By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
May 17, 2020
John 14:15–21 (ESV)
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
If you love me. Over the past few years there has been a theme that has resonated through my mind, “Becoming a disciple loved by Christ.” This is largely based on the concept that in the Gospel according to John, there is one disciple that is regarded as the disciple whom He loved. I have wondered what it would be like to be known not by my name but by the love of Christ. This disciple is thought to have been John. John was probably the youngest of the disciples. Some would say that he might have been in his early teens when he was called to be a disciple. This is interesting because it would mean that John’s entire adult life was lived as a disciple of Jesus, the primary influence in his life would have been Jesus. Imagine living your entire adult life, under the direct tutorage of Jesus. His entire adult life was centered on Christ, and everyone knew it.
It is not exactly an unreasonable concept. The early Friends had a deep desire to follow Christ in all that they did. We often regard George Fox as the founder of the Society of Friends, but there were many people that were involved. These people were living through a civil war within England. This civil war involved politics as well as religion. These Seeker, as they were often called, wondered how people could take up arms against each other under the banner of Christ. They took this even deeper, asking how those claiming to be disciples of Christ could take up arms at all. They wondered and they sought answers to their questions. The problem was each side gave conflicting answers, and these honest seekers were left in limbo, wondering how or what was the true faith. In Fox’s Journal he said that he took his book of scripture out to a field and waited there. And as he waited, he heard a voice saying to him that there was one, even Christ Jesus who could speak to his condition.
These early Friends would sit in silence, seeking the direction of God, because they believed fully that Jesus was their ever-present teacher and guide. Meaning like John we today can live under the direct tutorage of Jesus. Which brings us back to the statement, “If you love me.”
Jesus says these words, near the end of his final teaching segment during the last supper. It is in this discourse we find some of the most encouraging words of Jesus, as he prepares his disciples for their future experiences. Very soon, Jesus knows, He would no long be able to physically lead them. They will be faced with life altering decisions that will cause friends to become enemies, families will disown their own children, and those in power will seek to destroy their message by any means.
If you have ever posted anything on Facebook or Twitter you know how this might look and feel. People twist the words we might be saying to the point we might not even recognize it as being from the same conversation, and why? Because what we say threatens their view of the world in some way. It does not matter which perspective it is from; trolls are on all sides of the spectrum. Jesus is aware of this, and even the ancient church had to deal with their fair share of trolls. Jesus spoke in this session, to direct the disciples through these future struggles. He said to them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
How are you with commandments? When we hear that word, our attention is often directed toward rules or laws. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. If we were to keep the commandments of the Jewish faith the world would be in much better shape. There would be a great deal less debt, and we would not be able to have a bacon cheeseburger either, so like I said our world might be in better shape. Was this the teaching that Jesus promoted? You could make a case either way. Jesus is recorded as saying that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light, which is in reference to the yoke or interpretation of the law. He is also quoted as saying that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. This makes this statement a little confusing, because if Jesus was promoting the keeping of the law of Moses why was he facing the cross?
I have pondered this along with the theme of becoming a disciple Jesus loves. And I looked up the word commandments. Like many words it can be used in different ways, often it is used to reference legality, but it is also used in commission. This caused me to stop. If you love me, you will keep my commission? This changes things. Some of us have worked for commission, meaning we are paid based on production. Often artists can become commissioned artists, meaning they produce something to order like a family portrait. There are even commissioned officers in the military, these are the ones that are brought in for a specific purpose. No matter what the use of commission is, the person is brought in to perform a specific duty and they continue within that duty until it is completed, and the commission is released. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commission.” Jesus is not demanding them to keep a set of rules but inviting them to participate in his life and lifestyle. He is inviting them to continue the very thing that he started. He is encouraging them to take what they have learned from him and share it with others. This statement is like Elijah passing the mantle to his disciple Elisha.
