Identity–Beloved of God: John 3:13-17

With the three children, things can get a little crazy around the rectory sometimes.  There’s a fourth on the way, due to arrive in March, so I don’t suppose that will end anytime soon.  Some of the things we find evidence for, or catch the kids in-the-act-of, just leave us asking, “Why in the world would you…?”  When frustration is great, it seems that one must scour the whole earth to find an answer for that “why.”  For some reason the question is never: “Why in the basement would you…?”  Nicky Gumbel shares, in The Alpha Course, the story of an ESL nanny who hadn’t quite mastered the nuances of the language, and upon catching her charges up-to-no-good asked, “What are you doing in the world?”  Which is a good question in it’s own right, but a different one.  Have you ever found yourself asking that question?  Looking for reasons, you ask, “Why in the world…?”  Baffled by events, you ask, “What in the world…?”  Boggled by a task, you ask, “How in the world am I supposed to…?”  Today I want to take the enterprise of being God’s people, and ask those questions of it.

Why in the world would anyone follow God?  Jesus answers our “whys” from the get-go.  God loves us.  The answer to why we would follow God is rooted in the answer to why God would have any of us follow Him.  God’s action toward us is the basis for our response toward Him.  So God’s love for us gives us the space and the impetus to love Him in return.  Because God acts out of love, to us, we can offer Him our lives.  When I was young we used to sing the chorus, “Oh, how I love Jesus.”  Do you remember the final line of that chorus?  “Because He first loved me.”

Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, put it this way: “Christ loved you before you loved Him.  He loved you when there was nothing good in you.  He loved you through you insulted Him, though you despised Him and rebelled against Him.  He has loved you right on, and never ceased to love you.  He has loved you in your backslidings and loved you out of them.  He has loved you in your sins, in your wickedness and folly.  His loving heart was still eternally the same, and He shed His heart’s blood to prove His love for you.  He has given you what you want on earth, and provided for you an habitation in heaven.”  That is God’s great love for you – surpassing that of a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent.

It’s been said that when Christians really believe that God loves them, nothing can stop them from doing what He desires.  Think of your own experience:  how easy it is to do what those who love you desire of you – you trust their desires for you, and you can trust them because they’re desires for you that rise from love.  Love makes trust easier.  But when someone whose love we aren’t sure of desires something of us, then we double-check before we act, don’t we?  Are they trying to hurt us?  Are they trying to make fools of us?  And so it is when Christians have trouble trusting, or when they doubt, that God loves them; when we think that God hates us, or is out to get us.  We avoid Him.  We run away – like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hear Him and we hide.  Painfully aware that we’re not perfect, deceived into thinking that He couldn’t love anything short of perfection.  Rather than drawing comfort from the knowledge that He’s watching over us, we fear.

Our attitudes need to be like the young girl’s, who learned that Jesus watches over her to see everything she does.  She was asked, “Does it bother you that He sees everything you do?”  Her response: “Oh, no – He loves me so much that He can’t keep His eyes off of me!”  So listen to Jesus’ words from the Gospel lesson that we heard today: “For God so loved the world that…”  Notice that it’s not hatred that motivates God’s action toward us; not manipulation; not evil intent.  Just love.

And if the answer to the “why” of being God’s people is in His great love to us, which moves us to love Him in return, and to trust His desires for us, then our second question is “what.”  What in the world is following God about?  Again, the answer we seek is rooted in the “what” of God.  God loves us, we’ve seen, but what in the world has God’s love moved Him to do?  He comes through on His commitment of love to us, and you’ve heard about it your whole life, in Jesus’ crucifixion.  Statues and pictures of Christ hanging on the cross could quite fittingly each have inscribed at their base: “This is how God loved the world!”

It was for love that Jesus died on the cross, for love that God gave Himself for us.  Our answer to this question, of what following God is all about, is just that: Jesus’ self-sacrifice.  Following God is about giving of ourselves.  You’ve heard it said, and there’s something to it, that the measure of a man is in what he gives, not in what he gets.  We look to the Cross to see that great act of love, where God gave Himself for the people He loved, because He loved them.  Because He still loves even you.  He shows, He proves, His love for us through the things that He does.  How did Jesus say it?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

There was a young couple who sat gazing at the sky as the sun set.  Hand-in-hand.  Enthralled with the glory and beauty of nature.  She asked him, “Do you love me?”  He pulled his eyes away from the view and glanced at her.  “You know I do.”  She turned her head, and their eyes met.  She asked him, “Would you die for me?”  He answered, “No, dear…mine is an undying love.”  But God’s answer to that question is “Yes!  Yes I will die for you.  I have died for you!  Though I am immortal I send my Son and experienced mortality and death for you.”  What in the world would make anyone want to follow God?  He loves us that much.

