Sunday, April 24, 2016

“Just As…”

A Sermon Based Upon John 13: 31-35 , NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Easter, April  24thth 2016

When you saw the title of today’s message you probably thought of that well known invitational hymn,  “Just As I Am, Without One Plea.”   It’s a beautiful hymn, so beautiful and important to Billy Graham that he named his “Biography” after it.    

But what few recall about this great hymn is that it was written by Charlotte Elliot.  She was a handicapped woman living in 19th century England,  made an invalid by illness and confined to her home most of her days.   As a wealthy daughter of a silk merchant,  Charlotte was not feeling sorry for herself, but she wrote this hymn to provide scholarships for the daughters of clergyman in England, so  they could gain a higher education.  

While Charlotte wrote the hymn about her conversion, coming to God as she was, she was also writing the song to help other women become more than they were.   It was not originally thought of as an invitational hymn, but a hymn of gratitude for ‘the Lamb of God’ who died for us all, just as we are, so we need not remain as we are..  We can become more because God’s love ‘hath broken every barrier down.’  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Elliott).

Thinking about how much ‘more’ we are because we are ‘loved’ is the ‘Just as…’ I’m thinking about in today’s message.    As Jesus was sharing his final meal with his disciples, just before his crucifixion, Jesus said,  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34).   Jesus believed that if his disciples would ‘love’ each other, just as he has loved them, they would accomplish much, much more.

I GIVE YOU A NEW COMMANDMENT (34a)
Interestingly, Jesus does not call this a ‘recommendation’, but he calls love ‘a new commandment’.   That brings up a very important question; How do you ‘command’ love?  And if you have to ‘command it’ is it really love?

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers commanded ‘not’ to love each other.   What made that story so powerful was that it was written when ‘arranged marriages’ were coming to an end.  It recognized that love by choice was better than love by force.   But have marriages freely chosen proven to be better, more durable?   Today most people marry for love, but ‘choice’ has not made ‘lasting love’ easier to find or define.   Few would want to go back to ‘arranged marriages’, but love is not as easy making a free choice. 

Perhaps it’s because love is more than a ‘choice’ that Jesus commands his disciples to love one another.  Jesus is give this as a ‘new commandment’, because it is a whole new kind or quality of commandment.  It is not a commandment of love that is intended to ‘force’ his disciples to relate to each other this new way, but it is a command they can freely receive and obey.  This ‘new’ way of relating to each other in community was not based upon social standing, upon rank, upon achievements, upon wealth, upon talent, nor upon any other sort of negative or positive qualification.  The only qualification for this ‘new commandment’ was to freely choose to obey this ‘command’ of having love for ‘one another’.  It is a command, but it’s a command that is freely given, freely received, never coerced, and never forced.

BY THIS EVERYONE WILL KNOW… (35)
It is through this ‘new’ command that ‘everyone’ will learn what love means.   The love among Jesus’ disciples is to be a love that radiates outward from his disciples to everyone else.   “They will know we are Christians, by our love….” the song rightly says.   This is not only the best way they know, this is the way they should know, and the only way they can ever really know that we are who we say we are.   They know we are Christians by our love.

Consider again, Jesus words: “By this everyONE will know….”  That’s a lot of ‘ones’ isn’t it?  My parents taught me how to appreciate “ones”.   When I wanted more than one dollar,  they taught me to appreciate the power of ones--- ones make fives, ones make tens, ones make twenties, ones make hundreds too, and so on.  You should not just only go for the big money,  only as if five makes tens, tens makes twenties and twenties makes hundreds.   If you only see the big money, you’re not seeing what’s really there; all those ones.   If you don’t have the ‘ones’ behind the fives, the tens, the twenties, even the hundreds, all you really have  is ‘nothing’.   Without the “ones” you have nothing.   Learn the value of the ones and you’ll eventually find the 5’s, 10’s, the 20’s, and so on.   “Don’t even walk over “one” penny on the ground”, that’s what they said.   In the same way, through loving each other by loving each one, we also find the way to loving everyone--one person-at-time.   This is how Jesus’ disciples know who we are, who he is, one at a time.   Only the loving of each one gives us the power to share love with ‘everyone’.  

Loving ‘each one’ is certainly not easy to learn in a world filled with so much hate, so much violence, so much fear, so much selfishness, and so much self-centeredness.  We live in a world where it is much easier lock our doors, close our minds, and close our hearts out of fear for what might happen.  Some time ago, with great insight into human reality, the United Methodist church came up with a wonderful slogan for their churches; “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors”.    This slogan must had a lot of forethought because it goes straight to the core about what church is supposed to be.   The order in this slogan rightly suggests that the church will not have ‘Open Doors’ until we also have “Open Minds” and we do not have “Open Minds” until our “Hearts” are open, both toward the world and toward each other.     Here’s the catch.  We cannot remain open to those OUTSIDE of the fellowship, unless we also keep our ‘hearts open’ to each other INSIDE the fellowship?   When we have an open door policy, if we don’t first love each other, people will find the door again, so there will remain no one left to witness to God’s love.   

