Abiding in Hope (5/6/18)
Baptistery, Coventry Cathedral
On Sunday, May 6th, I gave the saints at Rehoboth a little pep talk. I reminded them of the challenges that they face and I reassured them that I believe they can meet those challenges. I've told this to them before, but some messages are easy to understand intellectually, but more challenging to live into.
Good morning. I have a confession to make. I forgot to announce something before worship last Sunday. It’s a simple announcement, nothing earth-shattering, but I can forget anything, so I figured if I wrote it into my sermon, I might actually remember it. I come by this honestly—any of you who knew my father will recognize this in me.
Here’s the announcement: I would really like to spend as much time as I can with you folks. I’m talking about visits. Whether it’s a cup of coffee, sharing a meal, or even smoking a cigar, I’d love to spend time with you folks as individuals. I won’t be here with you that much longer, so I want to make the time count.
It occurs to me that this is a lot like what Jesus is saying in this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John. Jesus is only going to be with the disciples a little while longer, so he’s giving them some parting instructions. Now I should warn you, any time the preacher starts comparing himself to Jesus, you all should get really suspicious. But I don’t have any hidden agenda and I’m not about to make myself the hero of this story. I just want to dwell in this relationship as long as possible. It’s like sitting around a campfire, knowing it’s time to go to bed, but enjoying the company and the fading light and warmth of the fire. I just want to abide with you folks a while longer; that’s why I put this announcement in my sermon.
Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from a section of John’s Gospel that scholars call the Farewell Discourse. This is Jesus giving his final instructions to the disciples. These are really important instructions. How do we know this? Jesus has already given these instructions. We know they’re important because Jesus is repeating himself.
In Chapter 13, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and tells them, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). This is echoed in this morning’s reading when Jesus tells the disciples: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last,” (15:16).
After the foot washing in Chapter 13, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34). We hear it again in verses 12-17 of this morning’s reading, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” and then Jesus expands on what that means.
I could spend more time explaining the concept of abiding or remaining in Jesus, but I don’t think this passage is particularly difficult to understand. It’s pretty clear. I think Jesus repeats himself for two reasons. First, to underscore how important it is, how central it is to our identity as Christians that we love one another as He loves us. Second, Jesus repeats this commandment because it’s really difficult for us to live into this.
We are all flawed disciples; we all come up short. We fail to fully live into Jesus’ new commandment, all of us. There are as many different reasons for this as there are people in worship. In fact, each of us probably has a bunch of reasons why we fall short. I think one thing that afflicts all of us is fear. I’ve said it before, fear interrupts faith. In this context, fear can interrupt our call to be disciples.
Fear is big business. Fear sells home security systems. Fear sells guns. Fear drives news coverage. You don’t have to spend much time watching news on cable TV to find out about all the stuff you should be afraid of, whether it’s e. coli, or people from the other political party, cable TV news will tell you all about it and why you ought to be really scared. And that keeps us tuned in. It also keeps us on our couches, instead of going outside and being more involved with and actively loving our neighbors
Here at Rehoboth, I don’t think we’re paralyzed with fear, but we have a lot of anxiety. We’re anxious about the number of people in the pews and the amount of money in the collection plate. Session just voted to draw down our endowments by another $30,000. We have to do this because our offerings don’t meet our expenses. There isn’t a lot of room to trim the budget, but if we brought in more people and more money, then the numbers would move back into balance. The path isn’t entirely clear. We know what the past looked like, in all its bounty, but we’re not sure how we get to that sustainable future.
In a similar way, the disciples couldn’t imagine their future without the human Jesus in their midst. They couldn’t conceive of what their lives would be like or how they would continue Jesus’ mission in the world. All of the Gospels relate the stories of the disciples, right after the crucifixion and resurrection. They’re all terrified; they’re paralyzed by fear. They want to remain in their locked room where no one can harm them—they don’t want to get out there and be the Church; they’re afraid to do the work that Jesus called them to do.
From our perspective, that seems odd. In this morning’s lesson, Jesus has given his joy to the disciples, he has reminded them that he loves them in the same way that God the Father loves him, and he has told the disciples that they are now his friends. They should be so overwhelmed with joy and love that fear can’t squeeze into the situation, but it does. Fear creeps in and interrupts the disciples’ faith. Even though Jesus said all the right words.
Jesus’ words ought to be enough, but they’re not.
The disciples remain in fear—they abide in fear—until the risen Christ enters their locked room. It’s only after that visit that the disciples can abide in Jesus. It’s only after that visit that the disciples can abide in the joy of Christ’s love. It’s only after that visit, after the resurrection and before the ascension, that the disciples become the apostles. It takes them some time to live into their new identities as apostles, but Jesus has equipped them for the work.
Beloved, since I came here, I’ve been trying to speak into your fears and anxieties. On the one hand, I want to make it clear that this congregation needs to change; you can’t forget the urgency of the present. On the other hand, I want to tamp down your anxiety—you still have so much human capital to work with. Beloved, I chose to serve here because I believe in you. Yet I know that my words alone aren’t enough to take your fears away. And honestly, I’ve been wondering why that is. Working on this sermon, I think I figured it out.
It’s kinda like at a funeral when someone says, “he’s in a better place.” If you’ve ever heard me officiate a funeral, you know I hate that phrase! I heard it a lot when my dad died. When people said it to me, it was because they didn’t know what to do with my pain and grief, so they said the words that they thought would make me feel better. Even if those words are really stupid.
The truth is, when you love someone, and that person dies, there are no words to take away the pain. The pain of the loss comes from the love that you had for that person; if the love was real, the pain is real. Words can’t take away the love or the pain. The same is true for this community of faith and the changes you’ve experienced over the last few years. Rehoboth Church doesn’t look like it did ten or fifteen years ago.
The love you have for this congregation is real. So is the anxiety you feel. And I don’t have any magic words to make the anxiety disappear. But I think the way forward is through relationships. I think that that’s the way we live into the love and the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. It’s only through relationship that we abide in Jesus.
Next Sunday you’re going to meet the Rev. Donald Glunt; he’s the candidate to be the next installed pastor of this congregation. If the way be clear, you will have the opportunity to enter into a relationship with him, and through this relationship, you may all work together to make the changes that will ensure the viability of this congregation. This relationship is the way to embrace the hope that abides in the love of Jesus Christ; may it be the way forward for this congregation. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!