Easy Obedience

Sermon delivered on Easter 6B, Sunday, May 10, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98.1-10; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Based on our lectionary readings these past two Sundays, it would be easy for us to forget we are still in the midst of the 50 days of Easter. But the fact is that Jesus himself only hung around his disciples long enough to convince them he was really alive and prepare them for the day he would ascend back into God’s space (heaven) and send the Holy Spirit so that he could be present with them in a new, more permanent way. This is critically important for us to remember and appropriate because as our readings indicate, even without Jesus’ physical presence we have work to do, and we are to do it as people who have a real Easter hope. But what does that look like? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Last week Fr. Feister talked about Jesus being the vine and us being the branches. Our Lord encouraged us to abide in him so that it will go well for us, now and in the future. Both our gospel and epistle lessons this morning continue to flesh out what abiding in Jesus means. If we are to abide in Jesus, i.e., if we want to have a real relationship with him, we are to obey his commands, especially his command for us to love both God and each other. Simply put, the extent we are willing to obey God’s commands is indicative of the extent we love the God who revealed himself supremely in Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know what loving God and others looks like, start by looking at how well you obey his commands.

And in our epistle lesson, John tells us that obeying Jesus’ commands is not burdensome, echoing our Lord’s words in our gospel lesson about obedience bringing us joy, and we want to say to John, “Really? You’re kidding, right?” First of all, we live in an age that emphasizes individualism and the right to do our own thing. So commands to obey someone else, even if that someone is God, don’t generally sit well with us. Second, even if we are willing to try to obey God’s commands and thus show that we love him, it’s hard. Of course it is easy (or at least easier) to obey Jesus’ command to love others when those persons are lovable (like me). But what about those who are less lovable or with whom we disagree or who irritate us to no end? Most of the time we’d rather punch them in the mouth or demonize them rather than love and/or forgive them. We are this way because we are inherently hostile to and alienated from God and being the good pastor he was, John surely knew this. So why would he say obeying God is not a burden?

Because we do not love entirely on our own power or strength. If that were the case, this world would collapse into total chaos and anarchy. No, we love because God loved us first and did what was necessary in and through Jesus to end our alienation from him. And we love in the power of the Spirit as our NT lesson wonderfully attests. The Spirit empowers us to love, giving us the ability to love both God and others, thus enabling us to obey our Lord’s primary command to love God and each other. And as we learn more about the nature and character of God in the power of the Spirit, we learn to love God more perfectly. This, in turn, makes our love less burdensome because we learn to develop the needed humility to understand that God really is in charge, not us (cf. Psalm 119). This is not unlike how we learn to love our beloved. As we get to know them better and see their beauty and character at a deeper level, it becomes easier for us to love them. Likewise with God, but only if we have the God-given wisdom and humility to appreciate and love what is revealed to us.

This is why Jesus could tell us that as we learn to obey God by loving him, we find a joy in doing so that simply is not there when we are hostile to God. Don’t misunderstand. None of us gets this right all the time or loves God perfectly, the way God loves us in and through Jesus. But that does not mean we are unable to experience real joy and contentment as we learn to love God in the power of the Spirit. And as we learn to love God by obeying him, our ability to love each other also increases correspondingly. As John tells us, everyone who loves the parent (God) loves the child (fellow believers). Put the opposite way, if God means little to us, people will become worthless to us as well, and our love for them will die out.

In other words, we are not given this power to love so that we can sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya as we gaze at our navels. As our Lord reminds us in our gospel lesson, when he calls us to be his people, it means he has work for us to do. We are to bear fruit for Jesus by embodying his great love for all people, even if they reject that love and those of us who share it. And we cannot hope to love others as Jesus calls us to love them if we do not first learn to love God by obeying him.

But even here we have help because Jesus promises that we can come to him anytime in prayer and ask for the resources we need to assist us in this fruit-bearing work. When I was a young man, I used to read passages like this as an invitation to be selfish. Oh boy! I can ask God for anything I want and he’ll give it to me (O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?). And then I wondered why God never answered my prayers. This, of course, was hopelessly flawed thinking because I ignored the context in which Jesus made this promise and instead made it all about me. But what Jesus has in mind here is much more wonderful. He promises that if we ask for the spiritual resources needed to help us embody his love for others, especially his enemies, he will give us what we need (not what we think we need) to get the job done so that we can bear the fruit of his love to the world. Listen if you have the humility to hear.

This is one of the reasons why John has the apparent audacity to claim that whoever is born of God, i.e., whoever is a Christian, conquers the world. Again we want to question John’s sanity. What about the Christians being slaughtered throughout the world? What about the erosion of Christian values in our culture? At a level closer to home, what about our work at Worthington Christian? We go there to visit but nothing seems to change. People still get old and sick and eventually die. Doesn’t look like there’s much conquering going on, especially by Christians. So what are you talking about, John?

Back comes the answer. The water and the blood. Just as God used Jesus’ death to defeat the dark powers and rulers who have usurped God’s rightful rule of his world and corrupted it (cf. Col 2.15; John 16.33), so God uses our work to add to that victory every time we embody Jesus’ great love for others. Now Jesus’ victory over the dark powers is not always self-evident, not even to his first disciples. They needed the resurrection to help them see and understand. And so do we because without the resurrection, it would be utterly impossible for us to even consider the NT’s claim that in and through the death of Jesus, evil has been defeated so that we see our work on his behalf as anything but futile.

What then are we to think when we see Christians being slaughtered throughout the world? Jesus is risen! Death is defeated! What are we to think when suffering or sickness or any other kind of evil befalls us or our loved ones? Jesus is risen! Evil is defeated and the victory won! What are we to say to our detractors who twist around Jesus’ words and ask what good is eternal redemption if it costs us temporal benefits (cf. Matthew 16.26)? Jesus is risen and God is using his victory over the dark powers to redeem his world right now through us whenever we make known Jesus’ great love for his world and its people, even when expressing that love is personally costly! No room for sorrow or hand-wringing or embarrassment here. Rejoice and be glad! This must be our response in the face of evil and persecution. Otherwise, our faith is useless.

We believe all this because the Spirit testifies to the truthfulness of the story. That is why we believe that on the cross of Christ God has defeated evil. That is why we believe the resurrection really happened and that the new creation will one day come in full. God the Spirit testifies to us that it is true and consequently we have a choice to make. We can choose to believe God or call God a liar. For you see, unlike the world that proclaims truth is in the eyes of the beholder, God the Spirit testifies to us that there is one Truth and we all must decide if we will abide in that Truth as well as in Christ’s love.

When we say yes to both, we should never get tired or discouraged in doing Jesus’ work and trust that it will bear fruit. Because Jesus has overcome the world (John 16.33), we have confidence that every time we are faithful to him and love him by obeying his commands, he will use us to help advance the kingdom, bit by bit, inch by inch, even when it is not at all evident to us. So, for example, when we visit Faith Mission to feed the hungry or go to Worthington Christian to visit the infirm and lonely, we know our Lord is using us to help bring about the kingdom. Yes, hunger still exists. Yes, there are still lonely old people all over the place. But we take heart and hope because in his death Jesus has overcome the dark powers who rule God’s world and by his resurrection has ushered in the beginning of God’s new world, a world that will be devoid of evil and death and every kind of sorrow or loneliness or alienation. This is why Easter matters and this is why we must always hold our Easter hope in the front of our minds as we go about the business of loving God and each other.

So how do we do this? During Eastertide, it’s pretty easy. But what about a month from now? Six months from now? John has one of the answers for us when he talks about the water and the blood. As we have just seen, this can allude to Jesus’ death and its role in reclaiming God’s world from the dark powers. But it can also allude to partaking in the sacraments. While the reference to water clearly refers to baptism, I want to focus on the eucharist because in it Jesus is really and powerfully present to us to nourish and sustain us. When we feast on his body and blood each week, we literally consume Jesus and make him present to us, not unlike how he is present to us in the fellowship of his people or when we read and submit ourselves to his word in Scripture or in the power of the Spirit. Whenever Jesus is present with us, whether it is in the power of the Spirit or in the eucharist or in Scripture or in our fellowship or in worship, it cannot help but change us so that we become more like him. And as we become more like him, we learn to obey him and our ability to love him and each other increases and becomes easier. I do not suggest that this is straightforward or automatic. For most of us there are significant bumps and detours along the way because we are so radically broken. But we take heart because Jesus has overcome our brokenness and loves us even more radically than we are broken. Contrast this specific and tangible answer (Incarnation, the sacraments, the Church, the Truth) to the world’s problems with the vacuous spirituality that shifts our attention away from God in Christ and tries to help people cope with the way things are rather than offer them a real hope and solution to overcome the world, not just cope with it. This is part of what it means for us to bear fruit—to convey in a winsome and wholesome manner the power of our Easter hope and all that surrounds it that we’ve just talked about.

We can also help keep Easter in the forefront of our minds by reminding ourselves and each other that we are resurrection people who do this work together and who have a real future and a hope because of the power of God. Here we can take our cue from the psalms. As our psalm lesson reminds us, God has made known his salvation in Jesus and is coming to set the world to rights so that all creation can clap its metaphorical hands and sing for joy. But life isn’t always joyous and hopeful, and so we must keep reminding ourselves that God is more powerful than the evil that sometimes afflicts us and our world, and that God is at work fulfilling his promise to bring healing and restoration to our world and us. We do this by remembering God’s mighty acts in history. Hear the psalmist:

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God? — Psalm 77.1-13

In this passage we hear the psalmist lament over the evil that has beset him. The remedy? He would remember the mighty acts of God on behalf of his people, acts that would remind him that the Lord God is indeed the Almighty and that not even the dark powers that seem so prevalent can prevail. For Christians, our recounting of the mighty deeds of God must start and end with the death and resurrection of Jesus because they remind us that God has defeated evil, that our present is lived out under God’s power and care, that our future is God’s new world, and that not even death can separate us from God’s great love in Jesus Christ our Lord. If God is able to call this vast creation into existence out of nothing, if God can raise Jesus from the dead and usher in the birth of his new world, what in our lives can be too hard for God to help us overcome if we remain faithful to him and show our love for him by obeying his commands? Doing so will not only give us strength to weather the storms of life, it is also our ticket to real peace and joy because we know that God will use our love, costly as it can be, to help bring about what he originally established in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we are fools if we fail to take hold of the power that is ours to be Jesus’ people to the world in the ways we have just seen. This is how the world gets conquered, not through armies or who has the biggest stick or the loudest voice. Unlikely as this seems to us at times, we believe it nevertheless because the Spirit testifies to its truthfulness and we are people of the Spirit who embrace God’s truth, the Good News of Jesus Christ that is ours, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.