Does God’s faithfulness to his promises depend on belief? I hope not.
- Faith and Jesus in the book of Hebrews
- The concept of the covenant (vs. a contract)
- What happens when we confuse covenant and contract
- Three teachings on our role in the covenant
- The good news of the new covenant
The original audience of the book of Hebrews appears to be a mixed community of Jews and non-Jews who had experienced some kind of hardship, maybe even persecution. Some in the community have begun to lose faith. All of have doubts and for good reasons. The author of Hebrews assures us that, God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel makes both faith and doubt possible.
The first section of the book (it’s really better thought of as a sermon) establishes Jesus as the foundation of Christian faith. He is this because he is the pinnacle of Jewish faith. And foundational to Jewish faith is the Covenant God has with Israel.
Covenant is a complex idea, but it boils down to a relationship based on promises. You might think of the difference between modern marriage and a business contract. Marriage is a covenant relationship based on promises: “I promise to love you unconditionally”. Business is a contractual relationship based on mistrust: “If you don’t fulfill your part, I do not have to fulfill my part.”
Some covenants from Judaism include:
- With Noah, never to flood the earth again
- With Abraham and Sarah, progeny outnumbering the stars
- With Moses and Joshua, commandments and land
- With David, perpetual monarchy
Sometimes the idea of covenant and contract get combined. This happened in part of the theological and biblical development in ancient Israel, evident especially in the book of Deuteronomy. So, for example, Deuteronomy 4:1 says, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” This perspective hardens by chapter 28 which lists all the blessings which will result from obedience, and all the curses that will befall disobedience.
This confusion of covenant and contract is very compelling to individuals and nations. We work really hard at our religion if we believe God will withdraw his promised blessings if we don’t. If you’ve ever heard that our nation is or will experience God’s judgment because of some decision of government, that’s a Deuteronomy perspective of covenant mixed with contract.
When we confuse covenant and contract we recognize the mutuality between the partners. It shows that both parties are responsible—able to respond. But confusing them also neglects the nature of the one’s making the covenant. While both are responsible, both are not necessarily equal.
Consider again the marriage vows. The best vows are realistic but aspirational—things that are reasonable but beyond what we are presently doing. We vow to do things that requiring God’s blessing, because we can’t do them alone. What is more, wedding vows are witnessed by a community that pledges to support us with prayer and care. All this makes wedding vows meaningful because ONLY GOD KEEPS HIS PROMISES FAITHFULLY. In our covenant relationship with God, we fail; God does not. We are both responsible, but not equal.
Finally we can listen to Hebrews 3 for what it has to teach us about God’s covenant relationship with us. The first thing it says is that only those who are believing, trusting, and faithful enter God’s promised rest. By contrast, “Those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness,” and “those who were disobedient,” those who failed to trust God for provisions and complained, did not enter the Land of Promise, God’s rest.
So the author exhorts us not to likewise have an “evil, unbelieving heart, that turns away from living God.” In other words, don’t be someone who figures that God is uncaring and as good as dead. If we live according to this belief, we will forfeit resting in God.
Second, we are vulnerable to unfaithfulness when we are alone. The author address his (her?) “holy partners,” fellow inhabitants of the “house” of God. We’re told to “exhort one another” because we are “partners with Christ.” The assumption throughout the sermon, made explicit in 10:23-25, is that we exist faithfully in community, and without community we cannot be faithful.
Third, we are vulnerable to unfaithfulness when we forget. God complains that the ancient Israelites tested God “though they had seen my works for forty years.” The author urges our faithfulness “today,” as we depend on the memory of yesterday. And what is more, our faithfulness “today” gives us hope for tomorrow.
Some find in the book of Hebrews a mixture of covenant and contract. It seems there are many conditional statements, even threats to those who are unfaithful. But here’s the Gospel. Though a generation fell in the wilderness, it is true, God kept his promise to deliver Israel. In the end, God’s promise is fulfilled, even though Israel disbelieved.
Let’s say, as Hebrews might teach, that “sin” includes a lack of confidence, a loss of hope, or disbelief in God’s promise. Still, Jesus comes with a “New Covenant, sealed in the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of sins.”
Today if you hear his voice, come to the Table. Come renew the covenant, this new covenant, God has with you. For God is faithful to his promises, and your sin, even your disbelief, cannot thwart his fulfilling them.
She may be in your in your past, she may be with you now, she is probably in your future, but the Samaritan Woman has a story you want to hear.
- The three old stories of the Bible and our lives
- The stories of the Samaritan Woman
- How God’s story is different than the one religion tells
- What happens at the Table, and why it matters
- Questions for discussion and reflection
In the words of the traditional hymn, one of the things we do in worship is rehearse “The old, old story.” The Bible is full of old stories. It is the epic of sin and redemption, the most fundamentally human story. It is also boy meets girl, the most popular story. But at the beginning, the first old story of the Bible is Creator and creation.
The story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well combines all these old stories. The Samaritan Woman’s old stories have been interpreted in various ways. She is often cast as uppity, defensive, or coy. I have observed that many people are this way around Jesus, including me. History has portrayed her as an immoral home-wrecker. This often includes that she is a social and spiritual failure.
