Becoming One

 

John 14:15-21

Acts 17:22-31

We all belong to at least one community.  Many of us to various communities which may, or may not, overlap.

We are in community with those who live geographically near us, usually sharing government, source of utilities, educational structures, as well as some culture and history.  Some communities formed around location are places where people move in and out on a regular basis and finding more than one or two generations making their home there unusual.  Some communities formed around location have a core group of families for whom belonging to that specific community goes back five or more generations.

I am not sure about here, but in my hometown, there are families who have lived and actively participated in the community for over fifty years who are still considered newcomers by those whose connection to the community goes back to its founding.

We are in community with those who share our faith journey.  That can be the community of a circle of friends, a specific church, a specific denomination, an ecumenical group, or a combination.  We share fundamental beliefs such as those expressed in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.  Our elements of worship, prayer, and study are similar.  Our belief in one Triune God held in common.  Our understanding of our mission is to welcome others in and to serve our neighbors, but the habits of how we live together sometime makes that more difficult than we recognize.

We are in community with those who share our desire to help others such as members of the volunteer fire company, the 4-H organization, the Historical Society, the Friends of the Library, the local Lions and Rotary Clubs, the Band Parents, and many others.

We are in community with those who enjoy the same interests.  A biking or model train club, a book club or sewing group, a golf foursome that gets together regularly, a community based band or drama club.

There are specific characteristics, goals, values, understandings that make each community with which we can identify which makes it distinct in some respect from the larger society within it exists.

As we enter the passage from the Book of John this morning we enter the conversation Jesus is having with his Disciples to prepare them for ministry without his physical presence.  He pulls together the basic elements of what he has shared with them over the previous three years, highlighting in a way the basic characteristics, goals, values, and understandings that make those in His community, the kingdom of God, distinct.  He shares the essentials of His church universal community, which is unlike anything his disciples have previously experienced.

From this passage in John, we learn that what brings us into this community established by Jesus is loving Him and keeping His commandments.  The disciples don’t need to ask what commandments, they have heard Jesus tell the experts of church law that the greatest commandment in the Law is  ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and : ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Saying that all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [1]

Jesus points out that living out those commandments is not an individual endeavor.  Jesus is an advocate and He has asked God to provide the Spirit of Truth as another advocate to not only help, but also to be with His disciples forever.  Not an advocate separate from us but an advocate in us.

19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live..  20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”   As Paul describes it, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  Each follower is in community with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with all followers.

In the passage from Acts, we hear Paul acknowledge the yearning of the people to experience this sense of community with the living God.  A yearning he notes leads them to look to a number of gods, including an unknown god.  Then he ministers to their searching.[2]

We live in a time of many people categorizing themselves as spiritual not religious.  A time when things, accomplishments, wealth, attractiveness, power often draw us into communities which do not reflect the essential relationships and actions Jesus lifts to his disciples.  It is a time not completely unlike Paul’s and his reminder calls us back to community with God and our neighbors.

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.[3]

Our yearning can only be filled when we recognize that Jesus is in His Father, and you are in Jesus, and Jesus is in you.  We respond to God’s love by believing, loving, being fully committed, and keeping the commands.

Jesus loves by giving, not by taking.  He doesn’t ask his disciples to serve him, but to serve one another.  Jesus gave himself to almost everyone he met.

He loved all kinds of people.  The poor, the oppressed, the outcasts, the sick and diseased, the mentally ill, the deformed, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and those who could not speak.

He loved women and children.  He loved those inside his faith community and those from outside it.  He loved people from cultural and ethnic groups other than his own.

He gave himself in love to others by teaching them healing them, and just plain hanging around with them.  He didn’t surround himself with the successful people of his generation.  He didn’t hang out with the glamorous, beautiful, powerful and wealthy.  He didn’t choose friends and associates for what he could gain for himself out of those relationships.

He gathered a diverse group of disciples around him who often didn’t get what he was trying to show them, yet he loved them and helped them develop their strengths so they could continue to build the community of faith.  He showed them how in Him they are one with the Father and the Spirit and with one another.

He continues to show us how we are one in love.  How we are called to look at relationships with others in what we can give rather than what we take.  How our focus needs to stay on loving others as He loves us.

