All of us seek the sanctification of our own lives—to be set aside for a purpose, to know there’s a reason for our existence. Jesus prays that we will be sanctified “in truth.”
- What is required for human testimony to become divine testimony
- Why being “sanctified in truth” requires spiritual discernment of God’s Word
- Two approaches to the Bible and two hot-topic examples
- Three helps in discerning God’s Word to you for living a sanctified life
- A postscript on the Lord’s Supper
Recently I’ve found the Revised Common Lectionary quite hostile to the preacher, and this week is no different. I couldn’t find another way through these passages than a heavily theological one. My apologies, but here goes.
The reading from 1 John says that the “testimony of God” is greater than “human testimony.” (5:9) Human testimony is nonetheless valuable. It is why the scriptures were written. The very first verse of 1 John makes as much clear: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
The parent book of 1 John, the Gospel of John, makes the same point: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
Human testimony includes not only the Bible, but the entire tradition that arises from the Christian community including devotionals, sermons, holy conversations, song lyrics, and prayers. In all these ways and more, we humans testify to one another about God’s presence in our lives. Still, these human testimonies are insufficient—they are not yet revelation. All these remain human testimony and are not “God’s testimony”—not even the scripture is God’s Word until it receives the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Human testimonies may be very convincing, but they have only intellectual power. They may lead to faith, but eventually such intellectual “faith” will fail because it is based on human testimony, not divine testimony. In Paul’s words, it is a faith based on human “eloquence” verses the kind of “foolishness,” that is, divine testimony, that Paul preached. (see 1 Corinthians 1-2)
The Holy Spirit is required for human testimony to become God’s testimony. Calvin offers perhaps the best explanation of this truth, summarizing, “The Word itself is not quite certain for us unless it be confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.” (Institutes 1.9.3) Within the Presbyterian tradition, we believe that, “God’s word is spoken to his church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction.” (Confession of 1967, 9.30)
This theological understanding is essential as we consider how to live in the world as Jesus prays for and sends us out to do. He prayed that we would be “sanctified in truth.” This is the purpose of our lives. We do not belong to the world, but we are sent into the world. And the world is a hostile place for those who try to live according to God’s Word.
Living according to God’s word is not as simple as quoting a verse from the Bible. That is not living according to God’s Word, because without the Spirit, it isn’t God’s Word. To live according to God’s Word we need the Spirit. This means that while we might begin with the human testimony, we still have to discern God’s Word within it.
There are two approaches to the Bible as it relates to its ability to lead us according to God’s Word. The first says that the Bible includes unrealistic ideals appropriate to a religious text, but we have to live in reality.
As an example, take the Bible’s teaching about matters of peace, war, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In the Christian community, the Bible teaches to:
- Turn the other cheek when someone strikes you
- Bless those who curse you
- Repay evil with good, not evil
- Never avenge yourselves
- Overcome evil with good
- As peacemakers, bless those who persecute you
- Love your enemies
The first approach to the Bible recognizes these as unrealistic ideals; they’re nice, but they’re not to be taken literally.
The second approach says that the Bible reveals ideals, but we have to discern provisional allowances.
As an example, take celibacy. According to Jesus and Paul, celibacy is preferred over marriage. It facilitates our complete focus on God alone who is our true covenant partner. Celibacy in this age foreshadows our status in the “age to come” where no one is given in marriage to one another.
The second approach to the Bible acknowledges this ideal, but recognizes that we have to make provisional allowances. Marriage is such a provisional allowance.
You can (and we are called to) apply one of these two approaches to scripture to other topics, including:
- The death penalty
- What to do with our extraordinary wealth
- How to respond to the beggar on the street
- Birth control
- Every issue of importance in your life
If you choose the second approach, the one that requires “making provisional allowances,” you’ll have to do spiritual discernment. I think it’s the more difficult approach. I also think it requires more faith. I think it’s what Jesus is calling us to in his prayer that our lives be “sanctified by the truth.”
Fortunately we have some guidance on how to do this spiritual discernment from Jesus’ prayer.
The first thing to remember is that spiritual discernment is communal. We never do it alone. Jesus assumes that our lives are sanctified in community. So it’s important to identify the scriptural ideals and the provisional allowances in our lives with others, and especially as the church.
