be destroyed, “for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst” (Hosea 11:9 CEB). So, God will call again. God will roar like a lion, and this time God’s children will hear and obey. This time, surely, they’ll come home.

And someday, so might we. God’s love will not let us go.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Fruit | Proper 8

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. 14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other! 16 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.

Fruit

Dr. Phil wrote a wonderful book.

No, not the Dr. Phil you see on TV.

I’m talking about Dr. Phil Kenneson. He wrote a wonderful book called Life on the Vine. In it, he examines the difficulties of living the Christian life faithfully in the midst of the dominant American culture which surrounds us. If you poll any number of people about being a Christian in the United States, you’d find differing opinions. The results would likely show that America is at the same time the best of places, and the worst of places to be a Christian.

On one side stand the seemingly self-evident advantages of religious freedom. We Americans can worship where we want, when we want, how we want, and with whom we want. Some Christians believe this freedom of religion is so important that they pledge unconditional loyalty to the system of government which has guaranteed this freedom and continues to secure. Furthermore, since other people and nations around the world have not been granted a similar freedom of worship, many Christians conclude that there can be no better place to be a Christian than in the United States.

On the other side of the question stand many Christians who have recognized that there is, in the words of Alanis Morissette, “A black fly in [our] chardonnay” (Ironic). While the Christians whom I know are equally grateful for the freedoms this nation gives us those who hold this view also recognize that there is much about its dominant culture that makes living a true and authentic Christian Faith exceedingly difficult. Phil Kenneson suggested that Christians in the American church are producing fruit, but he isn’t convinced that we’re producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul mentions the fruit of the Spirit as being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But the fruits that our culture often tries to produce in us are the polar opposites of these fruits of the Spirit. The fruits of American culture include self-interest, greed, fragmentation, productivity, self-sufficiency, self-help, impermanence, aggression, and addiction. And this is not an exhaustive list. Our culture also values many of the things Paul lists in verses 19 through 21.

So, how do we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our lives in the midst of a culture that is trying to cultivate very different kinds of fruit that are generally easier to grow? They’re easier simply because we’re exposed to them more than we are to the fruit of the Spirit. We live in the dominant culture every day, but we live in the midst of the church at best a few times a week; and often only for a few hours.

How do we cultivate love in a culture that breeds self-interest and encourages us to consider every aspect of our lives in terms of self-interest? Love is central to the Christian Faith. God is love. God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Paul wrote, “All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14 CEB). I recall that someone else said those same words before Paul did (c.f. Matthew 22:39); and before that, God spoke those words to the people of Israel (c.f. Leviticus 19:18). Love is the opposite of self-interest.

What does love look like? We know that love is unmerited because we’ve received it from God even though we don’t deserve it. We receive God’s love all the time, because God’s love is steadfast. There is nothing we can do that can keep God from loving us. God’s love is for us is so powerful that it suffers for us. God is not distant but enters into the very fabric of our lives. God’s love is given to everyone, it knows no bounds. It transcends every human boundary that we build up in order to separate ourselves from other human beings, be they national, societal, economic, or even denominational. What does love, a fruit of the Spirit, have to do with self-interest?

How do we cultivate joy in the midst of a culture that breeds greed? We often use the same word, joy, for the state of experiencing joy, for the source of joy, and for our expressions of joy. In Greek, there are several words that can be translated into English as joy, but the word most often used is χαρά. (I had this word in mind when naming our daughter Kara. Her name means ‘joy’. Joy and Kara both have the same name, but in two different languages).

Joy is not mere pleasure, but a deep and abiding sense of contentment or satisfaction. Unlike pleasure, joy cannot be pursued for its own sake, but comes when we find that which we’ve been looking for. C.S. Lewis wrote the “very existence of joy presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” Joy is simply one of the consequences of being open to that which is beyond our own self. Joy looks outward.

Greed is the opposite of joy. Greed looks only inward and tries to possess, consume, and gather in all it can for the sake of selfish desire. One of the values of our culture is to seek our own pleasure above all else. Our culture even manufactures desire within us for things we really don’t need but are told we can’t live without. Greed is never happy, never content. But joy is always content. When we look outside of ourselves and see what God has done for us—and for the whole world—and how God continues to care for us, who can help but feel joy within our selves, with each other, and for each other? What does joy have to do with greed?

How do we cultivate peace in a culture that breeds fragmentation and sets people against each other? The people we work with, live by, play with, and go to church with aren’t often the same people. On top of that fragmentation and compartmentalized chaos, we have politicians telling us who we should fear and despise. These things stand in direct opposition to peace. Peace in the Scriptures is more akin to wholeness or even salvation, whereas we think of peace as the absence of war. The words of Isaiah align peace and salvation, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news of salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.” What does peace have to do with fragmentation?