JUST AS I HAVE LOVED YOU….YOU SHOULD LOVE  (34b)
To love each other on the inside is hard too, sometimes even harder than loving those on the outside.  This is why love is a ‘command,’ not a recommendation.  Love takes work, hard work. As the gospel reminds us very well;  loving can kill you.  Think about Jesus.  Love was not easy for him. It was not easy for him to love his disciples at times.  It was not easy to love his people who rejected him.  It was even difficult to love his family, who did not always support him. 

You’ve no doubt had relatives that are hard to love.   As a kid, I had and aunt.  I loved her but it was hard to like her at times.  I tried once to stay with her on the farm overnight.  She never married and was all alone.  I felt sorry for her, but I couldn't stay overnight.  I had to call my parents to come and get me.   It wasn’t simply that I was homesick.  She complained too much.  She got old before she was old.  She liked Oral Roberts, who I thought was a little weird.  It was more than a little fellow could stand.  Sometimes I'd try to tell her she should stop complaining, but mom would tap me to stop.  I'm sorry for that now, but it was sometimes difficult to like many things about her.  I loved her, but liking was hard.

We’ve all known people who are hard to like or love.   They may be relatives, fellow church members, or neighbors, who are difficult to love.  Love is never easy. It is not easy because people are people.  It is not easy because people are sinners and because we are sinners too.   But still, where else do we learn the hard work of love unless it is at church?  Before we can speak about God’s love for the world, we must learn to love those we are with.  

Why must we learn love?  Because this gospel that saves us is a gospel based upon the saving and redemptive power of love.  It is the power of saving love that is being exemplified right here in this Jesus who, in our text, is about to die for love’s sake.   I find it remarkable the commandment to love comes on the heels of Judas being told by Jesus, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (13:27).   We all know what Judas is going to do, but now we see what Jesus does next?   Our text says, “When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him….’” (13:31).   God is being ‘glorified’ through Jesus’ obedience to God’s love.  And it is this obedience to love that Jesus now passes on to his disciples:  “I give you a new commandment….JUST AS I HAVE LOVED YOU, YOU SHOULD LOVE ONE ANOTHER” (13:34). 


Now, there is no mistaking what this ‘just as’ means.   Just as Jesus is willing to die to reveal God’s love, so we are to ‘love one another’ and keep revealing God’s love to the world.  This is how God’s glory gets into the world, through Jesus’ disciples who glorify God by loving each other first of all.  “By this everyone will know you are MY disciples, that you have love for one another.”  They know who you are and they know who I am, when we have love for each another.   The revelation of a loving God can only come through love.  This is why we are to love ‘just as’ God loves us through Jesus Christ.   Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“My Sheep”

A Sermon Based Upon John 10: 22-30: , NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Easter, April  17th 2016

For the last couple weeks we have been considering what it means to live Christ’s resurrection in our lives.  In the first message we spoke about doubt as as normal part of a life of faith.  Last week I spoke about the church’s mission, reminding us that at its center, the church’s mission is a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

While there are several biblical images describing what means be in a living, loving, faithful relationship of ‘walking with the Lord’ on a daily basis, today’s text affirms, that in the ancient world there was no better way to imagine our spiritual relationship with God, than the relationship between  sheep and their shepherd.   As we all know, this ‘image’ goes all the way back to the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd….”  What is more biblical, more pastoral, and more descriptive of the special bond between a Shepherd and his Sheep?  But there’s only one problem:  How many of us have ever had sheep?   We know whole lot more about dogs and cats, cows and chickens than we do shepherds and sheep.

The good thing about the Bible, is that most of the time, we don’t have to be bible experts to understand it.  We also don’t have to have lived in the ancient, agricultural, or pastoral old world in order to understand it.  In fact, what Jesus does in today’s passage is explain in clear, unmistakable terms, what it means for him to be ‘our shepherd’---then, and today.    

Believing is Belonging
As we approach our text from this 10th chapter, we notice that the whole chapter is concerned with Jesus describing what the ‘good shepherd’ is and who are his ‘own sheep’ (10:3).  Everyone who claims to be a ‘good shepherd’ (10:11) isn’t, and everyone who claims to be God’s sheep, aren’t (10:5).  The struggle behind this whole conversation of“Who’s Who?”  comes down to how do we recognize the ‘good Shepherd’ and how do we recognize his ‘own sheep’?

Surprisingly, Jesus suggests that when it comes to determining who’s who, is not as hard as you first think it might be.  The ‘good shepherd’ is the ‘one who lays down his life for the sheep’ (10:11).  “I know my own sheep, and they know me” (10:14), he affirms.  He knows, they know, but how do WE KNOW that we are his sheep and he is ‘our’ shepherd (10:26)?    This problem of identity became critical in Jesus’ day because some said Jesus ‘has a demon’  (10:20), and claimed they did not need to ‘believe’ in Jesus as their shepherd (10:26).

It is right here, when people are pressing Jesus to tell them clearly, whether or not he is the Messiah, that Jesus makes his first strong point about what it means to be in a valid, living and loving relationship with him as Shepherd.  Looking straight into the eyes of those who don’t believe,  Jesus says plainly,  “You don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep (10:26).”

