Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recap from Tim Bowyer's Homily

Prayer of Calling:
O God, who has grafted us into your own self and prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass human understanding: Pour into our hearts such love and gratitude toward you, that we, loving you and thanking you in all things and above all things, may remain in you and obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

This week, we focused on Christ as the true vine (John 15:1-11), who gives us life and reminded each other that the human response is one of trust and gratitude in His abiding love. The Heidelberg Catechism and John Calvin helped us think about this reality and its implications:

The Heidelberg asks, "What is your only comfort, in life and in death?"
and then answers:
"That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him."

and Calvin reminds us, "We make the freely given promise of God the foundation of faith because upon it faith properly rests. Faith is certain that God is true in all things whether he command or forbid…For in God faith seeks life: a life that is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the PROMISE OF MERCY, and ONLY in a freely given promise. For a conditional promise that sends us back to our own works does not promise life (Institutes III II 29)

These confessions properly locate the source and content of our faith in God's freely given promise of mercy, which is something that we in no way can earn.

This gives us immense permission to come to God experiencing all that it is to be human, including our personality, and our angst, worry, doubt, sin, ambivalence, and fear, with assurance that we are not somehow mucking up the operation by being ourselves or by being human. For we receive grace from outside of ourselves, namely in Jesus Christ, not from summoning the will to change from within our hearts. The service of the table reminded us of this, as we came with open hands to receive provision of bread and of wine.

I shared a story about climbing a mountain in Eastern Tennessee (Mt. LeConte). As I climbed, in spite of my love for hiking and all the beauty around me there, I felt distracted, tired, and unable to be fully present. I wanted so badly to take it all in, to just breath and to rest and to do what that mountain seemed to be doing with such ease - to worship God, but whenever I started to let my mind and heart rejoice with the open air and the trail . . . there was this nagging sense that I wasn't experiencing the hike like I was supposed to be - that because I was tired and anxious, I was missing out or messing it up.

I noticed that this is often how I approach God and the gospel - I sometimes, even in the midst of Communion, Worship, and living life in community, think that I am not doing enough, or anxious that my mind isn't focused enough or thinking correctly. I come to God without a great feeling of assurance or permission to be myself.

When we read John 15, we often flip the text on end, to make the primary emphasis human responsibility or keeping commandments (v. 10) instead of what Christ has accomplished. We falsely consider this text to be speaking about a contract, as though either we keep our end of the bargain by abiding or we are cut off from the vine. We fail to notice that Christ is not saying, attach yourself! but he is saying "REMAIN in me."

Christ's assurance to his disciples was that God has attached himself to us in Christ and as a vine grower, HE is pruning us so that we might bear fruit. And while there is a connection here between obeying God's word and abiding in Christ, the word is not meant to strike us with fear of God's wrath, but to evoke deep gratitude and abiding trust that the Salvation of God is sure in Christ.

In Institutes Book III, Calvin allows for conflict in the heart of the believer and then turns to hope. He says, "The godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness form its recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from an awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death . . . because faith does not rest in a certain and clear knowledge, but only in an obscure and confused knowledge of the divine will." He continues, "If you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation. But since Christ has been so imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you are made member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God's sight . . . We ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us." (Book III, Ch. II 18-24)

This might as well be a commentary on John 15! It is how we ought to come to this text: "ABIDING in Christ" as holding fast to that fellowship by which He has bound himself to us. It is an affirmation that we find LIFE in Him and Him only. Why do we need such a reminder? I suggest that the reason we need such a reminder is that we often look for and are distressed trying to find life in everything else, especially in our own ability to feel assured and good about ourselves. We live in a time and place, where we might easily come to forget our humble state. We are told by advertisements and in a spirit of autonomy and independence, that we can be self-made and find virtue and hope or joy if we search well enough inside ourselves. This text wakes us up to our folly! It reminds us that we are entirely dependent upon Christ, even as a branch is dependent upon its vine. So a posture of humility and gratitude attaches us to Christ and gives us hope and helps us to bear the fruit of a strong connection to the vine.

When we live honestly and dependently upon God in this way, we help build a healthy community that reinforces this honest and self-effacing dependence upon Christ. For when we abide in Him we are also trimmed of our pride and self-interest (branches that do not bear fruit) so that we might bear the true fruit of self-giving love. When we practice self-givinglove, we demonstrate an abiding trust in Christ and his love for the world with a deep gratitude for his mercy. Thus, we remain in Christ by trust, by gratitude for his love and by self-giving love for one another.

