May 22, 2011
Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
I Peter 2:2-10
Today’s readings focus on trust in a time of turmoil. Trusting God’s care in challenging times is not only the source of hope but also creative transformation. Confident that God is with us in all the seasons of life, we can reach out in mission to others despite our own difficulties.
I will be reflecting on the lectionary readings in light of John 14:1-14. Controversy surrounds Jesus and his followers. The possibility of suffering and death is on the horizon. Still, Jesus speaks words of promise, calling his disciples to be faithful in their mission regardless of the circumstances. John 14:1-14 is treasure trove for the perceptive preacher. The challenge is deciding which path to take. As I read the passage, I see the following themes, each of which is worthy of a sermon:
- God’s care for us in life and death. (14:1-4)
- The meaning and scope of Jesus as the “way” to salvation. (14:5-6)
- Jesus’ intimacy with, and revelation of, the Divine Parent and its meaning for us. (14:7-11)
- Our agency as Jesus’ followers empowered to do “greater works.” (14:12)
- The life-transforming power of prayer. (15:13-14)
What all these readings have in common is their affirmation that God is at work in our lives and in the world, providing us with pathways to wholeness and giving us the power to be partners in personal and planetary healing and salvation.
John 14 begins with spiritual counsel. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus asserts that theological reflection is holistic and relational. It presents a vision of the world that enables us to trust God’s presence in our lives, especially in challenging situations. It also affirms that God is the source of protection as well as possibility. Belief is not merely the assent to certain statements about God’s nature, but a relationship with the One who has both the love and resourcefulness to respond to our needs. Belief is relational; we believe Jesus’ words about God because we believe Jesus!
First, our times are in God’s hands. While the future is not mapped out in its entirety, Jesus asserts that God faithfully prepares a place for our continuing spiritual adventures. Here we have the broadest outlines of a vision of survival death. No details are given, but a confidence in God’s abiding care and positive preparations on our behalf.
Second, Jesus is our spiritual pathway to healing, wholeness, and salvation. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In following Jesus’ pathway, we are assured of experiencing divine power and possibility in whatever future we can imagine. The words “no one comes to the Father except through me” have been troubling to those, like me, who believe that God’s revelation is global as well as personal. For the most part, liberals have ignored these words, while conservatives have lifted them up as clear evidence that Jesus is the only way to salvation. We must take into account the conservative interpretation; but, a more inclusive interpretation suggests that Christ sets a pathway before us, and through following his path, we can experience God’s presence in our lives. This passage, then, is not about our faith tradition, but Christ’s inspiration of all pathways of meaning. God’s prevenient, or preparatory, grace is the source of all spiritual growth in every tradition. Although this Christ-centered understanding of salvation might be challenged by those who hold pluralistic views of truth and salvation, it highlights the unity of God’s purpose for us revealed in many ways. Ultimately God wants everyone to find her or his way in relationship to Christ’s embracing love and energy.
Third, Jesus is intimately connected to God and reveals God’s nature to us. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Jesus’ personality and actions reveal God’s intentions for humankind and the non-human world. This is a personal unity that bounds on metaphysical oneness. Jesus’ selfhood and God’s identity are in synch such that Jesus’ alignment with God’s vision shapes his encounter with the world. Moreover, this passage reminds us that as Christians, the only visions of God we can affirm are Christ-shaped. There is no theological bait and switch, no hidden God or God of wrath out to get us. God’s character toward this world is revealed in the life, teachings, healings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We need to look no further than Jesus to understand the divine intent for us.
Fourth, a God-centered vision of reality promotes rather than diminishes human agency. John 14 asserts that we should expect great things from God, but also great things from our ourselves. Trust in God awakens us to greater experiences of God’s power in our lives. Christ’s energy becomes our own as we claim the promised that we will not only do Jesus’ works, but greater things. While the passage is not explicit about the nature of these “greater things,” it is clear that we are called to achieve surprising things on God’s behalf. God does not compete with humankind in terms of power or achievement; like a good parent, God wants us to take responsibility for our freedom and to create in ways that maximize God’s impact in the world.
Fifth, our ability to do greater things is grounded in our relationship to God. Our power and agency is not intended for our self-aggrandizement but our contribution to the reign of one who seeks abundant life for all creation. In synch with God’s will, we can pray with boldness and clarity – truly noting our “deepest heart’s desires” – with the expectation that God will fulfill his promise of abundant life. “I will do it,” Christ says; I will answer your prayers as they emerge from your relationship to God. For most of us, this, first of all, means that we pray for what John Biersdorff calls “a healing of purpose,” that is, we pray to know the nature of what should pray for and where we should turn our spiritual energies. Self-awareness and awareness of our calling is the first step to clarity in our prayer lives. Faithful intercession and petition has its source and goal in the expansive self, not the self-interested ego – a self with stature or “size” as Bernard Loomer asserted in which my wellbeing and the wellbeing of others and the planet are seen as intimately interdependent.
John 14 presents a lively, intimate, and prayerful relationship with God that gives us confidence that God is working in our lives for our wholeness and the wholeness of creation.
The death of Stephen, recorded in Acts 7:55-60, portrays the impact of confidence in God’s presence on our relationships with our enemies. In the midst of the trial, Stephen has a mystical experience of the glory of God and the life that awaits him, regardless of the outcome of the trial. As he receives the death penalty, he asks God to forgive his tormentors out a sense of the glory that awaits him. If death is not final, and we are promised a realm of continued growth and companionship with God, then we can more creatively and compassionately invest ourselves in this world. Stephen’s mystical experience inspires greater, rather than lesser, care for human wellbeing. Trust in God’s everlasting care frees us from the anxiety of failure and loss so that we might be more courageous in responding to this world’s evils.
In time of trial, while the future is uncertain, the Psalmist proclaims “my times are in your hand” as essential to the Psalmist’s prayer for guidance and protection. While we do not know if the Psalmist had a sense of everlasting life beyond this lifetime, the Psalmist’s confidence is rooted in the affirmation that God is near, providing at some deep level inspiration and protection for persons and communities. “Save me in your steadfast love,” the Psalmist petitions God. Though God’s mercies are new every morning, God’s faithfulness is steadfast and can be counted on in times of danger to body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
The words of I Peter 2:2-10 describe the impact of experiencing God’s mercy on the Christian community. Grace and mercy lead to lives of integrity and growth. Followers of Christ long for spiritual food and are no longer content with the values of this world. Once again, this isn’t otherworldliness but the quest to live by a different standard than the world we live in. This isn’t judgment either, I believe, despite the fact that there is a sense of judgment in Peter’s juxtaposition of holy and unholy, and chosen and left behind. I would suggest that Peter’s words best be interpreted in terms of the values we seek as followers of Jesus, aware of God’s great mercy. We become grace givers, accountable to one another in terms of behavior and property. While we moderate and progressive Christians appreciate many of our culture’s values, we still need to consider where our faith calls us to differ from culture. I believe that followers of Jesus need to question a number of current socially-acceptable cultural values: consumerism, negativity in the political realm, waste, individualistic self-interest, treatment of “aliens” in our midst, and addiction to technology, to name a few. Peter counsels values of mercy not only in our relationship with other Christians but our relationship to the planet. We are to channels of mercy and grace to one another, sharing the spiritual – and material –bounties we have received for the common good. In the spirit of John’s gospel, we can choose countercultural values precisely because we trust God to awaken us – and provide for – our deepest personal and communal needs.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is availabale for lectures, seminars, and retreats.