Sunday, May 29, 2011

Believer's Advocate (John 14:15-21)

When I was a kid, snakes fascinated me. I think it had something to do with the way they moved without legs, which just didn't jive with the way my elementary-school mind understood motion (It involved feet, wheels or a combination thereof made real in a red Schwinn Stingray).

One thing about them that jumped out as even more bizarre was how their bodies would continue to move after their death by beheading. Said method of death, carried out with a garden hoe, being the fate of any snakes found in my grandparents' garden, I now and again had the opportunity to test this theory. If you ran your finger along the body of the recently departed reptile, it would indeed react as though it were still alive, coiling and uncoiling in response.

But of course that was just a muscle response -- the snake's brain, such as it was, wasn't controlling its body from five or six feet away (Grandma could swing a mean hoe). The movements didn't have any purpose or function, and after a little while they quit, as the nerve and muscle tissue inside the snake deteriorated. Sometimes groups of people who have come to follow a teacher are like that as well. When the teacher leaves, for whatever reason, they may continue to do things the teacher did or follow the teachings they've learned. But without new leadership, the group isn't likely to be able to continue, especially if the teacher was a charismatic and effective leader.

Had Jesus been an ordinary teacher, then his movement would have faced the same possibility when he was killed. But because he was more than that, he returned to them and inspired them to do more than just an ordinary group of followers might do. They still had to deal with his absence, though, since he ascended to be with the Father some forty days or so after the Resurrection. Those followers could very well have veered off course or gotten themselves headed in the wrong direction, since the teacher they followed was the Son of God and had a supernatural vision no human teacher could hope to comprehend on his or her own.

That's where this "Advocate" Jesus talks about comes in. We know the Advocate as the Holy Spirit, and over the course of the first decades after Jesus, Christians came to understand that this Holy Spirit Jesus had taught them about was as much a part of God as the Father and the Son themselves.

And they began to understand they did not have to rely on their own memories of Jesus or those remembered things they might tell other people about him. Although not visible in human form the way Jesus had been, the Holy Spirit was able to guide and teach them as well. Believers who opened themselves to God's work could feel the Spirit leading them to take actions or make choices that were a part of that work.

Sometimes the things the Spirit might lead them to do seemed strange to people who didn't follow Christ. Jesus explained that here, when he says that the world -- at least the part of it that makes gods out of things or people other than God -- couldn't see him or understand him. So they wouldn't understand some of the things that people who followed him did or said. If they too began to open their hearts and minds towards what God wanted to do in them, they could begin to perceive and understand, and in fact they would find Jesus revealing himself to them.

For us today, we should understand that the Spirit works in us as it did in that first circle of believers, still moving and guiding us in doing God's will. And we should understand that sometimes those incomprehensible things we do draw people's attention and may actually prompt them to ask questions and begin their own journey of faith, based on wanting to know more about why we believers are the way we are. In the passage from today, Jesus says that knowing and keeping his commandments is a sign that we love him. In another place, he says that our love for one another will let people know we are his disciples. Showing love for one another in the body of Christ may be one of those incomprehensible things I mentioned above, and I know it's one I do too rarely.

Over the last couple of weeks, a lot of people have talked about the Second Coming, or Christ's return, mostly because a fairly obscure radio preacher bought a lot of ads predicting a date. When we say our creeds, we say we believe in Christ's return and the new creation, even if we don't get specific about when and how. But we believe it will happen, and we believe it will be unmistakable when it does.

Our job in the meantime is to point people at Christ, so that they might be ready whenever he returns. We allow the Holy Spirit to be at work in us so that we might know how to do that in a particular place and time, knowing what to say and what not to say, when to say it and when to keep silent. As our Advocate, the Holy Spirit mediates God's message to us so that we may do God's work. In a way, the Holy Spirit helps us show people a hint, however small and pale in comparison with the real thing it may be, of the Christ whose return we proclaim.

