My Neighbor | Proper 10

Luke 10:25-37

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB)

My Neighbor

When a parable becomes a cliché it’s easy to gloss over the meaning because we think we already know it. We tend to take it out of its historical context and turn it into a morality lesson. Most of us know stories of how a “Good Samaritan” came to our or another person’s aid. If Jesus only meant that we should help people when they’re in trouble, I doubt he would have wasted words by telling a parable, especially in the way he told it. It’s supposed to shock us, not make us feel good about ourselves. But, familiarity breeds contempt, so we tend to reduce this parable so that it points to us as the hero of the story every time we do a random nice thing.

At the heart of this parable is the relationship between the law and the gospel. For some of us, and for the majority of Jesus’ contemporaries, the law is the gospel. When we think this way—that the law is the gospel—we view our personal obedience to the law as our behavioral proof of faith in God. We can tick the check boxes on the law’s list of demands: I did this one, I did this one, thank goodness I didn’t do this one, check, check, check. With our list of boxes checked, we can declare ourselves righteous.

But, when we understand the law as gospel, we end up making our personal understanding of the law equal to God’s Divine revelation humanity in order to justify ourselves. The law effectively becomes the means by which we arrive at God’s ends.

For Jesus, the gospel is law, which is different from the law as gospel. We’ll get into this more in a bit, but first, let’s look at the scene Luke gives us. We’re told that a scribe or legal expert stood up to test Jesus. Now, when we read this, we usually read antagonism into the scribe’s action. But this was people often did when they got together. They would pose questions to each other to see how the person being questioned would answer. And it wasn’t necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes, it was entertaining.

Another point to note is that, as this scene unfolds, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. His journey there begins this way: “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?’ But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51-56 CEB). A scribe asks Jesus what he must do to have life while Jesus is on his way to death.

That little piece of Luke 9 also highlights the strained relations between Jews and Samaritans. The disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome Jesus. Clearly, the disciples still didn’t get this whole gospel thing Jesus was teaching. So, keep that in mind as we get to the parable itself.

Instead of answering when the legal expert asks his question, Jesus asks him how he would interpret what the law says. So, the legal expert responded with two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were widely seen in ancient Judaism as the hooks on which the whole law hung. One part, Deuteronomy 6:5, focused on devotion to God with one’s whole being. The other part, Leviticus 19:18, focused on the love of one’s neighbor. The two go hand in hand. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually connects devotion to God with actions representative of God’s love and mercy for humankind.

It’s a good answer. It’s the right answer. It’s what the law requires: love God and love your neighbors. And Jesus says as much.

But the legal expert couldn’t leave well enough alone. He needed to justify the way he had heretofore applied his personal understanding of the law in his life. He wanted to prove that the way he lived out his interpretation of the law’s demands was, indeed, righteousness. So, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b CEB).

Jesus sets the parable up by saying, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” (Luke 10:30 CEB). The first two people to encounter the man on the roadside passed him by. Now, through the years, I’ve heard people try to give reasons for why the priest and the Levite—the clergy of Judaism—crossed over to the other side. The prevailing theory is that the priest and Levite would have been concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and encountering a dead body would have defiled them.

But, the hole in that theory is that the priest and Levite were both going “down” the same road. Anyone going “down” that road would have been traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. If you were going the other way, you’d be going “up” the road. The elevation of Jerusalem’s old city is 2500 feet above sea level. The elevation of Jericho is about 846 feet below sea level. So, you were either going up to Jerusalem or down to Jericho. Or, as Jesus put it, “down from Jerusalem.” If the priest and the Levite were on their way to Jericho, then there wouldn’t be much concern for maintaining ritual purity because they weren’t heading up to the temple.

The priest and the Levite are not allegorical representations of the failure of the law or what was wrong with Judaism. They only represent two people who didn’t demonstrate mercy. We don’t know why they didn’t. Their inner moral reasoning isn’t provided, and neither is the Samaritan’s, for that matter. All we know is that two people who presumably share the religious and cultural identity of the man who was beaten and left for dead did not express concern. Whatever their reasons for passing by, nothing can excuse their refusal to show mercy. In fact, the presence of these two characters in the story acting as they did—refusing to show mercy—would have shocked those who listened to Jesus words.

Yet, it’s not an indictment against Israel, Judaism, the clergy, or any such nonsense. Two people who were expected to show mercy didn’t. Their crossing to the other side of the road would have been heard by Jesus’ listeners as shocking. I know we like to see ourselves as the Samaritan in the story, but if we’re honest in our own self-reflection, we probably have more in common with the priest and the Levite than we’d like to admit. Other people’s problems are always inconvenient.

