Tag Archives: Gospel of John

Living in the Light

Not content to let two months go by without making a little headway on my M.Div degree, I signed up for two courses this summer — the first course is really a practicum project related to my ministerial internship, while the other is a pretty intense introduction to urban and social ministry; in fact, that’s the name of the course: Introduction to Urban & Social Ministry.

Each week we spend several hours visiting a multitude of ministry sites and service agencies, listening to staff, asking questions and talking with the people they serve. Though each organization has a unique mission statement and a slightly different target group of clientele, I think it’s fair to say that all of them are focused on making the world, and specifically central North Carolina, a little better representation of the Kingdom of God.

Several of our visits have been incredible, eye-opening experiences, but this week was particularly meaningful for me. We didn’t have a regular class session this Monday because of the holiday, but we were still assigned independent visits for the week. So Saturday night I found myself sitting in the back row of my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I needed to attend the meeting for class, but apart from school, this was an important moment for me as someone I am close to was celebrating a new Spiritual Birthday — the one-year anniversary of an addict’s last commitment to get clean and stop using. It was much more exciting, and more important, than celebrating a biological birthday.

“I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

—Jesus

As I sat through the meeting listening to speaker after speaker giving personal testimonies, reading passages from the NA book and encouraging one another through their struggles, I was struck by the simple honesty that pervaded the group. Every time someone stood to speak, whether it was to deliver a keynote speech or to ask a short question, the first words to come out were always “I’m David (or Charlie, or Bobbie or Rachel) and I’m an addict.” It didn’t matter if the speaker had gotten high that morning or if he had been clean for 30 years. There was not a stigma of shame or embarrassment associated with the label — something I’m sure takes many, many meetings like this to overcome — it was just the simple truth. “I’m a human, and I’m an addict.” These were authentic people.

I left the meeting that night wondering what the world would be like if everyone was as honest with themselves, and as authentic with others, as this group of humble addicts. I went home. I went to bed. Then I went to church.

Our Sunday school passage that day came from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then, we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, our hope for salvation.

For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.

Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:5-11 (NET)

Paul is writing to the church in response to questions the believers had about the Parousia, but his instructions are meant to be a guide for daily living at all times, not just in the final days.

The metaphor of light and darkness is an oft used one. In my experience, Christians like to think of living in the light as leading a righteous life; that is, avoiding the major pitfalls of sin and obeying God’s law to the letter. In contrast, being a child of darkness implies living a life marked by sin, day-in and day-out; a life totally separate from God and the law.

I think there may have been a little more depth to the “light” Paul spoke of than we tend to acknowledge; we have a way of trimming God down to size when he gets too big for our tastes. From time to time, we may fool ourselves into believing we are living righteously, pleasing God with our good works and outdoing those poor fools who still choose to walk around in darkness. I heard it said today that there are really only two kinds of people in the world: Baptists, and sinners. I’m afraid a handful of people from my own faith tradition aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap of ignorance. Such thinking proves at least one fact with absolute certainty — those who call themselves righteous have yet to stumble out of the dark their religion has pulled them down into.

I think the “light” Paul spoke of is best described not as righteousness, but as truth. Truth with God, truth with others, and especially truth with one’s self. Jesus has called us to live our lives within the truth of his Creation, of his Divinity, of his Humanity. We must accept the truth that we will never measure up to the righteousness of God, but we can accept his Grace and continue striving to live within his will for our lives.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t put much value in authenticity or in truth. We put on different facades when we go to work, when we go to school, when we go to church, when we’re out with our friends and when we’re at home with our families. It’s expected of us, and those who don’t follow the status quo are often penalized for their lack of conformity.

“A time is coming — and now is here — when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers.”

—Jesus

What would happen to our world if our churches began to live and breath with the same spirit of honesty and truth that pushes that group of recovering addicts to better themselves, to value true fellowship over fleeting pleasure and to walk together on the journey that leads them closer to God? What would happen if before I got up to deliver the invocation this Sunday, I felt compelled to tell the congregation that “I’m David, and I am a sinner,”?

I think we would begin to see the light of Christ a little more clearly.

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Preaching in the Crisis

I’ve wanted to share this message for a while now. Considering it deals with the same text (John 6) that I discussed in my last post, I thought it would be appropriate to offer it as an alternative perspective.

This sermon was delivered at Butler Chapel on January 19, during the first chapel service I had an opportunity to attend as a student at Campbell Divinity School. The guest speaker that day, Dr. J. Kameron Carter, set the standard high; other speakers this semester followed his precedent, making Tuesday morning chapel services an eagerly anticipated staple of my weekly spiritual diet.