The sermon title has an apostrophe after "believer," to indicate that the advocate involved is one who works on behalf of those who believe in and follow Christ. But the purpose of all that work by the Holy Spirit is to take the apostrophe from the title and turn it into an exclamation point: Believers Advocate!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Credit Report (First Peter 2:19-25)

This is just a weird idea -- rejoice in suffering? Really, Pete? You having a flashback to the time when you were in the running for Most Clueless Disciple? What the heck?

OK, maybe I'm a little too quick here. Lots of times we read things in the Bible and on first glance, they seem to make no sense, kind of like this idea of rejoicing in our suffering. Let's worry at it a little bit and see if we can tease out something that we can understand.

First off, we can eliminate the idea that some people seem to have about boasting of their suffering. You know what I mean: The person who, when you tell them you've had a tough day, can't wait to tell you how much tougher of a day that they've had. Or the person who dramatizes every little scrap of adversity into Shakespearean dimensions. Lots of times that person can be a boss at a job -- "Sorry Mr. Snidely, I was late because of traffic." "Well, I had to have my leg amputated and reattached during rush hour and I made it on time!" That sort of thing. Peter doesn't seem to be talking about that at all.

And he talks about a very specific kind of suffering; the kind when you suffer unjustly for doing the right thing. Not just plain old everyday suffering, like someone who isn't happy because a meteor didn't hit their house. Again, there's no call for rejoicing when things go wrong just because they go wrong. Only the kind of suffering that happens when you do the right thing but are punished because of it.

Because, as Peter points out, there's no credit for taking your deserved punishment. "This con man swindled old people out of their retirement money and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and he served every day of it! Let's give him a round of applause!" Things like that don't happen for adults, because we expect adults to accept the consequences of their actions. We may applaud children for, say, not complaining when they get sent to their rooms for transgressing some rule, but that's because we're trying to teach them that actions have consequences and we are pleased when they learn that lesson.

So we've sliced away a bunch of things this idea of Peter's doesn't mean, and...I'm still lost. Rejoice when you suffer unjustly for doing right? That runs counter to everything we understand about how we're supposed to act in society, doesn't it? Famous people, personal heroes, political philosophy and what have you, none of it matches this idea of rejoicing in suffering unjustly for doing right! If our rights are trampled on, we're told to stand up for them! If we are unjustly accused, we're called to speak out against it.

I've never heard anyone say we should be glad when people accuse and persecute us for doing the right thing. It's just weird.

BUT, Christians, we've heard one person say that, haven't we? We've heard one person respond to unjust punishment with love and forgiveness, to say of the very men who were killing him, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And in fact, Peter calls Christ our example and says that we should do what he did in this regard. Which is, as I noted, very very hard because of how contrary this instruction runs to our society's teaching. If we do follow it, though, Peter says we find ourselves rewarded for doing as Christ did for us.

I don't do well with this, and I doubt I ever will. But I'll keep working towards it and taking steps. Something kind of similar may help serve as an example. Like most folks, if I'm discussing something with someone and we disagree, I hold my ideas out because I think they're right. They're not right because they're my ideas, but if I've done my homework and researched them properly, I can be pretty sure they're right and so that's why I hold them. Of course, that doesn't always convince people, does it? Not the people I've argued with, anyway.

What I've tried to make myself do more and more often is stop instead of trying to win the argument, even when I can. I can put together the facts and line up my data and show the other person just where they're so far off-base and I will have won the argument. But I've tried to not do that. Because sometimes, of course, I haven't won and I've overlooked something, but also because sometimes winning an argument means losing a relationship.

And a couple of times since I've been trying to do this, someone has come up to me later on and brought up whatever it was we disagreed about, and said, "You know, I looked into what we were talking about the other day and it turns out you were right." But that's not the win, the win comes in that whatever friendship I had with that person before is maintained or strengthened because I didn't slam the ball home over their heads and make a dunkface on them when doing it. I've even been able to offer the same kind of words to someone who's been "righter" than me and found out it works the same the other way.