Second, remember that Jesus has prayed for this for us—and he continues to do so. This is one of the reasons for the Ascension (celebrated on Thursday of this last week). Jesus ascended to the Father in order to continue his priestly ministry of intercession on our behalf. What he started in his life on earth he continues in his life in heaven.
Third, remember God has given us the Holy Spirit. We live on this side of Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit which we celebrate next week. And this is another reason for the Ascension. Jesus said unless he leaves, the Spirit will not come.
In his prayer, Jesus said he has sanctified himself so that you and I also may be sanctified. To this end, and as we follow his command to go into the world, let us pray and listen for God’s Word to us, that we may live lives sanctified in truth.
P.S. Sanctification and the Sacraments
In the past, the prayer before Communion used to be called the “consecratory” prayer. In other words, it was a prayer for sanctification of the elements of bread and wine. This prayer sets aside the elements for holy use. It is the same use as Jesus’ life, and the same use as the Bible. All these, when sanctified, are forms of God’s Word. They speak God’s Word to us and lead us into God’s presence.
The Eucharistic prayer (as we call it today) begins with an opening dialogue (“The Lord be with you . . . And also with you.”) This recognizes the communal discernment required for the sanctification of our lives.
You would think that God’s love, being God’s love, would be an overwhelming irresistible power. And it is . . . given enough time. But God’s love does meet resistance, and only in Jesus can that resistance be overcome.
- Where God’s love meets resistance
- Jewish love of God and Christian love of Jesus
- What loving God’s children actually entails
- Three ways to lower the resistance to God’s love
- Questions for discussion and reflection
It is characteristic of true love that it does not insist upon its own way (see 1 Corinthians 13:4), thus it can be resisted. Even God’s love can be resisted, and it is. It is resisted within us when we question whether God does actually love us. Many of my pastoral conversations are variations of this question. And God’s love is resisted by us when we don’t let it flow through us to others. Most of our social problems can be traced back to this resistance.
Today’s lectionary passages offer us some guidance on how to lower this resistance to God’s love, both for the sake of ourselves and for our society.
To start, we first to understand the way Jesus and his disciples understood their love of God. Jewish love of God is most obvious in the love of God’s Word. For example, Psalm 119:47-48 says, “I find my delight in your commandments, because I love them. I revere your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.”
At the time of Jesus a Jewish sect called the Pharisees allowed their love of God to get off track. They are the group for whom loving God and Gods Word became a love for God’s wordS. They confused what the Scriptures say with what the Scriptures are saying. They couldn’t make the distinction that Jesus made, which was recognizing that God’s Word, which is to be loved, must be discerned from the words of Scripture.
The clearest example comes from how the Pharisees and Jesus understood the word “Sabbath.” From Mark 2 we see that to the Pharisees, “Sabbath” meant restrictions on certain activities. Jesus and his disciples engaged in these prohibited activities because Jesus taught that, “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”
In his book the Music of Silence, David Steindl-Rast says, “Just following the rules doesn’t deserve the name of true obedience.” Nor is it an expression of true love.
Jesus’ faithful discernment of God’s Word, as his expression of his love for God, eventually caused those around him to realize that he was God’s Word Incarnate (See John 1). For this reason 1 John says that if we love the parent (God), we will love the child (Christ) for the very Jewish reason that those who love God love God’s Word.
First John continues by saying if you love Christ, you will love the children of God. Why? Because Jesus, as the embodied and enacted Word of God, loved all God’s children. First John says that Jesus ministry came, “not by water only, but by water and blood.” Apparently there were some Pharisee-like Christians in John’s community who believed that ritual adherence, like to the waters of baptism, constituted loving God. John’s point is that baptism (water) isn’t sufficient without subsequent giving of oneself, out of love, even sacrificially (blood), because that’s the way Jesus himself lived.
Jesus sacrificially loved the children of God, and if you love Christ, you’ll also love God’s children. Peter puts it simply in his Acts sermon; he summarizes Jesus’ ministry as “doing good and healing.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that his commandment is that we love one another. In other conversations he identified the “Greatest Commandment” as loving God and loving neighbors. (Mark 12:30-31) The teaching of the Bible is that we love God by loving our neighbors.
Summing up to this point: if we love God we will love God’s Word, which Christians do by loving and following Jesus. If we love Jesus, we will love the children of God. Or to use the images of these passages, we will abide in Christ’s love, bear fruit, and let God’s love flow through us to others.
