Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter on May 17, 2020.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings:

• Acts 17:22-31
• 1 Peter 3:13-22
• John 14:15-21

Sermon:

Last week, we saw how Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, that another would deny him, and that he would be going away and leaving them. Understandably, they are ‘troubled’ by all this, and for the rest of what we know as the Farewell Discourse, he seeks to offer them comfort and reassurance. Jesus may be going, but, he tells them, he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s presence, and will come again and take them to himself so that where he is there they may be also.

Jesus has spoken previously to his disciples of how he will one day return in judgement on the ‘last day’, and the New Testament writers look forward to this day when Jesus will return. This is not, however, the return that Jesus is talking to them about here. The ‘return’ he is speaking of is one that he tells them will occur in just a ‘little while’ from the time when he is talking to them (John 16:16). This return will be about his presence with them during the time before he comes again on the ‘last day’.

In this more immediate return, he will come to them with the Father to make his and the Father’s home in the life of each of his followers. Throughout his ministry, Jesus has promised eternal life to all who follow him. He has done this using a variety of different images, ‘figures of speech’, he calls them. Now, at last, in his final moments with them before his crucifixion, he explains what eternal life is. In his prayer to the Father in John chapter 17, Jesus says:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

Eternal life means many things, but, at its heart, it is knowing the only true God. No wonder, then, that Philip, one of his followers, says to him:

‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ (John 14:8)

If eternal life is dependent on whether we know the Father or not, it is vital that we know the way to knowing the Father. There is only one way to the Father, Jesus tells them, and they are looking at it. He is the way to the Father. No-one comes to the Father except through him. Indeed, anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. If they want to know the Father, they must believe in him.

This is why the first thing Jesus says to them in John chapter 14 is:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)

You will see in the footnotes to this verse in your Bibles that there are various ways to translate Jesus’ words. The phrase, ‘You believe in God,’ can also be translated as a command: ‘Believe in God’. The disciples, however, did not need to be told to believe in God. As good Jews looking forward to when God would send his Messiah to establish his Kingdom, they already believed in God, and the reason they were following Jesus was because they hoped he was the Messiah sent by God.

What Jesus tells them is that not only must they believe in God, they must now also believe in him. This has been the major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout his ministry. We have seen how it has been his message to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well in Samaria, to those in the synagogue at Capernaum after he had fed the 5,000, to the man born blind in Jerusalem, and to Martha and Mary when he raised Lazarus from the dead.

Now, before he leaves them for a ‘little while’, he tells them one more time to believe in him. Those who believe in him, he says, will become one with him and his Father. He and the Father will be in the believer and the believer in them.

All this is quite amazing, but it seems straightforward enough. By believing in Jesus, his followers will come to know the Father through him. Unfortunately, there is all sorts of confusion over what it means to ‘believe’ in Jesus.

The confusion is largely due to the division that occurred in the Church at the time of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century. To cut a very long story short, many in the time leading up to the Reformation had come to believe that the only way to be ‘saved’, which was understood as getting into heaven when they died, was by what they did, that is, by their ‘works’. Getting into heaven was effectively a reward for good behaviour.

The Reformers challenged this and insisted instead that salvation was by God’s grace through faith. It is by believing in Christ, they argued, that we are saved, and not by works. This was a message that needed to be heard at the time. The Reformers’ teaching, however, was to drive a wedge between ‘faith’ and ‘works’.

One of the slogans of the Reformation was ‘sola fide’, ‘faith alone’. As a result, many Protestants since the Reformation have not been sure what to do with works, while Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have insisted on their necessity. This is an argument that continues to divide those who follow Christ today, and divide them quite bitterly.

It is because we now come to the New Testament with these arguments and disputes in mind that we run into all sorts of trouble. In chapter 14, after Jesus has told his disciples to ‘believe’ in him, he goes on to tell them in verse 21:

‘They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ (John 14:21)

And then in verse 23:

‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ (John 14:23)

So, which is it? Do the Father and the Son come to us because we believe in Jesus or because we love Jesus and keep his commandments? Is it by believing in Jesus or by keeping his commandments that we receive eternal life?

The problem all has to do with what we mean by ‘believe’. There are two ways of believing. We can ‘believe about’ or we can ‘believe in’.

We ‘believe about’ all sorts of things in every area of our lives.

