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To The Cross and Beyond
Cycle A Gospel Sermons for Lent and Easter
If you've been around the Christian faith for a while, you've noticed how people pick what they like from the Bible. Like a giant magnet at a wrecking yard we each reach down into the material of the Bible and pick up only what we want -- get the iron, leave the wood, paper, and plastics. We're not convincing if we say, "I don't do it but everyone else does." We all do. It's just that some are so obvious about it. I've dealt with two main types of Bible-selectors.

One brand of Christian Bible-selector is the person who snatches every word about love. In our text they hear Jesus say, "If you love me...." and they get misty-eyed, as they do about most of what's in the Bible, because they're convinced it's all about love. This person can see love in the Bible where love isn't around for 100 miles. But they'll add, subtract, multiply, or divide what the Bible says in order to wedge in some sentimental sense of love. For example, in today's text, they'll remember the old English translation for Jesus' Spirit, "The Comforter," by which they imagine something like the comforter on Grandma's featherbed. Although no translation can adequately render this one word, today's translation is much more accurate when it reads, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another 'Advocate.'" By his Spirit Jesus doesn't promise a constant patting on the back, "There, there." That might be what we want, but Jesus offers us something else. Jesus grants us his Spirit to make us strong to live as he did. Contrary to our preference, God doesn't coddle us. God strengths us to live in our world as Jesus did in the first-century world.

Then there's the other large group of Christian Bible-selectors and these people don't latch onto the Bible's teaching about love. This group approaches the Bible and the Christian faith from an entirely different direction. No worry about their over-emphasizing love. They grimly clutch to our obligations and responsibilities. If some people get teary-eyed hearing Jesus say in verse 15, "If you love me," these others set their chins tight and recite the second half of the verse, "You will keep my commandments." There are fewer of this Christian breed, but they're out there, ready to point fingers at frivolous joy, wag their heads disapprovingly at human frailties, and especially frown at children who giggle in church. Give them a chance to talk about Christianity, and they'll pound on the word duty until any semblance of delight or any shade of happiness is beaten out of the Christian faith. They've never caught on that in the Bible God's laws are for our benefit.

Over twenty years ago I drove through Spencer, Nebraska, on Highway 281. The speed limit through the town was thirty miles an hour. However, the street was brick and had become something like a roller-coaster for cars. No one drove thirty miles an hour through town! The speed limit was to keep from hurting your car! That's like the graciousness of God's rules. God doesn't intend to abuse us with the Bible's commandments but to protect us from what life will do to us if we live otherwise.

No matter what parts of the Bible we most gravitate toward, Jesus, on the night he's betrayed, gives us all enough to occupy our feeling, thinking, and working for the rest of our lives. He says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (v. 15). That's our full response to Jesus: loving him and keeping his commandments. Even though many of us like to emphasize one over the other, loving Jesus and keeping his commandments aren't mutually exclusive. Saint Augustine of Hippo stated this well in the early fifth century, "Here is the rule: Love, and do what you will." See how that works? If you truly love God and others, you should be able to figure out how to live.

Edward P. Jones' bestselling novel The Known World is mostly about blacks in the pre-Civil War south who own black slaves. Sounds strange but such things happened. In it Augustus works for years to buy himself from slavery. For more years Augustus works to buy his wife Mildred from slavery. Finally, after the father and mother's being separated from their son for years and able to see him at the most once a week, Augustus earns enough money to buy his grown son Henry from slavery. A critical scene later occurs when the young black man, Henry, announces to his parents that from his former master he has purchased a slave for himself.

As anyone would expect, his parents are furious with Henry. Henry doesn't understand, even though he's been a slave himself and his father has labored to buy his freedom that it's wrong to enslave others. The scene ends with the father's breaking Henry's shoulder with a walking stick and never talking to him again.

Having been freed from slavery, Henry should have figured out not to enslave another. More than the Christian religion teaches the Golden Rule: "Do unto others...." The Old Testament continually tells the Hebrews that because they were slaves and aliens in Egypt they should especially care for the slaves and aliens in Israel. We also, having been loved and freed by Christ, should be able to figure out how to love and obey him.

Jesus gives us what we need in order to do both. In John 14 he promises to grant us another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, so that through the Spirit we'll again encounter the living Jesus without his being present bodily. In order for us to grasp Jesus' immediate and intimate presence in his Spirit, consider this translation of Jesus' words, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Jesus." Catch that? "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Jesus." We might want a comforter, but we get another Jesus. Remember, Jesus both loves us unconditionally and also makes impossible demands upon us. When you're God you get to do that.

