Sunday, May 20, 2012

Do You Have the Son?


A sermon based upon 1 John 5: 9-13
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
7th Sunday of Easter, May 20th 2012

The Bible is about finding the fullness of life and love in God.  It directs us toward life’s most important questions.   But some people mistakenly think the Bible gives answers to all our human questions.  This creates all kinds of problems and arguments about the Bible, making us miss its main point, even causing some to lose faith.

Interestingly, Jesus did not answer everything people asked.  He directed people to the main point.   Do you remember that moment in Luke’s gospel chapter 13, when there arose concerned about the murders of some Galileans who were offering sacrifices to God in the Jerusalem temple?   During the fulfillment of their sacred duties, Pilate, the notorious governor of Jerusalem, had them murdered and mingled their own blood with the blood of their animal sacrifices as an insult.  Historically, we don’t exactly know what motivated the murders, but it was not unusual for governors to commit such atrocities if they thought there was a threat to the peace or to their power.   

Whatever the motivation, the incident brought theological questions to the mind those who witnessed and discussed the happening.   In Luke 13: 2, Jesus refers to the incident, but like a good Rabbi and teacher, instead of answering the question, he raises another question:  “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all others Galileans because they suffered?”  Then without pausing, he raises the again about a similar event.  “Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell, do you suppose they were greater sinners than those who live in Jerusalem?   To both questions Jesus does not give “answers”, but he commands personal responsibility:  “I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  We never know what happened to those people, but Jesus wants us to consider what could happen to us (See Luke 13: 1-9).   

People want Jesus to tell them what they want to hear, but Jesus insists on reminding us what God wants.   He tries to show people what they should do to save themselves from destruction.  Did they listen?  Were they saved?  The Bible leaves the question open as if the question is also for us.
Are some people “worse sinners than anyone else?”  These are hard questions to answer.  Remember that question which caused a stir some years ago:  Do you think God hears the prayers of the Jews?  Today people might be asking, do you think Muslims or Morman’s are really saved?   When we were children, we got into all kind of discussions, thinking we could know the answers to who are “the worse sinners”.   Are we any better for trying to answer such spiritual riddles?   As Jesus implies in this question his disciples, we may think we have the answer, but we still miss the question God is asking us. 

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION  
Today’s Bible text suggests the right question to ask:  “Do you have the Son?”  This question is implied at the end of John’s personal letter to the early Christian community where he makes a very powerful, either/or, black or white, statement: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1Jo 5:12 NRS).   This is “life” John is talking about.   Even more, this is “eternal life” he wants us to choose.   He wants us to get beyond the many other questions we might ask to the main one we should ask: “Do you have the Son?”   But before try to answer, let’s make sure we get the question right.

To get to the heart of matter, let’s get to the heart of the letter John wrote.   This first letter of John is intended for the Christian community.   It is not a letter written to the world nor is it written to unbelievers.  The purpose of the letter is clarified with an explosion of expectation in chapter one, verse four:  “I write these things so that you joy might be full” (1.4).   The message of love explodes  in chapter 3, when John writes:  “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us” (3.1).  This logic of God’s love permeates the pages as the command of Christ is elevated as the most important value for this newly formed Christian community: “Let us love one another, for love is of God---everyone who loves is of God.”

We shouldn’t have any problem following the main “love” line in this letter.  Life in God is the life of love and the love of community is being celebrated everywhere.  But in chapters 4 and 5 there suddenly appears a big, theologically rich qualification.  It starts out in a non-threatening manner in the second verse of chapter four: “Whoever believes that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is born of God and everyone who loves is born of him and keeps his commandments….”   (4: 2).  The first part shows how our faith in Jesus includes us in God’s love, but the second part becomes exclusive.  It adds this very specific and a specialized qualification: “and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.  And this is the Spirit of Antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and is now already in the world“ (v. 3).  

Such a strong and somewhat mysterious qualification lies behind the same qualification contained in our text, where John writes in either/or fashion:  “Whoever has the Son has life.  Whoever who does not have the son of God does not have life….” (5.12).   Even in stronger terms, John reminds his readers they have received the “testimony of God” (v. 9) on this, but once again he qualifies the matter saying that those “not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son”have made (God) a liar” (v. 10).   Making God a liar disqualifies us from having “eternal life” (13).    

Now we are getting to the main question John is asking the community of faith.  Similar to Jesus moving from the question of who is the “worse sinner” to commanding, “unless you repent, you will perish”, John’s is not talking about “outsiders” who have never been in the community of faith, but his question is being asked to the community of faith itself.   He says he is writing “these things” to (those) who believe in the name of the Son of God so they know they have eternal life” (vs. 13).  Do you see what is going on?   When John makes the statement: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life”, he is not writing asking the world, but he is writing to those “who believe”.   

THE QUESTION GOD IS ASKING
God’s question is not to get us to doubt our salvation, but to the contrary, John writes: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (John 1.4).   John’s letter is not about figuring out who is “in” and who is “out”, but is primarily about making sure we have the life and love God wants to give.   John has explained his reason for writing from the opening lines as a matter of “fellowship”: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that YOU MAY HAVE ALSO HAVE FELLOWSHIP WITH US;  ….with the Father…and with his Son Jesus Christ (1.3).    This question of having “fellowship” with “one another” is at the heart of the matter.   John’s letter is full of warnings about what might keep us from having true “fellowship” with God and with one another.   These “warnings” take us straight to the main question God asks.    
The first warning comes in chapter one, verse 8, right after he introduces his “fellowship” theme, referring to “blood of Jesus, which cleanses us from sin.”  John warns unequivocally: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”   Confessing our sins brings both forgiveness and fellowship with God and with the community of faith, but if we “say we have not sinned”, we “make God a liar”, his “truth is not in us”, and we can’t have the kind of fellowship or relationships we are intended to have.   Sin gets in the way, unless it is confessed and forgiven.   Anyone who says they have no sin goes against the very life and love God can give—and is, thereby, disqualified.   Of course, we are supposed to have power over sin, and Jesus forgives and atones for sins, both our sin and the world’s sin, but we are still sinners and we need continual confession and forgiveness to keep community together.