1. In what ways have you experienced division in your life, whether in faith or in your experience of something else? How do experiences of inner conflict affect your trust in God?

2. Why is it important to let faith trust in the Word, the promise of God, Christ, and not in the self? Is this dichotomy necessary: Either we trust in God or we trust in ourselves? Does the account in John where Christ urges his disciples to abide in him help you think about what gives us life?

3. How does Calvin's permission for imperfect faith ("division of the heart") comfort or disturb you?

4. I suggested that by abiding trust and gratitude, we hold fast to the fellowship by which he has bound himself to us and that this leads to self-giving love. How do we depend humbly upon Christ and form habits of self-giving love?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

No Other Name

This week the recap is divided between the remarks made before communion and the homily. See below. Thanks!

Recap of lead up to Communion (I John 3:16-24)

As much as we might like to say that our belief in God is one thing, while our involvement in community is another, the New Testament suggests that the beliefs of an individual are in dynamic relationship with the communal life of that same person. In order to move along the path of human flourishing we need our beliefs to move us to loving actions towards others; our actions within the context of community, refine, and give shape to our beliefs - our actions also solidify our beliefs.

We are often quick to say things like true belief will result in good acts - we think of the passage before us in 1 John and the James passage where James says I’ll show you my faith by my works. But I want us to take things another step and acknowledge to one another that on many occasions what we do with our selves either helps us to know more about God’s love or not. If I have given myself over to self-indulgent behaviour of some sort to the extent that it is sinful, self-destructive and potentially harmful to others I need to recognize that the pattern of what I am doing is pulling me away from knowing more about God’s love. But if I repent and turn from said behavior, I will need something to fill that void. The gospel suggests that often the something we will need to fill that void is to do loving things for each other. Even if you find one night a month to lavish hospitality on someone because of God’s great love to you the promise of the New Testament is that you will be deepened in your experience and understanding of God’s love. If we take time out of our busy schedules to serve the poor, the promise of the gospel is the same - we will be strengthened in our faith. May the physical nature of receiving the sacrament remind us that what we do with our bodies gives shape to our understanding of God’s love - in the case of communion empty hands and bowing forward tells a story to each other and the world that we are dependent upon God’s grace for our life. So we come now with empty hands and hungry hearts to this feast of Grace.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you imagine that you need to experience love in community in order to think and believe rightly about God? Do you often give that question thought?

2. Do you have a sneaky suspicion that are some things in your life that have you just maybe heading in the wrong direction in terms of self-indulgence? Do you think that self-sacrificial practices might help you regain your balance?

Homily Recap
Acts 4:5-12
This week we continued to reflect upon the earliest ministry of the Christian church as the story is told to us by the apostle Luke in the book of Acts. We noted last week that the earliest preaching after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension happens in Jerusalem, the place where Jesus was deserted and denied by those closest to him, and rejected and crucified by the leaders of Israel. In the text before us this Sunday we find Peter and early leaders in the church being arrested and interrogated by the same religious leadership that led Pilate to murder Jesus. Peter and his cohort have just healed someone and the religious leadership is alarmed. We mentioned last week that it is really very important to hear these sermons in Jerusalem in the context of Peter proclaiming the gospel to the very people who were responsible for Jesus’ death and who were witnesses to it, proclaiming to them that they were all wrong about Jesus, but at the same time insisting that Jesus’ mission to bring God’s love to them could not be stopped by murdering the truth. As we said last week, one way of talking about the the resurrection is to recognize in it the staggering gospel truth that God would not take the no of those who nailed Jesus to the cross as their final answer, that Jesus’ resurrection is to point out that it is yet another example of God’s love not giving up on people. If people, in the end, do not experience God’s love it will not be because of God giving up on them. Miroslav Volf puts it this way regarding God's love: "If God does not find what is pleasing in an object - if human beings have become ungodly - God does not abandon the object in disgust until it changes its character.  Instead, God seeks to re-create it to become lovable again... God is not just generous even to the unrighteous; God also forgives their unrighteousness so as to lead them through repentance back to the good they have abandoned."