And so let’s look at Jesus’ words again “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…that all might have everlasting life.”  Seems straight-forward enough, but there is a “how” involved.  It’s not an automatic thing.  The question might rightly be asked, “How in the world does God loving us enough to send His Son to the world for us – how does that give us everlasting life?”  And Jesus’ answer is in the verse, and you know it already.  All that believe in Him will have everlasting life.  That’s the “how” of being God’s people, of following after Him.

Why in the world…?  Because God so loves us.

What in the world…?  He sent His only Son, Jesus.

How in the world…?  All who believe in Him may have everlasting life.

Beloved of God, know today that God loves you.  Know today how He has shown that love to you.  Know today what His love can mean for you, if you will only believe.  This is the game-changer.  Amen.

Taking Baptism Seriously 1.0

There are four orders of ministers in the Church.  There are bishops, priests, deacons, and lay.  The Church spends a good bit of its resources on ensuring that the first three are up-to-snuff (whatever that might mean in the given context).  It is generally up to those three, the ordained clergy, to disciple the fourth, the laity, and ensure their up-to-snuff-ness.  Some Christians may not like that idea – they’re not “professional” Christians (ie. not clergy).  Why should they have to be involved in the Church’s ministry?  They were never ordained in the Church – what right do they have to tackle this task?

The old joke was that clergy-people were paid to be good, but that laypeople were good for nothing.  I would dispel this idea to some extent, because I’m not paid to be good.  I am not paid for services rendered.  Rather, I am afforded an allowance, a stipend, by the local church (through the diocese), to allow me to live within this geographical parish.  All of the “services rendered” are a function of the person I am, because of who and what God is continually making me.

In the same way, all Christians are called to ministry because ministry is the fulfillment of who and what God is making them.  Lay people in the Church may not generally consider themselves to have been ordained, and perhaps they weren’t ordained to the particular ministry of the priesthood in the Church, to thus maintain the order of the Church, but something like it did happen to them.  They were baptized.  You were baptized.

There are so many things to be said about baptism, but I will here only point in the directions that we’re going to go in future blog posts.  We can talk about baptism’s roots – where did this practise come from? was it an anomaly that sprung up in a void?  We can talk about the symbolism of baptism – what is signified by the water? what is the meaning inherent in the rite?  We can talk about the elements of baptism – why water? how was it instituted this way?  We can talk about the vows taken in baptism – what are they? what significance do they hold? how are they practically applied to daily living?  We can talk about covenantal relationship with God – what does it mean to be God’s people?  We can talk about taking our own baptisms seriously.

All these and more, to come.

Christ: the Gate; the Shepherd

So we had this great Gospel reading on Sunday, which ended just short of Jesus making one of His great “I am” sayings (in the Gospel according to John).  He alluded to it, almost saying He is the Good Shepherd, but the lectionary stopped us short of where He actually said it.  The “I am” that we did get was… less well-known?  Jesus said, “I am the gate.”

Now, if you read through John 10:1-10, you’re going to see Jesus putting forward two images of Himself.  One is just this: He is the gate.  The other is that of shepherd.  It strikes me, in wrestling with this passage, that as Christians we tend to go one way or the other, but that we need to take Him as both.

If we emphasize that Jesus is the gate, then He becomes the way “in.”  The point of Jesus (His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit) is to get us “in.”  Like some kind of fake ID that a high school kid takes with them when they head to the bar on the weekend.

On the other side of the equation, if we emphasize that Jesus is the shepherd, then He becomes a great moral teacher.  We don’t need to commit ourselves to Him, just to the way that He promotes.  The point of Jesus is to show us the right way to be.  So long as we ignore a bunch of what He says about His identity, He’s a great teacher – a shepherd who leads us in the everlasting way.

But if Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate; if Jesus is both the author and finisher of my faith, the One who saves me and the One whose way I walk in; if Jesus is my Saviour and my Lord: then I must commit to Him and His way; my ID cannot remain fake because my life will, more and more, look like His; I cannot ignore what He says about His identity, because it is in His very identity that my own is revealed.

Preliminary Thoughts on the Second

The following are some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 and 16-23. It’s the RCL epistle lesson for this coming Sunday. I hesitate to say that these thoughts are fully formed in me just yet, but there’s some serious fuel, here. The basic idea is that Paul is writing about the doctrine of Christ, or Christology, of the Church. On Him alone can the Church be built. Paul is concerned that the content of his preaching remain intact, for it is the truth that the Church is about – indeed, without it the Church cannot claim to be the Church. The teaching of proper doctrine, or theological reflection, leads people to encounter the risen Christ, who is the foundation stone for the Church. By accepting the true teaching, people are put in position to meet Him. The foundational doctrine, preached accurately, illustrates the true Foundation (Christ) so that people can find Him (and then know that He has found them). You may read this and, if you’ve read the passage also, say that I’m reading extra things into it, for the sake of my own theological understandings. Nothing new.

I found my mind drawn to Hermas, Vision III. You can read my summary, below, or the text itself, here (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.ii.ii.iii.html). Or both. I’m not your boss.