This brings us to the second warning, which follows closely in chapter 2.  “Whoever says, I have come to know him, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar and in such a person the truth does not exist” (2.4).  John’s language is to the point.   He tells us that “obedience”--that is obeying God’s word is how God’s ‘love reaches perfection’---this is how joy and love are made complete and full (2.5).   Our obedience is how we are “sure” (2.5) we are in him.   Whoever says “I abide in him” ought to “walk just as he walked” (2.6).

This might sound hard or like something “new” that is added to grace, but John adds: “I am writing you no new commandment.”    This is “an old commandment that you have had from the beginning” (2.7).  In other words who ever says, “I am in the light” while hating a brother or sister is still in darkness”  (2.9).   You can’t have it both ways.  “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light” (2.10). “Whoever hates another believer is in still in the dark, walks in darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness brings blindness”  (2.11).  The warning cannot be more graphic.   Here is the same kind of terminology we have in our text.  If you say you “have the son”, you need to know what this means.  To “have the son” means more than having “your own” belief.  It also means confessing sins, obeying God’s will and it means loving others.   There is more to “having the son” than saying the words.

The third warning takes the issue of “having the son” to yet another level.  He writes in chapters 2. 15: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the Father is not in those who love the world.”  What John means is clarified as “the desire of the flesh”, the “desire of eyes”, “the pride in riches”, which “come not from the Father, but from the world”---a world which “passes away.”  Only those “who do the will of God live forever.”  When John warns about loving the “world” John is specifically warning against wayward selfishness which keeps us from doing the “will of God”.   This kind of self-focused “love of the world” fails to realize what matters most.   We are given life to live for God and for others, not just to live for the satisfaction of our desires.  If your desires for the world mislead you, it is “made plain” you never “belonged to us” (2.19).  

This is strong language.  What it means to “have the Son” and to have the “life” the Son gives is being qualified by John’s warnings.  And again, what is most important for us to grasp is that this qualification is not being made to the “world” outside the community of faith, but the qualification is made about those who “say” they have the Son, but have proved otherwise:  They say they have the forgiveness---but do not confess their own sins.   They say they know him, but do not keep his commands.  They say they are “in the light”, but still walk in darkness.  They say they love God, but only show “hate” toward their brothers and sisters.  John’s letter is written to clarify again for the church what it means to “believe” in Jesus Christ.

THE QUESTION GOD STILL ASKS OF US
Finally, just before our text, John advises a clear distinction to be made when considering our own “belief”.  In the chapter just before our text, he says: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” (4.1).   With this final warning, the message of his letter is qualified, clarified and simplified in one single statement that overflows with Christian theology.  In First John, chapter four, verse two, John declares in the most Christian terms possible: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.  And every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

Here John declares what it means to “have the Son”:  To “confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” is the most important part of our faith for fellowship with God and with each other.   This is what it means to “have the Son”:  Having and holding to this “incarnational faith”, not only with words, but holding with your whole being, your whole life and with all your love, is the most important qualifier of true Christian faith.  This is the question put to the church and to us.    When we say we have faith, do we have the Son who gives our faith “flesh” as we live in love?   To have “incarnational faith”; that is to “have the Son” means that our faith lives and puts on flesh and bones in the real world.   We can live our whole lives to answer how faith lives and loves.  True faith demands all our life and all our love.  When we put on love like Jesus put on flesh, the more our faith becomes proves it is true and we “know we have eternal life”. 

Maybe you’ve seen the email going around that provides the answers a bunch of eight-year-olds gave to the question, "What is love?"   Some of the answers are cute, such as "Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day."    Some of the answers are humorous, such as, "I let my big sister pick on me because my Mom says she only picks on me because she loves me. So I pick on my baby sister because I love her."   But then there is this one, which tells the truth: "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate."  Love is something that God wants us to do in the flesh—in our real lives.  In fact, living a life of love in our own flesh is essential to remain in a relationship with Jesus.  

Let me tell you about a boy named Tom, and how he learned about love lived in the flesh.    Tom was born in Korea, around 1951.  Tom had another name when he was born, a Korean name, and a name his mother gave him. But that was the only thing she ever gave him.  Even his food had to be snatched when his mother wasn’t looking, or earned by salvaging tobacco from cigarettes dropped by marines at the camp down the road.

Tom’s mother was an alcoholic, and she was a prostitute. Tom’s father was some long forgotten GI. Tom’s earliest memories are of life lived on the streets, with other kids in the same predicament. They were mixed race kids, ignored by America and scorned by Korea. They learned to avoid the marines; they huddled together at night for warmth or for shelter, and returned to their mothers’ homes at daybreak, when the coast was clear.