So, it is in the context of God’s love revealed to the very ones who put Jesus on the cross that we should hear the memorable words: there is no other name by which we can be saved. The religious leaders who put Jesus on the cross are now called by God to be reconciled to him through the Jesus they hated. It is important to note this context for what it is because it helps us, when we ponder the sense in which Jesus' mission is God's unique and final word on his love to the world, to avoid, (a) equating narrow with unique and (b) short supply with eschatological finality. As Rowan Williams puts it, "belief in the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ – for all the assaults made upon it in the modern age – remains for the Christian a way of speaking about hope for the entire human family. And because it's that, we are bound to say something about it. We are very rightly suspicious of proselytism, of manipulative, bullying, insensitive approaches to people of other faith which treat them as if they knew nothing, as if we had nothing to learn and as if the tradition of their reflection and imagination were of no interest to us or God. God save us from that kind of approach. But God save us also from the nervousness about our own conviction which doesn't allow us to say that we speak about Jesus because we believe he matters. We believe he matters because we believe that in him human beings find their peace. Their destinies converge and their dignities are fully honoured. And all the work that we as Christians want to do for the sake of convergent human destiny and fullness of human dignity has its root in that conviction that there is no boundary around Jesus – that what he is and does andsays and suffers is in principle liberatingly relevant to every human being; past, present and future."

The preaching of the early church, including the sermon we have just considered, happens in the context of the Spirit's calling forth and creating a new humanity formed around the risen Jesus Christ. According to the gospel, the inbreaking of the world to come, a new historical epoch, has begun with the church. God’s people now have stories to tell of reconciliation with God and examples to give of how their relationship with Jesus has enabled them to have a part in the divine self-giving love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So when we come to the phrase, no other name, we should not first be thinking of the uniqueness and singularity of Jesus’s revelation of God in the abstract; what we should be able to say is that the same experience of God’s love that we have is what God wants for the whole world. I worry, though, that in some quarters people obsess about these verses in the abstract and don’t worry enough about whether they can offer concrete examples of events in their lives which have come about by no other name but Jesus (e.g. no other name but Jesus enabled me to make a sacrifice for my spouse or friend; no other name but Jesus made me able to serve the poor, or give more of my money away; no other name but Jesus gives me confidence before God when I confess my sins, etc.)

Questions for discussion:

1. Rowan Williams urges that we see Jesus' mission as opening up a new phase of human history - not just the history of one people of one place and of one time. He argues, "questions that puts to us are questions not only about the position of Christianity in relation to other religions, but a question about whether we believe there is something that is true in, and for, all human beings. Or do human beings have different needs and different destinies? Ought we to be saying that what is good for this group is not good for that group? Ought we to be saying that to be a child of God is fine for some people but not for others?" How do you think this apologetic for the uniqueness and finality of Jesus' mission would play with your friends who are skeptical? Do you buy this apologetic yourself?

2. If someone were to ask you what difference does it make in your life that you are a Christian? - what "no other name story" could you tell them in response?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Weight of God's Love

This morning we came to this wonderful passage from 1 Peter in which he reminds us that time and history belong to God. “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have puriļ¬ed your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”

Peter reminds his people that their time now is one of exile but that world history is framed by God’s redemptive plan, for Jesus was destined before the foundation of the world and is now, at the end of the ages, revealed for the sake of those living in exile. This is Peter’s way of saying to his people and to us that if we really want to know what time it is we are to look not just at our watch or calendar but at God’s redemptive work in the world. The events of history, whether our personal history, or world history find meaning and hope in their relationship to Jesus’ promise to redeem. In Jesus, God has written a story into the fabric of this fallen world that is from the pattern of the world to come; the threads of that story will mend and repair all of what is now torn, tattered and frayed. It is the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the story of what God is doing in the world is the story that can make sense of our lives, the story that can give us hope, the story that replaces futility with meaning, the story that leads us to human flourishing. The resurrection of Jesus has marked the end of one epoch and the beginning of the world to come (as Paul puts it: “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, everything old has passed away, see everything has been made new”). So if you really want to know what time it is don’t just look at your watch, look at Jesus.

Similarly, Peter teaches us in this passage that if we want to know how much our life is worth, we should look at the cross (you were ransomed not with perishable things but with Jesus’ own life). What Peter is saying to you is this: God has shown you how much he loves you in the self-giving love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ and this is to remind you of the precious worth that you and all human beings have in God’s sight. The challenge right beneath the surface of what Peter is saying is this: live into that worth! To be sure, there is sober language here (reverent fear, and language of judgment) but this gravitas is not to make you feel like you are living under a cloud of God’s disfavor; it is rather to get you and I to be jolted out of the sort of complacency that can put us at ease with a life that is less than what God intends for human beings and less than what he has designed us for. As we come to the communion table, is it time for you or I to have a moment of epiphany with regard to what is animating us in our lives? Do we live as though God has ransomed our lives with the life of his son, or do we live as though our life is our own to manage according to our own selfish desires, hedonistic impulses, or whims? Have we determined to have a recreational view of sex at the expense of the sort of relationships that reflect God’s love for human beings.... has our approach to building wealth for the future made us immune to the needs of those around us who have less than we do.... has the hurt we have experienced from the cruelness of others caused us to withhold love and forgiveness from those people and from others too? God wants us to remember that he has more for us. He wants us to grow in self-giving love so that the norm for us will be life in a community that is more and more characterized by the love that we have for one another deeply from the heart (as Peter puts it in this passage), the self-giving love of Jesus.

