Lectionary Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13:31-35 The Path to Glory

The disciples had joined Jesus for what would be his last supper on earth. It was a time of celebration, but there was a cloud, a darkness, an uncertainty that seemed to blanket the time. Jesus had done some strange things. He had washed their feet. This particularly bothered Peter. Then Jesus said some strange things about the bread and wine comparing them to his body and blood. Jesus had told them one of them would betray him. And then Jesus said to Judas, go do what you must do. Judas had just left to go and betray Jesus.  Now Jesus turns to the other disciples and says, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him.” What does Jesus mean? The disciples did not have a clue.

What does it mean to glorify someone? The word translated glorify is a word meaning putting into a position of power and great honor, especially in the future life glorify. Jesus was about to be betrayed, abused, falsely accused, beaten, mocked, spat on, tortured, and then executed on a cross made of wood. This was going to be an extremely painful death. How does this glorify him?

All the things that are soon to happen to Jesus seem so negative, so victimizing. Yet Jesus is going to use them to bring about the life-giving resurrection and ascension. Jesus is glorified, given the most exalted position any human being could ever be given, Savior of humanity for all eternity. Jesus is glorified by the Father and by the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’s death, there is life. In Jesus’s suffering, there is love, love for us that is unconditional. This is the glory of Jesus.

There are some things we need to remember. Jesus, the Son of God, God in Trinity, became a human being knowing this is where the incarnation would lead. Human beings die, Human beings do violence to one another. In Jesus, deity became humanity. To me, the act of leaving the prefect presence of the Triune unity to become human is beyond comprehension. To know one is about to rejoin that blessed community would certainly be a reason for expecting glory, even if the path was certainly going to be the way of suffering.

“If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.” Jesus knew this is true. Jesus knew this was the plan and purpose of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We, today, have the gift of reflection concerning this event. We read the Gospel and so know what Jesus is going to go through. We know that Jesus surrenders himself completely to what was coming his way. We do not have to live with questions about what was going to happen. We are allowed to know how things turn out.

These next words, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Wow, such powerful words of endearment, ‘my children come from Jesus. Clearly, Jesus cares about the disciples. He knows it is going to be hard on them. Jesus knows his time is short. Jesus is the only person who can go where he is going. Jesus is going to die a horrible death and then descend into hell itself. Jesus would return and then ascend to the Father. No other human being would ever be able to do this on their own. Through death, Jesus takes those of us who are his into the eternal Kingdom. Those who go to hell will not come back. This is the eternal danger every human being faces. As the Scripture says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23 NIV) and the consequences of sin separate us from God. Only Jesus can breach that divide. We cannot go where Jesus goes but we can listen to his voice as he calls us to the flock of God.

Then Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment. Jesus gives us the summary of all the commandments, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

The word translated love is a subjunctive. The subjunctive is generally used when talking about something that may or may not happen; it could be something that the speaker wants, hopes for, expects, or imagines. Jesus deeply desires this for his disciples, but it must be their choice. They can reject this commandment. To do so however, would be to reject Jesus. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15 ESV) If you love Jesus you will seek to do what Jesus expects of us. However, Jesus will not force us to love. You cannot force love.

I hope you are aware that the word love can be one of the most misused words in the English language. It is used to justify lust. It is used to manipulate and control, to hurt and deceive, and distract and possess. This is not the love that is the very nature of God.

The love commandment Jesus gives is one that calls his disciples to be servants of one another, of being willing to lie down one’s life, and of living out of the depth of compassion that Jesus did. This kind of love Jesus tells us will identify us as true believers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn. 13:31-35 NIV)

As I look back over my 40 years of ministry in churches, I served I must say I saw very little of this kind of love. If asked if I will see the people who attended these churches in heaven, I must honestly say I only know a few. I have seen people play at being good and then do some of the most unlove acts I have ever known. I think the pandemic has shown how little people care for others in how they responded to masks and vaccines. I believe the church’s involvement in politics has shown the lack of love and the abundance of hate. I believe churches today are not known for their love but for their marketing, entertainment, and fundraising.

