Practicing Resurrection: Loving One Another – John 14.15-21

May 25, 2014 – 6th Sunday of Easter

Introduction: Today’s reading from John is part of what is known as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” his final message to his disciples. It runs from chapter 14 through the end of chapter 16. Jesus’ friends are slowly awakening to the imminent death of their teacher and friend. They are wondering what the last few years with him have been about. Have their time and efforts been pointless? Their future, as followers of Jesus, is uncertain. They’re scared and anxious and already feeling abandoned. It is to this sense of abandonment that Jesus speaks his promise of hope.

In Holy Week, we have already been through the death of Jesus and we are now in Eastertide when we celebrate the wonder of resurrection. Next week we will hear the story of Jesus’ return to God–what we call the Ascension. Mark will preach on that strange story; one that we contemporary thinkers barely know what to do with.

Reading this story this morning about Jesus’ disciples wondering what they will do when Jesus is gone presents a similar context for us. We don’t live in a time where Jesus is present physically. And so how do we live in a time where Jesus seems to be absent?

As I always say when I’m preaching from John, remember that in this gospel, Jesus uses the language of Father for God as the language of healthy, life-giving familial intimacy, the close and loving relationship of a beloved parent and beloved child. This is the relationship that Jesus has with God and this is the intimate relationship we too can have with God because of Jesus.

In our day we can use “Mother” as a parallel for “Father.” In the first century, this would not have been equivalent to using “Father” as an image for God because of the low status of women. But with a greater equality between mothers and fathers and a movement toward more equal social standing for women and men, I think we can use “Mother” as an equally important parental image for God.

In this reading I will use Father as it’s written and will use “she” for the Spirit since in both Hebrew and Greek the word for Spirit is female.

This is Jesus speaking to his disciples: [READ John 14.15-21]

The disciples were concerned about what would happen to them—when Jesus was no longer with them. And Jesus promised God would send the Advocate. The Greek word is paraclete. The NRSV translates that Greek word as “Advocate” or “Helper” but it’s one of those Greek words that no one English word really contains. The Greek word paraclete also means Comforter (KJV), Counselor (RSV), Companion (CEB), Friend (The Message). We use it to refer to the Holy Spirit but notice Jesus says, God “will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” Jesus, too, is a paraclete, a Comforter, Compassion and Friend. But in this passage, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit who will come and be with the disciples forever.

“Now the Spirit was not a new idea or late addition to the Godhead, like some postscript. All through the Hebrew Scriptures there are references to the Spirit: from the Wind passing over the waters at the beginning of creation to dry bones in Ezekiel having new life breathed into them. Everywhere the Spirit is present, saturating the world with the Divine presence. Through all time—from before the beginning and at least to the end—in all situations—from troubled turmoil to quiet joy—the Spirit of God hovers.”[1]

“I will not leave you orphaned” Jesus says. So even when Jesus is no longer with the disciples, the Spirit is present. Jesus assures the disciples “they will not be alone in their efforts to live a life shaped by love.”[2] Because this is the teaching that Jesus leaves with the disciples: “The sign of faithfulness to Jesus’ commandments is to live a life of love grounded in Jesus’ own love.”[3]

To live a life of love grounded in Jesus’ own love is not some theoretical concept or a warm fuzzy feeling. How did Jesus love? By touching lepers, eating with outcasts, healing the sick, confronting injustice, teaching a way of life grounded in the value of all people and sharing one’s gifts for the good of all. That’s what love is about. That’s what a life grounded in the love of Jesus is about.

Nancy Ramsay, who used to teach at Louisville Seminary and now teaches at Brite Divinity School, says, “Surely this promise, that the Spirit who continues Jesus’ ministry of…love now dwells in us, is as important [today] as it was in the first century.”[4] “John’s Gospel was written in an age of empire, for people surrounded by agents of the emperor, military might and the ready weapons to enforce imperial power.”[5] We may not experience the crushing domination of empire in the same way as disciples did in the first century but we know other kinds of life-sucking realities. “For some it is the deadly rush of our lives; for others it is the inability to move. For some it is the prison of our possessions; for others the crushing poverty that dooms our children to more of the same.”[6] For some it is the intoxication of power; for others the humiliation of abuse.

Yet “the reality that love creates”—the love Jesus calls us to live—“the reality that loves creates discloses to us the truth that God calls us to be neighbors—to recognize in the ‘other’ one whom God also loves and calls us to love.”[7]

So as we practice resurrection, what does this love look like? What shape does it take in our lives? What reality does it create in the world?

What shape does it take with our money? What does the record of how we spend and save and give our money reveal about the love Jesus calls us to live? In the way we use our money, what is the reality that is created?

Having just had primary elections this past week, what shape does love take in our voting? Do we vote on behalf of those who have no voice in our political system? Do we vote on behalf of children and people who are undocumented? Those who are just like us or on behalf of the wide diversity of the human family? What do our choices in the voting booth reveal about the love Jesus calls us to live?

