The Lord’s Prayer: Praise

Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1, 7-15

Teach Us How

When I was studying at the University of Chicago, I took a great deal of language and translation-based courses. My advisor would work his way around the room, instructing each of us in turn to do a line and asking probing questions that we struggled to answer. But every now and again—usually following a lengthy period of instruction prompted by our ignorance—he would lose track of which of us had last contributed. And that is when he’d speak those words that struck terror in our hearts: “Ok, let’s see who’s next……”

We students would freeze—like baby deer who just became aware of a nearby pack of wolves. 

Do not make eye contact, do not make eye contact do not make eye contact……

And we would be held—breathless—until he called a name, which seemed to be my own name far more than standard deviation would suggest.

Now, all these years later, I experience the other side of that dynamic every single week. 

I’m in a small group and we’re about to begin or end. I say something like: “Would someone volunteer to pray?” and it happens:

Everyone freezes. 

No one makes eye contact. 

Not a whisper of breath passes for a moment……and then two……and then more…… 

And so I call out someone’s name (and they often respond with the suggestion that the lot falls on them more than standard deviation would suggest).

There’s all sorts of reasons for this fear of praying, I suppose. 

Most of us have never been taught how to pray—we simply absorbed some of it by the osmosis of worshipping together as the church: we mimic what we hear. 

Most of us are pretty private about religious and faith issues as well. We don’t readily talk about our relationship with God, our struggles and successes, and so on. 

So when we’re asked to do something publicly that we aren’t terribly comfortable doing privately, we freeze.

Perhaps we should be encouraged that—for all the ages, and the chasm of culture between then and now—Jesus’ disciples seem to have had similar struggles. I think that’s what prompted them to ask Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray” in Luke 11. As Luke tells the story of Jesus, it is this inquiry—this confession of how uncomfortable they were with praying—that prompts Jesus to give them the example that we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Intro to Series/Prayer

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be wrestling with prayer—and specifically the short, somewhat ambiguous template for prayer that Jesus offers as instruction to his followers.

For many communities of faith—and in fact for much of Christian history—an intrinsic part of our worship has been reciting this prayer together. 

The prayer was not particularly groundbreaking, as far as faith practices go; nearly every line has an antecedent in the teaching of the rabbis. 

Nor is it distinctly Christian; scholar Dale Allison has noted that “a Jew wanting to have nothing to do with Jesus could still pray the Our Father” (The Sermon on the Mount, 134). 

But at the same time, this model for prayer is decidedly Jesus-ey, because praying like this can only open us up to the fulfillment of the Christian life as Jesus defines it: love of God and love of neighbor (cf. Mark 12:29-31). This is part of what we will be exploring over the coming weeks.

Our process will be straightforward. Each week, we will attend to a different line of the prayer. I have attached to each line a word of direction: praise, yield, ask, repent, trust, and celebrate. I’ve also joined each line of the prayer to a text from elsewhere in scripture—something to hold in dialogue with the prayer, to provide context for interpretation and application, and to remind ourselves that the important dimensions of faith do not rely simply on one or two verses quoted out of context—it is always the whole of scripture that must be considered.

 

Today we begin with the opening line of the prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” And already—from that very first word—we find the task of praying like Jesus to be almost too much to bear.

“Our” God: Interconnectedness

“Our.”

Whatever our preconceived ideas about prayer may be—and whatever our culture tells us about religion and personal worth—the prayer Jesus teaches his followers begins with the confession that our faith is not an individual practice. 

God is not my God, but our God. 

My prayer is not my prayer but our prayer—prayer by us and for us and from us, and directed to the God of us. 