Which is a pretty good reward, and a pretty good model of how I might even share the faith with someone who wants to know more about it, and maybe a hint of why Peter might suggest to us to rejoice when we suffer unjustly for doing right, as hard as it may be now and may stay in the future to do that.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Dealing With Doubt (John 20:19-31)

Peter ran away, but poor Thomas gets saddled with the nickname. Even though he's the one who committed to going to Bethany and facing death alongside Jesus, something Peter didn't actually manage to do, he's always going to be "Doubting Thomas."

Many folks have noted that Thomas has some pretty solid reasons to doubt these witnesses when they claim the impossible has happened and Jesus is alive. A cynical Thomas could point out these guys haven't gotten anything right yet -- they spent their last night with Jesus arguing about which one of them was the greatest -- so why would they get it right now? A more sympathetic Thomas might suggest that the grief and guilt they all feel, including him, has moved them so much they're fantasizing about Jesus returning from the dead, or that they're seeing spirits.

Either way, he says he wants to see Jesus for himself, and touch his wounds as evidence that who he's seeing is the same man they followed around Galilee and Judea. When Jesus appears, Thomas doesn't need those things at all, it turns out, as the risen Savior's presence alone is enough to convince him.

Then Jesus says some words we've often focused on when we read or study this story, about how even though Thomas is blessed for seeing and believing, even more blessed will be those who believe even when they can't see, or encounter the actual person of the risen Lord. We've tended to see that as a message of encouragement to those of us who follow Jesus now, since we haven't met the physical risen Christ like the disciples did. It's a good word of reassurance to us that our faith is not in vain.

But we can also look at what Thomas wanted to see in order to believe Jesus was risen, and we might learn some things about what the body of Christ might be and do today. Remember, he wanted to see those scars from the nails and the spear -- those would prove he was seeing an actual human being instead of a spirit. The common belief about spirit beings at the time was that they had no physical needs or sensations. They didn't eat or drink, didn't need sleep, didn't suffer pain and they couldn't really be wounded like a person could. IN other words, spiritual beings only pretended to be people, and Thomas was having none of that. For Jesus to have meant anything, he had to be a real person and not an ethereal pretender.

Think about people who doubt Christianity today: Why do they do so? What causes their doubts? If you talk with people who know the Christian story but don't believe it, you'll probably hear several variations on the idea that no matter how much they may like Christ, Christians themselves give them plenty of reason to back away from Christianity. We preach forgiveness but practice condemnation and judgment, we're hypocritical in setting a standard we fail to live up to, we not only fuss with people outside the church but within what we'll say is the body of Christ, we think our God makes us better than other people are, and so on. Is a lot of that true? It certainly can be, if the guy in my mirror is anything to go by.

Now, I'll freely confess that even though accusations like this carry some weight, I don't find them adequate reasons to turn our backs on Christ. After all, if the problem is that we see the same flawed people inside the church as we do outside the church, then the truth is we see the same flawed people outside the church as we do inside the church! The church is full of hypocrites? Yes it is, and there's always room for one more. Christians judge too easily? They surely can, but who in the world does much better?

Of course we should be working on ending these things about us! Jesus told his disciples that their love for one another would show people they followed him and that is the mark we should be aiming at and working towards, as well as asking forgiveness for when we fail to meet it. We should definitely be ready to admit our wrongs and move towards what is right. It is what Christ asks of us all, isn't it?

It is when we admit our flaws and confess our wrongs that we show the world how we are the body of Christ, the way Jesus showed Thomas his true body following the resurrection. We are not perfect and to say otherwise is pretense. The body of Christ that's made up by the church has marks and scars on it -- a lot of them self-inflicted, unlike the actual body of Christ which was injured by others. We won't win anyone for Christ if we pretend we have fewer flaws than others; if we are perfect then what flawed person would feel welcome and if we are not what flawed person would believe anything else we have to say?

We claim today that the flaws and imperfections of our sin have been healed and are being healed by Christ -- according to Isaiah, by the wounds that the Savior himself suffered. When we as the church confess our mistakes and own our flaws -- our real ones, not just ones someone made up -- then we might find ourselves opening the door so that others may enter this place, and find healing for themselves as well.