I find it very interesting that Jesus makes ‘belonging’ as big a priority as believing.  This is not to say that belief is unimportant; it is.  But what shapes and sharpens our beliefs is not what we chose to believe, as much as, it is how our beliefs can choose us.  Recently, when I was preparing some of our youth for baptism,  I was going over instructions with them about what I would ask them, just before I baptized them.  I described how I always asked two simple questions:  “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord?” and also, “Do you renounce the devil and all his ways?”  I went on to tell them that these two questions had been asked of baptism candidates for generations, and I wanted them to affirm their answers by simply answering, “I do”.  One of the girls realized how serious this sounded and she asked, “I do?  It’s not like I’m getting married, isn’t it?”  

Yes it is.  She understood, perfectly.  This is exactly what it means to be baptized.  Believing in Jesus means that we ‘get married’ to Jesus and now, you ‘belong’ together.  While it is helpful, but not always essential that you agree or believe what your partner believes, it is always most essential that you know that you ‘belong’ together. 

Belonging to Jesus and to the community of faith is the relational key of what it means to ‘believe’ in Jesus. Especially when we think of baptizing young people, or anyone for that matter, none of us know what it fully means to believe in Jesus when we are first baptized.   When we first come to believe in Jesus, we believe with our whole heart, but ‘how’ we believe in Jesus still changes with our own understanding of who Jesus is and who we are.   But to say that we ‘belong’ to Jesus never changes.  No matter how our understanding of faith grows, we know that we ‘belong’ to him.


HEARING IS FOLLOWING
But Jesus wants to make his point even clearer.  He not only tell us that believing and belonging go together, but he also reminds us in the very next verse, “My sheep listen to my voice.  I know them and they follow me” (v.27).  Those who have a loving, living, growing, relationship with Jesus as their Shepherd, hear, listen, recognize and follow the Shepherd’s voice.

There is much we need to define, in a complicated and confusing world like ours, to discover exactly what it means to ‘hear’, ‘listen’ or ‘follow’ the ‘voice’ of the Good Shepherd.  But again, Jesus says that it is not as complicated as we first might think, because, he has said, “My sheep know… or listen to my voice.”  The point is that because these ‘sheep’ know this shepherd, they recognize and follow only his ‘voice’.  As Jesus said earlier,  “I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  I give up my life for the sheep (10:14-15)”   What ‘identifies’ them with each other is the ‘life-giving’ relationship that is present--- both between the Shepherd and the Sheep.  While the sheep give the Shepherd his purpose, the shepherd gives up his life for the sheep.  It this saving, sacrificial, life-giving care that causes the sheep to want to follow.   As the Shepherd gives himself to them, they in turn will only ‘follow’ him.

Nothing is more picturesque than sheep following their Shepherd from one life-giving pasture to another.  Once in Europe, while stopped on a major 4 lane road,  all the traffic  was stopped to allow 4 Shepherds to lead their ‘flock’ across the highway.  As we waited in our cars, the sheep followed the Shepherd’s call, bouncing up against our cars, knocking them to and fro, until we thought they would turn us over.  Nothing was going to stop these ‘sheep’ from following their Shepherds through a place of danger to a place of safety and sustenance.   These sheep did not stop for us, neither did they notice us.  That was exactly what me a little nervous, because a hundred or so Sheep, pushing against a car are strong, not paying attention to the fact that they are strong enough to push a car over.  Fortunately that didn’t happen, but it was unmistakable how ‘determined’ those sheep were to go with their Shepherd, who was leading them.  Nothing would stop them, not even a highway full of stopped cars they had to bump up against along the way.

When we follow Jesus, we will have to ‘bump up’ against a lot of strange things too, and we’ll also run into strangers.   But no matter what or who we run into in this life, we still recognize the ‘voice’ of Jesus through his ‘life-giving story’, through ‘his teachings’, through his ‘sacrificial death’ and through his ‘validating resurrection’.   It is not just through a couple of these that Jesus still calls his sheep by name, but it is by following this Shepherd, by ‘crucifying’ our lives with him (Gal 2:20) and being ‘raised with him into newness of life’ (Rom 6.4) that we know we are the ‘sheep of his pasture’.

FOLLOWING MEANS RECEIVING
When the sheep ‘follow’ this Shepherd, they receive a ‘gift’ no other Shepherd can give.  As they believe, they belong; and because they recognize his voice, they follow.   So now, as they follow him, he gives them ‘eternal life, so that they will never perish.  No one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28).  

As a child growing up, I always knew I was adopted.   My parents always told me I was adopted, but at the same time, they always reminded me that I was their child just in no way different than if I had been their ‘natural child’.   My mother even told me that ‘they choose me’, when I wondered what it meant to be adopted.   While it was true that they ‘choose’ to adopt me, it wasn’t necessarily true that they ‘choose me’ out of some adoption ‘line up’---which is of course, what I often mistakenly pictured in my mind.  I pictured ‘adoption’ that way, because that’s how their love felt.  When I heard people asking, “Hey, your Fleta and Charlie’s boy,  I never questioned it, because I felt it, lived it, and became it.  My identity as their child, was not settled because it was on a piece of paper somewhere in a courthouse, but because it was written our hearts.