Somehow, Tom made his way to Seoul, and it was there he found an ideal place for living the only life he knew—the train station. He quickly learned that he could easily steal all the food he wanted from travelers waiting to catch their train. He would snatch their bag, take off running, and then drop some of the food in the bag. While his pursuers stopped to pick up their food, Tom ran off with the rest of the food. Tom needed food. He was 7 years old, and he weighed 33 pounds.

Then one day, while Tom was running with his hands full of stolen food, he ran smack into a large, stern looking man in uniform. He was a policeman, and Tom’s life of crime was over.
"SIT DOWN," the man said. "RIGHT HERE, AND DON’T MOVE."
But in the place where he sat, someone sat down beside him.   It was a lady, an older lady with white hair.  She sat down beside him in that place of judgment and reproach, and she did something that Tom had never, ever, experienced before.   She gave him candy. For an hour, she sat with him and watched him and gave him candy.

Then the policeman came back and gave Tom a choice.  "You can come with me," he said, "Or you can go with her."   There was bad news, or there was good news, Tom had a choice as to what it would be. Tom took the good news. He went with the white-haired lady who gave him candy.

That white-haired lady took Tom to an orphanage founded by American Harry Holt. The orphanage found American parents for Tom—an amazing feat, since he was a wild seven-year-old street kid. Those parents raised Tom and taught him discipline and concerned for others.   When Tom tells his story, you are immediately impressed by the fortitude and dedication of his American parents. But as he told their story, I realized that loving him was not just something they decided to do.  It was who they are—in the flesh.  Their love for Tom was the outgrowth of the way they had been living all along—loving their enemies and their neighbors, practicing mercy, living generously with a vision of God’s future always on their mind.

Tom grew up and became a District Court Judge in Kansas.  One day he was speaking to the students at a local High School.
"How do you treat your friends and classmates?" he asked.
"Do you treat them like expensive china, like something you value? Or do you treat them like paper plates that you use once, and throw away?"
Tom knew what Love was, because he had been loved by someone who practiced it, day in and day out, over and over again---and “love became flesh”.  He had been treated like expensive china, and love made a difference.  (Story as told by George Pasley in a sermon “Are We in Trouble or What” at www.goodpreacher.com).

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life.”  (John 5:13).   When the love that became flesh for you now becomes flesh in you, this is how you “know” you have the Son.  Amen.

© 2012 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Hardest Work in the World


A Sermon based upon John 15: 9-17; Acts 10: 44-48
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Mother’s Day, 6th Sunday of Easter, May 13th, 2012

About a month ago, democratic political advisor, Hilary Rosen set off a political firestorm when she commented on CNN that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, because she is a stay-at-home mom, “has never worked a day in her life.” 

The backlash to Rosen’s critical comment were swift and so strongly negative that Rosen had to go back on CNN several times with both oral and written apologies.  Even President Obama attempted to distance himself her comments saying that “moms have the toughest job in the world.”   “Anybody who thinks otherwise, needs to rethink their statement.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/12/obama-hilary-rosen-being-a-mom_n_1422036.html). 

Today, this being Mother’s Day, I would like to add my own thoughts to this most recent public conversation concerning “the toughest job in the world”.  What I want you to understand from these words of Jesus and from the truth of the gospel, is that the work of love is often hard to understand.  It is not only difficult for Hilary Rosen to understand the work of love, but it was also hard for Jesus’ disciples; and it can also be hard for us.  Love always has been and always will be, both the greatest and the toughest job in the world.   It seems, in our world, that some people know about working for money; working for power, prestige or political office, but less and less about lifting up “the work of love”.   If we can agree with the world on any single thing that Jesus accomplished, in both his life and his death, it is that he attuned hearts to the value of both divine and human love.

LOVE IS MORE THAN A FEELING
In the very first words of today’s text from John, the heart of Jesus’ life and message surfaces, when Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you (vs. 9).  Here, Jesus reminds all his disciples, including us, that the very source of his life and his love comes from the Heavenly Father, whose love is the foundation of his ability to share and show love.  The way that we know that Jesus’ love for his disciples is confirmed and made clearer as Jesus goes on to say in verse 13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends.”   Could there be any “harder work” than to give up your own life for the sake of another?  And this is exactly what true love does.   The work of love is to be able to love someone more than you love your own self.   This is part of the true definition of love, which is not always defined nor understood.  For example,  if you “Google” the words “definition” and “love” together you’ll get an online dictionary, which gives this definition of love:  “an intense feeling of deep affection.”     If you “click” on more information, you’ll get additional defintions, from 1 to 10, from love as being defined as “romantic or sexual attraction”,taking an “interest or pleasure in someone or something” all the way to “the score of zero in tennis”.   But there is nothing in any of the popular defintions that says anything about giving your life for the love of another.    I find this very interesting and even disturbing that love is defined as “feeling” or “liking”, but never as “giving” your own life to another.   My point here is not just that these definitions of love miss the idea of “laying down your life for someone”, but that the whole idea Jesus implies of love as being something you “do” or as something you “give” has been lost. https://www.google.com/search?source=ig&hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS340&q=defintion+love&btnG=Google+Search#hl=en&sa=G&pwst=1&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS340&q=love&tbs=dfn:1&tbo=u&ei=jCupT7OiIImE8ASAwL3GAw&ved=0CG4QkQ4&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=ecb6a798695883bc&biw=1346&bih=833 . 