If we love Jesus, we will take on his commission. This changes pretty much everything we might think about this passage. Our duty, our purpose is no longer merely keeping rules, but it is to be liberators, life givers, healers, providers, and encouragers. To love Christ is to live as Jesus lived and lives. Does this change your perception of the Christian life? It should, because to have a commission means that there is a duty, a responsibility, and participation in what we are join. If we love Jesus, we take on, we participate in, or embody his work.
I want us to let this soak into our minds and our hearts for a moment. The Christian life is not rules, but a commission, a life and lifestyle. When we become a follower of Christ we do not just live by a codified set of rules, but we join Jesus in his ministry. When George Fox heard that voice in the field, he recognized it for what it was. If there is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to his condition, then he would need to listen to that one and respond accordingly. He began to change the way he approached life. He was living within the commission, going where he sensed God was leading him, speaking the words he sensed he was to say. Every aspect of life was devoted not to self but to the commission of Christ.
This approach of life was not something that was devoted to only a single day. The early Friends did not keep days as sacred or secular, but all days were equal because all days were the days of the lord. They did not regard people of higher or lower stations in life either, because all people were created in the image of God and only that of God deserved respect not the title a worldly system bestowed on them. And since everyone is stamped with God’s image each person had equal access to the Spirit of God, and that Spirit could call them into life with God. Because every person possessed that image of God, every aspect of life then became part of God’s commission. If you were called to minister in a vocal capacity then respond, but that is not the only ministry. Whatever your career might be, it became a vocation of God. If you owned a business, that business was not there only for profit but was your commission in God’s kingdom, what early Friends would often call the Lamb’s war. Your house was no longer your house, but it was the barracks of God’s advancing kingdom, and should be used in that way. Every aspect of our lives is joined into this commission of Christ, and if we love him, we release all that we have for his glory.
Those early Friends were bold. They changed how they did business and how they treated those within that business both employees and customers. Fair wages, fair prices, quality, and guarantees are all things we take for granted today but many of those ideas were things that defined how Friends would conduct their lives because their life was joined in the commission of Christ. These things of course are not found only among Friends but are in many traditions. And each of those traditions believe that all of life is sacred.
If we love Christ, we will keep his commission. I do not know if you noticed or not, but life is hard. There is always something that is distracting us from this commission. When I am not at the church, I work in retail, while at the store there are things that constantly challenge my faith. I work in security and it is difficult at time to not become jaded into thinking that every person is out to steal or take advantage of a generous policy. And you would not believe how many people find it perfectly acceptable to steal from retailers, and many would surprise you. How can I live this commissioned life when so often I am distracted? Our passage from last week ended with the verse, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” And in today’s passage, “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.”
These verses are often used out of context. There are entire ministries that have been built using this passage in such a way that if you ask for something God is duty bound to give it to you. But that is not what this passage is saying. When Jesus says, “in my name,” it is not a magical formula or spell that will conjure up whatever you want. It is again a commission. You are acting or speaking on his behalf as the steward of Jesus’s estate. It is as if you have been given a management position and have been authorized to make purchases, you are acting in behalf of the business. You are not authorized to make purchases for yourself in the name of the business, but only for the continued work of the company you represent. If you love Christ, you will keep his commission, you will not worry about yourself because your attention is on the continued work of Christ, and you entrust your well-being to him.
When we are joining him in his mission, and we have a need to keep his ministry going, he will provide but how will we know if it is his will or our own. I have been in several meetings of business where the word “I” is thrown around by people, including myself. The commission of Christ does not need our opinion, but our willingness to act in response to the Spirit’s guidance. Jesus told his disciples that a helper would be sent that would be with us forever. Our job is to listen to the helper because the helper will point us to truth. This is probably the most difficult aspect of the life Christ is calling us to. We live in a culture where the individual is important. We pride ourselves in individual accomplishment and self-reliance. I am not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing because that system has been beneficial to us all. It is that system that has sparked the creative exploration that has made it possible for us to even have this time of worship in our homes, because we would not have YouTube without you. It is difficult for us to lay ourselves aside. I say it is difficult, but we do it all the time. We lay ourselves aside when we go to work. I do not care if you are an employee of an international corporation or a small business owner, every day you go to work you are laying aside yourself for that company. When I answer the phone at work, I do not answer the phone as I would at home. We do this because we are acting in behalf of the company.