When Jesus says, ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand,’ we can feel the ‘firmness’ of his grip.  How strong is Jesus’ grip?   Jesus continues: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.”  Jesus’ grip or claim upon us is no less than the Father’s claim upon the Son.  Just as the Son and the Father are one, so can become ‘one’ with Jesus.  

A lot is in the news these days about whether or not people in this country should register their identity and whereabouts with the authorities.  I find the whole discussion almost comical, because when I lived in Germany, to remain in Germany as a foreign citizen, I had to ‘register’ with the local authorities every two years.  We called it getting a ‘work visa’, but it was much more.  I always had to take an official letter, or someone with me, who could verify who I was, why I was there, and why someone in that country ‘needed’ me to be there.  There was no staying in that country, even as an American, without having somebody to verify who I was.  The first time I tried to re-register myself, all the paperwork somehow got messed up.   There was just no way to convince the authorities I needed to be there, unless I brought someone with me to verify who I was.  I brought “uncle tick-tock” with me.  I know you don’t know who in the world that was, but I know, and it made all the difference.  In that German office of authority, there was nothing trusted, and there was nothing left to chance.  My only way to stay in that country was to ‘know’ someone and to be ‘verified’ by someone.   I was verified by ‘uncle tick-tock’.

If you haven’t noticed, the strongest language in the Bible is not what some think it is.   It is not mere ‘religious’ language, but it is ‘relational’ language.  This is what being a ‘sheep’ means---that we are so much in the Shepherd’s grip that we always remain ‘his’.  There is no stronger, clearer language of faith, just as there is no stronger reality: to be who you are is the one thing no one can take from you.  While others may not recognize you, you always know who you are.  And when you are with him---when you belong, listen, and follow this Shepherd who calls you ‘his sheep’---when you are with him, there can’t be any doubt about who you are.  You are ‘with Him’ because he is ‘in you’.   You always ‘know’ who you are, by knowing ‘to whom’ you belong.  I’m ‘uncle tick-tock’s friend,  I’m Teresa’s husband,  I’m Fleta and Charlie’s boy.  I’m one of Jesus’ sheep.  This is who I am, do you know ‘who’ you are?   “He” is how we know.   Amen.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

“Gone Fishing!”

A Sermon Based Upon John 21: 1-19, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday of Easter, April  10rd 2016

I’m not a fisherman.  As a boy I liked to fish with my Dad, just like I like to go rabbit hunting with him.  The older I got, I got more interested in hunting because I liked to be in woods.   Later on, I moved from hunting to golf, but I got over that.  But I still haven’t gotten over riding my bike.

I don’t fish, but I’ve had multiple Aquariums and have gold fish in the back yard.   I still like to hear ‘fish stories’, though.   My favorite fish story is about a fellow who was out in a boat on a lake catching a lot of fish because he was throwing dynamite into the water and forcing them to the surface.  When the Game Warden heard about it, and came and got into the boat with him,  the fellow didn’t change his fishing strategy at all.   Even with the Game Warden right beside of him he lit the dynamite fuse.   When the Game Warden started spoke up, telling him it was against the law to fish like that.  Hearing the Game Warden’s threat,  with almost no fuse left, the fisherman handed the dynamite to the Game Warden and asked: “Are you gonna talk, or you gonna fish?” 

FISH STORY
I love that story.  It’s almost as good as the ‘Fish Story’ in today’s Bible text.  Here we read that after Easter, even after being with the resurrected Lord, Peter decides ‘I’m going fishing’  (21:3).  The other disciples with him said, “We’ll go with you.  They (all) set out in a boat….”

While the rest of us might think this is rather strange behavior those who’ve just been with the one who came back from the dead, you just don’t know fishermen.  It’s perfectly normal for fisherman to ‘go fishing’ when they are stressed, confused, or contemplating something they don’t exactly know how to handle.   For fishermen, ‘fishing’ clears the mind, engages the soul, and relieves unspoken fears.  Or as a couple of fishermen put it when they answered, Why do fishermen fish?   “Most fishermen don’t stop to analyze why we love fishing.  We’re too busy planning our next trip or daydreaming about the fish that got away…We fish to remember, and we fish to forget.  We fish when we’re happy, we fish when we’re sad.  We fish to bond with friends and family, or to be alone… Fishing slows us down.  It sets us free.  It teaches us about nature (and life).  It makes fond memories.  We hook fish; they hook us.  It’s that simple.” (http://whywefish.info/).

I know that this ‘Fish Story’ is a true story because it ways that ‘throughout the night they caught nothing.’   Fishermen don’t tell stories like that unless they have too, and in this case, they had to tell exactly what happened, because this is not where the ‘fish story’ ends, but where it only begins.

Early in the morning, after fishing all night, someone on the shoreline, calls out, “Have you caught anything to eat?”  Having to admit they hadn’t, the truth was out.  The stranger, unbeknownst to them, was Jesus.  After hearing the answer, he asked them to “Cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they would find some” (21:6).  This is the second thing to never say to a fisherman; the first being “Did you catch anything when they didn’t,” and the second, “Try fishing over here and you might catch something.”  You’ll insult a fisherman, unless you know you are the fisherman of all fishermen.  Peter suddenly realized this was exactly who Jesus is, when they caught ‘so many fish they couldn’t haul in the net.’

