Sunday, May 9, 2010

keeping jesus' word

“Those who love me will keep my word and my Father and I will make our home with them. And the advocate, whom the Father will send, will teach you everything and will remind you of what I have said.”

People often ask, “What’s the hardest part about preaching?” And for me, it’s a very specific fear – the fear that nothing I say will register at all, that it won’t connect with your life in a meaningful way. And it was an ordination gift – in fact my favorite ordination gift – that put me in touch with this fear. The gift is this picture from the children of All Saints. The title is “John: Priest of the Church,” and it’s made up of eight drawings depicting what priests do. In the upper right hand corner I’m administering the Eucharist – to someone, it seems, who’s terrified by the wafer. In the upper left hand corner I’m anointing, and next to that I’m praying, but in the bottom middle – I’m preaching. And the children, God bless them, were kind enough to fill in the bubble with what it is they suppose preachers say Sunday after Sunday. And so let me just read you the sermon they wrote out for me: “wa wa wa, blah blah, wa wa, blah blah blah blah.”

In tonight’s Gospel Jesus is clear – He does not want His word to sound like that to his disciples. Jesus wants His word to register – he wants it to fuel and sustain their lives even after He’s gone. And so this is what He says the night before he died. “Those who love me will keep my word.” The word keep is a bad translation. You and I don’t use or value half the things we keep. Jesus’ word isn’t an old prom dress – something to keep but never use. You see in the Greek that word means to guard, to take care of, to carefully attend. Jesus says that if we love Him we’re going to guard what he says, we’re going to take care to practice what He says, we’ll carefully attend to what He says. That’s what he means when tells us to “keep his word.”

And so here’s the question we need to wrestle with – are we making a conscious effort to keep Jesus’ word? When it comes to our life, and I mean to the smallest details – our families, our jobs, our anxieties, our fears, the daily decisions that make up our life – where does Jesus’ word come into play? For example, a couple years ago I had a conversation with a Christian who was at odds with his friend. And after suggesting that he make the first move in hope of being reconciled, which Jesus teaches is the most sensible Kingdom of God way to live, his response was “things just aren’t that simple.” But in this case, it really was that simple. My friend’s subconscious belief was that Jesus was out of touch with reality, that Jesus hadn’t taken everything into account. Jesus was very clear on what his students would do in this situation, but to my friend – Jesus’ word to him might as well have been “wa wa wa, blah blah blah, wa wa.”

Whose word are we keeping? Or to say it differently, “who’s our teacher?” You see there’s a reason that Jesus is so concerned that we keep His word. Jesus is profoundly aware of what we all seem to have forgotten – we have to keep someone’s word. Jesus understands that everyone has a teacher, and that most of us have way too many. You see we make decisions everyday about what’s important, how to treat people, what to believe, how to behave, what to do, how to spend our money, and how to spend our time. But it’s worth considering – who taught us how to make those decisions, or what values to base them on? Our tendency is go on what we feel, but has our environment not conditioned our feelings?

You and I have been formed, every single one of us, by a complicated mix of people, places, things, parents, teachers, scientists, mentors, pastors, slogans, commercials, news anchors, and magazine adds – for better, or more often than not, for worse. Now, I know a lot of us take great pride in being our own teacher – rational people who’ve learned how to think for ourselves, but let’s be honest. We inherited that perspective from somebody else. That’s why it’s so popular. We all have a teacher. We all keep someone’s word. Whose word are we keeping?

Now, we have a hard time keeping Jesus’ word. Embracing Jesus as our teacher – that’s demanding work. It is so much easier to think of him only as God’s “sacrificial lamb,” whose sole purpose is to save us from death – that way we don’t have to bother letting him teach us about life. It’s so much easier to think of Jesus as the proponent of some great social agenda – that too allows us to keep Him at arms length, out of the “real world” where you and I actually have to live. And yet, we find in today’s Gospel that the real world is exactly where keeping Jesus’ word matters. “Those who love me,” he says, “will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In other words, what Jesus is saying is this: “My Father and I are humble, humble enough to enter the smallest details of your life – your family, your job, your anxiety, your fear – the decisions you wrestle with day in and day out. Prepare a place for us,” Jesus says, “because we want in. We want to be your teacher. We want your life to be our home. We want you to keep my word.”

Now, I know what you could be thinking. “I’ve read the Bible and when it comes to the decisions I wrestle with Jesus is silent. On top of that,” you may say, “a lot of people claim to keep Jesus’ word, they all disagree, and they make everyone else miserable.” To which I reply, “you’re right.” But, should our response really be to not try? Remember, Jesus says we have the Advocate, the Paraclete – but do you know what that word means? It’s the Greek word for someone who “is summoned to another’s side for the purpose of helping.” According to John, that’s who the Holy Spirit is – someone summoned to our side to help us keep Jesus’ word.

Now, we have to understand that keeping Jesus’ word isn’t the same thing as keeping the right rules. I’m not trying to make a case for legalism. No doubt, some rules just need to be followed, but that’s not the point of tonight’s Gospel, a Gospel that begins with these words. “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was God. The Word was with God. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” That is the Word we’re being asked to keep – the Word we’re being asked to guard, to take care of, to carefully attend – the Living Christ himself. Jesus says that if we love him – and not some agenda He stands for or some arrangement He’s made to get us to heaven – He says that if we love Him we’ll keep His word, that we’ll work hard to prepare a place in our lives where He and His Father can dwell.

After all, we all have a teacher. We all keep someone’s word. Whose word are we keeping?

Monday, May 3, 2010

something "more"

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Then the One seated on the throne spoke – see I am making all things new. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of life.”