I believe Jesus knew how hard this would be. I have no doubt Jesus understood that the road to love is narrow, rocky, steep, and hard. The way of the world is wide, deceptive, and seemingly easy. The road of love abandons judgment while the way of the world is always judging.

There is an exercise we can do to help us stay on track and live up to Jesus’s expectations. And what is this exercise? It is an examination of the actions in our lives as to whether we are loving others or are a stumbling block to others. We need to examine our relationships. How am I at loving others? How am I Jesus to others? How is the Holy Spirit guiding me to love others? After doing this then reflect on those who have not been loving toward. Who have I not listened to? Who have I not shown care? And perhaps the most important reflection of all, “Will I see the people I come into contact with in heaven?” 

Jesus is still with us. The Holy Spirit is constantly trying to lead us to love. We must respond. It is a choice. How will we choose?

A Confession and Hope

I have written about my suicide before but I feel compelled to do so again. I do not remember the gun going off. I do not remember what it felt like as the bullet ripped through my tongue and teeth. I do not remember it destroying my left eye. I do not remember when the bullet, now separating into fragments, entered my brain. In fact, all I can really remember is saying to myself, “There is no hope,” as I put the barrel of the gun under my chin and pulled the trigger. I do remember floating over my dead body as I was being transported to the hospital. I was told that I passed out due to a lack of blood. This caused my heart to fail. I vaguely remember the emergency personnel bringing me back to life only to slip away again. This time, I was taken to a place where I was with others who had died. Strangely, I was not afraid.

I remember there was an accuser, I do not know if it were the demon who had tormented me for two years or whether Satan was there to accuse me. I remember that the evil entity, whoever it was, said, “He killed himself. Church law says that he now belongs to me.” Then another voice spoke up. Was it an angel of was it the Lord, I am not sure, however, the angel, or the Lord, said to the evil presence, “God grace trumps Church law, he belongs to us. His price has been paid.”

Then the one speaking turned to me and asked, “Do you want to go back?” I knew I had a choice, but I also knew I needed to say yes. I was aware there were others there as well. Some of them were in a state of being beyond horror, terror, pain, and fear. They reflected the hopelessness and true suffering of a regret that will never go away. There were others who seemed to be in a state of bliss that was far greater than happiness, pleasure, joy, and peace. However, once I said yes, I awoke in the intensive care unit. I had been unconscious for eleven days, hooked up to a ventilator, feeding tube, monitors, wires, and tubes. I was alive.

At first, I did not know what had happened. While I was being moved from intensive care to a room I asked the nurse, “What happened to me?” The nurse replied, “You were shot.” I then asked, “Who shot me?” The nurse replied, “Do you know who shot you?” I answered no. The nurse then told me, “I have been told the shot was self-inflicted.” My mind took this bit of information and began racing. “What was the caliber of the gun?” I asked. In my mind, I wonder if it had been an accident. If I had been shot with the 9mm then I could believe it was an accident. If it was the .45 then I knew I had decided to kill myself. The nurse did not know. It took two days to find out that it was the .45. Yes, I had intended to kill myself.

Why, why did I do this? What finally brought me to seek to end my life? I had lost hope. I felt that I was a total failure. I had been pushed out of a church, forced to retire, and had done irreparable damage to my lower back. I was in constant, chronic pain. I had just moved from a small town to a larger city. Covid had struck and I could not get a job. I had turned to self-medicating to try and ease my physical pain. This did not really help. Mentally and emotionally, I was a wreck. I had no friends to support me. My dear wife tried her best to help me, but I resisted her and felt I had been abandoned by God. In my insanity, I believed my only choice was to die. And so, in a drug-induced state in total despair I killed myself. I did not think of what I was going to say to God, or how I was going to try and rationalize what I had done. Selfish, that is what I was selfish.

My poor wife was in the next room when I pulled the trigger. Selfishly I did not think of what my actions might do to her. I did not think of my daughters, grandchildren, or anyone. I did not think of what I was about to do to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I just wanted to end the pain. It was a very selfish act. I am sure the Lord wondered watched me with sadness. Why could I not depend on God to help? Why had I become so willful?

