“Real Life, Real Jesus”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long in conversation with a sermon by The Rev. Hardy Kim of Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church in Sunnyvale, CA.
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 26, 2019: Easter 6
Diana Butler Bass is one of the most prolific and profound thinkers and writers in the church today. In her 2012 book Christianity After Religion, Bass shares part of a conversation she had with a woman sitting next to her on a plane. When the woman saw that Bass was reading a book about the church, the person said to her, “I don’t go to church anymore. I’m not mad at the church or anything—I appreciate what it gave me when I was young. But I just don’t know where it fits anymore, and I just drifted away. My life is fine without the church; it seems kind of irrelevant. They don’t seem to care about my questions so there is no reason for me to go.” Bass went on to ask the woman what sorts of questions she has that the church doesn’t seem to care about. The woman replied, “Oh, doubt, life, making the world a better place. You know, questions. They seem interested in things that don’t really matter. Church is disconnected from real life.”
When I read this anecdote in Bass’ book several years ago I remember feeling a knot form in my stomach. It was a wake-up call for me and it still sort of unsettles me to this day. Bass’ conversation with the woman on the plane issues a challenge to all people of faith. The challenge is that if the Church—and we’re talking capital ‘c’ church here as in the worldwide church—wants to capture the attention of people in an increasingly complex world, we must always be working to discover new and fresh ways of bringing the timeless message of our faith to life. The woman on the plane is not unique and her experience in the church is not unique, either. After reflecting on her experience on the plane, Bass writes that the Church simply cannot go on regurgitating the things that were interesting to people in Asia Minor 2,000 years ago, or in 16thcentury Europe, or even in the 1950s in suburban America. Bass writes, however, that the Church can indeed survive and thrive, but only if we are willing to connect the complexity and realness of everyday life with the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As God would have it, this very topic is at the center of the gospel lesson we’ve heard today. But the gospel lesson for today is a little incomplete. It begins with Jesus giving an answer even though we don’t know what the question is. It is the night of his betrayal and arrest and Jesus is enjoying a traditional Passover feast with his friends and followers. If we step back a verse we read that Judas—not the one who betrays him—asks, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” How will you reveal yourself to usand notthe world. That’s a strange question. That is the sort of churchy behavior the woman on the plane said had pushed her away from the church. That’s an insider question. It makes lots of assumptions. It is almost in a different language. Judas wants Jesus to tell him and the others how they can be different from everyone else. Judas wants Jesus to tell him and the others that everything is going to be OK for them. Judas wants Jesus to tell him and the others just how special they are.
With that question in mind, listen again to Jesus’ answer: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” In response to Judas’ self-centered, conceited, insider question, Jesus declares that there is no real secret, there is no special code, there is no membership or VIP card. ‘Do what I told you to do,’ Jesus says. ‘Keep my words,’ Jesus says. ‘Obey my commands,’ Jesus says. Jesus does not want there to be any confusion: “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”
Judas has a very narrow understanding of Jesus and Jesus’ mission while Jesus has a wildly expansive vision for how his mission is going to change the world. Judas wants a Jesus Club and he wants that club to be ultra-exclusive, similar to the different streams of Judaism that were practicing in Jerusalem at the time. Judas wants Jesus to teach them secret handshakes and passwords and rituals so that they can truly feel and look different from everyone else. Judas wants Jesus all to him, as the personal property of the disciples, but Jesus simply won’t allow himself to be crammed into the little box the disciples have created for him. Jesus says things to like ‘those who love me’ and ‘my Father will love them’ and ‘whoever’ as a signal that his path, his good news, his transformation of the world is available and accessible to anyone who wants to follow his way. Jesus is not just the Savior of the people who call him Lord; Jesus is Savior of all people because God so loved the world.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have asked Judas’ question before. Whether it be communion practices or how we read the Bible, from leadership in the church to Christian marriage, we have asked Jesus to help us narrow the path that leads to him. Take for example a communion practice that was common in Scottish and American Presbyterian churches nearly until the 1940s. The practice was that each church member had to visit the pastor to give account of their life—everything from their sins to what they were doing at work and home and whether or not they were current on their pledge to the church. If the pastor deemed the person worthy, the pastor would give the person a communion token. Yes, a token, about the size of a half-dollar. On communion Sunday you would only be able to receive the bread and cup if you dropped your token in a plate held by one of the servers.
I don’t read anything in Jesus’ ministry or teaching where he gives explicit or implicit permission for such a practice. In fact, I read the exact opposite. When he fed the 5,000 hungry souls who came out to hear him preach, he told the disciples to feed everyone and then collect the leftovers so that they could have a meal later in the day. Jesus did not ask for payment from the woman at the well. Jesus did not make the disciples confess their sins to him before he ate with them on the night he was betrayed and arrested. Jesus did not say, “Come to me some of your who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” It is in our human nature to want to build barriers and walls, physical and spiritual, as a way to define ourselves and to protect ourselves against the many dangers of this world. It is in our human nature to be like Judas and want Jesus to set us aside for his ultra-exclusive club. But that’s not Jesus and that is not the way we are called to live if we truly desire to be connected to him.