If this all sounds like a ‘fish story’, it gets even bigger.  When the disciples finally land the boat, they notice a fire burning and fish already cooking along with some bread.   Jesus tells them, to ‘bring’ some of the fish they’d caught so as Peter pulled the net to shore and counted exactly 153 large fish.  He realized that it was too many for the net, but it didn’t break and the big ones did not get away.   When they all came to shore, Jesus inivtes them all to “Come and have breakfast.”  As they started eating the bread and the fish, ‘they knew it was the Lord.”

If many things about this story sound ‘fishy’, they should.  This is not just a fish story, this is ‘THE FISH STORY.’    This is a story about how a Christian should live ‘after Easter’.  It’s a story about fishing through the dark nights of life, about listening to the Lord’s voice and obeying his commands, and it’s about a catching lots of fish, that aren’t just regular ‘fish’.  It’s about all these things, but it’s mostly being able to recognize Jesus only when the Lord’s table together.  Jesus is near, but we best recognize him together.

The strangest part of this story, however, remains in how the Peter takes the time to ‘count’ and ‘number’ the fish.  There were exactly, 153 of them.  Why 153?  There’s all kinds of speculation about this, but only one answer makes sense.  This is exactly how many fish they caught--a bunch!   Through the years, however, this number has been 'symbolized' to represent the evangelistic mission Jesus recommissioned after Easter.   This large catch of “fish” came to represent the ‘large’ worldly, global love the God of the world has for all the people in world.  To haul in as big a 'catch' as possible, is  why Jesus came, why Jesus suffered, why Jesus died and why Jesus was raised from the dead.   It points to the new mission task the church of disciples still has to do, through the nights of life, until that great morning which is still to come.

FEED STORY
I know what this ‘fish story’ means because of where it goes next.  Jesus has an extended after breakfast conversation with Simon Peter, asking him:  “Peter, son of John, do you love me more than these”  (v.15)?  Jesus asks Peter this question, not once, but three times; one for each time Peter denied him: “Simon Peter, do you (really) love me?”  Do you love me more than fishing?  Do you love me more than work, and life itself?  Peter, do you love me enough to follow and obey?   If you really love me, Peter,  three times Jesus command him; “Feed (or care for) my lambs.” 

Now we are moving away from ‘fishing’ for fish to ‘feeding’ sheep.  Through Peter, we are hearing the second great calling and work of the church; not just to fish, but to care—to care for God’s sheep.   The church is not called to ‘dip’em and drop’em, but to reach them and then to care for and with them.  Who do you think is being called to do the fishing, to do the caring?  All of us are?  We are to be a church that evangelizes and we are to be a church that makes disciples, feeding and caring those who become ‘sheep of his pasture’.  The church’s story must be both a fish story and a feed story.   Fish and Feed, Feed and Fish.  As the fishermen said, “It’s as simple as that.”   

 LOVE STORY
Do you know why we are are all to ‘answer’ and ‘join’ in this ‘story’?  It’s because the ‘fish story’ and the ‘feed story’ is also a ‘love story’.   This is why Jesus tells them to fish on ‘the right side of the boat’.  This is why they end up catching 153 fish.  Love is why Jesus cooks fish for their breakfast, and “love” is why Jesus keeps asking Peter over and over,  “Simon Peter, Son of John, do you love me?”

What’s not clear in our English Bible’s is what’s very noticeable in the Greek text.  The first two times Jesus asks Peter, Jesus uses the highest Greek word for love, agape.  Peter, do you love me without any conditions?  Each time Jesus uses this form of love in his question, but Peter is afraid to go there.   When Peter answers, “Lord, you know I love you,” he doesn’t use this highest form of love, but he uses a lesser form of love, philia, which means ‘brotherly’ or sibling love.  It’s something like I love you because I know I should. 

This kind of ‘responsible’ devotion is not all Jesus wishes, but  it is what Jesus settles for, at least for now.  Instead of demanding that Peter change his level of love, Jesus steps down to Peter’s level, saying “Peter, Do you love me, like you should, rather than do you love me like I love you?”   The point remains, that Jesus meets Peter where he is and meets us where we are, because no matter where we are in our level of devotion to Jesus or discipleship in Jesus, we all are to be part of the this ‘love story’ that calls us to ‘go fishing’ and to ‘feed’ and care for His sheep.

Have you realized that this Easter story is finally a ‘love story’ that Jesus is calling you into?  This is not a story that is just asking you do believe in Jesus, or do you like Jesus, but it is a story that asks,  “Do you love Jesus?”  I don’t know another religion or living faith on the face of this planet that goes where Jesus goes, or commands what Jesus commands.  The Christian life and the calling of the church is not an option, an opinion, an ambition, or an outlook, but the calling of the church is the call to a loving and caring relationship between friends---who give their lives to each other.  

I recall contemplating the proposal of marriage I made to my wife.  Now,  to her, it looked like she was in control of the answer, for I made the ‘propsal’ to her, “Will you marry me?”  That’s how she heard it.  But that’s not how I really meant it.  When I asked Teresa to marry me, I had already answered the question as to whether or not I loved her.   When I proposed, I was not asking, “Teresa, do you like me?”  No, by the time I got to asking her to marry me, I had already settled, “Do I love her?”