While it means we look for ways to be more like Christ, it doesn’t mean that we try to be exactly like each other.  We are uniquely created to be parts of the body.  Our Oneness is in connection to our Triune God and with each other.  It is not in having the same way of doing things, the same ideas, the same ways of dressing or same ways of preparing food or decorating our homes.  I believe our oneness actually depends on our diversity and we are so much further ahead when we share our unique perspectives with each other in love, genuinely listening for the Spirit connection which surfaces in our ideas and stories.

We are reminded in 1 Corinthians: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others[4]

Unity and Diversity in the Body

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it[5]

It isn’t an easy thing to understand this reality which Jesus explains to His disciples when he says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”  It takes time and effort, trial and error.  It takes trying to intentionally love others over the course of our entire lives to learn to love God’s world as Jesus loves it.   When we put in the effort, risk the errors, we will come to discover that we are not only one with Christ, but increasingly one with our brothers and sisters.[6]

The understanding of what it means to be part of this community and the power to be One with each other comes from our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is not grounded in our own giftedness or our own capability to “get along with others” but rather in the relationships and life of the Trinity.[7]  The power of the Spirit working in us and through us not only makes the community we share in Christ distinct from the larger society it moves us into an eternal community of disciples that transcends all societies and human concepts of time and place.

In the weeks after Pentecost we will work through a new series entitled from Chaos to Community, exploring ways God converts our human chaos into God’s blessed community.  I hope you will join us.

[1] Matthew 22:

[2] William Willimon, Feasting on the Word: Year A., Sixth Sunday of Easter.

[3] Acts 17:29

[4] Romans12:4,5

[5] 1 Corinthians 12 (NIV)

[6] The Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, Sixth Sunday of Easter – Preaching Notes – Discipleship Ministries.

[7] ibid

Refuge

Mother’s Day was never meant to be a “Hallmark Card” event.  The two United Methodist women who pushed to create this annual observance in the 1860’s saw the negative impact of war, particularly on women and children, and they were all about women who see needs in the world and work to make things better.  “They were thinking about the work of women and the significant testimony that women could give about the need for peace.”[1]

In fact, when the card companies got involved and the price of carnations when from pennies to quarters, they voiced their concern over commercializing what was meant to honor mothers in a deeper way.

They probably never imagined the tradition with which I grew up of awarding flowers to the oldest mom in the room, the youngest mom in the room, the mom with the most children, and the mom who most recently became one.  And those who instituted that tradition probably never envisioned the hurt they were bringing to some in the room, and didn’t notice some women avoided church on Mother’s Day altogether because it was too painful, for reasons too personal to share.

There is much to celebrate about mothers and about the women who are mothers to many even though they never gave birth.  But this Mother’s Day, it is the Psalm that spoke to me.  It was a plea for God to intercede on the Psalmist’s behalf that drew me in.

“Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,” the Psalmist prays.

It seems life is filled with those traps, those things that bring disillusionment, discouragement, and despair, that endanger the dreams we have for ourselves and for the next generation, those things that disrupt our personal and our community’s peace.

I am sure all of you can identify those traps.  They can be part of our everyday routine – the door left open for the umpteenth time, the squabbling in the back seat, too many obligations and too few resources, lack of sleep, over abundance of questions to answer, loss of a job or loved one, feeling lonely, and sometimes a feeling you are the only one trying to handle it all.  You know, the traps that pile up and make us yell “enough!”

And there are more.  In the last week I have heard stories of the effects of the Opioid epidemic which is just outside our doors, stories of poverty, stories of hunger, of bullying, and stories of possible abuse.

Even if we haven’t heard the stories shared by persons affected, television brings it front and center.  This week human trafficking was highlighted on Hawaii Five-O.  The outtake of the episode was that this is an overwhelming problem, for which there are insufficient resources to address, and yet at the conclusion it seems at least one woman is ready to try to make a greater difference for all the woman affected by this worldwide problem.

Today, as we reflect on our moms and those who have mothered us, we likely can remember times when the traps seemed too much to take, too overwhelming to get through, too painful to endure.  We may also remember times they prayed as the Psalmist does.  Not to eliminate the traps that are set, but to find a way around or through them with God by their side.  Times God gave them strength to move forward in ways we couldn’t imagine were possible.

Seeking refuge in the Lord, seeking God’s ear in the midst of difficult struggles, resting in the fortress a relationship with God brings, and listening for God’s loving guidance which will deliver us, are some of the ways this scripture helps them, and us, get out of or avoid the traps which seek to remove the very breath of life out of us.

