The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 30, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5; Revelation 21:1-5a
Some people believe that it began in 1859. Others say it began in the early 1920s. Regardless of when it began, the debate between evolution and creationism has consumed churches, school boards and state legislatures for the last 100 years. This debate could have begun in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin because the book introduced the concept that species evolve over time through a process of natural selection. Yet, initially, many Christians saw God’s hand in the process of natural selection and accepted that God could use evolution as a means of continuing creation. However by the 1920’s more conservative Christian churches rejected Darwin’s work. These churches insisted on a literal reading of the creation narrative, meaning that God created everything as it now exists in six, 24-hour days. This is what is called “Young Earth Creationism.” I mention this debate not because we will engage in it, but because I believe the entire debate between creationism and evolution misses the purpose of this opening chapter of Genesis. It misses the chapter’s purpose because this is a religious and not scientific text…meaning the chapter is intended to tell us some things about God and some things about us. It is not intended to tell us something about the physics of creation. And not only that, what we learn about God and ourselves from this chapter is essential to our understanding and living our faith. So, over the next few minutes we will look at four discoveries that this chapter contains that will assist us in our faith journey.
Discovery one is that life matters to God. Note I did not say that God is about creation. I said that life matters to God, which is what the first chapter of Genesis is about. It is about God bringing life into existence. If we were to have read the entire first chapter, this would have become clearer. Chapter One about the creation of plants of multiple kinds, of a wide variety of fish in the sea and birds of the air, of plants yielding seed so they can reproduce, of fruit trees of every kind, of swarms of living creatures in the sea and on the land, of birds, cattle, creeping things, and wild animals. And all of these are to multiply and cover the earth. And let’s be clear, God was not forced to create all of this. God was not under contract to create. God created life because life matters to God. This is why Jesus can later say that he came to bring life and life abundant. This is why Jesus can say that God is the God of the living and not the dead. This discovery is critical to our faith because it reminds us that all life, and not simply human life, matters to God.
Discovery two is that God is a risk taker. I realize that you might not have ever heard someone say that before. But if we take seriously that God creates life, then God is taking a risk in that act of creation. Let me explain. I have taken this poll before, but we will do so again, how many of you were children once? Ok, so most of you. When your parents gave you birth, or fostered you, or adopted you, they were taking a risk because sooner or later, you would learn the most powerful two-letter word in the English language, “no.” And as soon as a child learns that word and uses it, the child becomes a separate person, no longer attached to the one who created, fostered or adopted them. What this means in terms of God creating life, is that as soon as God created something, that something had the ability to say “no” to God. Rabbinic scholars like to point out that even before human beings said “no” to God, creation did the same. In verse 24 God says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” Does earth do so? No, earth does not and so God must do it. In other words, like an intransient child, even creation was resistant to being directed by God. Even so, creation, creating life, was worth the risk to God. God cared about life so much that God was willing to risk hearing a “no.” This discovery matters to our faith because it says that God is willing to risk showering God’s love and compassion on all of us even if there are those moments we, too, say “no” to God.
Discovery three is that we are not God. I realize that for most of us this is not a new idea. In fact, few of us would probably think of ourselves as God or a god. But there is more to not seeing ourselves as God than merely comprehending the fact that we are part of creation and are not the creator. Even though we may not think of ourselves as gods, we often act like we are. What I mean by this is that we assume we know what is right and true in almost every circumstance. We think we know what the outcomes of all our actions and choices will be. We think that we can see into the future and that all our plans and dreams will come true. In other words, we act like we are God. Or if we do not do these things ourselves, we are more than willing to invest these god-like qualities in others. We are willing to give our allegiance to people and or organizations that claim to be able to save us. We are willing to treat others as if they are micro-gods rather than human beings. This is what happened with Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot and Jim Jones; meaning the outcome of such worship of creatures always ended and ends badly. This discovery is critical to our faith because it reminds us that our ultimate allegiance must be to God and God alone.