There are a whole set of things in the realm of human knowledge, we believe about the world in which we live. In science, we believe various theories and hypotheses about the physical world around us. In our relationships, we believe various things about our friends. For example, who they are, where they come from, and what they are like.

We ‘believe in’ something or someone, however, when we act on what we know about the thing or person in question.

For example, in an election, say for the President of a country, we learn lots of things about each candidate. We will share various beliefs about each candidate with other voters, regardless of which one we eventually decide to vote for. We will, however, only go on to vote for the candidate we believe in. Our decision of which we choose to believe in will be influenced by what we believe about them, but it is different. We can believe a lot about someone, both good and bad, without believing in them.

To take another example: Imagine finding yourself lost and in great danger. You meet someone who says to you that they can get you out of the danger. What you have to do, they tell you, is follow them and do as they tell you. You then have to make a decision as to whether you believe that the stranger can get you out of danger. You may decide that you do, but you will only ‘believe in’ the stranger when you follow the stranger as he leads you and when you do what the stranger tells you to do.

You could instead decide that the best way out of the danger is to pursue your own path, and do it your own way, regardless of what you believe about the stranger. If, however, you follow the stranger and do what the stranger tells you, it’s not you that has saved yourself from the danger, but the stranger. When you get to safety, you don’t pat yourself on the back and tell everyone how clever you have been, you thank the stranger and tell everyone how wonderful he is and how he has saved you from a great danger.

Many don’t think they need Christ even if they do think there is an afterlife. They just assume that God is bound to reward them if they live a relatively good life. Others see following Christ as a form of weakness, and faith as an emotional and spiritual crutch for the weak and inadequate. They don’t need anyone to help them; they can save themselves.

Christ’s followers, however, know they have ‘no power of themselves to help themselves’. They know themselves to be in great danger and know that they cannot escape that danger on their own. They know it is only by believing in Christ that they can get to safety. But believing in Christ means them doing what Christ tells them to do. It means trusting him and keeping his commandments.

There are many who see Christ merely as one religious teacher amongst many. Isaac Newton famously discovered the law of gravity, supposedly while sitting under an apple tree. He was the one who then taught it to others. But the law of gravity exists independently of Newton, and if he had not discovered it, someone else would. Furthermore, we accept the truth of the law of gravity regardless of what we think about Newton. That is how some see Christ. Christ may be someone who shows the way to live a good, full, and rewarding life. He is not, however, the only one who can show it to us, and his way may not be the best way for everyone.

For Christ’s followers, however, Christ is not simply the one who shows them the way or a way; he is the way, the only way. His commandments do not exist independently of him. He is not just one guide amongst many; he is the only guide. He is the only one God has authorized to lead people to his house and show them around - to use Jesus’ own ‘figure of speech’.

Believing Jesus to be the Guide, even the only Guide, however, is not the same as believing in him as our own Guide. Believing in him, means we personally and individually have to follow Jesus and do whatever he tells us. Believing in Jesus, then, means believing what he tells us, loving him whatever happens to us, and keeping the commandments he has given us. All of his commandments, that is, and not just those that we like the sound of.

Believing about Jesus is not without its difficulties. Like Thomas we have our doubts. Perhaps like Thomas we have doubts about whether Jesus is alive or about the claims made about him in the Bible. It is, however, in principle, not hard to understand what it is we are being asked to believe about him.

Believing in Jesus and keeping his commandments, however, is hard, as Jesus himself warned us it would be. Believing in Jesus means walking a narrow path and submitting our will, our wants and our desires to his. It means, ultimately, being willing to suffer and die for him.

It is, however, not a path he expects us to walk on our own. He doesn’t say, ‘Great, you believe in me and want to keep my commandments, there’s the path now get walking.’ He not only walks with us and beside us, he walks in us. Everything that we experience and everything that happens to us, happens to him.

I really don’t think we appreciate the significance of what Jesus is saying here in the Farewell Discourse for what it means to believe in him and to follow him.

I have already alluded to some of the ways that people understand what it means to be Christian today. For some, it amounts to no more than thinking that Jesus had some good things to say. But even amongst those who take Jesus seriously and can legitimately be described as Christians, there are different emphases in how they understand what being a Christian means. There are four broad approaches:

1. Educational

For some, the emphasis in being a Christian falls firmly on what we believe and think about God. For these Christians, doctrine and theology are very important, and it matters that you get what you believe right. Some take this to an extreme and will only associate with those who think like them. But even if they are more tolerant of those with whom they disagree, they see educating Christians in the doctrines of the faith as of first importance.