Matthew places this model prayer in a section that cautions against a purely private expression of religion—and the early church was quick to take note of this fact and guard it. In the early days of Christianity, the North African leader Cyprian expressly forbids praying this prayer in the singular. He wrote:

Before all things the teacher of peace and master of unity [that is, Jesus] is unwilling for prayer to be made singly and individually, teaching that he [or she] who prays is not to pray for himself [or herself] alone. For we do not say, “My Father who art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread,” nor does each one ask that only their own debt should be forgiven them; nor does she request for herself alone that she may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we do not pray for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. (On the Lord’s Prayer 8)

This goes against everything our culture has taught us. It even goes against what some of us may have been taught in church. But it is quite clearly what the scriptures proclaim and what our ancient forbearers in faith upheld. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas even said that to pray “Our Father” is to express love for our neighbor [Lord’s Prayer 1:4].

I love a practice that Roberta Bondi has suggested—a way of praying this particular word of the prayer that gets to the heart of what Jesus and the early church sought to teach.

She recommends beginning each morning with the words “our Father.” “After that [she says], I visualize the face or faces of the people I must be with that day with whom I am angry, or whom I would avoid because they have hurt me or sap my energy or exercise internal or external destructive power over me.”

“Then, I paraphrase the words “our Father” and repeat them as a prayer for myself and for the other person or persons together: “my Father and the Father of my student Stephen”; “my Father and the Father of the church group I am on my way to speak to”; “my Father and the Father of my uncle.” (A Place to Pray, 29)

Wow.

God as Father (But Not Father)

This leads us immediately to our next challenge: God as father.

The language of our most recently composed scriptures is still nearly 2000 years old. The language of a dominant bible translation that many continue to use is over 400. Even translations completed in the last 50 or so years look at little rough around the edges on account of the evolution of the English language and archaeological and textual discoveries that have emerged. And then there’s the cultural shifts—some for good reasons, a few perhaps not so good—away from such gendered language and it’s sociological consequences.

For some good Christian folks, calling God “father” is simply a remnant of an archaic, patriarchal societal model that has been responsible for so much oppression, domination, and violence done to so many over the years.

But many more face an immanent and personal problem—many of us have not had positive connotations with “father” in our earthly experience. 

At one extreme end are those who have experienced terrible violence and trauma perpetrated by their fathers. 

At another: there has been no experience of “father” at all, besides an awareness that a “father” isn’t there, or doesn’t love and want your existence. 

Roberta Bondi, who I quoted earlier, writes that she realizes she “transferred to God the Father all the pain [she] felt around [her] human father” (p.23). She expected God, like her father, was impossibly perfectionistic and expected his children to demonstrate a superiority over others that she just couldn’t manage.

This prayer modeled by Jesus gives us an opening to talk about our father issues. But since it is a model (rather than a rule), I do not believe it forces anyone to address God as father whether they want to or not. 

Be reminded, Church, that we only know God by analogy, and analogies are by nature imperfect. 

Remember too: the Bible does not envision God to be a gendered being, communicating rather that both male and female are made in God’s image.

But against all these obstacles, I do also think God works to redeem fatherhood, just as the cross has been redeemed and transformed from an instrument of torture and death, to an emblem of hope and life. In God and across a lifetime, we may discover a parent who is the perfection of what a parent ought to be—a parent who can 

love us unconditionally, 

challenge us and appropriately motivate us to become who they know we can be, 

correct us when we are heading down the path of self-destruction or the destruction of others, 

and teach us how to be better parents than any we may have known. 

After all: “Is anything too hard for [God]?” (Jeremiah 32:27).

Hallowed Be Thy Name

“Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.”

With “hallowed be thy name,” we arrive at the first of six petitions in this prayer. The first three attend to the lordship of God, and the second three attend to human need. All (as we will see) transform us and our actions into the fulfillment of Jesus’ only rules: Love God and love neighbor.

Now, contrary to the way we sometimes think about it, it is God (and not us) who is tasked with making God’s name holy. In praying “hallowed be thy name,” we pray like Jesus in John 12:28: “Father, glorify your name” (NRSV). Or put differently, we request that God fulfill the promise offered in Ezekiel 36:23: “I will sanctify my great name” (NRSV).

