“Bearing the Word”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
Chester Presbyterian Church
Memorial Day: May 28, 2006
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A
Theological Thrust: To be a Christian means to bear the very presence of God and to connect with God through others. This is not something we do on our own but something God does through us. We still make choices to make, but those choices are in response to God’s action. At the end of the day God’s will works through all things, even those choices that are not in keeping with God’s will as we understand it.
Being a Christian I tend to think of most things in light of faith. I don’t mean to say that I so pure and pious that I do nothing but contemplate the mystery of God. Rather it’s just a natural thing to think about how a movie, an event, or a commercial reminds me of my faith and of God’s activity in my life. So far one of my favorite commercials for this type of activity are the commercials that show silhouettes of various athletes sweating purple or orange because they have fortified their bodies with Gatorade. “Is it in you?” Is the slogan they use. It makes me wonder. When I am working out my faith… when I am reconciling my wants and needs with God’s will… when I’m in the grocery store trying to decide if ice cream is a staple to my existence… what do people see oozing out of my pores?
John’s gospel speaks of God’s word being in the disciples. Jesus is praying to God on their behalf so that they will know that the one who was with God from the beginning is with them now. And when he leaves them physically he will be no less a part of them than he is now. It is difficult to say who wrote the gospel of John, but we do know what the issues were that the community that shared this gospel faced. Most particularly the author is combating the claims of the Gnostics, a movement in early Christianity that focused on a special knowledge of God. The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek, gnosis, and meaning knowledge. Primarily these folks thought that within each of us was a “spark” of the divine that needed to be set free. Knowledge of this “spark” as your true self yielded a variety of responses ranging from not caring about what you eat, drink, and do because none of that effects your inner self to very strict codes of diet and abstaining from relationships outside of the community in order to transcend the earthly self.
Because of this, the gospel of John differs from the other three in its order and in its claims about who Christ is. In John’s account, Jesus is not afraid of, in fact finds it necessary to say, who he is as the messiah. In this very prayer he says that he sanctifies himself so that they may be sanctified, claiming his status as God incarnate not to be boastful but so the disciples will know that he does indeed have the power to sanctify them, make them holy, to set them apart for a divine task. Remember that the Gospel of John begins with an argument about the divinity of Christ and an account of his involvement in creation. He is the logos, the word of God, through which creation is spoken into existence. For the disciples, and for you and me, this means that we can count on the same treatment. It means that this Jesus has the ability, in fact is the ability, to set us aside for a holy purpose.
So John’s Gospel reminds us that God is the source of our purpose and that through this man, this Jesus, God has become flesh to offer us a way to get past the sinfulness, the imperfections, the selfishness that comes with being human and offers us the chance to bear witness to this truth to others. In our text from Acts we have a similar account whereby a replacement is chosen for Judas Iscariot. And though he is often seen as the presence of evil in most passion plays, both of these texts refer to him as someone who did what he had to do. His actions fulfilled the scriptures and in that way were in keeping with God’s will. Of course the Acts passage seems to show his reward these actions, but little is said other than the fact that he died a gory death and needed to be replaced. His share in the work of Christ is not diminished, but his choices have taken him out of the covenanted community.
Now, this next part is kind of funny to me. It’s one of those texts that I would love to have been a fly on the wall to see it really happening. Now I am sure that all of the gathered community appreciated what Peter had to say, and I bet there was a clamor of voices seconding the motion and a unanimous vote. But I also imagine that there were several who were relieved to hear the criteria of first account witness from Jordan to Jerusalem. Being one of the twelve in that time and place was basically signing your own death warrant. I mean no offense by this, but I want to imagine that several of them lined up (after all there were something like 120 people in the room) and that Barrasubus and Mathais were talking in a side conversation about the issue when everyone else stepped back from the line.
I’m sure that is not what happened. It was probably closer to the process of choosing elders and deacons in our congregation. A committee gets together and talks about the members that have shown leadership or promise of leadership, and these individuals are called to ask if they would like to be nominated. One of the comments in the men’s breakfast this past Wednesday morning was that it seemed interesting that they would pray and then leave it up to chance. I also suggested to a member of the PNC that they might like to give up the current process and grab a name out of a bag! (only kidding) The comment that followed was that the choice before the choice (the criteria) made it an easy chance to take. Either choice would have served as well, and the drawing of lots was not a matter of chance but of discernment. Truly, in that time and place, it was nothing to say that God’s will is done even in the role of the dice. Not because their faith was stronger, but because the basic assumption was that God is involved in all things and that the results of any task are the result of God’s will (1). Unfortunately that line of thought in the pre-scientific era led to the idea that God’s will can also be proved by the use of force and by power. In our present day and age not everyone agrees on God’s involvement, but that does not make God any less involved. And what it comes down to for us is the need to know that God is involved, and the need to know that we are responsible parties who are entrusted to make decisions. To believe this does not require us to believe things that seem “iffy” or to assume something as true just because it completes the puzzle. Instead, it is simply an acknowledgement that God’s will is the original cause that all decisions are based on and that our choices are all in reaction to it, whether we acting in accordance with God’s will or not.
I found a good example of this last Friday night when I went rock climbing with one of our college students at an indoor gym in Midlothian. It was “bring a friend for free” night and Treva and the kids are out of town, so I gladly accepted the invitation. That was a moment of grace and providence right there. God’s action. God’s ideas. This student called me up because God set the example for it. Then there was the fact that she had recently injured her leg and could not climb, she could only belay (or hold the rope from the bottom). So, my security was offered by a wounded person who took personal time to ensure my security.
You see, it’s really not that complex of a thing, though I think we tend to make it so (2). Much of the Christian rhetoric that we hear in the public sector is about a personal relationship with Jesus and getting others to have one too. Trouble is, if that does not transform a person into someone who loves their neighbor as themselves, then it’s just a password for a club and has little to do with salvation.
Of course, when we reflect on those who have gone before us on this Memorial Day we remember that life and death choices are still being made by faithful Christians as they have been in the past. And remembering that scripture tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends we give thanks for their faithfulness. In respect for their sacrifices, and in memory of those not only in military service but for those martyred for their faith in Christ throughout the centuries and even today, we really need to take this task of responding to God’s grace seriously and joyfully. Bearing the word is not just a matter of showing kindness.
If we are to bear this word, we must understand that it is not separate from its source. We aren’t just telling somebody about God. We are bringing God to them. Truly, in bearing this word, which is the very presence of God, we are not carrying a heavy burden so much as we are being carried by it. We are not giving so much as we are receiving. For in sharing the presence of God with someone through charity and through conversation about God’s grace we receive more than we could ever give.
Bearing this word is of course no simple task, because it does require our lives and people may hate us for it. Bearing the word is risky, because we are constantly open for conflict and challenge.
But here’s the beautiful thing… no one can live without conflict, and the One who brings order out of chaos will be with us, protecting us from being destroyed. In fact, God has chosen to bring order out of chaos through… you! And you. And you. In fact I dare say through “All y’all” (the plural of y’all of course) even the choir!
And so, friends, there comes a point where we all must make an informed choice and role the dice, trusting that God is involved in the choice before the choice. In fact, there have been many choices that have led up to this day, and you better believe God has been a part of them. For today the lot has fallen on you to follow in the footsteps of the disciples, to have your share in this ministry, to bear the word, the logos, the creative, active presence of God into the world.
So, I ask you, “Is it in you?” You bet it is! Don’t step back from the line, for God is with you, friends. And like the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” All praise to the Father from whom all things come. And all praise to Christ Jesus his only son. And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one. Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love (3). Amen.
1. Borg, Marcus (2003) The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.
Harper Collins, New York, NY; pp.28-30
2. Dallas Willard (1998). How To Be A Desciple. The Christian Century, April 22-29; pp. 430-439.
3. Scholtes, Peter They’ll know we are Christians by Our Love.”
WEB RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Text Week: A lectionary based library of on line resources
2. Judas and Mathias: On Mystery and Destiny, found at Journey With Jesus: A webzine
featuring essays, books, film, and poetry.
3. Deffinbaugh, Bob Thm. Getting Ahead of God, found at Bible.org: An in depth on line
Bible study resource.
4. Anderson, Craig B. Community Reconsidered, found at Pulpit.org: An on line version
of the preaching magazine, The Living Pulpit.