Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ross Erb: Seeing the unseen

Easter 6: “Alleluia! Praise the God of Presence”
John 14:15-21; 1 Peter 3:13-22

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On Wednesday evening this week
the high school youth met for a Bible Study here at church.
It’s near the end of the school year,
so it was nice just to have some youth show up
in the midst of the stress of assignments and studying.
With that in mind,
we lit some candles, turned out the lights in the youth room,
listened to some scripture, and tried to still ourselves.
Now, it would be easy to begin to be critical of youth
about how busy they are.
I fall prey to that temptation sometimes,
but in honest moments I recognize that our youth have learned from us! Our culture teaches us to race from one activity to the next,
with precious little time to be still.
On Wednesday evening,
one of the youth pushed back a bit in our conversation
about needing to stop on occasion.
“When I am not busy, I just waste time.
It’s better to live and be active in the world!”
It is an interesting dilemma,
this tension between tending to our souls
and tending to the needs of the world.

In John 14, Jesus promises his disciples that when he is gone
he will send an Advocate to help us and to be with us forever.
This promise comes in the context of the disciples worrying.
Jesus has been talking about going away from them.
They respond with questions.
“Where are you going?
Why can’t we follow you?”
They have spent years with Jesus.
The thought of separation must be frightening.
They even understand that if Jesus goes on ahead of them,
they might not be able to follow them on their own.
In John 14:6, Jesus tells them,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.
From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus goes on to stress that he is so closely connected to God
that to know Jesus is to know God.
What a remarkable statement!
This is probably irreverent,
but it causes me to think of couples
who begin to look alike after years of marriage
(I’ll give a pre-emptive “sorry” to Cathy at this point),
or pet owners who begin to look like their pets.
Is it possible that there is such a close connection between people
that our appearance begins to shift?
Or is it that our spirits shift and come closer together
and others see that as seeming to be physically similar?
Jesus goes on to say in John 14:15-21, which we heard this morning,
that this Advocate, this Spirit of Truth that is dwelling within us,
will let us see Jesus.
Jesus is with God, we are with Jesus,
and Jesus is with us in the person of the Spirit.
This is a wonderful promise that should bring us great joy!
A challenge to the fulfillment of this promise is that we are so busy
we don’t have time to attend to this indwelling Advocate.
The noise of our daily living can drown out the presence of the Spirit!
For youth and young adults, social and academic pressures
may keep them from tending this relationship.
In their idealism they do many good things,
but it can be at the expense of a deep and abiding relationship with God. For parents of young children and youth it may be that you can hardly imagine taking time to connect closely with the Spirit of Truth.
You are too busy doing the myriad things that need to be done
to maintain your family.
The same barriers can be present for all of us,
no matter what our life stage or situation.
I get that. 


I know from my own experience that being told we need to stop,
that we need to just “be”, can be so irritating!
I’m not willing to take a free pass on this, however,
and I am not advocating a free pass for you either.
We may not be able to carve out regular time to “be” with God,
but I have found that it is possible to be attentive to the Spirit
even if it is only by reviewing the day in your mind
just before sleep takes you,
to see where God was active in you and the world.
When do you take time to attend to God’s Spirit of Truth within you?
How do you watch for God’s presence in you and in this world?
That is a question I hope you ponder in the coming days.
What do you do, what will you do,
to tend to your soul?
How does this faith community help us to pay attention to God’s Spirit with us?
And Jesus didn’t place everything on us.
He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
Watch for that! Open yourself to see Jesus everyday.
We may not have to take heroic steps
to develop our relationship with Jesus.
Jesus will come to us, the Spirit will come to us.
Seeing God may be as simple as opening our eyes
with the intent of looking for God.
We begin to see the unseen, we see Jesus,
even though he is now dwelling with God in heaven.

But Jesus did not just tell the disciples that the Spirit was going to come to them after Jesus went to be with God.
Jesus also said, “If you love me, keep my commands.”
“Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
So to be faithful to Jesus is not only to seek out the Spirit in our lives
and deepen that relationship.
We are also to keep Jesus’ commands. 
And what are these commands that Jesus gives?
Jesus clarifies his statement when he says in John 15:12-14,
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this:
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command.”