The picture of love as “hard work”, which is much more than a mere emotion is clarified again when Jesus adds the conditional phrase in verse 14: “You are my friends IF YOU DO WHAT I COMMAND YOU.”    Again, love is “more than a feeling” (quoting the 70’s Band Boston) for love means “doing” and showing what we feel in real, living, personal “acts of love”---the greatest of which is to ‘give’ or as Jesus says, “lay down your life for your friends.”   Jesus even explains further how and why he can do this, as he reminds his disciples that as their Teacher and Rabbi, he has “loved them from the very first, saying, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (15:16).   When I read those words, I can’t help on this mother’s day not to hear the echo of my own mother’s words to me when she explained what it meant for me to be “adopted”.   “Being adopted,” she told me, means that “you were especially chosen to be our child”.  You were not born, naturally into our family but you were “chosen”, which means you are even more special to us.”  And because we “chose” you, we love you just as much as if you were born to us. “   When you are a child, wondering, maybe even subconsciously “worrying” about being “adopted”, it always helps when you mother tells you, “WE CHOSE YOU!”    And guess what?  The Scripture also tells us that “God choose us!”   As the apostle Paul elaborates later, we too, even as sinners, have “been destined to be {God’s} adopted children through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5).  To love and adopt sinners is more than a feeling.  As Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Romans,  “God shows his love for us… even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us “ (Romans 5.8).  Here again, we find that it takes much more than a feeling to love and to save sinners.   

LOVE IS THE HARDEST WORK
Because true love can demand the price of life itself, love is and will always be “the hardest work in the world”.   Love is the “hardest work” of God and the “hardest work” for humanity as well, but it is also necessary work.   So, let’s talk a little more fully about “what this hard work of love means” in our own lives, not just as mothers, but for all of us, as people who find our “life” and source of “love” in Jesus Christ.

If you continue to read Christ’s words to his disciples, you will find that he tells them much more about what love means in this discourse.   For one thing, Jesus suggests that if they reciprocate the Father’s love in the world, they too must do the “hard work” of obeying his command of “loving one another” (15:12).  Loving one another as disciples will be hard enough, but Jesus goes on to add, just outside of our text, words of warning about an even greater cost of the hard work of love.  In verse 18 we read, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own, but I have chosen you out of the world---therefore the world hates you” (John 15: 18-19).   Here, we can see another way “love” becomes hard work.  It’s is not just hard to love, but when we love, we have also chosen what we will love and what we will not love; that is, to some things in this world we say yes, but to other things, we say a definite no.   Because saying yes to Jesus, means we say no, as we choose to love Christ; we bear the risk and cost of being “hated” by the world.   As the Bible says, God loves the world, but there is a part of the “world” that does not love God.  We must do the hard work of taking the “risk” of loving in a world that does not yet know how to love, like God loves the world.

Love is a hard work, because there is always a risk involved when we love.   If you turn in your Bibles to another text for this morning, the story of how the church in Acts learned to love, like God loves, you will see one of the greatest examples of how the church of Jesus learned to accept the risk and the hard work of love.  Acts 10: 44-48 gives us the ending of a great love story; a love story that was “inspired” and “directed” by the mothering, feminine side of God, we call the Holy Spirit.   It tells us how the gift of “Holy Spirit” and God’s love fell upon “Gentiles” people whom Jews and the even the first Jewish Christians had a hard time loving.   But in this story we see a new kind of love story taking place.   The story begins with the story of the Gentile Cornelius, who lived in the Gentile town of Caesarea, who loved and feared God, and had a dream to invite Peter, the leader of the early church to his home.   We also read how Peter also had a dream; a dream that God revealed it was now right for him, as a Jew, to go into a Gentile’s home and eat the foods that Gentile’s eat.  

Why was God speaking in this dream for a Gentile to love a Jew who had hated them?   Why was God calling a Jew who had become a follow of Jesus to eat with a Gentile and break all the Jewish laws of purity and cleanness?  Why did the God who is supposed to never change, suddenly decided to change all the rules?   Why did God ask humans to do this strange, risky, new and hard work of love?   Well, the gospel truth is that Jesus had “warned” his disciples that something new was going to happen in the work of God’s love.   According to John’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd of the Sheep” (John 10: 11a) and he also said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11b) but he added, “I have other sheep who are not of this fold” (John 10:16). 

In another moment of life formation with my own mother, I’ll never forget when my mother gave me my first “hard” lesson about love.  I was an only child, and as an only child, I didn’t have “brothers” or “sisters”, but I had been given a few more “things” to play with, I guess.   I surely didn’t have “everything I wanted”, but I know they sometimes compensated by giving me a little more than I needed.   But I also needed, even more, to learn how to socialize and to learn how to love.   On this one occasion, very early, I was probably about 5, not yet in school.  My mother had invited another child my age to come over and play.  We were playing in my room, and we were coloring in our coloring books, when my playmate wanted to color out of my special book.  You see, I had early artist abilities, and I didn’t like to share my coloring book.  But when my Mom saw my resistance, she came over and asked me to share.  It was in that moment that I realize that my Mom’s love was not just big enough for me, but my mother’s love was also big enough for a stranger.  She made me share so I could learn that with true love, there was always enough to go around and that it was not love unless we were willing to share; and to share it even with the stranger in our midst.   In short, she showed me, in that childhood moment, that both my mom and God, had “other sheep who were not of “our” fold.