But this was not a question she had fully settled in her mind.  I might have been ‘pushing it’ a little bit, just like Jesus was, so for a while, while she thought it over,  I had to settle for an answer like Peter gave,  “Yes, Joey, you know I love you, but to marry you?  Now, I’m not sure I’m ready to marry a preacher---to not only love you, but to answer your calling with you.   I love you, but I’m not so sure that I can love you in the way that you are asking me too.  That is where my wife was, for a while, when she gave me the ring back for a couple of weeks and said,  “I need to pray about this some more.”  It was hard, and it made me pray harder too, but it didn’t change my love for her, but it made me want her to marry me even more.  She was serious.  She was thinking.  She was praying, and she was loving me the best way she could, but she wasn’t fully there yet.
After a couple of weeks,  she came to me ready to put the ‘ring’ back on her finger.  Teresa, do you love me?   “Joey,  I’m ready to love you and I’m ready to ready, not just to love you, but to answer the call with you.


That’s the answer Jesus wanted to hear from Peter.   Peter is not there yet, but he gets there.  Jesus knew that he would.  “Follow me”, Jesus invites him, again (v. 19).  Now, as conclude the story here, Peter was still struggling to come to grips with all that Easter meant, but he will finally and fully answer God’s call to love.   And just think, this all started with a love for fishing, but now it ends with a ‘catch’ that is more than Peter could ever imagine.   It’s a ‘fish story’, yes, but the biggest catch is him.   Isn’t that why we fish, why we feed and care, and why we love?  “We hook fish, they hook us?  It’s as simple as that.”  Amen.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Unless..."

A Sermon Based Upon John 2o: 24-29, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Easter, April  3rd 2016

Easter is a hope that can put us on “cloud nine.”   Cloud nine is a place everyone wants to be, but as a comedian used to joke, “cloud nine might get all the publicity, but cloud eight is cheaper, less crowded, and has a better view (George Carlin).”

In John’s Easter story Thomas didn't even get to cloud eight.  Thomas almost missed Easter altogether.  When Jesus first appeared to the disciples who were huddled together in a locked room, Thomas was not there.  Thomas was MIA---missing in attendance.  Though most of the disciples had been “locked in for fear,” Thomas seems locked out by doubt.

Who could really blame Thomas for skipping Easter?  All the disciples had been through some very dangerous and disappointing events.  At any moment they still could be killed.  When they informed Thomas that Jesus surprisingly appeared to them, it was just too much.   After everything that had happened Thomas could not make himself believe Easter was true.

“But Thomas Was Not With Them” (v. 24)
When you think about it, any belief about ‘resurrection’ should not be easy.   While most religions have some kind of hope of life after death, it is rightly said that ‘Jesus’ resurrection makes heavy demands on our faith’ (HM Kuitert).   

The gospels do not hide the difficulty of belief, especially when it comes to resurrection.   In Mark’s gospel, the women fled the tomb ‘seized with terror and amazement’ and very much ‘afraid’ (16:8).  In Luke, disciples on the Emmaus Road had difficulty with all that had ‘taken place’ (24:18).  In Matthew, even as the resurrected Jesus was being worshipped, ‘some doubted’ (28:17).   John’s gospel does not avoid the difficulty of resurrection either.  No matter how close they were to Christ, they still had to navigate their doubts. 

Thomas was not the first to have doubts, nor was he the last.  If we have honest, authentic, growing and living faith, we too will have to navigate them.  Living faith is not about stone-cold ‘facts’, but about “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (KJV).  Because we are believers, believers in God or golf, believers in science or faith, or even believers in love or life, we will have to entertain the possibility and probability of navigating our doubts.  Doubt comes with the territory of life and faith.

I first learned about having to ‘navigate doubt’ when I was in college and seminary, learning to be a serious student of the Bible.  Some my close friends had warned me that my going to seminary would be like going to a ‘cemetery’—it could destroy my preaching.  But what I actually encountered was that higher learning was a place where I could meet doubts head on.  It was a place where questions could be safely raised and beliefs could be rigorously tested.  There, I also learned that an untested faith could have such shallow roots it might not survive the storms of life.  The only way to keep faith vital, alive and growing, I was told, was to be willing to face doubts head on, to deal with them, even when it was difficult. 

In John Bunyan’s 17th century classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, the only book that has come close to the Bible in sales, the main characters, Christian and Hopeful, unexpectedly find themselves camping on the grounds of “Doubting Castle,” belonging to a giant named Despair.  Christian did not intentionally find this castle of doubt, but as they traveled along life’s journey, he and Hopeful accidently awaken on the grounds of this dark, dreadful, difficult and dangerous place.   Since they were caught trespassing, the Giant threw them into the castle’s dungeon, where they were beaten and encouraged to think that ‘death’ was better than ‘life’.  They were even shown the skulls of other pilgrims who did not make it out of this “Doubting Castle” alive.  In every way possible the Giant of Despair tried to break their will and faith in the “Lord of the country to which they are going.” http://www.covenantofgrace.com/pilgrims_progress_giant_despair.htm

Perhaps you’ve been to “Doubting Castle” yourself and you too have encountered this “Giant” called Despair.  Maybe, like Thomas, the doubt you have is not in the goodness of Jesus, but in the credibility of resurrection, of miracles, or of the value of having faith in a secular world. 