Loving God and loving Christ by loving our neighbors can be difficult because of the resistance to God’s love in our lives. By remembering three things, we may lower this resistance and increase our love of God by loving our neighbors.
First, it helps to remember how Jesus loved others. It wasn’t by rigorous observance of religious ritual. Jesus “did good” according to Peter, including things like healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving the offenders, welcoming and even inviting the outcasts. In this way he “laid down his life for his friends,” and by doing so loved them. We can all do good, even if it doesn’t demand that we lay down our lives, and by doing so God’s love flows through us to others.
Second, it helps to remember that Jesus overcame a hostile world. The greatest resistance to God’s love is found among the powerful in the world. Jesus was opposed by religious and political powers because to love the way God loves is to relinquish power and control. Remember, love does not insist on its own way (above). Jesus love and the world’s resistance ultimately led him to the Cross.
But God’s love triumphed over this exertion of power in Christ’s resurrection. As Colossians puts it, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.” (Colossians 2:15) This is the Christian faith that 1 John also says conquers the world.
Finally, it is helpful to remember that Jesus calls us friends. Servants, he says, don’t know what the master is doing. But Jesus has revealed the master’s plan to us, and that makes us friends. We know what God is doing, which is overcoming the world through Jesus’ love.
Jesus has told us, his friends, all of these things so that his joy may be in us. Remember when Jesus was baptized? The voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved child and with you I am well-pleased.” I can hardly imagine a more joyful moment in the life of Jesus than to hear those words from his Father. This is the joy Jesus says can be in us. He says this makes our joy complete. The reason is because this is what we were made for. We were created not to resist God’s love but to receive it, and to let it flow to others.
By remembering how Jesus loved others, and that Jesus himself overcame resistance to God’s love, and that we are Jesus’ friends, we can lower our resistance to God’s love and experience ourselves and share with others the joy of Christ.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- How does it make you feel that we can confuse love of God’s wordS for the love of God’s Word? In what areas might you be doing this?
- In what ways do you see God’s love being resisted in the world? In your own life?
- What are some of the other obstacles to God’s love, and what can you do about them?
- How can you love God more by loving your neighbor more? How can you better follow the example of love that Jesus set?
Jesus says we have to remain in him like a branch abides in a vine. Isn’t that impossible? Just when did branches get to decide of which vine they are a part?
- Link to video shown during children’s message (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GxDNGtoVjS0)
- How metaphor moves us beyond the impossible
- Why confessing Jesus can’t be all there is to abiding
- Three practices from the Ethiopian on abiding: worship, listening, and baptism
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Jesus isn’t alone in suggesting that branches have a choice about the vine they’re a part of. Paul uses the same metaphor in Romans 11. The only way around this unreasonable assertion is to remember the nature of metaphor, that is, drawing a picture, creating an impression. One point of this metaphor is choice.
What does it mean to abide? First John 4:15 says those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God abide in God. By subsequent editions of today’s other lectionary reading, this confession of faith was required for baptism (see verse 37 which is not original). But does such a confession of faith qualify as abiding, the kind of fruit-bearing abiding Jesus describes in John 15?
The Acts passage describes the encounter between an Ethiopian eunuch and the evangelist Philip. It suggests three practices that may help us abide in Christ.
First, to abide in Christ begins by showing some interest. The Ethiopian was on his way home from worshiping in Jerusalem. Abiding is a behavior; it is a choice we make. Jesus and 1 John relate it to love of God. I’m relatively free to live wherever I want. I chose to abide where I want to, and that’s based on loving where I live.
Just so, the Ethiopian traveled to Jerusalem to worship. Worship is a choice; it is a commitment, an act of devotion, a choosing out of love. We don’t worship for the payoff: “What can I get out of it?” Instead we should ask, “What am I giving in to it?” The irony is, the more you give yourself to it, the more you get out of it.
Think of the Ethiopian’s sacrifice. He made the long journey to Jerusalem. Being a non-Jew and a eunuch, he wouldn’t even be allowed to experience the most exclusive worship Jerusalem had to offer. He was a high-ranking finance officer so we know he had responsibilities and was busy. The choice to worship showed his desire to abide. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Note that it is branches plural. Those who choose to abide worship together.