Yet even if we recognize that this holy-making is something that God does rather than we do, we cannot get around the fact that in this communal prayer we are requesting that God do it in us. Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa “explained that what Christians pray for in ‘hallowed be your name’ is an ability to mirror the characteristics of God so that anyone looking at us can see in us something of who God is.” (quoted in Bondi p.42n1).

 

But thinking about God’s holiness gives us fits, just like “Our Father” upsets our individualism and pushes against our human experiences. Too often over the years, pastors and churches have talked about God’s holiness almost exclusively in connection with sin. Especially in the ways we have taught children, “the very idea of God’s holiness carried with it God’s dangerously righteous hatred of sin, as well as the threat of God’s anger, which could blaze out suddenly against even the most innocent of mistakes” (Bondi p.33). 

But more often in the bible, “holy” is how we describe our experience of awe upon encountering God’s transcendent otherness. As we read in scripture, encounters with God’s holiness enables us to see differently—to see a kind of beauty, for sure; but more often, to see our experiences of things like poverty or success or even faith in an entirely new light.

Learning to pray “hallowed be your name” involves inviting God to open us up to the truth and justice that God is pursuing in the advancement of the Kingdom. But as we have already seen, that involves learning to love one another as God loves us.

Here again, Roberta Bondi writes with power, saying:

“Very rarely does a day go by now that I don’t pray for the compassion and love that comes with an awareness of God’s holy beauty in the lives of the other people with whom I share my world. 

‘Hallowed by your name,’ I pray as I catch myself pushing away the knowledge of what it is like to be poor and demoralized, unable to find a place to live on minimum wages, to provide good food and medical care for your children. 

‘Hallowed be your name,’ I pray as I read in the paper of crimes, wars, and atrocities committed here and in places far away.

 ‘Hallowed be your name,’ I pray; ‘may I not turn my face away in callousness, judgment, or cynicism from any human life, from anyone who reflects your image, whether it be an image of your glory or of your humiliation.’” (Bondi p.49)

That, sisters and brothers, is a demonstration of the Gospel.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

Prayer

How remarkable, O God,
that even as we seek to praise your name,
you are forging within us
an appreciation of the value of one another.

Help us, we pray,
to remember that just as we pray together,
so we fail together, and we succeed together;
we sin together, and we are forgiven together;
we confess together, and we discover together
the bottomless well of your love and grace.

Make your name hallowed,
beautiful,
valued,
and true in our lives,
and in the whole of creation.

Just as you looked upon our initial creation
and called it “good,”
so may we be transformed by your goodness
into your likeness—an image that bears the imprint
of the good news of your love and redemption.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.

Amen.

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Kindling the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Romans 8:22-27

Creation is in labor

When I first started really getting into translating the Hebrew language, one of the things that I found remarkable was how much imagery in the bible is rooted in the image of childbirth. For a language that usually talks about the process of making a baby as simply “knowing” each other, Hebrew tends to compare a lot of things to the swelling of pregnancy, the relentlessness of contractions, and the incomparable “pains” of birth.

Childbirth is a threshold event—there is before, and there is after. (That may be the only clear-cut and certain thing about it.) And aside from death, there may not be another experience in life that draws so firm a line.

So in before-and-after events of Isaiah 42:14 (for example), when God is so pained by the injustice of the world (and especially that perpetrated by Israel) that God steps back and allows their consequences to crash over them with devestating effect, Isaiah knows of no better description than this. God says: “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (NRSV).

When (in Psalm 88) the psalmist is trying to describe the relentless and overwhelming nature of being on the wrong side of God, the best imagery available is that of the relentless and overwhelming contractions of childbirth (often translated as “waves” here), which seemingly interminably wrack the mother’s body.

And so here (in Romans 8), as Paul is searching for a way of describing the ultimate before-and-after event (the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God), he too—Jew among Jews—reaches for the imagery of childbirth.

