April 09, 2018
Author: Scott Hoezee
The end of Luke’s Gospel sums it all up pretty well. In swift strokes of Luke’s quill, we move from Easter Sunday evening directly to the Ascension of Jesus (just beyond the bounds of this lection). We learn from Luke’s other New Testament contribution, Acts, that Jesus lingered in physical form for a good forty days after Easter. But neither here in Luke—nor in the first half-dozen or so verses in Acts—do we glean a single idea of what was said or done across that nearly six-week stretch of time.
Jesus was right here, walking the earth as its resurrected Lord and King and yet Luke (a skilled narrator of gripping and crackingly good stories if ever there was one in the Bible) finds not a single tale worth telling. All we get instead is the revelation that the resurrected Jesus opened the disciples’ minds so they could finally connect the dots and discover that all of Scripture—the whole Bible as they then knew it—had found its Yes in Jesus. Jesus is the Rosetta Stone of Scripture (if not of all reality)—if you know who he really is, you see how within his own person and ministry and now resurrected presence every thread, every strand, every story, every promise, every prophecy winds and wends its way straight to him.
Apparently that is all they will need to know. All that remains is for them to receive the power that will not only solidify this all in their hearts and minds but will give them the boldness to proclaim the truth of Jesus to the whole world. That power (in the form, of course, of the Holy Spirit) would come eventually but in the meanwhile and up until then, what Jesus revealed to the hearts and minds of the disciples on that first Easter evening was apparently thee #1 thing that had to happen during those forty post-resurrection days. Once Luke conveys this to us, he’s finished with the forty days.
Everything that needed to be shown and told and taught had already taken place, apparently, in Jesus’ ministry as narrated in the whole Gospel up to this point. All that remained was for the disciples to understand how all that they had experienced in Jesus’ presence represented nothing short of cosmic history coming to a head. The meaning of the past, the hope for the present, and the content of the future was all inside the resurrected Lord. Once they understood that (no small thing to grasp, by the way!), there was really nothing more for Jesus to say or do.
Let’s be honest as preachers: this snippet of Luke seems a tidge short on drama and content. Yes, it’s wonderful and amazing to note that Jesus popped from out of thin air to be with the disciples that evening and yes, it’s curious to see Jesus pop a piece of broiled perch into his mouth to prove he was a physical being and not a ghostly apparition, but once you’ve pointed those things out to a congregation, the narrative is pretty well finished.
And yet . . . the import and impact of what happens in this short reading is stunning. Think of it: what this means is that we, too, as latter-day followers of Jesus are charged with grasping how all things come together in Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:15-23 to see Paul’s breathtaking summary of this outrageous truth). So often—especially in our soundbite era—we tend to reduce the Christian faith and our practice of it to slogans, to bumper stickers, to four spiritual laws or forty days of purpose or seven basic principles of this or that. But the story is so much bigger than this. Jesus isn’t just our chum, our mentor, our pal, or even just our own personal Master or instructor on life lessons.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. And the reason he is King and Lord and is even now “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (as we casually say in reciting the creed each week in some churches) is because everything there is to know about the universe comes together in him. Yes, that is a big and outrageous claim. It was a big and outrageous claim when Jesus first made it on that first Easter evening as it is reported in Luke 24 and it is certainly a big and outrageous claim given what we now know about the size and age and complexity of the universe.
Easter, the resurrection, who Jesus is and what he means for the cosmos: these are not small, intramural matters that we can easily understand or wrap our minds around in an instant. These are properly jaw-dropping matters that elicit wonder but also a kind of enthusiasm to probe those Scriptures that all witness to Jesus. In some places within the church world it seems that serious sermons and the exposition of Scripture have been shoved aside—or at least downsized a bit—in favor of other things designed to engage and entertain congregations. But this brief passage from Luke 24 reminds us that there can finally be no substitute for the genuine article of reading, studying, pondering, and understanding the Scriptures and how they call come together in Christ Jesus the Lord and King.
This is all big, serious stuff.
Thanks be to God that this is so!