Discovery four is that we human beings are works in progress. This discovery is one that comes from the sixth day of creation, which is one of the two days of creation that is not said to be “good.” The other day not said to be “good” is day two, which is another matter. To say that something is good doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically good, or beautiful. It means that it is fit for its God given purpose. As we will discover, humanity’s purpose is to love God and neighbor, and to care for creation. By God not declaring human beings as being good, it is a sign that God is not sure that we will be able to fulfill our purposes. In other words, we are going to be works in progress. We are going to be willful creatures who may or may not ever fulfill our potential and purpose. We will always be somewhere on the learning curve of discovering who God desires us to be. Again, this is part of the risk God took in creating us in the first place; that we might not turn out as God intended and desired. This discovery is important to our faith because it reminds us that we are on a journey and that even when we fall short of what we expect of ourselves, or what we believe God expects of us, it is okay because God knows that we are works in progress. And so we are not to give up or be discouraged.
The question then becomes, how do we draw these discoveries together? How do we make sense of them for this day and all our days ahead? My response would be that we go to the very end of the scriptures, to Revelation 21:5 where we read God saying, “See, I am making all things new.” A better translation might be, “See I am constantly renewing all life.” In other words, God’s love for life, all life including human life, is so important that God does not sit back and simply observe what is going on, but that God is actively at work helping life reach its full potential. God is at work helping us reach our full human potential. The challenge then is for us to allow God to work in our lives. To allow God to be God and to renew and remake us with each passing day. Here then, is the question I would have you ask. “How am I allowing God to make me new with each passing day so that I might reach the full life God has planned for me?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 23, 2021
Habakkuk 2:1-4, John 14:15-17, Acts 2:1-4
I want us to try something before I begin. Ready?
[Silence - Count to 20]
Great Job! I wonder what that was like for you? Waiting is hard. Waiting when you don’t know what is coming next or how long you will be waiting is incredibly difficult. The Pentecost story largely depends on a time of waiting and yet we skip over that part every year. Heck, Acts basically skips over it too. Jesus tells the disciples he will send them the Holy Spirit; he ascends into heaven; the disciples get distracted trying to refill their committee of 12 people; and then boom, Spirit shows up.
It sounds like they all go down in one day. They got up that morning, had breakfast with Jesus and saw him ascend. Then over lunch, they decided who was going to take Judas’ spot and by the afternoon they had the Spirit. The timeline though is more likely that they waited for about 10 days for the Spirit. Scholars get to this length of time based on secular historical writings. The science is thin so we can’t know for sure, but the writings, some of them journals, talk about Jesus alongside descriptions of preparations for specific festivals. We know when Jewish and Roman festivals took place on a calendar so we can get a general idea of Jesus’ timeline too. Rumors of the resurrection are tied in closely with talk about the Festival of the First Fruits, and the Spirit shows up on the Festival of Pentecost which are 50 days apart. Acts 1:3 says Jesus was on earth after his resurrection for 40 days, 50-40 = our 10 days of waiting for the Spirit.
Like I said, all that is a flimsy case BUT I think the most compelling support for the Spirit showing up after a period of significant waiting is the fact that Jesus does not just hand the baton off to the Spirit.
It seems odd that Jesus wouldn’t make this important introduction himself if the Spirit was already nearly there. Like, “Hey guys, gotta go but I want you to meet this great friend of mine. We call her Spirit. She’s gonna take over for me. See you in heaven. Peace out.”
Quick detour to talk about why I use she/her pronouns for the Spirit. I know our English versions often use He pronouns when talking about the Spirit, but that was a choice translators made and I believe they chose wrong.
One, because there are two words that get translated into Spirit. One in Greek and one in Hebrew. The Hebrew word is “ruach” which is a feminine word. The Greek word is “Pneuma” which is gender neutral. SO anyplace in scripture that references the Spirit is either gender neutral or feminine and the only reason Greek speakers use “pneuma” is because that is the best word Greek speakers had to express the Hebrew understanding. They did not have a way to retain the feminine nature of the Spirit in their language. Much like we don’t have a perfect way to talk about gender neutral people in English. There is already a translation and a loss of specificity happening from Hebrew to Greek speakers.
Secondly, in the Greek there is a pronoun that gets used around the word “pneuma” which is “autos.” “Autos” can be translated as he, she, or it. When we make a translation of autos we need to look at who the word is referring to. When translators see it connected to pneuma they hit a dead end. There is no gender on pneuma there is no gender on autos. What do we do? Until 2004 when English translators chose to write he, they could have just as correctly chosen she or it. Bibles translated in the last 17 years have started making different choices but it is a hard thing to switch.
Thirdly, I see God being perfectly fine with feminine roles in scripture. Even a literal reading of Genesis clearly shows female is part of God’s image. PLUS there are tons of places in scripture that God is more than happy to be compared to female roles. Hens, bakers, breastfeeding, even Jesus says we must be born again in the Spirit, which is in Jesus’ context the work of a woman. I think Jesus understood the Spirit to be more feminine and that’s why he makes that metaphor about birth instead of using a metaphor connected to male work to describe the Spirit, for example, “one needs to be recarved in the Spirit.” Jesus knew the Spirit well and when Jesus talks about the Spirit and uses autos I think Jesus means “she.” So when I talk about the Spirit I use she/her pronouns.
There are lots of other reasons, but we need to get back to Pentecost and talk about waiting. Jesus does not choose to immediately pass the baton off to the Spirit. He ascends and forces the disciples into a period of waiting. We think this was about 10 days of not knowing when the Spirit would arrive, not knowing what it would look like for the Spirit to arrive, not knowing what would happen after that. They just had to wait.
The way you felt a few moments ago, as I slowly counted to 20, was probably similar to how the disciples felt waiting for the Spirit, and they had to endure it for 10 days. This forced waiting was an intentional choice that Jesus made. There must be something in waiting that Jesus wanted the disciples to experience first that made him choose to not make the introduction to the Spirit himself. Something that needed to be processed before they were ready for the Spirit to arrive.
While our little experiment at the beginning of this sermon gave us a reminder of what waiting is like, we know waiting better than we ever have. The past 14 months have been a crash course in waiting. The shared experience of waiting through this pandemic has given us a new understanding of the power in the wait and gives us an idea of what Jesus might have hoped would happen as the disciples waited for the Spirit.
The first thing we all did when we were forced to wait was dream. When we found ourselves with extra time, we dreamed about the possibilities. Posts about at home exercise were everywhere, we were dreaming of being healthier. People quickly found home projects they had always wanted to get to, they dreamed about unfulfilled potential. Hobbies were dusted off. We dreamed about who we wanted to be on the other side of the lockdown. We imagined coming out of the waiting a better version of ourselves.
For me that period of waiting lasted a month, maybe you did better than me, but the next stage was resting. What else did we have to do but rest. We vegged out on the couch watching whatever we could find on TV. Puzzles were suddenly sold out. Family conversations went long into the night. I even saw a video of a guy who spent all day doing whatever his dog did. When the dog looked out the window they looked out the window together. When the dog napped they napped. When the dog wanted to play they played. Resting while we waited for whatever was coming next took over our lives.
Then, and I believe largely where we are now, is analyzing. We first started analyzing how and why our lives had gotten to the place they were in February 2020. The packed schedules. The early mornings and late evenings. We looked at how normal had become normal and began asking should that be normal? Now as we see a light growing with every vaccine in an arm, we are analyzing what to allow back into our lives. Thinking deeply about what we have learned over these months and how to shape a life that includes the things we miss and the new things we love. How do we hold space in our schedules for the lessons we learned during rest? How do we make the dreams we dreamed a reality?
These three things, dreaming, resting, and analyzing are the power in waiting. We rush through waiting because it's difficult, because it makes us uncomfortable. I'm sure many of you were on the edge trying to anticipate when I would begin my sermon, getting anxious and maybe a little annoyed. When we talk about Pentecost we rush past the waiting that came before the Spirit because it’s not as exciting as flames hovering over someone’s head. We thought nothing was happening while we waited. There isn’t any story there. BUT there is.
There is so much in the wait. SO much that Jesus knew the disciples needed to wait before they were ready for the Spirit to arrive. While they waited they dreamed about how to get the message of Jesus out to the rest of the world. They dreamed about what a community fully committed to the teachings of Jesus would look like.
While the disciples waited, they rested. They no longer had to chase after Jesus and stay alert to the teachings.They could rest. And they could analyze the message. Really boil down the teachings to the core of what Jesus was saying. They probably retold their favorite parable, correcting one another, and had realizations about lessons they hadn’t quite gotten when it was first told.
Dreaming, resting, and analyzing made them ready to get to work the minute the Spirit arrived. They had the vision of the dream. They were well rested and ready to get to work. They knew the lessons and how to proclaim the gospel.