We are well practiced in acting on behalf of others. Yet we find it difficult to do this when it comes to the commission of Christ. What is the difference? I know that by laying aside myself for eight hours a day for a company, I will get a return. I will earn a set amount for every hour I act on behalf of others. I can then take that which I have earned and use it to provide myself and my family with the things we need and want. I know that when I sacrifice my time there is a return of some sort. The economy of men is different than the economy of God. The abundance of mankind is unlike the abundance of God because there is a difference in what has value.
What does God value? What commission did Jesus come to fulfill? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God values life. Not just life, but life in relationship or communion with him. The narrative throughout scripture is this constant quest in restoring what was once lost. In the beginning God created, and it was good. The crowning achievement of creation was when God created humanity, which was pronounced exceptionally good. These two humans were placed within a garden and they were able to eat of the fruit and walk with God if they did not eat of the fruit from one tree. If they ate of that fruit they would die. Our first parents decided that God was not enough, they wanted more so they ate of the fruit that was forbidden, and as a result sin entered the world. A chasm formed within the relationship of God and humanity because our first parents allowed erosion through their lack of trust. Once the erosion of trust began the relationship died. God’s value of humanity did not change, God continues to call out to us, yet we continue to turn away. We turn because we do not value the things that God values.
How can we trust God when the things we value seem to be so different? I work so I can eat, I understand that, but where do I fit in an economy where my value can not be measured in the amount of currency my time can be traded? How can I live when the things from my perception of value cannot purchase?
Jesus said these words after they ate a meal. At that meal he said as he passed the bread, “This is my body broken for you.” And when he passed the cup, “this is my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” These are the things that sustain life, the things that constitute the simplest of meals. And Jesus attributes those staples of life to himself. He is the bread because he is life. He is the creator of life, and the one that gave us our abilities to obtain those staples of life. He then says, “Because I live, you also will live.”
If we love Christ, we will join him in his commission or keep his commandments, and if we do because he lives, we will also live. That is easy for him to say that evening, because he was alive, but a few days after he would be laying in a tomb, executed by the powers of the world. His words at that point seemed hollow. That is what the disciples were contemplating that first Easter morning. Then by that evening they had a different perspective. The world killed Jesus, yet he lives. He rose from the grave and was eating with them again. This shows us that God has the power to do what he says. If he lives, we will live also. If he calls us to live according to his economy the things that sustain life will still sustain our lives.
Jesus shows us that his commission, his lifestyle of Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and Living love with others will sustain life. It sustains life because everyone involved is living their lives to His glory and seeking to honor that of God in those around them. It sustains life because it focuses on life abundant. When we live our lives in the name of Christ, we each seek to sustain and encourage each other in mutual profit, and that profit is measured in relationships instead of currency. He lives and we will live. And if we love him, we will continue his commission of sharing life with others.
As we enter this time of holy expectancy today, I encourage us all to consider life with God. What is distracting us from fulfilling the portion of his commission he is calling us to? Why is that distracting us? Jesus lives, and we will live also. Let us lay those things at the cross, and embrace the Spirit of Truth and love Christ by joining him in his life here today.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
May 10, 2020
John 14:1–14 (ESV)
1 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
“Let not your hearts be troubled.” There are few words more encouraging than these, but all too often my heart is troubled. What does this say about me and my faith? Some might say that I do not have enough faith, that I do not trust enough. That might be true. I might need more faith; I will go so far as saying I need a great deal more faith. I do not want to stand here and lie so I am being honest with everyone listening. I am human, I have concerns and even fears. At times I can let those fears get loose within my mind and they start to take over. This happens to us all. It does not matter who we are or how devoted we might be, we are human, and we all have areas of weakness that can cause our spiritual life to spiral at times.