As for the Samaritan, I’m sure the man who got beaten up was just as much of an inconvenience for him as for the priest and the Levite. Certainly, the Samaritan’s introduction into the story—and especially his acts of mercy—jolted the audience. His disciples were probably scratching their heads. After all, he just passed through a Samaritan village full of people who refused to welcome him, who refused to extend the least bit of hospitality, let alone mercy.

The Samaritan is not like the presumably Jewish man who fell victim to the robbers. Yet, it’s the Samaritan who approached the man. It’s the Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. It’s the Samaritan who put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. It’s the Samaritan who arranged for the wounded man’s continued care after he left. It’s the Samaritan who promised to return and pay for the cost of the man’s care if anything else were owed. It’s the Samaritan who treats the man not as an enemy but as one dear to him, which is shown by the spectrum of care he provides to the injured man. The Samaritan’s demonstration of mercy shows us how far love ought to go. Authentic love doesn’t discriminate. Authentic love creates neighborly relationships because, by love’s very nature, it meets the needs of others.

In this parable, though, the Samaritan doesn’t necessarily represent us. We don’t get to read ourselves into the story as the triumphal hero who did what was right. Rather, we should read ourselves into the story as the one who was beaten up and left for dead. The Samaritan, in fact, represents the person or group of people whom we would not want to help us. Maybe, we would rather die than have this person help us.

Who might that be for you? Think about it. Might it be a Muslim? A refugee from Central America? A drug addict? A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in three weeks? Who would that be for you? Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the book, The Misunderstood Jew said that, as a Jewish woman, for her the Samaritan is a member of Hamas who showed mercy. In a lecture to a group of people who had witnessed September 11 first-hand, she suggested the the Samaritan was a member of Al Qaeda who showed mercy.

The point of Jesus’ parable is to remind us in our self-righteous certainty of our sincerely-held definitions of good people and bad people that mercy can come from unexpected places; that neighbors can be found in unexpected places. The legal expert wanted to narrow the scope of who he might have to count as his neighbor, but Jesus blew the definition so wide open that we don’t get to exclude anyone.

There’s probably a bit of the legal expert in all of us. Some of us find the law-as-gospel mindset comforting. When the law is gospel, we know where we’re going. We seek refuge in rules. We glorify boundaries. We enumerate norms, and we codify discipleship. We ask about definitions and try to set limits. We want to know, precisely, who I must love as myself.

When the law is gospel, I am the actor, and my actions need to be justified by my personal understanding of the law and obedience to the law as humanly defined. To ask questions that seek answers that limit or define is to view the law as gospel. It’s an attempt at maintaining control over the wildly uncontrollable love and mercy of God. It’s to continue the presumption that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is primarily knowing the difference between good and evil instead of knowing only God and God’s mercy and showing God’s mercy to our neighbors.

You see, it’s not necessarily the law that fails to meet the standards of the gospel but, rather, it’s our human failure at interpreting it. If the legal expert had read a little farther, he would have found the place that says, “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 CEB).

Neighbors are people we don’t know. Neighbors are even the people we hate. Neighbors are people we fear. Who is my neighbor?

When the legal expert realized that he was the one being tested, not Jesus, he managed to say that the one who showed mercy was a neighbor to the man left for dead. It, too, is a good answer. It’s the right answer. Because, it’s not a person’s similarities to us that make them our neighbor. Those who show mercy are neighbors. And those who show mercy are the ones who fulfil both the law and the gospel. Jesus tells us to go and demonstrate mercy to the world. Are we willing to let love move so deeply in us that we dare to demonstrate mercy to people we hate and, therefore, become neighbors to those we’d rather die than love—or allow to love us?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Reap and Sow | Proper 9

Galatians 6:1-16

1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. 2 Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are important when they aren’t, they’re fooling themselves. 4 Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. 5 Each person will have to carry their own load.

6 Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher. 7 Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. 8 Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. 10 So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.

11 Look at the large letters I’m making with my own handwriting! 12 Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ. 13 Those who are circumcised don’t observe the Law themselves, but they want you to be circumcised, so they can boast about your physical body.

14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. 16 May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel. (CEB)

Sow and Reap

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian Freedom. It was written to an entire region of the Roman empire, Galatia, which is the central part of modern Turkey. We don’t know much about the region or even of individual churches in Galatia, but it was populated by Celtic peoples known as Gauls. Paul passed through parts of Galatia on his second and third missionary journeys. On the third journey, he “traveled from place to place in the region of Galatia and the district of Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23 CEB).