How do we cultivate patience in the midst of a culture that values productivity over the well-being of the person? Our culture has a peculiar absorption with the clock. Our days are judged by how much we get done and how well we did it in the allotted time period. Delays, whether expected or unexpected, tend to agitate us. But patience is the opposite of productivity. In English, the noun form of ‘patient’ developed out of the verb form of ‘patient’. In the Middle Ages, anyone who suffered patiently was considered a patient. Being a patient and exhibiting patience both require that a person yield control to another: instead of being an actor, we are acted upon. Patience has its root in God’s character. God does not have a hair-trigger temper but bears with us patiently. What does patience have to do with productivity?

I’m not going to get to cover kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in this sermon, because gone are the days when a preacher could talk for 3-hours and live to tell about it. Some of the less patient among us might start feeling a tad bit annoyed.

But I would encourage you to consider the differences between the other fruits of the Spirit and the fruits that our culture values: kindness versus self-sufficiency; goodness versus self-help; faithfulness versus impermanence; gentleness versus aggression; self-control versus addiction.

The fruit of the Spirit and the fruits that our culture is so good at cultivating in us are very different. But we have an advantage in our advocate: the Holy Spirit. As Paul said, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 CEB). It is the Spirit who cultivates the fruits of the Spirit in us. A tree is known by its fruit, and we have been called to bear much good and sweet fruit for the kingdom of God.

But, again, how do we do that?

The thing about the fruit of the Spirit is that it’s not some enigma or mystery that we can’t figure out. It’s how we act. It’s how we treat others. It’s what we display of our character for others to see in us. We are known by our fruit. But are we known for the fruit of the Spirit, or some other kind of fruit?

I like Thomas Merton’s writings. I think he was a very wise man who lived and was guided by the Spirit. He said, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need.” And this is my favorites part, “If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift” (Merton, Life and Holiness, p.17).

God has given us many, many gifts. These magnificent gifts include the Holy Spirit itself, as well as the many means of grace and sacraments. The fruits of this world, which are the desires of the self, will never lead to salvation. As Paul says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25 CEB). Let us give attention to the kind of fruit we’re cultivating in our lives, and let’s aim for the good fruit of the Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Advocate | Day of Pentecost

John 14:8-17, 25-27

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 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. 12 I assure you that 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. 13 I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. 14 When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. 17 This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. 27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. (CEB)

Advocate

Today’s text from John’s Gospel has so many theological zingers that I could turn this sermon into a thesis on the Trinity that I guarantee would put most of you to sleep. So, before I start preaching, does anyone need a nap?

This section of John fits really well with Pentecost. Not only because it deals with the Holy Spirit’s role, but because it picks up in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and the disciples that already has the disciples entirely confused. The reason I think the text fits is because we’re often confused about the role of the Holy Spirit, too. What is the Holy Spirit? What’s the Spirit’s role in the community of faith? How do we know if we have it? The Holy Spirit is a bit of an enigma.

This section is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse where he told the disciples that he would die and tried to prepare them for his departure. Judas had already left to betray him, and Jesus was talking about going away and how the disciples knew the way to the place where he’d be going. But the thing is, they didn’t. At least, they didn’t think they did. Thomas asked Jesus how they’d know the way (14:5). When Jesus told them that he is the way, the truth and the life, they were probably thinking, Well, it’s a great line, but it’s hardly turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps. They failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words, even as Jesus turned to the subject of the Father by saying that if they have known him, then they also know—and even have seen—the Father.

But the disciples didn’t get that part either. They couldn’t fathom the mutual indwelling that Jesus described. So Philip piped up and said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us” (John 14:8 CEB). And this is where Philip got chastised by Jesus. The disciples were a Christian community that had walked with Jesus for three or so years, and they still failed to grasp who Jesus is and from where Jesus had come. They didn’t yet understand how Jesus is the essential and full disclosure of the Father.

In fact, Jesus tells them that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. It’s a mutual indwelling to the point that the works of Jesus and the works of the Father are one and the same. Whatever works that Jesus does are perfectly in line with the works of the father: so perfectly in line that Jesus can say that his works are the works of the Father.

Jesus offers a rebuke to Philip, yet it seems that Philip probably wouldn’t have asked Jesus to show them the Father if he didn’t think Jesus could do it. So, it appears that Philip’s problem was that he failed to see the deep connection of Jesus to the Father and the Father to Jesus.

A further problem of Philip is that he still held to the idea that seeing is believing. He wanted Jesus to show them the Father. The Gospel of John uses contrasting symbols that point to belief and unbelief, like light and darkness, sight and blindness. But faith is not based on sight, as Jesus highlighted many times, even in his prayer for us in which he prayed, “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21 CEB).