“Let not your hearts be troubled.” I preach mainly out of the gospels because the words of Jesus are so profound to me. I appreciate the letters of Paul and the other disciples, I agree that they have authority, but the words that are attributed to Jesus are the ones that challenge me the most. Jesus speaks these words during the discussion that he had with his disciples just prior to his arrest. He knew what was about to happen, and they like most of us had no idea as to the extent of change they were about to experience. If someone would have told me a year ago that the main form of worship that we would have over the past few months would be over the internet, I would have laughed. I knew and even embraced the concepts of having content online. I have had my sermon transcripts on my blog for over five years, and we have recorded and posted sermons on YouTube for about a year. But I never thought that there would be a portion of our existence where we would meet online for services for an extended amount of time.
My heart is troubled. I do not know what to think or expect. I have a variety of opinions rattling around in my head that are often conflicting and I am left wondering if every decision we make will be the wrong one. My heart is troubled. If my heart is troubled, that means that those around me have troubled hearts too. Each and everyone of us are living in a state of existence where our life experiences do not really dictate how we should proceed.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us. “Believe in God, believe also in me.” I want us to imagine this scene for a moment. The last supper, which is what this discourse was a part of, was the traditional Passover Feast. This was the meal that Jesus and the disciples had eaten together just after the celebration in the streets that we call “Palm Sunday”. The disciples go into the city and the secure a place of lodging, and they brought back with them the donkey’s colt that Jesus told them they would find. Jesus gets on this colt and rides into the city while the people cheered and proclaimed Jesus as the long-anticipated King that would restore Israel. The people cheered but Jesus rode into the city weeping, because he knew the reality of the situation. I wonder if the disciples saw the tears. I wonder if they recognized the emotional trial Jesus was experiencing at that moment. Then the religious leaders approach and demand that Jesus tell the people to be quiet, but Jesus informs them that if they were silent the rocks would cry out.
The group moves from the streets and they gather in the “upper room”. They take their various places at the table, but Jesus is not there. Jesus should have been at the place of honor, but somehow, he had slipped away, and the disciples are just wondering what to do now. Then near the door they see a figure approaching dressed as a servant and he comes to the gathered men and kneels before them to wash their feet. The twelve look at this man, it is not a servant but it is the one they and half the city had been singing praises about just moments ago, Jesus was kneeling before them about to wash their feet.
After a few choice words, the disciples submit to this anomaly and Jesus takes his proper place, but then he begins to pronounce the feast liturgy in a different way. Instead of just reminding them of their share history, he says that the wine and the bread are his body and his blood. They participate in the feast, but can you sense the discomfort that they might have had. They were excited for this day, yet Jesus is kind of being a wet blanket. He is washing feet and speaking about brokenness when he should be proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” We sometimes read this passage out of context to some degree and as a result we can look at the questions that the disciples raise with some arrogance. How can Thomas say, “We do not know where you are going,” and how can Phillip say, Lord, show us the Father.” But we often forget about the confusing day that they had just had. They lived in a world of customs and ritual. That day Jesus had basically turned everything upside down. They had to accept their Rabbi as a servant. They had to let him do to them what they should have been doing for him. And then he redefined something had had been in their history for centuries. I think it is safe to say that the questions they asked were coming from a confused mind.
But these things had to happen for them to be able to accept what they were soon going to experience. In a matter of hours, Jesus knew that he would be taken by force and begin to experience shame and injustice. These disciples were about to have everything they hoped for in their life taken from them, and everything they lived for was going to be shattered. And Jesus was there with them, he was preparing them for that moment.
He said to them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” When we are facing those things that seem to cause our lives to spiral out of control, Jesus is encouraging us to take a step back and remember. Believe can mean many things. I have said before that there are three types of belief: knowledge, trusting, and entrusting. When Jesus is encouraging us to believe, he is encouraging us to face those situations that threaten to upset our lives and go through the stages of belief or faith. He is encouraging us to examine our lives. What do we know? What can we trust? And what areas do we need to entrust?
