How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

Preacher – Micah Bales

Scripture Readings – Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

 

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.

This is a Wilderness Road

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Yesterday morning, somewhere between 5:30 and 6, I made the connection that my sermon was titled “This is a wilderness road” and that I would spend the day before preaching it running on trails. Though the race was not a surprise (it took some wherewithal to leave the house at 2:45am and begin hours of running at 5) I had not made the connection—which was, it turns out, only superficial, until I was running through heavily muddied trails by light of a rather dim headlamp (Jenn, we should make a note to buy new headlamps). Whereas the wilderness road in Acts was actually wilderness, mine was a trail full of people not far from a city and staffed with aid stations and medics in cause of injury. Whereas Philip was sent to the wilderness with a mission by the Spirit of the Lord, I was there for reasons personal and perhaps unexplainable. Philip’s going to the wilderness is thought to have contributed to the beginnings of the church in Ethiopia which has produced, among other things, magnificent religious art (some of which is displayed this morning), my going mostly led to a feeling of accomplishment and severe soreness this morning. So, there is no connection between my wilderness road and the one in Acts except that my wandering thoughts noted early yesterday morning

In the Gospel of John (chapter 17), in the last hours before his crucifixion, we hear Jesus praying for the unity of his people. He knows that the coming crisis will stretch and push them and so he prays. Since he prays in the hearing of his disciples it is also a sort of pep talk and exhortation. At yesterday’s there was now prayer but there was a pep talk of sorts. Dean Karnazas, a well know ultra-marathoner, gave us some words to motivate but also included things like—the trails are really muddy and here the mud is slick like ice—which is more concerning than encouraging. When Jesus does the pray/pep talk/warn act it is for unity. It is not unity because unity is nice but because unity demonstrates the truth of their message. Unity demonstrates the truth of their message. In Jesus’s words “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21).

The witness, the possibility that what these crazy disciples say about Jesus might be true is based on their unity (not their seamless arguments, dazzling sermons, or their social media presence) —they must be united in a profound way. The shorter booklet of 1 John carries on this concern. Throughout the writing we can see hints that all is not well. In 2:18 in an exclamation that could have been penned by our own Micah we read—”Children, it is the last hour! A you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” Verse 26, “I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you.” And just before our passage, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

A commentator writes, “The once-unified congregation began to tear apart from within. Threats that were once external now were found within the ranks of the fellowship itself…The community was splitting, harsh words were being exchanged, and the vocabulary once reserved in the Forth Gospel for those in ‘the world’ now was being aimed at fellow Christians. (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 589)” Throughout this text John holds two major themes—right thinking about Jesus and right living in light of this. [“John returns to two major subjects repeatedly as he writes: christology and ethical behavior…The secessionists had embraced an aberrant form of christology that led them to make wrong judgments about Christian living” (590).]

John demonstrates an intense concern that right belief and right living are of utmost importance. It is not merely doing the right thing, NOR is it just declaring belief in the right thing.

The spirits must be tested and the test is love. The teachings and actions must be tested—the test is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

This verse tempts us to make it into a formulaàGod=Love and to Love=Knowing God.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

The initiating action of love was from God. We learn of God’s love through God’s action, we demonstrate our connection to God through our own acting in love. In fact, the invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another. The invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

There should be a direct causal link between God’s love for us and our love for one another. We have been loved by God, how can we do anything else but love one another?!

“his love is perfected in us.” Made perfect? Presumably God’s love is perfect love but if God’s love is to be lived then our participation in this love adds something to it—or at least manifests it concretely in the world. It is made complete

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

There now seems to be a second test of our “abiding” in God. That is, the reception of the Spirit. Which sounds like it should be good empirical or measurable results. If not empirical then at least a matter of philosophical defining or perhaps in writing a definition for a dictionary—which seems definitive. I have been learning, however, that even the dictionary is a complicated thing. In Word by Word lexicographer Kory Stamper describes in often humorous detail the work of a dictionary writer and editor. It turns out that the process of editing or writing a dictionary is about documenting and describing how a word is used rather than prescribing how it should be used. The two requirements to be hired are a degree in some subject (a range of disciplines is good since an economics major has different vocab than a biology-she notes a strong representation of medievalist majors.) and to be a native English speaker.

The later of these is due to SprachgefulleI, the feel of the language that comes with it being your first language—sometimes something just doesn’t feel right and then the editor knows to dig deeper. The offices contain accumulated scraps of uses of words which are filed and considered in this process. She tells of the, at times extensive revision process in which senses are considered and while talking shop at a dinner party she amazed the academics by proclaiming that she had spent a full month revising the word “take.” After describing, what to most of us would be an excruciating and unimaginable process a co-diner, with dramatic pause notes having worked 9 months on editing “run.” (Stamper, 148).

Defining or measuring the presence of the Spirit may indeed be a difficult test. The Spirit presence may also be difficult.

Our passage in Acts gives a picture of the Spirit’s activity. The disciple Philip is getting on with the work of Jesus. There are healings, preachings, and rapid expansion of the church. In chapter 7 Stephen testifies, it says, “filled with the Holy Spirit , he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God….but they [the mob] covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against him.” While killing him, Saul stood by watching and approving. The Spirit that it seems that we thought we wanted to display…is hardly a ticket to a life of ease. The Spirit might just get you killed. Saul then goes about and severely persecuted the church. This Spirit filledness—leads to actions—which leads to persecution—which in verse 1 of chapter 8 leads to a scattering.

Though scattered this didn’t stop them. Vs 4 reads “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Philip was one of them and went to Samaria. Now, Samaria might sound familiar. Remember Jesus and the parable? The Good Samaritan? The general consensus was not with Jesus and the “goodness” (potential or innate) of a Samaritan. Samaria was a place of enemies. The place that was outside of okay. None-the-less, the good news is preached and received, the Apostles come down to verify (it did, of course, stretch credulity), and the Holy Spirit power came upon them. Philip was rockin’ it—major successes, rapid church growth in a new locale. And then…and then the “angel of the Lord” said, go to another place—and abandoned place—a deserted place. In case the reader doesn’t know that the road from Jerusalem to Gaza is such a place the writer notes parenthetically that “(This is a wilderness road).” Rather than be where the action is, go over there. After providing commentary and then baptism to the Ethiopian Eunuch the “Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…Philip found himself at Azotus….

All of this, then, becomes an expression of verse 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

A writer asks “who is the protagonist is in this story?” (Willimon, Interpretation, 71). The angel of the Lord and demands and then the spirit of the Lord instantly transports Philip elsewhere once the meeting, explanation of the scripture and baptism are finished.

Meanwhile, returning back from the Spirit excursion to the dusty and desolate lands….

14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

Here we have the right belief—the confession, proclamation, assertion that “Jesus is the Son of God.” There are some of us that may “skew ethical”—not that we are necessarily particularly ethical but that we have reacted to Christians who assert that it is all a matter of belief—the notion that you should check the correct dogmatic box and you’re set—For those of us who skew ethical in our emphasis, this verse chastens us. It challenges us. (I wouldn’t necessarily say rebukes us). This confession is not simply in the vein of “actions speak louder than words” but seems linguistic. It is content bearing—it IS connected to practical ramifications BUT can, in some way, be spoken. [The Brethren are non-creedal—which doesn’t mean we don’t believe anything but rather that we don’t think it is summed up in a tweet or so.]

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Abides, abides, abides—When I see the same word show up I wonder—my biblical language major brain dings. Since there are not one for one translations of words the same word in an English translation doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same original word. This happened when reading the 1 John 4 and John 15 passages. Though the word “abide” shows up many times and in both. The John 15 passage uses a much different metaphor to illustrate abiding. Remaining with or in or connected to.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears  no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit….4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing….8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

God is love,

       Remain in God.

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

GOOD AND PLEASANT

Preacher — Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings — Psalm 133, John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

How many of you watched the live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last Sunday night?  I didn’t see it live, but I have seen a lot of the clips on YouTube and the whole show is on NBC.com and I’m planning to watch it there.  A lot of critics said that Jesus Christ Superstar was the best of the live musicals that NBC has produced in the last five years or so, and based on what I’ve seen I agree.

I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why.  It’s not because of the star.  Yes, John Legend is a popular singer, but some of the earlier live shows have had popular singers like Carrie Underwood or bigger stars like Christopher Walken or Matthew Broderick.  Yes, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic show, but so was The Sound of Music, and Peter PanHairspray was a Broadway hit not long ago, and A Christmas Story is one of the most popular holiday movies of all time, and they weren’t nearly as good.

I think the reason is that Jesus Christ Superstar is the first of the NBC live theatrical productions to be produced in a theater and in front of a live audience.  The others were all live, but they were on a sound stage, like a regular TV show, and there was no audience to laugh or cheer or boo or cry.

Superstar had an audience, and that’s a big thing.  Actors learn how to play to their audience, how to coax a response.  The audience provides feedback that they actors respond to.  The audience provides energy that the actors feed off of.  For an actor, the audience can be a colleague almost as much as their fellow actors on stage with them.  Other people being there make a huge difference in the energy and in the life of a performance.  Hold on to that thought for a few minutes.

I have many friends who don’t go to church very often, or who don’t even go at all.  It’s not necessarily about whether they are Christians or not, but a number of them have expressed a similar thought to me.  A lot of my friends who don’t go to church say that they believe that they can worship God just as well when they are out in the woods, surrounded by the beauty of nature.  They say they can worship God just as well when they are alone in the midst of silence in their home or apartment.  They say that they can worship God on the golf course, and you know what?  Maybe they can.  A golf course is a beautiful place.  There are trees and hills and manicured grasses.  It’s often quiet, with only birdsong to accompany you.

I do wonder sometimes how many people are worshiping God when they’re out on the golf course, or when they’re alone in their apartment, or when they’re camping or hiking amidst the beauty of creation.  I’m not there, I can’t judge, and if they tell me they’re worshiping God then I have no reason not to believe them.  Now hold on to that thought for a moment as well.

The theme of our scripture readings today is obvious.  All of them deal with community.  All of them deal with believers in relationship with other believers.  Our Psalm, which we used as our Call to Worship, starts out “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”  The passage from Acts is specifically about how the early Christians were so close that they shared all of their goods, all of their income, and each received from the common purse as they needed.  A lot of people believe that the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was written by Karl Marx.  It definitely wasn’t Marx – that phrase had been around for a long time before he was born.  The idea behind the phrase is exactly how the early church lived.  It’s not Marxism – it’s Christianity.

1 John 1:3 talks about what it is that will make John’s joy complete: the fellowship of believers along with God and Jesus.  1 John is believed to be written by the John the Evangelist, who is also believed to have written the Gospel of John.

And in the Gospel of John we read the story of doubting Thomas.  In doing research for this sermon I ran across an idea that was new to me.  It was on a blog called “Left Behind and Loving It” and the blogger is a Greek scholar named D. Mark Davis.  Let me just say before I go on that I didn’t study Greek in seminary.  Davis talks about the use of the aorist tense and the imperfect tense in the original Greek, and each of those tenses imply different meanings for words when they are used..  I don’t have much of a gift for languages, and so I can’t evaluate the pros and cons of what Davis suggests, but I think it’s interesting and worth thinking about.

We’re all familiar with the good ole doubting Thomas, who wasn’t there for some reason when Jesus appeared to the disciples and so didn’t believe them when they told him that Jesus had appeared to them.  His words are famous:  “”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  And later on, when Thomas did happen to be with the other disciples, Jesus did appear and Thomas did believe.

Verse 24 says, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  Davis says that the choice of words in the original language suggests something different than we usually think it does.  We usually think that verse 24 says that Thomas wasn’t there for a moment.  Maybe he had stepped out to get food.  Maybe he had gone to visit someone.  Maybe he was taking a nap.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there at that particular moment.

Let me quote what Davis suggests as an alternate reading.

Just to be clear, Mary had already told the disciples “I have seen the  Lord” but they are overjoyed when they see the hands and side.  In this story, the disciples say “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas cannot accept it until he, too, sees the hands and side.  To me, the point of this story is not that Thomas is the disbelieving holdout because he needs to see evidence before he believes.  I think there is more to Thomas’ “doubt” than a lack of evidence.

…John may be saying that Thomas was no longer with them when Jesus came the first time, as if he had given up on following Christ with them after the crucifixion.  Likewise, if they had only said to Thomas, “While you were out getting bagels one day, Jesus came,” the aorist tense would suffice.  But, the imperfect (tense)… implies ongoing past action.  Perhaps they were trying over and over to convince Thomas to return.  Finally, Thomas threw down the gauntlet, “I’ll come back, but unless I see and touch, etc., I won’t believe it.”  I guess I’m seeing the possibility that this was an extended conversation about Thomas’ participation in the community, and not just that Thomas happened to miss out on the first visit.   (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/)

I don’t know about you, but that’s a much different way than I have thought about Thomas before.  Because he had cut himself off from the community, he was not able, at first, to see Jesus.  Because Thomas was not part of the body, he was not able to truly and fully believe.

I truly don’t doubt the sincerity of people who tell me that they can worship God just as well on their own as they can in church.  But I think they are cutting themselves off from the full blessings of the body of Christ.  They are cutting themselves off from support.  They are cutting themselves off from care.  They are cutting themselves off from accountability.

They are cutting themselves off from a community of friendships based on their faith, based on the thing that is truly the most essential thing in any Christian’s life.  We have friends because of our jobs or our schools or our geographic communities or our ethnic communities or any number of other things.  None of those are a replacement for friendships that are grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ.  None of those are a replacement for friends who are a part of the body of Christ, the church.

Those folks are also cutting themselves off from the energy that you get when you experience something with other people.  I could sing hymns and songs on my own if I wanted to.  But I hardly ever want to.  Why?  Because it’s more fun to me to sing them with someone else.  It’s more fun for me to be part of a group that is singing, whether it’s a choir or here in church or in a play or whatever.

Which do you think would be more exciting – to watch Jesus Christ Superstar alone at home on your television or to watch it in person with hundreds of other people?  For most folks, not everyone, but for the vast majority it would be more exciting to watch it live and in person.  It would be better to draw energy from the crowd around you and reflect that energy up to the performers on stage and let them bathe their performances in that energy than to watch it alone at home.

And even if you were at home alone watching, or watching clips on a computer like I was, that energy comes through the screen.  The difference in energy between a live performance with an audience and a live performance without one is something that you can feel when you watch it at home.

The Spirit’s presence in each of our lives as individuals is magnified when we gather as a group.  Our worship of God is magnified as well, because there are more ways we can worship and more ways we can minister to and with one another than when we are by ourselves in the woods or in our apartment or in our car.  This is the church.  This is the body of Christ in the world today.  When we cut ourselves off from the church, as Thomas may have, we cut ourselves off from God’s presence in so many ways.  It doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from God’s presence completely; we all have an individual relationship with Christ.  But we limit the possibilities to experience that presence in all of its fullness.  We minimize the opportunities to learn, to grow, to be encouraged, to be held accountable, to minister, and to be ministered to.

Almost every time I begin a worship service during the Welcome and Announcements I say that I am glad to see you here this morning.  That’s true.  I am glad to see you here this morning.  I’m glad because you’re here, and I’m glad because the fact that I can see you means that I’m here as well.  I am glad to be a part of the body of Christ in this place.  I am glad to be able to worship, and sing, and pray, and minister with each of you.  With the Psalmist, I find that it is good and it is pleasant when brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity.  I hope that you do too, and that you will invite others to learn and share and grow and minister with us in the days to come.  Amen.