When it comes to books, my Aunt Jan is one of those people whose habit is to always read the last pages of the book first. I don’t know why, but I guess she wants to know the end so she can decide whether she wants to spend the time it’ll take to get there from the beginning.

Paul’s whole letter includes all the categoric sections of typical Greco-Roman literary style. So, what we have in chapter six includes some exhortation about expected behavior (1-10) and a summary of the letter’s main points (11-16). So, if you’re one of those people who, like my Aunt Jan, always read the last pages first, you’re in luck. We haven’t read the entire letter to the Galatians in our worship service today, but the last page tells us all the main points of the letter.

We know that this stuff was so important to Paul that he didn’t dictate the letter through a scribe, but he wrote it by his own hand, in his own style. He even calls attention to his large letters so the Galatians know it’s really Paul writing a personal letter to them.

So, here are Paul’s main points. We know that Paul has opponents. Jewish Christians—possibly from Jerusalem—have followed in Paul’s footsteps and called the Gentile believers in Galatia to turn to a gospel that was different from the gospel Paul preached to them (c.f. 1:6). These Judaizers impressed upon the Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised—they had to become Jews—before they could really be saved because the promises of God were only for the Jews. The Gentiles had to become like them.

They not only tried to change the gospel of Christ into something within the confines of rigid Jewish law, but they attacked Paul’s character and undermined Paul’s apostolic authority. According to them, Paul was a charlatan who presented his version of the gospel message as a commercial enterprise for his own economic gain. They argued that Paul wasn’t preaching a message that was in accordance with the Spirit of Christ.

The Judaizers were certainly sincere. They certainly were concerned for the Gentile believers in Jesus and wanted to “save” them from what they thought was an abomination. Paul’s gospel message of freedom from the law—extrication from the framework of religious rules—was, to them, horrendous and dangerous. The Judaizers probably questioned: How can people be saved when they don’t follow the right rules? How could the freedom Paul preaches, which allows believers to ignore the very laws God provided, originate from God?

Yes, the Judaizers were certainly sincere. But one’s sincerity does not make one correct. The Judaizers are proof that sincere belief can be misguided belief. Sincerity and correctness are not the same thing. So, early in the letter, Paul defends his ministry by telling his story: how he had advanced in Judaism beyond even these Judaizers because of how militant he was for Jewish religious traditions. But God set Paul free by revealing Jesus to him and calling Paul to preach to the Gentiles. Paul’s apostolic authority came directly from Jesus.

Some of this should sound familiar to us because there are those in the church who still engage in legalism and rigidity instead of freedom. We face the Galatian dilemma every day. We want to define who can sit at the table of grace. We want to test others to make sure they believe just like us, act just like us, think just like us. It’s so tempting to turn our personal experience of truth into the singular experience of God’s truth. A.J. Conyers wrote, “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego” (in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol.3, pg. 211).

What Paul was trying to impress upon the Galatians—and upon us—is that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a church that incorporates unity with remarkable diversity, and his ministry—the gospel he preached to the Galatians and every other people he encountered—stands in opposition to anyone who would categorize other believers and judge that they are either in or out because of some distinguishing characteristic.

Paul made it clear in chapter five that “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter” (Galatians 5:6 CEB). That statement would have been a challenge to the very Jewish religious tradition in which Paul was steeped before he encountered Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road. It was certainly a challenge for some Jewish Christians to accept that faith works through love, not through the law or cutting of flesh.

It was a radical idea then, and it’s still a radical idea today, especially for those Christians who would insist that other “potential” believers must accept the same parts of the law to which they subscribe, and Christians who would question the validity of the faith of those believers who don’t subscribe to the law as they do. We do tend to pick and choose the parts of the law we think are vital even as Paul tells us that the law is no longer our custodian (c.f. Galatians 3:25).

Paul’s counterargument to the Judaizers is that their motives are not for the glory of the cross of Christ Jesus, but for their own glory. They want to be able to boast about the Galatians’ flesh by saying, Look! Now God can save you because I’ve made you just like me! Paul’s opponents sincerely believed that they were the standard of the standardized test. Yet, Paul argues, the Judaizers themselves were unable to keep the very law to which they were insisting the young Galatian believers submit.

Paul hits his point again when he writes: “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15 CEB). A new creation is every believer who faith and life are known by the fruit of the Spirit. And, I want us to note that Paul does not say the fruits of the Spirit are… as if there are many fruits. We don’t get to pick through the basket of spiritual fruit and choose only what we want. No. Paul says, “The fruit [singular!] of the Spirit is [IS, not are] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 CEB). There is one fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit is a new creation—a new life—that exhibits all of these attributes.