More recently, scholars have suggested that she is a victim of Levirate marriage, the stipulation in the Old Testament that if a married man dies before having children, his single younger brother is required to marry his widow and produce children for him. This continues through the deaths of as many brothers are available until an heir is born. In this woman’s case, she’s gone through five brothers already—and can you blame the sixth for being afraid to marry her?
In her story, sin has robbed her of hope. Her old story is a love-less, unromantic one. And she appears resentful towards creation which is always so hot and dry (“Give me that living water so I will not have to keep on coming here to draw water”). The only hope in her story is for the Messiah called Christ, and when she encounters Jesus, her story changes.
Through Jesus, she learns of God’s favorite story. She thought God’s story was one of religious rules and rituals: Which mountain to worship on; which marriage law she had to follow; which parts of the Bible were God’s Word. These all characterized her religion as a Samaritan.
But God’s favorite story isn’t a one way religious street. It’s one that merges with our stories. God’s favorite story is one of redemption despite sin, of true love between God and humans, and of communion between Creator and creation. It is the old story of sharing a meal together. Here at Jacob’s well, Jesus shares a drink with the woman, and then tells his disciples he has food they know nothing about.
Did you know that in the Bible God’s first and last words to humans have to do with a meal? In Genesis 2:16 God says, “Eat freely!” And in Revelation 22:17 (quoting our passage from Isaiah), God says, “Drink freely!” Everything in between is God’s story of sharing meals with humanity. (See Leonard Sweet’s book From Tablet to Table for more.)
The table is the perfect place to hear God’s story. At the table, multiple ingredients that alone taste terrible are combined and transformed into something delicious. Likewise, at the table individual lives that were once alone and isolated, like this woman’s, are brought into a community. At the table the individual episodes of our lives are incorporated into God’s favorite and larger narrative and thereby given meaning: “Meaning in life is not found from reducing things into smaller categories and making finer distinctions. Meaning in life is found in putting things together; connecting the dots; and getting the ‘big picture,’ which can be told in narrative and metaphor.” From Tablet to Table, p. 30
Narrative and metaphor is the essence of scripture and sacrament. It is why scripture and sacrament are inseparable. It’s why John Calvin said the sacrament is the seal upon the scripture. It’s why Jesus says, “Do this remembering me.” The “this” is sharing the table story. Paul says, “We proclaim his death until he comes again.” No less than scripture and sermon, the sacrament proclaims God’s Word.
For the past two years I have been brought to Jacob’s well at noon to reflect upon the painful episodes of my childhood. It is a dry and lonely place. But it is my story. There Jesus has said to me as he said to the Samaritan Woman: “What you have said is true. That has been your story.”
But then Jesus continues to speak with me and shows me that the painful episodes of my childhood are only PART of my story. And that my story is only part of GOD’S story. And through hours of counseling, prayer, and friendship, I am experiencing healing. Some of the greatest moments of healing, however, have occurred at the Lord’s Table. For at this table we rehearse God’s favorite story—the story of creation, providence, and redemption.
Our stories are God’s story; and whether you believe it or not, God’s story is our story. But if you believe it now, you don’t have to wait to have your old story transformed towards a happy ending.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- If you thought of the Samaritan Woman more as a victim of a religious system and less as an immoral person, how much more closely can you relate to her? What new things does her story teach you now?
- What parts of your story need to be transformed before they can have a happy ending? Do you keep them isolated, or can you let Jesus incorporate them into God’s story?
If we could ask Paul his opinion on mega-churches and rock-star pastors, he might refer us to this passage of scripture.
- Paul’s problem with “super apostles”
- The purposes of the old creation: humility, stewardship, praise and thanksgiving
- The purposes of the new creation: revealing something new about God and empowering us for a new way of life
Paul had reason to be discouraged about the Corinthian church. After he founded it and left to start other churches, other missionaries came in and began troubling the congregation. They were dynamic, eloquent speakers and philosophically sophisticated. They claimed to have had out of body experiences and boasted in other things Paul characterized as “outward appearances.”
These “super-apostles,” as he called them didn’t suffer the kinds of self-denial that was the hallmark of Paul’s ministry. He had denied himself a spouse and family. He didn’t receive financial compensation for his ministry. He suffered physical abuse, poverty, and homelessness.
And yet people in Corinth were saying to Paul what people today say about popular pastors and churches: “They must be doing something right.” To Paul, though, they were selling the gospel short. They resembled too much the old creation.
The old creation is wonderful when it fulfills God’s intent for it. These purposes are outlined for us in Psalm 8. The old creation is supposed to put us in our place. First, it humbles us: “when I look at the heavens, what are humans that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4) But then it calls us to stewardship: “You made us a little lower than God, and crowned us with honor, giving us dominion over creation.” (Psalm 8:5-6) So the old creation humbles us without causing us to despair; it dignifies us without evoking pride.
But the primary purpose of the creation is to inspire us to praise and thanksgiving: “O LORD our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1, 9) The old creation is beautiful in this purpose. It reveals a God of power, of providence, and of magnificence, glory, and beauty. It makes us humble and grateful stewards.
But to Paul, a new creation was revealed with Christ. And with this new creation, Christ revealed something new about God.
From Paul’s perspective, we live in two places at the same time. On the one hand, we inhabit an earthly tent. But we also have a heavenly house. He says we can be at home in the body while longing to be at home with the Lord. We can be beside ourselves, and in our right minds. In a memorable statement, Paul says we walk not only by sight, but by faith as well.
This dual existence is possible, Paul says, because “one died for all, so all have died.” Because of this dying, the old creation is passing away and everything has become new. In this new creation, God’s people live no longer for themselves, but for Christ. The super-apostles appear to Paul to be living too much for themselves.
Paul goes on to describe how God has prepared us for living in the new creation. God has reconciled us to himself, and does not count our sins against us. God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. And now, Paul says, we are able either to do good or to do evil in our bodies, so we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer how we lived in the old creation given the existence of the new creation.
In the new creation what is mortal is swallowed up by life. We are clothed with this body, but we are also further clothed with our heavenly dwelling. From the new creation, we see not just a God of power, providence, and beauty, but a God of reconciliation. This is a God who knows us not only from a human point of view, but who knows us through Christ.
And Paul calls us to do this same thing—to look at the world through the new creation in Christ. When we do, we will be further clothed with our heavenly dwelling, and thus we will not be found naked when we take off this tent of an earthly body. We will become, Paul says, “the righteousness of God,” for we will have done good works in this body by living as Christ lived: forgiving sin, accepting those who are different, welcoming strangers, and serving the needy.
We’ve entered the season of seeing the world through the eyes of faith. Pentecost shows us how.
- Various meanings of the festival of Pentecost
- The Christian meaning of Pentecost
- The Lord’s Supper as a covenant renewal
- How Peter exemplifies Christian faith
- Baptism as the foundation of the Christian life and renewal in the church
The festival of Pentecost has various meanings, all of which contribute to the church’s life. Originally it was a harvest festival, called the Feast of Weeks, following fifty days after Passover. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek for “fiftieth day.”
In the centuries before Christ, Pentecost came to be considered as a renewal of the covenant between God and Noah. There, after flooding the world and saving those in the famous ark, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a promise never to do that again. Perhaps the association between harvest and spring rains and rainbows led to this additional commemoration.
Within the Jewish community, in the decades after Jesus Pentecost became a renewal of the covenant between God and Moses. There, while leading the ancient Israelites to freedom, God gave them the Law and specifically the Ten Commandments. These are defining characteristics of the Jewish community.
In the Christian church, Pentecost is seen as the time when God gave the Holy Spirit to the church. It is sometimes celebrated as the birthday of the church. We might also see it as the renewal of yet another covenant, one made prior to Moses and Noah; the covenant with Adam.
God’s covenant with Adam is the original covenant, and was really made with all creation. Culminating the creative enterprise with the formation of Adam, the first human pair, God gave them stewardship over the whole creation. It is a covenant of communal life, a covenant that includes men and women, sons and daughters, young and old, even heaven and earth. This is the insight offered by Peter when he quotes the prophet Joel in his Pentecost sermon.
Just as the Spirit hovered over the first creation, so again at Pentecost that same Spirit appears again, establishing a New Creation. This new creation was inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ, and it is sustained and accomplished by the Spirit.
This central message of Christianity, that God has redeemed the world in Christ by the Spirit, is something we need to remember more than just once a year. This is why Christ gave us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and why we need to celebrate it each week. The Lord’s Supper is a renewal of the covenant of the new creation.
At the table, grain and grapes of the old covenant are transformed into the bread and wine of the new covenant. And our host is none other than the resurrected Lord of the new covenant. It is a festive occasion, signaled to us by the accusation at the first Pentecost that the participants were merely “drunk on new wine.” And that is why we should always celebrate with wine—the symbol of the new covenant and new creation—and not just grape juice.
Peter was at the first Christian Pentecost. He was one of those Galileans accused of being a drunk. But Peter saw something new. He was “standing with the Eleven,” a phrase that alludes to his being a witness to the resurrection (in Greek, “stand” became synonymous with “resurrection”). From this perspective, Peter saw not just a festive celebration with wine but the new covenant; he saw the beginning of a new life.
As a result, Peter, who only weeks before denied even knowing Jesus, becomes the most effective preacher/evangelists of all time. He breathes in the Spirit and proclaims the divine word. He says that his audience is, in fact, in the “last days.” As God has poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, there is no need to look for any more signs and wonders. The new covenant, the new creation has begun. By the presence of this Spirit, all flesh has the power to live now and already in the Kingdom of God.
Today we recognize that all have received this Spirit in baptism. We have become something new, and we see all things anew, and we behave in new ways. This is the definition of ministry—to become, see, and do things according to the Kingdom of God, and it applies to all of us.
So the presenting question for all of us in the church is: What new things do we see in the church, and in our own lives?
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?