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Sunday, May 29, 2016

“…Such Faith"

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 7: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday After Pentecost, May 29th, 2016

“I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7: 1-10).

Do you realize that Jesus was also someone who could be surprised?   I hope your own faith still has room for a ‘Jesus’ like this.   I hope you also have a faith that can still be surprised!

This is exactly what happens in today’s Bible story from Luke.  Jesus is surprised by the faith of a Roman centurion who puts his own life at risk for the sake of someone else.   This centurion puts his life and his career at risk when he sends a request for Jesus to bring healing to his much loved and deathly sick servant.   This centurion was a man in charge of occupying soldiers, but steps out of that role, to make a request that would risk put him into a questionable relationship that could compromise his own authority.  That was a big risk for a man of his time and caliber.    It was the kind of ‘faith’ that Jesus said was rare even among his own people, who were called, people of ‘the faith’. 

But what would you do for a sick employee?   What would you do for a sick friend, or family member, especially a sick child?    This is where this story comes close to home.   I’ll never forget running into a school friend, when I was home from Germany and visiting Baptist hospital.  His own infant daughter was having opened heart surgery.   I had known him since I had moved from Statesville to northern Iredell County, and entered the third grade at Harmony School.  I could see an anxiety he had, which I had never seen on his face before.  It was the concern of parent, worried about the outcome for his child.   I don’t know that Michael and I had ever discussed any kind of religious question before.  I had been his long-time classmate, but not his pastor.  But in that moment, my friend knew the calling I had answered with my life, and he too was a believer, and he asked,  “Joey, would you mine saying a prayer with me for my daughter?”   “Of course, I’d be glad too,”,  I answered rather shocked at his candor.  For you see people who knew each other in school are not always able to talk about such sensitive matters.  We should be able to, but unfortunately, most often we don’t.

I grew up watching the Arthur Smith show every weekday morning, as I was eating breaking and preparing for school.   I recall that one of Arthur’s Smith’s major advertiser’s was Bost Bakery, and I can remember Arthur Smith saying, over and over, “If it’s better than Bost’s, it’s still in the oven.”   When later, I moved to Shelby to be the pastor of wonderful church there,  I learned that Mr. Bost was a citizen  of Shelby, and at that time his wife was seriously ill with Cancer.   Many times I read in the local paper, The Shelby Star, about where in the world Mr. Bost had flown his wife to try to find a cure.   There was no doctor he wouldn’t visit.  There was no place he wouldn’t fly.   There was no amount of money he would hold back.  And he had a lot of money.  He made ‘bread’ with ‘bread’.  He built a gymnasium for Gardner-Webb.   Basketball great Artis Gilmore, got his start playing basketball there.    When I went to college there, I went to chapel in that gym too.   For that day and time, it was a nice gym, Mr. Bost and Bost Bread had built.       But later, Mr. Bost spent a lot more some of his money doing whatever he could, going wherever he could to try to find a cure for his wife’s sickness, but unfortunately that cure was not found.   Like all of us, one day there will be no healing in this world for the sickness that we will know---the sickness of dying and death.   But we will try to do whatever we can for those we love.

One of our greatest pains in this life will not always be the pain we feel in our own bodies, but it will be the pain we have when we hurt with and for another.   This should not be a surprise for us, because when we hurt for others, we are also hurting for ourselves.   You just cannot separate the two.   When you care for someone, and you know they care for you, you cannot bear the thought of losing them, or of them losing you.   The threat of dying and death looms over all of us in this life.   Because when we hurt for others, we also hurt for ourselves and because we hurt for ourselves, we also hurt with and for others.

What is strange about this ‘pain’ or ‘threat’ of death when it comes into our lives is how people react to it differently.  Some people are threatened or threatened or injured by suffering or dying, and they become angry, bitter or hostile.  Others are threatened by suffering or dying, and they become humble, meek, or compassionate.  What makes the difference?    Why do some people face the harshest realities and become better, more caring and compassionate people, and why do others face the harsh realities of life and become careless and hateful?

We saw the ‘strangeness’ of this in the pain of civil rights in the south, didn’t we?   During those terrible times of prejudice, some people realized what was happening and became enraged and engaged for the rights of others; while others in the south, fueled by ignorance and fear, and selfishness, became enraged with hate and engaged in violence.   One can only think of Dylan Roof, whose hate turned into murder only a year ago at a very innocent Charleston congregation meeting in a Bible Study.   One could also think of what happened to young people attending a concert in France, who were brutally murdered by radical, home-grown terrorists,  or what also happened, last year in San Bernardino, California, when two terrorists in our own country,  when to a party at work, and unleashed a barrage of bullets on innocent people.  

What causes some people to turn out this way, but other people to turn toward the hurting and helpless of the world and become missionaries, humanitarian workers, or to have compassion, give monies, and to reach out to them in prayer and with aid?  What makes the difference?   We all face the same fears, the same worries, the same threats, and the same inevitable fate of weakness and death.  What makes some of us be filled with humility and compassion or others to be turned outward with anger and hate? 

In today’s text this Roman ‘centurion’ was someone whom you would not expect to be a person filled with such compassion, neither for a sick ‘servant’ nor for a sick ‘slave’.    But not only does he have feelings of compassion for this servant, but also, as a Gentile with all kinds of authority and power, he shows an astounding humility and respect for this very non-Gentile and Jewish Jesus.   Why did this powerful man, love his servant so much to do this?  Why does he approach Jesus---who was someone entirely different and counter-culture to him---with such humility, grace, and compassion?  

When you grow knowing love, love can do some ‘strange’ things to you can’t it?  Have you ever seen someone who loves an animal or even an inanimate object which such ‘strange’ or ‘unusual affection’?   People can love things, a country, a political idea, or a job, or a way of life, with very ‘strange affection’.   You have seen that haven’t you?  I have.  I have even felt some of it myself.   I’ve found myself attached to a sunset at a certain spot, or attached to an animal, a job a place, an activity, or especially a people, a person, or a people.  There are things that draw us into them, and people who draw us close to them.   How does this happen?  Why does it happen?  It certainly doesn’t happen everywhere, for everything, or for everyone.   How do we come to love the people we love, or to cherish the things we cherish, or to become a person, like this one Roman Centurion, who out of all those other Roman soldiers and officers in and around Jerusalem at that time, came to Jesus when so many others mocked Jesus, stayed away, or only admired him at a distance.   Why is this one of the very important Romans leaders who was humble enough to put his whole career and perhaps even his very life at risk or his servant?  Why did he react this way and not another? 

This week, I was reading an article about Teri Ott, who serves as chaplain at a Presbyterian college in Illinois.  She tells about the challenges of working with college students, especially those who come with no church background at all.   One of those students recommended to her for counseling was Jeff, who had been drinking too much and was making poor decisions.   Professors said this was ‘out of character’ for him.  

When Jeff came into her office, the first thing he said was that ‘he was not very religious’, wasn’t raised in church, and said he ‘didn’t know what he believed about God’.   She wondered why Jeff would even wanted to talk to her, a Christian chaplain.  Then it finally came to her,  ‘You must want to talk to me about death, don’t you?’    As the tears began to flow, Jeff began to share that he didn’t know what was going to happen to his mother.  He asked the chaplain,  “What do you think happens when people die?”  “What do you believe?”

Here’s where you have to figure out, not just what you believe, or what you want to believe, the Chaplain said, but you have to answer in a way that is real without churchy, religious language, that someone does not have a background for.  How to you tell someone what is behind the faith you have, which they do not yet have? 

The chaplain began to tell Jeff, not about what the church says, what Scripture says, or even what it means to believe in Jesus, but she began telling him about experiences she had had, sitting beside the beds of people who were dying, named Frank, Flossie, or Barbara, and how after they had slipped away from this life, how in those moments there was, among many, a profound presence of love.  Sometimes the love felt was as thick as molasses in the room, like you had to swim through it to come close to the bedside.  “This love is what I believe is waiting for your mother, and what I believe is waiting for us.”  With this affirmation, Jeff’s eyes began to show some relief, even hope  (The Christian Century, Jan 6th, 2016, p. 28).