We can take Paul’s statement, “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything,” and fill in our own words. Being white or black. Being European brown or Asian brown or Hispanic brown. Being a citizen or a refugee. Being straight or gay. Being evangelical or mainline. Being conservative or liberal. Being male or female. Being rich or poor. Paul had his own list: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

What really matter, says Paul, is how we serve one another through love. If we can’t to that, then we’re the ones with the salvation problem. The warning that we reap what we sow is tied to judgment. The measure we give is the measure we get. The judgment we give is the judgment we receive. We can’t deny that distinctions exist, but we don’t need to make our distinctions matter. Distinctions should not lead to separation.

Paul offers a blessing for those who follow the gospel he preaches. It’s a gospel where believers are no longer bound by past definitions of faith and faithfulness because something new has been brought to our attention through the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul insists on viewing religion from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s about our faith, not our distinguishing characteristics. It’s about how our faith is exhibited in the fruit of the Spirit, not how we follow certain rules.

One of the more difficult parts for us to accept is where Paul writes that we should “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10 CEB). The word all is so dreadfully all-encompassing; so shockingly all-inclusive. I think the reason that word all is so difficult is because we like our safe divisions. We find comfort in separation. We find safety in the wedges driven into the center of what should be our common life. Those wedges are nothing less than new nails piercing the body of our crucified Lord.

All includes people of other faiths. All includes people of other races and cultures. All includes people who are not citizens of our nation. When Paul says, we should work for the good of all he means we should work for the good of all. But the opposite of all is deeply embedded in our mentality. The opposite of all has produced some of the most appalling tragedies in human history.

Paul insists that there’s a better way, and that better way is the only way for those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. The better way is a religious faith that transcends boundaries. It’s a faith that is moved and motivated by compassion for all—even those who are “other” from us. It’s a faith that sees all people as beloved children of God. It’s a faith that seeks to exhibit God’s love by feeding all whom we encounter with the fruit of the Spirit that God produces in us.

What matters, Paul insists, is a new creation. “May peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel” (Galatians 6:16 CEB).

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

Return and Tell | Proper 7

Luke 8:26-39

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.

34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him. (CEB)

Return and Tell

In 2004, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church altered the membership vows by adding the word witness in two places. Since 2004, when a person is received into a United Methodist Congregation, they are asked the question: “As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

And, in order to include everyone in the church who became a member prior to the addition, the congregational response includes the statement: “we renew our covenant to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness…”.

Our text describes this strange scene in which Jesus travels across the Sea of Galilee and lands on the Gentile side. This is the only account in Luke that has Jesus crossing the boundary into Gentile lands. So, it’s a significant event. In fact, it’s the longest single account of any event in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This crossing into Gentile territory foreshadows the witness of Christian people in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth, and the inclusion of the Gentile peoples in the early church (Acts 1:8; 10:1-11:18).

Strangely, people usually identify Cornelius the Centurion as the first Gentile convert to Christianity. But before we hear about Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, we hear about the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8, and this Gentile man from across the lake in Luke 8. Remember, Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles as Book 2 of his account of Jesus Christ and the early church. So, a long time before we hear about the Ethiopian Eunuch even longer before we hear about Cornelius, we have this Gentile man who begged to follow Jesus as one of his disciples.

This Gentile became the first person whom Jesus commissioned as a missionary on behalf of his own ministry. What’s more, the man’s ministry would reflect the ministry of Jesus, which was to preach and proclaim (Luke 4:18, 8:1).

There are some cool features of how Luke presents this event’s issues and resolutions. The possessed man had many demons, then the demons had gone from him. He was naked, then he was clothed. He lived homeless among the tombs, then he was told to return to his home. He fell down before Jesus and shouted at him, then he sat at Jesus’ feet and learned from him. The demon seized the man and he was beyond anyone’s ability to control, then the man was in his right mind.

All of these features show how he has been saved or healed. The same Greek word can be translated into English as saved or healed. And, in this instance, both meanings apply. This is a man who was suffering, and Jesus healed him of that suffering. He was lost and forsaken, and Jesus saved him.

This man’s encounter with Jesus begins with a question: “What have you to do with me?” It ends with another question: “May I follow you as your disciple?” The man begged to have something to do with Jesus.

The responses in the story, too, reveal a lot about the actors. The demons responded to Jesus with fear. The man, too, was afraid, and he begged Jesus not to torment him. After all, he was already being tormented. His life was misery, rejection, and loneliness.