Starting in v.18, Paul begins to imagine with (and for) the Roman church “the glory about to be revealed to us” (v.18b). And here, it is in fact all of creation that is “groaning in labor pains” (v.22). The Kingdom of God that is being birthed into existence does not just affect we human beings—but everything that iseverything that God made, and called “good” back in Genesis 1.

Labor Pains

It’s not too hard to see these “labor pains” if we open our eyes and look around us. Another week has gone by……

Another school shooting……

Another round of dehumanizing rhetoric……

Another series of murders in the Near East due to misguided theology……

More terrorist bombings: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan (2), Iraq (2), Indonesia (5)—and that’s just this past week……

Another week of wars and rumors of wars……of natural disasters and evacuations……

Another week of political corruption being exposed……

Another week of the most vulnerable slipping through the cracks……

Another week of our deep division being exposed by something as simple as a soundbite and the words: “laurel” and “yanny.”

Truly Paul is right: all creation is quaking, wracked by wave after wave of contractions, nearly splitting itself apart as it awaits transformation at the emergence of God’s kingdom.

But what about us? How is our labor coming along?

“Likewise” Means We Too

You see, Paul follows up v.22 with v.23, moving from the labor pains that creation is experiencing to the ones that we are experiencing “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV).

Paul expects that we—if we are followers of Jesus in whom the Kingdom begins—we will be “groaning” as we are similarly wracked by the contractions of a Kingdom that wants to be born. 

But I don’t think we’re dilated at all.

And I wonder: Perhaps we need some “spiritual pitocin” to help us along. 

You know: if a woman’s labor isn’t moving along as it needs to for everyone to be healthy, she is often given pitocin. It induces labor by jump-starting contractions in the uterus. It is not (admittedly, in my passive experience) a pleasant thing to need. Birth is traumatic enough without anything being forced more than happens naturally. But sometimes that push is exactly what needs to happen in order for mother and child to pass safely from before into after.

And while it might not be pleasant for us, some “spiritual pitocin” might just ensure that we survive the birthing of God’s kingdom too.

Pentecost

It’s been required before, you realize: that little IV bag of the Holy Spirit hooked up to the people of God?

Nearly two-thousand years ago in a city named Jerusalem, the disciples were in labor with the Church of Christ Jesus. It wanted to be born—it needed to be born. But those “contractions” just weren’t happening. 

The disciples were still afraid. 

The disciples were still struggling to make sense of what happened: Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death; their failings and Jesus’ forgiveness; and the way Jesus just disappeared back to heaven, when they were hoping for an eternal kingdom then and there. 

Acts 2 describes the disciples as “all together in one place,” which is remarkably similar to how they were described when the risen Christ first appeared to them in John 20. 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’re still stuck, closed up from the world? 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’ve still not grasped that Jesus meant that “Great Commission” thing?

If something didn’t happen soon, the Church was going to have to come by C-section.

But something did happen on that Pentecost day: 

There weren’t any IV bags, but there were tongues of fire.

There were no shrieks of unnatural contractions, but there was a “whoooosh” as the extraordinary Spirit of God filled the room.

There was no cursing at husbands, but the Gospel was miraculously heard in all languages simultaneously.

And the disciples even appeared drunk from the giddiness of this birth.

Against all odds, and despite the Body of Christ not working quite as nature intended, the Church was born. 

That same church continues today. 

Admittedly, its teenage years were rough. 

Sure, there were a lot of bad decisions in early adulthood as we were usually full of passion and just as often misguided.

And it’s no secret that we’ve made huge, blasphemous, God-betraying mistakes—both in the distant and recent past—mistakes that cannot be forgiven lightly……if at all.

But if there is one thing we have, it is the hope that what God is doing does not rest solely on our own shoulders. 

As followers of Jesus, we are often messengers—or even ambassadors, as we are called in 2Cor 5:20. 

And as followers of Jesus, we are often “the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world”; we “are the feet with which he walks to do good”; we “are the hands with which he blesses all the world.” 