When we put it all in God’s hands, God is faithful to deliver us from all that works to pull us down and we are filled with love and light.  When things seem the bleakest, this Psalmist’s prayer can be ours.  I suspect it is similar to prayers lifted by mothers, many times with various words and in a myriad of circumstances.  It is a prayer that reminds us we have the protection of God’s love even when we don’t perceive it.  It is a prayer that reminds us we are never alone.

We are not alone in what we are experiencing because others have experienced it as well.  We are not alone because God is faithful.

We are not alone because we have the church which nurtures us.  Our human mothers are not the only “mothers” we have that follow us into our adulthood. This week’s epistle text 1 Peter 2: 2 begins by describing Christians as “newborn infants” who long for and eagerly lap up “spiritual milk,” so that they might “grow into salvation.”

Leonard Sweet describes the mothering nature of the Church this way:

From the moment that we confess a faith in Jesus Christ, the church becomes our source of spiritual sustenance, our “mother’s milk.” Just as the relationship we each have with our human mother is the most life forming relationship we have in our physical lives, so our early nurturing by our faith mother, the church, directs the path of our life of faith. All the research underlines how the early days with mother are key to the baby’s identity formation. So it is in the baby stages of discipleship, where the nurturing of mother church cannot be underestimated.

For Christians, our family tree is the Tree of Life. We are all “adopted children of God through Christ.” Our Father Christ is wedded to the Mother Church. We are told to honor our Father and Mother, to honor our roots, our origins, the ‘grounds’ of our beginnings, our faith.

Mother Church is the womb for developing in discipleship, and for birthing generations of Christians. We love her not for her qualities or perfection, for she is flawed as all mothers are. But we love Mother Church for her relationship as the bride of Christ, and mother of all. Mother Church brings life into the world. There is no mother without children. And we are her children in honoring Mother church as we honor our physical birth Mothers. [2]

As we prepare for the rest of our Mother’s Day, of celebration all the mothers in our lives, let’s remember all the ways God is with us, as God has been with women throughout the ages.

God is with you today, if you are like Tamar, struggling with infertility, or a miscarriage.

God is with you today if you are like Rachel, counting the women among your family and friends who year by year and month by month get pregnant, while you wait.

God is with you today if you are like Naomi, and have known the bitter sting of a child’s death….

God is with you today if you are like Joseph and Benjamin, and your Mom has died.

God is with you today if your relationship with your Mom was marked by trauma, abuse, or abandonment, or she just couldn’t parent you the way you needed.

God is with you today if you’ve been like Moses’ mother and put a child up for adoption, trusting another family to love your child into adulthood.

God is with you today if you’ve been like Pharaoh’s daughter, called to love children who are not yours by birth (and thus the mother who brought that child into your life, even if it is complicated).

God is with you today if you, like many, are watching (or have watched) your mother age, and disappear into the long goodbye of dementia.

God is with you today if you, like Mary, are pregnant for the very first time and waiting breathlessly for the miracle of your first child.

God is with you today if your children have turned away from you, painfully closing the door on relationship, leaving you holding your broken heart in your hands. And like Hagar, now you are mothering alone.

God is with you today if motherhood is your greatest joy and toughest struggle all rolled into one.

God is with you today if you are watching your child battle substance abuse, a public legal situation, mental illness, or another situation which you can merely watch unfold.

God is with you today if you like so many women before you do not wish to be a mother, are not married, or in so many other ways do not fit into societal norms.

God is with you today if you see yourself reflected in all, or none of these stories.

This mother’s day, know that God and we walk with you. You are loved. You are seen. You are worthy.  [3].

 

[1] Harriet Olson, Chief Executive, United Methodist Women, United Methodist Women Facebook page ® May 2017.
[2] Leonard Sweet, Mother Love and Mother Church.  Preachthestory.com May 14, 2017.
[3] – Adapted from A prayer for Mother’s Day, originally written by Amy Young, as adapted by Heidi Carrington Heath

Community of Baptism

 

John 10:1-10

Acts 2:42-47

Metaphors can be messy.  Understanding what they mean does not always come easily.  In John 10, Jesus uses this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

They didn’t have the context, heart, and perspective to grasp how he is the gate and the shepherd of the sheep.  They do not recognize that his voice, and what he says, is processed in terms of their understanding of God as defined by their rules and tradition.