Second, the Ethiopian listened to others. He first listened to the testimonies of the past, contained in Holy Scripture. He was reading the prophet Isaiah. But then Philip showed up, and the Ethiopian invited him into his chariot in order to listen to him. God sends “Philips” to all of us. My favorite Philips are theologians. Philips show up in Sunday school classes and small groups and devotionals and songs.
Ultimately the Ethiopian listened to Christ. Acts tells us that, “beginning with this very passage, Philip told him the good news about Jesus.” Always when we read the Bible and listen to Philips, the question we should ask is, “How do these testimonies help me know the God in Christ better?” The Bible is prophecy not in the sense of predicting the future, but of revealing the truth. For Christians, God’s truth is most fully revealed in Christ. So we read the Bible towards understanding that truth better.
This is what the encounter between the Ethiopian and Philip shows us. The Ethiopian listened, was teachable, and welcomed Philip. Jesus said, “If you abide me, and my words abide in you, you will bear much fruit.” Abiding occurs when we listen.
A third way of abiding in Christ is to remember your baptism. Clearly Philip’s sharing the “good news about Jesus” included the call to baptism. Otherwise why would the Ethiopian request baptism at the first sign of water? He knew it was required. One of the teachings of baptism is that it engrafts us into the vine of Christ’s Body.
After he baptizes the Ethiopian, Philip disappears. But the Ethiopian is not left alone because in his baptism he has God’s Spirit and is one with the communion of saints. Jesus invites us to, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” Baptism symbolizes this abiding, and remembering our baptism helps us to remain.
Jesus wants us to bear fruit, and says that is accomplished by abiding in him. Three practices—worship, listening, and baptism—help us to abide and will lead to the fruit that God hopes to see in our lives as a result.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what other ways does recognizing metaphors for what they are help you past some of the difficult to understand passages of scripture? For example, what about the gathering of the branches for the fire in John 15?
- What do you think about the assertion that confessing Jesus as the Son of God is not sufficient evidence for one’s abiding in Christ?
- Do you consider worship an act of love? Or is it more an obligation? Or a learning opportunity? Which question do you ask yourself—what you’re getting out of worship, or what you’re giving into it?
- Where are some of the places you listen as a practice of abiding? What are your favorite Bible passages? Who are your favorite writers? Do you read all of scripture with an eye towards Christ?
- How often do you contemplate the various meanings of your baptism? Do you consider baptism a one-and-done event, or an ongoing claim and calling on your life?
Trying to understand what love is based on the many opinions about it can be very confusing—not to mention actually experiencing it itself! Whether you listen to popular music, peruse checkout lane magazine racks, watch daytime TV shows, shop the relationship section in a bookstore, or just overhear conversations, there’s no shortage of opinions on what love is.
The question of what love is is part of the human essence because we are made in God’s image. And love is the essence of God. In love God created us and provides for us. We are forgiven and redeemed in love.
The Christian church knows what love is because of this, 1 John tell us: Jesus came to show us. He welcomed those marginalized by religion. He shared with others what was denied by the powerful. He touched those rejected by society. Jesus stooped down towards those whom others stepped over.
The ultimate demonstration of God’s love was Jesus’ death. And before that Jesus gave us this meal so that we would never forget all he showed us about God’s love. He gave us this meal so that this image of God’s self-giving would inspire the divinity in us—that we would realize God’s image within us and follow Christ’s example to live in God’s love and to share God’s love. Jesus gave us this meal so that we might abide in God, and for God to abide in us.
Jesus gave us this meal so that we like Christ, can know that we are sons and daughters of God, and so that the world can know that God loves them too.
Religion often makes things harder than they need to be. Repentance is a case in point.
- Four reasons why repentance is important
- Four reasons why repentance is difficult
- Three ways to make repentance easier
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Repentance isn’t a popular sermon topic, but in the lectionary readings for this week it’s pretty hard to avoid. Peter ends his first sermon with a call to repentance. First John indicates that without repentance, there is no seeing God. And Jesus sends the church out to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. So while it is unpopular in the pulpit, repentance IS important to the Bible.
Here are four reasons repentance is important. First, it’s the first step of our in participating in salvation. While God saves us by grace, repentance is something God allows us to do. It dignifies us as choice-makers and as co-creators. In other words, repentance reveals that we are made in God’s image. As we experience salvation through repentance, it strengthens our faith and assures us of our destiny.