Dr. Carter is an associate professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School. His sermon digs deep into the meaning of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of the 5,000, as recorded in the Gospel of John. Dr. Carter relies on archeological and historical research to move deeper into this text than I have witnessed any other preacher do, yet he still manages to bring it around to the heavy implications Jesus’s actions have for modern-day disciples. If you don’t believe sincere scholarship, extra-biblical sources and a fiery passion for the gospel can hold places in the same sermon, take a few minutes to watch this video and then we’ll talk.

Let me forewarn you, this sermon starts out slow — very slow. I think Dr. Carter knew he didn’t run the risk of having any of his audience leave the chapel early during the service, so he took some time to build up his message for effect. Stick with it and you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t have time to watch it now, bookmark this page and come back to it one day when you’ve got some free time or just feel the need to listen to some quality preaching. Or, if you prefer, you can download an MP3 of the sermon below and listen to it at your convenience. Enjoy!

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10459076&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=ffffff&fullscreen=1

In writing sermons this semester, I have been trying to find a balance between reverent and colloquial language; between reading an essay and sharing a conversation. I usually find myself erring too much to one side, and then overcorrect the message to the other extreme — either making it so colloquial I fear I may have offended my listeners, or so lecture-like that I begin to bore myself. I don’t think Dr. Carter’s sermon is the best I’ve ever heard, and I wouldn’t hold it up as a perfect model, but I do think he achieves a wonderful balance between the scholar and the friend.

Let me know what you think.
Does this make for an inspiring message, or do you think too much analysis of the situation kills the sermon? If this doesn’t work for you, what elements go into great preaching that you have heard?

[audio:https://davidajr.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/myrtle-beach-116.jpgwp-content/uploads/2010/05/DrCarterSermonaudio.mp3|titles=Dr. J. Kameron Carter]
Dr. J. Kameron Carter @ Campbell Divinity School
January 19, 2010
Right Click to Download MP3 — 5.7 Mb

Give us this Bread

In between my readings for class, studying scriptures for sermon topics and writing term papers, I have been slowly reading through the Gospel of John during my own devotional times this month. The incredible poem of praise to Jesus at the opening of the book, the late-night encounter with Nicodemus, John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing at the pool, and then Jesus’ sermon to the Jews about the flesh and blood of the Christ combine to make the first six chapters of John one of my favorite sections of the Bible. There is a world of knowledge pressed into each passage of this scripture; it is impossible to read it carefully and not find yourself caught up in new truths that hadn’t been visible before.

One experience from my first semester that has stuck with me has been a lesson on the significance of bread in the history of our society, and in the teachings of Jesus. As 21st century Americans, we have so many options available on the dinner menu that it is hard to imagine being limited to a basic diet for sustenance. Even when we focus on a particular dietary plan, like only eating fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, or sticking to a traditional ethnic diet for cultural reasons, these limits are self-imposed. Imagine not having that choice. Imagine that, in order to sustain your life — to make it on to the next day — you had to eat a certain amount of food, and the only food available to you was bread. It’s true that bread may become dull; eating would no longer be a part of our personal entertainment cycle, but a part of our personal maintenance. At the same time, bread would carry much more significance in our eyes than it does today. Bread would be the source of life. Fresh bread would carry the same intrinsic value as clean water. For a person in need, a person struggling to get by, a person facing the very real question of “Will I make it another day?” a piece of fresh bread is more valuable than all of the gold, oil and finery on Earth — of these treasures, only bread will meet the immediate need; only bread will sustain life.

It’s tough to understand this significance of bread when the questions we really ask ourselves are not “Will I make it another day?,” but rather “Will my checking account hold up until the end of the month? Will my job opportunities remain stable this year? Will I continue moving through school at the pace I need to? Will my personal relationships continue to sustain me, or will I have to invest something more into my friends and family this week?” These questions can seem important to us in the moment, but, to borrow a line from Captain Jack Sparrow, “What it really comes down to is what a man can do, and what a man can’t do.” Without bread, a man (or a woman) can do nothing. This truth was more obvious during the 5,000 years of human history preceding my generation; who knows, it may ring true again one day.

Understanding the importance of bread is key to getting the full impact of what Jesus told the early disciples. When he said “I am the bread of life,” he wasn’t just talking to the few who preferred the taste of warm, buttery bread over chocolate cake or fish tacos. He was telling them that if they wanted to make it on in life, if they wanted to continue another day, if they wanted to do more than scrape by, if they wanted to break free from the oppression of the world and find a sustaining strength that would not fail, they needed to turn to him.