However you look at how this Roman Centurion who came to Jesus and whatever conclusion you come to concerning the loving jester he made in behalf of his servant, you must come to grips with this as quite surprising for a person in his position.    Maybe you could understand, as other gospel stories put on display, a desperate father coming to Jesus, or a woman who comes, because an angry mob was about to stone her, and we might even understand a religiously confused Nicodemus,  or why the poor, the outcastes, or the heavy-burdened came to Jesus, but a man in his position?    

Whatever conclusion you come to, you must agree that he must have been a powerful person who understood and knew the limits to his own power, but even more than that he was a man who actually did have compassion for his employee whom he deeply cared about as another human being.   We read in the text that this Centurion ‘loves our people and he built our synagogue’ (Lk. 7.5).  He cared about others enough, to sacrifice his time and his reputation to help them.  What kind of love does this?  

Well, perhaps, just perhaps, it was not only the love he had for his servant, but perhaps it was also because of the love and devotion his servant had also shown him which motivated him.   And perhaps also, it is this story of selfless love which connected with Jewish elders (7:3), which also connects with Jesus, because this is God’s story too, isn’t?  God’s story, when you reduce it down to its most common denominator, is a story of God’s love for us.

When we come to the end of this story, we come to the challenge of Jesus, not to this Roman Centurion, but to his own people.    As the Centurion admits that, even as a person of great power and authority, he does not ‘deserve’ to have Jesus come to him and asks Jesus to ‘just say the word’ and his servant would be healed (7:6-8),   Jesus is pleasantly surprised, but immediately turns it back to his own people as a challenge,  “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this” (7:9). 

What becomes most ‘challenging’ about his story for us today, is not only that love is the motivation for deep faith, but also that this ‘love’ and ‘faith’ can go beyond national, cultural, racial, religious and social boundaries.   In other words, true love, real compassion, and genuine faith, is not bound by religious traditions—even our own.  

While we can’t know just how surprised Jesus was when encountered a “Gentile” having ‘such faith’, we do know he is shocked that he can’t find this ‘faith’ among God’s people.   Sometimes the faithful are not as faithful as they should be, and other times people of other faiths, or no faiths at all, can be more faithful and more loving than us.  This, perhaps, can still be shocking for you to learn; that people can have ‘faith’ and can ‘love’ outside of the religious traditions we have.  In other words, sometimes ‘strangers’ turn out to be less strange to us than we thought, and sometimes our own people can become strangers to us.  Isn’t this what happened to Jesus, when he was rejected by his own, but from now own, the Scripture says,  ‘as many as received him, became the sons and daughters of God (John 1:12).  What is going on in the gospels of Luke and John is that God’s love is making all kinds of new discoveries in the world about love and faith.    

One of the persistent surprises in Biblical history is God's invitation to the outsider.  Drawing on some of the great prophets, Jesus began to teach that God was not the exclusive possession of the chosen people.   Jesus knew what Isaiah meant when he said:
See, they come; some from far away, These from the north and those from the west and these from the Soutland. (Isaiah 49:12, CEB).  He was also acquainted with Malachi's prophecy: “From furthest east to furthest west my name is great among the nations.” (Malachi 1:11)  While Jesus may have begun his ministry with Israel, he soon expanded his vision to include the work of God throughout the world, even among strangers and enemies.  

Very often we in America have made a too-easy assumption that God is on our side, that he always will give us victory and prosperity because we stand for righteousness, truth, and morality.  But we need to also consider the scandals, the fraud, the embezzlements, the sexual abuse and harassment charges laid at the feet of many of our national business leaders and politicians, at home and abroad.   Strangely, sometimes so-called "enemy" nations and businesses may demonstrate a higher morality than our own.  Consider the Rev. Dr. Henry Pitney Van Dusen, 77, and his wife, Elizabeth, 80.   Dr. Van Dusen, headed Union Theological Seminary of New York, doing much for the institution, but in recent years Dr. Van Dusen lost his speech due to a stroke and Mrs. Van Dusen suffered severely from arthritis.  Consequently, just a few years ago, in their Princeton, New Jersey, home they wrote a suicide note, and then ended their lives with a massive dose of sleeping pills. The note explained their physical weakness and emotional desperation, then ended with the prayer: "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace."   

While only God is the final judge in such tragic situations, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed by Hitler, rightly wrote years ago: "God has reserved to himself the right to determine the end of life, because he alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. Even if (a person's) earthly life has become a torment for him, he must commit it intact to God's hand, from which it came.” (As Quoted by Maurice Fetty from, Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. "Good Death?" Time, March 10, 1975, Vol. 105, p. 84).

The Van Dusens were insiders, leaders at the very heart of Christianity.  By contrast, consider another woman alone, frail, weak, sickly: an outsider, unknown in important circles.  Yet she found her purpose and life-work praying from her wheelchair.  Every day she prayed for the church, the ministers, those in need. She was so weak in body, she hardly could speak.  Nevertheless, when God adds it all up, he may count the work of prayer during her feeblest years as the most significant work of all.  Like Jesus, we sometimes find deep faith and unselfishness in the most unlikely people.

As Jesus observed long ago, "Many, I tell you, will come from east and west to feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. But those who were born to the Kingdom will be driven out into the dark, the place of wailing and grinding of teeth" (Matthew 8:11-12).   Faith and Love is not a matter of being an insider, said Jesus, not a matter of religious pedigree, but it is a matter of the kind of faith based upon love which is open and possible for all.  As the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, once wrote:
Earth's crammed with heaven   And every bush a flame with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries
Or, as New Testament scholars Major, Manson and Wright have written, "The window lets in the light, but not to the blind. It reveals the wide-stretching landscape, but not if we close our eyes .... The whole universe is sacramental, but only if we are spiritually awake."[2]

This Centurion, outsider that he was, had his eyes open.   He was spiritually aware.  Whereas the insiders, the religious types, were puffed up with intellectual pride and were blinded with the cataracts of their conceit.   Here is the irony of ironies and the surprise of surprises, for Jesus and for us; Here it is the stranger or the outsider who is “in”, and it is the insiders who are ‘out’.   The wise are humbled, the humble are made wise; the powerful are made weak, the weak are made powerful; the righteous become sinners, the sinners become righteous; the first are last, and the last are first.   Faith can be found among anywhere, and it can found in unlikely people, even when it can’t be found from who you would expect it most.   Faith knows no ‘respect of persons’, because love has no bounds. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

“He Will Guide You Into All Truth”

A Sermon Based Upon John 16: 12-15 NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Trinity Sunday, May 22th, 2016

"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now (Jn. 16:12 NRS).

Last year, just before Christmas, one of the ladies brought a “Christmas Quiz” for the Senior Adults.   It had all kinds of questions about the original Christmas story, but to the amazement of some, much that is assumed about the Christmas story is not the story at all.  For example, the very first question was about the ‘innkeeper’.   But there was no ‘innkeeper’, just the mention of ‘no room in the inn’.   Then, there was also a question about the ‘animals’ around the ‘manger’, but no animals are mentioned.  The word ‘manager’ does mean a ‘feeding or watering trough’ but nothing else is said.   Finally, in the story from Matthew, we are told that ‘wise men’ came from the east following his star, but no one knows how many wise men there were.   We are told that ‘wise men’ brought ‘three gifts’ fit for a king, but there is no mention of their being three nor that they were kings. 

The point of the quiz was well made:  Even when we think we know something, we may not   know as much as we think we do.

Having awareness that we don’t, and can’t know everything is very important in matters of faith and life.   Unfortunately, some wrongly think they already know everything they need to know, even when there’s so much more to learn.   Sometimes this can have tragic consequences.

Not long ago I learned about the story of Sandra Chase.  Sandra was a woman from Florida, who in the late 1990’s traveled to Ecuador on vacation, but when coming through the airport to fly home she was wrongly and falsely accused of drug smuggling.  They found several bags of cocaine in her luggage, so without any investigation, they threw her and a friend in prison, without the possibility of bail or a trial; even though she tried to tell them that she did not know how it got there.   Sandra already had health problems, and would have died in prison, were it not for the persistence of her daughter, a congresswoman, and the news reporting of 60 minutes, who put pressure on the Ecuadorian government to release her, on health reasons.  This appeal took almost two years and Sandra’s health was on edge of total collapse when she was finally released.   None of this should have happened, and would not have happened, were it not for the extreme, corrupt policy of Ecuadorian government to put people away without fair trials or allowing any more questions to be asked.

To be true to the nature of life and faith, we must always be as much about asking the right kinds of questions as about having all the right answers.    Asking questions about truth is even important when the truth is right in front of us.   Consider our text today.   Jesus has spoken the truth to his disciples from day one,  even declaring himself as ‘the truth, the way, and the life’ (Jn. 14:6).  But just before leaving his disciples, Jesus informs them that he ‘still has many things to say,’ but they ‘cannot bear them now’ (v.12).   The point is clear.  Jesus affirms that when it comes to matters of faith, knowledge, and truth, there is always more to learn and more to discover.   

When you think about it, this is a very intriguing statement.  Jesus did not tell his disciples everything, nor could he, even if he wanted too.   Even some of the most important spiritual lessons they needed to learn could not come all in one moment.  Truth takes time, and God’s truth, because it belongs to God,  should take even more time to understand.   We cannot, as limited and finite humans ‘bear’ it all..

That humans learn and understand most everything gradually and partially,  based upon age, maturity and experience is well-known among educators.  The classic affirmation of what we all know about learning and truth comes from Scripture itself,  as the apostle Paul wrote,  “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways (1 Cor. 13:11 NRS).  So, when Jesus said he had ‘many things left to say’ to his disciples, it was not because they were slow learners, though they were at times, but as John's gospel concludes: ‘There were many other things that Jesus did; (but) if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (Jn. 21:25 NRS).  

The point here is both humbling and challenging.  There is so much to learn and so much to understand about life and about faith, yet our human ability to acquire and contain this knowledge is mostly gradual and always limited.   However, I did once hear about a pastor who told his congregation that there was ‘nothing in the Bible he did not understand’.   He said he could interpret every nook and cranny of every chapter and verseThat pastor may have been a  smart fellow, but I found it rather strange that man with an earned doctorate, but without any specialized training in Biblical interpretation  or theology, would dare claim to understand ‘everything’ in the Bible.  Most people I know, who master anything about most any topic, end up realizing how much they don’t know, how much there will always be to learn, rather than how they have learned everything.  His statement told me a lot more of what he thought about himself, than how much he knew the Bible. 

Knowledge is important, but there are many different kinds of knowledge.  Even if you have mastered knowledge of the facts you still may not fully understand them, or know how to use that knowledge in real life.  Think about the difference between completing the book work for driver’s training, having learned the basics facts of driving, and then actually learning how to drive.  I remember the first time I got behind the wheel as a student driver.  I pressed the accelerator but the car went slower.  When I mentioned to the instructor that something was bad wrong, he informed me he was checking out his emergency brake.  That’s what you do when you've got somebody behind the wheel who thinks he knows more than he actually knows.  A driving instructor knows just how dangerous a driver is who thinks they know more than they really know. 

Jesus taught his disciples many new things about faith.   Some of those ‘teachings’ are remembered in the gospels of the New Testament.  The disciples wanted to know and remember his truth, but still, they could only understand it gradually and partially.   (Recall how hard it was for them to understand that ‘the Son of Man’ must suffer, Mark 8: 31-33).  They had great faith in Jesus.  They gained new knowledge from what he taught.  They even had some exciting new experiences with him, but what they did not have was full knowledge of him  nor experience outside of their small little group.   This meant that they had to trust Jesus based on faith too.  Even having Jesus with them, they could only understood him partially, because just like us, no one can grasp the truth all at once.  Real truth, if it is ‘the truth’ remains larger than us and always stays out in front of and beyond us.  As Paul humbly admitted, even about the gospel truth:  ‘For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” ( 1 cor. 13:9-10).

Do you realize how important it is, even for our faith, for our salvation and our full redemption in Christ that we understand Paul, when he says ‘the complete’ has not yet ‘come’.  This is part of why it is important for us to realize just how much we still don't know?  Recently I heard doctors admitting how much we still don't know about the most basic functions of the human body.   Even as advanced as biological or medical science has become, we still don't know why people yawn.   We can't even figure out why people blush or why we dream at night.  We still can't cure the most common cold either; part of the reason being that every cold virus is different.   Science also can't explain why placebos work as good as medicines 50-60 percent of the time for most people.   And no matter how many great medicines we develop, science can’t always explain why or how a lot of them work either.  

Even though we know more than ever, and have access to more knowledge than ever, and can also access that knowledge almost instantly, we still have many, many limitations.  For example, in spite of all the ‘knowledge’ we have access to these days sometimes people still can't understand the simplest, most ordinary things.   As we all know, in this age of ‘Smart phones’ people who have them don't always seem to be smarter.  I’ve told you about the family gathered around the table at a restaurant, where the parents were on their phones, with heads down, not conversing with their two kids who were setting there with looks of boredom and loneliness.   Last year, I saw a news report about how many people are having unnecessary and avoidable accidents while walking with cell phones.   They showed a video of a woman with eyes focused on her phone as she fell over a wall into a water fountain.   They also showed a man who was so focused on his phone that we walked off an elevated train platform.    Another report stated how a man in NY City was run over by a truck backing up.  It was believed that the sound of his ipod drowned out the truck’s warning signal.  The report detailed many other reports around the world that avoidable pedestrian accidents are on the rise (  Even in a world with increasing knowledge, we can be, as Paul wrote Timothy, “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7, KJV).   Sometimes the truth we are unable to observe is as evident as the truth of a truck backing up. 

Since Jesus knew that the disciples would need to have knowledge of the truth and not just  ‘knowledge’, Jesus promised that ‘the Spirit of truth’ would ‘guide’ them ‘into all the truth’ (16:13).   In other words, humans aren't just created to acquire knowledge, but   humans need to be ‘guided’ to discover the most necessary ‘truth’ that comes from having the right kind of knowledge, which can give both life and faith.    

In the Hebrew Bible, we are told ‘ wisdom’ is the most ‘necessary’ knowledge truth should bring to us.   The author of Proverbs wrote that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning’ of this kind of ‘wisdom…’   Here, we should not understand  ‘fear’ as anxiety, as much as having reverence, respect, and humility before the eternal God who is our only source of truth and understanding beyond our selves.  The writer of Proverbs continues to explain the way to this kind of wisdom:  ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and all your mind, and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will shall direct your paths’ (Prov. 3:14-15).   Here we  learn that we are not able to gain God’s wisdom until we stop ‘leaning on our own’.   Ironically, the point is that the greatest wisdom starts when we realize what we don't know, not what we do.    The discovery of our limitations, our shortcomings, and our weaknesses is  where we begin to gain access to a wisdom that  ‘acknowledges’ God and allows him to ‘direct’ our lives.  In today’s text,  Jesus explains that it is the Holy Spirit will lead, guide and direct his own willing disciples to the ‘truth’  they still need to learn.

When we begin to think about the Holy Spirit, we come to one of the most neglected topics in Christian biblical teaching .   Some of our neglect to mention the Holy Spirit is understandable.  Even Jesus told us that the Spirit would not come to ‘speak on his own’ (16:13) or about himself.  He said it would be the work of the Spirit to ‘speak whatever he hears,’ (v. 13b) which means that he will come to remind and enlarge upon the things Jesus said and taught.  As our spiritual guide, the Spirit is to guide us to live the same truth in the same spirit as  Jesus lived and was.  But what does this mean?  How can we be led or guided into ‘all truth’ by the Holy Spirit? 

Again, many Christians get nervous when the Holy Spirit is mentioned, and rightly so, as many strange things have been thought and taught to be the work of the Spirit by some well-meaning Christians.  To help us understand what the Bible means when it speaks about the Spirit, or why orthodox Christians have named the Holy Spirit the third person of the Trinity, we need to consider the very practical teaching of Parker Palmer, an expert in field of education, and a great teacher of teachers, both secular and religious.

In the preface to his book about education and knowledge, To Know As We Are Known, Parker Palmer speaks about the crisis of education in America and then begins to share about some of the new and necessary discoveries among scholars in the education of  learning.  These scholars have come to realize that at the most fundamental level, learning is not so much about mastering cold, objective facts, but good learning is based upon developing strong relational ties between students and their teachers.  In the most direct way, Palmer asserts that learning is communal and relational.  In other words, without the support of communities, parents, and having a positive rapport between teachers and students, learning is at least hindered, or at most rendered impossible.  

I find Palmer’s language astounding, because it is education research, based on secular and scientific principles, which point us to the source of all human life and knowledge; the communion that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Learning must be communal and relational because all reality is based upon the divine reality of community that exists within the nature of God.   It is this most basic spiritual reality, in which we guided by the Spirit, at the ground of all reality,  that we can be led into the most necessary truth we need for life and living.  This source of wisdom or truth comes from the Father who has revealed himself through the Son, and still speaks and reveals himself through the Spirit who is Holy, because God is Holy.  

Again, this truth is basic, but it is never forced upon us.  We must invite and allow this Holy Spirit to ‘guide us’ into the ‘truth’, because, in the confusion  life and living, and because of our own selfish, misguided, or neglectful will,  the most obvious truths may become less obvious to us, or be hidden from us, unless we focus, renew or open own hearts up to God’s loving, living, and life-giving spiritual truth.   In other words, because of the way we are, because of the way life can be, and because of what can and will happen to us,  we need God’s Spirit to guide us, or we can lose our perspective upon what is the most necessary and most obvious truths for the living of our lives..

We can miss the most important truths too, and this can be our undoing.   In the documentary Film ‘The Day After Trinity’,  the story is told of the American team who produced the first atomic bomb.  Ironically, “Trinity” was the code name for that original explosion.   The film is filled with images of horror as mushroom clouds appear in test after test until the greatest amount of destruction is mastered by the scientist and then released.   As one of the lead scientists of creating ‘the bomb’,  Robert Oppenheimer wrote:  “To feel it’s there in your hands---to release the energy that fuels the stars.  To let it do your bidding.  To perform these miracles---to lift a million tons of rock into the sky.  It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power and it is, in some ways,  responsible for all our troubles,  I would say---this is what you might call technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.

When you watch this film,  and you relive the history, and you come to realize all this destructive power is still here, lying dormant, but just waiting on a sick mind, a rouge leader, or an evil empire that can harness its destructive possibilities; like an Iran, North Korea, or even a corrupt, western politician;  when you see, as Parker Palmer suggested, how our own misguided knowledge can become ‘means’ which can take us towards ‘ ends’ we would all want to renounce----‘we would renounce this----Palmer wrote, ‘but the problem with what happened with the bomb named ‘Trinity’ is not a single one of those scientists realized the kind of massive, world-destroying power they were unleashing in the world, until ‘the day after’.   When you are only ‘lead’ or ‘guided’ by what you learn or realize the day after,  one day it can be the ‘day after’  too late. (From ‘To Know as We are Known’ by Parker Palmer,  Harper Collins,  1993, p. 2-3)

We need God’s truth desperately,  but how can we be sure that it is God’s Spirit that is speaking to us, and not the echo of our own ideas or opinions?    Jesus finally tells us that the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15).   How does this work?  Can we be sure of this?  How do we know that it is the Holy Spirit, not only just our human spirit?

Back in 1989 Dr. Francis Collins, who served as head  of the Human Genome Project  had an opportunity to serve in a missionary hospital in Nigeria. He became overwhelmed by the volume of illness and suffering and the lack of resources to treat them. "Tuberculosis, malaria, tetanus, and a wide variety of parasitic diseases all reflected an environment that was completely unregulated and a health care system that was completely broken." He grew more and more discouraged.

One afternoon a young farmer came into the clinic suffering from the accumulation of a large amount of fluid in the pericardial sac around his heart. A symptom of tuberculosis, this fluid was choking him to death.   The only chance to save him was to carry out a highly risky procedure of drawing off the pericardial fluid with a large bore needle placed in his chest. In the developed world, such a procedure would be done only by a highly trained interventional cardiologist, guided by an ultrasound machine, in order to avoid lacerating the heart and causing immediate death.

No ultrasound was available. No other physician present in this small Nigerian hospital had ever undertaken this procedure. The only choice was to attempt a highly risky and invasive needle aspiration or watch the farmer die.   Dr. Collins explained the situation to the young man, who was now fully aware of his own precarious state.  He calmly urged the doctor to proceed. With a prayer on his lips, Dr. Collins inserted a large needle just under his sternum and aimed for his left shoulder, all the while fearing he might have made the wrong diagnosis, in which case he would almost certainly kill him.

The outcome would come quick.  The rush of dark red fluid in the syringe initially made the doctor panic that he might have entered the heart chamber, but it soon became apparent that this was not normal heart’s blood.  It was a massive amount of bloody tuberculous effusion from the sac around the heart.   There was a feeling of relief, and then elation.  But as Dr. Collins continued to think about the future for this young farmer, he recognized how unlikely it still was that the young man would survive much longer. The likelihood of his continuing the necessary treatment, the presence of so many other pathogens and germs, inadequate nutrition, the dangerous environment... The man’s chances were very poor.

With discouraging thoughts in his head, the doctor approached the man’s bedside the next morning, finding him reading his Bible.  The patient looked at the doctor quizzically, and asked how long the doctor had worked at this hospital.   Dr. Collins had to admit that he was new,  admitted that I was new, feeling somewhat embarrassed and irritated that it had been so easy for him to figure that out.  But then this young Nigerian farmer, just about as different  in culture, experience, and ancestry as any two humans could be, spoke the these unforgettable words:   "I get the sense you are wondering why you came here," he said. "I have an answer for you. You came here for one reason. You came here for me."

Dr. Collins was stunned.   It was as if the farmer was looking straight into the doctor’s heart.  The doctor wrote: “I had plunged a needle close to his heart; but now he had directly impaled mine.  With a few simple words he had put my grandiose dreams of being the great white doctor, healing the African millions, to shame.   (From Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, p. 213f.).

And Dr. Collins is right. We are never called to be great,  but we are all called to love, to help, and to reach out to each other in times of need.  On rare occasions that can happen on a grand scale.  But most of the time being who we are supposed to be and doing what we are supposed to do,  happens on the smallest of scales; in simple acts of kindness of one person to another. These are the events that really matter.   Here, in this simple act of compassion and care, this doctor became a human being who was ‘guided’ by the Spirit,  in harmony with God’s will, and bonded together with another human being in a most unlikely but marvelous way.   Each of them had poured out themselves to the other, and they experienced the spiritual truth that unites them — that life is only remains possible when humans  life are guided by God’s Holy Spirit who makes known the truth of God’s love known through Jesus Christ, the Son.

Do you see what is that ‘great truth’ the Holy Spirit has to ‘declare’ to us?   Let me emphasized this once more.   In his book Reaching Out, the popular professor, chaplain to the handicapped, and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, tells a story about one of his former students who returned to visit with him.  The student knocked at his door, entered his teacher’s presence and said:  "I have no problems this time, no questions to ask you. I do not need counsel or advice, but I simply want to celebrate some time with you," the student said.   Henri described their visit as one of the most remarkable of all his life.  After they sat facing each other, talked a little about their lives, friends, and their hearts,  they became silent.  “They silence of that moment was not embarrassing”, but it was “warm, gentle, and vibrant.”  Then, after hearing a few cars pass,  the noise of someone emptying the trash in the distance, they suddenly became aware of an even ‘greater presence embracing’ them both.  Breaking the silence, the student said, “It is good to be here.”  “Yes it is,” came the answer.   After another long silence, and peace filled the space between them,  the student affirmed to his teacher,  “When I look at you it’s as if I am in the presence of Christ.”  Hearing these profound words of appreciation,  the teacher looked straight into the eyes of his student and returned,  “It is the Christ in you, who recognizes the Christ in me.”  From that moment on,  Nouwen said, he knew that the ground they shared together would be ‘holy ground’. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, p. 45).

How do you know that  the Holy Spirit is ‘declaring’ something to you?   It’s really not that hard.   You must realize that you don’t know everything.  You must realize that there is always more to know.  And most of all, you must realize that the greatest knowledge is spiritual, and by spiritual, you don’t mean invisible or spooky knowledge, but you mean the revelation of relationships, community, of compassion and of love.    In our text today, Jesus says “All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”   Do you know what is God’s that also belongs to Jesus as should be ‘declared’ to us?    We belong to God and we belong to Jesus Christ.   When we are being ‘guided’ by the Spirit, we are being ‘guided’ to understand, to care, and have compassion on each other and to have community with each other in this world.     

Our Bible begins with the ‘Spirit’ hovering over the deep,  as God creates and breaths life into the world and humans beings (Gen. 1:2; 2:7).  Our Bible ends with the “Spirit” and ‘the bride’ saying ‘come’.   “Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come’.  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift’…Come Lord Jesus!’ (Rev. 22: 17-20).  All this means one thing and reduces the Bible to one truth: God invites us.   We are his and we should, we must, let the Spirit guide us to ‘come’ and be ‘his’ together.  It is the Holy Spirit, the breath of Trinity, who guides us to find ‘life’ in the community and in fellowship of ‘the Spirit and the bride’ who say ‘come’.  Will you come?  Amen. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016


A Sermon Based Upon John 14:  8-21, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost Sunday, May 15th, 2016

If you could ask God for anything, what would it be?  

I had a German lady in a church once, who said that the one verse in the Bible that  could destroy her faith is this verse where Jesus tells his disciples “If in my name you ask me for anything,  I will do it” (14:14).   It would probably hurt our faith too, if we were to take this promise  in the most simplistic, literal terms.    

Most of us will read this and say to ourselves that Jesus doesn’t actually mean ‘anything’, but he qualifies this by saying, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (14:13).   That’s the catch, isn’t it?   What we ask for must be ‘in his name’.  But what kind of qualifier is this?  What did Jesus mean?   How does asking for ‘anything’ in his name mean something, if anything, for us now?   

Greater Works Than These
These challenging words of Jesus come in the context of his final words to his disciples, just before his death.  Jesus is trying to calm concerns about his leaving.  The disciples have questions about what will happen after he is gone.  Our text begins with one of those questions.  Philip asked,  “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (v.8).

When Philip got to ask Jesus for “anything,”,  he wanted to ‘see’ everything about the Father.   Like Moses in the Hebrew Bible, Philip wants to see God and understand everything about life and death, and he wants to know everything right now.  If you recall what happened when Moses asked to see God, God agreed to pass by, but Moses only got to see his back.  God explained:  “No one can see God and live” (Gen. 33:20).  As a ‘good Jew’ Philip should have known this story,  why would Philip dare ask such a thing?

What Philip wanted is certainly not what most people want these days.  This kind of vision or answer would not ‘satisfy’, or cut it.    People are much more into physical thrills, gaining material stuff, and living longer.   The only people who want to ‘see the Father’ are those who are old,  on the way out, hoping that there is something on the other side.   The old who are rich are probably not even hungry for that.   Baseball great Ted Williams didn’t plan on seeing God, he had his brain frozen and stored indefinitely, in hopes of someday having it thawed in another body.   That’s the kind of thing you wish for when you’ve got money and you only trust in yourself.   If you’ve got money, youth, power or good health,  you want what’s in front of you now.  Isn’t this what most seek to make themselves ‘satisfied’.

But surprisingly, Jesus isn’t happy with Philip’s request either.   Jesus responds sharply, “Haven’t you even noticed me all along, Philip?”  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”   Why would you ask to see the Father when you’ve had the Son?   I don’t understand the question.  

Strange conversation, isn’t it?   Can you see a sort of “qualification” of what Jesus meant when he said: ‘ask anything in my name and I will do it”?    Didn’t he mean that whatever you once asked the Father, you can now ask the Son?  Asking God, or asking Jesus; it’s no different.  The Son and the Father are one.   God is at work in Jesus, and Jesus is God at work in the world.  The point is not that Jesus will now be your genie and give ‘three wishes’,  but that Jesus has come to ‘show us the Father’ in the flesh.   Jesus declares himself as the ‘I am’ who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’   If these Jewish disciples have trusted God as their Heavenly Father, they should now recognize the Father in his Son, Jesus.  This conversation serves as a substitute for the Transfiguration and the Great Confession, which do not occur in John.  “If you prayed to the Father, you can pray to me.”

This is not a theological exercise for its own sake, but it is to remind  Jesus’ disciples that because they know Jesus, they will do ‘greater works’ in the world.  This ‘anything’ they can ask is not a ‘blank check’ to fill in,  but this ‘anything’ is to ‘cash in’ on the ‘greater works’  they can do because of what God the Father has done through Jesus the Son. 

He Will Give You Another Advocate
How the disciples can do greater works is God’s work continues through the Holy Spirit:  “I am going away, and I am coming to you” (14: 28).  Jesus is not just speaking of resurrection, but when Jesus returns to God, he will “ask the Father” to “give... another advocate” to be ‘with’ them ‘forever’ (14:16).  This advocate, counselor, or comforter is the Holy Spirit (16:26).   It would not have been possible to “give” (14:16) or “send” (14: 26) the Holy Spirit before Jesus had finished his work.  His ‘spiritual’ accomplishments on the cross and through the resurrection enable and promise that the Spirit can continue God’s through theses disciples who do ‘greater works’ in the name of this Jesus they’ve known.

It is noteworthy that the Holy Spirit does not appear in the Bible before Jesus.  This is why the Holy Spirit is called Another Advocate (14:25).  The Spirit can only come because Jesus came.  Now, who the Son has been to the Father, the Spirit will be to the Son.  The Holy Spirit is sent to make sure these “greater works” will be God’s will “done on earth, as in heaven.”   The Holy Spirit insures God’s work in them, because He will be with them forever (14:16) as the Spirit of Truth (14:17) who abides with them and will be in them (v.17b).   The “truth” is not about the Spirit (16:13-15), but the Spirit reminds (14:26) them of ‘the truth’ of Jesus, so they will be able to continue to live in the Spirit of his truth.

Tom Long tells that when Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States, one Sunday morning, candidate Carter had been worshipping at the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.  When the service was over, Carter exited the church into a swarm of press on the church's front lawn.   They were all thinking of clever questions to ask a presidential candidate on the way out of a Southern Baptist Church -- "Did you like the sermon?" "Did you enjoy the choir this morning?" "Do you plan to remain a Baptist in Washington?"  On and on the questions spewed out.  Suddenly, a reporter, shouted out a question that genuinely mattered: "Mr. Carter, suppose when you are President, you get into a situation where the laws of the United States are in conflict with what you understand to be the will of God. Which will you follow, the laws of the state or the commandments of God?"

Carter stopped, looked up, turning the question over in his mind.   Still "in the Spirit on the Lord's Day,"  reminding him of the ‘truth’  in his own life, Carter turned toward the reporter and replied, "I would obey the commandments of God."  His aids, alarmed by his candor and unnerved by this almost unconstitutional remark, hurriedly whisked Carter away into a waiting car.  Carter the politician should have avoided the question, or remained ‘politically correct’ upholding the ‘law of the land’, but Carter the Christian, was filled with Holy Spirit abiding with him and reminding him of Christ’s words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments?” (14:15)  (From Tom Long’s sermon, Whispering the Lyrics, CCS Press).

I Will Not Leave You Orphaned
We all need reminders from the Holy Spirit to keep us ‘on track’ to do ‘greater works’ as we ‘keep’ Christ’s words (v. 24) and his commandments of love (v.15) in the world.  Jesus ‘sends’ the Spirit to make sure we can make the call and right choice.  But it is also important to realize that this is not Jesus’ only concern. 

Although I grew up as an adopted, only child, I never understood the term orphan until both of my parents died about a year apart from each other.  It wasn't a feeling of being alone that hit me, as much as, it was a sense of the loss of part of my identity as a person.  How much they were was the person I was, I did not fully realize until they were gone.  After they passed, part of who I was, left along with them, and I felt orphaned,  less than who I was, and missing part of my life, which had guided me, but would no longer.

But when Jesus left, their identity in him was not lost, but only enhanced.   When the Spirit came, who they were was not only confirmed, but their hearts were emboldened.  We see this not just in the bold preaching of Simon Peter, but also in the bold witness of  Philip,  who was being led by the Spirit to witness to this Jesus who was still at work, through the Spirit,  through Scripture, and of course most of all, still at work in Philip himself.

Last year, because the political landscape was still very confused, comedian Will Ferrell came on late night TV to offer a comic impression of past President George W. Bush.  The comedian’s routine began with his “President Bush” character asking humorously, “Have you missed me? I'm running for president again”   I found the whole act very funny.   Everything that was once perceived about him as unfavorable by many, was made to look good, in comparison with the confusion then felt because of so many candidates.  “Don’t you miss, me?”  He said.  “I was an underachiever, but at least you knew who I was.” 

As I watched and laughed, not at the President, but just at the comedian’s great gift of mimicking some of the President’s personality traits, and how it made you actually feel as if the President was right in front of you, actually saying these things,  I was then reminded that this is exactly how we can experience the ‘presence’ of Jesus still with us.   When we ‘mimic’ or ‘impersonate’ Jesus, by serving him, caring like him,  and letting his Spirit have his way with us, we know that we are not left as ‘orphans’, but that Jesus are still here, not just with us, but in us.    

The point I’m trying to make is that we are not alone,  if we are living ‘in Jesus’, involved in his work, his mission, as he calls us in the same “Spirit”  and inspires us to do even ‘greater works’ in Jesus’ name.  As I heard a retired wealthy women being interviewed in Florida, who, instead of moving to Florida to get away from it all, moved to Florida and involved herself in a ministry to help and encourage many of the elderly who have gone there,  but often end up alone and in need.  She said to the reporter, interviewing her about her work: “I just can’t see myself retiring and doing nothingBeing here, helping is what keeps me alive and makes my life worth living.  I gain my life by giving my life to these who I need to help, as much as they need me.”

As we close, recall Jesus words once more:  “The Spirit of Truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees nor knows him.  BUT YOU KNOW HIM, BECAUSE HE ABIDES WITH YOU, AND HE WILL BE IN YOU.”  (14:17).   Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

“So They May Know”

A Sermon Based Upon John 17: 20-26 , NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

A classic, tear-jerker, country music song recorded by Hank Williams goes:
“Last night as I lay down to sleep, I heard someone begin to weep. 
Then I got up to see, I heard my mother praying for me.”
She was kneeling by her bed and tears of pain were being shed
She said dear God please hear by plea I heard my mother praying for me.

I must admit, I’m not much for tear-jerker, country songs.  But these songs can be honest and earthy, having more truth than we want to admit.  While it may be more in vogue these days to think of a soccer mom than a praying mother, I still believe there are some praying mothers around.  In fact I found one on a Huffington Post blog site recently.  She wrote that when you are an elementary school teacher with three children and another on the way, you have to either give to God or go insane.  Children will even make an atheist fill the need to pray!

Today’s text is not specifically about praying mothers, but it does offer us a picture of Jesus at prayer, who is the source of all Christian prayer.   Think for a moment, why was it important for the early church to have an image of Jesus in prayer?    As someone has asked: would you have Jesus talking to you or to know that Jesus is praying for you?  It’s not a trick question.  The Bible portrays Jesus as our Great Priest, who has ascended into heaven at the Father’s right hand, now interceding for us.  But have you ever thought about what kind of prayer Jesus might be praying?  You don't have guess.  John’s gospel gives us an idea of the concern of Jesus in prayer.

The most obvious concern of Jesus is the unity or oneness of his disciples.  Three times in this text, Jesus prays to the Father that ‘they may be one’. 

There is certainly a great need for ‘oneness’ among Christ’s disciples and the church.  One only has to have been in a church scrabble, or made observation of how many different Christian groups or denominations there are, to realize how needed such a prayer is, and perhaps how unanswered Christ’s prayer has been.  What do you think it says about us as churches that we are so fragmented?  Are we so hard to get along with?  Perhaps you've heard the joke about Simon Peter showing some new arrivals around heaven.  He went by one room and the folks were standing, then sitting, then standing.  ‘Those are the Lutherans, they like rituals.  Next, they went by a room where people where shouting and dancing in the Lord.  ‘That’s the Pentecostals, they tend to get a little emotional.’  Then, they go by a room where all are very still and precise.  ‘Here we have the Presbyterians’.   They go by a few other rooms and then suddenly Peter tells the arrivals to walk softly and be quiet:  ‘in this room we’re now passing, we have the Baptists, they think they are the only one’s here.’

Finding unity has never been easy for religious groups who think they have ‘the corner market’ on the truth.  As most of you know most denominations have been founded based on differing viewpoints on church  doctrines or particular ways of interpreting certain Bible passages.  When I was studying Church History in Seminary,  I learned that when the great Protestant leaders, Luther, Calvin, and a Zwingli, who lead the much of the great struggle against Roman Catholic corruption, all agreed on the major issues of grace alone, faith  alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone, still were not about to agree when it came to interpreting the meaning of holy communion.  Was it Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, or only Sacrament?  We Baptist added another word, Ordinance.  Just think, the reason we have Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, all came from differences about how they understood communion.

I'm sure that most of have had some experience with church division, differences, or difficulty.  When I was still in my home church there was once a heated discussion about the cemetery.  The cemetery committee had decided that it was time to sow grass rather than continue to have sand hauled in.  But some people did not want the grass.  After a heated discussion, several families who wanted the cemetery to remain sand left the church when they didn't get their way.  Our neighbors, one of those who left the church, stand away for 20 or more years, until they got old enough to need a burial plot, and came back in the nick of time.

Churches, especially those who are  congregational in polity, can be difficult places to find unity and oneness.  When baptist Rick Warren was planting his Church in Saddleback, California, one of the major ways he insured his new church would continue to grow was to have only one church business meeting per year.  He said that most baptist churches ruined their unity and growth because of church fights over small matters that powerless people made major stinks over.  He wanted to make sure his churched stressed unity over disunity, and togetherness in great purposes, rather than continual disagreements over small matters.

While it is essential for churches to find unity of purpose,  Jesus’ concern was not simply  about those who already believe getting along, but Jesus’ prayer for unity was ‘in behalf of those who would come to believe’ (17:20).  There were many reasons the early church was concerned about unity, but they already understood that without maintaining the integrity of their fellowship and unity, the church would not only flounder, one day the church could fail at its mission and cease to exist.  Recently, the importance of unity was made clear to me by a young chair of deacons.  I had asked him why a certain member had left the church. They had left because of a difference of opinion over the youth ministry, he told me, moreover they did not agree with the youth leader.  He had made mistakes, the deacon admitted, but they wouldn't forgive him, or give him a chance.  The youth ministry is thriving now, but he said,  I guess they just had to have their way.

There can be no oneness when Church is only about yourself,  only your own wants or opinions.  Unity cannot be established only around human need or want.  Jesus prays that the church ‘be in’ the Father and Son as they ‘are in each other’. 

Here we see that the source of the church’s unity is in the unity and communion which exists between the Father and the Son.  The point here is that God’s self provides the foundation for oneness in the church.  The people in the church don't have to have uniformity----they don't have to be exactly alike, just as the Father and Son may differ---- but they are one because of their singular purpose and shared desire to be in community together.  Unless people have something bigger than their differences,  unity will be impossible.  Since the Father needs the Son, and the Son depends on the Father, unity becomes a necessity, not a mere option.   When our own need of God remains greater than our need to express ourselves, unity will be our common experience.

Years ago, in my first pastorate, I realized the need for finding unity at church.   One great story came to me about how a disagreement was once  settled over the color of carpet in the Sanctuary.  George Smith had built the fine, massive  Lutheran style pulpit, but when they were discussing carpet colors, George wanted red, as was customary in Lutheran churches.  George had been raised Lutheran before he married Rosie.  But after the church went with Blue rather than red, many were amazed that when time came for the members to put down the carpet, George Smith was the first one there with his tools in hand.  He was not going to let a small thing like carpet come between him and his relationship with God and his church.

Again, the source of unity is in God himself, not our wants, desires, and not even our own needs.   If a church ever hopes to find unity and oneness, this oneness must come from the three in oneness of God.  Our relationships with each other must flow from the relational nature and unity of God within himself.  Our unity with each other is the proof of our life in him.  You only find life in him when you are one with others in him.

Finally, it should come as no surprise that this hope for unity comes out of the experience of God’s love.  This hope of unity is not based upon mere human desire.    We are brought together at Christ’s invitation, through his love for us, and his command that we love.   As Jesus prayed at the end: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them (v. 26).    

In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis says that it is God’s desire that we come together around the Lord’s table at church,  because God wants us to be with “the same neighbor we did not want to be around all week.”  (C.S. Lewis,  The Screwtape Letters,  p. 12, as quoted by Earl Palmer, in  “The Intimate Gospel, Word Publishers, 1978, p.146).   The reason for such a challenge to love, is not just for our own benefit, but it is “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (Jn. 17:23 NRS).  God desires and even demands, that his disciples have unity, so that God’s love will be known outside of our own family of faith, for the sake of the whole world.   

E. Stanley Jones, the great Methodist missionary to India of another generation used to have a favorite saying, “You Belong to Christ; I belong to Christ; we belong to each other.”   This is the kind of ‘oneness’ that should flow out of our experience of Christ’s presence, which is an experience that God wants to the world to know.   But how will they know; how will the world know what God’s love is like, unless they see and experience in through us?  How will your neighbors, my neighbors know that we have God’s love in us, unless they see and hear about our love for each other?

A young man from one the churches I pastored, became a campus minister with Navigators and works on a college campus in Tennessee.  He says that many years ago, when he was a student at NC State,  involved in a student Bible study, a friend introduced him to another guy who a kind of ‘in-your-face’ Christian.   After he met the fellow, named Dan, he really didn’t want him in his nice, quiet Bible study, and he really didn’t want to go and have a ‘coke’ with him, when he asked.   But he did it out of courtesy anyway, and he said, meeting with Dan changed his life.  It started him on a ‘deeper’ journey of faith that eventually became full time ministry.   In the newsletter, he just sent to me, he went on to say that that ‘in-your-face’ fellow name Dan had just died.  When that young man attended the memorial service, up on the screen were photos of his life and work with students.  There on the screen was a picture of himself and Dan.    As he wiped tears sadness and joy from his eyes, then he remembered something Dan taught him, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care!”   He thought, as young college student, he would have never learned that great lesson unless he had gone to have a coke with a fellow Christian that he didn’t even like.

That’s why we are called to unity, so that we will learn from each other things we never dreamed , so that we might learn from each other how to care.   This is the very kind of lesson that the world still needs to see and learn from us, so that ‘they may know the God who loves and cares for all of us’, not just through Jesus, but now also, through us.    Amen.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


A Sermon Based Upon John 14: 23-29 , NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 1st, 2016

“THOSE WHO LOVE ME ….”   These first four words of today’s Bible text, remind us that the Christian faith is not mere ritualistic religion, -- doing just what it’s supposed to do,  but faith is a relationship with the living and loving God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.    True Faith should be reduced to wanting to be with Jesus.

This ‘relational’ aspect of reality is true of anything that really matters to us.   Recently, the once, well-known school atheist of my High School days posted on Facebook, “Cast away all our fancy electronic gadgets and then all we’ll have left is each other.”  

It is not only relationships that matter most to us in life, but relationships make us who are.   As a child, like all children, I would often test the limits of my mother’s instruction.   I listened to Sammy Campbell, who wanted me to go play at a construction site, even when my mom explained it was too dangerous.   When I fell into the hole and Sammy couldn't pull me out, my mother proved to be right.   Through my failure to listen, I realized I needed to relate more closely to my mother who cared about me, than to Sammy Campbell who didn't.  Likewise, I tested these limits again in high school, when once I forgot to tell mom I was staying late and working on a school project.   Dad explained later, not just how I had made a bad decision, but how I hurt and frightened her.   I apologized, not just for making a mistake, but to her.  Also, when I came to try to inform mom of my call to ministry, I realized I needed to calm her fears.  It was the relationship that kept us working out the details of being together.  I was becoming ‘my own man’, but she was still my mother. 

Understanding Faith as relational is also essential to having a vital, ‘living’ faith.  When Jesus began this text with, “those who love me,” he is appealing to what is most basic in us all.   Jesus does not simply say believe in this, or do this, neither does demand that we always agree with him.   No, Jesus makes the whole issue of faith personal, very personal, basically saying to us, ‘if you love me and want to stay close,  you will take seriously what I'm saying and asking.’   You take it seriously because this is what people who love will do.’

Everything in the Christian Faith eventually comes down to one questionDo you love Jesus?   I don't ever recall Buddha, Vishnu, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Gandhi, or even Moses, or any other founder or leader ever requesting that ‘faith’ rest on loving ‘him’.   Buddha enlightens, Mohammed demands surrender,  Vishnu preserves and protects, Moses leads and delivers,  but Jesus launches his followers (in John) by asking Simon Peter: “Do you love me more than these?”    This is all consistent with what Jesus answered the rich, young, ruler, about the greatest commandment.  The core of all true faith is personal and relational, but it is never solitary nor private.  The core of true faith is “to love God, just as you love others and yourself” and for the true Christian everything that matters to you must be reducible to one relational truth: Jesus matters.

In our world, sacred or secular, we certainly do not need mere religion.  What we need is healthier, more holy and more helpful relationships: living and being what is most important.   Having a more relational ‘faith’ connects us with our greatest need: having faith in ourselves, having faith in each other, and most of all, it all begins with having faith in God.   We need this kind of faith in this God who loves and commands love   because we all need love.   On our own terms, even when we name ourselves Christian, we can still become loveless people who lose the meaning, message or method of love.    We’ve all seen how inhumane, even the human person can become.  If it were not for a renewal to a revelation of a loving and forgiving God, who saves, redeems, and reconciles us to what matters most, faith, hope and love could have been lost.  

The mission of Jesus Christ is a mission to love:  “God so love the world, so that whosoever believes in him (Jesus), shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).  This is the most quoted Bible verse for good reason.  It is the greatest human need in each and every generation, to ‘cast away’ whatever prevents us from discovering this ‘love’ that can keep us from destroying ourselves.   We desperately need this love when hate and evil threatens.  

How do we find and keep this quality of relational love revealed in Jesus Christ?   The answer is quite surprising.  Essentially, we seldom find love, but love finds us.  As that ‘neckless’ commercial cleverly advertises, “Keep your heart open, and love will always find its way in.’   In the gospel of Jesus Christ, love seeks to find us, yes relationally, and personally, in this Jesus who says: “Come to me, all who are weary from bearing heavy burdens”  (My translation of Matt. 11:28), or as the great King James translates at the conclusion of the whole Bible in the Revelation of Jesus Christ: Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely (Rev. 21:17)!”.   By receiving and reciprocating such a free giving, forgiving, but also commanding love--- love revealed and modeled in Christ--- when we relate to this love,  then love finds, redeem, restores and reconciles, as we receive and reciprocate this love.    The question Jesus answers in our text today is ‘how?’  How do we receive and reciprocate God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ?

In John, Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that God’s love in fully known through Jesus’s own word.  This not only means the ‘words’ Jesus spoke, but God speaks his love for the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as ‘the Word’ which ‘became flesh and lived among us’  (John 1:14).   As Johns gospel begins, we are told that this ‘word’  ‘in the beginning’ was ‘with God’ and “was God” (Jn. 1:1).    It all sounds so deeply philosophical, but it means that from the very ‘mind’ or heart of God came this most practical and relational ‘Word’ who ‘became flesh’ ‘lived among us’ (1:14) whose glory was ‘seen’ as ‘the glory of a father’s only son’ which was ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14).    This all means that God’s love was revealed in Jesus in a real, historical, and particular loving person who was loved fully by the Father so he could become the source of love for all who will love him in return.  

Furthermore, this perfect love, resourced by God’s love, is what all love should and must be, because it was, and is filled with both ‘grace and truth’.   There is no true ‘grace’ without ‘truth’ and there is no truth worth having without also having grace.   Right after John 3:16, comes John 3:17: ‘indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world’ (Jn. 3:17).  That’s grace.   But this grace also bears truth, ‘those who do not believe are condemned already’ (Jn. 3:18).     Don’t take this to mean that those who don’t yet know Jesus stand condemned, but it means when the ‘light’ of love comes to who ‘hate the light’ and still ‘loved darkness rather than light’, they stand ‘condemned’because their deeds are evil’.    They ‘hate the light’ because they are afraid of having false loves ‘exposed’ by God’s perfect light (Jn. 3:20).   “But those who do what is true come to the light” (Jn: 3:21), says John.  They love this ‘light’ because they want their loving deeds to be ‘clearly seen’.   God’s love in Jesus, will be just what they were longing and looking for.

So, now, with this, when Jesus says ‘Those who love me will keep my word’ (14:23), this is the particular word about the light of love which Jesus’ disciples are to keep.   We too, as Jesus’ disciples today, keep this word by encountering when gospel that is read, preached, heard, understood and also when we live it in doing deeds of compassion and love in the world.    In the gospel, the single moment when truth and grace and ‘light’ unite are in the love that lays down on the cross that was ‘pure love’.   Particularly here in John’s gospel, Jesus told Nicodemus, that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man (the Human One, CEB), be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (3:14).   Only through the sacrificial giving of a life of love, does God display what love means; by the death of this crucified Christ. 

Strangely, the ‘word’ we are also to keep, is this love being revealed through the death of Jesus.   Even when the cross only looks like the epitome of human hate, it is being the revelation of God’s love.  No other religion and no other faith event in history ever dared to suggest that God ‘was in Christ’ crucified ‘for us’ (2 Cor. 5:20).  No other story dares what our gospel tells in all four gospels.  There is nothing like them written anywhere else at any other time or written in any other way.  The closest to it comes from the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 53, who prophetically spoke of a suffering servant who would be despised and beaten, yet by his ‘stripes’ people could find healing and hope  (Isaiah 53: 1-12).  It this Biblical, Scriptural Word of serving, sacrificial, selfless love, Jesus says, ‘speak of (him)’ (Jn 5:39) as they were fulfilled in his own ministry of suffering and death as ‘the lamb who takes away the worlds sin (Jn. 1:29) and as the servant who gives life as a ransom to free his people from sin (Mk 10:45).   This is the ‘word’ of the cross, that is being given to the disciples, then and now, to keep.

When I or you ‘promise’ to a spouse, child, parent or pledge to a fellow believer, that we will love, and keep that promise to love, no matter what, we bear the cross and keep Christ’s word.  Our faith becomes ‘relational’ when we keep, bear, and love, no matter what comes.   Like the former President of Columbia Seminary in South Carolina, Robert McQuilkin, who gave up his life’s work and ministry to care for his wife with Alzheimer’s.   When people came to him saying the school had money to pay someone to care for his wife, he said: No, I promised.   Money will not replace “ME” in keeping my word.”  And he is right, love is relational because it puts us, all of us, our whole selves, into keeping the word we promise (

How do we keep a living relationship with the word of love revealed through Jesus on the cross?   I’m not just asking a theological question, but I’m trying to make this a very personal and practical question about your own relationship with this God who loves.   I’m even asking the hard question of how we should keep this ‘word of love’ we will never fully comprehend, nor completely copy or mimic.  How do we relate a rejected, hated, crucified Messiah who loved in a way we can never fully repeat?   How do you and I keep the ‘Word’ of one who was the Word?

Jesus’ own answer is still our answer: ‘The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will remind you of  all that I have said to you”  (14:26).   In other words, you don’t simply keep the word, but the word keeps you.   The word keeps you as the Spirit of love is ‘sent’ (v. 26) as our ‘Advocate’ (Jn. 16:26) and Guide (Hn. 16:13) to ‘remind’ and ‘teach’ us how we must keep God’s word of love.    ‘The Spirit of truthguides into all truth’ and ‘will glorify’ Jesus (16:14) not speaking ‘on his own.’  (16:13).   But the ‘truth’ the Spirit teaches goes deeper and further because Jesus ‘was going to the Father’ (Jn. 16:10) and because ‘they (nor we) can bear’ all the truth at once (Jn. 16:12).   Only the Spirit ‘declares the things to come’ (16:13) after the earthly Jesus.    The Spirit ‘takes what is mine’ (16:15) Jesus says, and he ‘declares what he hears’ (16:13) ‘to you’ (16: 14).  This Spirit, is Jesus returning in Spirit to continue to reveal God’s love as the story continues to unfold in us, as we live into this story by following Jesus’ example as we are led by the Spirit to live and bear ‘our’ cross of love.

When he comes” (the Spirit),  Jesus told his disciples, ‘he will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgement…’ (John 16:8).   The Spirit can prove what is wrong in the world because through Jesus’ own life and death ‘the ruler of this world has been condemned’ (John 16:11).   What it means to be taught ‘by the Spirit’ was made clear in Vera Brittian’s biographic story, “A Testament to Youth”, where this young Oxford bound woman’s life and hope was interrupted by the horrors of World War I, which took the life of her fiancĂ©,  her brother, and most of her childhood friends.  Vera herself, follows the Spirit, to leave her studies to support the war effort, as a nurse, where she actually goes to France and ends up caring for her own dying brother on the battlefield.  At the close of the story, at least the movie version I saw,  Vera is trying to rebuild her life after the war.  She is listening to a young man, making a ‘stump speech’ against hate, war, and even the desire of many Brits to retaliate against the Germans after the war was over.  Even when World War II, approached, Vera was not against the necessity of war, but she did speak out the ‘fire-bombing’ of German cities.  Many British people thought she was being a traitor to speak out against the “spirit” of winning a war at any cost.    But Vera was vindicated, when among German Nazi leaders, a list was found of the 3,000 people in England to assassinate if the Germans had won.  Among those names was Vera Brittian, a woman whose voice from another world, threatened the Nazi’s to the core.  “When the Spirit comes,  he (always) proves the world wrong…..” (John 16:8). 

But some will say that if the Spirit has proven the world wrong about what is sin, what is righteous, and what should be judged, and if the ruler of this world has already been condemned,  why is the world still filled with so much sin, evil, and hate?  It’s a good question, but it has real, gospel answer: “He (Jesus) was in the world,  and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”   This Jesus, who came in the baptism of this Holy Spirit, ‘came to his own, and his own people did not accept him”  (1:10-11).  The message of love has not changed, nor has it changed everyone, namely, because everyone does not want to be changed.   The message of love that we ‘keep’ is not kept by everyone, and the Spirit who still teaches is not believed nor trusted by everyone,  because, as John testifies: ‘people loved darkness, rather than light’ because their ‘deeds are evil’.   Those who only seek power, wealth, or work only for themselves are still now, as they were then.  What has changed in this world, is that now, ‘all who received him, who believed in his name’ through the Holy Spirit, have ‘the power to become children of God---being ‘born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (1: 12-13).   This transforming, life-changing personal power is the relational power the Spirit still ‘teaches’ and ‘accomplishes’ in us, when Christ’s love succeeds in us  ( 2 Tim. 1:7).

The greatest ‘power’ or ‘success’ of our relationship with Jesus the Christ, is not that the world changes, but that we change in relationship to the world:     Again, when we keep Christ’s Word, and when we allow the Holy Spirit to keep teaching us, the word will keep us as Christ gives us his ‘peace’“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (Jn. 14:27 NRS).

Back in 1991, an Air Canada Flight, started sputtering and losing power and had to glide to a quick landing, or all lives would have been lost.   Fortunately they were able to find a place to land quickly.   After inspections were made, it was realized that the plane ran out of fuel in mid-flight due to human error.    While refueling, someone mistakenly read kilograms, when it should have been pounds.  The planed has been given half a tank of fuel, instead of the full amount (    

Without God’s peace, we too try to ‘make our flight through life’ on half a tank’, but sometime, someday, on our own, we will run out of fuel.   When we understand that only God’s peace can give us a ‘full tank’ of love, hope and peace,  we’ve come full circle to what to ‘keep the word’ and be ‘kept by the word’ as Christ’s disciples today.   God’s love is revealed to us for the sake of giving and granting us God’s peace.   This is not a peace ‘as the world gives’, but it’s a peace only people can keep giving and receiving as they love, as Christ loved.   Love gives us a  ‘peace’ of heart and mind, no matter what happens in life.   “If you loved me, (Jesus told his disciples),  you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I “ (14:28).   In other words,  God’s peace goes with us everywhere God goes---and God is goes everywhere.   Loving the eternal God gives eternal, unlimited, unbounded ‘peace’ to anyone of us, anywhere we are, and everywhere we go,  as we love through this Jesus who ‘loved the Father’ as was ‘loved by the Father’ because ‘God so loved the world’.    This is the relational faith based upon God’s love that can also give you peace, now, and forever, through Jesus Christ.   Amen.