We all face trials of various sorts. We currently share a common trial, Covid19. Jesus is still telling us the same things, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” But how can we face this trial using these words? First, we need to recognize that our hearts might be troubled. Most of us know that the first step to recovery is to admit that we have a problem. If we do not recognize that there is anxiety in our lives how can we overcome? Ok, so we are troubled, now what?
Jesus then tells us to believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? This tells us that there is revelation. There is knowledge and wisdom available to us for the situations that we are in. Let us consider what is troubling us about our common situation. Can we find some knowledge to what is troubling us? The answer is yes. We know a great deal about the virus and every day they are learning more. If you are concerned, then read about it. I say read because those that do research write down their findings before they do interviews. If you want to know how this virus spread or the symptoms you can find what you are looking for. And once we have knowledge, we can adjust our lives to incorporate that knowledge.
God encourages us to reason and gain knowledge. To gain knowledge is just as important in our spiritual lives as anything else. But there are places where knowledge is not enough. At this point in time we do not know how to “cure” Covid19. We do not have that knowledge, yet every day researchers keep working. This is faith. They believe that they will find something that will turn the tables in this crisis. They may not recognize that they are operating in faith, but they are. They believe and hope for something unseen and that is faith.
The problem is that we do not yet know all we need or want to know. This is also troubling. How do we move forward when the things we hope for are not yet seen? I do not know for a fact that there are many rooms in God’s house. I do not know what color God’s house is. What I do know is Jesus said he is going to prepare a place. This is where the faith of the researchers and the faith of those of us within a Church might differ. In what are we placing our trust. Or to whom are we entrusting our future? I trust science, but I do not entrust my future to it. I trust modern medicine, but I do not entrust my future to it. I say this because in my life I have been told that we should not eat eggs and that we should eat eggs. I have been told to not eat butter and then I have been told that butter is ok. I have been told many things that have a great deal of scientific research attached to it, but a few years down the road I am told something different. Science is based on observation and those that observe are human. At times we might interpret things differently, or maybe we were interpreting an observation without all the information. I trust the strength and wisdom of humanity but only to a degree. There is always room for improvement. People have asked me, how I can hold onto my faith and still trust science, and my answer to that is I see God in what is still unknown.
I say this because with every bit of knowledge we gain, more questions are asked. No matter how hard we search or how much we know there is always something just beyond calling out to us. One of my favorite stories is The Last Battle, which is the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. In this story the characters are encouraged to go further in and farther up. I have often contemplated that concept. While I was studying crop science, I found the concepts of genetics beautiful and how the coding of simple microscopic compounds could form wheat, or corn. It amazed me that the genetic code of most living things differs by only a small amount. Yet, that small variance can result in something profoundly different. The more I studied the more I found myself in awe of the concept of God. I went further in and farther up. I have read about other that have had similar experiences when they study the vastness of space. There is more and for me that more is God.
When I am faced with the trials of life, I examine with the knowledge that I have and I adjust, but in those areas that I see lacking on my part I trust the more. And I trust the life and lifestyle of Christ. I trust because I have seen that lifestyle lived out in front of me. I have watched as my parents have faced challenges in their lives, challenges that I would not want to endure, and yet they face them in faith believing that God will show them a way forward. I have watched my grandfather, and the picture on today’s slides is a picture along the road leading to my grandpa’s farm, live his life filled with joy, but knowing that there was much struggle there as well. I hope to live a life half as full as my grandpa’s. I have read about people throughout history who got to the end of their knowledge yet move forward in faith through their struggle and in their own small way changed the course of history as we know it. They did this because they believed one simple phrase. “I am the way the truth and the life.”