So, Jesus responds to the man with compassion, mercy, and healing. Once the demons had left the man, he responded to Jesus with love and appreciation. He was seated at Jesus’ feet, dressed in clothes, and completely sane. The fact that he’s seated suggests that he’s listening to Jesus and learning from him as a disciple. Sitting at a teacher’s feet is the position of a student. It’s where Mary sat as she listened to Jesus teach her while her sister, Martha, was busy getting everything ready for their meal (Luke 10:39).

As the story of what happened spread throughout the region, people came to see what had happened, and they were filled with awe. The root word of awe in Greek is fear. Sometimes, that word is used to describe a holy respect—a holy response—to God. And, maybe the people felt this sense of the word to some degree. But, it’s also clear that they didn’t like whatever they felt. The people who had gathered asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome by fear.

But I don’t think that’s an unfamiliar response. Fear has a way of shackling us to the point that we prefer our demons we’ve normalized to the liberating power that’s unknown. Remember, when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and the bondage they endured there, they complained and looked longingly toward the land where they had been stuck (Exodus 14:11-12; 16:3). It’s almost a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Fear can become our identity to the point that we don’t know who we are without it.

The movie Strictly Ballroom follows the story of a talented-yet-frustrated dancer named Scott whose flamboyant dance moves are denounced as not being “strictly ballroom” by the head of the Australian dance federation. Scott’s parents were dancers, too, but his father is a dejected person. It turns out that Scott’s father used to be a great dancer with his own unique moves, just like Scott, but he was stopped from dancing those new moves—stopped from being himself—by the conspiratorial actions of the same guy who would become the head of the dance federation.

No one had been allowed to dance “new moves” in years. Everything was to be “Strictly ballroom.” It’s when Scott’s father tells him, “We lived our lives in fear!” that Scott decides to break the shackles fear held over everyone in the dance federation by dancing his new moves despite the prohibition. He and his partner, Fran, wow everyone at the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship with their Paso Doble, and everyone joins them on the floor to dance with them in newfound freedom.

The shackles of fear are not always easy to escape. We can be so accustomed to our fear that escaping it feels more terrifying than finding freedom. So, the people from the area asked Jesus to leave because they preferred the fearful power they knew to the unknown power Jesus displayed. What are our fears: the fears that only we know about which linger just below the surface of our mind, heart, or soul? I have at least one that I know, because it’s always here.

After Jesus freed the man from his demons, the man’s response was a desire to follow. He wanted to be a disciple of Jesus. He dedicated himself to Jesus. It’s a little surprising that Jesus denies the man’s request. After all, others have been included. Earlier in chapter 8, Luke wrote: “Soon afterward, Jesus traveled through the cities and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. The Twelve were with him, along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out)” (Luke 8:1-2 CEB).

So, why would Jesus not include this man in his group of disciples? We can only surmise because the text doesn’t give a specific reason. One possibility is that the man was a Gentile, so he wouldn’t be welcome in the places Jesus his Jewish disciples would tread. If he had followed along with Jesus, he would have lived a life of exclusion because Jews didn’t associate with Gentiles. They didn’t eat together. They didn’t hang out together. They didn’t worship together. I doubt very much that Jesus would have wanted that for this man. So, Jesus sent him to where he would be welcomed. He sent the man to his home.

Another possibility is that, due to the same Jewish value of separation, a Gentile man’s presence with Jesus would probably have kept other Jews who needed to hear Jesus’ message away from Jesus. It might well have hindered Jesus’ mission to the people of Israel. Remember, the encounter between Peter and Cornelius as recorded in Acts 11 got Peter into trouble with the other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-18).

Yet another possibility is that this Gentile man could accomplish far more in narrating God’s good news among his own people than Jesus could have. As I noted before, the mission to which Jesus tasks this man is a reflection of Jesus’ own mission, which is a quote from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 CEB).

This man was a prisoner. He was oppressed. Yet, because of the compassion and mercy of Jesus, he was liberated and experienced freedom. This man had a witness to share, a story to tell, an experience of glory to narrate, but it was a story his own people needed to hear. So, Jesus responded to the man’s request to follow him by denying the request and, instead, giving him a mission: “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a CEB).

Instead of feeling dejected by the denial of his request, the man responded by doing exactly what Jesus told him to do. It’s interesting that Jesus told the man to tell the story of what God had done for him, but Luke tells us that the man “went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39b CEB).

Like the man, we all have a story to tell. We all have a witness to share. We all have an experience of glory to narrate. We may not have been rescued from a legion of demons, but we are witnesses of God’s rescuing love that is for all people, God’s overwhelming mercy that reaches across every divide, and God’s unfathomable grace which is offered freely to all who would receive it. Are we witnessing? Are we narrating our story? Are we telling others of what God has done for us?