Seeing is not believing, rather, believing is seeing (c.f. John 11:40). In fact, one of Jesus’ concerns was that seeing can get in the way of the necessity of belief. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 highlights seeing without believing. It also highlights the same kind of indwelling that Jesus has with the Father: an indwelling that we, too, can share with God. The main point of Jesus’ reproach of Philip is to show the disciples—and us—the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and what that intimacy means for all who follow Jesus. We get to share in that intimacy.

Then, Jesus tells the Disciples, “I assure you that 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” (John 14:12 CEB). When we think of great works, we usually think of miracles, signs, and wonders.

But that’s not necessarily what Jesus meant here. The work of Jesus was to bring good news to the poor, to invite people whom the world rejected—people like prostitutes and tax collector—into God’s realm, to set free those who were oppressed by the weight of sin, and release those who were crushed by the oppressive powers of the world. Jesus came to open the eyes of our heart and mind to the good news of God’s healing, acceptance, and reconciliation. Jesus came to show us that God loves us (c.f. John 3:16). Jesus came to show us that God is present with us (c.f. John 1:14).

Jesus did not come to put on a fancy show and do miracles.

The followers of Jesus have done greater works. We are doing greater works. Think about it. Jesus was limited by time and place. He was one person in a small location. His followers have spread around the world. We’ve worked for roughly 2000 years to bring health, comfort, education, and relief to the least, lost, broken, sick, imprisoned, hungry, and hurting. There have been profound failures on the part of Christian people, too, we can’t deny that. But by and large, we’re doing the work of Jesus and, therefore, the work of the Father. The church continues to bring the presence and power of God to bear on human plight throughout the world by befriending the outcasts, housing and feeding the homeless and hungry, serving the marginalized and, in general, speaking truth to the powers of this world by our words and our actions.

We don’t need miracles to show God’s love and compassion. We simply need to remember what Jesus taught, and what Jesus came to do. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 CEB). The expected result of believing in Jesus is that we will keep his commandments to love each other just as Jesus has loved us. Those who love Jesus will love as Jesus loves.

That’s why Jesus provided a way for us to remember his commandments and to teach us. That’s why Jesus also provided a way for us to have the presence of God with us even as Jesus is physically absent. This is accomplished through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told the disciples that the Father would send another Companion. Another, meaning, one instead of himself. The Greek word has multiple meanings: advocate, comforter, companion, mediator, intercessor, and helper. Instead of trying to pick which nuance is meant, I think it’s best to imagine that all of them are meant.

This Companion is identified as “the Spirit of Truth” (14:17 CEB). In verse 6, Jesus stated that he is the way, the truth and the life. If Jesus is the truth, then one role of the Spirit of Truth is to point to Jesus as the truth.

It’s important that we understand that the work of the Spirit of Truth is on behalf of the community. The Holy Spirit was sent by the Father in Jesus’ name to teach the community of everything Jesus had taught, and to remind the community of everything Jesus had said to them. There is a clear connection between the role of Jesus and the role of the Holy Spirit. Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit teach us about the work of the Father.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is grounded in belief, not sight. Jesus said that the world can’t receive the Holy Spirit because the world neither sees nor recognizes the Spirit. Christians might actually be lumped in with “the world” here because we don’t see the Spirit either. Yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they know the Spirit because he lives in them—and us—and is present with us.

In both Greek and Hebrew, the word used for Spirit also means wind. The Holy Spirit is like the wind. We can’t see the wind directly, but we can see the effects the wind has on everything around us. We can watch it ripple across a field of wheat or corn. We can see and hear leaves rustle as wind passes through trees. We can feel wind waft heat from our bodies on a hot day, or bite into our skin in the frost of winter.

We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit when the community that follows Jesus makes lunches for kids who are hungry, or when they help children with their homework in an afterschool program, or when they host appointments for people in need to get some financial relief, or when we send out missionaries to serve others in places near and far. We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit in a community of faith when the work of Jesus is being done; when we are loving others as Jesus loves us.

We can know and, in effect, see the Holy Spirit through our belief, which is more than intellectual ascent. Belief is faithful loving and faithful living. Belief is adherence to the commandments of Jesus to love beyond ourselves, deeply, even when we haven’t seen him.

Beyond Jesus’ abiding presence in the Holy Spirit, we’re offered peace. Peace represented by the Hebrew word Shalom is more than a fuzzy contented feeling, but real and tangible peace between people and God. The prophets foretell that the coming reign of God will be characterized by peace. What Jesus offers the community of faith is a taste of this peace now.