Jesus said those words, the evening before his arrest and trial. He said those words before his unjust execution and before his resurrection. He said those words after he had lived as a common construction working for seventeen years, and after spending thirty years within a family of construction workers. He said those word after three years of ministry where he showed us how to live a life of worship, prayer, and service to others. I have spent years examining the life of Christ, observing, and attempting to put them into practice. Jesus lived a full life within a community. He builds relationships and he struggled. He lived a life like the ones that we live. Yes, there are differences because of various advancements but life is life, our basic needs are the same. Jesus understands life. And he showed us a life and lifestyle that was different from so many in the world. He showed us a lifestyle that is abundant because it looks at the further in and farther up. But his lifestyle was not abundant in the way the world sees abundant. His further in and farther up shows the great potential within us all and even greater potential when we come together in pursuit of a common goal.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” He goes on to say look at his works and believe. And goes even deeper and says those who believe will do even greater things than he. We live in a world filled with trouble, but do not let that control you. Use the trouble you see to inspire you to go further in and farther up. Let it drive you to pursue a way to serve others. We see it all around us. From video conferencing applications like Zoom becoming the classroom, companies like SHIPT and Instacart delivering our groceries to our doorsteps. These innovations began as little things that troubled someone, and they came up with a solution, but there is always more. God is there in the more. His life and lifestyle are where we can find rest so we can look at the problems we face and reengage from a different perspective. His lifestyle reminds us that we are more than individuals but a community working together. And his lifestyle shows us that there is something beyond our greatest fears, there is hope.
He is the way. And as we enter this time of open worship. This period where we as Friends sit in holy expectancy and communion with God, let us consider what is troubling us. And let us sit with God and allow him to use what we know and what we hope for to move forward through the shadows of doubt and fear, as we embrace and trust the God of more.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
May 3, 2020
John 10:1–10 (ESV)
1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
How are we all doing right now? We are still asked to stay at home, and it is getting harder especially when weather outside is incredible. We get on the news and we see people urging the continued stay at home orders and we also see people asking for those orders to be lifted. It is difficult to know what the correct response is. It is like the old 80’s song says, “should I stay, or should I go? If I stay, there will be trouble if I go there will be double.” It is difficult to know what is right during this chaotic time, and to be honest many of the voices we hear seem to be polarizing.
I try not to speak about politics when giving a message like this because we all have our opinions, and we each come to our own conclusions using the information we have gathered. And when we listen to people that might have a different opinion, instead of considering the information they are looking at and comparing it to what we are looking at, we tend to get into a shouting match. Should we stay or should we go? Am I right or are you wrong?
I bring this up because this is what Jesus is in the middle of during this week’s narrative. Just prior to this story, Jesus healed a blind man from birth. When the disciples saw this man sitting there, they asked Jesus a question, “who sinned, that this man was born blind.” Today we might not fully appreciate the depth of this question because we live in a different era of history. We, as a society, have medical professionals that research various ailments, and find solutions to the problems. The research on these things over the past fifty years is astonishing, and every year we gain more understanding. I personally cannot understand the vastness of the advancements, but I do know that I nearly died because of the Chicken Pox and now neither of my sons will have that disease because of the advancements in medicine. But this man was born blind, and in the perspective of the first century person, there must be a reason for this to happen: either the man sinned or the man’s parents sinned to such a degree that God cursed him in such a manner.
We might laugh at the superstitious ideology, but we should stop because we still do this today to some degree. We still ask questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Most of the people that I interact with outside of the church that oppose my perspective in life, general use that one questions to deem faith as illogical. Their argument is that if there is a good and loving God, how could something like this pandemic happen? And to be honest any answer we could give to this question will never be enough because I am asking it too. I do not know why. All I do know is that it is happening to us and it is happening because of us in many ways.
Well in the story, Jesus’s disciples asked that question that we all ask in some form, and in the area were teachers and leaders that held various opinions and taught those opinions to the people. These opinions, like many of ours were vast. They would range from the man sinned before birth somehow, maybe he dishonored his mother in some embryonic thought that we could not know but it was deserving of God’s wrath. While another view might be that of fate. Another might think that the man was born blind because the parents did not offer the proper sacrifices. Just like today, for every situation there were any number of opinions. The problem is that each of those opinions were so caught up in trying to determine which one was right that they totally distracted from the fact that there was a blind man from birth that had been living in their community, and that blind man was still a human being.