Only five years before I went off to college in 1975, Stephen Schwartz wrote a popular Broadway musical called Godspell.  In that wonderful musical, Schwartz gave us that powerful song of Christian dedication, entitled ‘Day by Day’, which I had often sung in youth choir.   Perhaps you recall that unforgettable line: “to see thee more clearly, follow thee more nearly and love thee more dearly, day by day”.  Interestingly, when Schwartz interpreted the story of Jesus for his musical, he did it without, what he called, ‘that embarrassing tale of Jesus’ resurrection’.  Like those who first heard the witness of the women, and perhaps just like this disciple named Thomas, Schwartz had doubts, believing that resurrection was just another ‘idle tale’ (Lk. 24:11).  

"Unless I See The Mark…”  (v. 25).
Well how do you believe in something you haven't seen or experienced?   This was Thomas’ problem and it is ours too.  Thomas said: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of nails and my hands in his side, I will not believe?”  Thomas had trouble believing in what he couldn’t see, or didn’t have proof of.  Don’t we have the same problem?  Have you ever seen anybody resurrected?  How do we, who have to look straight into the face of the death and dying; who have to let go of our own loved ones, who face aging, illness, or losing our own physical lives---how do we keep from ‘waking up’ on the grounds of ‘Doubting Castle’?   

The truth is we can’t keep from having doubts, and sometimes it’s not a bad thing to have doubts about many of the things we read or hear about.   When several stories recently came out in popular books describing children going to heaven and returning, some Southern Baptist preachers were openly skeptical and critical about it.  “If it wasn’t in the Bible, they wouldn’t believe it?” they said.   That first sounded a little harsh or narrow to me.  But since one of those children has recently come out to admit his story was a hoax, I'm glad that those pastors were doubtful about all those ‘heaven stories’, aren’t you? (http://ktla.com/2015/01/16/boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-author-says-story-was-a-hoax/).     

The great problem of our age, wrote one catholic scholar, ‘is not too little belief, but too much of it’ (Karl Rahner).  And it’s not just that “There’s a sucker born every minute”, as P.T. Barnum used to say, or that 48 percent of Americans believe that aliens have landed somewhere in the United States, but what is so troublesome today is that so many many are making up their own faith, religion, or worldview as they go along.  The real danger of our world is not less belief, but everyone believing whatever they want.

Untested, unevaluated belief can be a big problem---even a bigger problem than having doubts.   Because we are fallible humans, who can’t handle the absolute without bringing about death (Old Testament), we will always need to have doubt than we do belief.  I certainly wish radical Islamist had doubts about their own violent, inhumane ideology?  I also wish that some Christians, especially those who think they know everything about the end of the world, could have doubts about end-time speculations.  Especially in this political year, I’m hopeful that more politically minded politicians, who dare to to suggest that they all the answers, might at least have enough doubt about themselves to work with others across the political aisle.  The founding fathers built our democracy on the need for having enough doubt to negotiate the truth and make it hard for one group to govern alone.
The world always needs honest, humble, sincere doubt to help us overcome dishonest, self-serving, self-righteous attitudes.  As the poet Tennyson once claimed, ‘there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.’  Or as someone has humorously put it, “doubt are the ants in the pants of a growing and thriving faith” (F. Buechner).

'Put your finger here … see my hands (v.27)
So when Thomas had doubts, do you think he looked smart, or was being sorry or stupid?   When Thomas said he would not believe ‘unless’ he saw the marks, it certainly sounded as if he was not being a ‘good’ disciple.  His demand to ‘touch’ or ‘see’ before he believed may sound weak or negative until you have gone through some difficulty or doubt yourself.   

When John Claypool was in the midst of his work as a pastor, he was devastated when he learned that his 4 year old daughter Laura Lue was diagnosed with leukemia, and eventually died.  Of course, it wasn't supposed to happen that way.  Your child is supposed to watch you die, not the other way around.  But it did happen this way, and it threw the very gifted pastor into a crisis of faith which, he says, distorted his whole sense of reality. 

Claypool had conducted many funerals and had spoken sincere words of comfort to many families, but when his own daughter lay dying, he was left completely numb.  He said that when the doctor on the other side of the bed finally said, ‘She is gone,’ he was the ‘most astonished person on the face of the earth.’  “I did not want her to die,” he said, “and I was so passionate in this desire that it completely distorted the way I perceived what was happening….”

What Pastor Claypool wanted to have happen (seeing his daughter healed) was keeping him from living what was actually happening (she was dying and needed him to be strong for her).  He said, strangely enough, that even his dying 4 year old daughter showed more maturity and courage about facing death and having faith than he did.   But as Claypool finally learned, “eventually we will all have to adjust to reality because reality will not adjust to usTruth will ultimately reign supreme.(The First to Follow, John R Claypool, Morehouse, 2008, p.67).

Since we need doubt, and even believers will encounter doubt throughout our lives, as Thomas did, let’s turn now to focus on the ‘reality’ Thomas finally saw.   It was a week later when Thomas returned to the community that was his home.  It was Sunday morning worship service that Thomas went back too, even when he still had doubts.  Perhaps that is the greatest truth is this whole story; not that Thomas doubted, but that he came back to church even when he had doubts, and that is where Jesus invited him to recover his faith.   For when the risen Christ returned, Jesus did not scold Thomas for having his doubts.  Jesus simply invited Thomas to see what he could not have imagined on his own.   As Jesus shows Thomas the marks and scars for the ‘proof’, he wanted, as he encounters Jesus himself, Thomas didn’t need proof anymore.  Instead of reaching to confirm who he was seeing, Thomas fell down to worship Jesus as his “Lord and God”.  This face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord changed Thomas’ perspective on everything. 

In 1996, when I was living in Winston-Salem, my daughter shared a school bus with a girl from India.  Her mother was a doctor working at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, and they were living just around the block from us in the Ardmore Neighborhood.  Once, I went to that home to invite the little girl to a birthday party and I was having a nice conversation with her mother. 
       “Oh, you’re from India,” I said.  Then I asked, “Are you Hindu?” 
       “No,” the mother answered, “We’re Christian.” 
       “Oh, you’re Christian. Did you become Christian after you came to America?”
       “No, we grew up Christian in India,” she said.  “We are from southern India.  Perhaps you’ve heard how the apostle Thomas came to our area and personally brought the Christian faith to us almost 2,000 years ago.”   

At that moment, I couldn’t believe that I was talking to a person, the very first person I'd ever met, who could tell me that her faith and her church went directly back to one of the apostles; Thomas.  Thinking I was going to share my faith with her, she was witnessing to me of the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  Yes, resurrection.  Why else would a ‘doubting’ Thomas have gone to India where preached and was martyred, witnessing to the truth of the resurrection faith?  Why else would any of the disciples have risked their lives to preach a faith based upon one rejected man who died on a cross, unless Christ’s resurrection is true.  The Romans crucified thousands, but we remember only one among those thousands and thousands, who still comes to us as the ‘risen Lord’ and our God, who took on flesh for us.

“My Lord and My God!” 
Can you think of any better ‘proof’ of resurrection than a church that was born because of faith in a risen Christ?   Would this kind of proof help you with your doubts?  Maybe, or Maybe not?   

Consider the last thing Jesus said to Thomas about us.  After Thomas bows in worship, Jesus commends those of us who have faith, not because we have proof, but because we believe without it: “Blessed are those who have not seen, but have come to believe.” (v. 29). 

Discussing doubt with his congregation, the Danish pastor Soren Kierkegaard explained that finding ‘reasons’ or ‘proofs’ for believing is not the best way to overcome doubt.  To look for proof or reasons is only confirmation that you have doubt, even making matters worse.  If you want to master your doubts, the pastor claimed, you need to act upon, follow and imitate Jesus in your life.  The greatest thing you could ever do for your faith is to make the decision to live it, to try it, and to stop trying to figure it out.  A living, vital, redeeming faith figures you out, not the other way around.  When you are so busy following Jesus, doing the hard work of being Christian in this world, you may still have some doubts, but the difference is that doubt doesn’t have you.  Because you are abiding in Christ and Christ abides in you, no doubt can ‘snatch you out of his hands’ or destroy a faith that is alive and active in you  (From Kierkegaard’s Writings in Provocations, Plough Press, 1999, p. 77-79). 

As we conclude, let’s go back to the final scene from Doubting Castle in Pilgirms Progress, where it was early Sunday, and the pilgrims were still locked in the dungeon of Doubting Castle and praying.  Suddenly, Christian, ‘half amazed, breaks out passionately in speech: “What a fool am I thus to lie in this stinking dugeon, when I could be walking freely!  I have a key in my pocket, right next to my heart, which can open any door in Doubting Castle.”  Being encouraged by Hopeful to try it, Christian pulled this key labeled Promise out of his pocket, put that key into the bolted door, turned it and the door flew open and they both came out.  They still had a gate to open; it was harder, but the key labeled Promise open it too.  Thrusting open that large gate, they made their escape with speed. 

The Giant Despair had heard the creaking gate, but he could not keep up, as they made it back on the king’s highway.  When they were safely out of the Giant’s jurisdiction, in order to prevent any who would come after them from falling into the hands of Giant Despair,  they erected a pillar, engraved with this sentence:  “Over this hill is the way to Doubting Castle; kept by Giant Despair, who despises the King of the Celestial Country, and seeks to destroy his holy pilgrims.”  Those who would read this sign, can escape the danger therein” (http://www.covenantofgrace.com/pilgrims_progress_giant_despair.htm).

The key to opening any doubt is to claim and live God’s promise.
This Promise was explained by Paul, when he wrote, “If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15: 14).  Paul meant that everything we believe about Jesus is validated though Easter.   Paul continues: “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile”… (15:17).    Without this resurrection PROMISE, “those who have hoped in Christ have perished’ (18) and even with Christ, without resurrection, we are to be most pitied.  Our hope in Christ must be an ‘Easter’ PROMISE of resurrection, or it is really no hope at all.  Christ gives us the key to this Promise, because Jesus “holds the keys of Hell and Death” (Rev. 1.18).  Amen.