Now that another Jesus is alive in this world, look where he is. Jesus says, "He will be in you" (v. 17). As amazing as it was for Jesus to be born through a virgin as a baby, it's equally amazing that Jesus is now born in us, taking human form in us, living in this world inside us. In theological terms, he's now incarnate in us, meaning that Jesus has taken on human flesh in us. Jesus was God's gift to the world, becoming incarnate through Mary. Now the Holy Spirit, the other Jesus, is born in our very lives -- God's gift to the world through each of us.

For the last half of my life I've returned repeatedly to compare Jesus' Spirit within us to what a man told about his daughter. His daughter was adopted and she'd never known her biological parents. When this adopted daughter was grown and gave birth to her first child, she held the newborn infant in her arms. She said, "For the first time in my life, I'm touching my own flesh and blood." When we allow Jesus to be born into our lives he, with the eternity of God's longing to be with us, says, "You at last are my flesh and blood." Without Jesus we are cosmic orphans, separated from our original source of life. Jesus, however, promises in verse 18, "I will not leave you orphans."1

You can think of Jesus' family relationship with us in a couple of ways. You could consider us adopted as Jesus' brothers and sisters, as Paul the apostle does. Or you can consider that Jesus has entered into your life, into your flesh and blood, and that way you and he are now family. Whichever way we think of it, the consequences of our relationship to God through Jesus is that we now live Jesus' life on earth.

We're Jesus' family now, having received a whole new origin for our lives. We're not feral children raised by the world's wolves. We're no longer spiritually displaced people blown around in a whirlwind of competing loyalties. We're not lost as we flee dangers we can't even name, not floundering without a glimpse of an eternal destiny. We're God's family through Jesus Christ, and we can hold our head up wherever we are and whatever we're going through.

It won't all be fun. Jesus didn't always have fun. But we'll find that Jesus' Spirit within us will get us through whatever we face. He'll be with us. He promises he will abide with us, meaning he'll stick with us. If even our parents or children won't stick with us, Jesus will. We're in Jesus' heavenly family.

Jesus within us now gives us more and more of a family resemblance to our heavenly Father. Jesus within us helps us so we'll help others. He loves us so we'll love others. As Christians we're not free agents negotiating with God to squeeze out every benefit for ourselves. We're in God's family and we now do our best to get the good news of Jesus Christ to others. We tend to forget this. That's one reason we come to worship: to be reminded of how much we're loved and thus how much we need to get that love to others. It should be obvious. As John wrote in his first letter, "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). When we forget this, we need to hear the universal statement that is pronounced when someone doesn't understand the obvious. You remember it, I'm sure. When we forget that God loves us in order that we love others, a universal statement sounds forth, usually from a teenager. It goes, "Duuuh!"

We all have needs clamoring within us to get our attention; that's why Jesus' Spirit within us has to rap a little on us so we remember we're no longer in this life just for ourselves. When we don't quite remember what the Christian life is about, maybe Jesus who lives within us says, "Duuuh!"

He says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (v. 15). As Augustine put it, we can love and do as we will. We should be able to work out the consequences of our being in Jesus' family. A woman who understood this, no matter how little money she had, wrote every month on the memo line of her check to the church, "In gratitude." She didn't need anyone to thump her on the head -- or smash her shoulder -- to understand how to live with Jesus within her.

Another individual who has grasped the deepest sense of loving as he was loved is a man who was in an auto accident and lost an arm. For the rest of his life he lays down his other arm and gives blood as regularly as he can. He received a number of units of blood after his accident. He doesn't need a long list of rules to guide him. He has grasped the full sense of gratitude for those who loved him with their blood. Nobody will say, "Duuuh" about his response to the grace that came to him from others.

It's obvious how we should live. Jesus gave his lifeblood for us. We're now his flesh and blood on earth as he dwells within us. Even if we're disabled physically or poor in the world's standards, since Jesus is within us it's now our nature, our own flesh and blood, to live for him. It's unnatural and unreasonable to do otherwise, because if we love Jesus we will keep his commandments.

By Jesus dwelling within us he again takes on human flesh and blood, and he provides for us regularly to receive his flesh and blood when we come to his table. Remembering how much Jesus loves us, may this meal help us live as he would in our world. Amen.


1. Although the NRSV translates verse 18, "I will not leave you orphaned," it's also possible to translate, "I will not leave you orphans."
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