The thing is, we still mess up. We still hurt each other, gripe about each other, and do damage to our existing relationships. We live in a world of sin, and we mess up. The peace offered to us by Christ and through Christ isn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. Peace includes and requires the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s part of the work of the Father: to reconcile the world to God and bring about endless peace. Because Jesus offers us peace, the Holy Spirit offers us that peace, too.

The Spirit of Truth continues to teach us and remind us of Jesus’s commandments and examples so that we might love others as Jesus loves us. And loving others isn’t always easy. Oftentimes, we need some direction, if not a reminder, that those who really love Jesus are expected to, themselves, love. Yet, in the Holy Spirit, we have that advocate and teacher. Jesus is never absent from the community of faith because the Holy Spirit lives with us and is with us forever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Measure This | 7th after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” (CEB)

Measure This

Yesterday, in Saint Louis, Missouri, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church opened for a day of worship and prayer. They didn’t get to any business—that part begins today. Yesterday, they spent the hours worshipping and praying together. What they’ll be discussing and voting on today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, are four plans for A Way Forward for the United Methodist Church. The conversation is about one issue: human sexuality. How will we, as United Methodists, move forward?

I have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question. Depending on how the General Conference votes, we might allow for the ordination of LGBTQ persons or we might not. We might move forward together as one United Methodist Church, or we may move forward on divergent paths by separating from those who think and believe differently from us regarding human sexuality. So you’re aware, the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, including our bishop, Julius Trimble. They don’t want to see a divided or segregated church. They believe we can move forward together, as one United Methodist Church.

As for me, I hope our bishops are right. I don’t want to see division. I don’t want to see the pointing of fingers and other actions that would inevitably follow a path that leads our church to break apart. I’d rather our church not rename itself The Divided Methodist Church. So, I ask you to pray for General Conference. I ask you to pray for our delegates. And I ask you to pray for yourselves. Ask God for the grace to see you through whatever the General Conference decides for our church.

Yesterday Bishop Gary Mueller said, “One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a human being, as a Christian, as a bishop, is to set my desires aside and to seek God’s will. I have a hard time surrendering to God’s purpose. I think it’s because I like what I like. I think it’s because I can dress up whatever I like with fancy-sounding theological words, with eloquence and beauty. And I think it’s because I find myself able to convince myself that what I want is also what God wants. I suspect that many of you can identify with that.”

And I think he’s right. Sometimes, we put our desires, our beliefs, our thoughts, and our ideals into a box and label it with God’s name. We assume that God must be on our side of whatever issue we’re examining in the moment. Prophets throughout Judeo-Christian history have smashed religious ideas that everyone else knew to be true. In Jesus’ day, everyone knew that people who were handicapped, sick, or poor were in that state because God was punishing them for their sin. God is just, and obviously God doesn’t let bad things like that happen to good people. Yet, the prophet Jesus challenged that notion several times (c.f. Luke 13:1-5; John 9).

So, whatever convictions you hold, whatever you believe to be true, we all need to ask God for grace. God’s grace is the only thing that will see us through this process as one body.

It’s probably not without some irony that the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 6:27-36. That’s just what the Revised Common Lectionary provides for the Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany in Year C. I think God must enjoy making real-world events and the lectionary texts collide in potent ways. It happens enough that I’m fairly certain God does it on purpose.

The first words of this text, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27 CEB) contain a paradox. You see, the word enemy here is ἐχθροὺς, and the root meaning is hate. Jesus tells us, “Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (my trans.).

One thing we need to be careful of when we look at this text is that Jesus is not encouraging a passive response to violence, evil, or abuse. In no way does this text suggest that an abused woman should stay in a relationship with an abusive man and meekly offer her other cheek every time the jerk beats her. We need to keep the context of Jesus’ words in mind.

So, let’s put this in its proper context. Slapping someone on the cheek was a way of mocking them and paying them back for blasphemy. Two instances of this kind of religious retribution come to mind. One was when Kings Jehosephat of Judah and Ahab of Israel were considering military action. First, they consulted the prophets who all said the kings should attack because they would win.

Except for one. Micaiah said that he saw all of Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd (cf. 1 Kings 22:17). “Then Micaiah said, ‘Listen now to the LORD’s word: I saw the LORD enthroned with all the heavenly forces stationed beside him, at his right and at his left. The LORD said, “Who will persuade Ahab so that he attacks Ramoth-gilead and dies there?” There were many suggestions until one particular spirit approached the LORD and said, “I’ll persuade him.” “How?” the LORD asked. “I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets,” he said. The LORD agreed, “You will succeed in persuading him! Go ahead!” So now, since the LORD has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of every one of these prophets of yours, it is the LORD who has pronounced disaster against you!’ Zedekiah, Chenaanah’s son, approached Micaiah and slapped him on the cheek. ‘Just how did the LORD’s spirit leave me to speak to you?’ he asked.” (1 Kings 22:19-24 CEB).