When we think about what it means to be jolted out of the sort of complacency that can allow us to settle for less than what God intends for us it is important to get our heads around how God wants to shape the affections of our heart. I suggest that the parable of the prodigal son gives us some good clues as to what God wishes to teach us about not settling for a pattern of sinful, self-destructive, and selfish behavior. In the parable, the son remembers there is a better life and imagines that he can get a bit of it back by coming home in the role not of a son but of a hired hand. It is the father in the story that will have nothing less than his return as a cherished son. Miroslav Volf’s words about the father in the story are memorable: "....eyes that searched for and finally caught sight of the son in the 'distance' tell of a heart that was with the son in the 'distant country'... the father kept the son in his heart as an absence shaped by the memory of the former presence. When we say things at Grace Chicago Church like, “God is not hanging over your head in a cloud of disapproving judgment”, the goal is not to make it seem as if it does not matter what we do or how we live. We are simply suggesting that a better way of responding to the gravity of God’s love for us is by training each other and ourselves, to respond to the weight of his love, instead of imagining that what God wants from us is so much cowering and grovelling. Again Volf is helpful: "If God does not find what is pleasing in an object - if human beings have become ungodly - God does not abandon the object in disgust until it changes its character. Instead, God seeks to re-create it to become lovable again... God is not just generous even to the unrighteous; God also forgives their unrighteousness so as to lead them through repentance back to the good they have abandoned."

Questions for discussion:

1. When you think about “what time it is” do you think hopefully about what God is doing in the world or do you get stuck in a pessimistic frame of mind and feeling of heart? What can bring us to hope - what sort of practices, etc.? Does it surprise and/or annoy you that God wants you to move from despair to hope?

2.. What sort of habits might you ought to put into place or re-solidify that can create occasions where it will be more likely than not that you are called to take stock of your response to the gravity of God’s love for you?

3. Can you think of an “ah-ha” moment that you had regarding the depth of God’s love for you? Did this epiphany help you think about some aspect of your life differently than you had before? If so, how?

4. If a friend came to you and said I am having trouble figuring out whether my goals around building wealth have distracted me from the needs of those who have less than I do and asked you to help her figure out whether or not that was the case, what sort of conversation might you have? What is the sort of prayer you might craft for her to use in her discernment process? What passages of scripture would you encourage her to reflect upon?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Good Shepherd (Part One and Part Two)

Greetings Friends. This past Sunday Rev Erin Babb, Chaplain at Children's Memorial Hospital, preached at communion. I preached after communion. So, the recap is divided into two parts below. Part One is Erin's. Part Two is my talk. If you make comments, I'll be sure to have a way for Erin to chime in. God Bless you.

Part One (Erin Babb) Psalm 23 and John 10:7-18
This week, let us take time to reflect on the character of Christ in the Gospel of John. As Jesus illumines his metaphoric identity as the Good Shepherd, we learn more about Jesus’ love for us. “Good,” in this context, isn’t meant to be the opposite of “bad.” The Good Shepherd is the best shepherd that you could imagine. He doesn’t simply do the job of tending to the sheep. This shepherd cares for the sheep and wants only the best for them. He watches over them and protects them, and would even lay down his life in their place to keep them from harm.
In the first half of 1988, Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwen penned a journal during one of the most dry times of his life. Later on he published these writings, in hopes that his pain and spiritual struggles might help others dealing with similar things. He titled the book “Inner Voice of Love.” As he worked through his struggles he found new insight into our relationship with God.
“God says to you, ‘I love you, I am with you, I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit. I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, hear with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God’… Remember you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.”
With the shepherd guiding us along the way, we can trust in the journey at hand. Jesus’ deepest desire for us is that we have life abundant (John 10:10). The shepherd watches over and guides the sheep, not only to protect them, but to feed and renew them along the way. This is not a job, but a relationship. Jesus wants to know us and to be known by us. He laid down his life for the sake of the sheep to have abundant life.
Questions for discussion:
•This is an intimate image of Christ’s interaction in our life. Is that intimate knowledge comforting or disturbing to you? Is there another image for Christ’s relationship to us that you prefer (a parable or other metaphor)?
•With the love of God supporting us, what is our responsibility to others, in light of that love? Does it change the way we interact with people we meet? Our families? People at church?

