Sunday, June 22, 2014

Alive for God in Christ -- Sermon for Pentecost 2A

Romans 6:1b-11

On the day of Pentecost, the people gathered in the streets of Jerusalem asked Peter what they needed to do to be saved.  Peter told them that if they would repent and be baptized, they would receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38).  That passage of scripture has been a foundation stone for Disciples life from the beginnings of the movement.  In some circles, just giving the biblical reference Acts 2:38 is like saying John 3:16.  Everybody knows what it says.

Baptism comes up again in Romans 6, where Paul is in the middle of a conversation about sin, law, grace, and the Christian life.  In Romans 5, Paul wrote that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  It seems that there were some Christians in Rome, who believed that grace was an eternal get out of jail free card, so why not throw caution to the wind.  After all, God will forgive.  There’s a name for this belief – “antinomianism.”   That’s Greek for “no law.”  

While we value freedom, after all the 4th of July is on the horizon, freedom needs to be accompanied by responsibility.  As many college freshmen learn, too much freedom, too soon, can create problems. College life offers lots of  temptations – especially if you get into a frat – or so they say.  I don’t know this first hand, because I went to a Christian college.  There were rules to follow, and we broke some of them.  Some of my friends, some of whom are now pastors of note, even pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior, but that was nothing compared to what went on across the street at the University of Oregon!   

In preaching a gospel of grace, Paul opened the door of freedom, but he also spoke of responsibility.  So, when it comes to the question whether we should “continue in sin in order that grace may abound,” Paul offers a very strong “NO!”

   Getting back to baptism, what does it mean?  What is its purpose?  It is a sign, but what is it a sign of?

We Disciples have historically practiced “believers’ baptism.”  We have looked to Acts 2:38 for guidance.  Repentance precedes baptism, and with baptism comes forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We immerse because that’s what baptism means in Greek.  Founder Alexander Campbell put it this way:
Therefore, none but those who have first believed the testimony of God and have repented of their sins, and that have been intelligently immersed into his death, have the full and explicit testimony of God, assuring them of pardon.  [Alexander Campbell, Christian System, in Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), 195-96.]
Today Disciples practice “open membership,” which means that we recognize that what happens in other faith communities when they baptize carries the same meaning as our practice. In doing this we recognize that these other faith communities are fully Christian.

Turning to Romans 6, we’re reminded that when we’re baptized we’re not just going through an initiation ceremony for a church, we’re identifying ourselves with Christ.  In traditions that practice infant baptism, promises made by parents are confirmed by those who wish to identify themselves fully with Jesus and his community. 

Paul teaches that in baptism we identify ourselves with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  This is illustrated in the act of being immersed in the waters of baptism.  You might say that when you’re immersed, it’s as if you’re being drowned, especially if the preacher wants to make sure that every hair on your head is completely wet.  This act of being buried allows us to identify with the cross of Jesus.  By identifying with his death we experience dying to the old life.  At death, you’re free from all debts and obligations.  Creditors can go after family, but not you. 

Of course, we don’t stay buried in the water.  We rise from the waters of baptism, and as we do, we identify with the resurrection of Jesus.  So, as theologian Karl Barth puts it: “The man who emerges from the water is not the same man who entered it.  One man dies and another is born” (Epistle to the Romans, (Oxford, 1968, p. 193).  We see something of this image in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of being born again.  To put it in economic terms, baptism is a bit like bankruptcy.  When you go through bankruptcy, you get to start over.  Now, the key, moving forward is not to get yourself in that predicament again!

According to Paul, sin defines the old life, and baptism serves to break its hold on our lives.  But what is sin?  Well, it’s more than simply doing the wrong thing.  It’s more than breaking the rules.  No, sin is more basic than that.  Sin is our human tendency to mess things up.  It has to do with the orientation of our lives.  Paul wants us to understand that when we’re baptized, we change the orientation of our lives.  From now on, we live in Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.   

While I’m not a big believer in the idea that people die, go to heaven, and come back to life, I do believe that people can have mystical experiences during life and death moments that change their lives.  There are too many death bed stories of people, seemingly having died and then having a life altering experience, which  in their mind is the gift of a second chance in life.  Getting that second chance, they want to live life differently.    
Although it’s not quite the same situation, isn’t that the point of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge?  Three ghosts take him on a journey that allows him to look at his life, and how he has interacted with others.  He also sees his future – the future of a lonely and despised individual.  Facing his own grave, he asks whether these are shadows that must occur, or whether he can change his future.  Well, you know the rest of the story – he decides to make the changes, and it’s said of him that no one celebrated Christmas quite like him.  
And so it is with baptism.  In Christ, we choose to identify ourselves with his life, his death, and his resurrection.  It is the means by which we signal our desire to follow Jesus, so that even if no one goes with us, we won’t turn back.  The cross lies before us, the world behind us. 

Now Paul knows human nature.  He knows that baptism doesn’t make us instantly holy.  He knows that it is a lifelong process, with perfection waiting for another lifetime.  But, in baptism, as we identify ourselves with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we allow him to define our identity.  

Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacramental event.  We come to the Lord’s Table weekly, but baptism normally happens just once.  But, every day we experience spiritually a baptismal moment.   Because we continually make decisions that aren’t in sync with the desires of God, even after we’re baptized, we experience spiritually the washing of the Spirit and we start over with God.  We can do this because God’s grace and unconditional love makes it possible.  It’s just – we shouldn’t take this love and grace for granted.   Baptism needs to lead to a change of life, or it is simply a meaningless ritual.    

There’s another image that can help us make sense of our baptisms.  The Exodus image stands behind the conversation here in Romans 6, and Paul brings it out explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10.  So, even as the people of Israel walked through the sea and came out on the other side, so do we.  And even as the waters of the sea returned to their original location, in baptism there is no going back.  Whatever the enticements of Egypt, going back means a return to slavery.  Water is the dividing line, separating slavery from the promised land.  

As you know, the journey to the promised land wasn’t easy.  The people wandered around the desert for forty years, because they couldn’t let go of the past.  The generation that crossed the sea didn’t get to walk across the Jordan.  That belonged to a new generation that didn’t know Egypt.

In baptism, however, we walk through the sea and we cross through the river into the land of promise.  There we find God’s abundance.  Yes, when we cross the sea we discover the fullness of grace, which covers our continuing relapses.  Still, baptism has changed our orientation.  Our allegiance belongs to Jesus.  So, shall we sin so that grace might abound?  No – let us walk in newness of life, letting Jesus set the agenda. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
June 22, 2014
Pentecost 2A

Sunday, June 15, 2014

God Be With You -- Sermon for Trinity Sunday (Year A)

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

It is Trinity Sunday, which is a good time to stop and think about the God we serve and worship.  Most Christian traditions confess God to be One, and yet three.  This is the confession we raise when we sing: “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!  Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee; holy, holy, holy!  Merciful and mighty!  God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” (Reginald Heber).    

This doctrine of the Trinity that we celebrate today is complicated, and yet there are incredible spiritual riches to be found in this confession.  The benediction that closes Paul’s second Corinthian letter offers us one of the more explicit Trinitarian confessions in the New Testament.  While this isn’t a fully developed theology of the Trinity, because it closes one of Paul’s most difficult letters, it might have some practical importance. 

Paul wrote to a congregation he started, but which was now deeply divided – and they didn’t even have to worry about the color of the carpet in the fellowship hall!  Despite the conflict that’s present in the congregation, which includes resistance to Paul’s ministry, he ends the letter on an upbeat note, even offering them a word of blessing.   

In this benediction Paul gives a few last instructions:  

“Put things in order.”   

Agree with one another.”  As if the first task isn’t difficult enough, he wants them to agree with each other!

“Live in Peace.”  In other words, work together to build up the community rather than tear it down.  Paul tells them that if they do this, then “the God of love and peace will be with you.” 

As you can see there are three parts to this commission – order, agreement, and peace.  This commission is followed by a final benediction that also has three parts:  grace, love, and communion.  

When I read this final verse, I thought of the way Eugene James delivers his benedictions: “The grace of Christ, the love of God, and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit” be with you. I love that phrase:  the “sweet communion of the Holy Spirit.”  Even when there is sourness in our midst, there is sweetness to be found in the communion of the Holy Spirit.   

Some time ago I learned that putting salt on something that is sour or bland, can make it sweet.  Just try putting a pinch of salt on your watermelon and see if it doesn’t taste sweeter.  This sweetness expresses itself through communion with God and with one another.  It is, you might say, the effect of the Spirit’s presence in our midst.  

Over the past few years as I’ve reflected on the confession of God as Trinity, I’ve turned to what is know as the Social Trinity.  Now we don’t have time to dive deep into this idea, but the message that I’ve taken away from my reflections is that the God we worship and serve is a relational God.  Theologian David Gushee puts it this way: 
To say that God is triune is to mean that God is social in nature.  It is also to say that those made in the image of God are likewise intrinsically social (Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16)p. 40).     
God is not an isolated solitary being living somewhere out there, completely disengaged from our lives.  That is the vision of Deism, but not Christianity.  

Pushing this idea a bit further, we might want to think of God’s inner nature as a fellowship of “divine subjects.”  While the traditional confession of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has its gender issues, if we can think of God in terms of a circle of fellowship, there is potential for a richer understanding of our relationship to God.   

To get a sense of what it means for God to be an open circle of fellowship, into which the Spirit draws us, think about what happens when we go into the fellowship hall after church.  

With your imagination, think about those round tables.  Imagine that there’s a group of people sitting around the table.  They know each other very well.  They’ve been friends for years.  They care about each other.  Now think about what happens when a stranger wanders in.  Will this group open its circle to welcome the stranger, or will it keep the circle closed?   There are risks in opening the circle to include the stranger, but there is also the possibility of finding great blessings.  What are these blessings?  Paul names them, even as he pronounces the names God, Christ, and Holy Spirit.  These blessings are grace, love, and communion.  By entering into the circle that is God, we experience the love and peace that is shared within the nature of God.  As we do this, we experience salvation and healing.  As Paul puts it earlier in this letter – it is in Christ that God is reconciling us to Godself and calling us to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).  To us is given the calling to bring healing and wholeness to the community in which we have been planted, and this ministry emerges out of the fellowship that is God.    

As I was preparing to preach today, I was also preparing to lead the Elders in one last conversation about Carol Howard Merritt’s book Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.  As I was thinking about the message and the study, I thought about what it means to live together as an intergenerational community of faith.  Carol, who will be with us in November, writes that many younger adults want to be part of intergenerational communities.  

This is true even though too often we live in generational silos.  It’s easier to hang out with people just like us.  Different generations listen to different music, watch different movies, and drive different kinds of cars.  We even parent differently. While conventional wisdom has taught us that the way to grow a church is to focus our attention on people just like us, is this the way it is supposed to be?  

I know it’s not easy to build intergenerational community.  Every generation seems to think that the generation that follows them or went before them does everything wrong.  This isn’t new.  It’s always been there, even from ancient times.  But, perhaps we’ve escalated things in recent years.  I know growing up, my parents didn’t care for the Beatles, and I was no fan of Engelbert Humperdink.  And as for the music that this new generation is listening to – I have no clue why you like it.  But perhaps the church can be a place where we learn to experience life together, sharing the wisdom of our different generational experiences.      

Living into a truly intergenerational Christian community requires much of us.  It means respecting differences.  It also means being willing to share leadership across generations.  Younger adults want to be part of the decision making process and help shape the future of the congregation.  But, they might not be completely sold on the ways in which we’ve been making decisions over the years.  As Carol points out – while there is value to be found in committees, they also have their drawbacks.    

You might be wondering what all this has to do with the Trinity.  Well, this past week, as I was praying and reading and thinking about the Trinity, it dawned on me that the traditional Trinitarian confession of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has an intergenerational component to it.  Now, I will confess, there is a hint of heresy to my reflection, but since we’re Disciples, then perhaps I’m safe.

So, for a moment let’s think about the way the Gospel of John speaks of the oneness of the relationship between Father and Son.  In John’s gospel, Jesus prays that we, his followers, would be one, even as he is one with the Father (John 17:11).  Then, I thought about how orthodox theologians have insisted that the Trinity is a partnership of equals.  This is no hierarchy within the Trinity.  This is true even though there is, at least in name, a difference of generation.  This is where we get dangerously close to heresy, but I think there’s something useful in this analogy.     

If we think of God’s nature in social terms, and if, as Genesis 1 declares, we’re created in the image of God, as male and female, then perhaps we have within the nature of God a model for intergenerational relationships. 

In a moment, we’re going to install our officers, which includes our new President, Tim McGookey, who is not yet thirty.  I’m guessing that he might be the youngest person ever to serve in this capacity at Central Woodward.  So, perhaps it’s providential that we’re installing officers on Trinity Sunday. Perhaps it is a sign that we are reaching a tipping point in our journey leading to a new era of intergenerational community.  With this in mind, may we hear again Paul’s benediction:  

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the [sweet] communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. [2 Corinthians 13:13].
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
June 15, 2014

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Breath of the Spirit -- Sermon for Pentecost (Year A)

John 20:19-23

    “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”    John has his own story of how the Spirit fell upon the followers of Jesus.  It’s different from the traditional Pentecost story, but what he does is connect the Holy Spirit with the very essence of life. In fact, there’s a connection between this story and the story of creation in Genesis 2.  In that story, God created the first human being by forming a body from the dust of the ground, and then God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).  The biblical words for breath and Spirit are the same.  So to have breath is to have the Spirit.

      We see this connection in the book of Ezekiel, where the “spirit of the Lord” took the prophet to the Valley of Dry Bones.  Then the Lord asked Ezekiel – “can these dry bones live?”  God then told Ezekiel to prophesy to these dry and lifeless bones, saying to them:  “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”  And the bones came to life, with sinews and flesh and skin covering the bones.  Then, comes the breath of God, bringing the body, which is the nation of Judah living in exile back to life – so that they might know that God is the Lord (Ezekiel 37:1-6). 

    Yes, there is a connection between breath and life.  Cheryl and I were present when the husband of a member of a previous congregation was being taken off a ventilator that was keeping him alive.  As soon as the air stopped flowing, his entire body seemed to deflate.  His chest heaved and then collapsed.  The breath of life was gone, and without breath there is no life. 

    In this reading from the Gospel of John, the disciples are huddled together in a safe house.  They’re afraid of the authorities who had arrested and executed Jesus.  At that very moment, Jesus appeared, even though the door was locked.  After he demonstrates that he had risen from the dead, Jesus commissions them.  He sends them on a mission, even as God had sent him on a mission.  

    It’s at that moment that Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Yes, Jesus breathed onto them the breath of spiritual life, even as God breathed physical life into Adam.   With every breath we take, we breathe in the Spirit of God, who accompanies us and empowers us as we take up the mission to which Jesus has called us.       

    Sometimes we get too caught up in daily life and forget that we are sustained by the breath of God.  One way of connecting with the Spirit of God is to make use of breath prayers.  Bruce Epperly offers a word of guidance.   

 Begin by finding a comfortable position, with your back straight and feet on the floor. Take a few cleansing breaths, letting go of any stress. Then, gently inhale and exhale, experiencing opening to God's Spirit with each breath. As you inhale, silently repeat the words, "I breathe the Spirit deeply in." Experience yourself being filled with God's Spirit from head to toe. As you exhale, let go of any burdens that you may be experiencing. You may choose to say as you exhale, "I breathe the Spirit gratefully out" or "I breathe the Spirit joyfully out" or whatever describes your current personal condition.

   When we breathe in the Spirit, we receive power.  When we exhale, we release that power into the world.  In other words, to live in Christ is to breathe in the Spirit.

    One of the emphases of John’s gospel is the way in which Jesus and God are connected.  We see this in John 17, where Jesus prays that the disciples might be one even as he is one with the Father.  In another place, Jesus tells the disciples that whoever sees him, has seen the Father (John 12:45).  So, if we are one with Christ, who is one with the Father, then when the world sees us they see God. That doesn’t make us divine beings, but if we are full of the Spirit, then we represent Jesus to the world. 

    I appreciate what the Roman Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown says about this relationship between us and Jesus, and Jesus and the Father.
    Their mission is to continue the Son’s mission; and this requires that the Son must be present to them during this mission, just as the Father had to be present to the Son during his mission [The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Anchor Bible, Vol 29, Part A), p. 1036].
By living in the Spirit, we continue Jesus’ mission, which is an expression of the mission of God.  

    We continue that mission when we use the gifts of God given to us by the Spirit of God.  As Paul writes, each of us has been given a “manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).  Therefore, each of us has a different role to play in the life of the congregation as it moves out into the world, sharing the love of God with the world so that all might experience the common good. 

    Yesterday, some of us traveled to Detroit and we did a bit of work with Gospel in Action Detroit and Rippling Hope.  Some of us mowed tall grass.  Some painted.  Some worked on a garage door. Some cleaned out a garage.  In doing this, we were being the hands and feet of God.  We didn’t put up a big sign saying that God was at work, but I think people understood.

    The tag line of the Metro Coalition of Congregations, of which we’re members, is: “People of Faith for the Common Good.”  MCC sponsored a Transit Summit on Wednesday at the Detroit Zoo.  We brought together business and community leaders and we invited them to work together to create a world class transit system so that the people of the region could get to work, to school, and to play.  We appealed to their bottom line, but we also brought the “moral imperative.”  I don’t know if everyone heard the message.  The reporters in the room didn’t seem to catch it, but that’s okay.  Time will tell.

    In a couple of weeks we’re sponsoring a concert and photo exhibit that focuses on the lives and concerns of our LGBT brothers and sisters.  We are praying that this event will help us discern how we can be more welcoming to the diversity of human experience that is already in our midst. 

    In each of these events, we are invited to live in the Spirit and ask the question – what does it mean to be Christ-like? This is a question that we need to ask about the entirety of our lives.  How do we live with the breath of the Spirit energizing our lives and our ministries? 

    Jesus gives us one more clue.  After he breathes the Spirit upon them, he gives them the ministry of forgiveness:  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”   

    Some of us have been exploring the question of forgiveness.  We’ve been discussing a little book by Marjorie Thompson simply entitled: Forgiveness: A Lenten Study. She  writes about the process of forgiveness, which includes honesty and repentance.  But she ends with the act of forgiveness and reconciliation.
    One of the texts we studied was Jesus’ statement from the cross:  “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  I think that they did know what they were doing, but Jesus forgave them anyway. That’s not easy to do.  We struggle with forgiveness, even as we hope and pray that God will forgive us.  

    What’s interesting is that we not only have the ability forgive; we also have the right to retain the sins of others.  Perhaps there are times and places when we shouldn’t extend forgiveness – at least not at that moment.  So, knowing when to forgive and when not to forgive takes great spiritual discernment.  

    One of the stories that Marjorie Thompson tells is about two men – Gary and Wayne.  Wayne had caused Gary great harm during a motel robbery many years earlier, and was now in prison.  Through a mediator Gary sought to connect with Wayne, and in the course of their conversation, Wayne expressed his deep sorrow for what he had done.  What’s interesting in this story is that we don’t see Gary offering forgiveness, even though he stays in relationship with Wayne. So, maybe reconciliation can happen without there being forgiveness. 

    It would seem, that if we are to be Pentecost people, living with the Breath of the Spirit, then our mission includes sharing God’s forgiveness and grace, while seeking where possible reconciliation.  This would seem to be a good expression of the Pentecost message.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday
June 8, 2014

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Providing for the Family of God -- Sermon for Easter 7A/Ascension Sunday

John 17:1-11

Family life changes from generation to generation.  We may prefer the way we grew up to the way these newfangled families do it today, but change is inevitable.  This is especially true of the roles we play in our families.  Things have changed dramatically since the 1950s – back when Father Knew Best.   Back in the age of Beaver Cleaver, the father went to work, brought home the bacon, and the mother cooked it up.  And if you misbehaved, well, wait till your Father gets home.  Thankfully, Ward Cleaver was a very understanding father.

But things began to change in the late 1960s, when Julia was a nurse and a single mother.  What can I say about today’s Modern Family?  Depending on your perspective – things are better or they’re worse – but we can agree on one thing – they’re different!  And even the world of the 1950s wasn’t the same as the world of the Bible.  

One thing remains constant – the family, in whatever its configuration, has needs that must be taken care of.  It could be the “traditional family,” or any number of non-traditional forms of family.  Just to complicate things, let’s remember that Jesus on one occasion – in another gospel –   told the crowd that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

Today is Ascension Sunday, and on this day we remember that Jesus, after his resurrection departed this earth, and according to the Gospels rejoined God in heaven.  You can imagine that his followers weren’t really excited about the prospect of his departure.  In Acts 1, when Jesus rises into the air, his disciples look upwards – just a bit stunned.  Yes, Jesus had told them that he wasn’t abandoning them and that he was going to send them the Holy Spirit – the one whom John calls the Comforter – so that they could continue carrying out his mission.  But you know how it is, when someone leaves – even if they’ve prepared you beforehand.

 Blogger Rachel Held Evans captures their thinking and perhaps ours as well, as they contemplated this moment of departure, in her letter to Jesus for Ascension Sunday, she writes:
I’ll be honest, Jesus, Ascension Day brings up some abandonment issues for me. I know you promised we wouldn’t be alone, that you would send a Helper and Advocate, full of power and truth and ready to guide, but let’s face it: the fire of the Spirit is the wild kind. One moment I sense that it’s blazing like the burning bush, the next it’s like it’s out with a poof. I still haven’t figured it out. I still haven’t been able to pin it down. 
But, as in nature, there comes a time when the little birdie gets pushed out of the nest.  By that time, hopefully, the little birdie has been given the proper training to go out on its own.  And the same was true of Jesus’ disciples – even if they weren’t quite ready to let go.

Now John doesn’t have an Ascension story.  But he does talk in several places about his departure.  In this reading, we go back to the night of his betrayal.  Jesus is in prayer.  He lets God know that the time has come for him to return to Glory.  He’s completed his job.  He’s given the gift of eternal life to the ones God has entrusted to his care.  In other words, he’s provided for his family.

So what should we make of this talk about eternal life?  What comes to mind when you think about eternal life?  Is it pearly gates and streets of gold?  Is it a time of judgment?  Is it angels playing harps on clouds?  Is it an escape from this world and its challenges?

According to John, it would seem that eternal life involves knowing the true God and Jesus, whom God had sent into the world.  He also intimates that this eternal life is a present reality.  If you know God and Jesus, whom God sent into the word, then you are experiencing eternity.  It’s not something we must wait for out there in the future.

If eternal life begins in the present, then what does that mean for us?  Does it mean that what you see is what you get?  I don’t think so.  There is, in the biblical story, a sense of a “now, not yet” reality.  We get a foretaste of eternity now, but we can, as Paul puts it, only see through a mirror dimly the fullness of God’s vision (1 Corinthians 13:12).  We may know God’s vision in part – but Jesus has provided us with enough of a vision that we can begin to see the world from God’s point of view.

Since I started with the way in which TV has presented family life, there’s a move from the 1990s – Pleasantville – that catches the reality of change.  Some of you may have seen it, but since it wasn’t a block buster you may not have seen it.  In any case, in the movie two teen age siblings, a boy and a girl, get sucked into a 1950s TV show.  As you might expect, the world of this show is black and white – without color.  Though these “outsiders” try to blend in, their presence begins to change the world pictured in the show.  In fact, little by little, color comes to this world, which frightens the characters.  They respond by banning “colored” people and riots even break out.  That can happen when change begins to take place in society, but once it’s begun, it’s difficult to stop.     In John’s vision, when Jesus enters the world, he set eternity into motion.  He planted a new vision.  He formed a community of disciples and he taught them the ways of God.  Now it was time for him to go back home, and for them to take the reins.  Jesus knows there will be challenges ahead, so he asks the Father to protect them.  He’s especially concerned about them staying unified.

   Jesus had reason to be concerned.  History hasn’t been kind to our faith tradition.  We’ve broken unity on a regular basis.  In part that’s because we often confuse unity with uniformity.  But our unity is found in our common confession of Jesus as Christ and as Lord.  Everything else emerges from that confession.

The other day Pope Francis met with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople – Bartholomew I.  After they met together, they seem to have given the impression that they were calling for a new ecumenical council to be held at Nicea in Turkey in the year 2025.  That would be 1700 years after the first Council of Nicea.  This may sound like a long way off, and it’s possible neither man will be alive in 2025, but, if true, they’re setting something in motion that could have great implications for the future of our faith.  We’ll just have to wait patiently to see what happens.

Now, I don’t know if such a Council can come to any final agreement that makes everyone happy on every issue.  I don’t know how they’re going to resolve the leadership questions.  But, maybe they can solve a few nagging problems like the date of Easter and whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son together.  Whatever happens in 2025 – and I hope to be around to see it happen – my hope and my prayer is that we can agree that God is calling us to live out the true meaning of the Gospel – a gospel that emphasizes faith, hope, and love.  If we’re going to love each other, we might want to know what love is.  

The best definition of love I’ve come across is the one offered by theologian Tom Oord.
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 17].
Love is intentional.  It responds to the love of God and in sympathy and empathy for others by promoting the overall well-being of the other.  This love is a gift that comes when we allow ourselves to be caught up in the love that God experiences within God’s own self.

Therefore, to live out eternal life starts with living in a relationship with God, whom we know and encounter through the person of Jesus, and whom we experience in daily life through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  This Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls the Comforter, is given to us by Jesus as God’s life-giving and life-empowering breath, so that we might forgive and retain the sins of others (John 20:22-23).  I take that to mean what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians that God has reconciled them to God’s self, and given them the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-19).

May eternity begin today in our hearts and in our lives, for this is the gift that Jesus has given to God’s family, which includes us.  And as many of us have been taught – when you receive a gift, receive it with gratitude!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
7th Sunday after Easter/Ascension Sunday
June 1, 2014