In our Presbyterian tradition, we believe that the very existence of the church depends on its connection to Jesus. That might seem like the most elementary of all things that makes us a church of Jesus Christ, but our connection to Jesus is deeply written into our history, our theology, and our practices. In the documents that form our church’s constitution, it is written that the church exists to glorify God and enjoy God forever. We do this by following the ways of Jesus, keeping his words, obeying his commands, doing what Jesus taught us to do, and we do this even at the cost of the church’s life. This is to say that our connection to Jesus is so important to who we are, so essential to what give us life and breath, that we should be willing to follow him even if it means the death of the church. Could it be that the church seems irrelevant and unimportant to so many because we are working harder at keeping the doors open than following Jesus?
That all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Even heroic. We’re going to follow Jesus even if means all of this has to fade away. It sounds wonderful because deep down in all of us, my friends, I believe that we have a desire to be connected to Jesus Christ in such a profound way. I believe that we all have a true desire to obey his commands and keep his words and do the things he taught us to do. I believe that we all have a true desire to follow him and I believe, just by the fact that we are here today, that we all have a true desire to see Christ’s church survive and thrive. But we get terribly stuck so much of the time, don’t we? We get comfortable in our ways. We fall back into the insider language of our upbringing. We lament for how things used to be, but we get tired just thinking about how much work it will be to bring more folks in the doors and start new programs and build meaningful ministries. Where do we turn and what can we do when we desire deeply to follow Jesus but simply don’t know where to start?
In 1991 the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted an affirmation of faith that gives us some good wisdom today about where we can begin. It says, “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, witnessing among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” The work of being connected to Jesus begins when we make our lives a ceaseless prayer. The work of being connected to Jesus begins when we identify idols in the church and the world and we point them out so that they can be destroyed. The work of being connected to Jesus begins when we listen to the voices of those who have been silenced or pushed to the margins or have been drowned out by louder ones. The work of being connected to Jesus begins when we work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In more concrete ways, we do what Jesus taught us to do when we show deep and real concern for each other’s questions, even and especially if these questions make us uncomfortable or uneasy. We do what Jesus taught us to do when we acknowledge that none of us have it all together, that there isn’t a single perfect person among us and then give ourselves and each other grace to screw up and make mistakes and learn and get better. We do what Jesus taught us when we honor each other’s doubts about life, faith, Jesus, the Bible, the church’s teaching on things like sex, leadership, and marriage, and when we realize that God wants us to use what we learn and say and do in here to make a better world out there. We do what Jesus taught us when open ourselves to the messiness of life, to children that suffer from crippling anxiety, to women who face violence at work or at home, to people who struggle to find housing and work because they look differently or speak differently from the majority. We do what Jesus taught us when get real, when we take off the rose-colored glasses, and face life with his life that not even the tomb could contain.
We do what Jesus taught us when we hold on to one another regardless of how different our views, our opinions, our beliefs may be. This means doing the hard work of creating a world where these pairs can live together: gun owners and those who want guns banned, those who advocate for the rights of refugees and those who want to build walls, those who want to feed and clothe everyone who is hungry and naked and those who think the poor are just gaming the system, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, those who support marriage equality and those who don’t, those who think clapping in church is fine and those who don’t, those of us who call soda soda and everyone else who is wrong, and those who think gravy is white with pepper and those who think gravy is brown. It is only in holding tightly to one another through our differences that we strengthen one another, chase out the evil that exists in all of us, and become more the people God wants us to be. Jesus left us with a lot of room to interpret many of the things he said, but on one thing he was abundantly and unflinchingly clear: we are to be one as he is one with God. As much as we might want to, we don’t have the option to leave each other behind.
We do what Jesus taught us when we share his peace with each other here in this place and every place we go. Christ’s peace is not just a hand shake and something to say when church is over. Christ’s peace is an end to animosity and hatred among us. Christ’s peace is forgiveness and reconciliation. Christ’s peace is a chance to start over, a chance that we all desperately need from time to time. Christ’s peace is the beginning of the Church showing to the world, and to all those who wonder about its relevance and importance, that we really care about life, about doubt, about making the world a better place.
Jesus will not be contained, by us or by the church. Jesus is alive and roaming around and my brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the power today and each day to make Jesus’ risen life mean something. We have the power to connect the complexity and realness of everyday life with the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, bringing meaning, value, power, and redemption to that messy and beautiful life. It is not easy. In fact, it is the hardest work we will ever do. But that is who we are as people of the Resurrection. May God give all of us a new and fresh love for Jesus Christ today so that our lives and work may bring about we a better world, a better life, a transformed creation. Amen.