Second, repentance is how we experience forgiveness. God has forgiven us in Christ, but that doesn’t mean we experience it. One of the primary obstacles to experiencing God’s forgiveness (and thus doubting our being saved) is accusation. Repentance removes that obstacle. No longer will we say to ourselves (or hear said to us), “You’re not forgiven, you keep committing the same sin.”
A third reason repentance is important is because we are “witnesses,” to use Jesus’ term. He uses this word in relation to teaching the disciples about the suffering he has endured, and the resurrection they have experienced. Witnesses see something, and then proclaim what they’ve seen. We are witnesses in that we see suffering all around us: poverty, disease, disaster, war, dying, and death. These are the fruits of the power of sin. Jesus reminds us that we also saw the suffering of the Messiah.
But we also saw the resurrection of the Messiah—God’s “no” to suffering and the power of sin which causes it. As witnesses of these things, we look for and see resurrection still today, and so we proclaim it. We repeat God’s “no” to sin and suffering through repentance.
Finally, repentance unites us “more and more” (to use the winsome phrase from the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, Question 115) to Christ. Repentance joins us to his suffering and resurrection. And according to Jesus, this is THE point of the entire scriptures: “the Messiah is to suffer, and to rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name.” The point of the scriptures is that the world is redemption from sin by Christ, and shall be conformed to Christ. Repentance is part of that redemption and conformity.
There are four reasons why we find repentance so hard. The first is that we love our lifestyles so much. We may be too attached to material things, or over indulge our sensual pleasures. Or it may be that we have believed a certain way so long and we find it difficult to change our mind—which is the root definition of repentance.
A second reason is that we have tried so many times before to repent . . . and failed. We may have started with enthusiasm and resolve, only to be overcome by the power of sin. It leaves us embarrassed, ashamed, and defeated. That makes it hard to try again.
Third, there is so little support for it these days. The world in which we live is constructed around distracting us from God’s presence. Even the church seems avoidant or in denial about the need for repentance. Our leaders put on a façade of perfection, and when there is a failure, we excommunicate the leader, and if there is repentance, we balk at offering forgiveness.
Finally, there doesn’t seem to be much point in it. We all know unrepentant people who prosper and seem happy. And we see those sin-obsessed religious people—the ones who scream “Repent!” at us—and they seem angry, judgmental, and unloving.
Repentance is important but it can be difficult. Luke’s reading give us three ways to approach repentance that makes it easier.
First is to accept that Jesus is alive and he is here. He (and Luke) was emphatic to show that he was not a ghost. (An interesting aside: Jesus doesn’t dismiss the possibility of ghosts, only that he wasn’t one of them. And another noteworthy aside: debate about the “bodily” resurrection of Jesus is as much a distraction to the point of the narrative as is debate about the existence of ghosts.) The point is that it is Jesus himself who is present. Teresa of Avila said, “All our difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent.” The same principle applies to repentance.
Second, it is helpful to share the communion meal with Jesus. Jesus took the fish they gave him and ate “in their presence.” This is exactly what we do with the bread and cup, take and eat and drink in his presence. However he was “bodily” there, he is bodily here. When he tells us to, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he is saying that the communion meal is a summary of the entire Gospel—his teaching in word and deed, his death and resurrection, his ascension and promised return. All of this is included in the meal through which, Paul tells us, “we proclaim Jesus’ death (including why he died, i.e., his teaching and lifestyle) until he comes again.” Jesus’ presence with us now is as real as the bread and cup are real.
Finally, it helps to experience the peace that arises from remembering that all of this is part of God’s plan. Jesus opened the minds of the disciples to see that from Moses, to the prophets, to the psalms, the Messiah is to suffer and rise. Nothing surprises God, not even our sin. This makes repentance easier. It’s just being honest about what God already knows—we need to repent. So Christians are called to live in hope that is drawn from the future, not in fear, anxiety, or despair that is rooted in the present. The peace Christ offers is not the absence of suffering. And it certainly is not the result of avoiding suffering. Rather Christian peace is the assurance that suffering, even death, is not the final word.
