With Us Forever

The Sunday Sermon:  Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020

Scripture:  John 14:15-24


With Us Forever

To quote a writer of other songs some give sacred status: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Apart for fifteen Sundays now, out of our sanctuary onto the airwaves and into the parking lot. We finished out Lenten journey “out here.” Had our Palm Sunday Passion parade and our Easter Resurrection celebration out here. We traveled outward form Jerusalem following the early movement called the Way through Eastertide, returned to the parking lot to celebrate Pentecost and share our common meal one week later. And for the past three weeks, we’ve been journeying with Peter, and then Stephen, and last week with Philip “out here.” Watching and listening as this sect of Judaism offered a new Way, and eventually became “the church” and established a new religion.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

We close the month of June “together” this morning and prepare for the fifth month in which we experience our social distancing. (That phrase sounded so awkward and not just a little oxy-moronic only a few months ago. It rolls off our tongues now without a second thought.) Pray with me…

The truth is, it is not exactly clear historically when the church was born, when words Christian and Christianity were first used to distinguish it from Judaism.[1] Jesus and his early followers were all Jewish. Paul didn’t think of himself as converting to a new religion after his Damascus Road experience. In fact, the word Christianity doesn’t occur in the New Testament. The word Christian does, twice in the book Acts (11:26 and 26:28), and again in 1 Peter (4:16). Take out your bible, if you have a mind to, and turn to the Book of Acts. Chapter 11, verse 26: it was in Antioch, where Barnabas went to find Paul and the two of them met with “the church” and taught “a great many people” that the disciples were first called “Christians.” Like Christ, this word is formed from the Greek word for “messiah.” In its early usage it meant a follower of Jesus as the Jewish messiah. It still did not mean a member of a new religion.[2]

Though it’s not exactly clear historically when we should start using the words Christian and Christianity, a “parting of the ways” between Judaism and this new Jesus movement does become visible near the end of the first century. The conversion of Gentiles around the time the Book of Acts was written, 80-90 CE, was surely one of the factors in this rift, but a growing concern within Judaism to exclude Jews who saw Jesus as the messiah, and Roman perceptions of the Christian movement as a new religion separate from Judaism surely helped define this “Way” of Jesus as something different.[3]

As the month of June in the year 2020 comes to close, we, too, are ready to step into our new identity – or more accurately an ancient identity re-discovered. What is this new “Way?” What does it take to be part of this “Way?” What is this “Way’s” ultimate doctrine, or teaching?

To respond to these questions, asked for the first time 1900 years ago, we turn (finally?!) away from the book of Acts and look to the Gospel of John. John, too, was most likely written in the eighties or nineties of the first century. The aim of the Gospel is stated quite clearly in John 20:31, most likely the original conclusion of the book: “So that you may come to believe, or continue to believe, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” What is it we give our hearts to when we “believe” in Jesus? What must we do with that belief to have life in his name?

I want you to think like someone in the first century Jesus movement. The truth is their crises are still ours, but imagine you’re one of the first. The crisis that Jesus’ death confronts you with is its meaning. Whether you were there when he died or you heard about it a generation or two later, you’re asking yourself, “Why did Jesus die in this way? What purpose did it serve?” Well, through the pastoral and theological genius of the Fourth Evangelist, Jesus himself responds from beyond the grave to these questions, peppering the reason for and the result of his death throughout our passage.

Listen for the word of God. Read John 14:15-24. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The answer to our questions is found in one word. It is what is required to follow Jesus. It is the only condition he places on his disciples to receive his promises. It is what God entrusts to us as a community in Jesus. It is the “Way” of Jesus and must be the credo of the community that gathers in his name. It is, ultimately, how Jesus saves us. It is the primary focus of and authority in the Fourth Gospel. In all cases, the answer is the same: It is … Love. (If you’re disappointed, think harder … feel deeper.) Love.

The thing entrusted to us by God in Jesus as the Christ is sacrificial love.

The way that Jesus saves us is he shows us how to love.

Scholars far more learned than I can discover no leadership pattern, no organization or structure, no authority that guided the community of John’s Gospel beyond that of love. There are a few individuals lifted up for special leadership roles in the Gospel: The Beloved Disciple and Peter, are two. But the understanding of God and the understanding of the church, as it was “becoming”, in the Gospel of John is actually suspicious of authority, and teaching, and discipline as part of its ministry. A direct and personal bond with Jesus was what marked members of the community. The Love of Christians, and their acceptance of the Love Jesus offered by laying down his life is John’s great “public symbol of faith.”[4] Where it is lacking there is no Christianity and there can be no church – only empty, lifeless forms, formulas, doctrines, and dogmas.

Love … It is the lesson of Jesus’ life. It is the meaning of Jesus’ death. It is the aim of Resurrection. It is our salvation.

“Those who love me will keep my word … Whoever does not love me does not keep my word … the word that you hear is from God who sent me.” (John14:24)

And that word is … (anybody?) … Love.

As we step into a new month, as we continue this “long, strange trip,” as we understand in even deeper ways how much we need all lives to matter, we are reminded again that the answer to the question is Love.

May it be so. May we be so. Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor

Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 28, 2020

[1] Borg, Marcus. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. 186.

[2] Ibid. 218.

[3] Ibid. 186.

[4] Sloyan, Gerard. Interpretation, “John.” Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988. 176.