Questions to Ask / Issues to Address
“While they were still talking about this . . . Jesus himself stood among them.”
I wonder how often those of us who preach and teach in the church realize that far from being an isolated incident in Luke 24, this kind of thing happens all the time. Richard Mouw once reminded us that as children, we are often told by adults to watch our language when we are “in polite company.” But as Mouw also went on to note, a key reason why Christian people discipline themselves to guard their lips and monitor their speech is because of our Christian belief that when it comes right down to it, we are always in polite company. “The Lord is near,” as Paul put it in Philippians 4.
Yes, he is.
The truth is that every time we get together—whether excitedly or doggedly or with a hint of boredom in our voices—every time we get together to talk about Jesus, to debate a theological point, or to present some sermon we have worked on, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us (whether he is always minded to greet us with “Peace be with you” is another matter . . .). We can never merely talk about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without being aware that we are speaking in their presence as well.
True, this can lead some people to all kinds of spooky “Big Brother” and other Kafka-esque scenarios of paranoia. But as Psalm 139 reminds us, God does indeed know us right well and from top to bottom and at every moment of our lives—in fact, the psalm claims that God knows us better than we know ourselves! But the good news is that God is the One who can be trusted with such comprehensive knowledge. This is a loving God, not a tyrannical despot who will use what we say against us.
Still, it’s startling to think that when we speak of Jesus, he is always standing right in the midst of us whether we notice him at first or not. And like the disciples, there may be times when, upon realizing this, we too are startled and frightened by his presence. But maybe remembering that we live all of life in the presence of Christ (through his Holy Spirit at least) will have a properly humbling effect on us in terms of what we say about Jesus. At the very least we are reminded that when we preach and when we teach and when we talk about theology or bandy about ideas about spirituality and the like, we can never finally engage in idle chit-chat. We are not talking about only ideas at the end of the day but about a Person, and about a very personal God.
That, after all, is a key teaching about Easter and about the resurrection story that consumes Luke 24: if we believe what we celebrate at the core of the Christian faith, then we do believe Jesus lives. And even if we don’t want to go as far in the direction of pop piety as the lyrics of those songs that claim that Jesus talks with us while the dew is still on the roses or that he walks with us along life’s narrow way, even so we do believe he is alive and is alive as a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.
The Christian church made clear long ago that our faith is not first and finally about ideas and concepts only. We’re not Gnostics seeking to be saved through a word of knowledge. We’re not Eastern-like mystics who believe that the key to spirituality is to find ways to transcend this world’s physicalness so as to drift into realms of pure thought and consciousness. No, our faith is gritty and fleshy and tangible and involves nothing short of the renewal of all things: lakes, mountains, tadpoles, tangerines, real human bodies.
Two weeks after Easter, this lection reminds us that Jesus is always present in our midst when we talk about him and that at the end of the cosmic day, we would not want it any other way.
In Luke 24:44 we are told that Jesus’ instruction in the Scriptures included “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” That latter inclusion—and the Psalms—is unique in the New Testament. Although there is a time or two when a specific psalm gets mentioned (Jesus mentioned a psalm in Luke 20:42, for instance) this is the only place where the Scriptures are summarized as not just Law and Prophets but also the Psalms. Taken together, that is the traditional triplet that was used as shorthand for the entirety of Hebrew Scripture or what we often call the Old Testament. Jesus was indeed saying to the disciples on the eve of that first Easter day that his resurrection fulfills not just an individual passage or set of passages but the whole of all God’s revelation to humanity.
My friend and former Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga tells a story of something he experienced while talking to a man on death row at the huge penitentiary of Angola in Louisiana. Neal talked to an African-American man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, spectacles that gave this convicted murderer what Neal called “a professorial air.” Neal asked him how he passed his days there in prison and in reply, the man picked up his NIV Bible from his bedside stand. “I read this, Our Book,” the man replied. “You know, sometimes I realize that on any given day or across any given time, most everything good that happens or is said in this world somehow comes from this, Our Book. The truth of the whole world and everything that happens in this world somehow is in here, and I get to have a copy of all that right here in my cell. Isn’t that something? I just know I will never get to the bottom of it.”
As Plantinga then observed, too often in the church, we have a far too low opinion of just what it is we have in that thing called The Holy Bible—Our Book.
Author: Doug Bratt
When our family visited China a number of years ago, my wife had a hard time keeping up with our sons who all stand over 6 feet 4 inches tall. So we’d often walk a few steps behind them. As we did so, we lost count of how many people passed them, turned around and then just boldly stared at our tall sons.
That didn’t surprise our son who told us that in his experience as a teacher in China, Chinese people generally have little compunction about staring at people. Yet those stares did surprise us. After all, our parents and society had taught that it’s impolite to stare at people. We were taught when when we feel the need to gawk, we should our best to mask our stares.
Yet it seems as if a lot of people do a lot of bold staring at each other in Acts 3. After all, verse 4 reports that Peter “looks straight at,” literally “stares at” the man who has never been able to walk. In verse 5 we read that that man “gave [the apostles] his attention,” literally “stared at them.” And verse 12 adds that people “stared at” Peter and John.
While the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday doesn’t actually begin until Acts 3:12, its preachers and teachers will want to at least summarize its first 11 verses’ context. It, after all, helps explain just why so many people stare at Peter and John.
Those apostles haven’t yet separated themselves from their Jewish community. So they probably join other faithful Jews in praying as often as three times a day in Jerusalem’s temple. On one of their afternoon trips, Peter and John meet a man who’s never been able to walk. Every day his friends or family members bring him to sit at a temple gate called Beautiful. There he waits for people to drop a few copper coins in his lap as they clamber over him in order to enter the temple to pray.
This man who’s physically impaired begs Peter and John for money. Since he assumes the best he can hope for is a handout, he may even stretch out his hand toward the apostles. When Peter answers, “I don’t even have a nickel to my name,” the beggar’s outstretched hand may turn into a fist as he mutters, “Just another tightwad believer!”
The man who is physically impaired may even turn his head to look for the next person from whom to beg. Peter’s words, however, probably turn his head right back. “I’ll give you what I do have,” the apostle announces. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!”
Money is a source of controversy throughout the book of Acts. A church community that shares everything with its members doesn’t seem to have much gold or silver left over to share with outsiders. Yet God has generously given the apostles what was a source of contention for Jesus: the power to heal people.
So Peter can grab the hand of the man who’s never been able to walk and tug him up off his mat. The man who’d never been able to walk then walks, runs and jumps through the temple. He goes from lying helpless and dependent outside the temple to dancing and praising God inside it.
When Jesus commissioned his twelve disciples, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and cure diseases. In a similar way, while Jesus’ first followers may not have much “silver and gold,” they do have the power to heal in Jesus Christ’s name.
Evidence of the power God gives to the disciples to heal the man who is physically disabled draws a lot of attention to them. Just as Peter, John and the man who couldn’t walk had earlier stared at each other, now people come running to stare at them. The man who couldn’t walk stared at them because he expected nothing more from them than anyone else had ever given him. His neighbors now stare at the apostles because they’ve given that man more than he or anyone else could have expected.
However, Peter and John don’t try to turn their newfound fame into a spot on some kind of ancient reality TV show. After all, neither Peter nor John nor even the man they’ve just healed are Acts’ story. Even the man the apostles heal seems to understand that. Acts 3:8 reports that after he is healed, after all, he walks into the temple courts, “walking, and jumping and praising [not Peter and John, but] God.”
Peter and John deflect all the attention onto Jesus Christ by begging people to receive God’s grace with their faith in him. They essentially tell those whom their healing has drawn to them to stop staring at them and start faithfully staring at “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” (13).
Yet what Peter says about their relationship to God is blunt and potentially damning. It’s yet another example of how, as Will Willimon writes (Acts: John Knox Press, p. 46), there’s “no substitutional atonement in Luke, no notion that Jesus Christ had to die to satisfy some divine requirement of justice. No, the explanation for Jesus’ death in Acts is simply human perversity” (italics added).
Those who preach and teach Acts 3 may want to imagine just what tone Peter uses to describe that perversity. Does he thunder at his audience? Does Peter speak with a voice that quavers with sadness? That decision will in some ways shape how we present its meaning.
“You handed [Jesus] over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go” (italics added), we hear Peter tell the people who stare at him in verses 12-15. “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life” (italics added).
We generally assume that Peter addresses this to a group of people who are Jewish. He, after all, speaks to people who come running to him from the area near Jerusalem’s temple. On top of that, the apostle speaks of the “God of our fathers.”
We’ve even sometimes used Peter’s accusation of culpability for Jesus’ crucifixion to justify persecuting Jewish people. Yet while Christians have historically often blamed solely Jewish people for this treachery, the Scriptures insist that all of us, gentile and Jewish, somehow share culpability for it. So it’s biblical to imagine Peter also saying to modern gentiles who preach, teach and hear Acts 3, “We handed Jesus over to be killed and we disowned him. We asked that a murderer be released to us and that the author of life be killed.”
Yet Acts 3 also insists that our murderous treachery doesn’t get the last word. “You,” says Peter, “killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.” In doing so, he underlines the stark difference between and God and the crowd’s actions. Peter even highlights the way God used human treachery to fulfill what God “had foretold through all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer” (18).
Peter links the God of Israel’s ancestors to Jesus Christ in ways many of his Jewish contemporaries fiercely rejected. He insists it’s “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” who “glorified his servant Jesus.” (13). It’s the kind of bold testimony that will get the apostles vigorously persecuted and, in at least some cases, executed.
God, insists the apostle, graciously met human rejection with divine acceptance. God responded to human violence with the gift of life. God met human murder with divine resurrection. God, quite simply, met human perversity with divine grace.
And what, according to not just Peter but also all of the Scriptures, is the most appropriate response to that gift of life and healing? Repentance. In swapping the life-giving Jesus for the death-dealing Barabbas, we chose the way of death. God, however, through Peter, invites us to turn away from that way of death and toward the way of life that is faith in Jesus Christ.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday essentially ends with Peter’s call to repentance. On pages 38-39 of his classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes to our desperate need for is: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who needs to lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the right one—that is the only way out of our ‘hole.’
Lewis also describes what turning toward God looks like: “This process of surrender is what Christians call ‘repentance.’ Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves in for thousands of years. It means killing a part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact it needs a good person to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly.”
Lewis goes on to describe Christ’s work: “He could surrender his will, and suffer and die, because he was man; and he could do it perfectly because he was God.” In commenting on this, Neal Plantinga notes that we surrender, repent, only by sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection, just as we are intelligent or wise only by sharing in God’s intelligence and wisdom.
Author: Stan Mast
The superscription of Psalm 4 tells us that this individual prayer was always intended to be used with musical accompaniment in a service of public worship. That’s how the church has used it for centuries now. Long ago, the monastic movements noticed the references to sleep in both Psalm 3 and 4 and have bracketed each day with those two Psalms. Psalm 3 has been called the morning prayer (“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me”), while Psalm 4 is the evening prayer (“I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety”). I’ll return to that theme of sleep at the end of my comments.
The larger church has chosen this Psalm 4 for this Third Sunday of Easter because it seems a fit liturgical response to the reading from Acts 3:12-19. That’s where Peter responds to those who question his healing of the crippled beggar. That was the first recorded miracle performed by the post-Easter church. Peter, of course, gives all the credit to the Risen Christ. The use of Psalm 4 in this setting reiterates Paul’s exhortation that we put our trust for healing, peace and security in the Risen Lord.
The person speaking in Psalm 4 prays with both deep distress and deep confidence. “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God” is paired with “the Lord will hear me when I call to him.” Indeed, “give me relief from my distress” can be translated “you have given me relief from my distress.” That ambiguity of translation introduces us to the main preaching problem of Psalm 4. What is the distress about which the Psalmist prays? Or to put it in terms of the sleep theme, what is the problem that might keep the Psalmist awake at night, if he didn’t have such strong faith in the Lord?
The main issue is in verse 2. “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?” Some commentators focus on the word “glory,” translating it legitimately as “honor,” and they translate “false gods” as “lies.” For them, the problem for the Psalmist is that he is being attacked by enemies who are besmirching his honor. They are telling lies about him. Read that way, this Psalm is a perfect text for a congregation steeped in an honor based culture, where losing your honor is the worst thing that can happen to you.
If you want to pursue that honor theme, I’d suggest that you focus on verse 3a, where the Psalmist reminds his enemies and the worshipers using this Psalm that “the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” The word translated “set apart” is hasid, from which the strict Jewish sect, the Hasidim, derives its name. Those who are called by God to special holy living have always been persecuted by the ungodly, as Jesus said to his disciples in John 15:18,19. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
Other scholars give an alternative reading of verse 2a, seeing it as a reference to God. “How long, O men, will you dishonor my Glorious One.” Picking up on the mention of the joy of “grain and new wine” in verse 7, they see the problem facing the Psalmist as a terrible drought that has left Israel in dire straits. In their distress, the people of God have sought the aid of “false gods,” like the fertility gods of their pagan neighbors. Think of Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel after more than 3 years of drought. Thus, in verse 5, the Psalmist implores his idol worshiping opponents to “offer right sacrifices and trust in Yahweh (not Baal).” I can imagine a sermon on this Psalm entitled, “Sleepless Nights Under an Iron Sky.”
Though the “honor” reading of Psalm 4 fits better with the sense of personal distress voiced in verse 1, the “drought” reading makes more sense of the exhortations to the enemies in verses 4-6. When people are dealing with something as life threatening as drought, a natural response is anger, maybe especially at God. And that will result in many a sleepless night. So, in verse 4, the Psalmist urges them to be careful that their anger doesn’t lead them into the sin of rebellion against God or hatred and jealousy against their neighbor. When you lie on your bed, don’t grind with those negative emotions. Rather than trying to understand the ways of God or plotting against your neighbor, search your own hear and be silent. One thinks of Psalm 46. “Be still and know that I am God.” And Job comes to mind; though he suffered terribly and got very angry at God and his neighbors, he did not sin.
In a time of national catastrophe, people cast about for solutions, as verse 6 so perfectly puts it. “Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’” Whether it’s the kind of drought that has reduced the American West to tinder and then fire and then mud, or the kind of storms that have inundated Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico, or the fanatic-inspired bloodbath of the Middle East, those who suffer are always casting about for someone to bring goodness into all the bad. Will it be neighbors helping neighbors, government agencies like FEMA arriving at the scene with miles of red tape, or NGO’s like the Red Cross or the multiple faith-based relief agencies riding to the rescue? “Who can show us any good in this mess?”
The Psalmist knows the Ultimate Who. It’s the God who taught his people to bless each other with the words of Numbers 6, which include the lovely line, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” That is what the covenant-keeping Yahweh intends to do always. But there are times when it seems that his face has turned dark or has actually turned away. In those times, God’s people pray as the Psalmist does here in verse 6b. “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Yahweh.”
Anticipating a positive answer to that quintessential covenant prayer, the Psalmist sings for joy, a joy even greater than the people will have when the drought breaks and there is once again a bountiful harvest. Living in a society where grain and new wine is always available a short drive away, we can’t imagine the delirious joy of a starving people when, at last, there is food again. The Psalmist has a joy even greater than that, not because of food, but because he believes Yahweh always hears his prayers.
That confidence gives him not only joy, but also peace, peace that gives him sleep. “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Yahweh, make me dwell in safety.” We need to underline “you alone, O Yahweh, make me dwell in safety.” In a culture obsessed with safety and security, it is crucial to believe that only the Covenant Lord of Israel, the great I Am who became Immanuel, can give us those precious blessings. No amount of human effort can “make us dwell in safety,” as we learn every day from the headlines. Relying on human means will not cure our national or personal insomnia.
Here’s where your sermon can become uncomfortably personal. More than 60 million American suffer from some degree of insomnia, which costs the economy about $63 billion a year in lost productivity. (I don’t know the numbers for Canada or Europe or anywhere else, but they must be comparable.) The personal cost of sleeplessness is far steeper than dollars and cents: daytime fatigue, lack of focus, memory loss, moodiness, loss of motivation, depression, and accidents. Scientists are baffled by insomnia; what causes it and how can it be cured? Obviously, there might be physical causes that require a medical cure. And there are undoubtedly emotional causes that might yield to psychological treatment. Even with proper medicine and counselling, insomnia might be so entrenched in a person’s behavior that it is impossible to cure a life-long habit.
Does Psalm 4 suggest that there might be a spiritual component to sleeplessness? If one had overflowing joy because of the faithful provision of Yahweh and if one had abiding peace because of the security that Yahweh guarantees, one might “lie down and sleep in peace.” Of course, we need to be very careful not to suggest that insomnia is the result of a lack of faith. It’s more complicated than that. Psalm 4 is not a guarantee of a cure for insomnia, if you just have enough faith. It is one man’s confession of faith, designed to help God’s people make it through both personal and national crises. Preach it that way, and you just might encourage the sleepless to pray as the Psalmist does in Psalm 4. May “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).” And grant you sleep.
Walter Brueggemann offers an example of the most common answer given to the question of verse 6, “Who can show us any good?” He says that the dominant script/story in the U.S. is “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.” By “therapeutic” he means “the assumption that there is a product or a treatment to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without any inconvenience.” By “technological” he means “the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right according to human ingenuity.” The script is “consumerist” because “we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all of its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor.” And by “militarism” he is referring to “the myth of U.S. exceptionalism” that “serves to protect and maintain a monopoly than can deliver and guarantee all that is needed for the therapeutic, technological, consumerist society.” In other words, as people ask, “Who can show us any good?” they look everywhere, except to the God can “meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).”
1 John 3:1-7
Author: Scott Hoezee
It keeps coming up like a bad burp. So much of 1 John is lyric. Few passages talk better about the meaning of love than ones you can find in John’s first epistle. The opening verses of this third chapter likewise are simply gorgeous, waxing eloquent on the love lavished on us by God our Father and how this makes us children of God. This is wonderful prose, almost poetic actually. And in so many ways it encapsulates the essence of what makes the Gospel the amazing Good News it is.
And yet . . . no sooner does John says this and he feels compelled to loop back to another sub-theme in this letter: sin. It’s pretty obvious that whatever was going on among the people to whom John addressed this letter, something had gone wrong in their attitudes toward sin. We got this message in also last week’s selection from the opening chapter and now here it is again, coming almost as a seemingly unwelcome intrusion to the lyric words about the lavish love of God and being children of God and all that.
“You are children of God! You live in him and so are pure! And, oh, by the way: if you keep sinning you are no friend of God!!” As in the opening chapter (and just into chapter 2) that we looked at last week, so here: John is no idealist. It’s not as though he expects anyone (himself included one would presume) to exist as blameless or sinless this side of glory or of the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom. But again and again here it is the “keeps on sinning” idea that bothers John the most and that we can surmise must have taken some kind of a foothold in the communities to whom John is writing.
Was it another version of what Paul encountered and so addressed now and again: let’s sin more so that grace may abound? Was it a mistaken view of Christian liberty that said we don’t even need to worry about sin anymore since Jesus took it all away? Or was it something darker still, something that stemmed not from naïve or mistaken views of grace and salvation but in fact actively taught that so long as you professed some kind of lip service to this Jesus fellow, you could get away with pretty much anything you wanted in your personal life? Was this not just some “Sunday Only” type of Christianity but in fact a direct attempt to undermine the faith by almost dismissing “sin” as a category of thought altogether?
It’s hard to say. It could even have been some early form of Gnosticism that claimed that so long as your spiritual thoughts and secret knowledge of God were pure, what you did with your body or how you behaved in this (very unimportant) material world did not matter or count. Whatever the origin of it all, John saw it as a clear undermining of the faith and as a fundamental misunderstanding of the effect God’s lavish love and grace were supposed to have on us.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that too often we think that what sanctification is all about is sort of like taking a horse and training it to run a little faster than it used to run. In actuality, Lewis noted, what happens to us as believers once we become engrafted onto Christ is not like taking a regular old horse and teaching it to run faster but more like taking a horse, outfitting it with a pair of wings, and teaching the creature to FLY! The saved life in Christ is not just any old life made a little bigger or brighter or some such thing. It is to take a human life and transform it into a whole new mode of existence.
Or as theologian Laura Smit once put it, too often we think that what it means to ponder something like “goodness” when it applies to God is that we look at human goodness and our definitions of goodness and then just make them bigger. We are good. God is GOOD! But in reality, Smit notes, “goodness” in God is not just human goodness magnified but is of a different quality altogether. Thus, if we are to share in God’s goodness—if we are to bear the Fruit of the Spirit of goodness a la Galatians 5—then it means having something quite new move into our lives from God’s side of things.
Lewis again: we think becoming a disciple after baptism is like God coming into the house of our hearts and putting up some new drapes and slapping on a few new coats of paint on the same old walls. In reality God comes in, knocks down most of the walls, and starts to build something brand new.
In this Eastertide, we encounter the apostle John here saying pretty much the same things. You cannot be casual about sin, you cannot willfully wallow in sin, you cannot just let things slide in your life and still think you are in Christ. To do so shows merely that you don’t “get it.” Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s one thing to get confused in math class. You just cannot see the relationships among the numbers to make sense of a certain proof or algorithm. You don’t get it. You might “get” other facets of math, but not this one.
But to keep on sinning, John says, is not just a little error. It’s not a side part of the faith you don’t get like just not seeing how one facet of mathematics functions. No, in this case you are missing the whole thing. You cannot be just a little bit wrong on this point and still be in Christ. It’s kind of all or nothing on this one.
Grace saves but if you really received it, grace transforms. Inevitably. So if you keep abusing people, keep hurting people, keep hating people, keep committing adultery or stealing or lying or any number of things and have no desire either to stop such activity much less confess it as wrong, well then, that’s not a mistake. It’s a different world altogether that has nothing to do with being children of the heavenly Father. The Lectionary cuts off this reading rather unnaturally at verse 7, probably to avoid all that scary (and unmodern) talk about the Devil and being children of the Devil. Oooh, that seems over the top.
But it’s not. It’s actually a logical follow-through and it was meant then—and is meant now—to shake us up to wonder whom we are really serving in how we live.
In short, you don’t get to enjoy the lyric and lovely truths in the first few verses of this reading if that does not result in an entirely new quality of life for you every day and in every way. This is not an easy message, and it probably will seem frightening mostly to people who have already been transformed and want nothing to do with such behavior. But you never know: John hopes he can still crack through to those who are still outside Christ (though they may try to fool themselves otherwise).
So you keep putting the gorgeous and lyric truths out there for all to see in the hope that the day will come when you will not have to follow that up all the time with warnings about all this other unhappy stuff!
I guess that’s what preaching is all about!
In one of his books, Tom Long mentions a friend who serves as a hospital chaplain somewhere. One Ash Wednesday he slipped away from the hospital long enough to attend a mid-day service and so he returned to work a bit alter with a cross-shaped smudge of ash on his forehead. At one point as he entered the room of an older woman who was a patient that day, she immediately grabbed a Kleenex and said, “Come over here, dear, you seem to have gotten into something” and was clearly getting ready to clean up his dirty forehead.
“No, no” the chaplain said. “You see, this smudge of ash is from an Ash Wednesday service where I was reminded that I am weak and frail, sinful and vulnerable and that soon enough my own life will return to the dust. But it also reminds me that on his cross, Jesus took all that away and has made me new and alive again.”
The old woman thought for a moment and then said “I think I want some of that too.” And so borrowing from his own smudge, the chaplain made the sign of the cross on also her forehead.
What we want in preaching is what John wanted in proclaiming the lavish love of the Father for us his children: we want to present the Good News in so lyric and compelling a way that others will want it, too.