Sin, suffering, and death, constitute one word. God said “no” to this word and “yes” to the life of Christ by resurrecting him from the dead. Repentance can be easier, and it begins by our saying “yes” to Jesus Christ, our risen and present Lord.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- The meaning of repentance in the original languages of the Bible means to “turn” (Old Testament) and to “change one’s mind” (New Testament). Taken together we realize that repentance means to turn from something, to something. This begins with a change in mind. How do the points outlined above challenge you to change the way you think about repentance? Will it make any difference (note that “making a difference” is another way of talking about repentance!)?
- While repentance is something God allows us to do, it is never done only by us. As mentioned above, through repentance we experience God’s salvation and forgiveness. Through repentance we enter God’s life in Christ. Through repentance we participate in God’s saving of the world. Repentance is thus a collaborative work between us and God. How does this change your attitude towards repentance?
- In what ways have you experienced the difficulty of repentance as outlined above? In what other ways is repentance made more difficult than it has to be in your life?
The Gospel of John was written so long after the events, and is itself so lengthy, that we shouldn’t be surprised to find contrary teachings within it. What it means to see and believe provides one example.
- Where Jesus taught to see and believe
- Where Jesus taught to believe without seeing
- Where we “see” Jesus today
- Why the Church and the Table are necessary for faith
In John 6 Jesus teaches how important it is to both see and believe. He has just fed 5000 people beginning with five loaves and two fish. After he and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee the crowd follows them, and Jesus challenges their motives. He invites them to work for “bread that lasts, for bread from heaven.” He goes to teach that he himself is that bread. He admonishes them for seeing—first the feeding of the multitude and then him—but not believing that he is the chosen sent one. Finally, he warns them that he will not always with them; he will ascend at some point and be out of sight.
This sets the stage for the dialogue with Thomas in John 20. There we have Thomas who simply wants what the other disciples received. The night of his resurrection, John says, Jesus proclaimed peace and showed them his hands and side. Only after the showing do they rejoice in having seen him. Thomas wasn’t there and refuses to believe. Fortuitously, Jesus shows up a week later in the same manner, and this time Thomas is present.
Thomas isn’t much different from the other disciples. The morning of that first week they had heard from Mary Magdalene that she had seen the Lord, and yet that evening they are hiding in a room with the doors locked. Even when Jesus appears to them, it’s only after he shows them his wounds that they see him, and still a week later they are in the same locked room.
Even though Thomas isn’t much different from the other disciples—and not so different from us—his example is the key that unlocks what it means to “see” Jesus today. For Jesus, in contrast to what he tells the crowd in John 6, says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet have come to believe.” How can Jesus require sight and belief in one passage, and bless those who do not see in another passage, unless seeing means something other than seeing?
We all know it’s possible to believe without seeing. When believe the medical doctors who blame bacteria, which we can’t see, for our sickness because we see the effects of the bacteria. Likewise, when the pharmacist gives us the antibiotic, which we can’t see, we believe we are getting better because we see the effects of the drug.
Likewise, in the day of John’s first readers, some sixty years after the resurrection, and in our own day, we don’t see Jesus, but we can see evidence of Jesus’ presence in the church. What does this evidence look like?
According to the lectionary passage from First John, part of that evidence is the encouragement we find together through dark times. This light shining in darkness shows itself when we pray for one another, when we share thoughtful kindnesses to one another, and when we remind one another through the testimony of God’s work in our own lives. Evidence of Jesus’ presence also shows itself when we offer forgiveness and mutual forbearance to one another. And from the Acts passage we learn that evidence of Jesus’ presence in the church includes our generosity and care for the needy among us.
These were the characteristics of the first Christian community according to these passages. They “shared all things in common” such that there was “not a needy person among them.” And they testified to what they had “seen, heard, and touched” concerning the “Word of life,” that is, the presence of the Resurrected Christ, the ongoing light shining in the darkness, and the forgiveness of sins.
This is how we “see” Jesus today, through the evidence of his presence in the church. These evidences remind us of the light of Jesus’ resurrection in darkness of death—now we can encourage others. They remind us of the forgiveness of sins, ours and others—so we can forgive. They remind us that all things belong to God—so we can be generous.
But what about John 6 and 20? Is there a way to reconcile Jesus’ teaching about seeing, believing, not seeing, and the blessedness of believing anyway?
The key, I think, is in the Lord’s Supper. John 6 is ostensibly about the feeding of the multitude, but most theologians recognize that it is John’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper. John doesn’t have a Lord’s Supper scene—he replaces it with the foot washing scene. But taken together, John 6 and John 20 give us John’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. At the Table Jesus invites us to touch his wounds—his body and blood given for us—just as he invited Thomas. We “see, hear, and touch” the Word of Life—not in the Incarnation, and not just in our memories or thoughts—but in the shared bread and cup.