The 2004 General Conference was right. We are witnesses. So, “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you” (Luke 8:39a CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of 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

Word and Deed | 6th of Easter

John 14:23-29

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me. 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. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe. (CEB)

Word and Deed

The lyricist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem about words, and the first stanza says:

Ever the words of the gods resound;

But the porches of man’s ear

Seldom in this low life’s round

Are unsealed, that he may hear.[i]

Ultimately, this passage in John is about words. It is the story of the logos the Greek word, meaning, word or principle. The word of God has come to the human race in many ways. Sometimes people had epiphany-like experiences where God appeared to them, such as Moses with the burning bush, Jacob at Peniel when he contended with the Lord, or Abraham with the three visitors. Other times, the word of God came to individuals in a dream, or a vision to prophets who spoke that word to the people.

But the word that Jesus brought is much more direct. Jesus himself is the Word enfleshed. The words Jesus speaks to us are not his own words; they are the word of his Father who sent him.

At this point in the narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus is not revealing his word to the Apostles. He’s already done that. Jesus has come to the end of his journey, and here, encourages the Apostles to keep the word already spoken, already revealed in his earthly sojourn. In the same way, Jesus is encouraging all of us to keep his word.

Jesus’ word is a message of love and peace, a message of seeking the kingdom of God rather than chasing the vanities of the kingdoms of this earth, which are no more than a chasing after wind. The Holy Spirit is our teacher and helper along the journey of this life. The Holy Spirit is God ever-present among us.

An interesting fact of Hellenistic culture is the close association of the logos with the ergon the Word with the Deed. This feels less true today. In our own culture it’s common for people to say whatever they want and never act on anything they said. The Greeks understood better than we do that words and deeds go hand in hand. When words of instruction are spoken by a teacher, or the words of command are spoken by a parent or leader, or words of advice are spoken by a friend and counselor, those words can be heeded or unheeded, obeyed or disobeyed, acted upon or not. Deeds, whether done or left undone, are linked with words.

Jesus tells us that all who love him will keep his word. More than that, Jesus tells us that the Father will love those who keep Jesus’ word, and God will come to them and make his home with them. If we love Jesus Christ and keep his word, God will love us and actually make his home among us. The book of Revelation says, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3 CEB).

Jesus also leaves us his peace. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV). What kind of peace does Jesus leave us, and what does he mean that he doesn’t give as the world gives? One of the bands I like is the heavy-metal band Metalica. On their black album, they have a song entitled Don’t Tread on Me, where one of the lyrics says, “To secure peace is to prepare for war.” This kind of peace is not the kind of peace Jesus is giving to us.

The peace of Jesus is not the kind of peace brought about by either of the World Wars, either of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, or either of the Iraq Wars, or the war in Afghanistan. In the history of warfare, war has only led to more war. There’s peace for a little while, and everything blows up again. War can’t bring Jesus’ kind of peace, because war never actually settles the issues that caused the conflict in the first place. War can’t bring Jesus’ peace because Jesus’ peace is the peace that God himself bestows upon God’s people.

John Wesley commented on John 14:27 in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament by saying that when Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you,” he is referring to: “Peace in general; peace with God and with your own consciences.” And when Jesus says: “My peace” I give to you, he means: “in particular; that peace which [Jesus] enjoys, and which [Jesus] creates.” When Jesus says: “I give,” he means that he gives: “At this instant.” And when Jesus says that he gives us this peace: “Not as the world giveth,” he means he does not give in a way that is: “Unsatisfying, unsettled, [or] transient; but filling the soul with constant, even tranquility.”

Wesley continues with a prayer:

“Lord, evermore give us this peace! How serenely may we pass through the most turbulent scenes of life, when all is quiet and harmonious within! Thou hast made peace through the blood of thy cross. May we give all diligence to preserve the inestimable gift inviolate, till it issue in everlasting peace!”

This is the peace that will endure for all eternity in the Kingdom of God. Yet, somehow, we can have that kind of peace among us even now as the People of God. This peace is a gift of Jesus Christ for us: now. This peace comes from keeping Jesus’ word.

What are the sources of disquiet, conflict, and anxiety in our own life?

Where do we need to find peace?

Do our finances cause you anxiety? What about our relationships with others? Does our spiritual life—or lack thereof—cause our soul to be disquieted within you? Of course, there are other areas in which we might need a good dose of peace, but money, relationships, and spirituality are three big ones, which is why I mention them.

What does the word of God say about the things that cause turmoil, stress, anxiety, conflict, and disquiet in our lives? Are we willing to listen to the word Jesus offers us and follow his teaching? Because, what the word of Jesus says and what the word of the world says are often quite different. But only the word of Jesus brings peace.