But the Pentecost story reminds us that always, always, God will do what it takes to move things along toward health, healing, wholeness, and love.

Kindling the Kingdom

This Lenten season and Eastertide we have been seeking out ways to live the life of Christ more fully—”to walk just as [Jesus] walked,” as 1John describes it (2:6 NRSV). 

All of it—our entire journey—combined could be summed up as “kindling the Kingdom of God.” For that is our task today—as every day. 

Jesus himself urged us not to get caught up in the uncertainty and busy-ness things, of the fear of each other and whether there would be enough. Instead, he simply insisted: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too (Matthew 6:33 VOICE). 

 

If we need a dose or two of pitocin to birth the kingdom, I am sure God is already measuring it and checking it against our chart. But let’s make sure we’re doing all we can of ourselves, too. 

Let us follow Jesus instead of the world.

Let us look to the well-being of others before ourselves.

Let us prove the goodness of creation with our generosity.

Let us pursue justice instead of fairness.

Let us confess our sins so no one can claim we are hypocrites.

Let us seek to see the image of the Creator in each and every person.

Let us overwhelm fear with love.

Let us practice the Kingdom of God as though it were already here.

For such is the model left for us by the one and only person who has taught us true life.

In the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen. And let us pray:

Prayer

God,

What a journey these past months have been.

If there is one thing that has become clear to us,
it is that we we have become conformed too much to our world,
and transformed too little by your Spirit.

Send that Spirit among us now,
kindling our hearts with fire as in ancient days,
overcoming the obstacles within us and outside us
by the power of your unrelenting love.

May your name be praised
on this and every day,
within our hearts, mind, and lives;
as we offer our whole self to you—
the one who made us,
redeemed us,
transforms us,
and will one day resurrect us
to the new, abundant, eternal, and true life
that is available to all
who will become like little children
and follow the Christ.

Amen.

Kindling True Life

Scripture: 1John 5:9-13

Intro to Series

It has been quite a journey for us these past months, and one we are nearing the end of.

We began with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and as we journeyed toward the cross we asked: “What needs to die in my life in order to be more like the Jesus I follow?

Along the way, we wrestled:

with our identity as the Beloved of God,

with our insistence on doing things our way and through our power,

with our tolerance for justice,

with our allegiance to this world,

with our attempts to control our own destiny,

with our contentment with short-term victories,

and with the diverse (and sometimes perverse) pictures of Jesus that we hold.

Turning the corner at the cross, we have been journeying toward the fires of Pentecost, which will conclude our journey next week. Along the way, we have been asking: “What needs kindled in my life in order for the Spirit to move through me in the world?”

Here too, we have wrestled with many practices that should be hallmarks of who we are as followers of Jesus the Christ. Things like:

confession,

the practice of righteousness,

generosity,

love,

obedience to God,

and for today: true life.

If the Holy Spirit is going to move move through us according to God’s loving power, we need to kindle true life.

But what does this mean? What is true life, and how do we kindle real, abundant, true, living life?

Declaration of Independence

To get our thinking juices flowing this morning, let me offer these famous words:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (“Declaration of Independence,” 1776).

With these words, our nation declared its independence. And also with them, we birthed a concept that has fueled the actions of countless thousands and millions since then: the American Dream.

The Dream

The idea that the government should protect the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of its citizens was as polarizing then as it is today, albeit over different issues. When authoring the “Declaration of Independence,” our nation’s ancestors could not imagine this “right to life” existing while they were being taxed without representation. Their American Dream meant that they would have a say in the laws that affected them.

Of course, in the time since there have been all sorts of reasons our own ancestors were drawn to immigrate to this nation.

For many, the “right to life” they desired meant religious freedom—that they could practice their religion without governmental intrusion. (the early Baptists fall in this camp). To worship was their American Dream.