Part Two (Bob)John 21:1-10; 15-19

And now in this portion of John’s gospel we meet the resurrected Jesus doing what good shepherds do, caring for the sheep. This portion of John’s Gospel is sometimes referred to as a second-ending and impresses New Testament scholars as being carefully crafted in order to draw attention to what happens in the scene. As one such scholar puts it, the curtain falls and then comes back up again telling the reader to pay careful attention to what is coming next. It is as if John is saying, “I have one more thing for you to ponder and when you reflect on what you are about to hear with your ears and picture in your mind’s eye, you will come to understand the heart of what it is that Jesus wants his followers to know and do.”

Richard Hays, of Duke Divinity School, calls our attention to the charcoal fire in the scene. He points out that the word for this fire in the common Greek, in which John is writing, is used only one other time in the entire New Testament and that is when Peter warms his hands by the charcoal fire just as he has betrayed Jesus three times. Hays remarks: “Peter drags himself up shivering on the beach and finds there a ‘charcoal fire’.... We should imagine the camera zooming in and lingering... “charcoal fire”... the fire is a source of warmth in the chilly half-light but it also illumines what is dark. The fire evokes again the scene of denial, the scene where once Peter stood by the fire and said, I am not his disciple.... the past comes rushing back. Perhaps in the distance we hear a cock crowing.”

Note, however, that Jesus calls forth Peter’s past in the context of restoring him for the future. The past is not called out to paralyze Peter in shame but simply to enable him to be reconciled to Jesus and to his vocation as a shepherd of the sheep. Peter has returned to fishing, living his life as he did at the beginning of John’s gospel, as if he had never met Jesus before. Jesus, by referring to him as Simon, the name by which he was first known to Jesus before Jesus changed it to Peter, is an indication that Jesus recognized what was going on - Peter had moved backwards. He was no longer focused on fishing for men and women - just fishing for fish. But Peter’s move backwards is not allowed by the good shepherd of the sheep. As Rowan Williams puts it - Rowan Williams, formerly known as the Archbishop of Canterbury - now known as the guy in the funny hat who married Prince Wiliam to Catherine Middleton - “Thus the memory of failure is in this context the indispensable basis of a calling forward in hope. Peter, in being present to Jesus, becomes – painfully and nakedly – present to himself: but that restoration to him of an identity of failure is also the restoration of an identity of hope. The presence of Jesus, still faithful, still calling, inviting his followers to love him, opens out the past in grace.... On the far side of the resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur together....”

I want to suggest to you that, in a sense, this is the crucial moment for the foundation of the early church because this is the moment with the leaders’ mission goes forward in the context of failures forgiven. Forever more Peter is to see himself in light of God’s grace, thus signaling to him and to us what should be the tone and content of our mission as we continue to preach and live the gospel in this broken world. The late Williams Sloane Coffin, who preached for years in New York City said this of the gospel:
"At issue is whether there is more mercy in God than sin in us. And according to... ... just as love is stronger than death, so forgiveness is stronger than sin. That may be the hardest thing in faith to believe."

Bothers and Sisters and friends: God knows this about you and me: that left to our own devices we will reduce our lives to living in the past; we will define our lives by our failures; left to our own frail capacity we will be stingy with God’s love and grace towards others as well. However, when we let Jesus speak to us in the way he spoke to Peter we are called from the past into the future of God’s love and we are then able to give that love to others.

In John 10, Jesus preaches about what a good shepherd does, he lays down his life for his sheep. In the crucifixion, Jesus portrays what a good shepherd does as he lays down his life for the sheep. In this scene with Peter and the other disciples, Jesus creates more good shepherds by giving them back the past as a foundation for God’s future work in the world and they are potent signs of God’s grace for all to see.

Questions for discussion:

1. What do you think it means that we are to show our love for Jesus by loving the sheep? Do you pray about and think about this aspect of being a disciple of Jesus as much as you should? Is it intimidating to you to think that this is a part of being a disciple of Jesus? If so, why? How can you deal with the intimidation factor?

2. Do you feel that you sometimes allow the past to define your present and speak into your future in toxic ways? Can you think of an occasion when you believed more deeply than you do now that there is more mercy in God than sin in you? What helped you to believe the Gospel more deeply on that occasion?