I want to try our waiting again. This time I want you to feel yourself going through each stage. I will give you a verbal prompt of when to switch to the next phase. Ready
Let’s dream: lean into the potentials we can only imagine (count of 10).
Rest: clear your mind, let your shoulders fall, unclench your jaw, relax your tongue (count to 10).
Analyze what lessons are within reach (count to 10).
Good job! This is just practice. We are still in the waiting period of this pandemic and so I challenge you to take the time to process through these stages of waiting. Do not rush through the gift of waiting and miss the power we can gain from it. So when this pandemic eases and life begins to spin again, we can be ready to live into the power that waiting has given us.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 16, 2021
Isaiah 5:1-7; John 15:1-17
Something was supposed to happen. When he flicked the switch something was supposed to happen but this time nothing happened. I can’t tell you what grade I was in in high school or what class it was, all I can remember is that it was one of those wonderful days when the AV guy brought in the projector and we got to see a movie instead of listening to a lecture. For those of us of a certain age we understand that we had movies in class. There were not videos or DVDs or things on the internet, but there were films. The AV guy would bring in this large projector, take the film out of the can, put the full reel on one spindle and an empty reel on the other. Then the projectionist would carefully wind the film into the projector, test the tension and hit the switch. The projector would whir to life and we would watch. But this time nothing happened. The AV guy asked for the lights to come back on. He checked and rechecked everything. But still nothing. One classmate behind me suggested that the projector wasn’t working because the electric cord had a knot in it. I just shook my head. Then a voice from the back of the class said, “Is this supposed to be plugged in?” We all turned and looked, and there in this person’s hand was the plug. “Yes,” was the reply from the AV guy. The person plugged in the cord and what was supposed to happen happened and we watched the movie.
Something is supposed to happen. This could also be said of us branches being connected to Jesus’ vine. Something is supposed to happen. The image that Jesus uses, that he is the vine, and we are the branches has rightly been understood to signify the mystical union between ourselves and Jesus; the mystical union that allows the Spirit to move from God, the vine planter, to Jesus the vine and then to us, the branches. It is the mystical connection that allows for the fruit of the Spirit to manifest itself in us, filling us with the love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and self-control. It is the mystical union that makes us all friends of Jesus. The image of the vine and the branches is also an ancient one that was used by the Psalmists and the prophets to describe God’s relationship with the people of Israel. God was the one who planted and cared for the vineyard; that cared for God’s people. But for both the Prophets and Jesus there was more to this connection than a mystical union. Something was supposed to happen. That something is that the branches are to bear fruit. And if we listen to Jesus and Isaiah, we learn that the branches are to bear three kinds of fruit, each in its own season. And so, over the next few minutes we will examine each of these seasonal fruits.
Season one bears the fruit of love. The fruit of love is at the center of Jesus’ message about the vine and the branches. Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love is the foundational fruit from which the other fruits grow. It is foundational because the love Jesus describes is a love that turns human hearts outward. It causes human beings to see “the other” not as a stranger but as someone worthy of compassion and care. It is a love that says the needs of others are equal to, or perhaps even greater than my needs. This is the love that God demonstrated when God sent Jesus into the world. This is the love that Jesus will demonstrate on the cross when he gives his life for the world. This fruit of love is what first grows when we are the branches on Jesus’ vine.
Season two bears the fruit of righteousness. It may be that many of us are uncomfortable with the term righteousness. That may be because we have associated righteousness with moral or religious perfection, or we have tied it to the idea of being self-righteous, meaning those who think they are morally or religiously perfect but are not. But neither of those ideas gets at the heart of what righteousness means. Righteousness means acts of compassion and service. It means doing, what Judaism calls, “tzedakah” which means giving money or goods to those in need. While many of us might like to call this kind of giving charity, the fact is that charity is an optional giving for the sake of giving. Acts of righteousness are offered in response to the love that God has poured into us, that have turned our hearts outward toward others. Righteous acts are physical expressions of love. This idea is at the heart of Matthew 25 where Jesus says that we are to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked. This is what Isaiah means when he combines righteousness and cry. That where people do not reach out in righteous acts, people cry out in hunger and despair. The fruit of righteousness then are individual acts of compassion and kindness that grow from love.
The third season brings the fruit of justice. Justice is love that works to create the kingdom of God on earth. In other words, while righteousness is personal acts of love offered up, justice is understood to be communal love that creates the kind of world God desires. The fruit of justice has two elements. The first element is that all persons, regardless of class, wealth, nationality, or citizenship are treated equally before the law. This equal treatment is based in the very story of creation in which all human beings are created in the image of God and have the breath of God breathed into them. Thus, every human being is deserving of the same treatment as every other human being. The second aspect of justice is equity. Justice equity does not mean merely equal opportunity, but it means those who have greater need are to be given what it is that they need so that they have enough. This means that a just society is to be one in which there are not a few who have too much, and others who have too little. This is the reason that Isaiah combines justice with bloodshed, because where there is no justice there is no peace. This is so because where there is no justice, people crush and kill others in order to gain more and more, or those who have been unjustly treated rise up to take what is rightly theirs. Justice is fruit that grows from love and righteousness.
Before we close this morning, I want to offer you what I consider to be one of the most wonderful examples of how these fruits work. In 2007 the Rev. Dr. Kate Thoresen and her husband, Tom, were invited to a summit called Save the Children. The summit was to address the plight of the children in the Foster Care system. Because Tom chaired the missions committee that had helped to fund the event and Rev. Kate was a pastor, they were invited to speak about how congregations could support the kids caught in the foster care system. To learn more Kate and Tom began to listen to the stories of adoptive and foster families. The more they learned, the more they felt called to help. This is love at work. This is what happens when one is connected to the vine. This desire to help led to the Thoresens to create the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care in 2009 and to Rev. Kate becoming a Parish Associate here with her portfolio being Foster Care. That Coalition allowed many of you listening today to turn your fruit of love into fruits of righteousness. I say this because you and thousands like you turned your hearts outward to give money, clothing, prom dresses, baby supplies, computers, furniture and so much more. The branches were bearing great fruit. This past week, these acts of love and righteousness moved into the realm of justice. I say this because the foster care community became aware that the state of Michigan, because of a loophole in federal regulations, was confiscating social security and SSI money that was owed to foster children, whose parents had died or who had physical and mental disabilities. The state confiscated those funds in order to replace any funds the state spent on the children. The children can obtain some of the money if they request it, but foster families were never made aware of this. In addition, any excess money not used by the state was not given to the foster child when they turned 18 but was sent back to Social Security. It was to this injustice, children not getting what they are legally entitled to because they are poor, is what is leading many members of the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care to begin the hard work of trying to change the law. This is what happens when the branches are overloaded with the fruits of love, righteousness, and justice.
This morning my challenge to you is to ask yourselves, where am I bearing fruit? I ask this not to see who has born the most fruit, or to guilt people who feel as if they have not born enough fruit, because we are all in different seasons of fruit bearing. I ask this simply because something is supposed to happen.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 9, 2021
Genesis 1:26-31; John 11:17-27
It was a call of desperation. All the 911 operator could make out was that someone had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom somewhere in Houston. The caller had no idea where they were only that they needed help. The police leaped into action. First, they were able to narrow down the area in which the person was being held hostage by using cell tower data. Then the police and sheriff’s officers began scouring the neighborhood. Finally, they located the suspects hideout in a very stable, middle class neighborhood (a block and a half from our son’s house). When the raid finally took place, the officers were shocked. They found more than 90 people crammed into two small rooms. The people had not eaten or been given liquid in four days. All these immigrants had paid coyotes to move them across the border from Mexico into Texas, but now the coyotes were holding them hostage in order to extort more money from their families. Those held hostage had no idea what would happen to them if their families did not pay. Those held captive were grateful for the rescue and the kind treatment of the neighbors who brought them food and water, even though it meant being sent back across the border. They had put out a call for help and it had been heard.
We might imagine that Mary and Martha were holding onto the same sort of hope when they called IXII and sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was dying. They hoped Jesus would come quickly and save Lazarus from death. We are not sure why Lazarus was dying. We are not sure why Jesus, who considered Lazarus a friend, did not immediately leave what he was doing and make the short walk to Bethany. And it was a short walk, less than a day’s journey. But Jesus did not come on the first day, or the second, or even on the third day. It was not until four days after Lazarus had died and been entombed that Jesus arrived on the scene. And by then it was too late. There was no hope of raising him from the dead. There was no hope because all Jews knew that the spirit of the deceased only hovered around the body for three days. So, by day four, Lazarus was beyond hope, which Martha made clear to Jesus when he finally arrived. Her words were biting. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Jesus knew she was right. He knew that if he had come sooner Lazarus would still be alive and there would have been another miracle on Jesus’ resume. But since Lazarus was dead, Jesus knew what was expected of him. He was expected to stay for a week and mourn with the family. He was to show compassion and tender care to Mary and Martha. He was to try to comfort them and the friends who came to the wake. Jesus, however, does none of these things. In fact, Jesus seems to make an offhand, rude remark to Martha. “Your brother will rise again.” No offense to Jesus, but Martha knew that. Everyone knew that. They all knew that when God’s kingdom was launched that all the righteous would be raised to new life. They knew that there would be a general resurrection of the dead. This was the meaning of Daniel’s words that, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And though this might be comforting, knowing that Lazarus will rise on the last day, it didn’t help ease the pain of the moment…the pain that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would still be alive. Jesus was late and he should simply acknowledge his failing.
What Jesus does next flips the script. Jesus flips the script because he makes it clear that he is not late but is instead, early. He is early because the resurrection that was supposed to have occurred at the end of time, at the final consummation of the world, was happening in and through him. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live. And those that believe in me and live, will never die.” This claim that Jesus is early with the resurrection has two components; resurrection and life which are intimately connected. This morning I would like to begin with the second, life, and then move on to resurrection. When Jesus speaks of himself as the Life, he is drawing on one of the great themes of the TANAK, the Jewish scriptures. This theme is that God is a God of life, rather than a God of death. God is the one who creates life out of nothing and then declares that life to be very good. God is the one who creates a flourishing creation fit for plants, animals, and human beings. This means that life is precious to God. Life is to be nurtured, protected, and appreciated. Unfortunately, this flourishing of all life was diminished by human beings’ tendency to war, violence, and abuse of the land...remembering that even the land is to be able to rest. So, when Jesus speaks of himself as the Life, he is not only drawing a connection between himself and the creator but is stating that the creator’s desire for full and flourishing life can be found in Jesus’ own being. Jesus is the one who makes the fullness of life possible.
This brings us then to the resurrection. A careful reading of the TANAK makes it clear that God’s desire was for the life to endure; for the life God created to last. Again, unfortunately, human pride, jealousy, arrogance, and idolatry brought death. Human sin destroys what God makes. This destruction then causes human beings to believe that death renders all life meaningless. Why bother being good if we are all going to die? Why bother thinking of anyone else if all we do is forgotten? Why worry about the future of the world when we will not live to see it? If death renders everything meaningless, why bother at all? What Jesus hopes people will see is that the resurrection alters the equation that death = meaninglessness. Instead, the equation is to be resurrection = meaning. It does so because we are building for a future that we will inherit as those who will be resurrected. We are creating life not only for those who follow us, but for ourselves. For you see, resurrection is not merely a spiritual resurrection, which is step one; but it is a physical resurrection, which is step two. Resurrection means that the life we create here and now will be part of the life we will one day inherit. Thus, the precious life God creates, becomes the precious life that God redeems.
This past week I received my usual number of robo-calls on my cell phone, none of which I answer. Most left no voicemail but one did…which I thought was worth sharing…even if the transcription was not entirely accurate. This was the transcription. “Hi, this is Bob. We sent you a letter in the mail this week regarding your death elimination. So, give us a call thank you.” My friends, what I hope we will remember this week is that long before Bob sent me a letter in the mail about my death elimination, the Gospel of John sent us a letter about our death elimination; our death elimination in and through Jesus of Nazareth, who is the resurrection and the life. The only question for us is the same one for Martha, do we believe it? Do we believe that in Jesus there is the fullness of life? Do we believe that in Jesus the resurrection gives meaning to our lives and casts out the fear of dying? I hope so because it has for me. It is what gives me the courage to speak here every week and at every memorial service. It is what gives me the courage to work with you all for a better future for this world. It is what gives me hope regardless of what the news brings. My challenge to you for this week is to simply ask yourselves, “Do I believe?” and if you do, to let this belief in Jesus as the resurrection and the life, give your life meaning and purpose for each day that passes.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 2, 2021
1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
“I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I would venture a guess that there is an interpretation of this passage you have all heard. It says that this passage affirms the theology that belief in Jesus is the only way to get IN to heaven. It is a wildly popular interpretation of this section of scripture. Even if you never heard a pastor preach that way, you know this interpretation exists because certain theologies have a way of finding us.
Just because it is the loudest proclaimed interpretation it is just one of many ways Christians have read these words. You see disagreeing is part of who we are as a religious family. Even the disciples disagreed about what Jesus was saying. Sometimes Jesus would clarify, and sometimes he wouldn't. Jesus was happy to let the differing opinions exist in the same space.
Throughout the growth of Christianity wildly different theologies develop side by side. Sometimes as direct oppositions to one another and sometimes as happy companions. This verse is a great example of how that happens. One church leader writes about this meaning Jesus is the ONLY way, and another rebuttals with their belief that Jesus is saying he is A way.
Unfortunately Christians do not have a great track record of holding the tension of disagreeing. In the past it has meant churches split and new denominations form. Today we see the scourge of Christians shaming other Christians. IF you don’t believe THIS way THEN you are not a Christian. Drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out based on what they believe about Jesus and his teachings.
There is a whole structural name for this way of thinking called “bounded set.” We can see how a bounded set looks here. [See image below] There is a boundary drawn to show who is in, who is a real Christian, and who is out. The kicker is that Christians even disagree about how one gets across this boundary. We can’t even agree on what the line represents! Catholics believe the way into the circle is through the sacraments. Pentecostals believe it is in receiving the Holy Spirit expressed through the gift of speaking in a heavenly language they call tongues.
Some even say there are state boundary lines and national boundary lines. Some Christians believe similarly enough that they can exist as different denominations but of the same faith and so are part of the same “country” but different “states.” However when you get to traditions like the Church of Latter Day Saints the beliefs are so different they are a whole different nation, no longer a Christian denomination, but a new religion all together.
Now I get why this is appealing. This looks nice and orderly. It looks like those on the inside can sit comfy knowing they are IN, no worries! However, we can’t even agree on where this line is, so in reality it looks like thousands of interlocking circles, some thick lines, some thin lines, including some and excluding others. It’s a mess. You think you are safe inside the circle but whose definition of the circle is the right one? And so we are left fighting over who is in the right circle.
This way of being depends on someone KNOWING, so anyone on their side of the boundary can also feel at ease. This way of being promotes one theology over another and can only survive if all competing voices are destroyed. This turns religion into a monopoly on access to God. You cannot have a relationship with God unless you are in the correct circle, God does not love the people on the inside the same way God loves those on the outside.
Many Christian churches, pastors, and Christians operate with this structure. Their whole goal is to be in and get other people in. And we have a bit of a chicken or the egg situation because they are also the ones who hold that “I am the way” means the ONLY way. It could be that their reading of scripture led to the formation of this structure AND it could be that their participation in this structure influences how they read Jesus’ words. The structure and the interpretation reinforce one another.
This structure and interpretation have become the popular way of being and believing because it offers a sense of security. It requires minimal effort and participation from us. Believe what is told to you from the pulpit, and the promise of being IN is yours, you have a place. The simplicity of that exchange has caused this structure and this interpretation to boom even though the origins of this belief has a parallel interpretation. I want to offer you another way to hear these words from Jesus.
John 14 begins with Jesus reassuring the disciples that they have a place with God. There are many dwelling places. Jesus says if that wasn’t real why would I say it? Jesus is saying you WILL be with me and with God, you are already IN. It’s a beautiful promise meant to ease the worries of the disciples.
Jesus then makes the assumption that since these men know him, know what he speaks out against and what he supports, and how he lives his life in general, they would connect the dots that being like Jesus is the goal for life. This, of course, goes completely over the disciples heads. Thomas asks, “How do we get IN?”
Jesus then plainly says “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.”
These words are the part that gets lifted out to support the popular belief that Jesus is saying the only way to get to heaven is to be a follower of Jesus. But if we suspend that interpretation bias for a moment and not let our bonded set mentality influence our hearing, Jesus could also be saying, “I am showing you the way to be closer to God. Copy my way of being, copy my way of speaking and supporting truth even when it is truth against the powerful. Copy my life. The things I do will bring you closer to God. SO you can be with God here as well as in the next life.” The verse says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (through this way of being that brings you closer to God). 7 If you know me (if you know this way of being), you will know my Father also.”
Notice, no where in there does Jesus say this is the only way, and no where in there does he say belief was necessary. The belief interpretation seeps in from the verses above. “Believe in God, Believe also in me.” BUT the thing Jesus is asking them to believe is that they will be with God and Jesus is making a place for them. Remember Jesus didn’t start this exchange to describe HOW to get to heaven. He was assuring them that they WOULD be there. The conversation was, “Believe me I am going to make a place for you with God.”
It’s only when Thomas gets antsy about KNOWING the way that the conversation shifts to HOW, and THEN Phillip gets freaked out. “Show us God.”
I imagine at this moment Jesus’ palm becomes planted on his forehead. He started with a comprehensive assurance that there is a place for everyone, they are IN. He wants to make sure their hearts will not be troubled. And that would have been the end of the story if Thomas and Philip hadn’t immediately let their hearts trouble them.
They want to be assured that we are included in this promise, that they are inside the circle. They want this. [see image below] Jesus wants this.
You see, as the bounded set structure developed, another structure developed alongside it. There was a time when this was the popular structure before bounded set voices overpowered them. This is called a centered set. At the center is God. As Christians we relate to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so for us, God is represented by a cross. Instead of a boundary telling us who is in, or right, and who is out, or wrong, the measurements here are in arrows. An individual is either moving towards the center or away from the center.
This is chaotic to our eyes. It is not easy to tell who is where nor can we tell easily where they will be tomorrow. The goal is no longer getting or keeping people inside, the focus is on which way are you heading. This allows for disagreements because what brings this person closer to God may not work for that person. And that is entirely okay because it doesn’t mean one of us is in or out as long as we are both heading towards the center.
I can hear your minds say, “How close do we have to be to the cross to get to heaven?” “What happens if I die and I’m in a bad place and I was heading away from the cross at that moment?” Do not let your hearts be troubled. Those thoughts are bounded set trauma fighting the tension. With this structure we do not need to let our hearts be troubled about who is in and who is out. There are many dwelling places, there is a spot for you. If it were not so, Jesus would not have promised that. Believe when Jesus says there is a place for you. Free your mind and heart to be secure and turn that worried energy to movement towards the center.
There is a solid case to say that Jesus endorses this structure in these verses too. Jesus even tells us how to point our arrows towards the center: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me (believes what I say about there being a place for everyone) will also do the works that I do.” When we accept the truth and believe Jesus at his word that we have a place we are free to do the work.
Jesus didn’t worry about who was in or out. He didn’t feel anxiety about getting his family to church or baptized. Jesus’ way rested in the assurance that everyone has a place with God already.
When we accept Jesus at his word, we are courageous enough to speak the truth as Jesus did. We don’t argue about who is in or out, or less of a sinner, but speak truth in love to those in power, and speak affirmations and assurances to those without power.
When we trust Jesus that there is a place for everyone, we can live a life that resembles the life of Jesus. Knowing we have a place takes our energy away from achieving something in the future. We will be with God; we don’t have to worry about that part. What is left is figuring out how to get closer to God now in this life, because we know being with God is amazing and we want that right now
We want to put our efforts towards getting our arrows aimed at the center and every ounce of energy we have can drive us towards God. If we have a moment of hardship and our arrows turn away, it’s okay. Even if we never turn our arrow back towards the center, it's okay, because there is no line that makes us too far gone. We cannot lose our place with God. What we do lose if we turn away from the center is the chance to be close to God now. I know for me I would rather be close to God now AND in the next life. I don’t want to lose a second of opportunity to be with God and so I will work to keep my arrow aimed at God.
So, siblings, do not let your hearts be troubled. There is a place for you and for everyone to be with God. Believe Jesus when he says he has made a place for you. And when you believe that, follow the way, speak the truth, and live the life that Jesus showed us so that our time with God is expanded beyond the next life into this one, even to this moment and forever more. Amen.