Good parenting helps the child form not only love in the family, but love for “others” who are outside the family.  Good parenting instills the importance of sharing and caring for other people; people who, are sometimes even every hard to love.   Another time, not long thereafter, a neighborhood child came into our yard and stole one of my toys.  I told my mother about who I thought it was, and we went to the home to retrieve the toy.  When the child’s mother declared the toy was theirs, which I knew to be a lie, we left the home without an argument.   On the way home, I pick up a stick and was ready to go back and demand my toy back.  That’s how hurt and angry I was.  But mom looked at me and said, “Put that stick down.”  
I replied, “But mom.  It was my toy.  I know it was!
She quickly calmed me, saying;  “I know it was Joey, but maybe she didn't have the money to buy him such a nice toy.  Tomorrow, we will go to town and buy you another.”
I could not fully understand why my mom did not demand justice and demand my toy.  But later, I realized what she was doing was teaching me something far greater.  That some “other” people are missing something else we have already and can share.  For the sake of love, sometimes we must forget the rules and show mercy and compassion.  This is what God does when he forgives us and we must do it for others too.   It is hard, yes it was hard, but it was a necessary lesson then, just as it still is today.   This work of love, to love the unlovable is hard, but it is still being inspired by the Holy Spirit.   It takes risk to do so.  It challenges our preconceptions and our prejudices, but this is the hard work of love. 

LOVE HAS THE ONLY FRUIT THAT WILL LAST
Marci Glass, a Presbyterian minister in Idaho, speaks of how, for the sake of love, the Holy Spirit will often challenge our assumptions about all kinds of things.  The Spirit will not only guide us to love people we would not normally love, the Spirit also puts us in situations which are uncomfortable, challenging, but will also become situations that can help break down barriers and boundaries we have set up in our lives and keep us from loving.   

She tells about leading a small group where there was a man from Kenya participating.  He had become her friend and when he came to the states and for a while she hosted him in her home.   Reaching out across cultures “was both an exciting and exhausting experience”, she said.  “Our food preferences were different.  Our life experiences were different.  For example, he didn’t understand, no matter how much I tried to explain to him, why I got in my car and drove to a gym to run on a treadmill.  I realized that it defied explanation to even to me….But it was one of those experiences where we could shed light on each other’s cultures.  Lots of people drive to the gym to run on a treadmill.  It never occurred to me, before he mentioned it, how ridiculous that is….  He also didn’t understand why a member of our church kept pet goats.  “I can show you how to butcher and cook him,” he told the family who politely declined the offer of turning Billy into stew.”  (From the sermon: "Boundaries" by Marci Auld Glass in Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XXIII, Number 3, April-May, 2012, p. 54).

In the Bible Jesus says he has “other sheep”.   Later, when the time is right, God inspires both Cornelius and Peter to come together and try to learn to understand each other, to see each other differently, and to try to find out why they need to come together and learn to love each other as part of God’s growing family.   But this isn’t easy.  Peter winds up in all sorts of trouble with the church.   To show how crazy this all was, Peter is not in trouble with the Church because he baptized Cornelius, but because he ate dinner with him.  That shows us too, how immature some of our divisions and differences can become.   Perhaps there was a time when we were too immature to understand what really mattered.  Perhaps there is a time in all our lives when we have to learn what is most important.  What is most important now, is that we learn from both our immaturity and from the new thing God wants to do with us all.   God wants us to keep doing the greatest, but hardest work in the world: He wants us to grow and learn better how we can love.  As Jesus told his disciples, when they walked by the grapevine; “I appointed you to go, and bear fruit, fruit that will last”  (15:16).  What is the fruit that will last?  Again, Paul clarifies: “These three remain: Faith, Hope and Love.  But the greatest is love (1 Cor. 13:13).  And all God’s people say:   Amen!

© 2012 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.    

Monday, May 7, 2012

Are You Connected?

A sermon based upon John 15: 1-10
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter 5, May 6th, 2012

A newspaper reporter went to interview a successful small business owner. "How did you do it?" he asked. "How did you make all this money?"
"I’m glad you asked," the businessman said. "It’s a great story. When my wife and I married, we started out with a roof over our heads, some food in our pantry, and five cents between us. I took that nickel, went down to the grocery store, bought an apple, shined it up, and sold it for ten cents. "
"What did you do then?" the reporter asked.
"Well," he said, "I bought two more apples, shined them up, and sold them for twenty cents." The reporter thought this would be a great human interest story, so he asked excitedly, "Then what?" The businessman replied, "Then my father-in-law died and left us $20 million".

The businessman prospered not because of his own ingenuity, but because he was connected. Are you connected?   Of course, when we think of having connections in this “wired” younger folks think about being connected to Social media like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.   In this “brave new world” of technology many think of being connected in a whole new way. 

King Duncan tells how a group of young children were sitting in a circle with their teacher. She was going around asking each of them questions.
“Davy, what noise does a cow make?”  He said, “It goes moo.”
“Alice, what noise does a cat make?”    “It goes meow,” she answered.
“Jamie, what sound does a lamb make?”  “It goes baaa,” he said.
“Jennifer, what sound does a mouse make?”  Without hesitation she answered, “It goes click!”

So, the question, “Are you connected?” means different things to different people.   But here we must be careful.   There is a certain danger associated with electronic connectedness.  Despite all the hype about being connected through the Internet, a number of studies suggest that this technology is actually disconnecting many of us from those around us.   A study of the Stanford Institute found that:  13 percent of regular net users that is, those who are on the web five hours or more a week reported spending less time with family and friends; 8 percent said they were now attending fewer social events; and 26 percent said they talked less to friends and family by telephone.  Being connected face to face with family and friends is what gives life meaning.   Another prominent researcher noted recently, that even as many people have a swarm of friends on Facebook,  “friending” people online is not the same as “befriending” or being a friend in real life.  Instead of creating a global village, the Internet can distract and distance us from each other.   The average American today already has only a third as many friends as 25 years ago, and one-fourth have no close confidants at all, according to recent research.  Even in a “wired world” we are fast becoming a very disconnected society (This statistics from a sermon by King Duncan entitled “How Connected are You) at www.sermons.org).