What shape does love take in our time? Many of us are working more than ever. We see people around us losing their jobs and so we’re driven by fear to try and do more and more so we won’t be next in the unemployment line. On the other hand, because we’re so stressed out, we often numb out with mindless television programs or computer games or endless social media. Or we have too much empty time and we spend more of our time worrying about that. In any of these circumstances, the time we spend nurturing our life with God and caring for our life with others is likely to suffer. How do we use our time in service of ourselves and for the people God has entrusted in our lives and the community that we are part of? How might our time reflect the reality of love in which Jesus calls us to live?

There’s no one answer to any of this. And for many of us, these are questions we wrestle with through much of our lives as the world around us and our own circumstances change. I think that wrestling and prayerful exploration is part of what is it to grow in maturity in Christian faith and so perhaps we can welcome that struggle to let love live in our lives.

And as we’ve said so many times, and the Scripture is clear, we don’t do this alone. Jesus tells the first disciples–and tells us–we are not left alone to figure this all out. We are not left orphaned. We are accompanied in our living–if we are open to the Spirit. So we lean on the Spirit in order to practice resurrection–in order to live lives shaped by love—grounded in the love of Jesus.

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[1] Jane Larsen-Wigger, Sermon on John 14.15-21, April 27, 2008.
[2] Nancy Ramsay, “Pastoral Perspective” for John 14.15-21, Feasting on the Word, year A, vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p490.
[3] Gail O’Day, “John,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), p747.
[4] Ramsay, p492.
[5] Ibid., p490.
[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, (Harper San Francisco, 2006), p226.
[7] Ramsay, p492.

Practicing Resurrection: Listening and Following – Psalm 23 & John 10.1-10

May 11, 2014 – 4th Sunday after Easter

Here in the season of Easter, we are still thinking about the resurrection and, I’m suggesting, more than just think about it, we are called to practice it.
Clarence Jordan wrote, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of…transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that [Christ] lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”1
Clarence Jordan was born in 1912 and grew up in the Southern Baptist church. At church, Clarence was taught a vision of racial equality but he was troubled by the inequality he saw all around him.
He earned a degree in agriculture and then a Ph.D. in Greek New Testament from Southern Seminary here in Louisville. He felt called to take Jesus’ demanding words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously and in 1942 he and his wife and another couple purchased a plot of land near Americus, Georgia and called it Koinonia Farms–named after the Greek word for “fellowship” or “communion.” Clarence Jordan wanted to unite his skills in agriculture and his commitment to radical Christian discipleship. He hoped Koinonia Farms would be, in his words, “a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.”
From the beginning those at Koinonia Farms put racial equality into practice. Remember, this was 1942 in rural Georgia and the Ku Klux Klan made it very clear the practices of Koinonia Farms were not welcome. In response to his neighbors who wanted him to uphold the segregated racial status quo, Clarence Jordan often said, “Your choice seems quite clear. It is whether you will follow your granddaddy or Jesus Christ.”2
Clarence Jordan wasn’t that interested in what you said you believed about the resurrection. He wanted to know if it transformed your heart and your life. So what if the stone was rolled away from the tomb if we in the church don’t give evidence of the Spirit’s power moving us to change the world.

To practice resurrection, as we hear both in the psalm and in the gospel, requires listening and following. Listening to and following the Good Shepherd.

Psalm 23 is probably the most well-known psalm and perhaps the most well-known passage in the bible. It’s often relegated to funerals but it’s not just for funerals. It’s a psalm for our whole life.
“O God, you are my shepherd” says the Common English Bible. “I lack nothing.”
Right off we know this is some different kind of life with God as our shepherd because who can honestly say “I lack nothing”? We live in a culture that is built on stirring up want in us. Stimulating need where we didn’t know need before. Generating craving for what we don’t have. Making us think we lack most everything: the right clothes, the cool car, the big house, the fancy appliances, a fabulous vacation, the perfect partner. Or we think we lack the right attributes: we’re not cool enough, sexy enough, thin enough, smart enough, hip enough, athletic enough. We’re too old. We’re too young. We don’t have enough money or the right job or enough work or the best connections. We don’t have enough time or enough love or enough opportunities.
What if we didn’t give credence to all those voices?
Can you imagine saying “I lack nothing”?
Can you imagine what that would feel like?
I lack nothing. Because God provides all I need.
That is a radically different way of living. The psalm attests “to a confidence in a God whose purposes of restoration and redemption are …so comprehensive that in…God’s abiding presence we would lack no good thing.”3
Imagine that.

“You restore my soul” says verse three. That word “soul” is a paltry English translation of a rich Hebrew word. The Hebrew word is “nephesh” and means one’s whole self. It’s the totality of our whole being. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. God restores and repairs our whole self.
Psalm 23 shows up at funerals often because of the line “the valley of the shadow of death” from the King James Version. A more accurate translation one scholar says is “valley of deepest darkness [or deepest] despair.”4 Which is part of why this is not just a psalm for funerals. Deepest despair can accompany us at any time in our life. But the psalmist asserts that even when we are in the pit of despair or even when we have enemies all around, we do not have to fear because God is with us. We are accompanied by the One who leads the sheep to grassy meadows and still waters.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” ends the psalm. My friend Janice who is a Hebrew scholar says “follow” is another anemic translation of the Hebrew word that really means “vigorously” or “doggedly pursue.”5 God’s goodness and mercy (or “faithful love” is another way to translate “mercy”) don’t just follow us passively. God’s goodness and faithful love chase after us in order that we would not be without these good gifts.

