This sermon was delivered a bit differently than it is written. If you’d like to watch/hear that version, find the Facebook page of Community Christ Lutheran Church, Whitehouse, Ohio and look for the May 7, 2023 worship service.
Confession: followers of Jesus do a lot of damage by pretending we are certain. Since Jesus says in John 14, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” Christians have said, “So there, Christianity is the only way. Convert or else.” We’ve done the same thing with John 3:16, the Gospel in a nutshell, “For whosoever believes in me shall not perish, but have eternal life.” And Christians are like, “Ha! Perish if you don’t believe like us!” We must beg for forgiveness. It is our anxiety lashing out.
What John is concerned about is helping Jesus’ followers to recognize their God who shows up in their lives. His Gospel is not about drawing lines to exclude people, to create a litmus test for getting to God. John drew around his audience to put them inside the circle, a circle of relationship with the fully human, fully divine person of Jesus. We worship and are loved by a God who shows up in our particular lives, like a sibling, a teacher, a friend, and yet also the Word Made Flesh. God is not a set of principles, rules or prescriptions for what to confess or how to act. The Way of Christ is not a threat.
Yet when we’re anxious, which is a lot of the time, we crave certainty. We are like Thomas who asks for detailed instructions: “How can we know the way?” Or Philip who asks for proof: “Lord, show us the Father”. We must think … or hope … that if we can cling to a certainty in one area of our lives, maybe all the chaos around us will be more manageable. Clear-cut dividing lines work well for media coverage, political campaigns, and whipping people into a frenzy. Fear motivates. When we are already anxious, and can easily find a scapegoat, a focus for that fear, it is very hard not to jump on the bandwagon. When one “issue” stops getting the response they want, the powerful find a new “threat” to make people’s blood boil. Because we are anxious, we cling to an answer as better than nuance, continual learning, confessing.
Sometimes I think that the silence and stillness in spiritual practices is not just to slow us down, to give us blessed rest, but to subvert our clinging to certainty, to thoughts and ideas of God, so we can just be together, as you can sit without talking to the people you are closest to, and just be. No answers, just relationship.
The Way is a Person
“I am the Way,” says Jesus. The Way is a person, and that is very Good News. You know who he is. He is beloved, and secure in that. For heaven’s sake, God’s voice shook the earth like thunder when he was baptized, claiming him as God’s own beloved child. That’s pretty definitive. So Jesus, at least, is a person not acting out of anxiety. But like us, Jesus is shaped and profoundly changed through relationships throughout his life. He navigates relationships up until the very end, when from the cross he bequeaths his close relationships with his mother and the beloved disciple John, to each other to be family when he is gone.
The Way of Jesus is to be changed in relationships with other people. My favorite Bible story, which I lean on heavily in my book, is the Canaanite woman who begs Jesus for healing for her daughter. Jesus says, shamefully, “It’s not fair to throw the bread meant for the children to the dogs.” “Yes Lord,” she replies, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” He hears in her voice—his own words spat back at him (he called her daughter a “dog”)—and changes his mind. She’s right. He’s not just here for the Jewish people. This outsider, powerless woman makes Jesus more clear on his expansive mission, when he was trying to draw the lines darkly and firmly. Even Jesus was open to correction. Well.
How different it is to follow a person, a God who lives in relationships with us. Who doesn’t stand above and decree and punish or condemn. It is as if that should affect how we relate to other people too.
But they’re not going to like it. Whoever they are. People who are invested in being right, or in power, or in being able to manipulate and divide and de-humanize all of us by keeping us from each other do not receive well the Way of Jesus.
Following The Way that is Jesus is not safe, by any definition. It involves getting into a lot of what the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis called “good trouble”. If the Way of Jesus is to be in relationship with even the oppressed, then we will anger a lot of people who want faith to be about dividing lines, not unconditional love for all children of God. In our reading from Acts today, Stephen is stoned, the first Christian martyr, for calling the religious leaders on their sins. He blasted them for ignoring the Holy Spirit, for not considering the Word of God alive among us. It did not go well for him.
There’s offending those in power by standing up for the Way of Jesus, then there’s our own consciences telling us uncomfortable truths: we have done wrong, we need to confess, to start over, to do better. You better believe we don’t like that either! What if being like Jesus is admitting that we are works in progress, works in relationship, just as Jesus was, developing, becoming the Word Made Flesh as he interacted with people? The Way is a person who grows and changes their entire life. Out of love for others. Jesus promises to do what we ask, we who believe that he is the Way. We’ll evolve the faith and fit it not just to 1st century Palestine but to our neighborhoods, our country, our problems with loving everybody. That is the Way, encountering God in our reality, here and now. In practical terms, this is rather exhausting, to see the humanity in everyone, to acknowledge that they are individuals just like me, who don’t get to be lumped into a stereotype, but have hopes and dreams and circumstances that influence their actions. For example, how do you talk to the children in your life about mean kids? It’s a dance to stand in solidarity with them when they are being picked on, but also just plant those seeds of “Wow, I wonder who said that to them in their life, that they think the thing to do is to treat other people like that?” Because you know the mean kid must be hurting. They must be anxious, or afraid that nobody likes them, or they wouldn’t be trying to act superior. But I don’t know how best to plant that understanding in the next generation’s psyche. I’m wide open to suggestions. Let’s get into good trouble together, people of God. The good trouble of following God in our time, the Word Made Flesh.