This could mean “trouble” ahead because staying connected is important to our health and general well-being as people and as a society.  That is at least what medical studies are showing us. One study compared 12,000 Japanese men living in Japan with Japanese men who had moved to Hawaii or California. The researchers looked at smoking, diet, exercise, cholesterol levels, and social support (the maintenance of family and community ties).  The group with the lowest social support (the California group) had a threefold to fivefold increase in heart disease.  The researchers concluded that social networks and close family ties help protect against disease and premature death.   By staying connected to other people, the research shows, and you will be healthier.   (From The American Journal of Epidemiology (1975): 102(6): 51425. Cited by Walter L. Larimore M.D., 10 Essentials of Highly Healthy People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 140.    But the effects of social isolation are not just medical.  A British study suggests that social isolation is in part responsible for the fact that suicides among those under the age of 35 have risen at such a dramatic rate.  In studying the lives of 148 young people who died of either suicide or natural causes, the researcher found that those who killed themselves were more likely to be living alone, single, unemployed and with few friends. In other words, they were socially isolated, disconnected. (Donald M. Tuttle, http://www.firstchristiancc.org/images/sermons/Oct%201,%202000.htm).

In his book, Real Age, Michael Roizen calculates how different factors affect one’s life expectancy.  For socialization he cites three factors: 1) being married, 2) seeing at least six friends at least monthly, and 3) participating in social groups, such as a church or a club.    The “real age” for a 55-year-old man who meets all three criteria married, has at least 6 friends, and goes to church is 46 in terms of life expectancy.    And you thought being married made you older.   Not so, in terms of life expectancy, it makes you younger.   If the 55-year-old man meets at least two of these criteria, his real age is 49.   If he meets one criterion, his real age is 53.  The real age of a 55-year-old man who meets none of these criteria is 63 eight years older than his chronological age.   For a 55 year old woman the real ages are 49, 53, 59, and 61. Presumably, says researchers, the effect is a little stronger for men because women in our culture are better at social networking  (From Michael Brickey, Ph.D., Defy Aging (Columbus, OH: New Resources Press, 2000), p. 18).

Need more evidence?   When a partner’s spouse dies, his or her risk of illness or death skyrockets for the first year.  Retirement also changes social networks and can be very stressful.  I’ll never forget how my neighbor in childhood, who did not go to church, died of a heart attack the very week after he retired.  The point is that it’s very important at any age and time in life to stay connected.  Are you connected?

WE MUST MAKE CONNECTING OURSELVES WITH GOD PRIORITY ONE
In our Bible text for today, Jesus expresses the need for his disciples to stay connected.   In verse 4 we read these powerful words: “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (John 15: 4). 

Think about that word “abide” for a moment.   Brett Younger says it’s a “funny word to read out loud.”  Say it out loud with me ten times: Abide!  Abide!  Abide!  Abide! Abide! Abide!  Abide!  Abide!  Abide!  Abide! Abide! Abide!...   That’s probably ten more times than you’ve said the world in a year.  Abide is an old-fashioned word.   It’s just not used anymore.  How many times have you seen a Hotel Sign say, “Abide hear!”  In Baseball they don’t say, “one hit, one walk, and two ‘abiding’ on base.”  Mick Jaggar never sang, “Let’s abide the night together.”  The word “abide” belongs to another time.  It has to do with persevering, continuing, and lasting.  In our day, even the idea of “staying” with someone through thick and thin is becoming uncommon.  Maybe abiding is used so rarely today, because we have no real use for it.  Friendships normally break up.   National treaties are broken more than they are kept.  Business contracts are “on paper only”.  Marriage covenants are easily broken as the “best way out”.  Staying with anyone has become so hard most people don’t more than do. 

Staying with God is also hard and very difficult in our world today.    How can anyone “connect” with the God who has been chased “out of the public square” of our society?    For many people today sustaining a connection with God has become more difficult because faith has become an option or a choice, not a requirement nor a necessity.     But what we need to understand from this text, first of all, is that staying connected to God was not easy for Judas, Peter, or the rest of the disciples either.   Twelve of Jesus closest friends are with him on the night he was betrayed.   All of them will fail to “abide” with him when he needs them most.   “Abide” is a word that does not fit Judas, Peter or the rest of the disciples in this difficult moment.   It is not what they were always able to do, but it is something they have to learn to do, if they want to be fruitful with God in the future. 

This is why Jesus gives them this beautiful imagery of “The True Vine” and the “Branches”.    If you want to grow, mature and bear fruit in your faith, you must “connect”, “abide” and they must make their home in Jesus, as Jesus makes his home in them.   This is why Jesus says to them loud and clear:  “A branch cannot bear fruit by itself” (vs. 4)… “apart from me you can do nothing” (vs. 5).    All of us have walk around in our yard after a storm and seen a limb dangling from a tree, already within a day or so, withering because it has been disconnected from its life source.     In the same way, without staying connected with God, we cut ourselves off from the very life source we have been given by our creator.   But this happens all the time, in our world.   People tend to think that they can live, sustain life, and keep on enduring as a people, without making God the priority of our lives.   We think we can do fine on our own.  We think we can keep God as an option, but not as a requirement.    We think things will go along fine without keeping God in the main equation of our lives.  And we can do well for a time.   Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker theologian, once said of our time that our society without God in the center is a “cut-flower” generation.   By living on our own, without keeping God as our center, we look good all organized in pretty self-watered “vases”, but in reality we are just a few days away from withering and decay.    This is what Joseph Stalin’s daughter realized, when she left her Father’s atheistic communism for America, saying, “I can’t bear a life that is empty without God.”