It has been two years since the event. I lost my left eye and most of my teeth. My vocal cords were damaged. The amount of brain damage has not been too extensive as far as we can tell. Mostly I cannot remember how to do some of the physical things I had participated in and taught. I cannot tolerate a lot of stress. I have panic attacks when I am in a situation that is stressful. I use a cane to help with balance issues.

I spend most of my time now studying and seeking. I thought that the Lord was calling me back into the church as a pastor. I even tried sending out resumes. I had some responses that made me hopeful. I have been able to accept the lack of responses and the responses that were rejections without experiencing emotional or mental pain. I do not blame God. I do not blame the churches that are not interested. After all, I am a 67-year-old man who may be qualified in every sense and have experiences that could be very helpful to others, but I am not the image most churches look for in a pastor. I am okay with this. There is no person to blame for any of this except myself.

I am now seeking to be accepting of my situation. Willingness is the answer to willfulness. I am entering into the physical, economic state of poverty. I have controlled the back pain to the point of being able to do some physical work for about thirty minutes before I must sit down so I cannot find a job. I am too old to file for disability. I am dependent upon my wife to be the true breadwinner even though she is 66 years old. She truly is a servant of the Lord.

I am learning to deal with regret. I am learning to deal with my self-caused handicaps. I am constantly reading and studying spiritual direction and discernment. God is very good to me. Pray is becoming more meaningful and intimate for me. I have peace, a peace that does surpass anything the world has offered me. I am seeking about all else to live in the reality of the repetend prayer I turn to every day, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Lk. 22:42 NIV)

I have no idea, yet, of the reason, the Lord sent me back. I feel it largely had to do with the prayers of my wife and children. I do believe God has a purpose for me. I am more than willing (not willfully but willingly) to be whomever the Lord wants to shape me into being. I am amazed at how God can still love me, use me, affirm me, and bless me despite continual sinfulness and stupidity. I have come to know the hope expressed in Jesus’s parable, “”Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Lk. 18:10-13 NIV)

Another repetend prayer, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Lectionary Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10:22-30 The Responsibility is Ours

Many, many years ago when I was a very young teenager our family moved to a city in Texas. The neighborhood we settled in has a lot of other young teens as well. This group of neighborhood teens had a special way of treating new commers. What they would do is get you into a discussion about your physical abilities. In the process of talking the subject would come up, “Who do you think you could beat in a fight?”  They would then go to the person you said you might be able to win against and tell them that you said you could beat them. This little game got me into fights on a regular basis until I figured out what was going on.

I understand how teenagers could do something like this, but sadly, some of this type of behavior follows them into adulthood. One of the places I see evidence of this is how they use social media.  I do not use major social media platforms. The reason I do not is because I see so much hostility, so much stirring the pot of controversy, and so many hurtful words that I just felt this is something that I, myself could not do without being tempted to respond. Responding would only feed the beast. Each of us must respond to how the Holy Spirit leads us in matters of life and living. The responsibility is ours.

The Festival of Dedication (we know today as Hanukkah), is the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah is celebrated during the Hebrew month of Kislev (late November or early December), beginning on day 25 of Kislev and continuing for eight days and nights. It celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over Greek oppression and the rededication of the Temple.

In the passage, we are told that some religious individuals approached Jesus and tried to manipulate him into saying something that could be used against him. It was an attempt to draw Jesus into a fight. They want Jesus to make a public declaration. They want Jesus to say he is the Messiah.

What is the big deal about this? Why does it seem so important that Jesus make this declaration public? In the days of Jesus, the term Messiah was viewed as more political than spiritual. Several charismatic rebel leaders had used the title in their revolt against Roman rule. The Romans had a way of quickly eliminating such rebels. Those who were pushing Jesus to publicly declare himself to be the Messiah were hoping the same thing would happen to him.

Jesus was on to their scheme. Jesus’s answer, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” Jesus does not want to play their games. Jesus knows their motives and designs. Jesus sees into the depth of a human soul.