All this happens at the Table. All this happens when we are in church. It happens as we ARE church. And this is why we need the church and the Table. We may not see Christ, but we see the evidence of his presence together, and that causes us to believe. And what is more, Jesus taught that as Father sent him, so he sends us. As the church, we are meant to evidence Christ’s presence—to bear light, model forgiveness, and share—that others, too, may see by not seeing, and be blessed through believing.
Understanding the Scriptures is hard, but we make it so much harder by not knowing the one word that matters most.
- Five words that matter a lot
- The one word that matters most
- That our greatest objections to the one word actually hold the greatest potential
If you polled theologians, pastors, and people in the church, asking “Which word of Scripture matters most,” you’d likely get a list that includes the following.
“Love,” for after all, the Scriptures say that God is love. Plus the most famous verse of Scripture says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.”
But some will say that you can’t understand God’s love until you understand sin. Sin keeps us from receiving God’s love. It refers at once to our human weakness and frailty, and our self-centered decisions, and our rejection of God in our lives. So “sin” is the word that matters most.
But what about grace, referring to God’s persistent pursuit of our redemption? Grace describes God’s coming to us even before we ask him. Grace refers to God’s remaining with us through our rebellion. Surely “grace” is the word that matters more than even our sin.
Others will say that “faith” is the word, that ever evolving relationship between us and God. Faith makes it possible for us to believe things to be true despite evidence to the contrary. Faith is trusting God even when don’t understand. Faith is hoping God’s vision will come to pass when we can’t see it for ourselves. Faith is being patient even through times of doubt. Faith must be the word that matters most.
Others will point out that the Scriptures refer to Jesus as God’s Word incarnate. Paul says that all of God’s promises find fulfilment in Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:20) So “Jesus” or “Christ” must be the word that matters most in all of Scripture.
The truth is that all these words are important. They are all inter-related—whichever one you begin with it will lead you to the others. But the importance of these words depend on the one word that each of us has the capacity to hear. This is the word that we are programmed to hear, that we were created to hear, the one word that, when spoken, fulfills our lives. This is the word that, once we hear it, we listen for more words—words like love and sin, grace and faith and Jesus. This is the word that is spoken in love, despite our sin, out of God’s grace, regardless of our faith—the word spoken by Jesus.
Jesus told Mary Magdalene to tell his disciples that he was ascending to, “My Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This points us in the direction of the one word that matters most, for God is pleased, like a Father, like a Mother, to utter the one word, the word first uttered by our father, by our mother. In John 20 the one word is “Mary.” The one word that matters most is our name—your name.
Contained in this one word is the mystery of God’s having every hair on your head numbered, the mystery of Jesus’ going ahead to prepare a room for you in his Father’s house. In this one word is the mystery of the Spirit’s answering your prayers before you utter them.
Here is the mystery of Jesus’ knocking at the door of your life, waiting to be let in to dine with you as with he did with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector, Simon the Leper, Martha the Anxious, and You, whatever you are.
“I can’t believe God is speaking my name,” you might say. We’ve come to understanding ourselves as just a number, a statistic, a cog in the machine, a role we have to play, essentially expendable. The media gives us a steady stream of massacres, of scores of souls lost in catastrophes and hundreds killed in disasters. We witness entire nations dying of starvation or disease. So how can I believe God speaks my name?
Jesus spoke Mary’s name in the location of her greatest disappointment, in the darkness of her deepest grief, in the whirlwind of her most profound confusion. In such places Jesus speaks your name, too.
When we do hear it, our name, the one word that matters, it is important to remember what else Jesus said to Mary: “Do not hold me, for I have not ascended to the Father.” Jesus is always calling us to a deeper faith, to new ventures, to follow his ascent to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God.
Throughout our lives of faith we will find ourselves returning to the tomb, where we think God is dead, where we believe God is no longer talking to us. We will find there what meets our expectations—just a gardener. But then we will hear our name, and realize Jesus is inviting to ascend to another level of faith.
All this, when we come back, like Mary did, on the first day of the weak, even when it is still dark, looking for Jesus, and listening for the one word that matters.