We can still believe the serpent’s lie that “apart from God” we can do whatever we want, when in reality, just as Adam in the garden, our wrong choices cut can cut our very life cord so that the “fruit” we have enjoyed is about to dry up and run out.     In order to be truly fruitful in life, we must remain faithful in God.   This is what Jesus is describing to his disciples.  But what does that look like in this imagery of Vine and the Branches?

WE MUST REMAIN ROOTED IN JESUS BY CONTINUED PARTICPATION IN HIS LIFE OF LOVE
All of us need attachment to our “roots” to remain grounded and alive.   Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit (vs. 5).  By abiding and remaining connected with Jesus we stay rooted and grounded in that which nourishes and replenishes our lives.    I found it interesting, that in the last three years, there has been a new “reality” TV show which traces the “roots” of celebrities.   Recently I watched the NBC show, “Who Do You Think You Are” as Reba McIntyre went overseas to try to find out why one of her ancestors left for America and why her family once own slaves.    Then, on her trip to Europe, she discovered that her ancestor George Brassfield was put on a ship as a helpless nine year old, after his mother had died.   She finds herself in tears as comes to understand many things about her family and their will to survive and thrive in the new world.

It should not surprise us that famous people, wealthy people, even people who seem to have everything already, still need to find a sense of “rootedness” in this world.   As Christians, we too have deep spiritual roots and we need them.  Our faith comes “from somebody” and it comes “through somebody”.   As the writer of Hebrews wrote, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses…”  (12.1) or as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received….” (1 Cor. 15: 3).  We need strong “roots” to remember and remind ourselves “who” we are.

Jesus says that his disciples remain “rooted” as they “abide” or “remain” in the vine as their life pipeline to the very roots of faith.   In order to remain “rooted” in Christ as the true Vine, as “branches” we have to participate in the very life he gives us.    This is what Jesus means when he says, in verse seven: “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you….”   Jesus does not mean being connected with him to get “everything we want”, but he is speaking of the “wishes” that pertain to his “words.”   It is made clear that “whatever we ask in the name of Jesus” (John 14: 13) and in the “love” of Jesus (John 14: 15-16; 15: 9-10), we participate in the very life of Christ that makes us strong and fruitful in this world.   

Prayer to God in Jesus’ name is the first way we participate in Jesus’ life, but our prayers are not just any kind of praying.   Prayers which are rooted in Christ reveal our desire to keep the way and commandment of love: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and abide in his love” (John 15: 10).    What all is there to praying and participating in keeping the commandment of love?  More than anything else, it means “practicing our faith” in ways that help us grow spiritually and making a real impact on our world.   According to a recent listing of Christian practices:
We practice and participate in the life of Jesus and in the Father’s love when we “honor our bodies” as the temples of God’s Holy Spirit and offer “hospitality” to strangers.  
We participate in Jesus’ life and love when we say “yes” to certain good things, and when we say “no” to things that are bad for us and our world.  
We participate in Jesus’ life when we “manage” the affairs of our own household well, and when we keep the Sabbath by worshipping God regularly.  
We also participate in Jesus’ life and remain rooted in him by having a testimony to his goodness in our lives and sharing it, by taking time to carefully study , pray and discern the times, by giving shape to community as we forgive others, offer care, concern, help and healing to others, and as we sing our way through life together, until we give our  lives back to God.    

 If you want a biblical picture of what participating in Jesus’ life means in the most practical, every-day terms turn to Romans 12:9, where Paul reminds believers to “let love be genuine; (to) hate what is evil, (to) hold fast to what is good; to love one another with mutual affection; (to) outdo one another in showing honor (respect).  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in sufferings, persevere (or that is, abide) in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers… Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another…..LIVE PEACEABLY WITH ALL…(Romans 12: 9-18).

Pastor Maxie Dunnam, tells how John Wesley, learned as a student at Oxford, about being rooted in Christ through loving God through others.  Early one evening, a poor porter knocked on his door and asked for the opportunity to speak with him.  Wesley invited him in and as they engaged in conversation.  The fella was shivering because he had on a very thin coat, and it was cold.  Wesley looked at him and said, you’d better get a heavier coat to wear.   And the porter said, this is the only coat I own and I thank God for it.   Then Wesley said to him, have you eaten today?  He said, the only thing I’ve had today is water to drink, but I thank God for the water.   

Well Wesley was getting a little bit upset with this, and he suggested to the porter that he might go home soon because his quarters might be locked up and he would have to sleep outside then.   And he then said to the porter, what then would you thank God for? And the porter responded, I would thank God that I had dry stones upon which to lie. Well Wesley was really upset by this time.  “You thank God for having little food, you thank God not having adequate clothing, you thank God for not having a roof over your head; what else do you thank God for?”   And in the most simple, straightforward way, the porter said, “I thank God that he has given me life, that he has given me a heart to love him, and the will serve him.     

The porter went his way that night with a coat from Wesley’s closet, and with some money to purchase some food, but also with a word of gratitude from Wesley.   And later that night, Wesley wrote in his journal something like this – I will never forget that porter, because he taught me something about Christianity to which I am a stranger.    What does God have to teach you through living and love in the name of Jesus, that you haven’t learned on your own?  Is this not how we also participate in the life of Jesus, as we learn to abide with him and keep on practicing his love in every situation of our lives?