We may experience this metaphor through our knowledge of raising sheep, through the interpretations we have heard over the years, or in light of other scripture like the 23rd Psalm, what is going on in our lives, or any combination.  Yet our understanding is likely evolving as we experience it in relationship with Jesus and in relationship with each other.

As the flock in the metaphor, we are part of one community, led by one Shepherd, but exactly how that impacts our lives may remain unclear.

In the time of Jesus, sheep pens were made out of rocks.  A pen generally had only one entrance.  When the sheep were being herded through the entrance and into the pen, the shepherd would lay hands on each member of the flock.  He would run his hands through their wool to make sure there were no injuries or burrs or other things that needed attention.  Often the doorway to the sheepfold didn’t have a gate or any other type of physical barrier, so after checking the sheep, the shepherd would position himself physically across the opening.  He would be the gate to the sheep fold, placing his body where he could keep the sheep from escaping, and thieves, bandits, and animals that might do them harm, from coming in.  The shepherd literally was the gate.[1]

In the John passage we see that the shepherd welcomes the flock into safety.  We also see the shepherd calling the sheep by name and leading them out of the safety of the pen to find nourishment and refreshment.  Together the flock leaves the known of confinement staying tuned into the Shepherd’s voice to keep them on the right path into the unknown.

This morning I encourage us to look at our faith community as the sheepfold into which we enter and from which we exit into the world.  Our faith community is a place of security, a place of safety, a place of promise.  We enter through our relationship with Jesus, the shepherd who loves us, cares for us, protects us, and saves us.  We enter through the gate of claiming our identity as followers of Jesus the Christ, many at the time of our baptism.

Jesus is our shepherd-gate and he welcome and sustains all who seek a relationship with him.  As the shepherd, Jesus actively does what it takes to gather all into the fold, those with various colors of coats, those who are crippled, blinded, wounded, ostracized, attacked[2].

But not only Jesus takes on this role, He calls his flock to take it on as well.  We are not sheep, we are created in the image of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to care for one another, to love one another as God has loved us.

Life is not easy.  It is in community we find support to face what life brings our way.

Over the past few weeks I have witnessed a number of times where this faith community has watched over one another in Christian love.  There are quiet visits and conversations upholding some among us who are going through a difficult time, there are compromises as the flock works toward common ministry goals, times of shared stories which build community and faith, as well as times of holding one another accountable.

I have heard conversations turn to mutual exploration of what following the voice of Jesus means in our ministry to each other and our ministry to our community.  I have witnessed many hours of shared time and resources to help others experience God’s love through the simple gesture of sharing what we have with those who face tough times.

One example which showed me vividly how following the voice of Jesus and living out the covenant made with others at the time of their baptism has to do with getting immunizations.  In an act of love, hospitality, and concern, one of our members and maybe more, specifically ask to receive all the immunizations they need to be around young children.  Not because of grandchildren and great grand children, but because of children in our flock who she wants to protect by having the shots she needs to help them stay healthy.

Another was the desire to reach out to those in our community for whom coming to a chicken barbecue is not possible for many reasons.  Those who found names for us to share a meal with were amazed that we would think to reach out that way, those who made the gifts possible were touched by the lives of people who need to feel God’s touch, and those who received the meals were touched by that love through all of you who worked to prepare the meals, those of you who donated them, and by the one who delivered the meals.

In these and many of the things this flock does and will do, you watch over others in prayer, continually lifting their needs, for healing, justice, peace, and restoration, to the Good Shepherd and listen to His voice calling you to serve with love and sacrifice reaching out to those within the fold and those yet to come in through the Shepherd-gate.

Through your witness of focusing on the voice of the Good Shepherd you ignore the things that seek to distract and harm you and the flock.

As you devote yourself to studying the words of Jesus and the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, Others are filled with awe at the many wonders and signs you perform.  As you share common goals and focus, break bread in and eat together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God you draw others into the fold where they will find the care and love of the Shepherd and the flock.

The church or sheep-fold that Luke portrays in Acts is counter-cultural, joyful, and a community that prays, praises, breaks bread, and to which God keeps adding.  As we live by that example we too will experience growth spiritually, as a faith community, and possibly, in numbers, truly living into our baptism in new and awesome ways.

 

[1] paraphrased form Fuquay, 55-57, by Dr. Dawn Cheser, Discipleship Ministries Fourth Sunday of Easter Preaching Notes 2017

[2] Dr. Dawn Chesser Fourth Sunday of Easter Preaching Notes 2017