The prophet Zedekiah slapped Micaiah because, to him, Micaiah blasphemed against the Lord by accusing the entire company of prophets of speaking in the Lord’s name by a lying spirit. These prophets were called by God to speak God’s word, and Micaiah said they’d been infected by a lying spirit so they couldn’t speak God’s word. It was blasphemy. But, as it turned out, it was also the truth.

The other instance is when Jesus stood before the High Priest and answered his questions. “After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. ‘Is that how you would answer the high priest?’ he asked. Jesus replied, ‘If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?’” (John 18:22-23 CEB). The Gospel of Matthew records that, when Jesus was mocked by the chief priests and council, they spit in his face and hit him saying, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:68 CEB).

So, in this text from the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus told the people in the crowd that when someone strikes them for blasphemy because they believed in the kind of healing and salvation that Jesus offered, or the kind of faithful living that Jesus demanded, they should offer the other cheek and get on with living faithfully. Christians are not to participate in that kind of religious retribution, which is often born of self-righteousness rather than true faithfulness to God.

Jesus does not call us to suffer endless cycles of violence. Rather, Jesus calls us to live faithfully even when others mock us or declare to the world that we’re wrong, that we’re blasphemers, that we’re not holding to religious law and propriety as we ought.

“Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (Luke 6:27 my trans.). It’s not only a paradox, but also a challenge that acknowledges there are people whom we—yes, even we wonderful and innocent disciples of Jesus Christ—there are people whom we hate. And there are people who hate us. The challenge of discipleship is to love those we hate, and to do good to those people whom we know—beyond the shadow of a doubt—detest us. That’s. Not. Easy.

That’s why Jesus goes on to say, “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:32-36 CEB).

Sometimes loving others is difficult business. Yet, the demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ demand this bigger picture of love, and broader inclusion of those whom we love.

The last verses of this text have to do with judgment verses forgiveness, and it’s really about the way these two disparate things work. These words are as difficult as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 where we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, and the place where Jesus said, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 CEB). “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned” (Luke 6:37a CEB) is a tall order to fill because we’re really good at making judgments, whether is unfiltered and voiced or the inner monologue of our minds that we don’t dare speak out loud.

The reason we’re told not to judge is because only God is good (c.f. Luke 18:19). Only God is capable of making right judgments. So, when we live into a religious or social culture based on judgment, the inevitable result is condemnation for everyone and everything. As one scholar put it, “A world bent on justice through judgment fulfills the anonymous maxim “And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.” (Allen in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke vol. 1, p. 172). When we live into judgment, we draw lines, define purity, and defend the borders that separate righteousness from sin.

But disciples of Jesus Christ must live into a different reality than that of judgment. When we live into God’s generosity of forgiveness and grace, we can find goodness that overflows. When we remember that we, too, are sinners, yet God has deigned to forgive us and include us in God’s coming dominion, we’re set free from the bondage of judgment. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return” (Luke 6:37-38 CEB). When God’s people live into the overwhelming abundance of grace and forgiveness, we’ll find that God’s good measure is overflowing in our lap and spilling all over those around us—even those we hate and those who despise us.

Can we live with that?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Water and Blood | 6th of Easter

1 John 5:1-6

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God. Whoever loves someone who is a parent loves the child born to the parent. 2 This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments. 3 This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments. God’s commandments are not difficult,
4 because everyone who is born from God defeats the world. And this is the victory that has defeated the world: our faith. 5 Who defeats the world? Isn’t it the one who believes that Jesus is God’s Son?

6 This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. (CEB)

Water and Blood

I have loved astronomy since I was a kid. Something about the night sky drew my fascination. All those points of light, all the stuff that’s up there that we don’t know about. As a 9-year-old boy, I searched the skies for Halley’s Comet in late 1985 and early 1986. On January 09, 1992, the first exoplanet was discovered by radio telescope, and I was amazed that we had proof that there were other planets out there. In July of 2005, there was a flurry of excitement and controversy when three new planets were discovered in our solar system. They were later designated Dwarf Planets, and poor Pluto was downgraded with them. Now, we’re looking for the hypothetical Planet Nine.

Through my telescopes, I’ve observed the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, Uranus, nebulae, globular star clusters, open star clusters, all kinds of stars (including the Sun), galaxies, and I’ve just peered toward the Milky Way for the heck of it to see what I could see. All the while, these new discoveries kept my eyes glued to the sky at night. That’s one of the reasons why I despise Daylight Savings Time. It makes darkness come incredibly late in the summer months, and I want to see the night sky! Even on nights I don’t have time to set up one of my telescopes, I still find myself going outside just to look up. With, perhaps, the exception of most galaxies, everything is orbiting something. Everywhere we look, gravity is at play.

All of First John’s argument is kind of like gravity. He uses the same words repetitively throughout, but the pattern of his argument doesn’t seem to be linear. In Bible study, when we looked at texts from First John, I noted that his argument seems to loop and circle back on itself. Like the pull of gravity, the same things keep coming around. At times, it can be frustrating to grasp John’s point. At the same time, within that circular argumentation, there is a discernable progression in what John writes. But you kind of have to search for it.

John starts off chapter five by mentioning those who are born of God, and he ties that with belief and love. First, we should note that being born of God is a theme found in the Gospel of John as well. Part of John’s prologue says, “The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God” (John 1:11-13 CEB). A little farther into the Gospel of John, we find mention of being born of water and the Spirit (3:5) and being born anew or from above (3:3, 7), and being born of the Spirit (3:6, 8).

According to the epistle, believing that Jesus is the Christ is proof that this birth from God has occurred. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God” (1 John 5:1a CEB). Now, that word, Christ, is something we hear a lot. Not all of it in a pleasant or religious context. But, sometimes I wonder if we understand what it means and how it applies to Jesus. It’s important to understand this because, if we’re going to say we believe in Jesus as the Christ, we probably need to know what the Christ is and what the word means.

Christ comes from the Greek word Χριστὸς (Christos), and that is a translation of a Hebrew word (‎מְשִׁ֥יחַ) Meshiach that’s translated into English as both Messiah and Anointed. But anointed is what the words Messiah and Christ actually mean. You might remember that the kings of Israel were not crowned as kings as they are in much of Western European culture. Instead, they were anointed with oil.

Samuel anointed Saul as King over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). David was anointed three times. First, Samuel anointed him as king in place of Saul (1 Samuel 16:13). Then, the tribe of Judah officially anointed David as their king (2 Samuel 2:4). He ruled for seven and a half years as Judah’s king before the rest of the tribes anointed him as king over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

When King Saul was running around the countryside trying to kill David, we often read that David referred to Saul as the Lord’s Anointed. The word he used there was Messiah (‎מְשִׁ֥יחַ). David called Saul “The LORD’s Messiah” (c.f. 1 Samuel 24:6,10, 26:9,11,16,23; 2 Samuel 1:14,16) but, in that case, it’s always translated into English as Anointed. So, the only way for Jesus to properly be called Christ or Messiah was for him to be anointed. But, there’s only one place in the New Testament where Jesus was anointed with oil, and that was when Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anointed him with perfumed oil and wiped his feet with her hair (c.f. Mark 14:8; John 11:2, 12:3). The reason we call Jesus the Messiah and Christ is because he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. The Spirit came down on him and God declared Jesus to be God’s Son (c.f. Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34).

So, when we say that we believe Jesus is the Christ, we’re saying that we believe Jesus is the one who was expected by the prophets and anointed by God with the power of the Holy Spirit in order to redeem us and heal us from the brokenness of sin.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” This birth from God not only points to our relationship with God, but our relationship with Jesus and each other. Since all believers are children of God and it’s assumed that believers love God, we also love each other. We’re family. If we’re all children of the same parent, then we’re family.

Verse two kind of throws us for a weird gravitational loop. Earlier in the epistle, John defined love as something that is active on behalf of others, not merely kind speech. He also strongly suggested that our actions toward others are a kind of proof of our love for God. But here in verse 2, John flipped it around. The proof of our love for each other—the children of God—is in our love for God and in keeping God’s commandments.

Of course, the question we need to ask is, What commandment do we have to follow? John stated the commandment back in chapter three: Believe in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other (c.f. 3:23). It’s one commandment in two, absolutely inseparable, parts.

This argument is swinging back around again.

In chapter four, John wrote, “This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also” (1 John 4:21 CEB). In verse 5:2, as we already know, John told us that our love for God proves our love for each other. The point of this, for John, is that we cannot love God without loving each other, and we cannot love each other without loving God. To love one requires us to love the other. There is no possibility of separating love for God from love for each other, or love for each other from love for God. The nature of love, itself, prevents it.

I think we just completed an orbit.

If we lack love for others—If what we think of as love doesn’t move beyond words or thoughts—it ought to nudge us to do some self-examination of our faith. To love God is to keep God’s commandments, and keeping God’s commandments isn’t a burden. Loving our sisters and brothers is not difficult for those whose lives have been transformed by the love God has for us. Those who have been reborn keep God’s commandments easily. We believe, and we love (yet remember that love requires action for it to genuinely be love).

What’s more, everyone who is born of God defeats the world. Remember that the world is often described in terms of opposition to God because of sin. It is because of the sickness of sin, the disease of rebellion against God, that the world stands in opposition. Instead of caring for each other, the world refuses to share. Instead of lifting others up, the world pushes them down. Instead of welcoming immigrants and treating them the same way we treat citizens—AS THE SCRIPURES DEMAND (c.f. Leviticus 19:10, 33-34, 25:35; Numbers 15:14-16)—we tell them there’s no room for them.

Read it anyway you want in light of current events, but I’m not making a political statement here, I’m making a statement of faith about what God requires of God’s people.

We love the story of Ruth, yet I think we forget that she was a Moabite immigrant living in Bethlehem. Deuteronomy says, “…Moabites can’t belong to the LORD’s assembly. Not even the tenth generation of such people can belong to the LORD’s assembly, as a rule,” (Deuteronomy 23:3 CEB). Yet, Ruth’s great-grandson was David, the King, and he was only four generations removed from his immigrant, Moabite great-grandmother.

When we love as those who are born of God, we defeat all that selfish, destructive, fear-filled nonsense. Our faith in a God who loves defeats the world. Our faith in Jesus as the Christ and God’s Son defeats the world. Because those who believe in these things exhibit love as God exhibits love: through the action of giving ourselves for others.

Verse six probably begins a new section of John’s argument, but it speaks to John’s firm belief in who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do as Christ. “This is the one who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. Not by water only but by water and blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:6 CEB). Water likely represents birth and rebirth at baptism. Blood points to the humanity Jesus shares with us, and his sacrificial death for us. Water and blood flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross.

The Spirit is present here with us now, moving and living in and among us. In that sense, the Spirit testifies through the disciples of Jesus Christ. The Spirit testifies through us, by our loving actions for those around us. That idea is profound enough, I think, to give us pause. We should consider whether our belief in Jesus Christ and our actions align. That circular argument has come around again like planets orbiting a star. Faith, love, being born of God, being family to each other, keeping God’s commandments, and defeating the sin-sick world: they all orbit the gravitational center that is Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

1 John 3:16-24

16 This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care– how can the love of God remain in him? 18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God. 22 We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us. 24 The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us. (CEB)

Action and Truth

How do we know love? It’s a question Tevye asks his wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. After their second daughter makes her own marital match rather than following the tradition of marriages being arranged, a distraught Tevye asks Golde if she loves him. After all, the first time they met each other was on their wedding day. Their parents told them they would love each other in time but, because their daughters keep finding love before marriage, Tevye needs to know if his marriage to Golde has resulted in love. So he asks Golde if she loves him.

First, she calls him a fool, but he persists and asks the question again: “Do you love me.” Then, Golde says, “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked your cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?” But that’s not the answer Tevye wants. He wants to know, so he asks again, “Do you love me?”

Golde thinks about it, asking herself, “Do I love him?” And her answer is: “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye responds, excitedly, “Then you love me!” like it’s an accusation. And, Golde concedes, “I suppose I do.” Then Tevye replies, “And I suppose I love you, too.” Then, they sing together, “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”

How do we know love? Like Golde and Tevye, John the Elder tells us we know love because of the actions of God—the things God does—on our behalf. It’s not because God said, I love you or because God said Hey, dear little humans, this is what love is…, and gave us an explanation. Instead, we know what love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. In the actions of Jesus Christ, God has acted lovingly toward us and for us.

In much the same way that James declares how faith is recognized through actions (c.f. James 2:8-26), John tells us that love is known through actions. And, like James, John even gives a contra-example (c.f. James 2:16-17). Just as faith doesn’t exist apart from action, love doesn’t exist apart from action. John asks, “But, if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?” (1 John 3:17 CEB). It’s our action that reveals the truth and genuineness of our love. In verse 17, love is a verb. “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth” (CEB).

Now, Greek subjunctive verbs aren’t always easy to translate into English, and love is a present-active verb in the subjunctive mood. So, my Greek professor might argue that, because the present tense indicates the kind of action, and non-indicative moods (such as the subjunctive) have little to do with time, another possible translation of this would be, “Little children, let’s not continue to love with words or speech, but in action and truth” (my translation).

So, instead of this sounding like a suggestion, as most translations make it seem (let us not love…), it’s probably intended to be corrective of either incorrect or inadequate behavior, which fits well with the overall tone of First John. It’s not enough to love in word or speech because words are easy to say and let slip away. Love is recognized, known, and proved through action. This action of love is how we know that we belong to the truth. Our loving action also reassures our hearts in God’s presence.

Our hearts can be fickle, and sometimes we’re harder on ourselves than we ought to be. We can wonder and even worry about our own salvation. We can ruminate on questions like, Am I good enough? Do I really love God? Do I have saving faith? One thing of which we can be certain is that our salvation is never defined by our feelings about ourselves. For one, we’re often wrong about ourselves.

John tells us that, even if our hearts say we’re not good enough, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. When we lack confidence in our standing before God, we can have confidence despite our lack of confidence because of God’s greatness. Because of our confidence in God’s greatness, we shouldn’t listen when self-doubt needles its way into our minds.

Our actions also act as proof to ourselves that our standing before God is in a good place. Earlier in the chapter, John said, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you. The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous” (1 Jn. 3:7 CEB). When we do things that are righteous, and that can be any number of things, we are righteous. Now, John continued that thought by saying that those who practice sin belong to the devil. But it’s the same definition that Jesus gave us. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, we are known by our actions. John the Elder must have been a Methodist, because this is the practical divinity of John Wesley.

Look at Golde and Tevye again. When Tevye asked her if she loved him, she took a moment to consider the matter. She wasn’t sure and had to ask herself if she loved Tevye. And what did she do to find an answer to her their mutual question? She examined her actions toward him. “For twenty-five years, I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years, my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Golde’s actions toward her husband told her that she loved him. Tevye recognized that, too. That’s why he pointed his finger at her and declared, “Then you love me!” Tevye saw it, too. He saw Golde’s love for him in her actions. We can see our love for God and our love for others in our actions. And we can see our lack of love for God and for others in our lack of action. How can the love of God abide in us when we see a sister or brother in need but don’t care?

Now, a few people have mentioned that, after reading 1 John, they felt bad about not handing money out to people on street corners. If we tithe, then we have no reason to feel bad or let our heart condemn us. By giving to our church, we’re already supporting all kinds of ministry. And there is something to say about giving our resources responsibly. So, if we’re worried that someone might abuse what we give them on a street corner, then give to the church, and to local shelters, and to local food pantries, and to relief organizations that do things the right way. The Community Emergency Assistance Board helps people in Mount Vernon who are having financial difficulty, and they hold appointments here at our church. And that’s only on the money side of things. We can do a lot more than give our money. We can volunteer our time at a mission of the church, or volunteer with another organization.

I love working with kids, so I’m at the Thrive after-school program almost every weekday, even on my days off. I volunteer each Fall to work with students for a writing project. I run our youth group alongside the Simpsons. There are innumerable ways for us to show that we care, to put our love into action.

One of the more difficult verses here is verse 22, which says, “We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:22 CEB). It’s difficult because we’ve all asked for things and not gotten them. Now, this is not prosperity gospel where we can ask for that new Mercedes and God will deliver it to our driveway. Note what John says: we receive… because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. We receive whatever we ask of God when we learn to pray rightly, when we learn to pray for the things God wants for us. What are the commandment we’re told to keep? It’s actually one commandment in two, inseparable, parts. First, we believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Second, we love each other as he commanded us. The reason I say it’s one commandment is because John uses the singular to describe it: “This is his commandment…” (1 John 3:23 CEB).

When I look at John’s words to us, I can’t help but think that John the Elder had the same definition of belief as James. They were both disciples who walked with Jesus. They were both Elders of the church. They knew each other and had conversations about this stuff. Believe comes from the same root word in Greek as faith: (πιστεύω and πίστις). We need to believe—have faith—In Jesus and, according to James’ definition of faith/belief, that means our faith is active. When we see someone who lacks food or clothing, we do something about it. Belief is the first commandment John mentions. We believe, so we act like a person who believes by acting on our faith, our belief in Jesus Christ.

We also love each other as Jesus commanded us to love each other, which is an active kind of love. It’s interesting that First John uses the same example as James. If we don’t care when we see a person in need, how can the love of God, which does care about such matters, abide in us? Love is action. Love is what we Christians are supposed to do. Keeping the commandments keeps us in God, we abide in God by keeping them.

The parable of the vine in John 15 gives us a good idea of what Jesus meant about abiding—remaining—in God. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper… Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you” (John 15:1, 4-12 CEB).

That’s a lot of remaining, and it highlights that we must be coworkers with Christ. There’s no excuse for Christians to not get our hands dirty.

Aside from our actions, how do we know that God remains in us? John tells us it’s through the Spirit that God has given to us. The Holy Spirit is the gift promised by Jesus after his resurrection. The Spirit is the guide that strengthens the community of believers and, clearly, the one who inspired John the Elder to write this letter.

John wrote this epistle as the last living disciple. These are his words to us: believers who are generations removed from himself. He reminds us that Christians believe and love, and both belief and love are exhibited, proved, and shown to exist through action. Our actions are where belief and love become real.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay