April 30, 2018
The Easter 6B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 15:9-17 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 10:44-48 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 98 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 5:1-6 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 74 (Lord’s Day 27)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Every week the sermon proclaims the Gospel. Yes, there is always a small-t preaching text (Psalm 23, John 15) on which the sermon is based. That’s the text projected onto the screen or printed in the church bulletin. But that text is always also in service of getting at the big-T Text that just is the Good News about Christ Jesus. The Gospel is why preachers are in the pulpit in the first place. And so especially today preachers need to be reminded that preaching is not about dispensing Good Advice but proclaiming Good News. Preachers are not supposed to come across like Dr. Phil giving tips and ideas for more successful living. Preachers proclaim how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that Jesus has done it all for us.
That’s what we teach (or try to teach) our students at the seminary where I work. There is far too much moralistic preaching afoot in the land as it is, we tell students, so resist the trend of preaching what my friend Meg Jenista called “shouldy” sermons that always end with long “To Do” lists that tend to prop up the latent legalism that altogether too many people harbor in their hearts already as it is. Too often people tend to believe that what gets them in good with God—or at least what keeps them in good with God—is the sum total of all their morally good deeds. The difference between me and my unbelieving neighbor is not grace alone but the fact that I lead a superior life of good works, and God notices.
Don’t aid and abed such preaching, we tell students. Point to Christ alone. Point to the Gospel.
Well and good.
And then along comes a passage like John 15.
“If you do what I say . . . then I will love you.”
“You are my friends . . . if you do what I say.”
It’s the “if” part that nettles. Is salvation conditional after all? Is it up to us? If we don’t behave well, will Jesus diss us? Will he stop being our friend? Stop loving us?
Obviously a good deal of what makes the gospel GOOD news would cease to be so good if, as a matter of fact, we are constantly being evaluated and graded by God. In fact, if the soundness and consistency of my love is the key to being in good with God and with Jesus, then I have good reason to be afraid of my eternal destiny.
Thankfully that is not the case. Jesus’ words—indeed, Jesus’ command—that we be loving makes no sense unless he is addressing that to people who have already been graciously grafted onto the True Vine by a sheer gift of faith through the Holy Spirit. These injunctions to love are for insiders, for those already in the love of God.
That returns the good part of the “good news” that just is the gospel but it doesn’t wash out what Jesus has to say here. The need to heed what Jesus says here is every bit as important as the need to take care to do certain things within the context of what is a really good and loving marriage. Being married—and being genuinely in love within that marriage—does not absolve one of the need to stay faithful, to do loving acts, to tend and nurture the marriage relationship in very active ways. The solid marriage and the carrying out of vital marriage tasks are not at odds with each other. Only a fool would say, “Because my marriage is sound, I don’t have to do a blessed thing to nourish and nurture the relationship.”
Apparently we human branches in Christ, unlike real grape vine branches, need to do some self-cultivation through the Holy Spirit. We need to hone skills like forgiveness (without which we sooner or later will find reasons not to love most everybody). We need to nurture kindness and gentleness, without which the hard knocks of life will eventually make us hard-edged and bitter like a sour grape. We need to grow compassion in our hearts so that we can reach out to those in need even as we see people we don’t particularly like in ways that remind us that they, too, are flawed folks like ourselves and that they struggle and hurt the same as do we all.
Above all we need to be students of God’s Word so that the words of Jesus can abide in us. We need to rehearse and enact the great stories of Jesus, recognizing how the parable of the prodigal son repeats itself a thousand times a day all over the place, including some days in our own lives when we are alternately the waiting father who is hoping for the best or the prodigal loping back home and expecting the worst. We need to rehearse the drama of the shepherd looking for that one lost sheep and so see again our own need to stick with even wandering folks over the long haul. We need to hear the beatitudes echoing in our minds and pray the prayer our Lord taught us. The words of Jesus must abide in us but that cannot happen if we neither know those words nor rehearse them often.
Because if we do, the result, as Jesus says in verse 11, is nothing short of pure joy. Capturing the spirit of that joy, and wanting it to hyper-abound to all people, is the goal of being a branch in Jesus’ vineyard. Throughout the Bible the principal thing you did with grapes was make wine, which is described throughout the Old Testament as one of God’s great gifts to humanity to gladden the heart and bring joy. Christ is indeed our true vine but a vine without branches produces no grapes. It is our holy calling to produce fruit for God–fruit which can be turned into the sweet ambrosia of a love distilled, decanted, and delighted over to the complete joy of all God’s people.
That’s the kind of thing that can be commanded of us. It’s also the kind of thing that those who truly love Jesus already are only too glad to do.
Of course, we could wonder about the question “Can love be summoned by decree?”
We pastors know better. Across the desk sits the husband and the wife. They are sitting within 15 inches of each other but each person’s body is turned about 30 degrees away from the other. They may as well be in separate countries. There’s too much blood, sweat, and tears that have been spilled in this marriage gone awry. Whatever love once flickered in their eyes for one another has long since departed. As pastors, we can counsel with such people, pray for and with and over such people, we can listen to such people.
But the one thing we cannot do is stand up from our chair behind our desk, raise ourselves up to our full stature, and declare, “Listen, you two: This is my command: LOVE EACH OTHER for goodness sake!! Just do it! Feel love! Feel it NOW!”
No, no, that won’t do the trick. You cannot order up love. As the old song says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait.” You can’t hurry it and you can’t order it, either.
So what in the whole wide world is Jesus doing in John 15 ordering us to love? Well, first we can state the merely obvious: Jesus is not talking about a particular set of feelings or emotions. He is not telling his disciples to concoct some particular combination of dreaminess and quickened pulses at the sight of a beloved. It is clear here that “love” means service, means action, means a life of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
But, of course, you have to be pretty favorably inclined toward others to do that. You maybe don’t need to feel love a la romantic love or the kinds of fierce feelings of affection a parent has for a child but you have to BE and FEEL something very positive to extend yourself into the lives of others (even all the way to the extreme point of giving up your very life for those others).
Probably, however, you can’t order that, either. Not really. You can’t come up to some surly, self-centered narcissist of a human being and COMMAND that he start living like Mother Teresa or something. No, Jesus’ words in John 15 make sense only if, as a matter of fact, you are already a branch living off the true vine that just is Jesus. You’re going to have to have the “sap” of Jesus flowing into you already because only this bends your life into the kind of shape—and makes you into the kind of person—who already has such a fundamentally Christ-like attitude that hearing a “command” to love will make sense. Jesus has to assume our being grafted onto him or else the command to love is one of the emptiest, silliest things anyone has ever said.
We preachers do our congregations a disservice in case we proclaim John 15 as though it were a generic “To Do” list that most any reasonably well functioning human being could accomplish if only he or she tried hard enough. Jesus’ words don’t exist in a vacuum. They come to those already on the vine.
Theologically literate people know something about the age-old controversy surrounding what is known as the “filioque clause” in the Nicene Creed. It’s been a sticking point between the West and the East in the Church for over a millennium now (though some years ago then Pope Benedict XVI had some fruitful dialogue with the Orthodox church on this very point). Is the Holy Spirit sent to believers ONLY by the Father or is the Spirit—as the Western version of the Nicene Creed claims—sent by the Father “and the Son” (filioque in Latin)? Whatever one makes of that particular question/controversy, one thing one should not miss in John 15 is that when it comes to love, this is definitely something that comes to us from the Father AND the Son. Jesus sketches here a kind of wonderful sequence: the Father loves the Son. The Son loves us. We love each other. In other words, when we are loving to one another in deeds of humble service and sacrifice, we can draw a straight and direct line from that love all the way back to the great God of the universe. There is a holy pipeline of love that connects us right to the Holy Trinity of God. When we realize that this is what is flowing into the Church all the time, our estimation of what goes on in our Christian living gets mightily magnified!
I’ve not known nor worked with any vinedressers or vineyard owners in my life. But at various times I—like perhaps some of you—have watched on TV or in movies what all goes into growing grapes and tending to vines. It’s a lot of work and a lot of tender work at that. I’ve seen vinedressers using strips of cloth gently to tie up parts of the vine even as the grape clusters themselves are handled with care and monitored with care. Some of you may remember the scene from the movie (often profane but still an interesting movie) Sideways in which the main character, Miles, waxes eloquent on how hard it is to grow the pinot noir grape, how that particular varietal needs constant care, exactly correct weather conditions, and delicate handling given its thin skin.
It’s a good, well-written scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCS1Gnwbtp0
I mention all this because often when we think of farming and growing things, the images that come to mind are of big John Deere tractors tearing up fields or giant combines sucking up the wheat from a field. But the images more associated with vines and branches and the production of good fruit are more tender, more personal, more involving. Somehow I like that—it just fits John 15 and Jesus’ own image so very, very well.
Author: Doug Bratt
May Christians ever give up hope for the salvation of any living person? Can we, in other words, simply abandon anyone to Satan’s captivity? What about those who have already received God’s grace with their faith? May God’s adopted sons and daughters ever deliberately or even unconsciously abandon these fellow Christians?
Certainly some early Christians would have been tempted to see Cornelius and members of his family as people for whom there was no hope of salvation. They would have seen Gentiles like this centurion and his acquaintances as largely beyond the reach of God’s grace. And even once Gentiles became Christians, many Jewish Christians didn’t think they needed to share fellowship with them.
Acts 10:44-48, however, challenges those presuppositions. It’s the story, after all, of how the Holy Spirit comes on everyone in Cornelius’ household who hears Peter’s message. It’s the story of what some call “the Gentile Pentecost.” It’s part of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:5 that his followers that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.” After all, Peter serves as his witness to Gentiles who are, figuratively speaking, at “the ends of the earth.”
This, however, is strictly a “God thing.” After all, it’s God who graciously gives both Cornelius and the apostle visions that tell them to meet each other. While Peter is initially reluctant to fulfill that dream, God him Peter to the recognition of the job God has given him. He shows that by giving a stirring speech to Cornelius and his household in which he argues for God’s impartiality and Christ’s lordship over all people.
Someone, however, graciously and powerfully interrupts all that talk. After all, according to verse 44, “while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Wonder of wonders – even as the initially reluctant apostle is speaking to them, God “pours out” God’s Holy Spirit “on the Gentiles.” Just as God had promised on the first Pentecost: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).
So Acts’ author wants us to know that it’s the Holy Spirit, not Peter, who’s primarily at work in the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. After all, it’s the Spirit, not Peter’s eloquence, who transforms Cornelius, his friends and family members. In that way Acts 10 is a bit reminiscent of the first Pentecost. Then, after all, Luke tells us, the Spirit fell with the “sound like the blowing of a violent wind.” Here, he reports, the same mighty Spirit also “falls” on Cornelius and his acquaintances.
At the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us that the devout Jews were “utterly amazed” by what was happening around them. Similarly, here, Jewish Christians who accompany Peter are “astonished” at this descent of the Spirit. This at least strongly suggests that those Jewish members of Christ’s Church had previously been unable to imagine the Spirit moving into Cornelius and the other “outsiders.”
In fact, as Will Willimon notes in the April 17, 1991 issue of The Christian Century, throughout the book of Acts the people whom the Spirit shocks are the ones already “in church” (p. 472). He writes, “At every step in the Acts program of evangelism and church growth, it is the church that must be dragged kicking and screaming into new areas of baptismal fidelity … Evangelism is a matter of a church in good enough condition to keep up with the frenetic movements of the Spirit without passing out.”
According to both Acts 2 and 10, Peter’s shocked colleagues can even see and hear proof of that restless Spirit’s presence in the gift of “tongues.” However, the nature of the gifts seems to be different. At Pentecost the believers spoke in languages that native speakers could understand. What they said in those “tongues” served as a witness to the Spirit’s power. In Acts 10, however, the gift of tongues seems to be more that of what Paul describes in I Corinthians 14:2. These “tongues” seem to be largely given for praising God.
After this visible and audible outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them, Peter asks, in verse 47, why Christians should withhold baptism from these Gentiles. It reminds us of the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip after he had heard the gospel: “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”
While 21st century Christians might think of reasons why Cornelius and his household should wait, the apostle commands that the believers baptize them in Jesus’ name. Baptized but uncircumcised, these new Christians then invite Peter to “stay with them for a few days,” according to verse 48. And Peter does, in fact, stay in Cornelius’ household for some time.
Yet Acts’ very next chapter shows that Peter’s sojourn doesn’t sit well with his fellow Christians in Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, Acts doesn’t report that they question the gentiles’ baptism. They do wonder, however, according to Acts 11:3, how Peter could go “into the house of uncircumcised men and” eat with them.
Peter defends his actions by pointing to the Holy Spirit’s work on Cornelius, his friends and family members, as well as himself. The work of the Spirit that leads to baptism also, the apostle suggests, leads to new fellowship. Baptism, Acts 10 reminds us, changes how we view the “other.”
Peter’s defense of his actions at least implies that Cornelius and his household aren’t the only people God converts on that day. God certainly transforms the Roman, his family members and friends into people who receive God’s grace with their faith. However, God also graciously transforms Peter from someone for whom ethnic barriers are naturally nearly as high as religious ones into a person who recognizes that the Holy Spirit smashes barriers left and right. Eventually the Spirit even converts the other apostles into recognizing Gentile reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:18).
Yet it’s highly significant that Peter stayed and ate with members of Cornelius’ entourage. Much, after all, both traditionally and culturally, including circumcision, divided the apostle and his hosts. Yet God’s Spirit smashes those old barriers, creating a bond of close fellowship and sharing.
So not even our ideas of who is clean and unclean, hopeful or hopeless can hinder the work of the Holy Spirit. We too may be shocked by the Spirit’s mighty work among us, in spite of our prejudices about those in whom God does God’s gracious work.
Acts 10, however, reminds those who proclaim and hear it of the missionary impulse that the Holy Spirit produces in all of God’s people. That Spirit powerfully sent Peter leaping over the barriers that separated Jews like Peter from Gentiles like Cornelius. However, that Spirit remains so powerful that the Spirit still sends Christians to bring the gospel to the nations.
So on this Sunday before Pentecost, God’s adopted children thank God that God has sent missionaries to the “ends of the earth.” Those who proclaim Acts 10 will almost certainly want to talk about missionaries and other kingdom workers their churches are sending.
After all, we remember that God doesn’t give God’s children this Spirit to simply keep it to ourselves. God’s Spirit also sends God’s people into our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools. For this Spirit’s power leads God’s adopted sons and daughters to witness as well as have fellowship wherever God graciously sends and puts us.
A number of years ago the church I serve twice annually shared fellowship and worship with the folks from a Baptist church. Much divided our congregations. Ours is, after all, a largely white, Reformed church in the suburbs. King Emmanuel is a largely black, urban Baptist church. Yet, by God’s grace, members of both of our churches realized that the Spirit had fallen on each other’s churches.
Much like Peter stayed and ate with the Gentile Christians, members of our church regularly ate and worshipped with the members of the Baptist church. We tasted and experienced appetizers of the glories of the new creation that we’ll get to share with people from every background.
Those who proclaim Acts 10 may want to explore with their hearers how God is equipping their faith community to display similar Christian inclusivity. After all, those who worship a God who doesn’t show favoritism don’t show favoritism either.
Author: Stan Mast
The church has long loved Psalm 98. It is the Psalm for Christmas Day in all three years of the lectionary cycle; indeed, it is the Old Testament text for Isaac Watts’ beloved carol, “Joy to the World.” It is also the perfect Psalm for the end of the Easter Season, as it looks back at the salvation just won by Christ’s climactic victory over the enemies who ruin God’s good world and looks ahead to the end of the war when a just peace will descend on the whole world.
The structure of Psalm 98 points to that Easter application. It consists of three equal stanzas. The first, verses 1-3, looks to the past where Yahweh “has done marvelous things,” where “his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” The third stanza, verses 7-9, looks to the future, where Yahweh will “come to judge the earth… in righteousness and… with equity.” Between those two stanzas is the second, verses 4-6, where all the nations are called to “shout for joy to the Lord.” Note how that command brackets the stanza in verses 4a and 6b. And note that verse 6 ends by identifying “the Lord” as “the King.” As Watts’ hymn sings, “the Savior reigns.”
The whole Psalm issues a call to joyful celebration in ever widening circles. It begins with Israel, gathered in worship in the temple, celebrating what God has done for them. He “has remembered his love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” But the praise doesn’t end there, because the salvation done for Israel “had been made known to the nations… all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” So, the circle of praise widens in verses 4-6 to include those nations, “all the earth.” And then in verses 7-9 the summons to praise goes out to the whole inanimate world, including the sea and the land, the rivers and mountains. When the Good News of God’s salvation is dropped into the world, the praise spreads in concentric circles. Watts had it exactly right. “Joy to the World, the Lord has come.”
There are some important preaching points embedded in this Easter Psalm. In the first verse, we are called to sing the praises of the Lord, “for he has done marvelous things;” he has “worked salvation.” God did not bring salvation to the world first of all by teaching us to do something. If he had, then we would be saved by doing what he taught us to do, or by at least trying to live the way he taught. Sadly, many church people think that way. When asked why God should let them into heaven, many answer, “Because I tried hard to live a Christian life.” No wonder so many lack the assurance of salvation. If salvation depends on what we do, how can we ever be sure we’ve done enough?
But Psalm 98 trumpets the clear message of the entire New Testament. We are saved by what God has done in Christ’s life and death, resurrection and reign. “Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul,” sings the old hymn. My hands don’t have to save me, because “his right hand and holy arm have worked salvation for him.“ I need only trust what he has done for me. We are saved not by trying, but by trusting. God has done all the rest, “marvelous things.”
There’s a second crucial preaching point in verse 2, where the parallelism seems to equate “salvation” with “righteousness.” That’s not unusual in the Psalter, but it can sound strange to some contemporary Christians. When we think of salvation, we think of forgiveness of sins, adoption into the family of God, enjoying eternal life. Of course, those blessings are part of the salvation given to us through Christ, but God wasn’t content with a merely personal and relational salvation. God loves “the world,” and he wants to make all things right again. That’s the idea summarized in the world “righteousness.”
This emphasis should not surprise us. Think of how Paul talked about the Gospel in his magnum opus, the letter to the Romans. After boldly proclaiming that he is not ashamed of the Gospel, he summarizes that Gospel and gives us the theme of Romans: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last… (Romans 1:16, 17).” We often think only of justification when we read of righteousness, but it means much more than that, as the end of Psalm 98 so clearly says. More on that later.
If we aren’t paying attention, we might miss the important point made in verses 4-6, namely, that Israel’s Lord is the nations’ King. Yahweh, who has worked salvation for his people, is the King, not only of Israel, but also of the whole human race. Again, this is not news to us, but as ancient Israel so often did, we tend to get quite parochial and possessive. We easily slip into what one scholar called “a narrow religious nationalism.” Though God had told Israel from the very beginning of his covenant with them that he had chosen them to be a blessing to the whole world, they often thought it was all about them. It was “Israel First,” and last, and only. But here in Psalm 98 the nations, Israel’s often hated enemies, are commanded to join Israel in praising Yahweh, because he is their king too.
This claim was sometimes hard for Israel to hear, because the nations had so often persecuted God’s people. In an increasingly hostile world, we might also struggle to imagine our enemies joining the choir and playing the strings or the brass in the orchestra (cf. verses 5 and 6). And surely the world would have a harder time believing the claim of Yahweh’s universal Kingship. As James Mays puts it, “This Psalm believes and claims that Israel’s God had been shaping Israel’s particular history to establish and reveal his rule over universal history. This belief is astonishing and the claim appears to be theological bravado.” But that is precisely what the entire Psalter and the whole Bible contend, and thus what we must preach. “Despite the disasters of sin and the terrors of history, the Lord alone is king, and he will make all things right again.” (Raymond Van Leeuwen)
That last phrase in the Van Leeuwen quote (“he will make all things right again”) is another crucial preaching point. Actually, there are two points there, “all things’ and “right again.” I’ve already mentioned that salvation is more than personal and relational. It’s also creational, meaning that it involves all creation. This is clearly why the Psalmist calls inanimate creation to join humanity in praising the Lord—all the oceans and all the continents (“seas and world”), the two great realms of creaturely life; all the rivers and all the mountains, the dominant features of the inhabited world. Sin ruined God’s good creation. Ever since God’s fallen world has needed redeeming. It is hard to imagine what that can mean; I mean, how can a tree be redeemed? But it is exactly what Paul taught in Romans 8:18-24. Many preachers will see environmental implications here, though I’m not at all sure that’s where the Psalmist is pointing.
Rather, he is pointing ahead to the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (II Peter 3:13). The Psalmist’s point is not environmental; it is eschatological. He wants the whole world to praise Yahweh because he is coming again to finish the work he began at his first coming. But the way the Psalmist describes that coming might kill the joy of the world, for, says verse 9, “he comes to judge the earth.” It’s true that he will judge “with righteousness and equity.” But it’s still judgment. And that’s a terrifying prospect.
Unless we think of it in the light of the Gospel of righteousness. I can’t say it any better than Robert Davidson, so I’ll just quote him. Judgment here “does not mean merely condemning the world for its evil and corruption. It means saying ‘No’ to all that threatens to destroy the world of God’s creating, but saying ‘Yes’ to all that will lead it to finding its true purpose and peace. It means putting the world right again.”
There is still something to fear in God’s coming to judge, if someone is on the wrong side of history, that is, in hardened rebellion against the Lord, the King. But this message of judgment is part of the Gospel of God’s love for the world, so there is hope even for the rebels. Remember that the nations are invited to join the royal choir and orchestra in verses 4-6. That may well be an anticipation of the Great Commission of our Lord in Matthew 28. Ray Van Leeuwen explains the relationship between love and judgment with characteristic eloquent brevity. “God’s judgments are not opposed to his love, but are the very instrument of that love. God’s judgments restore all that is broken to the goodness that the Bible calls ‘righteousness.’”
That should be music to the ears of the world’s oppressed, whether they are members of the Black Lives Matter movement or evangelicals scorned by the elite left or victims of the Holocaust or survivors of sexual assault or the “huddled masses” seeking refuge in newly closed countries or anyone who wonders if the world will ever be right again. Psalm 98 and its Gospel fulfillment in the Resurrection and Return of Jesus Christ invite the world to “sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge in righteousness and with equity.”
Evil cannot win. That’s the overriding message of this Psalm, but it is hidden in the NIV translation I always use. In verses 1-3 the word “salvation” is used three times. That is an accurate translation of the Hebrew word yasha, from which Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus is derived. It means salvation, deliverance, or victory. That last word is how the NRSV translates all those occurrences of yasha. If we focus on the image of God’s right hand and holy arm in verse 1, we might see a warrior’s muscular arm raised in victory. That gives the Psalm a whole different feel. It’s a victory song.
In the Resurrection of Jesus, God has won the decisive victory over the enemies of the human race– sin, Satan, and death. In the words of the reading from the Epistle for today, he has “overcome the world (I John 5:4 and 5).” And by faith in him, so have we. Therefore, even as we wait for the final mopping up operation, when righteousness will be established once and for all upon God’s good earth, we can rejoice in hope.
After the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl, the Associated Press reported on the victory celebrations as follows: “Fires in the streets. Smashed windows. Flipped cars. Light poles toppled by alcohol-fueled crowds. Philadelphia awoke this morning after the triumph of Super Bowl Sunday to a city in disarray and the vexing question: What is it about sports that makes fans riot.” The article that followed was instructive, but I was fascinated by that picture of devastation after victory. What a different picture is painted by Psalm 98, where God’s victory means precisely the end of the devastation caused by a riotous human race.
In a similar vein, I am haunted by a scene from a new bestselling debut novel, Lilac Girls. It follows three young women through the devastation of World War II. One is an American socialite who devotes herself to aiding people who are suffering around the world. A second is a German doctor who conducts horrific experiments on Polish girls in Ravensbruck. The last is one of those Polish girls who is hobbled for life by one of that doctor’s savage surgeries. Toward the end of the book, after the war is over, the Polish girl travels through a war-ravaged Poland to confront that German doctor. Even 10 years after the war, Poland is in shambles—buildings in ruins, streets filled with potholes and craters from bombs, farms covered with weeds, the people still in bondage (though to a new power, the Soviet Union). Even after the Nazis have been defeated, there is no victory. Righteousness and equity are totally absent in that brave new world. And so it is and ever will be, until the King returns to make all things new
1 John 5:1-6
Author: Scott Hoezee
A friend of mine who teaches preaching says that whether we can see it with our physical eyes or not, a whole lot of people come to church each week spiritually bent over at the waist. They come with so many burdens on their shoulders. They are weighed down by them. What burdens? A spouse dealing with chemotherapy. A child in college 1,000 miles away and who keeps writing home about how lonely he is. A dead-end job 40 hours a week. Or no employment at all and no end meaningful prospects in sight, either. Pending lab results. Fractured family relationships. Sorrow over the death of loved ones.
The last thing people like this need, my friend notes, are sermons on Sunday mornings that pile a bit more onto their already burdened shoulders. True, some people seem to enjoy what we could call a kind of DIY Christianity. They like sermons that end with “To-Do” lists because it gives them something tangible to work on and so somehow assures them that they are clearly on God’s good side the way invisible grace often fails to accomplish. I cannot SEE grace. Ah, but I CAN SEE my good works so . . . So give me six ways to grow my compassion, five ways to pray better, four tips on raising successful children, three things I can do this very week to increase my mercy quotient in life. If I can observe myself doing all that this coming week, then surely God sees it to and so I know we are good with each other.
Aside from the fact, however, that such “tips for successful living” type sermons do not sound like very Good News, to a lot of people it actually sounds like a whole lot of Bad News. “Great, I am worried sick about my wife’s breast cancer and now I have all this other stuff to do too or else God won’t like me so much anymore!”
As noted in also this week’s Gospel Lectionary sermon starter article here on the CEP website, preachers should proclaim grace, hope, joy.
However . . . that does not relieve preachers—or the church generally—from the need to emphasize that we are called to be disciples. We are called to follow Jesus. We are called to have Gospel-shaped lives and all of that ought to show up in how we behave, how we talk, what we do as well as what we refrain from doing. The Apostle Paul talked about it all the time. His epistles are loaded with Gospel imperatives. The Letter of James is 60% sentences in the imperative mood: command after command on how to behave as believers in Christ.
And now here is the Apostle John at the end of his first letter doing the same thing. The whole letter—as we have seen in recent weeks—is about love, love, love. Love is the hallmark, the sine qua non, of our identity as believers. We love God above all but if that love does not spill over into our ability to love all other people, then the claim to love God is de facto proven hollow as well. No Love, No Believer. Period.
But in these verses from 1 John 5 John expands that emphasis a bit to say that this love also results in something else: obedience. Obedience to what Christ commanded us to do (see again John 15 for this same day in the Lectionary cycle). Like his fellow apostles, though—yes, even James—John has got the cart and the horse in their proper order. This obedience is the fruit of God’s grace in Jesus, not its root. This is result, not cause. And that is why John is able confidently to declare that the kind of obedience he is talking about is not in the least “burdensome.”
The Greek word John uses there is not terribly common in the New Testament. In its adverb form it can be used to indicate something “hard” in the sense of being “hard of hearing.” Hearing is difficult for some people due to age or physical damage to one’s eardrum or something. People like that want to hear well, wish they could hear well, but it can be a ton of work when your ears just don’t work the way they should. A burden like that is also very frustrating, even infuriating, and finally very saddening. You wish you could hear better but . . . you just cannot no matter how hard you try.
If we do not already have within us the Spirit of Jesus Christ as a gift of grace, trying to obey Jesus’ commands and God’s law generally is like that. It’s hard. It is infuriating. And if you believe that your eternal future depends on whether you get it all right or not, it can also be terrifying and so deeply burdensome to your heart and soul. Such obedience is also finally exhausting. Who can stay morally vigilant every, every second of every day? And when each day is over, it would require more than a little mental gymnastics to convince ourselves we did it all right the whole day long. No lapses here. No mistakes. No out-of-place words. Not even a stray bad thought directed someone’s way. “Today I was . . . perfect.”
Even if you could convince yourself that your Tuesday went down that way, well . . . then there’s Wednesday to deal with. Good luck keeping that up forever and anon.
Rules and obedience are burdensome when they feel foisted onto us from the outside, when we feel that our whole life depends on perfection, when it is something we feel we have to DO as opposed to just getting set loose to BE who we have already been made into by grace alone. But when both the motivation to obey AND the ability to do so are generated on the inside of us by the indwelling Spirit of God, then the sense of burden melts away. The presence of that Spirit is already proof that this is not a Pass/Fail test. This does not make us cavalier about obeying. In fact, it is energizing for us to realize that we are living off the overflow of abundant grace.
Interestingly John uses the language of “overcoming the world” in connection with this talk about obedience. But what does that language—rather redolent of conquest and battle—have to do with obedience to Christ? Perhaps this: the things to which Christ calls us to do are all about living in the ways God intended for us in the beginning. In that case the “world” that needs overcoming are all those forces that pull us in other directions. The “world” keeps offering us pleasures and short-term fun and substances and copious amounts of this, that, or the other thing on the premise that THIS is where real life is to be found! More sex! More booze! More drugs! More money! More stuff! And, of course, mostly pursuing all of that means NOT obeying, not leading the better life of the Beatitudes and of the kingdom that Christ holds out to us.
It’s all powerful and alluring and in a media-saturated culture these worldly seductions are also omnipresent. But Jesus overcame the world and so now, by his Spirit, we can too. Obedience is possible and it’s not burdensome: it is where true joy is found. The world wants us to “have fun.” But we prefer something a bit longer lasting: deep joy. And if in the end “fun” comes from delighting in how God intended things to be, well then that’s the cherry on the top. In the meanwhile, it remains our real joy and delight simply to do what Jesus calls to us again and again: “Follow me.”
In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis ponders this connection between being saved and being obedience/doing good and here are a few of his typically trenchant observations:
“Only a bad person needs to repent; only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it . . . But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love him because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it . . . We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas what He really wants is people of a particular sort.”