At the beginning of John 6, Jesus meets the physical needs of the people who gathered to hear him speak. In this too-familiar scene, Jesus takes five small barley loaves and two tiny fish from a young boy, splits them up among a crowd of thousands and then gathers 12 baskets full of leftovers. When the excitement of the crowd grew dangerous, Jesus went away to pray. His disciples waited all night, but then, for whatever reason, they decided to get in their boat and sail across the lake back to their starting point (they had sailed to Tiberias earlier in the day so Jesus could preach and feed the crowd). Jesus meets the disciples in the middle of the lake. “They were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ Then they were willing to take him into the boat.” They made it to the other shore and rested. As morning broke, the people they had left behind in Tiberias — the people Jesus had preached to, cared for and left well satisfied the day before — they came searching for the Messiah.

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said. “from now on, give us this bread.”

John 6:25-34 (NIV)

How often do we ask Jesus for a miraculous sign, “that we may see it and believe?” These people from Tiberias had not only spent a full day listening to Jesus preach, they had not only watched Jesus performing miracles before them; they had actually eaten the results of the “miraculous sign” Jesus had given them. Jesus even helped them pack up the leftover miracles for another day! Even Moses and the Israelites in exodus weren’t able to hang on to leftover miracles God provided for them. Still, the people needed more. Their faith was completely dependent on their proximity to Jesus.

Faith is something that is hard to nail down. It’s a very personal thing for most people, but it is best when shared in community. One way I understand faith is as a reminder of what has been, coupled with an assurance of what will come. To put this in real terms, let me use a personal example:

When I was in 9th grade, during a week-long mission trip in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, I encountered the Spirit of God in an incredibly powerful way. I felt the Presence in my body as tangibly as I felt the carpet between my toes. I witnessed my own “miraculous sign.” I understood how Jesus had been working in my life and what I was expected to do next. I was at the peak, enjoying a mountaintop experience. This was not the first, or the last, spiritual high that I had enjoyed. It was, however, the first time that I experienced the Spirit in such a real way and was able to “step back” from myself and recognize my experience for what it was — a true spiritual encounter that would ultimately last for only a brief moment in my life. I reminded myself at that moment that I was a rational, logical human being of reasonable intelligence; I examined my circumstances and I reassured myself that what I was experiencing was real, it was not a product of my own desire or imagination. I told myself to hang on to that moment, because I knew a time would come when I would feel so far apart from God, so separated from Jesus and the power of the Spirit, that I would doubt whether this experience had really happened. I stored this experience up, and I drew on it several times during the years that followed.

I don’t mean to say that faith is something that can be described logically; nor could my experience have been quantified and documented by independent research. But just as the physical self (the life we live, the choices we make and the things we do) is a direct reflection of the spiritual self, maturity in faith is connected, at least to some degree, to our emotional and mental maturity. As Paul says, we can still be babes in Christ and rest assured that he has us firmly wrapped in his loving arms, but how much better it is to be growing in Christ, to be living in a dynamic relationship that always pushes us to the next level of understanding.

At times I still fall into the same rut the people from Tiberias did, but then I stop. I think. I remember what Jesus did for me yesterday. I dig into the leftovers and I patiently wait for him to come again.


Feed My Sheep

After these things, Jesus [who had been crucified and resurrected] showed himself to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way:

Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas (called “the twin”), Nathanael (of Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved [the ever-modest John] said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him “Feed my lambs.”

A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt … and he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicated the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.)

After this, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw John following them … When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

John 21:1-23, NRSV

This passage has inspired me several times over this week. Jesus’ repetitive command gives Peter an opportunity to make up for his earlier denial of Jesus, but dealing with old failures can still be painful. How ironic that Peter was the one to initiate the fishing trip, yet he was the first one out of the boat, abandoning it altogether to seek after Jesus, just as he did at the beginning. Why were the disciples fishing anyways? And why would Jesus meet them with a simple breakfast? During times of confusion and turmoil, don’t we all go back to what we’re familiar with, trying to recreate comforting moments from our pasts? Jesus understands that and brings the familiar markers of their shared past — the bread and the fish — but he refuses to let Peter get trapped in a rut; Simply reliving the past is not enough. Like Peter, we each have a unique role to play. Occasional fishing trips are alright, but we can’t let comfortable surroundings, or the desire to be like the people around us, distract us from the assignment we’ve been given.

That’s what I read at least. What do you think?