To which word will we listen? Upon which word will we act; that of the world, or that of the Lord who made heaven and earth; who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves? The peace of Jesus Christ comes from living out the word of Jesus in daily life.

Finally, Jesus reminds the Apostles that they have heard him say, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” (John 14:28 NRSV). Jesus then says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” The sentence construction of the Greek text assumes that the first part of the sentence, “If you loved me” is true; that it is fulfilled, and we really do love Jesus.

We do love Jesus, don’t we? (Just checking).

The second part of the sentence defines the result of that statement: “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” So, what Jesus said here is, because the Apostles loved Jesus they rejoiced that he was going to be with the Father. Because we love Jesus, we rejoice that he is with the Father. Jesus is once again glorified in the presence of the Father with the glory that he had before the world was begun. This is the same glory in which we can participate to a degree, now, and then fully when God comes to make God’s home among us when heaven and earth are made new.

Jesus offers us a starting place as followers. We who follow Jesus can live love by keeping his words, which ultimately come from God the Father who sent the incarnate Word to us in the first place. We are invited to make our faith incarnational by practicing it. By living it. And there’s a reason whey we call it the practice of faith. We don’t always get it right. It takes practice, and that includes learning from our mistakes, and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we do make mistakes.

Our actions—the practice of our faith—leads to the indwelling of God’s presence. The way we know and love God is by living the word of Jesus.

This coming Thursday the church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus. We celebrate that Jesus went away from the disciples, which was a source of grief to them. But we also know and celebrate that Jesus promised he’d come to them—and to us. In the absence of Jesus’ physical presence, our daily practice makes the living presence and love of God real and known among our faith community and among the world around us.

Until that day when Jesus comes in final victory, let us keep our deeds together with our words, so that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled in us. For we have an advocate, the Holy Spirit—who is with us in our every day—to teach us and remind us of Jesus’ word, which is the word of the one who sent him. May our ears be open to the word and teaching of Jesus. May our hearts be open to the example of a life lived with love which we have in him. And may our deeds reflect the love and peace that Christ our Lord gives.

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

~Pastopher

[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Words of the Gods, in 1000 Quotable Poems: An Anthology of Modern Verse, Thomas Curtis Clark and Esther A. Gillespie, ed., (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1937), 310.

Home | 5th of Easter

Revelation 21:1-6

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. (CEB)

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This text is most often heard at funeral services, and we’ve had a few of those this week. While it is an appropriate text to hear and ponder as we experience grief a person’s death, there’s an aspect of Revelation that we don’t often consider. John’s vision does not merely point to the pie in the sky after we die, but also to God’s presence with us in the here and now.

We may forget, at times, that God is still at work. It isn’t the case that God redeemed the world with Jesus and went to the beach for a break until God decides to send Jesus back. We aren’t waiting for God to finish the glass of holy lemonade before God gets busy with us again. God has been working to redeem and save from the moment creation fell into sin. In fact, God has, is, and will continue to work for the restoration of the whole creation. Apocalyptic literature envisions newness through restoration and transformation, not annihilation or obliteration.

Earth has and continues to be the primary focus of God’s concern, activity, and care. God desires and is working for the healing of all creation. Paul wrote about that, too, how creation itself will be set free from the decay that we human beings subjected it to when we fell into sin. In fact, creation longs for that day. (C.f. Romans 8:18-22).

One thing the visions of Revelation definitely do not support is escapism. The idea of a rapture where all the good and faithful Christians get an emergency evacuation from earth to heaven before things get bad down here simply cannot be supported by the text or by the theology of this book. God created everything for the good of the human race, whom God created in God’s image. Why, then, would God want to get any of us out when this is the place God intends to be? God does not intend to abandon the earth. Rather, God intends to restore the earth and all of creation.

“I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:2-3 CEB).

Surely we realize that God has done this pattern before. God’s Son, Jesus, was sent to earth to be with us. God the Word came to Earth and, as John 1:14 put it, “the Word became flesh and made his home among us” (CEB). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and was poured out and passed around on all kinds of people. God has an already established pattern of coming to us. What John sees in his vision in Revelation 21, is not human beings going up to heaven to be with God. Rather, John sees a restored creation, a new city made by God, coming down out of heaven to be here with us and for us. This is a city where people live together. It’s a perfected embodiment of what human society and culture could be—indeed, what it’s supposed to be.

God has prepared a place for us, a home not made with human hands (Acts 7:48). God is making all things new. The old passes away, but God raises heaven and earth to new life: a new life where death no longer has a say because the sea is no more.