WE MUST ALLOW FOR GOD’S PRUNING IN OUR LIVES
I have saved the “hardest” thing about abiding in Jesus for last.  But Jesus put it right up front when he told his disciples:  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  EVERY BRANCH THAT BEARS FRUIT HE PRUNES TO MAKE IT BEAR MORE FRUIT” (John 15: 1-2).

This “hardest” thing about abiding and staying with God is the “pruning process.”  Who wants to be “pruned”?    In a PEANUTS strip Lucy is parked in her psychiatric booth, and Charlie Brown is sharing his problems with her.
"Sometimes I ask myself questions," he begins. "Sometimes I ask myself,  “Is this your real life, or is this just a pilot film?  Is my life a thirtynineweek series or is it something special?'"
 In no time at all Lucy analyzes his problem and gives an instant answer: "Whatever it is, you ratings are down.,  Five cents, please.!"

Poor Charlie Brown.  No one likes to be “pruned” especially from someone like “Lucy”.  Charlie Brown knows that nothing much is happening in his life, but he is afraid to make the changes that need to be made.  He is afraid of being “pruned”.  Perhaps we are too.  It’s hard to “remove” the branches from our lives that have become unproductive.  It’s hard to let go of things that strain us and keep us from  growth and maturity.   But this is exactly what a good Vinegrower does to the Vine.   A good Vinegrower knows that Vines need a lot of attention to bear the best fruit.  The ground has to be cleared and clean.  The vines need to be trained to grow upward.   The vines should not be allowed to grow too quickly so they need drastic pruning.  For the first three years a young vine is not allowed to bear any fruit.  It is continually “cut back” to conserve energy.  It has to learn to store its energy for maturity.  When the branch is mature,  the branches that are not fruit bearing are cut off, so the ones bearing fruit will have full strength.  Vines can’t produce good fruit without such drastic, continual pruning. 

We don’t like God’s pruning process, but when the Vinegrower prunes with caring and skilled hands, the Vine is not harmed, but helped.   The Vine is not injured, but is repaired, reinvigorated, and restored to full capacity and its greatest capability of fruitfulness.   The truth is, we will not fully mature and bear fruit, until we learn to allow some “branches” of our lives to be cut.   If we want life in the Vine of Christ, we have to rearrange priorities; we have to focus on the root purposes, and we have allow God to shape our lives, even by letting go of those things that drain our energy for good, for maturity and for life.  

I’m convinced that the reason many people don’t stay in marriages, don’t stay in long standing commitments, don’t stay as close and as committed to each other is because we resist the “pruning process” that is part of true connectedness.    You can avoid “pruning” with Facebook, but not so in real life connections.   If you stay married to someone very long, you’ll be “pruned”.  If you stay in a close relationship with anyone, you’ll be reprimanded or reminded of something.  It’s painful to be “pruned” in a relationship, but Jesus reminds his disciples that the Father, who is the Vinegrower, will also “prune” those branches that do not bear fruit.   Our God is a Father who “disciplines those he loves” (See Hebrews 12:6).   But it is this very process which brings us new energy and potential for life.  Pruning is, as someone has said, “the clearing away of the debris of our very messy lives.”

Last month, the night of April 14th and 15th marked the hundred year anniversary of sinking of the Titanic.   The anniversary of this tragedy has spawned a new 3D release of the film, a National Geographic minisub exploration special, and a fresh upwelling of Titanic memorabilia. Why is it that a shipwreck that happened one hundred years ago still holds our attention, still feeds our fascination?  The Titanic was considered the singular greatest scientific, mechanical, manmade marvel of its day. The beautiful, enormous, exceptionally engineered ship represented the epitome of modern design, scientific genius, and human creativity. The “Titanic” was not just a ship. It was the “fruit” of perfect human achievement.   And then it sank. It sank on its maiden voyage.  Over 1500 people died. Everything “Titanic” represented was suddenly leaden and dead wrong.    The “fruit of human perfectibility” — sunk to the bottom of the sea.

In the original movie about the Sinking of the Titanic, I recall a stringed quartet playing hymns as the ship went down.  The most well known hymn they played was "Nearer My God to Thee, but I believe they also played the hymn, “Abide with Me”.   It’s a very solemn hymn, normally only sung at funerals.     The first verse goes:  “Abide with me: fast fall the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:  When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O Abide with me.”   I like the hymn, but the problem is that few of think of “abiding” except in this context of needing God when we die.  According to Jesus, abiding is not primarily about being with God when we die, but it’s about abiding with God so that we can live our fullest and most fruitful life.   It is the third verse of the hymn which we need to most to hear:  “I need thy presence every passing hour; What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?  Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?  Thro’ cloud and sunshine, O abide with me?”

How is God calling you to be better connected to the “True Vine” who can give you life?  How is God calling you to abide with Christ, through making God the number one priority of your life?   How is God calling you to participate more fully in the practicing the life of Jesus in your life?   How is God calling you to submit to his “pruning process” that seems severe and painful, but will bring to you focus and energy for faith?  How does God want your life to take root, to grow and mature into a being better person than you have been?     Asking and answering these questions for your life is what ‘abiding’ in Christ is about.  It is not about worrying about branches being cut off, but it is about having Christ’s joy in us and finding our joy complete in him each and every day (John 15: 11).

© 2012 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.