The game “who is Jesus” continues today. I have read, set through lectures, and have had conversations with individuals who still say that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and that this was a title imposed on him by the church. Still today, they ask for evidence that plainly states Jesus was the Messiah.

He is reality. Jesus did claim, plainly, with his words but more so with his actions that Jesus was the Messiah promised by Scripture.

There is an old saying about arrogant and ignorant people, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up. These people who are being so aggressive have already made their minds up about Jesus. They are convinced he is not the type of Messiah they wanted. They were afraid of the trouble Jesus was stirring up among the masses who were beginning to believe Jesus just might be the Messiah.

This is the real issue. It is about accepting the responsibility to understand who Jesus is, what kind of Messiah he is, and what Jesus’s Messiahship means to each and every human being. Jesus was not just a Jewish Messiah; he is the Messiah for all time and space and creation and salvation. Through the words and actions of his life, Jesus proclaimed the reality of the coming Kingdom of God and that it was a Kingdom of grace, love, and reconciliation not a Messiah of nationalism.

I am very troubled about the growing attempt in recent times to try and make Jesus the Messiah of nationalism once again. America is not the Kingdom of God. Israel is not the Kingdom of God. No political entity can ever claim to be the Kingdom of God. Jesus came and preached a message of forgiveness and acceptance without any trace of racial superiority or political alignment. Just as the children’s hymn proclaims, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Jesus tells those who are questioning him that the reason they do not believe is because they do not recognize Jesus as the shepherd. The Messiah will lead those who listen to the reality voiced by Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd. The anointed of God, the savior of humankind is first and foremost a shepherd. He leads the sheep. He does not drive the flock but through his voice, the flock finds trust and assurance.

Jesus makes it clear. It is important to be part of Jesus’s flock. Jesus will lead to green pastures of peace. Jesus will lead to the still waters of grace. Jesus will protect and serve his own with his very life. Satan cannot claim someone who belongs to the flock of God.

How can we know if we belong to the flock of God? How can we know we are hearing Jesus’s voice? The voice of Jesus is not about power, position, profits, or possessions. The voice of Jesus is about being a servant. It is about helping and not hurting. It is about joy and not judgment. It is about freedom, not control. It is about unconditional love.

The sheep know the shepherd’s voice through experience, through a relationship. It is the shepherd who leads them to food and shelter. It is the shepherd who calls them.

 “The modern shepherd has a wonderful memory, which retains the name of every sheep. The flocks sometimes contain several hundred, and yet each one has a name, and the shepherd knows it, and calls every sheep by its proper name. [One observer] tells of watching shepherds with flocks upon the slopes of Mount Hermon: ‘Each shepherd trains his sheep to come at his call, to go in order, in twos or fours, in squares and circles; one from the outer circle in a flock of a thousand will come when its name is called.’ It is the voice of the shepherd that the sheep recognizes.

“A stranger once declared to a Syrian shepherd that the sheep knew the dress and not the voice of their master. The shepherd said it was the voice they knew. To prove this, he exchanged dresses with the stranger, who went among the sheep in the shepherd’s dress, calling the sheep in imitation of the shepherd’s voice, and tried to lead them. They knew not his voice, but when the shepherd called them, though he was disguised, the sheep ran at once at his call.”​[1]

If we want to know if we are in the flock of God the question, “How do we respond to the words of Jesus and how can we trust the word,” needs to be asked. How do we do this? By spending time with the words of the Good Shepherd. By becoming discerning in times of prayer. By seeking to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. God does seek us. God does try to draw us. God will protect us if we are willing to trust.

Final note, Jesus moves the position of Messiah to a new level. Jesus says he and the Father are one. Jesus just states that he is one with God. It is simple logic. If a equals b, and b equals c, then a equals c. If the Father is God, and Jesus claims to be one with the Father, then Jesus states that he is God as well. If this is the truth, then the matter of whose voice we hear is critical to our eternal state. We will not live in this world forever. We do, because of Jesus have the opportunity to live in the presence and pleasure of God forever. Perhaps making sure of whose voice we are listening to is more important than we might realize.

[1] Orientalisms in Bible Lands, by E. W. Rice, pp. 159-161.