The sea is an important image in Revelation because it symbolizes chaos and disorder. This is no ordinary ocean. This is the sea of primordial chaos in Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea” (CEB). God’s act of creation brought order to the chaotic primordial sea. This sea is where Leviathan dwells. It’s where the dragon emerges in Revelation. This is what Isaiah saw in his own vision which says, “On that day, the LORD will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 CEB).

Psalm 74:13-14 also speak of how God will split the sea and crush Leviathan’s heads. These symbols of chaos continually threaten God’s creation. So, when there’s no more sea, there’s no longer a threat.

It’s curious how the beginning of creation prefigures the end. Yet, also how Revelation speaks not of an end so much as a beginning. In much the same way, Paul used the first human beings as a prefiguration of Christ when he wrote, “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 CEB).

So, New Jerusalem is the place—the city—where the God we love and worship stands beside us and lives with us. This is the place God will call home, because it’s with us. God’s home is with us. It almost requires a re-orientation of our imagination, doesn’t it? People always talk about going to heaven, but the vision of Revelation is that God will bring heaven and earth together so there is no longer a barrier between the two. In fact, the two shall become one, like a bride and groom.

Admittedly, Revelation employs some troubling assumptions about women. If we’re going to read the Bible and take it seriously, then we need to be honest about what it says, suggests, and how it portrays things. Revelation only sees women in terms of their sexuality. Cities like Babylon are personified as women who experience sexual exploitation and violence: a prostitute who is burned and devoured by her clients (c.f. chapters 17-18). New Jerusalem is personified as the virginal bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9). The woman clothed with the sun is pregnant and gives birth (c.f. 12:1-17). A woman of Thyatira, whom John identifies as “…that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet…” whose teachings conflicted with John’s, is portrayed as a prostitute who will be thrown onto a sickbed and have her children struck dead (2:20-23).

We have to admit that there are problems with this kind of imagery. At the same time, we can’t ignore it. Lynn R. Huber argues that, I few do ignore it, then we lose the power this imagery conveys (c.f. Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258).

The bride, who is beautifully dressed, suggests her preparation for a transition to a new identity, which is revealed in faithfulness to Jesus Christ that rejects all forms of idolatry and exploitation of others. The bride’s modestly contrasts with Babylon’s opulence. Babylon (which is Imperial Rome) gained its luxury through conquest, exploitation, slavery, and violence. The bride (which is New Jerusalem) provides goodness, safety, and security for all people who call it home.

The imagery also reminds us that weddings are not endings. Weddings are new beginnings. A wedding creates a new family and a new home. This particular wedding creates these things, too, in a restored creation where chaos and sin and death no longer exist.

The bridal imagery should also remind us that our faith in Jesus Christ must be embodied. We have to live it. Our faith should become who we are. Wedding celebrations are full of revelry, food, drink, dancing, and pleasure. I don’t know why we have these stupidly ridiculous images of heaven where people are floating on clouds and strumming on little harps when the image Revelation gives us is a city with streets to walk, life-giving water to drink, and food to enjoy.

If you read farther in chapter 21, you find that the streets are paved with gold and the foundations are set with gemstones. And, there are two ways to look at that. One way is to say that this new city is so opulent that it’s decorated with riches that are almost beyond comprehension. The other way is to say that the things we value on earth are so worthless in the New Jerusalem that they use them as building materials to pave the streets and hold up the walls. Who needs gold and jewels when we have the Living God with us?

In this city, our new home, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death, and mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more because the former things, themselves, have passed away. In essence, death has died. We’re told in verses 7 and 8, which the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out, that those who conquer will inherit these things while sinners get tossed into the lake of fire and experience a second death.

Yet, there are also suggestions that God’s promise is incredibly inclusive. The nations walk in the illumination of God’s glory, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (21:23-24). The gates of the city remain open (21:25) so the nations can bring their glory and honor into the city (21:26). The tree of life bears fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2).

As one scholar put it, “Dare we imagine that the saints’ victory accomplishes salvation for all peoples?” (G. Carey, in Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258). Dare we imagine that powerless believers can conquer the powers of this world through faithful witness? It’s a potent idea. Revelation strongly suggests that our faithfulness to God has consequences now as well as in the future, and that it has consequences for the nations. Can we imagine that? Can we imagine that our faithfulness—here and now—matters?

What have we to fear of faithful witness, whether it’s to people or powers? In the imagination of Revelation, death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to those who follow Jesus. God has already declared: “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6a CEB). God has already accomplished the victory for us even if we can’t see it yet. John’s vision reminds us to repent and to remain faithful.

To me, home—our true home where heaven and earth are reconciled and made new—it sounds pretty good.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay