John

“The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Actions Say?”

The Living Body of Christ: What Do Our Actions Say?

First Baptist Richmond, April 21, 2024

1 John 3:16-24

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

In this Easter Season sermon series I’ve been talking about the church as “The Living Body of Christ,” focusing on the way the early church embodied the mission and message of Jesus and then looking at this church to see if we still do. Last week we listened to what our neighbors say about us and it was mostly complimentary. Most of us walked out of here feeling like we are doing a pretty good job of embodying the mission and message of Jesus. But this series requires us to be self-critical, like when your boss asks you how you think you’re doing on meeting the expectations of your job description. It can be humbling. You might not be killing it in every category. On the church website it says we are “bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”—which is just what I think Jesus would want us to do, and what some of our neighbors might say we are actually doing—but sometimes I lie awake at night wondering, “Are we? Or are we just saying that?”

I know church mission statements are supposed to be aspirational, they’re supposed to call us beyond where we actually are and keep us moving toward a goal we may never actually reach, but what if they were a little more honest, a little more realistic? What if you drove past a church in the country with a sign out front that read, “Trying to keep the lights on and the doors open since 1956”?

What if there was a church in the suburbs that proclaimed, “Hoping to provide a reasonably adequate worship service with an OK preacher and an organist who hits the right notes most of the time. Visitors tolerated”? What if that beautiful old building downtown had a sign out front that read, “Simply hoping to survive the steep national decline in attendance and giving”? Those seem like realistic mission statements to me. But bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—and beyond? That’s a tall order, almost as tall as the one implied by today’s reading from 1 John 3, where the writer seems to believe that the church of Jesus Christ should embody the love of God.

He writes: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” This is where I wish we could hear the text and not only read it, because I can imagine the author of those words pronouncing them as if it were absolutely inconceivable that anyone who professed to be a believer could withhold the world’s goods from a brother or sister. “How does the love of God abide in such a person?” he asks, astonished, knowing that the love of God is—by definition—selfless and sacrificial. It pours itself out for the sake of others. Jesus is our best example of God’s selfless and sacrificial love. He had that love in him. He poured it out for us. So, how can anyone say he has that kind of love inside himself if he has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?

Let me focus on two words: brother and sister. In the Greek New Testament it’s only one word—brother—but our translators know that the author of 1 John is talking not only about the male members of the church but also about the female members: “brothers and sisters” as they called one another in those days. They were trying to remind themselves that Jesus had made them part of God’s family,

and if God was their Father then that lonely looking fellow sitting next to them on the pew was their brother, and that woman trying to keep her baby quiet on the pew behind them was their sister. So, I think it’s fair to say that the author of 1 John is not asking us to feed and clothe the world, but to feed and clothe our fellow church members. That helps, but not a lot, because it is Jesus who makes us part of God’s family and Jesus seems to have a special place in his heart for those who are in need. He keeps going out to the highways and hedges and bringing back people who don’t have a place anywhere else. Which can make those of us who have the world’s goods a little uncomfortable.

“If Jesus keeps bringing these brothers and sisters in here,” we think—“these who don’t have the world’s goods—and if those of us who do have to keep sharing what we have with them, soon we won’t have any left for ourselves, and then someone else will have to take care of us. That doesn’t even make sense!” But the fact that we would even think those thoughts betrays the truth that we are afraid—afraid of not having enough. The author of 1 John can’t understand that. Shaking his head he asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Let’s focus on the word abide for a minute. In Greek it means something like, “to remain, to dwell, to take up residence.” The author of 1 John seems to believe that if the love of God has taken up residence in you there won’t be any room for fear. Because the love of God is like the Spirit of God (in fact those two things might be the same thing). On the Day of Pentecost, when that Spirit was poured out on the believers, it wasn’t like, “Say when!” No, God just kept pouring and pouring and pouring until the believers were filled to overflowing, until strange words began to pour out of their mouths and they, themselves, began to

pour out into the streets.

When the love of God fills you up like that there is no room for fear. As the author of this letter will say in the next chapter, “Perfect love casts out fear.” You just see that brother or sister in need and you say, “Oh, honey! This won’t do! You can’t be walking around here hungry, or homeless, or shivering! We’ve got to take care of you!” And you’ve heard stories like this—I have, too—where someone pours themselves out for another person, where before you know it that person who used to be homeless is living in their house and wearing their clothes and driving their car, and you cluck your tongue and say, “Be careful! These people will take advantage of you! Before you know it they’ll be sitting on your couch, holding the remote control!” But love doesn’t care. And like the Spirit of God the love of God, especially, doesn’t seem to care.

I’ve been thinking about that in regard to this debate in the Southern Baptist Convention about whether women can be pastors. I look back to the story of Pentecost, when everyone thought the believers were full of another kind of spirit, and I hear Peter saying, “These people are not drunk as you imagine. This is what the prophet Joel was talking about, that in the last days God will pour out his spirit on all flesh (not just some flesh). Your sons and daughters will prophesy,” he says (not just your sons), because the Spirit doesn’t care. You see it over and over again in the Book of Acts. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh because the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s male or female flesh, the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s Jew or Gentile flesh, the Spirit doesn’t care if it’s slave or free flesh. Because the Spirit can fill up any kind of flesh that will receive it and so can the love of God. It can fill up the flesh of those who have the world’s goods and when it does, and when those people see a brother or sister in need, the love of God overflows in action. Those

people don’t just feel something, they do something.

The author of 1 John seems to know this from experience, and maybe that’s why he is so baffled by those who have the world’s goods, and see a brother or sister in need, and yet refuse to do anything for them. Notice that he doesn’t say they neglect to do anything for them, but rather that they refuse—that is, they make a conscious decision. I want to be as generous about this as possible because I’ve known some of those people, people who refused to share, and I believe they did it not because they were selfish or mean-spirited but because they were afraid, afraid that if they gave away even some of what they had they wouldn’t have enough for themselves. Maybe it’s also true for denominations that won’t allow women to serve as pastors. Maybe the men are not so much selfish and mean-spirited as they are simply afraid that if they begin to share their power soon there won’t be any left for them. So the question is, how do you get over that kind of fear? And the answer, of course, is love. Perfect love casts out fear.

Where can we get some of that?

The answer may be in this same passage of Scripture. In 1 John 3:23 the author writes: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” Believe in Jesus, and love one another. Let me say that again: believe in Jesus, and love one another. That seems so simple. And yet I have a feeling that if we believe in Jesus we will love one another, that we won’t be able to help ourselves.

This analogy popped into my mind when I was looking at this passage earlier: I thought about a little boy who decides to water the lawn because the grass has gotten brown and dry; only he doesn’t know anything about sprinklers or garden hoses; he only knows about watering cans. So he takes his mother’s

watering can to the outdoor faucet, turns it on, fills it up, and then drags it out to the middle of the yard and waters the grass. When the can is empty he takes it back to the faucet, fills it up, drags it into the middle of the yard, and waters some more grass. He just keeps doing this and doing this until he’s nearly worn out from watering.

But maybe that’s the way we love one another: by going to the source of love, by believing in Jesus, by worshiping him, by singing his praises, by spending time in his presence until our watering cans are full and we can begin to pour them out in love on all the people around us. And let me just say this while we’re on the subject:

Church is a good place to fill your can.

If you’ve been coming to First Baptist for even a few weeks now, if you’ve been participating in worship through our webcast or our broadcast, I hope you’ve heard me lift up the Lord Jesus as an example of God’s selfless and sacrificial love, and I hope you’ve heard me say that God loves you, no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from. John says it another way in the next verse. He says, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.” And there’s that word again. He abides in them. The Lord Jesus himself takes up residence in them. And when he does there will never be a lack of love. The last sentence in today’s passage reads: “And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.” Think about it: the Spirit of God, like the love of God, filling us to overflowing.

That’s part of my regular morning prayer. I say: “Lord, bless your church called Richmond’s First Baptist. Fill the pews with people who love you and long to sing your praises; fill the offering plates with the generous gifts of a grateful

people; fill the classrooms with disciples who lean over open Bibles, eager to hear and obey your word; fill the hallways with brothers and sisters who greet one another with hugs and laughter. Fill us with your love until it overflows onto the streets of our city and into every surrounding suburb, until your Kingdom comes and your will is done in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

I pray that prayer every day, but some days I see it answered. I still remember the day I was in my study here at church and needed to go to a meeting. I opened the door to step out into the hallway but I couldn’t, because there were children sitting in front of my door. Not little ones, like we have in our preschool, but big ones, like fourth or fifth graders. It was some of the students from Fox Elementary School trying to squeeze themselves into our building after their building had burned.

It didn’t happen overnight. When we heard about the fire some of our members and staff members began to wonder if we could take Fox Elementary School into our building. I don’t know if they said it like this but the reasoning was the same: “How can we say that the love of God abides in us if we have the world’s goods and refuse to share them with those in need?” We have this building—this big, beautiful building. It has classrooms in it and offices and a gym and a big side yard. It’s not perfect, but it might work as a temporary home for Fox Elementary. What do you think? Our staff worked hard to figure out the logistics. I remember them worrying that the deacons might not approve the idea, or that the church wouldn’t support it. We didn’t know how disruptive it might be or how long it would go on. We didn’t know if it would be two weeks or two years. But when it came time for a vote the vote was unanimous. Not one person objected. Not one person said, “But what if the pastor has trouble getting out of his study

with all those kids sitting in the hall?” I think that’s what love looks like, and I think that’s how love expresses itself—through tangible, concrete actions that say to our members, our neighbors, and our city,

“God loves you.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Do You See What I See? Look in Unlikely Places”

Do You See What I See?

Look in Unlikely Places

First Baptist Richmond, December 17, 2023 The Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28

John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Last Monday I went down to the lower level of our building to mix and mingle with the people who come for our shower ministry. I got there a little early, and Michael Lacy looked at me and said, “Did you come to do the devotion?” I said, “No, but I can if you want me to.” He said, “Cool!” And so I had a full five minutes to come up with a devotional thought.

I racked my brain for a Christmas story that might have some spiritual substance and eventually settled on one from my childhood. I must have been about twelve years old. My brother Ed, the oldest, would have been fifteen. We were hanging up our stockings on Christmas Eve when Ed had an idea. He went out to the barn and came back a few minutes later with an empty burlap bag and a bushel basket. He tacked the burlap bag to the mantelpiece, cut off a bottom corner, and put the bushel basket under that, so that when Santa started filling up the bag all the goodies would go right into the basket. He did it all with a smile, as if he wasn’t really expecting to get a bushel basket and a burlap bag full of goodies, but I thought, “Two can play at that game.” So, I went and found a tiny baby doll sock and tacked that up next to his burlap bag with my name over it.

We went to bed that night not knowing what would happen, but can you

believe it? When we went downstairs the next morning that burlap bag and bushel basket were overflowing…with coal and switches, and a scolding note from Santa about not being so greedy. But my little sock had been removed, and in its place someone had tacked up a stocking that was bulging with every good thing on Santa’s sleigh: chocolates, peppermints, oranges, hard candy, nuts, and way down in the toe a Hot Wheels race car.

I told that story to everyone who had come to the shower ministry that morning, and they seemed to enjoy it. But then I heard myself say something I hadn’t planned to say. I said, “It’s the Great Reversal, and it’s everywhere in the Bible! Jesus said, ‘The last shall be first and the least will be great!’ The ones who hang up a burlap bag will get coal and switches but the ones who hang up a tiny sock will get every good thing and more!”

I elaborated a little further, but it wasn’t supposed to be a sermon, just a devotional. Still, the message that the last would be first and the least would be great resonated with that audience. Afterward one of the volunteers told me she had seen one of our homeless neighbors wiping a tear from his eye. Why? Because if you are clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder and someone tells you that one day the ladder will be turned upside down, that’s good news!

I’m not sure why I told that story about the Christmas stockings last Monday. I thought it just came to mind. But it’s possible that I was already thinking about the Great Reversal because only the day before I had sneaked a peek at today’s lectionary readings and that appears to be the theme. We didn’t read the psalm for today, but it’s Psalm 126, one of my favorites. It’s about God’s people in exile, and how astonished they were when God set them free from their long captivity in Babylon. It says:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

They had been clinging to the bottom rung of that ladder, but now, suddenly, by a miracle of God, the ladder had been turned upside down! The psalmist prays:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

It’s the Great Reversal, and I think about that homeless neighbor wiping a tear from his eye last Monday morning. Wouldn’t he love a psalm like this?

And then one of the alternate readings for today is the Magnificat, from Luke 1: that beautiful song where the Virgin Mary, after having her miraculous pregnancy confirmed by the miraculously pregnant Elizabeth, sings:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

But then, listen for it. Listen for the Great Reversal:

The Lord has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their

thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Don’t you think that would make my friend in the shower ministry smile? But wait! That’s not all! Listen to the opening lines of Isaiah 64:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;

And then again, thinking of our friend in the shower ministry, listen to verse 10:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Do you hear that? Can you put all that together, that God is a God who restores the lost fortunes of his people, who turns weeping into shouts of joy? That he is the one who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? That he is the God who brings good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captive, and those who mourn? As I said on Monday morning the Great Reversal is everywhere in the Bible. It’s even in today’s Gospel lesson.

It’s not as obvious as it is in some of these other readings, but it’s there. It starts with the announcement that, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” This is important, because there were some people who thought that maybe John the Baptist was the Messiah. Even when John the Evangelist was writing this Gospel near the end of the first century there were people who

thought that maybe John the Baptist was the one the world had been waiting for. But John himself says no. When some priests and Levites came out to the wilderness to see what was going on they asked him, “Who are you?” And he confessed (he did not deny, but confessed), “I am not the Messiah.” “What, then?” they asked. “Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Well, who are you then. Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” And John said, “I am the voice that Isaiah talked about, the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

You might wonder how they could suspect for even a moment that John was the Messiah. You heard the description from Mark’s Gospel last week: “His clothing was made of camel’s hair and he wore a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” He sounds a good bit like Elijah the prophet, but he doesn’t sound like the long-awaited King of Israel, the one who would sit on the throne of his ancestor David and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Until you remember how David was chosen.

When Samuel went to anoint one of the sons of Jesse he was immediately drawn to Eliab, the oldest. He was tall and handsome. In our time we might say he looked “presidential.” But God said to Samuel, “That’s not the one I have chosen. People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Based on that precedent it might be possible that John the Baptist—this scruffy-looking prophet with dust in his beard and locust legs between his teeth— was the Messiah, but he himself said no. “I’m just the voice: the one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

But the priests and Levites weren’t finished with him yet. They asked, “Why, then, are you baptizing, if you are not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” And

John said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And the priests and Levites may have started looking around for anyone who looked like a Messiah, but they would have been hard pressed to find one in that crowd. I’m guessing that most of the people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John looked a lot like the homeless neighbors who show up for our shower ministry: like people who really need a bath.

But among them, John said, “is one you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And according to the author of the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist didn’t know who Jesus was either. In spite of Luke’s assertion that the two of them were cousins of some kind, in John’s Gospel the Baptist says, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31). And then he says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34).

But apparently there was nothing else about Jesus that would have set him apart as the Messiah. Isaiah 53:2 has often been applied to him: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In other words, he didn’t stand out from the crowd. He didn’t look presidential. In fact he may have looked like any one of those people who come to our shower ministry. It’s the Great Reversal, isn’t it? The last will be first, the least will be great, and the Messiah may be in the last place you look.

Erich Bridges is one of our members who regularly volunteers in that ministry. He is also a retired journalist who sometimes still practices his former trade. A few months ago he wrote an article called “The Jesus Room,” that practically went viral. It starts like this:

The Jesus Room lies in the bowels of Richmond’s cavernous First Baptist Church, one of those stately old churches that takes up most of a city block.

It’s a part of the basement floor of the church, comprising a community area with some round tables and plastic chairs, a back room with racks of donated clothes and shelves of groceries, and some men’s and women’s shower rooms down a short hallway.

I call it the Jesus Room because it’s where I see Jesus on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays as a volunteer in the church’s ministry to homeless people.

Where is Jesus, you ask? He is in the face of every person who walks through that back door.

I subscribe to Mother Teresa’s literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus says, “You did it to me” (or didn’t) if you serve the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner. Teresa believed Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically but was saying he would come to us personally, daily, in the “distressing disguise” of the hungry, the sick, the inmate, the refugee, the one with no home.i

Erich’s article goes on from there and it’s excellent. I hope you will read it. But when I think about those people who come to our shower ministry I think some of them come in the hope that all this talk in the Bible isn’t just talk, that one of these days, when the Messiah comes or when his Kingdom comes, the Great Reversal will actually happen, and people like them, who have been clinging to the bottom rung of life’s ladder, will suddenly, miraculously, end up on top.

But I also think they come because, until that day arrives, they have a

chance to experience heaven on earth right here, in the Jesus Room, where they are treated not like problems, but like people; where they get a hot cup of coffee, a sweet pastry, and sometimes a hug; where someone looks them in the eye and calls them by name, that is, where someone sees them.

Do you see what I see? If you had been in that crowd at the Jordan River would you have recognized the Messiah, standing there with everyone else, waiting to be baptized? Here’s the Good News, friends: the Lord has come. Not everybody saw it, not everybody knew it, not everybody celebrated it, but eventually those with eyes to see could see in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of God.

Those of us with eyes to see can see it still. And we look forward to that day when his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, when the last will be first and the least will be great. For those of us who have been waiting for it, watching for it, working for it.

It will feel like Christmas morning.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“We Shall Be Like Him”

We Will Be Like Him

First Baptist Richmond, November 5, 2023

All Saints’ Sunday 1 John 3:1-3

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

Today I want to share with you a story I wrote more than 30 years ago, when I was still the relatively new pastor of my first church and still telling people that I had been an English minor in college. You know how some movies say they are based on a true story, or “inspired” by a true story? Well, this one was inspired by the truth of 1 John 3:1-3, our Epistle Reading for this morning, and by the end of it I hope you can see how. Let me apologize in advance for the style of the story, which seems to have been inspired by Charles Dickens or some other Victorian Era novelist. I can only imagine what I had been reading in those days when, at the age of 29, I stepped to the pulpit and shared this story. It’s called, “The Ugliest Child in the Orphanage.”

——————————–

A long time ago, when there were still places called orphanages and still orphans who lived in them, a child was born. It was a difficult delivery. When the doctor finally got there he discovered that the child was in the breech position, and try as he might to turn it there was nothing to be done. The mother died shortly after the baby was born. She did get a chance to see it, and what she saw was a boy, a beautiful boy, with a head full of wet, black hair, a tiny red mouth,

and eyes that pierced her soul with joy. She died smiling, holding her baby in her arms.

“You have a son, Mr. Turner,” the doctor told him. “A beautiful baby boy. Nine pounds, three ounces.” But the flatness of his voice betrayed the tragedy, and when Turner asked him, the doctor told him. “We did all we could. I’m terribly sorry.”

Mr. Turner tried to raise the baby on his own, but instead of bringing joy into their home as the two of them had hoped, the child only served to remind him of his loss. When he looked on that tiny face he saw her eyes, her mouth, and on its head her hair. It was more than he could bear, and those who knew him weren’t surprised when his health began to fail. He had loved his wife too deeply to lose her, and just over a year later he died too, in his sleep. A woman who lived in the apartment next door said she heard him calling his wife’s name even more loudly than usual that night.

And so it was that the child came to Brook Valley Orphanage, and into the care of Mrs. Abigail Steuben. She had never had any children of her own, never been married for that matter, and when the opportunity came about to serve as administrator of the orphanage she thought she might rather enjoy the presence and vitality of children, but she hadn’t realized there would be so many of them. After several years of keeping up with who punched whom and wondering how children could get so dirty Mrs. Steuben was thoroughly exhausted. Quite frankly, when little Nicholas Turner came she saw him as only one more mouth to feed, and a pitiful little mouth at that.

He had never learned to smile, and much to the delight and sorrow of Flora, the cook, he could only say one word —“Da-da”— which he repeated over and

over again. At first it had sounded like a question, and later like a memory, and finally he stopped saying that word or any other altogether. He ate his meals in silence, staring at the other children with expressionless eyes.

In spite of the lack of attention he received, he grew. Even though Flora had stopped trying to talk to him she hadn’t stopped putting a little extra food on his plate out of pity. When he was twelve years old he was as big as any of the twelve-year-olds at the orphanage, only paler and pudgier because he didn’t get much exercise and hardly ever went outdoors.

He spent a great deal of time in his room. While the other boys shared a single large room lined with beds Nicholas slept in a converted broom closet, largely because of the way he smelled. He had long ago passed the point where he could be made to bathe, and now he simply refused, so that his hair was dark and greasy and his face was spotted with pimples. When he came to the kitchen to eat he was often still in his nightshirt, padding along on bare feet and stooped over so that a long shock of hair fell down in front of his eyes. He drooled almost constantly, and the other boys would make fun of him by pointing out to their friends the wet trail he left behind as he slouched back and forth between his closet and the kitchen for meals. Most of them thought he was developmentally delayed, although that’s not the way they said it in those days, and their suspicions were confirmed by Mrs. Steuben who could think of no other reasonable explanation for his behavior. But whether they thought he was slow or simply strange the one thing agreed upon by everyone at Brook Valley was that Nicholas Turner was the ugliest child in the orphanage, which made it a simple thing for Mrs. Steuben to respond to the odd request she received shortly before his thirteenth birthday.

It was a letter from a Mr. Haman Potter, and this is how it read:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I hope you won’t find my request too unusual. Several years ago I lost my wife after a lengthy illness. In the aftermath of her death, I plunged myself into my work hoping to so occupy my mind with thoughts of business that I would not think of her. Although I wasn’t entirely successful in that regard, I have been blessed with a great deal of success in my business dealings and plan now to retire in the near future.

I don’t want to retire alone, however, and it is for this reason that I am writing you. I want to adopt one of the children at Brook Valley, but I would like to request that you work out arrangements with my attorney allowing me to adopt the ugliest child in the orphanage.

I have my own reasons for making such a request. I simply ask your gracious compliance. Please send me the child’s name and age as soon as you possibly can. My attorney will be in touch with you shortly.

In the meantime I remain,

Sincerely Yours,

Haman Potteri

And below the name was his business address. Mrs. Steuben folded the letter carefully and leaned back in her chair. Through the open window behind her she could hear the sounds of the children at play, and she turned to watch them. “All those children,” she murmured, “and he wants Nicholas.” She pronounced his name in exactly the way you would mention a contagious disease.

She took her time letting Nicholas know about the letter. For one thing she

didn’t cherish the thought of going near the child, but she also wanted to make sure Mr. Potter’s attorney followed through. As promised, he came to see her in person within a few days of her response, and after he had approved her choice they drew up the necessary papers. As Mrs. Steuben signed the last one she asked, “Just out of curiosity, why would anyone want to adopt the ugliest child in an orphanage?” And the attorney smiled and said, “You just have to know Mr. Potter, that’s all. He’s like that.” And as he stood up to leave he gave Mrs. Steuben a sealed envelope with the name “Nicholas Potter” written on the outside. “Would you see that the boy gets this?” he asked, and she nodded, realizing only then who Nicholas Potter was.

She couldn’t find him in his room and not wanting to look for him she tossed the envelope on his bed. “Not that it will do him any good,” she thought. “I’m sure he can’t read.” And, in fact, he couldn’t, but Flora could, and as soon as Nicholas found the envelope he padded off to the kitchen to find her. She could tell when she saw him that something was up. There was something in his eyes she hadn’t seen in all the years she had known him. A brightness that caused her to wipe her hands on her apron immediately and reach for the letter he held out to her.

They stepped out onto the back porch, sat down, and Flora began to read in a slow, firm voice:

My Dear Boy,

They tell me your name is Nicholas. I like that name. I like the name Nicholas Potter, too, and that’s what you’ll be called from now on because as soon as the paper work is finished you will be my son, legally. What do you think about that!?

I know you don’t even know who I am, but know that I’m anxious to meet you, and that I’ll be coming for you soon. When I do, we will always be together, and that’s a promise.

Until then I remain,

Sincerely Yours,

Haman Potter

Of course Nicholas didn’t say anything when Flora finished reading. There was the same silence between them that had always been there, but it was a silence filled with hope instead of despair. She blinked back tears, swallowing hard to ease the tightness in her throat, and Nicholas? Still no tears, not even a smile, but his eyes did seem even brighter than before. That night he hugged the letter to his chest as he fell asleep.

The next morning Flora read the letter to him again, and again that night. It came to be a ritual for the two of them until one morning Flora looked up as she was reading and saw that Nicholas was mouthing the words as she read them. He seemed embarrassed to be caught at it, and he never brought the letter to her again. Instead he would read it himself every morning when he woke up and every night before going to sleep, tracing the words silently with one finger.

It was just a few weeks after he received the letter that Flora came by his room one night to check on him. It was past his bedtime, but as she came down the hall toward the door she thought she heard a noise in there, a low murmuring that almost frightened her. Tiptoeing the last few steps she put her ear to the door and heard someone repeating the words “My Dear Boy” over and over again, quietly, but very clearly. She knocked, and when he opened the door a

moment later there was no embarrassment on his face. “You can talk,” she whispered, amazed. Nicholas only nodded. “Why haven’t you ever done it before?” “I didn’t want to,” he answered, and while Flora stood outside the door with her hands up to her face he went on. “I want to now. I want him to be…proud of me when he comes.” And this time there was a tear on his cheek, and Flora did something no one had done in twelve years— she hugged Nicholas.

In the weeks and months that followed she helped him as much as she could, but it was Nicholas who took the initiative. It was Nicholas who disappeared one day with a bar of soap and a scrub brush and came back from the creek an hour later looking and smelling like a different person. It was Nicholas who began practicing good posture and seemed to stop drooling overnight. It was Nicholas who studied several hours each day and came to each meal carefully dressed, but in the midst of all the startling change in his life Flora was not forgotten, because it was Flora who kept believing with Nicholas that Mr. Potter would come, even when the months turned into years.

The other children had seen the change in Nicholas too, but they attributed it to a strange quirk in his particular brand of disability. As soon as Mrs. Steuben let it slip that he was waiting for a father who would never come the other children became even more cruel, and shouted after him a rhyme one of them had made up every time they saw him,

Daddy’s Boy, Daddy’s Boy, Daddy’s never had a boy!

Understandably, Nicholas still spent a great deal of time alone, but his hope could not be shaken. Every morning and every night he would take the letter from beneath his mattress and read the words of the promise: “I’ll be coming for you

soon.” And then he would trace his finger over the first three words and say them out loud, “My Dear Boy,” and to his ears, they sounded almost exactly like the three words he wanted most to hear:

“I love you.”

It was two days before Nicholas’ eighteenth birthday when Mrs. Steuben was surprised in the foyer of the orphanage by the most handsome man she had ever seen.

“Good afternoon,” he said, and when she didn’t answer he stated his business. “I’ve come for my boy.”

“Your b-boy?” she stammered.

“Nicholas Potter. I’m his father. Is he here?”

Haman Potter didn’t look at all like Mrs. Steuben had imagined. She had assumed that anyone asking for the ugliest child in an orphanage would be, well…ugly, but Mr. Potter could never be accused of that. She turned to hide the flush in her cheeks and saw Nicholas standing at the edge of the front lawn watching the other boys play football, and for just a moment a terribly devious thought crossed her mind, to tell Mr. Potter that the boy was no longer with them, that she didn’t know what had happened to him, but when she looked into those magnificent eyes again she could only croak out the truth.

“Over there.”

“Him? Standing next to the gate?” And as soon as Mrs. Steuben nodded he was out the front door. He had asked for the ugliest child in the orphanage, but this boy! Why this boy was tall and square-shouldered, dressed in obviously handmade but immaculate clothing.

He quickened his pace.

That profile! Strong features, jet black hair combed back into neat waves, a handsome face!

And then he was there.

“Nicholas?” And when he turned toward him Haman Potter saw at once a pair of piercing blue eyes that filled immediately with recognition, and then with joy. There was no need for introduction. And in the embrace that followed only two statements passed between them. Haman Potter choked out the words he had been waiting to say, words that he had rehearsed on his way to Brook Valley that afternoon, “My Dear Boy.” And Nicholas Potter heard the words he had waited for so long, and when he found his voice he whispered back a reply. “I love you, too…Father.”

It was only as they started back toward the orphanage that Mrs. Steuben realized what should have been obvious all along.

The two of them looked exactly alike.

—Jim Somerville © 1988, 2023

The Well-Remembered Word: Remembering the Promise of the Spirit

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

            This is the last sermon in a series called the Well-Remembered Word and I’m almost sorry to see it come to an end.  I have enjoyed thinking about how some of these biblical characters might have shared their memories of Jesus long after his ascension.  We’ve heard from Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas, those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the Apostle John—twice.  We’re actually going to hear from him one last time because he has something to say that may prepare us perfectly for the Day of Pentecost, two weeks from now.  And so, to close out the series, let’s welcome back the Beloved Disciple!

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            Thank you.  And thank you for staying until the very end of this conference.  We’ve heard moving testimonies of Jesus’ resurrection and meaningful remembrances of his famous last words.  We could leave right now.  But I hope you will stay, because in closing I want to share with you one of the very last things Jesus said to us in that upper room.  He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” although for him there was always ever only one.  There were the Ten Commandments, of course, and all the other commandments that came along later.  There was Jesus’ insistence that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets could be summed up in the command to love God and love others.  But there was only one commandment that Jesus, himself, gave us, and you know which one it was: it was the command to love one another as he had loved us.  “If you love me,” he said, “you will love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” 

            “Do that,” he said.  It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a commandment.  But he also said, “If you do that, then I will do this: I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”  Another Advocate.  Those are the words I clung to on that night when Jesus was telling us goodbye, words I want us to look at a little more closely today, beginning with that second one.

            Advocate is not a bad translation.  If you were going to court you might want to have an advocate—a lawyer—who would stand beside you and plead your case.  But the English word advocate doesn’t begin to touch the depth and meaning of the Greek word Paraclete.  That’s the one I used when I wrote my Gospel, and it was only the closest word I could find to what Jesus implied in that promise.  Because Paraclete comes from the verb kaleo, which means “to call.”  Parakaleo means “to call alongside.”  And Paraclete is the noun form of the verb:  it’s the person you call alongside yourself in a time of need. 

Think about it like this.  When you were a child and had a bad dream that woke you up in the middle of the night, who did you call?  Your mother, right?  And when you were older, and some bully was picking on you on at school, who did you call?  Your teacher, right?  But now, now that you are an adult, who do you call when you are in trouble, when you are lonely, or sad, or afraid?  You may not know who to call and maybe that’s why Jesus said, “I’m going to ask the Father to give you a Paraclete: someone you can call alongside yourself when you are in trouble, when you need some help.”  But get this: Jesus didn’t only say he was going to ask the Father to give us a Paraclete; he said he was going to ask him to give us another Paraclete, and that requires further explanation.

There are two Greek words for “other.”  One is allos and the other is heteros.  Allos means another of the same kind; heteros means another of a different kind.  When Jesus said he would ask the Father to send us another Advocate he used an Aramaic word that had the same meaning as allos.  I don’t know what that says to you, but what it said to me on that night was that Jesus was the first Paraclete, and that if we would love him and love one another he would ask the Father to send us another Paraclete of the same kind!  In other words, whatever Jesus had been to us this new Paraclete would also be, but this time it wasn’t going to be temporary; this Paraclete wasn’t going to stay with us a few years and then disappear; this Paraclete was going to be with us forever. 

He was talking about the Holy Spirit.

If I can be honest, we were a little disappointed at first, because we had gotten used to having Jesus with us, and Jesus was God-in-the-flesh.  We could see him, we could touch him, we could hear his voice.  You can’t do that with a spirit.  But, as we would learn in the next 24 hours, you also can’t kill a spirit.  You can’t strip it and beat it and nail it to a cross.  That’s what they did to Jesus and I was right there when it happened.  I was standing at the foot of the cross.  I saw the whole thing, which means that I watched him die.  In my Gospel I described it like this: “[Jesus] said, ‘It is finished.’  Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”  All I meant when I wrote it was that he let out his final breath, because in Greek the word for “spirit” and “breath” is the same word.  But since then I have wondered if there was something more going on: if when he let out his last breath he was actually letting out the Holy Spirit, as if that’s what had filled him up throughout his earthly ministry and given him his extraordinary wisdom and power.  I’ve wondered if that Spirit roamed the earth over the next couple of days, no longer contained in the person of Jesus, until early on the first day of the week the Father roused his only begotten Son from the deep sleep of death and filled his lungs once more with that life-giving Spirit, so that he could get up, and unwind the cloth from around his head, and strip off his grave clothes, and roll back the stone and step out into the cool, damp darkness of the garden.

He wasn’t there when I got there.  You may remember that part of the story: how Mary went to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, and when she didn’t find Jesus she came running back to tell us the news.  She thought that someone had stolen his body.  Peter and I jumped up and ran to the tomb, and when we got there I looked inside, but all I saw was his empty grave clothes and the cloth that had been wrapped around his head, rolled up and lying in a separate place by itself.  Peter pushed past me and went on in, headstrong as ever, and then I went in, and as soon as I was inside I knew what had happened: I knew that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Or maybe I should say I believed he had risen, but my belief was so strong you could not have convinced me otherwise.  I knew, in my heart, that the Spirit of Love was alive in this world, and that Jesus was no longer dead.

Mary saw him.  Later that day, after Peter and I had gone back to the upper room, she saw him, in the garden, and came running back to tell us.  I wasn’t even surprised.  Overjoyed, yes, and vindicated, in one of those “I told you so!” kind of ways, but not surprised.  And then that night he came through locked doors to be with us.  One minute he wasn’t there and the next minute he was.  He held up one nail-scarred hand and said, “Shalom,” and that’s all it took.  That’s when we knew it was really him.  We were so relieved and happy!  Some of us were jumping up and down so that he had to say, “Peace!” again, this time almost laughing.  But then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  It was a commission, and it held the hint of danger.  We saw what they had done to him.  If he sent us as the Father had sent him, and if they did to us to what they had done to him, none of us was going to make it out alive.  I think he saw the anxious looks on our faces.  I think he could tell we needed help.  So, he breathed on us and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  But this time he didn’t give it up, he didn’t even give it away.  He simply shared the Holy Spirit with us.  And if you’re thinking that makes us special, you’re right.  Others have received the Spirit in other ways.  You may have received it in another way.  But we received it from Jesus himself, and even as we did we could tell how much like him it was, as if all the things he had been to us his Spirit would now be.

The prologue of my Gospel says that in the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God, that he was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him, but a few verses later it says the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Some people have said it this way: that Jesus was “God with skin on.”  Well, this is what I want you to know, and what I hope you will be able to hear: that if Jesus was God with skin on, the Holy Spirit is Jesus with skin off.  I don’t know how that makes you feel.  It may sound a little spooky.  It may be why some people refer to the Spirit as the “Holy Ghost.”  But in my experience it has been anything but spooky; it has been enormously comforting.  That’s one possible translation of the word Paraclete, you know: comforter.  Like one of those big, fluffy blankets you people pull up over yourselves on a cold night.  That’s what it’s been like for me in those moments when I was missing Jesus the most, when I was feeling his absence.  Suddenly, there was this presence.  I can’t explain it.  These kinds of things rarely make sense.  But I could feel his presence with me through the Holy Spirit, just as he had promised. 

And that’s not all.  Jesus promised that the Paraclete would be a friend, a counselor, a comforter, an encourager, a teacher—in other words, all the things that Jesus was to us when he was with us.  But he also said it would be the “Spirit of truth,” which reminded me of something else he had said, that we would know the truth and the truth would set us free (John 8:32).  Do you remember when Philip asked Jesus to show us the Father, and Jesus said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father”?  Well, I think he would say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Spirit.”  Because when he first told us about the Spirit of truth he said the world could not receive him because it couldn’t see him or know him, but then he said, “You know him,” and I think he meant that we knew the Spirit because we had known Jesus, that the same Spirit that was in him would now be in us.  In fact, that’s what he said: “You know him because he abides with you, and will be in you.” 

Jesus said all of that before he was crucified, before he rose from the dead and came to that upper room and breathed on us, but when he did we felt it: we felt that the Spirit that had been in him was now in us, and that it would teach us, comfort us, and encourage us, even on the hardest of days.  I have to tell you, those days came for me just after Jesus ascended.  I don’t think anyone has ever felt more alone than I felt.  But has this ever happened to you?  Have you ever loved someone and lost them and then, sometime later, thought about what they would say in a certain situation and found that you could almost hear their voice?  That’s how it was for me.  At first I thought it was just the memory of Jesus, but then this voice—this whispered voice—began to tell me things Jesus had never said.  And that’s when I remembered something he did say, at that last supper.  He said, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).  Well, that’s just how it felt: like the Spirit was picking up where Jesus left off, and teaching us things that Jesus could no longer teach.

And that’s a good thing.  Because there are so many things that Jesus didn’t teach us: things he didn’t mention, maybe because they hadn’t happened yet, or maybe because we weren’t ready for them yet.  But the Paraclete is still with us, and the Paraclete sees everything that is happening in the world and whispers in our ears.  The Paraclete tells us the truth.  I’ll tell you the truth: sometimes that whispered voice sounds so much like Jesus that I sit straight up in bed and look around in the darkness.  I say, “Jesus?  Is that you?”  But then I remember that he isn’t with us anymore, and I remember what he said: that he was going to send us another Paraclete to be with us forever.  And that’s a comfort.  That’s the Comforter.  And so I lie down again, and pull the covers up to my chin, and fall asleep with a smile on my face knowing that I am not alone, and never will be,  And neither will you.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

The Well-Remembered Word: Remembering the Comfort of Christ


Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

Today we continue a series called, “The Well-Remembered Word,” in which we are imagining how some of the people who knew Jesus best and loved him most might have eulogized him.  So far we have heard from Mary Magdalene, Thomas “the Twin,” the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and last week from the Apostle John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, who had so much to say that we’ve invited him back this week.  Without further introduction, let me turn things over to John, the Beloved Disciple.

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Well, thank you.  Thank you for coming.  And thank you for listening to my memories of the Word-made-Flesh.  Today I’m remembering what happened in that upper room on the night he was betrayed.  Most of you weren’t there, but if you have read my Gospel you know that Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, filled a basin with water, and then washed our feet.  Of all the memories in my head that one may be the most unforgettable: that moment when he took my own feet in his hands, and washed them, and looked up at me with eyes full of love.  I couldn’t say anything for the lump in my throat, but if I could I might have said, “You’re leaving us, aren’t you?”  Because it was obvious that something was about to happen. 

After he came back to the table he asked us to wash one another’s feet, just as he had washed ours.  And then, a little later, he commanded us to love one another, just as he had loved us.  He didn’t say it out loud but you could tell that he was trying to get us ready to live without him.  I think that’s when the first tear rolled down my cheek, and I think that’s when he said:  “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.”  Because I wasn’t the only one.  He could tell, just by looking around at us, that we were all troubled.  We were like family members gathered around the deathbed of a loved one, straining our ears for every last word.  And Jesus did not disappoint. 

He gave us some good ones.

After he said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” he said, “You believe in God; believe also in me,” as if belief were the remedy for a troubled heart.  Maybe it is.  And then he said something I almost wish I had never written down, not because it’s not true, but because it has been so misunderstood.  Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  The reason I wish he hadn’t said it that way, and the reason I wish I hadn’t written it down, is that ever since my Gospel was published people have been asking me about the Father’s house, and how to get there, and what their dwelling place will be like.  That is, they have been thinking about it primarily as a place, and some of them have been thinking about it as a very nice place.  I understand one of your translations uses the word “mansion,” and some people can scarcely think of anything else.  “I’m going to have a mansion in heaven!” they say.  No matter how poor and pitiful their lives have been on earth, they seem to believe that when they get to heaven they will live in the most extravagant house anyone has ever imagined.  Well, I don’t know.  They may be exactly right about that.  But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make and I’m almost certain it wasn’t the point Jesus was trying to make. 

What he said was this: “I’m going to prepare a place for you, and then I’m going to come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.”  I don’t know what you hear in that statement, but what I heard in that moment was that heaven is not a place, but a person.  I didn’t care what it looked like, or where I got to lay my head.  I didn’t care if it was a ten-million-dollar mansion or a two-bit boarding house.  I only cared that Jesus was going to be there because wherever he was, was heaven.  Do you know what I mean?  Have you ever loved anybody like that?  Where you didn’t care where you were or what you were doing, so long as it was with them? 

And that reminds me of another thing I almost wish I had never written down, and that’s the verse people now refer to as John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  I mean, it’s true.  It’s beautiful.  But some people get so focused on the everlasting life part that all they want to know is what they have to do to make sure that they live forever, and suddenly it’s not about Jesus anymore; it’s about them.  “How do I get to heaven?  How can I have a life that never ends?  How do I get a mansion with a view so I can watch the sun set over the crystal sea?”  Does that not sound a little selfish to you?

What I was trying to say is that life begins in a whole new way when you get to know Jesus.  And when you believe in him, really believe in him and not just believe things about him, well, that’s living!  In the Greek language it is literally “the life of the ages,” which some people have translated as everlasting life, which some people have interpreted as life that never ends.  Let me just ask you: if you were sentenced to life in prison, would you want that life to last forever?  No.  Of course not.  But you also know about those moments when you felt so completely alive that you never wanted them to end.  That’s the life of the ages!  That’s what I’m talking about.  It’s not quantity; it’s quality.  And for me, that kind of life happened when I was with Jesus.  “God loved the world so much,” I said, “that he gave us his Son!”  Yes!  That’s what we were longing for!  That’s what makes life worth living, whether it’s a day, or a year, or a thousand years.  So, to believe in him the way you believe in those people you love most in this world is not a requirement for everlasting life: it is life itself.  But I also believe that life like that never comes to an end.

I think that’s what Jesus was trying to tell us on that night when our hearts were so troubled.  He said, “I’m going to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house, and when it’s ready I’m going to come and get you and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.”  It reminded me of how they used to do it back in Capernaum when I was growing up.  Some young man would ask a girl to marry him and then he would go back to his father’s house and start building on a room.  It might take as long as a year for him to finish it, because he wanted everything to be perfect when the wedding was over and he brought her back to the place he had prepared.  That’s what came to mind when Jesus said he was going to go and prepare a place for us.  And then he said he was going to come back and get us, and take us to himself, so that where he was we could be also.  And then, for some reason, he said we already knew the way to the place where he was going.  And that just confused us.  We sat there for the longest time until Thomas finally said, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going.  How can we know the way?” 

You’ve already heard from Thomas.  You know he had his reasons.  He was determined to follow Jesus.  He needed to know the way.  But Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  And again, if there is anything I wish Jesus hadn’t said, or I hadn’t written down, it might be this.  Because the same people who are so concerned about living forever in a mansion in heaven have used this verse to keep others out.  I don’t know why.  Maybe they think heaven will get too crowded.  Maybe they want to be sure they get one of the good mansions, one with a view.  Maybe they have forgotten that Jesus is the Gate—that he is the one who lets people in—and not them.  But if you were listening closely he didn’t say “No one gets to heaven except through me,” he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Once again, heaven is not a place but a person.  Jesus is inviting us into life with the Father, into the “life of the ages,” and he is the way to that kind of life. 

Once you get that into your head the rest of what he said that night becomes clear.  He said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  And that’s when Philip spoke up and said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”  I’ve been trying to think if there is another way I can put this to you and the best I can come up with is this: 1) that there is a Room called Relationship (as in, relationship with the Father); 2) that Jesus is that room; and 3) that he is inviting us to come in.

 Why would he need to do that?  Because some people still have such scary ideas about God that they need someone like Jesus to come to them, and love them, and reassure them that God is not like that at all.  They need someone to hold open the door of relationship and invite them in, and still they stand outside, wringing their hands and biting their nails.  Jesus might say, “What are you so afraid of?  The God you are about to meet is my Father, and I am his Son, and I am so much like him that if he were standing here instead of me you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between us.  What he tells me to say, I say.  What he tells me to do, I do.  My words are his words.  My works are his works.  If you’ve seen me you’ve seen him and if you’ve loved me then you’re really going to love him.”

It all started to sound so good on that night, in that upper room, that if Jesus had said, “Let’s go!” I think we would have jumped up and gone with him right then.  But that’s not what he said.  He said, “I’m going to prepare a place for you, and when I get it ready I will come and get you, and take you to where I am, so that we can be there, together, forever.”  Which meant that in the meantime we would be here, without him, temporarily. 

Friends, I’m still here, although I never thought I would live this long, and you’re still here, although you might rather be there.  So, what are we supposed to do with the time we have until then?  Well, here’s what I think: I think we are supposed to tell people about the God revealed in Jesus.  I don’t know how it is for you, but sometimes I find that people don’t want to believe in God because they are afraid of God, and if they can pretend that he doesn’t exist then they won’t have to be afraid.  But here’s a better way: convince them that God is love and then they will begin to look for him everywhere.  In the first chapter of my Gospel I remind my readers that no one has ever seen God: that it’s Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.  And this is what he has made known to them: that the Father’s heart beats with love; that they don’t have to be afraid of him.  I mean, he didn’t give his Son because he hated the world; he gave his Son because he loved the world.  He gave his Son because he wanted the people of the world to have life that is abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.  We find that kind of life in relationship with God and we enter that relationship through Jesus, who has shown us the Father.  He has shown us that we can love the Father and trust the Father.  He has shown us that we have nothing to fear, because God is love. 

So, there’s Jesus—a Room called Relationship—holding open the door and begging us to come in.  If we do, we may discover what he has known all along: that heaven is not a place; it’s a person. 

Thanks be to God.

Jim Somerville © 2023

The Well-Remembered Word: Remembering the Good Shepherd

Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep…. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

            In the first sermon in this series I let my imagination run just a little bit wild.[i]    I talked about the Apostle John putting together a weekend conference in Ephesus called, “The Well-Remembered Word,” where he would invite people to gather for a memorial service for Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, decades after his ascension.  He would charge a small registration fee so he could afford to print the brochures and fly the participants in from faraway places: Mary Magdalene from her home in Galilee, Thomas from the mission field in India, and those two disciples from Emmaus (who agreed to come but said they would rather walk).  Since then I’ve been imagining what each of those speakers might have said at such a conference, and it’s been interesting, hasn’t it?  To hear from these biblical characters “themselves” rather than hearing things about them?  Today I want us to hear from the Apostle John, the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Fourth Gospel, the “convener” of this imaginary conference.  I want to let him speak for himself and see what he might have to say.  Let’s listen in.

—————–
            Friends, first of all, let me say thank you for coming to this conference!  It’s been an amazing weekend so far.  I’ve been grateful to our speakers for sharing their memories of Jesus: to Mary Magdalene, who (you may recall) delivered the very first Easter sermon and has been called “the Apostle to the Apostles”; to Thomas, who some people still call “the Twin” not because he looks so much like Jesus, but simply because he is so much like Jesus; and finally to Mary and Cleopas, those disciples on the road to Emmaus, with apologies for any confusion about their identities.[ii]  But now it’s my turn, and this morning I want to talk about one of the things I remember best about Jesus.  I want to talk about him as “the Good Shepherd,” which could have been the title of one of the chapters in my Gospel. 

Speaking of that: maybe it’s not fair to call it “my” Gospel at all.  You pastors out there will agree that in every congregation ten percent of the people will love you no matter what, and ten percent will not love you, no matter what, and eighty percent will appreciate you if they think you are working hard and doing a good job.  It’s called “the 80-10-10 rule.”  Well, when I retired a few years ago some of that ten percent that loved me no matter what presented me with something they called “the Gospel According to John.”  It turns out they had been taking notes on my sermons, writing down what I said almost word-for-word, so they could put it all together in a single book.  They wrote up an introduction and a conclusion and then presented it to me at my retirement celebration.  I was deeply moved, especially when I saw that everywhere I had referred to myself in my sermons they had substituted the phrase, “the disciple Jesus loved.”  Isn’t that sweet?  And it’s true!  Jesus did love me.  But I think he had that effect on everyone he knew.  When you were talking to him he had the ability to make you feel as if you were the only person in the world, and that you were worth all the attention he was giving you.  Yes, he loved me, but not only me.  He loved all of us.  I believe he loved Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.  That’s just the kind of savior he is.

            But I didn’t come to talk about the Savior; I came to talk about the Shepherd.  It’s how Jesus referred to himself once when he was in the middle of a heated argument with the Jews.  Oh, I know.  I know I’m not supposed to call them “the Jews.”  It sounds anti-Semitic.  But can I remind you that all of us were Jews: Jesus, and his disciples, and all of the people he preached to?  It’s not like I have anything against Jews—I am one!—I just have something against this particular group of Jews.  Maybe there are some people in your own religious group who have done you wrong, treated you badly, and maybe you talk about them in a way that is not entirely flattering.  Fundamentalists.  Liberals.  Moderates.  Conservatives.  Need I say more?  Well, these were people who were so proud of being Jewish I just started calling them “the Jews.”  But I can call them something else if it will make you feel better.  I can use the Greek word—Ioudaioi.  Will that work?  OK, then: 

Ioudaioi it is.[iii] 

            These are the ones I was talking about in the previous chapter of my Gospel, when Jesus healed the man born blind.  Do you remember him?  The other disciples and I were right there with Jesus wondering who had sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind, but Jesus wouldn’t even entertain that question.  He said, “It wasn’t this man or his parents.  He was born blind so that the works of God might be seen in him.”  And then he stooped down, spit on the ground, made some mud, smeared it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.  After that we moved on.  We didn’t stick around to see what happened.  But what I heard later is that the man came back to his old neighborhood and everyone was amazed that he was able to see.  Except for the Ioudaioi.  They weren’t amazed; they were upset.  Who did this?  How did he do it?  Why did he do it on the Sabbath day? 

They asked the man born blind and he told them it was Jesus who had done it.  They said, “Where is he?” and he said, “I don’t know.”  So they brought his parents in for questioning, but they said, “He’s old enough to speak for himself.  Ask him.”  But according to my Gospel they said it partly because the Ioudaioi had already decided that anyone who confessed faith in Jesus would be put out of the synagogue. 

Now, let me just say, that’s not entirely true.  The good people who wrote up my Gospel got a little ahead of themselves.  That wouldn’t happen until after the Fall of Jerusalem, in 70 AD, when we couldn’t worship in the Temple anymore and had to conduct services in the local synagogues.  A group of priests got together and decided which scrolls could be read in worship and which ones could not (because there were a lot of scrolls out there in those days, and not all of them were divinely inspired).  But they also wrote up something they called the Eighteen Benedictions: eighteen blessings they believed good and faithful Jews should recite every day.[iv]    Well one of them, number 12, was “the blessing against heretics,” which was actually a curse.  See if you can hear the phrase that might offend the followers of Jesus:

For the apostates, let there be no hope, and uproot the kingdom of arrogance speedily and in our days.  May the Nazarenes and the heretics perish as in a moment.  Let them be blotted out of the book of life,and not be written together with the righteous.  You are praised, O Lord, who subdues the arrogant.

Did you catch that?  The Nazarenes?  The actual benediction wouldn’t be written until the Seventies, but the spirit of it was alive even during the earthly ministry of Jesus, when the Ioudaioi became jealous of his popularity and didn’t want anyone to follow him.  So, that man born blind, when he asked them if they wanted to become Jesus’ disciples too, should have expected what they said to him.  They said, “You are this man’s disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he has come from.”  And that man born blind (bless his heart), he said, “Well, here is an astonishing thing!  You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”  And they drove him out—out of the synagogue, that is.  They thought he was a heretic because he believed in Jesus.

            In chapter 10 of my Gospel I wrote about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, but I still had this man in mind.  They put him out of the synagogue, you see?  Out of the sheepfold.  He was out there wandering around on his own, lost and afraid.  But then Jesus came to him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  He said, “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him?’  And Jesus said, “You have seen him.”  Don’t you love that?  The man who was born blind had seen him.  With his own eyes.  “You have seen him,” Jesus said, “and the one speaking with you is he.”  And then he said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. 

I want you to put all this together in your mind if you can.  In chapter 10 of my Gospel Jesus said that he was the gate for the sheep.  You know the gate?  The one that opens so the sheep can come into the sheepfold?  The one that closes behind them to keep them safe?  The one that opens again in the morning so they can go out and find pasture?  Jesus says that he is that gate.  And he says it after the Ioudaioi have kicked this man out of the synagogue.  They were the gatekeepers (and every religion has some), but Jesus is the gate itself.  So this man comes to Jesus.  He professes his faith.  And in that moment the gate swings open, and that little lost lamb is welcomed in. 

            I’m telling you, this is what Jesus does: he goes around looking for everyone who has been kicked out, put down, pushed around, everyone who has been denied a place in the existing religious establishment, and then he opens the gate for them, he lets them in, he makes room for them in his sheepfold.  You know what I’m talking about!  That’s how many of us were feeling after those Eighteen Benedictions were published, after the Ioudaioi started kicking us out of one synagogue after another because we could not stop professing our faith in Jesus, the Nazarene.  We were out there on our own, wandering around lost and afraid, but Jesus—the gate—opened up and took us in.  Now we have a place.  We are no longer alone.  We are at home with the Good Shepherd. 

Jesus said some other things about people who cared more about themselves than they cared about the sheep.  He said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”  And that’s true.  There are people who look at a sheep to see how much wool they can get off of it, how much it weighs, how tender its meat might be.  And then there is Jesus, who looks at a sheep to see how he can care for it, and give it what it needs.  “I came that they might have life,” he said, “and that they might have it more abundantly.”  How does he do that?  He brings us in from the pasture in the evening.  He opens to us and brings us into the safety of the sheepfold.  He beds us down for the night so we can sleep in peace.  In the morning he leads us out again.  He makes us lie down in green pastures.  He leads us beside still waters.  He restores our souls. 

            He is the Good Shepherd.

            There’s one more thing I want to mention before I close.  Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice and follow him.  I was thinking about that man born blind again.  When Jesus healed him he couldn’t see, remember?  He could only hear.  Jesus told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam and he did, but when he came back Jesus was nowhere to be found.  And then he went through all that questioning by the Ioudaioi, he kept singing the praises of the one who had healed him, and as a result he got himself kicked out of the synagogue.  He was out there wandering around on his own when someone asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  And he recognized that voice.  His ears perked up, his eyes lit up.  He said, “Who is he, sir?” knowing the answer even before he asked.  “You have seen him,” Jesus said, and the one speaking with you is he.”  And that’s when the man said he believed.  That’s when he fell down and worshiped.  Because he trusted that voice, and he knew that if he could only follow that shepherd, he would have abundant life. 

            The same is true for us, friends.  We’ve got to listen closely for the voice of the Good Shepherd.  There are some people who simply want to take advantage of us, who want to use us for whatever they can get out of us.  There are thieves and bandits out there who are sizing us up even now.  But then there is Jesus, whose greatest joy in life is taking such good care of us that we have everything we need.  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” he said.  “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  Is that true?  Is there anyone here who has found abundant life in Jesus.  You don’t have to say anything out loud, but maybe you could lift your hand.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Well, I have.  I wrote an entire Gospel about it.  And if you’ve read to the end of it you know that I say, “Now Jesus did many more things that are not written in this book, but these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.”  Anyone want a life like that? 

Anyone?

Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Jim Somerville, Sermon, “The Well-Remembered Word: Mary Remembers” (preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on April 9, 2023: Easter Sunday (https://fbcrichmond.org/video/the-well-remembered-word-mary-remembers/)

[ii] See my sermon from April 23, 2023: “The Disciples Remember.”

[iii] John makes a distinction between the Pharisees and the Ioudaioi in chapter 9. While the Pharisees were certainly of the same mindset, the Ioudaioi had some actual authority, and probably included the Sadducees and the members of the Sanhedrin.

[iv] https://instonebrewer.com/publications/18%20Benedictions.pdf

The Well-Remembered Word: Thomas Remembers

Thomas said to the other disciples, “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.”

You came back!

Not everybody came back this Sunday, but you did, and I’m glad you did. I think you will hear in this morning’s sermon that sometimes very good things happen for people who come back on the Sunday after Easter.

Today we continue the series I started last week, one called “The Well-Remembered Word,” in which we are imagining a memorial service for Jesus, held several decades after his ascension, where some of the people who knew him best and loved him most stand up to say a good word about the Word-made-flesh. Last week it was Mary Magdalene who remembered Jesus. This week it’s Thomas, the one featured in today’s Gospel lesson, the one who is often called, “the Doubter.” Let’s give him a few minutes to speak for himself, and tell us how he really feels. Thomas?

——————–

Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you today, and an even greater honor to be asked to speak just after Mary Magdalene, who has been called “the apostle to the apostles.” She is certainly not the person some people have imagined her to be. But I think you will find I am not the person some people have imagined me to be either, not a doubter at all but one of the truest of true believers. We’ll get there in a moment, but let

me begin with my nickname—“the Twin.”

That’s the part that some people skip right over in their haste to label me as a doubter. They don’t even notice that the only nickname the Bible ever sticks me with is this one: “the Twin.” It’s in John 11: “Thomas, who was called ‘the Twin.’” It’s in John 20: “Thomas (who was called the Twin).” It’s in John 21: “Thomas called the Twin.” But what does that mean? Does it mean I had a twin? Does it mean I was a twin? And if so, whose twin was I? It’s only a rumor, but maybe you’ve heard the rumor that I was Jesus’ twin, that I looked just like him. The people who started that rumor say that’s why Jesus picked me to be one of his disciples, so that we could trade places from time to time, so that he could get away. Some of them have even gone so far as to suggest that it wasn’t really Jesus who was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, that it was me, and that that’s why I didn’t say anything when I was standing before the Sanhedrin: my voice would have given me away. They say it was me who was stripped and beaten and nailed to the cross, that it was me who died on that terrible Friday and got buried in someone else’s tomb. They say that’s how Jesus could show up three days later and pretend that he had risen from the dead.

It’s a pretty good theory as far as conspiracy theories go, and some people would probably believe it. Some people will believe anything. But not me. I know that wasn’t me on that cross, you know why? Because I’m not as good a person as Jesus. Even before they crucified him they flogged him. If that had been me I would have cried out with the first lash, “You’ve got the wrong man!” But not Jesus. He just stood there and took it, took all the abuse, all the punishment, that should have rightly fallen on people like me, and he never said a mumbalin’ word. So, no, I wasn’t Jesus’ twin. Maybe we did look a little something alike but Mary can tell you: I’m not Jesus and would never

pretend to be. I don’t think I would have been willing to die instead of him, but I once offered to die with him. Do you remember?

We were on the other side of the Jordan, near where John used to baptize. We had gone down there because things had gotten ugly in Jerusalem. The religious authorities were asking Jesus if he was the Messiah. They said, “Just tell us!” And he said, “I have told you but you don’t believe me.” And then he began to tell them about the Father, which was fine, until he said, “The Father and I are one.” That’s when they started picking up stones. He said, “I’ve been doing all these good works. For which of these are you going to stone me?” But they said, “It’s not because of your good works; it’s because you’re making yourself equal to God. That’s blasphemy!” And let me just say: when you get to the point in a conversation where somebody is calling you a blasphemer, the conversation is pretty well over. Jesus tried to make one last point (and it was a good one), but we got him out of there as quickly as we could and as far away as possible. We took him down the Jericho road and across the Jordan, well away from the religious authorities.

Still there were lots of people there. Everywhere Jesus went people followed. One day someone showed up with a message that his friend Lazarus was at the point of death, but Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about it. Two days later, however, he said, “We’ve got to go back to Judea.” We said, “Why? The last time you were there they were ready to stone you, remember?” But he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep and I need to go and wake him up.” One of the disciples (I’m not saying which one), said, “Lord, if he’s fallen asleep he’ll be all right.” Jesus said, “Let me put it bluntly: Lazarus is dead, and for your sakes I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you might come to believe. But come, let’s go to him.” And I’m not bragging, but I’m the one who said,

“Let’s go with him, so we can die with him.”

Does that sound like a doubter to you? I’m telling you, I may have had trouble believing that dead people can come back to life, but I didn’t have trouble believing in Jesus. Wherever he went, I went, right? That’s what it means to follow someone. And that may help you understand why I said that other thing John quoted in his Gospel. We were at that last supper, right? In that upper room. Jesus had washed our feet, Judas had gone out to betray him (although we didn’t really understand that at the time), we had pretty much finished the meal, and Jesus was just talking to us, telling us every important thing he wanted us to know before whatever happened next happened. But you could tell something was wrong. You could tell by the way he was talking to us. He said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in me! In my Father’s house there is plenty of room. I’m going to prepare a place for you, and when it’s ready I’ll come again, and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.” And that sounded good, but it also sounded like he was getting ready to leave us. That’s why our hearts were troubled.

And that’s when he said, “You already know the way to the place I am going,” but I didn’t, and I said so. I was thinking, “How am I supposed to follow you if I don’t know the way?!” But then he did the kind of thing he was always doing: he spoke in parables. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” People have understood that in different ways since he said it, but here’s how I understand it, at least this is how I understand it now: he said he was going to the Father’s house, and that we already knew the way, and then he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I think he meant, “I am the true way to life with the Father. If you want to get to him you’ve got to go through me,”

or maybe, “you’ve got to get to know me.” And I think he meant really know him, right? Not just know things about him. Because I can’t speak for the other disciples, but my life didn’t really begin until I got to know Jesus.

And then there is the third time I was quoted in John’s Gospel: the time I said I wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead until I saw the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side. That’s what got me labeled as a doubter. But you’ve got to understand: I was grieving. Hard! I’m not sure any of the others were grieving as hard as I was except maybe Mary, maybe John. I had been ready to die with him, remember? I wanted to know the way to where he was going so that I could follow. I was ready to follow him anywhere, but then they arrested him, and tried him, and crucified him, and there wasn’t a thing I could do but watch him die. When he breathed his last it was like I breathed my last. When they stuck that spear in his side I felt the blood drain out of my own body. The others all went back to the upper room to think about what they would do next but I couldn’t think about that, and I surely couldn’t talk about what had just happened. I needed to be by myself, on my own. I went to the place he went when he needed to pray, and just as he did I poured out my heart to the Father. It took a long time.

But early on the first day of the week, for whatever reason, I began to feel better, and by the end of the day I was ready to see the others again. I went to the upper room, and when I got there they practically pounced on me. “We’ve seen the Lord!” they said. “He was right here! He just…walked in, through locked doors. He showed us his hands and his side and then he breathed on us and told us to receive the Holy Spirit. He said, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And then he said something about forgiving people’s sins, or maybe holding on to them? We can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. But

this matters, Thomas: he was here! Right here! Alive as you or me!” And I could see that something had happened. I mean, those disciples didn’t get excited about much, but they were excited about this. At the same time I wasn’t about to build the rest of my life on some ghostly apparition. I needed something solid. So, I told them, “Look, I’m not saying you’re lying, but 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 then a week went by—an entire week when they were looking at me like, “Why don’t you believe us?” and I was looking at them like, “Why don’t you prove it?” Things were a little tense. Mary was telling everybody she had seen the Lord. The others were telling me they had seen him. It seems like everybody had been blessed with a vision of the risen Lord except me and then, on that next Sunday night, there he was. It was kind of spooky, you know? We were having supper. I had just turned to ask Andrew a question and when I turned back he was there. I jumped up from the table and backed into a corner but he stood up and said, “Here I am, Thomas. You said you wouldn’t believe unless you saw me with your own eyes. Here I am. You said you wouldn’t believe unless you put your finger in the mark of the nails. Here they are. You said you wouldn’t believe unless you put your hand in my side. Here it is. I don’t want you to doubt any longer, Thomas. I want you to believe. Look at me; here I am.”

That was all the proof I needed.

I didn’t need to put my finger in the marks of the nails after that. I didn’t need to put my hand in his side. I just said the first thing that came out of my mouth: I said, ‘My Lord and my God!’ And he said, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ And he was talking about you, about some of you in this very room, who have never seen him

with your own eyes and yet have somehow come to believe that he is both Lord and God.

If you’ve read the rest of John’s Gospel you know that’s why he wrote it in the first place. After telling my story he wrote, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” I think he wanted you to see that if someone who had been a doubter, like me, could become a believer then you could, too. And did you notice he didn’t say, “These things are written so that you will believe,” but rather, “These things are written so that you may come to believe,” as if faith might come slowly, gradually, over time. For me, in the end, it was not about my ability to believe unbelievable things; it was about my ability to believe in Jesus, the same way you believe in the people you love. Even now, when people ask me, “Have you stopped doubting, Thomas? Do you believe that dead people can come back to life?” I say, “It’s not so much what I believe as who: it’s Jesus. I believe in Jesus.

My Lord and my God.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

The Well-Remembered Word: Mary Remembers

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

My friend John Ballenger is one of the most creative people I know.  He’s a member of my Preacher Camp group, and last year, when we got together to plan our preaching for this year, it was his assignment to come up with some good ideas for Easter.  John came up with 41 pages of ideas, many of them good ones, but the one that captured my imagination was this one called “The Well-Remembered Word.”  John asked us to imagine a memorial service for Jesus, held several years after his ascension, where some of the people who had known him best and loved him most would gather to remember him, and since I have a good imagination, I pictured it like this. 

I pictured John, the Beloved Disciple, who was teaching and preaching in Ephesus in the latter part of the first century, wanting his church to hear from some of those who had actually spent time with the Lord.  And so he started thinking about an event, maybe a weekend conference called “Remembering Jesus.”  But the more he thought about it, and the more he thought about Jesus as the Word made flesh, the more he started thinking of it as, “The Well-Remembered Word.”  Yes!  He could almost see the brochures now.  He would invite not only the members of his own church in Ephesus, but all the other churches in the region: Smyrna, Sardis, Pergamum, Thyatira, Laodicea, and Philadelphia.  And as speakers he would invite Mary Magdalene, Thomas, who was sometimes called the Doubter, those two disciples who had walked with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, and, as the Disciple Jesus Loved, he would share some of his own memories.  It would be wonderful!  And, if he could remember to do it, he would ask the speakers to write down what they were going to say so that the church would have it forever. 

And that, my friends, is where the ball was dropped.  In my imagination they did it, they had that conference.  John flew Mary in from Magdala, Thomas from India where he was serving as a missionary (and actually that’s when John made the decision to charge a small fee for conference registration, in order to cover the cost of airfare and accommodations and printing the full color brochures [which did not come cheap in the first century, I assure you]), but those two disciples from Emmaus, who were real Christians and wanted to save John some money, walked, as they usually did, but this time all the way to Ephesus.  It took about two weeks.  But the conference, once they got there, was everything John had hoped it would be.  Christians came in from all over and sat there in awe as people they had only heard about in the Gospels shared their memories of Jesus.  John’s only regret when it was over was that he forgot to ask the speakers for a copy of their remarks.

So, what we have for this series is my best guess as to what those eyewitnesses might have said.  It may be inspired (as I said, I have a good imagination), but it will certainly not be inerrant or infallible.  Please don’t go around telling people that you now know what Mary was thinking as she went to the tomb.  But I’m going to do my very best to draw my inspiration from the Scriptures themselves, rather than myths or legends or Dan Brown novels, so that you can follow up later on your own, and see how much of what I said holds true.  Are you ready?  Here it is, then, the first chapter of the book the Beloved Disciple should have published after that incredible conference, a chapter called, “Mary Remembers,” in which she may have said:

——————-
            Let me begin by thanking our host, the Apostle John, although I have to smile when I say “Apostle” because I’ve known him since he was a teenager.  And let me say how good it is to see a few others I’ve met along the way: Thomas, the two disciples from Emmaus, and of course Luke, who once interviewed me for a Gospel he was writing.  If I had known he was going to include everything I said I might not have told him so much.  I might not have told him about those seven demons that he mentions in chapter eight.  But maybe that’s where my story begins, because that’s how I met Jesus in the first place. 

I had been tormented by those demons for so long I had a name for each one.  I could feel them waking up inside me and when they did it was misery.  I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep.  I gnashed my teeth and tore my clothes.  And then one day I heard about Jesus, this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, who was making his way from one village to another healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, casting out demons, and above all preaching the good news of the coming Kingdom.  Apparently he was telling people that when the Kingdom came there wouldn’t be any more sickness, any more death, any more…demons.  But I couldn’t wait that long.  I wanted him to do something right then.  I didn’t even wait until he got to my town, to Magdala: I went looking. 

When I found him there were crowds of people pressed in around him, long lines of people waiting to be cured, some hobbling on crutches, some carried on stretchers by their friends.  It was a good day for me.  The demons hadn’t bothered me in weeks.  But I knew it was only a matter of time.  And when I finally stood in front of him he knew it, too.  He looked into my eyes, “the windows of the soul.”  He saw what was in there.  He said, “Demons, listen to me.  Stop tormenting this woman.  Come out of her, I command you.”  He said it so calmly, but with such authority, as if he absolutely expected to be obeyed.  And he was!  It wasn’t dramatic.  I didn’t fall to the ground and start convulsing, but I could feel it: the light that was inside him driving away the darkness that was inside me like the sun coming up in the morning.  It broke across my own face, and I smiled for the first time in years.  “My name is Mary,” I said, although he hadn’t asked, but he smiled too and repeated it: “Mary.”  And somehow that word, on his lips, was the sweetest sound I had ever heard.

But no, it wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t like we were in love or anything although some people have suggested that we were.  And in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t that woman Luke wrote about in the seventh chapter of his Gospel, the one who wet the Lord’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  Remember?  When he was at the home of Simon the Pharisee and Simon was thinking, “If he knew what kind of woman she was he wouldn’t let her touch his feet”?  No, I was not that woman, and I was not that kind of woman.  Some people have made that suggestion, too.  Some preachers have said as much from the pulpit.  Shame on them.  But do you remember what Jesus said about that woman?  He said that she showed such great love for him because she had been forgiven of so many sins, and then he said, “The one who is forgiven little, loves little.”  Well, I was not that woman.  I did not wet his feet with my tears or wipe them with my hair.  But if I had thought of it first I might have.  Greater love hath no one than the woman from whom seven demons have been cast out.   

But I did do something: I began to follow Jesus, and along with a few other women began to provide for him and his disciples out of my means, limited as they were.  Susanna was with us, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and a few other women like myself who were just so grateful to Jesus we would have done anything for him.  It gave us the opportunity to learn from him when we stopped for the night, after we had cooked supper and washed up the dishes, Jesus would sometimes sit by the fire with his disciples just talking and he always let us sit close enough to listen.  I began to call him “Rabbi,” and sometimes even “Rabbouni,” as if I were the teacher’s pet.  But he didn’t seem to mind; he could tell I was taking his teaching seriously.  And I was!  I got to watch him help and heal, I got to hear him preach and teach.  I liked it best when he talked about something he called “the life of the ages.”  He made it sound as if, when God’s kingdom finally came on earth as it is in heaven, all of us would be living the life of the ages—life that was abundant, and overflowing, and everlasting—which sounded like just the opposite of the kind of life I was living before I met him.  But in the meantime it was enough to follow him, to provide for him and his disciples, to listen to his teaching, and to learn what real love was all about, the kind the Greeks call agape.

It was about sacrifice.

We could feel it coming, those of us who were paying attention.  He started talking about it well before it happened, but even his closest disciples seemed to dismiss it.  Jesus would say he was going to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die and Peter would say, “God forbid, Lord!  That will never happen to you!”  But he kept on saying it, and some of us could see why.  The things he said didn’t always sit well with people.  When he talked about bringing in the Kingdom of God some people thought he was trying to replace the existing kingdom, to pull Caesar off the throne and put God there instead.  It sounded like insurrection.  And to others the way he talked about God, as if he were his father, made it sound as if he were the Son of God.  It sounded like blasphemy.  For both the religious and political authorities Jesus was becoming a problem that needed to be solved.

So, when we got to Jerusalem we begged him to be careful.  We could see how they were watching him.  But that didn’t stop him.  He was out there day after day, teaching and preaching as always.  If anything he was more open than he had been before, almost as if he were asking for trouble.  So, what a relief to get to that Upper Room, and lock the doors behind us.  That’s where we had the Last Supper, and of course we women were there.  Who do you think did all the cooking and serving?  But because we were there we heard everything, and it became clear, the longer he talked, that he was trying to get us ready to do all this without him.  I didn’t want to do it without him.  If he had asked me I would have said so.  But he just kept saying, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.  I’m going to prepare a place for you.  I’m going to go and come back and take you to myself so that where I am you can be also.” 

And that sounded good.

But what happened next was horrible.  We went to the Garden of Gethsemane and that’s where Judas betrayed him with a kiss (!) and the soldiers arrested him and took him away and for the longest time we didn’t know what was happening.  He was at the home of the high priest where they were interrogating him, calling him a criminal, charging him with blasphemy—anything they could think of to get rid of him.  The next morning they took him to the governor’s palace where they claimed that Jesus was going around saying he was the King of the Jews.  Well, that led to a long conversation with Pilate that didn’t go well, apparently.  Pilate condemned him to death, but only after his soldiers had flogged the Lord and put a crown of thorns on his head and dressed him in a purple robe, saying, “Hail to the King!”  They were making fun of him, is what they were doing, and it was one of the saddest things I had ever seen.  Jesus just stood there with his head bowed, taking it, as Pilate said, “Behold the man!”

You know the rest of the story.  You know they crucified him.  I was there, and I stayed there the whole day, standing at the foot of the cross beside his mother and a few others (John, you remember; you were there).  It was horrible.  Just to stand there and watch him die; to see the blood running down his legs; to see him suffering, gasping for breath.  And yet, through it all he was what the sign above his head said he was: the King of the Jews. 

I was there when he said, “It is finished” and breathed his last.  I was there when the soldiers pierced his side and blood and water gushed out.  Only when they were absolutely sure that he was dead did they take him down from the cross and give his body to Joseph of Arimathea, who put it in a new tomb where nobody had ever been laid.  I followed him to the garden.  I saw where he put the body.  I was planning to come back.  I couldn’t the next day, because it was a Sabbath, but oh, how I wanted to!  And even before the sun came up on the following day I was up, making my way to the tomb, feeling my way through the darkness.  I don’t know what I was thinking I would do.  Maybe just sit there.  But when I got there the stone had been rolled away, and when I looked inside Jesus wasn’t there.  I went running back to tell the other disciples, “They’ve stolen his body!”  Peter and John jumped up and ran back with me, but when they got there they didn’t find him either.  They went back to tell the others but I stayed behind, and when I looked into the tomb this time I saw two angels sitting there.  They asked me why I was weeping and I said, “Because they’ve taken away my Lord!”  And when I turned around there was a man standing there who asked me the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Who are you looking for?” 

People have asked me ever since why I didn’t recognize it was Jesus, but can I tell you this?  I watched him die.  No one has ever been so completely dead.  The last person in the world I expected to see alive and well was Jesus.  And yet there he was.  I knew it as soon as he called my name, as soon as he said “Mary.”  As I told you, it was the sweetest sound I had ever heard, and even sweeter under those circumstances, when I thought he was dead and gone forever.  To hear him call my name, to see the light in his eyes and the smile on his face?  I couldn’t help myself.  “Rabbouni!” I said.  I ran to him, I hugged him hard, until he finally had to pry me loose and say, “Mary, don’t hold on to me.  I’m not finished yet.  I still have to ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.  But go and tell my brothers that you’ve seen me, alive and well.”  And then he was gone, and I was there in the garden, all alone.  I wandered back to where the disciples were staying in a daze, still feeling the warmth of his body, his breath on my face.  When they opened the door they just looked at me.  They could tell that something had happened, something big, but they didn’t know what.  So, I told them.  I said,

“I have seen the Lord.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

A Creation That Groans

I think it is safe to assume that most of us are familiar with the account of creation found in Genesis 1. I mean, it has become so mainstream that even those that aren’t religious most likely have some idea of the story of God creating the animals alongside Adam and Even in the garden. I’m afraid it has become so familiar, in fact, that it has lost its charm, or beauty.  We read it and don’t embrace all that is happening, or we simply hear it as a literal story and miss the beautiful imagery of creation coming into existence, of a God that works all things together for good. So help us with that, I want to read Genesis 1 right now, but read it from the message version, which as you may know is written to sound more like  a story we’d  read in English rather than a literal translation from the Hebrew. The message’s version of Genesis 1 is rather poetic, so I wonder if reading it now would help us really appreciate all that there is to this story. And let’s try a response together. After I read a section, and motion to you, respond together say, “God saw that it was good.”

1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.
God saw that light was good
and separated light from dark.
God named the light Day,
he named the dark Night.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day One.

6-8 God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters;
separate water from water!”
God made sky.
He separated the water under sky
from the water above sky.
And there it was:
he named sky the Heavens;
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Two.

9-10 God spoke: “Separate!
Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place;
Land, appear!”
And there it was.
God named the land Earth.
He named the pooled water Ocean.
God saw that it was good.

11-13 God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties
of seed-bearing plants,
Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.”
And there it was.
Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,
all varieties,
And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.
God saw that it was good.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Three.

14-15 God spoke: “Lights! Come out!
Shine in Heaven’s sky!
Separate Day from Night.
Mark seasons and days and years,
Lights in Heaven’s sky to give light to Earth.”
And there it was.

16-19 God made two big lights, the larger
to take charge of Day,
The smaller to be in charge of Night;
and he made the stars.
God placed them in the heavenly sky
to light up Earth
And oversee Day and Night,
to separate light and dark.
God saw that it was good.
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Four.

20-23 God spoke: “Swarm, Ocean, with fish and all sea life!
Birds, fly through the sky over Earth!”
God created the huge whales,
all the swarm of life in the waters,
And every kind and species of flying birds.
God saw that it was good.
God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Ocean!
Birds, reproduce on Earth!”
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Five.

24-25 God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind:
cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.”
And there it was:
wild animals of every kind,
Cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug.
God saw that it was good.

26-28 God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them
reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
the birds in the air, the cattle,
And, yes, Earth itself,
and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
God created human beings;
he created them godlike,
Reflecting God’s nature.
He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
“Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

29-30 Then God said, “I’ve given you
every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth
And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,
given them to you for food.
To all animals and all birds,
everything that moves and breathes,
I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”
And there it was.

31 God looked over everything he had made;
it was so good, so very good!
It was evening, it was morning—
Day Six

On this day of celebrating God’s creation, what a wonderful message to be reminded of. Yet, I often feel that such a message seems to be a thing of the past, as I more often than not think that creation is no longer good. I mean, if creation was so good then, why does God’s creation seem to be in chaos now? As far as the earth goes, we’ve got record breaking hurricanes occurring year after year, massive droughts in the west, huge famines in parts of Africa, glaciers melting at an alarming rate, the average temperature globally rising to dangerous levels, earth quakes, volcanoes, floods, yo name it, the world seems to be in chaos. And that’s just the natural world. As far as humans go, war has killed thousands in Ukraine, refugees leaving Afghanistan and many other countries throughout the middle east, civil unrest in Myanmar, Economic collapse and the destruction of health, education and other critical systems in Yemen, the list goes on. What has happened to God’s good creation?

I feel like Paul was feeling the same way when he wrote the passage from Romans that we read earlier. He said that whole creation groans, and labors with birth pangs together until now, and he goes on to say that “Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”

Now, to honest to the context, Paul isn’t really speaking on issues of creation care, but rather the “not yet” that is God’s kingdom, and how it encompasses all of creation, but still, I think it is a message worth noting on this day of celebrating God’s creation. Because on days like today, I’m not sure what to feel, and maybe you’re there too. I am thankful for God’s creation, but I’m also ashamed at how we’ve treated it, and I’m a little uneasy about the direction we are going in terms of correcting. When I think about creation, maybe you’re like me, as I’m often led to one of two schools of thought.

On one side, you have the orthodox view of Christianity, that God is in control, so if God is in control, why should we care how we treat the Earth, I mean, God is in control, could we really do harm? The world is so big and we are so small. Could we really cause irreparable harm? And God gave us these resources. Shouldn’t we be able to use as much as we want, as fast as want, without any consequences?

I’m afraid many Christians feels this way, and I’m afraid this rhetoric is not only doing harm to our environment, but harm to our cause of Christ followers to share God’s love to others. I think this is a big concern for our young people as well and it’s why they often feel that their concerns aren’t shared by their older leaders. I mean, we wonder why young people today seem to be more cynical, and have higher levels of anxiety: it’s because they see their planet exhibiting symptoms of damage, and so often the adults in charge don’t seem to be doing anything.

And this can be where people end up on the other side of the spectrum.  They’ve tried and tried to get others to feel the same way they do about the environment but it feels like there is no longer any point, so they stop caring, they stop working towards a cleaner and greener tomorrow, and they succumb to the ways of the world and only maintain hope that humans will eventually kill themselves off with their overconsumption to leave a prospering Earth for the plants and animals left behind.

But is there not another way, because both of these perspectives seem to be hopeless. How do we care for God’s creation that seems to be crumbling while still maintaining hope that what we are doing matters and that we can save our planet from the negative effects we’ve had on it for the past couple of centuries?  It’s a challenge, but one that I think we need to wrestle with.  I think it is a question that humans have been asking for quite some time, especially as we’ve realized our capabilities of doing harm to the world.

Did you ever see that movie, “The Day The Earth Stood Still? There was one that came out in 2008, but I’m talking about the one from 1951. Don’t get me wrong, the one from 2008 is good, but I don’t think it compares to the one from 1951. In fact, I think the difference in the two movies may highlight how we have come to view creation and the negative ways of thinking that have evolved since the original movie came out in 1951.

In both movies, an alien named Klaatu, who inhabits a body that looks human, and actually is human in the new one, comes to Earth, alongside a large robot named Gort. Gort in the original inhabits a large silver suit that looks robotic, with ridged arms and a robotic type walk characteristic of most sci-fi movies in the 50s. In the 2008 film, Gort gets an upgrade with CGI and is much, much larger.

In the 1951 version, Klaatu says that he comes with an important message that he needs to communicate to the various world leaders, but as you can imagine, this proves to be difficult. To awaken the Earth to the severity of Klaatu’s message, Gort causes all of the electricity to stop working for thirty minutes. Shots from London, Paris, New York, Moscow, are seen alongside images of factories at a standstill, a woman taking wet laundry out of her dryer, a worker trying to make a milkshake at a soda fountain lifting the cup onto a stationary mixer, even the poor dairy farmer can’t use the pumps to milk his cows. Hence, the title of the movie, the day the earth stood still.

After such a display of power, the military was set on capturing Klaatu at all costs, and they do catch him, and end up killing him in the process. But, his new friend Helen, who has become a vital character in the story, manages to get Gort, remember the big silver robot, to go retrieve Klaatu’s corpse. Those of you that have seen it, do you remember the line that Helen has to tell Gort? Klaatu barada nikto

Gort temporarily revives Klaatu so he can communicate his message, which he does, before the spaceship is seen departing Earth. His message was that humans must learn to live in peace or face certain annihilation.  The movie ends there, leaving viewers to wonder: Do we have what it takes?

The 2008 version, unsurprisingly, is much different. In that version, Klaatu is here to check up on the Earth, and quickly decides that humans are too destructive to be allowed to continue ruining Earth, only one of a few planets in the cosmos capable of sustaining complex life he says. So, we then see futuristic arks harvesting animals in to them before Gort, who can now apparently turn himself into microscopic flying insects that eat everything in their path, begins wiping out the human race. As we see this occurring, Klaatu tells one of the main characters of the reasoning for such a cruel act: if the earth dies, you die. If you die, the earth lives.

But as the events unfold, Klaatu begins to have a change of heart. We see Klaatu speaking with another alien who has been living among humans for several decades. This alien decides to stay on Earth and die with the humans because he has come to love them.  Even among our destructive tendencies, this alien considers himself lucky to have lived life among humans.

In another scene, Klaatu sees two characters at a tombstone, crying over the loss of a loved one, and this sight moves him enough to sacrifice his own life to stop the destruction of the world, and as the spaceship leaves, the earth is left standing still reflecting on the events that occurred and their meaning for the future.

Now I can already feel your judgement: oh Justin, stop being so critical. That message is still good. Humanity is flawed, but still worth saving. Can’t you see the value that Klaatu sees in humans.

And yes, sure. I think there’s a point to it, that even among the hardships of life, love is worth saving. But in comparison to the 1951 version, I feel that the 2008 dodges the underlining question of the original. The 2008 version implies that Klaatu was the one who needed to change.  He was the one who needed to learn from humans, where the 1951 implies that humans are the ones in need a change of perspective.

Yes, the 1951 version of Klaatu, changes his mind too, but he does so with a warning: the choice is up to us. We can live peacefully together, or face our end, because as he states, “There must be security for all, or no one is secure.”

Do you see my critique now? The 1951 didn’t make excuses for humanity but gave us a warning, as the film ends without the viewer knowing if humans were capable of changing or not, yet the 2008 version just assumes we should be saved without the tension of questioning if humanity is capable of actually living in peace with the rest of creation.

As dark as it may seem, I prefer the warning, because I think it’s rooted in our calling to live in the struggle of life without succumbing to apathy.

Because I think there is a third perspective to creation that we can hold, besides the two I mentioned earlier that lead to apathy, and it’s one I think was what Paul was getting at in our gospel reading today. He said,

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.

Did you catch that? Creation itself is eagerly waiting for the sons of God, us, to be revealed.  Just like us, Paul says that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of [f]corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

I think this is what Jim was referencing last week when he spoke of the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Do you remember what he said? To God, there is no time, so this time of not yet and the time of redemption are both at hand. To God (slap) there is no time and both are at hand. But for us experiencing linear time, we are not at a place where we can fully know all there is to God’s kingdom, so we must die, and our bodies lay lifeless until God’s final redemption is made known. Until then, creation, and us, eagerly wait for God’s kingdom to be made known.  So, we work to bring in God’s kingdom as we maneuver this life where it hasn’t yet fully materialized, maintaining hope that we are moving towards a time when all things will be made perfect.

But this time of waiting isn’t meant to be wasted. We are called to embrace the “not yet of this world” where, as Paul states in verses 26-27, we are to embody the tension of bringing the new creation into the old. Christians must be at the forefront of bringing in this new creation, for it is a foretaste of God’s eventual perfect kingdom of full healing and redemption. We can’t put off this work until some other time in the future. The time is now. God’s kingdom is at hand.

Yet, instead of bringing in new creation, we seem to want to hold onto the old.  We want to make salvation merely about individual piety rather than bringing other people into God’s love.  We decide that certain people can be included in God’s kingdom and others can’t. We think it’s okay to make jokes or look down upon about others that dress differently than us, live differently than us, love differently than us, and even worship differently than us. We prioritize the desires of the wealthy over the needs of the poor. We prioritize our own convenience over the needs of the world. We prioritize affordable goods at the expense of low-paid workers and environmental devastation. We shed blood to maintain power.
We have decided that not all of God’s creation is good, so we ignore call to address wider issues of corruption, injustice, oppression, division, and war, all things that prevent God’s creation from fully prospering into what it was originally intended. But do you remember our Genesis reading? God created humans in God’s image, and found them to be very good.

That’s the thing about creation care. It is just as much about how we treat our neighbors as it is about how we treat our environment, because everything is a part of God’s creation.

I think the 1951 Klaatu was an inspiration, not just for his message, but also because of his sacrifice, and I wonder if we too would be willing to give up our own biases and prejudices and desires, to truly embrace the new kingdom that is coming, would we too be willing to make the sacrifices to help make this world look more like heaven.

After Gort brough   Klaatu back to life, Helen spoke with Klaatu. She said:

Helen: “I thought you were…”
Klaatu: “I was.”
Helen: “You mean he [Gort] has the power of life and death?”
Klaatu: “No. That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit. This technique, in some cases, can restore life for a limited period.”
Helen: “But how long?”
Klaatu: “You mean how long will I live? That, no one can tell.”

Even with the uncertainty of life, do we have what it takes to truly see God’s creation as good, to repair it when it has been harmed, and to sacrifice in order to help others experience this good creation? It is difficult,  but as Paul said, in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose. Friends, we have our purpose.  Let’s care for God’s good creation together.

What Kind of Truth Is This?

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 2:1-11

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Jesus was at a wedding, John tells us, when his mother came to him and said, “They have no wine.”  And he said to her, “What concern is that to you and me?” which is only another way of saying, “That’s not our problem.”

But maybe it was their problem.

This is only a hunch, so don’t quote me, but I have a hunch that Jesus was at a family wedding, maybe his cousin’s wedding.  I don’t think I would have had that hunch before a sermon I preached here last November, when I was talking about the women at the foot of the cross and mentioned that in John’s Gospel one of them was Mary the mother of Jesus, and another was her sister… which would make her Jesus’ aunt.  I looked up from the sermon and said, “Did you know Jesus had an aunt?”  Nobody said anything, but if I didn’t know it I’m guessing some of you didn’t know it either.  And if he had an aunt, and if she had children, it would mean that Jesus had some cousins.  And if she lived in the village of Cana, just up the road from Nazareth, and if one of her children were getting married, it is altogether possible that Jesus would be invited to his cousin’s wedding.  And when he asked if his disciples could come, too—not his “plus one” but his “plus twelve”—his aunt may have grudgingly given her permission.

But that was before she knew how much they would drink.  Again, this is just a hunch, but I can almost see Bartholomew (or one of the other disciples we never hear anything about) pouring the last bit of wine into his glass and looking around for more as Mary’s sister pulls her aside and hisses, “Thanks a lot!  It’s only the second day of the wedding festival and your son’s wine-bibbing buddies have just polished off the last bottle!”  It was a problem, and it wasn’t only a problem of going to the liquor store and getting more.  Chances are good that this family had spent everything they had to host this wedding, and now they had run out of wine.  It would have been like telling everybody in town, “Hey, we’re poor!”

Back when I was in college (and before I met Christy) there was a girl I thought I was in love with.  And so, while I was working at a summer job in South Carolina, I made plans to visit her in Ohio, just for the weekend.  I got off work early one Friday, cashed my paycheck, and flew to Cincinnati on Piedmont Airlines (remember them?).  She picked me up in her daddy’s car, and drove me back to her parents’ place, which was impressive.  We spent the next day together and that night I asked if I could take her out to dinner.  “You pick the place,” I said, “and make it a nice one.”  And she did.  She picked a very nice place.  As soon as we walked in I knew I was in trouble.  Because this was back in the days before everybody had a credit card, or at least before I had a credit card.  If I couldn’t pay for dinner with the money in my pocket, I couldn’t pay for dinner, and that began to look like a real possibility.

When the waiter came around she ordered an appetizer (something I had never done in my entire life), and then she picked out what looked to be the most expensive entrée on the menu.  I countered by picking out the least expensive entrée, and I tried to enjoy it, but all through the meal I was doing math in my head, and I’m not very good at math.  I was trying to add up a long column of figures and measure them against the money in my wallet.  I think I was trying to carry the one when the waiter stopped by and asked if we would care for dessert and before I could say no she said yes.

And that’s when I became almost certain that I wouldn’t be able to pay the bill.  And that feeling, the feeling of knowing you may not have enough, is a terrible feeling.  So, I don’t know what I said as I watched that girl spoon crème brûlée into her mouth, but I knew that in about twenty minutes, when the waiter brought the check, I would face one of the biggest embarrassments of my life.  It turned out to be even bigger.  I must have forgotten to carry the one because when I saw the total my heart just sank.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I am so sorry.  But I don’t have enough money to pay the bill.”

Now, multiply my embarrassment by a hundred times, and step back in time 2,000 years, to a wedding in First Century Israel, where the host runs out of wine.  In that time and place the categories of honor and shame were the only categories that mattered: honor was what you wanted to acquire, and shame was what you wanted to avoid.  If you were throwing a wedding banquet you wanted everyone to have a good time, and you wanted to have enough of everything, especially the wine.  “Wine gladdens the heart,” as the Scripture says (Ps. 104:15), and there is no time when you want a glad heart more than at a wedding.  So, imagine Mary’s sister coming to her with a panic-stricken look on her face, and telling her, “We have no wine!” and then imagine Mary, who may have had some ideas about why, going to look for Jesus.  When she found him she said, in a voice loud enough for his disciples to hear, “They have no wine!”

Jesus looked up and said, “Woman, what is that to me and you?  My hour has not yet come.”  It sounds disrespectful, but it was also true.  This is only chapter 2 of John’s Gospel.  Jesus’ “hour” will not arrive until chapter 13.  That’s when he will begin to enter into his glory.  But his mother doesn’t seem to care.  She turns to some of the servants who are standing there and says, “Do whatever he tells you,” and they look to him for instruction.

Jesus sighs and sees that he has no other choice.  He looks around and sees six stone water jars standing there, used for the Jewish rites of purification.  He says, “Fill up those jars with water,” and they do, and it must have taken a while, because each of those jars held twenty to thirty gallons.  And then he says, “Dip some out and take it to the steward,” and they do, and when the steward tastes it he says, “Oh, where did this come from!?”  He turns to the bridegroom (who may have been Jesus’ cousin) and says, “Everyone always serves the good wine first, and then, when the guests have become too drunk to tell the difference, brings out the cheap stuff.  But you people!  You’ve saved the best until last!”  And suddenly the shame that was gathering over the event is blown away by a sudden gust of honor.  This is the best wedding ever, and the hosts are the most generous hosts in history!

But Jesus’ disciples are there, and they’ve seen what just happened.  They’ve seen how it wasn’t the hosts, but Jesus, who brought out the good stuff, and plenty of it.  They saw how he did it, by turning ordinary water into the best wine anyone had ever tasted.  “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” John writes; “he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

What kind of truth is this?

Let me say two things about that: 1) John calls this a sign, and a sign is more than a miracle.  A sign always points to something beyond itself.  This sign allows the disciples to see Jesus for who he really is: the Son of God.  And 2) when he did it he revealed his glory, “glory as of a father’s only son,” which is to say that his glory was God’s glory and when he revealed it he revealed something of the truth about God.  And this is the truth: that with God we never have to be afraid of not having enough.

Walter Brueggemann writes: “The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance.[i]  Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity.  It tells how well the world is ordered.  It keeps saying, ‘It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.’ It declares that God blesses—that is, endows with vitality—the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind. And it pictures the Creator as saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’  In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit.”  This is the glory of God, and it is what the disciples see in Jesus on the day he turns 180 gallons of water into 180 gallons of the best wine anyone has ever tasted.

Brueggemann goes on to say that Israel celebrates this kind of abundance.  “Psalm 104, the longest creation poem, is a commentary on Genesis 1.  The psalmist surveys creation and names it all: the heavens and the earth, the waters and springs and streams and trees and birds and goats and wine and oil and bread and people and lions. This goes on for 23 verses and ends in the 24th with the psalmist’s expression of awe and praise for God and God’s creation. Verses 27 and 28 are something like a table prayer.  They proclaim, ‘You give them all food in due season, you feed everybody.’ The psalm makes clear that we don’t need to worry. God is utterly, utterly reliable. The fruitfulness of the world is guaranteed.”

And then Psalm 150, the last psalm in the book, is described by Brueggemann as “an exuberant expression of amazement at God’s goodness. It just says, ‘Praise Yahweh, praise Yahweh with lute, praise Yahweh with trumpet, praise, praise, praise.’ Together, these three scriptures proclaim that God’s force of life is loose in the world. Genesis 1 affirms generosity and denies scarcity. Psalm 104 celebrates the buoyancy of creation and rejects anxiety. Psalm 150 enacts abandoning oneself to God and letting go of the need to have anything under control.”

All of this is the truth about God, and all of it is evident in the sign that Jesus performed that day at a wedding in Cana, when he made enough wine to gladden the hearts of everybody in town.  And yet, those of us who call ourselves his disciples often remain paralyzed by the fear that there won’t be enough, a fear that doesn’t even enter the Bible until the 41st chapter of Genesis, when Pharaoh dreams of famine.  Apparently that dream has crossed oceans and centuries to haunt the sleep of those of us who live on this side of the world.

Brueggemann writes: “We [Americans, who live in the richest nation on earth] never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity—a belief that makes us greedy, mean and un-neighborly” (just like Pharaoh).

“The conflict between the Bible’s liturgy of abundance and the American myth of scarcity is our defining problem,” Brueggemann says.  “The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal confession declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things—nothing can separate us from God.”[ii]

Why then, do we worry about our lives, as Jesus asks in Matthew 6?  Why do we worry about what we will eat and drink, and about what we will wear?  Our heavenly Father, who made the world and everything in it, knows that we need these things, and if we simply continue to seek his Kingdom and his righteousness all these things will be added to us.  We know that.  We’ve heard it a thousand times.  And yet we still worry.  I’m guilty of it myself.

Last week our business manager showed me the church budget we had projected for the year 2022, a budget that is nearly $400,000 more than we took in last year.  I felt a little bit like I did that night in Cincinnati when the waiter presented me with the check.  I said, “You know, when we came up with this budget we didn’t know we would still be dealing with COVID.  We thought it would be over by now and everything would be back to normal.  We thought the pews would be full of people and the offering plates full of money.  This budget, under these circumstances, doesn’t seem very realistic.”  Turn the clock back 40 years and it could have been me, explaining to that girl, “You know, when I asked you out to dinner I thought we would go to some reasonably priced restaurant, where you would order reasonably priced food.  I certainly wasn’t counting on this.”  And she would have said, “No, but you also weren’t counting on this,” and then she would have dropped her father’s platinum credit card on the table and paid for the entire meal—which is exactly what she did![iii]

It’s the kind of thing Jesus did at that wedding in Cana of Galilee.  He dropped his father’s glory on the table.  His disciples saw it, and remembered it for the rest of their lives.  When John was writing about it years later he said, “The Word that was with God and was God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only Son” (John 1:1, 14).  It’s another way of saying that Jesus’ glory was God’s glory, and Jesus’ abundance was God’s abundance—that the one who made wine out of water that day was merely reflecting the nature of the one who made everything out of nothing.

And that’s the truth about God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity,” Religion Online (from an article that originally appeared in The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999 [https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/]).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] She laughed and told me, “I wasn’t expecting you to pay for dinner. You paid for your plane ticket. I have a summer job, too. I’ll pay daddy back later.” If I had known her better I probably would have known that was the plan all along. I didn’t, but I do know Jesus better. I know that when he says we don’t have to worry about our lives, we don’t. And now I simply need to learn how to live the truth of what I know.