For others, “the right to life” meant quite literally the right to live—they had been persecuted and killed in their homelands because of their culture, their ethnicity, their language, their politics, or their religion. To survive and exist was their American Dream.

For still others, the “right to life” meant the possibility to improve or increase. Their cultures stigmatized them in ways that prevented their living into their full possibility. To improve economically and vocationally was their American Dream.

But along the way—particularly for those of us who are a few generations removed from immigration—our American Dreams got complicated. Around the 1920’s the American Dream underwent a transformation—instead of communicating the hope for a better life (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), it morphed into the desire to acquire material things. The Dream (that began with a valuing of each individual human being) moldered into a kind of consumerism that measured value against possessions. By the time any of us were even born, the American Dream was rooted in having: having a house, having some land, having a TV, having a car, having a comfortable retirement, and so on. As Americans, many felt entitled to these things; and if we did not experience them, we felt jaded and cheated by others.

By the time I was in my teens, the American Dream was also about experiencing: travel, eating out, movies, music, entertainment, etc. But the boom of that era ended up going bust, in what economists are calling the “Great Recession” or “the Second Great Depression” starting in 2008.

Our culture has taught all of us—no matter our age, at this point in our nation’s history—that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is about having more: more than we did previously…… more than our neighbors…… more than anybody, really.

Deception

This “American Dream” is patently false. But more than that, it deceives us into trading the things that matter—our time,  our life, our liberty, our happiness—for things that do not.

We spend so much of our time earning money to acquire, that we neglect our families, our friendships, our health, and our soul.

We acquire so many things that require care and maintenance that we become enslaved to our possessions, unable to actually do the things we want to do.

We busy ourselves with so many responsibilities and commitments that any happiness easily eludes us. We do not know contentment; we do not know joy—we simply comfort ourselves with the lie that we will have time for happiness when we retire.

This is not life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

Christ Calling

Across the centuries, Jesus asks us:

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

“And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe youyou of little faith?

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:26–33 NRSV).

Across the centuries, Jesus reminds us:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21 NRSV).

This American Nightmare is not what life is about. God invites us to believe in another dream—a true dream—a dream of true life.

True Life Originates with God

What is this “true life?” What does abundant, real life look like?

First, true life finds its origins in the God who created and loves us.

The whole point (to begin) of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is not the means by which God created all things, but rather the fact that God created all things, creating spaces where life can exist, and breathing life into everything that breathes.

Jesus reminded us (in a text we referenced last week) that he “came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV). Jesus isn’t talking about having lots of stuff, but rather experiencing the fullness of what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was trying to communicate.

As our scripture lesson today proclaims:

“God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1John 5:11–12 NRSV)

We find true life in the One who gives life. Our breath is given by the One from whom breath and Spirit emanate.

If we are to kindle true life so the Spirit of God can move through us and work in us, we have to first remember that our actual life rests in the hands of the One True God.

True Life Is Lived for Others

Beyond originating with God, another characteristic of true life is that it is lived for others.

More than anywhere else, this is a place where our culture works against us. In the midst of a culture that is all about me, me, me—in the midst of a culture that supposes my rights are more important than yours—in the midst of a culture that celebrates making money and getting ahead by unjust wages and means—in the midst of our world, God’s description of true life is hard to hear.

Jesus reminds us about true life when he says “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33 NRSV).

Later, he’ll say: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12–13 NRSV).

 

The world may tell us that our best life is lived for ourselves, but Jesus insists that true life is lived for others. The early leaders of the Church are emphatic about this as well.

Peter insists that “each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1Peter 4:10 NIV).

Paul insists that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Corinthians 12:7 NRSV).

He also instructs us, saying: “let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 NRSV),

And: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NRSV).

Also in Galatians, Paul takes this community responsibility to its radical end: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13 NRSV).

Similarly, the author of Hebrews urges: “do not forget to do good and to share what you have” (Hebrews 13:16 NRSV).

I promise: I’m not stopping because I ran out of references. I’m just pretty sure you’ve got the point.