This conversation about shepherds and sheep continues in John 10. Here Jesus follows the story of the man born blind in chapter 9 with a conversation about the thieves and bandits who climb over the wall of the sheepfold and the shepherd who enters the sheepfold by the gate.
“In traditional agrarian societies” a sheepfold is “an enclosure for…sheep…constructed of a stone wall with one gate or entrance.”6 Often the shepherd or the gatekeeper hired by the shepherd would sleep in front of the gate to keep the sheep safe at night from human or animal predators. It really is true, says one scholar, that in many traditional societies, shepherds know their sheep by name and the sheep recognize the particular voice of the shepherd. “To this day, in the Middle East, a shepherd will go into a crowded sheepfold” (holding the sheep belonging to many shepherds) “and call out [their] own sheep one by one,”7 calling them by name.  Those sheep will recognize that distinctive voice and come to their shepherd.
Does that remind you of the Easter Sunday story of Mary who is having a conversation with the man she thinks is the gardener about where the body of Jesus might have been taken? Then the man says her name, “Mary” and she knows immediately it is Jesus who is talking to her. (John 20.16)

Practicing resurrection requires listening. Listening for the voice of the shepherd who calls us by name. Whose voice we can learn to distinguish from the voices of those who pretend to be the shepherd but are really imposters only out for their own gain and have no interest in restoring and repairing our whole selves.
How do we learn to listen in this noisy world filled with all kinds of voices who say, “follow me,” “follow me,” “no, follow me.”
We listen when we pray. Not so much the laundry list of words many of us were taught to pray. But prayer that is listening. Quieting our hearts and minds to listen for the still, small voice of God who desires to speak with us.
We listen when we get quiet. When we slow down enough to notice what is going on right in front of us and right inside of us. When we find places of stillness where we can set aside the chatter in our brains even for a few minutes and open ourselves to hear God calling our name.
We listen when we notice our impulses and our cravings and watch them rather than giving in to them mindlessly and slavishly. Because those impulses and cravings are usually the voices of the imposter shepherds who are far more interested in their bottom line than our well-being.
We listen and practice resurrection every time we say, “O God, you are my shepherd. I lack nothing.” Reciting this prayer “against and in spite of the life-diminishing voices that tell us [lies about] who and what we are.”8

Hearing the voice of their true shepherd, the sheep follow. It occurs to me that the sheep follow their shepherd out of the sheepfold and into the sheepfold. Leaving the sheepfold, the shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters; walks with them through the deep valleys and in the midst of danger. The sheep are provided for by the shepherd. They lack for nothing.
At the end of the day, the sheep follow the shepherd back to the sheepfold where they will be safe through the night.
This may not be thinking like a sheep or a shepherd but if I were a sheep, I might prefer the green pastures to the sheepfold with all the other sheep. Especially if it was a community sheepfold where multiple flocks of sheep stayed. I imagine that sheepfold is smelly. Sheep can be dirty. Some sheep are mean. Now I’m thinking metaphorically and not so literally, but going back to the community sheepfold means being part of a community with others who might not be your first draft pick or even your last pick.
The honest truth is that listening to and following the Good Shepherd takes us to places we wouldn’t necessarily have gone ourselves. We find our lives changed by people we might not have befriended if it was just left up to us. We discover our hearts and minds are transformed in ways we couldn’t have anticipated and might not even have taken the risk on our own.
But practicing resurrection is the way to abundant life. “I am the gate for the sheep” Jesus says. And the gate and the shepherd provide the path to abundant life–whether it’s out to the grassy meadow or into the crowded sheepfold. Abundant life is life that is held in God; that is nourished by what we need; that sustains even through deep despair; that endures even in the face of hatred; that is infused with goodness and faithful love not because of circumstances but because of God’s abiding and enduring presence.

Now it might be tempting to gather up this abundant life, to practice resurrection, just for ourselves. But it’s never just for ourselves. The end we seek in practicing resurrection by listening and following is that we might be transformed disciples  of Christ and that the church might be carried away by the Spirit–not to heaven to escape the world–but carried away by the Spirit right into the middle of the beauty and brokenness of the world that we might be made whole by the God who is in the middle of all of it and who calls us to practice resurrection that we might be part of God’s transformation of the world.

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1 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/practice-resurrection-progressive-christian-theology-for-easter/, accessed 8 May 2014.
2 This summary of Clarence Jordan’s story and the quote come from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/practice-resurrection-progressive-christian-theology-for-easter/, accessed 8 May 2014.
3 J. David Dark, “Psalm 23 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p430.
4 Alice W. Hunt, “Exegetical Perspective – Psalm 23,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p435.
5 Thanks to the Reverend Janice Catron for this translation note.
6 Donald Senior, “Exegetical Perspective – John 10.1-10,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p445.
7 Tom Wright, John for Everyone – part one, (London: SPCK, 2002) p148.
8 Dark, p434.