Easter 5A, 2014 – Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
“Believe in God, believe also in me.”
I speak to you in the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Being a Christian oughta scare the [fill in the blank] out of us. I figure that at least one of the reasons why you and I are not so scared has to do with how we hear that short portion of John’s gospel I just said a moment ago before praying: “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Believe. We know already that this is central to the whole purpose for John having written down his account of the gospel for he tells us as much (20:31). But what isbelief and why for so many of us does it serve rather to make us comfortable and content?
There are far too many Christians who would see no problem making the following statement: “I believe Jesus is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion,” (Stanley Hauerwas). What produces this? How are Christians so formed? It has to do with the good liberal democratic distinction between private life—where faith resides—and public life. As such, “belief” names that which we hold to be true privately, intellectually, but has no real bearing on our public lives. In other words, you can come to church and believe all of these nice things but once you walk out those doors don’t you dare let those beliefs follow you out into your families and jobs and neighbourhoods. This tension was illustrated this week when the Catholic Archbishop of Toronto Thomas Cardinal Collins wrote a letter to Justin Trudeau asking him to reconsider his recent edict that any candidate with the Liberal Party of Canada had to be publicly pro-choice with respect to abortion: Your “political authority is not limitless,” wrote Collins. In Trudeau’s response he cited his father Pierre as his example, “who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very, very religious, very Catholic.” And so it is, you see, in liberal democratic societies such as ours faith and religious belief is encouraged so long as it remains a private matter, or in Trudeau’s words, “deeply personal”.
Yet, this whole way of thinking about and practicing one’s faith is utterly foreign to the gospel, as if Jesus were simply interested in changing our opinion about who he is as opposed to transforming our entire life.
As a Christian I don’t have a private life, nor do you—it’s all public. That Jesus is Lord is going to make our lives quite dysfunctional. Believing that God was in Christ reconciling the world is crazy, and it’ll make your life, our life, really weird (Hauerwas).
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Thus, in light of what I’ve said already, we should substitute the word “trust” for “believe”: “Trust in God, trust also in me.” This gets more to the heart of what Jesus is saying, I think. Jesus has been with his disciples but the time has come for him to go away and they are understandably anxious about where he is going and whether they will be able to follow him. The world may appear to have gone mad, but the disciples must continue to trust that God is in control.
Last week we heard Jesus say, “I am the gate,” (John 10:7-9). This week we get a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the gate once we enter through it: “I am the way.” That is to say, we are not yet where we are going, we are pilgrims, exiles, nomads. God in Christ took on flesh and entered into the space and time in which we live our daily lives. He has now gone on ahead of us to prepare a place but the only way to get there is to follow the Way himself and to do so in and through the space and time that make up our daily life: “For your name’s sake lead me and guide me,” says the Psalmist (31:3). Consider also the two images which we heard St. Peter use this morning: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation,” and again, “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” Leading, guiding, growing, being built. All of this to say that faith in the risen Jesus is not a finish line, but is rather the beginning of a long and sometimes arduous, albeit joyous, journey of spiritual formation. But along the way our eyes will be opened to see the risen Jesus right there beside us as we saw a few weeks ago with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
And this is risky, it is adventurous because it means the giving up of our whole lives over to Jesus. As the Psalmist said, “My times are in your hand,” (31:15). Or as Peter wrote, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people,” (2:10). You are not your own, you are God’s people and yourwhole life is in his hand. This is risky, indeed. For Stephen, it was something that he was willing to die for. In the face of his own impending death there is only one thing that is left for Stephen to do…trust: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” (Acts 7:59). The words of Jesus from the cross, which are themselves taken from the Psalm we sang together this morning: “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God,” (31:5). You can see how the formation of Christians who are willing to die might pose a problem for liberal democratic societies wherein faith is encouraged so long as it remains a private matter.
So, what of this public faith that leaves no corner of our lives or world unturned? Let us hear the words of Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,” (14:12). That is to say that the Christian faith is such that it is literally practiced. Peter too has something to say here: not only are we built into the temple of God, but we are the workers of the temple as well, “a holy priesthood…offer[ing] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The work that the church is called to do in the world through Jesus Christ is not work reserved for clergy. You who can hear my voice this morning, have you received the risen Christ? You then, as a member of the church of God, are a royal priesthood. There is work for us to do. What is that work? The primary work of the church, our first responsibility, is the truthful worship of the one true God. Indeed, the word ‘liturgy’ means, “the work of the people.”
Worship is work, and it is radical work at that, for if Jesus is enthroned, all else is dethroned.
In this primary work of worship our whole life is formed and out of it flows a life that has been made one with Jesus and as such gets to work in our families, jobs, neighbourhoods and in the world. And this whole life, our whole common life right here in Riverdale, and the whole life of the church throughout space and time exists so that the mighty acts of the Living God who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light might be proclaimed and embodied for the whole wide world to hear and see (1 Peter 2:9). That the gospel is both proclaimed and embodied is a point not to be missed. We can’t talk about what it means to believe, to worship Jesus, apart from the work of the community that the gospel forms. That is to say, the proclamation of the gospel always forms a community around the living Jesus which embodies the gospel in it’s very life.
This is why training is at the heart of Christianity. Prayer is training; Singing is training; tithing is training; reading the Bible is training; caring for the poor among us is training; being patient with one another is training. To be followers of the Way, is to be engaged in an ongoing process of learning and being trained to do the work that is inseparable from the training. And in the process of the training Jesus transforms us in ways that we don’t even notice in order to do the work that needs to be done (Hauerwas). Of course, I think we need to believe stuff—I like to think that I’m orthodox in my own belief. The problem is that ‘belief’ as an indicator of what makes one a Christian tends to separate the language of the faith from the work of the faith. The point is, Christianity is performative.
A few months back I told someone that I wanted to read more Shakespeare this year. He discouraged me from doing so by suggesting that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read. Too often people, including Christians, think that Christianity is like the text of Hamlet, rather than the actual production of Hamlet. It has to be performed in order to understand what it is. Unfortunately, Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance.
As we journey along with the risen Jesus and follow after him to the place where he is going, will we let ourselves be built into a spiritual house? Will we embrace our calling as a holy priesthood? Are we willing to be trained, and to grow up from infancy into spiritual maturity in Christ? This will demand nothing less than your whole life—you’ll have no claim over yourself, your family, and your stuff anymore. It’s an adventure—and this is precisely why we need to trust the God who has come to us in Jesus. “Trust in God, trust also in me.”
Are we willing to follow Jesus when it puts us in the terribly vulnerable position of being able to do nothing other than trust? This is the Christian faith. This is why we need to rush together on Sunday mornings, not only to worship but to gather for protection: “In you, O LORD, I seek refuge…Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me,” (Psalm 31).
But, if Jesus so grabs hold of us, scary as that may be, we may just find that we are made participants in the ongoing history of God’s care of the world through the promises made to the people of Israel whom, in Christ, we have been grafted into. And through our participation in this ongoing history our whole life will be taken up into the life of Jesus and we will be God’s witness in the world that he has not abandoned the world to sin.
Let us pray along with St. Ambrose: Lord Jesus, we do follow you, but we can come only at your bidding. No one can make the ascent without you, for you are our way, our truth, our life, our strength, our confidence, our reward. Be the way that receives us, the truth that strengthens us, the life that invigorates us. Amen.
Sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on the fifth Sunday in Easter, May 18th, 2014.