Kindling

Remembering that God is the one who gives us life, and remembering that life is intended to be lived for others—these two bases may not describe true life completely, but I don’t think you will find or experience true life if these two are not present. They may be true life’s most irreducible minimum, so to speak—the narrowest definition of a thing before it is not the thing any longer.

If we are going to blow on this ember in an attempt to kindle true life, these things will certainly shape our worship, our practices, our commitments, our expenses, our interactions, our endeavors, our communications, and everything else.

And in the process, I believe they will shape ourselves, our families, our friends, our vocations, our coworkers, our communities, our state and nation, and even our world. After all:

“In [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5 NRSV)

Kindling Obedience

Scripture: 1John 5:1-6

Post-Obedience

When theologians and philosophers and historians and social psychologists and other people who look at how the world changes find places of transition, they label them. And since the new world that’s emerging hasn’t really developed yet, they tend to refer to what is coming by what is past. So they make up words that start with “post”:

post-Classical

post-Enlightenment

post-Industrial

post-war

post-modern

post-truth

I wonder if we are living in a post-obedience world.

In the wake of WW2, the Nuremberg trials heard person after person insist that they should not be held accountable for the atrocities they committed—because they were only obeying orders.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram was curious how so many “regular” people could end up doing such terrible things. He designed a now-infamous experiment wherein people would be instructed by an authority figure to administer painful electric shocks to others. He concluded:

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority).

In other words: even when asked to do things that anyone would say were wrong, most of us would do them anyway—if the right authority asked us to.

While Milgram’s experiment has been questioned on many grounds, his basic conclusion has been affirmed by other research over and over again. Obedience has a dark side, especially since we do not tend to really question the authorities in our lives.

But all of this is just a part of how we experience our world anymore. Even graffiti artist Banksy offered this critique of obedience in the book Wall and Piece:

“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.”

Is obedience even seen as a virtue any longer? I don’t know. In this post-obedience world, verses like our scripture lesson this week seem kind of quaint and irrelevant—like a relic of an earlier, more naive era in humanity’s youth.

We know (at least abstractly):

that there are times we should not obey a friend (“If Johnny jumped off a cliff with all his friends, would you do it too?”)

that there are times we should not obey a parent

that there are times we should not obey a boss/employer

that there are times we should not obey a pastor

that there are times we should not obey a government

Can we believe in obedience at all anymore? Is there any value to this concept that the bible speaks often and highly of?

If there is, surely the Spirit can help us reclaim the value of obedience, can’t she?

Perelandra

Clive Staples Lewis was a British author of the last century, most famous for his “Chronicles of Narnia” series. But C.S. Lewis made significant contributions to our Christian worldview that extended far beyond this one fictional series. He was, himself, a latecomer to faith in Jesus; and he became (for his generation) perhaps their greatest Christian apologist—that means he communicated faith: both in the terms of the world at large, and in a way that that was accessible and even attractive to unbelievers.

Part of why Lewis proved so successful in this regard was his willingness to engage hard questions and posit creative—and unorthodox—answers. His novel Perelandra has significance for us this morning, in the context of our scripture reading.

Perelandra is the middle volume of his three-part “Space Trilogy,” and it envisions traveling to a planet that is early in its own creation. In fact, the planet Perelandra is developmentally parallel to the Garden of Eden, a genuine paradise and only two people. Like with the Genesis story, there is only one thing that is off limits. And like the Genesis story, the characters wrestle with why anything would be forbidden at all.

The main character of Lewis’s reimagining, Dr. Ransom, is the one that journeys from earth to this new world. He argues that such “forbidden fruit” is required for us to demonstrate true obedience in love to God. He says:

“I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” (Perelandra, 118).

[repeat:] “Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?”

It’s an interesting observation, for sure.