Jesus answered those in that debate by simply saying that this man was born blind so that the glory of God could be shown. Think about that answer for a moment. Those words are both encouraging and enraging, but there is something there that is profound. We suffer, but how are we living our lives through the suffering?
Well because Jesus said that the man was blind so that God could be glorified and then healed the man, a greater debate ensued. Who is Jesus and who gave him the authority to do what he is doing? The religious leaders brought in the poor formerly blind man and demanded answers. They were so caught up with being right that they missed the especially important fact that this man’s condition was such, so that God would be glorified. They were angry because their power was threatened, their standing within society was hindered by someone outside of their social class. They were blind to the fact that both they and Jesus was urging the man to give God the glory for the things He has done, because it was not done in the way that they thought was proper.
This is where today’s passage comes in. It was after the great debate surrounding the healing of the blind man from birth. Jesus told them, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” The religious leaders took great offense to this because they perceived correctly that Jesus was calling them out, he was calling them blind to the truth of God.
In today’s passage Jesus explains why he was saying those things. He explains it in terms of the world surrounding them. He speaks of a sheepfold, of shepherds, and livestock thieves. I have a basic understanding of this story because I grew up on a farm. I have cared for livestock and I have had to make sure those animals were protected. While I was in college, I would wake up at four in the morning to feed the cattle, drive to class for an hour to get there at seven in the morning, then I would attend classes till four in the afternoon, only to come home to gather the cattle back up and fix the fences that they had broken through while I was away. Animals require care. I raised cattle, not sheep, and cattle are more independent than sheep. The amount of care that I gave to cattle is minimal to the amount of attention that was required for sheep. And this would be even greater in ancient times when there was not the luxury of our modern fencing.
Sheep would be taken out every day to the surrounding wilderness to graze. Someone would be given the job to make sure the sheep would be cared for, leading them out to the pastures, leading them to water, leading them back to the place of safety at the end of the day. The sheepfold is that place of safety. The fold was an area where some sort of wall was built to gather the sheep in during the night. They built these folds because at night when the shepherd was asleep, predatory animals would stalk the herd, and try to get one animal separated from the others so that they could eat it. But animals were not the only predators on the prowl, there were also humans that would prey upon a sleeping shepherd and make attempts to merge some of your sheep into their herd. To help protect your flock families and villages would build these walled areas. Shepherds would lead the sheep from one to another, allowing the sheep to graze on the land in between. They were built in the wilderness and they were built on the edges of communities. And they would protect the sheep from the wild beasts and would help prevent the thieves from stealing, because now the thief would have to physically lift a sheep over the wall to steal it.
The ancient shepherd would lead their sheep into these folds, and at times there would be several flocks in one sheepfold, allowing each shepherd to have a bit more rest because there was one gate that needed watched. In the morning each of the shepherds would go to the gate and call out to their sheep. These sheep since they were so accustomed to following their shepherd, they knew his voice, and they would rise and follow only their shepherds voice. There could be several different shepherds using one sheepfold and the moment the shepherds would talk their sheep would approach only their one shepherd. Each shepherd would use their own manner of speech, they would have their own call that would attract the attention of their sheep.
There is a bond between the sheep and the shepherd that is developed over time. For all the daylight hours they hear one voice, urging and pleading with them to follow. And if these animals are like the ones that I raised they might have heard a few words of frustration too. Little tones in the words might prompt a sheep to pick up their pace, or to turn to the right or left. But there is a language that is developed over the time, a language between the sheep and their shepherd. When used outside the relationship it sounds ridiculous and idiotic, maybe even frightening.
Previously Jesus said that the leaders of the people were blind, now he is saying that they are not speaking in the tones of the shepherd. They are speaking with a different voice. They are using their voice to garner power over the sheep instead of leading the sheep. A thief does not lead the sheep, they do not call the sheep, the only way for a thief to obtain the sheep is to physically move the sheep by force, or to distract a sheep from the others. The distraction can be in many forms, but primarily they entice the sheep using the sheep’s own appetite. But why would one want to steal the sheep?
A shepherd builds the flock, a shepherd cares for the flock, but a thief is looking only for a quick return. The shepherd is concerned with a long timeline, where the thief is focused on something right now. Once they have the sheep, they are moving that animal to a market of some sort. Jesus says that the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but he came to give life more abundantly.
I have thought about that final verse of today’s passage often. The word abundantly just grabs our attention because we live in a consumer culture. I like the thought of having more. This is not exactly what Jesus means. When I was a child, my dad took me to my grandpa’s house, and we looked at the cattle. He and my grandpa told us to look at the cattle and pick the one we thought would be the best mommy cow. I do not remember how old I was at the time, but I know I was young and still in elementary school. I looked at all the cattle and I found the one I like the most, it was the only one that had spots and the color was also distinctive from the rest. My dad, then unloaded a steer from a trailer and we loaded up the cow. This cow gave birth to a calf, when it gave birth to a bull, I would trade it for a heifer, and if it gave birth to a heifer, I kept it. Eventually I had a herd of my own. This herd was capital I used to obtain my education. This is the difference between a shepherd and a thief. The shepherd builds with a goal in mind. Carefully tending so that there is an increase for the future. The thief consumes, lives for the moment.
Jesus wishes to give us an abundant life. When we look at that word from a consumer mindset, we think of blessing now. God will give me wealth, health, fame, and power. This is the mind of the thief, instant gratification. Yes, God might make some immediate changes in our life, but still struggle. Jesus speaks of an abundant life in different terms, it is a change of lifestyle or focus. It is training our hearts and minds to listen and look deeper and wider. It is trading a bull for a heifer so that the herd grows.
Jesus spoke these words to the leaders of the people. He is telling them that the sheep will hear the voice of the shepherd and follow him. The shepherd is the God that everyone in this story claims to follow and the voice could be the words of scripture. There is something powerful in this, because after numerous wars, after countless quests to eliminate the children of Israel both in ancient and modern history, they remain. When we look at the words of scripture, we can see some profound things regarding society and healthy living. The dietary laws if followed promote a healthier lifestyle, that medical science and prove, yet they were given thousands of years before we even knew of heart disease. The law of God promotes abundant life because it is a long-term focused lifestyle. Jesus did not dismiss that law, but he called the leaders out on how they were manipulating it. They were twisting the words of God to satisfy their appetites and to gain power and influence over the people. And the words that once promoted life, became instruments of oppression. What was once good lead to coercion as well as apathy both were working together to destroy the lifestyle of God with us, because the focus was instead on us.
Jesus came that we may have life and have it more abundantly. He is God with us. He came born of Mary, so that God would be with us in every aspect of life. He grew up in a community with us. He grew not only physically but in wisdom and knowledge just like every child. He had a career, becoming a master in his trade. And after thirty years he began his ministry. Jesus came to show and teach us what life with God looked like. His complete life speaks the fulness of God. And when he says that he is the door or the gate he is telling us that he is the way because he is God with us. And he proved this through his life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus is the gate to the abundant life, and he is calling us to join him in that life. The world is out there arguing about staying at home or going out again to work, and Jesus is calling us to listen to his voice. Are we listening or are be being distracted? The abundant life starts right here. It begins when we turn to Jesus and respond to his lifestyle of worship, prayer, and service to others. Maybe this is just what we need to do: Worship, pray and be of service to others. Maybe we have been so focused on abundance that we have put ourselves in a position where plague was bound to happen and God is calling us to a different life, a life of less but more.
As we join in the silence, I encourage us all to consider how these times we are living through could be for the glory of God. And consider how we can participate in the abundant lifestyle of Christ even in a time of social distancing. Let us now take time away from the distractions of the world so we can focus on the voice of our good shepherd and become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.