The caricatures that we gain from Vision III, in Hermas, are interesting. If they can be summarized appropriately, or shortly, they may do much to open people’s eyes. The vision is of six men building a tower, shown to the Shepherd by an old woman. There are various others who bring stones to the six who are building the tower. The explanation is given as follows:

The tower is the Church;
the Church is built on water because we are saved through water;
the Church is founded upon God’s word;
the Church is built by angels;
the stones in the building are square and white and fit with each other exactly – they are in agreement with one another and are at peace together and listen to one another;
the stones dragged from the depths and fitted with the others are those who suffered for the Lord’s sake;
the stones carried in from the land are those whom God has approved because they walked in His straight ways and kept His commandments;
those stones in the act of being brought and placed in the building are those who are young in faith and are faithful, in whom no iniquity has been found;
those stones that were rejected and cast away are those who have sinned and wish to repent, who have not been cast far from the tower for they will be useful in the building if they repent;
those stones cut down and thrown far from the tower are the sons of iniquity who believed in hypocrisy and from whom wickedness did not depart – they are not saved and cannot be used in building, and are therefore cut off and cast far away;
rough stones, in great numbers, not used in the tower are those who know the truth but have not remained in it – they are unfit for use;
those stones that have rents, in great numbers, are at discord in their hearts one with another, and are not at peace amongst themselves – they keep the appearance of peace, but under the facade they hold their wicked thoughts;
those stones which are shortened are those who have believed and are mostly righteous, yet still have a considerable share of iniquity, and so are not whole;
those stones which are white and round and do not fit into the building of the tower are those who have faith, but also the riches of the world – who deny the Lord on account of their riches and business – when their seductive riches have been circumscribed they will be of use to the Lord, for round stones cannot become square until portions are cut off and cast away;
the stones which were cast from the tower and rolled into the field are those who believed but abandoned the true road through doubts, and sought out a new road, entering on pathless places (for there is no other road);
those which fell into the fire and were burned are those who have departed forever from the living God: they do not consider repentance, they are devoted to their lusts and crimes;
those stones which fell near the waters but could not be rolled into them are those who are drawn to the Lord but draw back to their own wicked desires when confronted with the chastity that will be demanded of them in baptism.

Now, there’s a little more involved which I have conveniently not included in the above summary. It includes the possibility for all of the stones to repent, however unlikely that might be for them. It’s not that I have a problem with grace, that I haven’t included that part in my summary. Rather, it’s that I’m only interested in the content of the actual vision itself – not in what might happen to those elements of the vision that left sight. The vision is about the kind of stones that God’s Church is built with. Perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). You may not like the idea, but for people in the middle ages Hermas was like Pilgrim’s Progress. It inspired them to devotion to God by challenging them with false alternatives. Esteem it as you will.

Isaiah 64, this morning

I don’t know where you are, today.  Where I am it is snowing.  And blowing.  It’s not nice.  And I know that when I get home, there’s going to be a ridiculous amount of shoveling to do, because I live on a corner on top of a hill and the snow drifts are huge whenever there’s a wind.  We’re looking at –39 Celsius for Sunday.

But here I am, at the office.  It’s somewhat warm, and somewhat calm.  There’s the regular bustle throughout the building, people setting up for communion tomorrow (no, I don’t mean for Sunday – there’s a funeral tomorrow and they’ll set up for Sunday after that); the secretary’s running off and folding bulletins; people visiting, as they should.  At morning prayer this morning I found myself reading Isaiah 64 (as the title might have suggested to you).  A familiar chapter.

Isaiah 64 was a part of our Advent Lessons & Carols service.  It speaks to the desire of God’s people for Him to reveal Himself, to make Himself known, to “tear open the heavens and come down.”  Following a confession of baseness, this extraordinary exclamation is made: “Yet, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our Potter; we are all the work of Your hand.” (v. 8).  I am struck, this morning, with the pliability of clay.

The “So what?” of this chapter is in clay’s pliability.  It doesn’t matter if you know that God is the Potter, and you the clay.  It doesn’t matter if you consider being pliable in God’s hand to be a virtuous way of being.  Actually being pliable in God’s hand… that’s a different matter altogether.  That’s what matters.

There’s a strong temptation to be our own masters; to control our own lives: what options are open to us, what paths we take, what destiny we choose; to be self-made men and women; to earn all that we can, and to get what we deserve.  Where is the person who will accept God’s plan for them, and make His will their own?  Where is the person who will seek, not what they deserve (in God’s mercy, they are spared it), but, His Kingdom?  Where is the person who will submit to Him as the Lord of their life?  Where is the person who will be workable clay in His hand?

John Wesley, as I remember, figured that if he had one hundred people who feared nothing but sin and desired nothing but God, then he could change the world.  I figure that if God had one hundred such people, then He could.  Where can such people be found?