Parenting

Let’s put this in the context of parents and children. If I instruct one of my children to get in the car because we’re going to the zoo (and presuming they want to go to the zoo), they’re probably going to obey the instruction. They want to obey the instruction, but not because of anything to do with me. They want to obey the instruction because it produces the result they want—they get to go to the zoo.

I am grateful for this kind of obedience. As a parent, I’m grateful for any obedience I can get. But this is different than the kind of obedience Lewis is talking about in Perelandra.

Let’s imagine now that we’re out and about somewhere—maybe at a public park—and I see something that poses a real threat to my child. Maybe they’re playing near the road and I see a car driving erratically. Maybe there’s another kid about to crash into them and knock them from the equipment. Maybe my spidey-sense is tingling and I don’t know what that means, but I’ve learned to trust it. Whatever it is, my child does not see the threat. They do not see the goodness of my instruction, nor the benefit to themself…… And maybe they even think my instruction looks bad to them—like it’s going to mean they don’t get to have the fun they want.

Here is where the parenting-rubber meets the road. If my child obeys my instruction—even when they do not see the goodness or purpose of it, and even if they think it prevents them from having what they want—then this is a different kind of obedience. This is obedience that is rooted in the love that we share, rather than in common priorities or mutual benefit.

As Dr. Ransom argues in Perelandra, there is a joy in obeying that can only be experienced when our own motivations are stripped away—when obedience is rooted in love and relationship.

The Shepherd

Though it may have felt a bit coarse at the time, Jesus’s teaching in John 10 about the Good Shepherd may be helpful for us here.

Even back then—way before this post-obedience era began—it is clear there were authorities who were teaching the wrong things and leading people to do bad things—even manipulating fear and hate and crowd-mentality to crucify one Jesus of Nazareth. But in John chapter 10, Jesus addresses this obedience crisis head on, naming names and taking no prisoners.

There are many who claim to be leaders—people who ask for (or even demand!) your obedience, loyalty, or action—but not all of them deserve your obedience.

There are those who sneak around in the dark, thinking it shields their wrongdoing.

There are those who who jump over the walls they tell you to stay within, thinking themselves exceptions to the rule you must follow.

There are those whose agendas result in death and destruction and theft, who pretend themselves to be agents of salvation.

There are those whose real aim is the power and authority and recognition that comes with being a leader, but they are inattentive to the needs of their followers to the point of criminal negligence.

But twice Jesus contrasts himself with these pretending shepherds, claiming “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Four times he references his laying down his life for his sheep. And repeatedly, the reason that the Good Shepherd’s sheep follow Jesus’ voice is because they “know him.”

You see, this is a big deal. If we’ve had an experience of Jesus’s redeeming and transforming love, we know him. We know Jesus. Jesus has revealed himself fully to us, demonstrating his purposes, his methods, his motivations, and his mentality in his willingness to die that we might “have life, and have it abundantly,” as he says in John 10:10 (NRSV).

Two thousand years ago, Jesus effectively said: Put me to the test and see for yourselves.

And we did.

We ran Jesus through the wringer:

through being tried by the media,

through the ancient version of “frontier justice,”

through our corrupt courts,

through public abasement.

through the abandonment of his closest friends and allies,

through torture as cruel as waterboarding,

and through one of the most painful, humiliating, excruciating means of execution the world has ever known.

But Jesus did not recant.
He did not recuse himself.
He did not show even the slightest crack in what we thought was a facade, but which was proven to be the very heart of God.

In proving that he is a good shepherd, Jesus proved that he can be trusted with something as precious as our obedience. That his purpose really was selfless: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).

Challenge

Ultimately, as followers of the Christ, we are not called to be obedient to the government, to pastors; to employers, friends, parents, or even (and I know this will seem controversial) to the bible. Our obedience is to Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who died and was raised to new life again.

He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). He is the one who calls to us and says “My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Sisters and brothers, Jesus is calling. Do we believe in him enough to follow his “royal law” of loving even our enemies as ourselves?

The world awaits our answer.