So knowing this Advocate, this part of God who is with us even now, when Jesus is no longer present on earth, is not an end unto itself.
We are also to live out this command to love each other
as Jesus loved us.
And how much did Jesus love us?
Well, he was kind of extreme in his love,
to the point of being willing to die on a cross
because he loved us so much.
“Love each other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for friends.”


That’s a pretty high bar to set for love, don’t you think?
Can we accept this calling
that we should be willing to lay down our lives for our friends?
And what if we choose to define “friends” as broadly as Jesus defined who our neighbor is –
in other words everyone with whom we come in contact?
But if we seldom come across situations
where we need to lay down our lives for friends,
there is no shortage of situations
where we should be prepared to do good for others.
Sometimes that may seem as costly to us.
Laying down our lives may mean giving up what we want
for the sake of doing what is good for someone else.

I Peter is a letter that is full of advice
about how followers of Jesus should live.
In 1 Peter 3, the writer talks about doing good,
and being prepared to suffer for doing good.
Doing good doesn’t seem too far removed
from being prepared to give up one’s life for someone else.
Let me read the verses immediately preceding the passage that we’ve already heard this morning.
If you have your Bibles, turn to 1 Peter 3, beginning at verse 8.
In my Bible, this section is under the heading of “Suffering for doing good”.

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, “Whoever would love life?and see good days?must keep their tongue from evil?and their lips from deceitful speech.?They must turn from evil and do good;?they must seek peace and pursue it.?For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous?and his ears are attentive to their prayer,?but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
How do you live out this injunction to love as Jesus loved?
How do we as a faith community live this out?
Yet another question to ponder!


So we get to the text for today, where Peter asks,
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?”
And if they do, so what??
We need to be prepared to give an explanation
for why we are living as we are.
Give the reason for the hope we have within us
that causes us to do good even when we suffer as a result.
This passage turns simple faithful living into an evangelistic exercise.
Living out Jesus’ command to love one another as Jesus loved us
is also an opportunity to share this gospel, this good news,
with others in a gentle and respectful way.
In July a group of about 25 youth and adults from this congregation
will be going to Americus, Georgia to serve with the Fuller Center.
We will be building or renovating houses for people
who need assistance to have adequate shelter.
It is my sincere hope that before we ever leave on this trip,
all of us who are going will have spent enough time
experiencing the presence of the Spirit of Truth within us
that we will leave with a conviction that we are responding to God’s call
to love as we have been loved.
It is also my sincere hope that we will go prepared to answer the question,
“Why are you doing this?”
in a way that gives testimony to that Spirit of Truth dwelling in us,
and that we will do it with gentleness and respect.
And as we do that, the people for whom we are building will see and know Jesus, they will see the unseen.
They will see Jesus because our actions and our words
will point clearly to him!
It is also my sincere hope that we will act in the exact same way
when we return to Harrisonburg at the end of the week.
Jesus did not call us to live out his commands
only while we are on service trips.
We are to live out his commands every day,
wherever we are and with whomever we are.
We are to be prepared to give testimony to the hope
which lives within us.


Are you prepared to share the hope within you?
How do you do that in gentle and respectful ways?
I know that my own inclination is to desire to let my actions speak for themselves. I can be uncertain about how to share my faith out of fear that I will not make sense, or that I will fail to be gentle or respectful. There is a video series that I have used at times with the youth.
In one video, a man is standing on a street corner,
yelling at passersby that they need to know Jesus.
In some ways, it is my fear of becoming like that man
that keeps me from sharing about God.
But it does not have to be like that!
As we experience the presence of this Advocate sent by Jesus,
we will desire to follow Jesus’ commands to love as we have been loved. Our actions will invite persons to ask
what it is that motivates us to love so radically.
And so with deeds and with words, we will tell everybody about Jesus,
and our joyful lives will be a faithful reflection of Jesus.
May it be so for all of us!

—Ross Erb, May 25, 2014

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