Last year I received an envelope in the mail that said “don’t miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity.” And upon opening the letter this is what I read. “Congratulations John, you’re invited to discover more.” The letter was from a credit card company. It seems I had pre-qualified for a Discover Card with a credit limit twice my annual salary at an interest rate four times my age. I declined their offer but I appreciate their marketing skills. Why? Because they’re tapping into the deepest desire of the human heart. We are desperate to discover “more.”

Now, I know that you know what I’m talking about. Even the most carefree among us still get that feeling from time to time that our world is supposed to be different, even if we are incredibly blessed. Yes we have friends and family and perhaps even meaningful work. Yes we live in a country where there’s freedom of religion and freedom of speech. And yet, we don’t always feel free. We get this inner gnawing every now and again that tells us this world isn’t quite our home and because of that we thirst for something more.

And anything can spark this thirst, this profound sense that things aren’t exactly right. We get in a fight with our best friend. Someone we love dies. We get sick or get anxious or we don’t measure up to what other people expect. We turn on CNN and find war and famine and hurricanes and disease. Anything can spark this deep desire of our heart, this inner gnawing that thirsts for more – something more for ourselves and something more for our world.

What’s amazing is that we’re born with this thirst. NT Wright points out that the most frequently repeated mantra among children is: “that’s not fair.” We’re born with the ability to know what’s fair and what’s not. Nobody has to teach it to us. A desire for justice is embedded in our DNA. We all grow up wanting to make the world a better place. Why? Because we intuitively sense that we were made for something more.

And so we start asking questions. Will the world always be this way? Will it be rescued? Will we be rescued?

In today’s reading from Revelation, we see the fullness of our Christian hope. We see a definitive answer to those questions. We see that a glorious future awaits our world – that this earth will one day be a place where death is abolished, where mourning and crying and pain are gone, where God will make His home with us as He wipes away our tears. The vision from today’s reading is clear. “Things will not always be this way. Our world will be rescued. We will be rescued.”

Now, I know that this traditional Christian hope isn’t always easy in our world. It can be hard to believe that death will be abolished, that relationships will be restored, and that Jesus will wipe away our tears. After all, our modern world denies what isn’t seen and rules out what can’t be proved. We’ve all been told, “if it seems too good to be true it probably is.” And yet, we find ourselves unable to silence our thirst or satiate our thirst because we want something more. And so while maintaining hope in a restored world is hard, not hoping – well, that’s even harder, because we know in our hearts that this world isn’t our home. We thirst for something more.

According to CS Lewis, our thirst for “something more” tells us something profound about why we exist. This is what he writes in Mere Christianity. “We are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A ducking wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. People feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

What CS Lewis is claiming, quite simply, is that the reason we feel estranged in this world is because this world – at least in it’s present form – isn’t our home. We want something more because we exist for something more. Staking our lives on this belief – that something more is coming and that it’s the basis for our existence – that is the essence of Christian hope.

So let’s get practical for a second here. What should we do with today’s reading – with the classic, Biblical hope that a glorious future awaits our world? Well, I think we have two options. We can either abandon our hope. Or we can anticipate our hope. We can abandon our hope or anticipate our hope – but we cannot do both.

On the one hand, we can abandon our hope. Now, I’m not talking about pulling a doubting Thomas and refusing to believe in the new heavens and new earth. That’s not our great danger. Our great danger is that we’ll say we believe in God’s restored world, but will then try and find our life and our meaning and our purpose and our mission and our identity in this world – the world that Revelation tells us is “passing away.” I take for granted that our thirst for “something more” is the deepest desire of our heart and that each one of us in our own way has embarked on a quest to satiate that thirst. The question we need to consider is, in what wells are we looking? In other words, around who or what are we building an identity? Our bank account? Our job? Our appearance? Our reputation? A relationship? Is there anything in our life that, if taken away, would completely undo us? Are we building a foundation that is passing away? If we are, then we have abandoned our hope.

But there’s another way – a much more joyful and fulfilling way. We can anticipate our hope. The word anticipate means to realize something ahead of time – it means thinking, speaking, and acting a certain way now to prepare for what’s coming. For example, if I’m wearing a raincoat when the sun’s shining because I’m anticipating that it’s going to rain, what that means is that I’m dressing now in a way that’s appropriate for the future so that when the rain comes I’ll be ready. Our Christian hope says that the rain – it’s on its way. A day will come when God’s truth and mercy and grace and justice and love will fall like rain and flood this earth, and on that day our true home – the one we were made for – will be established forever. Anticipating that hope means dressing now to prepare for that great event so that when the rain comes it’ll actually feel refreshing.

And so anticipation requires action. That is, after all, why hope is a virtue. Like faith and love, hope costs us something. Looking to God’s future isn’t a form of escapism or wishful thinking. No, authentic hope is about God’s future breaking into our present lives. It comes from an understanding that this old, broken creation – this place of tears and death and mourning and crying and pain – it’s already in the process of passing away. In Jesus, God’s restored future is already breaking in. Hope is about acting now to anticipate God’s future – not in order to make it happen, but because it’s already starting to happen.

I have to say, one of the greatest ironies of human history is that the people who did the most for this world were the ones who thought most of the next; like William Wilberforce, whose anticipation of God’s future made him work to abolish the slave trade; and the apostles, whose hope in God’s future led to the conversion of the Roman Empire; and Jesus, who as Hebrews tells us, “endured the cross and it’s shame for the sake of the joy that was before him.”

Are you beginning to see why the invitation to follow Jesus is a once in a lifetime opportunity? Because He knows how deeply we thirst for something more than this world can give. And so listen again to what Jesus says in today’s reading – “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of life.”

And so let me end by saying this. A glorious future awaits our world and in that world we will find our home, the very reason we exist. The good news of the Gospel is that this future world is already breaking into this one. And so let me add, “congratulations!” – because you’re all invited to discover more.