Christians who think like this place a great value on preaching, teaching, and Bible Study. They devise and promote courses to help other Christians learn more about God. They are supporters of programmes to enable Christians to become more theologically aware and knowledgeable about their faith.

2. Ethical

For others, the emphasis falls on the ethical and moral teaching of Jesus. They are drawn to the places in the Bible where Jesus teaches his disciples how they should behave and live their lives. The Sermon on the Mount is a great favourite of theirs. They will quote with approval the so-called golden rule:

‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’ (John 7:12)

They point to places in the Gospel where Jesus says he came to bring good news to the poor and to those in need (see, for example, Luke 4:18).

Christians who think like this place a great value on welfare and charitable enterprises. Increasingly, Christians who take this approach are stressing the need for the Churches to be working for what they see as ‘social justice’ in our world and equate this with mission. They are at the forefront of campaigns against oppression and what they see as unfair structures in our world.

3. Experiential

For others still, what matters is experience and what they feel. This approach has become particularly popular as a consequence of the charismatic movement of the last century. In many ways, this movement was, at the time, a revolt against what those in the movement felt was an over-emphasis on doctrine. Many of those in the movement felt that too great an emphasis on doctrine had led to a dry and cerebral type of Christianity that left people’s emotions and feelings out of the picture.

Christians who think like this place a great value on lively and vibrant worship, and church services are often sensory experiences with bands, modern music, and even sound and light shows. They are often attracted to churches that encourage the use of the so-called ‘spiritual gifts’ such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing. When it comes to Christian teaching, what matters is whether it speaks directly to them and their own personal concerns.

4. Ecclesial

For those who take this approach, what matters is the church itself. They appreciate the sense of belonging that comes from being a part of a local church community as well as the part they can play in the wider church organization. They are concerned with how the church is run and governed and often take an interest in Church politics. They will often be its most committed members.

Christians who think like this, place a great value on making sure that the church is well-supported. They will join the committees and involve themselves in fund-raising for various church projects. They are often the ones who keep the church going and who can be relied on to volunteer when work needs doing.

I have simplified to make the distinction between the different approaches. Clearly, they are not mutually exclusive, and it is more about emphasis than black and white differences. All would agree you have to believe something, that the way you live your life matters, that how you feel is important, and that belonging to a Church is useful. But the difference in emphasis amongst Christians is noticeable, and it gives rise to significant differences in how people see being a Christian, differences that cut across the various denominational divisions.

Each approach can appeal to the Bible and to the teaching of Jesus for support. Jesus taught his disciples at length about God and himself. He clearly was concerned with how people behaved toward one another. He was a person who was not afraid to show his feelings whether of happiness, anger, or sadness. And he gathered a group of people around himself that he expected would continue his work after his death.

I want to suggest, however, that while each of these approaches is important and captures an aspect of Jesus’ teaching, they all miss the heart of Jesus’ teaching when it comes to understanding what it means believe in him and to be his follower.

So, what does it mean to believe in Jesus today?

All these different approaches go wrong because they all begin in the wrong place. They begin with and focus on us: our thinking, doing, experiencing, and belonging. Becoming and being a follower of Jesus, however, begins with and comes from God. Jesus in his final prayer to the Father will say:

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me …’ (John 17:6)

Jesus will tell his disciples:

‘You did not choose me but I chose you.’ (John 15:6)

Being a follower of Jesus does not begin with our choice of Jesus, but with God’s choice of us. Being a follower of Jesus is relational. It’s all about knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. It is a relationship that began for God when he chose us in Christ. It begins for us when we are born again, as Jesus told Nicodemus we must be, from above. It is a relationship in which the Father and the Son make their home in us. And, as Jesus says:

‘On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ (John 14:20)

We begin our relationship with God by believing in Jesus as the way, the only way, to the Father. And we live out our relationship with Jesus by believing in him alone, keeping his commandments and loving him alone, knowing that all our good comes from him alone, and that any good we do, we do through him alone.

As our hymn for this week expresses it:

Thee will I love, my strength, my tower;
thee will I love, my joy, my crown;
thee will I love with all my power,
in all thy works, and thee alone:
thee will I love, till sacred fire
fill my whole soul with pure desire.

Amen.

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