Monday, June 27, 2016

June 26, 2016 The Abundant Life: Faith, Hope, and Love, a Postscript

Last week we completed the brief series of messages on The Abundant Life, a series I defined by the qualities of faith, hope, and love.  Several weeks ago I mentioned that upon completion of that series I would follow it with one titled Stages of Faith.  That series is proving to take more time to prepare than I had anticipated so I am postponing it for now.  I am, however, adding a message to the series on The Abundant Life.  After completing last week’s message it occurred to me that it needed a postscript, and so this week I will offer the message Faith, Hope, and Love – A Postscript. 

The idea for a postscript came after thinking about how the problems of our world are so deeply entrenched that it could seem, perhaps, a bit na├»ve to think that faith, hope, and love were enough to solve the world’s problems.  To say, for instance, that I believe Jesus meant what he said when he told us to turn the other cheek could seem like a very simplistic answer to some very complex questions.  In thinking about this further, the passage of Scripture that I am using for today’s message came to mind.  In that text, John tells us of a day when many of the followers of Jesus were so discouraged after hearing Jesus teach that they turned back and no longer followed him (verse 66).
John 6:60-69 –

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!
63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.
64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him.
65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

People are often surprised to hear that verse (66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him).  We have an image of Jesus preaching and teaching before large crowds and being overwhelmed by people wherever he went.  We think of the image of Jesus as one loved and adored by multitudes.  While those images are certainly correct, John tells us of a day when those crowds dissipated, a day when the people who had gathered to listen to Jesus reacted very negatively to what he had to say.  It was a day when people responded to his teaching by saying, this is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?  (verse 60).  And then, according to John they turned back and no longer followed him (verse 66).

What was it that was so difficult that many set aside their desire to follow after Jesus and turn away from him?  Reading it, from our perspective, it is difficult to find anything that sounds so objectionable that we would turn away, but many of those who heard Jesus on that day found it next to impossible to continue walking with him.  Honestly, as I have thought about this verse over the years I have struggled to come to any conclusions about why the crowd reacted in such a negative manner, but I will offer an estimation.

Primarily, I think, it was because most of the people could not accept the core principles of the teaching of Jesus.  That some were saying this is a hard teaching, who can accept it (verse 60) was not just a reference to a specific teaching of Jesus, but to his overall message, I believe. 

By this point in his ministry, it was becoming obvious that Jesus was not going to be who many hoped he would be – he was not going to be the political messiah that many wanted, leading them in liberation from Rome; he was not going to be one who would peform miracles on demand, healing every person or giving people everything they wanted or expected (in fact, he explicitly rejected this on several ocassions, such as Mark 8:11-13 – 11 The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side); he was not going to provide continuous meals, as in the feeding of the 5,000, which took place just prior to this passage; and, while much of what he had to say was certainly good news, much was also very challenging.  Considering this, it’s not a surprise that many people did turn away from following Jesus, concluding, perhaps, that they were better off looking elsewhere for the answers they were seeking to life. 

After the crowd left, Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked you do not want to leave too, do you?  It is not difficult to detect the note of sadness in the voice of Jesus, as he almost sounds as if he expects them to leave as well.  At such times, there is always someone who is the first to speak, and as is the case in general in the gospels, in this instance it was Peter.  It is easy to misread Peter’s response, so be careful how you read his words.  Some hear his words as a note of resignation – Lord, to whom shall we go? – as though he is saying we don’t have any better options, so lacking a better choice we’ll just stay here with you.  No, Peter, however, really nailed it when he offered his response, especially in his words you have the words of eternal life.  Peter knew, in searching for the ultimate answers in life, that there was only one place to turn, and that was to Jesus.

So by way of that introduciton this morning I want to again affirm faith, hope, and love as not only the core values of our faith, but really as the only way forward for our world.

I don’t know how many of you have taken the time to read the series of columns I have written for the Sentinel-News in recent weeks about a conversation between belief and unbelief, and I don’t mention them to give them a push, but to say that I have thought about faith and its implications for a long, long time.  And I’ve thought a lot about the perspective of no faith as well.  Today’s skepticism is very frustrating to me, not because I find in it particularly challening or because it is at all intellectually comprehensible, in my opinion, but because I find it to be so shallow and badly reasoned.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are representative of what we might call the more intellectual strand of atheism today, while Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and Penn Jillette represent that point of view on the pop culture end of the spectrum.  As I read and listen to them, however – and the other public proponents of that point of view – they strike me as philosophical lightweights and it’s very difficult for me to take them seriously.  If I want to learn about the point of view of no faith, I read the classical expressions of atheism, such as Bertrand Russell and Friederich Nietzche.  They knew the implications of their beliefs, or lack thereof.

I believe that faith really matters, for many reasons, and one of them is because it attaches itself to something that is eternal, which makes all the difference in the world.  If there are no eternal values, if there is nothing beyond this world, what foundation is there for anything beyond a bleak, Darwinian approach where the strong and the powerful always prevail (which is what has happened for enough of history as it is).

But faith brings something very different to this world, and to humanity.  It brings a glimpse of the eternal, where the powerful and the strong do not rule, but love rules.  It reminds us that we are called to care for one another and to work for justice and equality.  It reminds us that we are not alone in this vast universe, but are created with meaning and with purpose.

When the crowd turned away from Jesus they made a decision to go back to the same old, same old, to return to the status quo, and to accept that things really can’t change.  Human history tells us that the status quo often wins and that things often do not change, but hope is daring because it tells us this – things don’t have to stay the same.  In fact, things are not meant to stay the same.  This world was not created so that a few could dominate and rule the many.  This world was not created so that so many would live under oppression and live in want while some live in abundance.  This world was not created to have some enjoy the status of first-class citizens while others are relegated to second-class status or worse.  This world was created, humanity was created for something far better, and that is represented by the kingdom of God.

But hope is not only necessary; it is also frightening and unsettling, because the hope that reminds us of the gap between what is and what should be is a hope that asks and begs for change, and change means a lot gets upended and the status quo and the powers that be don’t want anything upended.  It was this hope that turned the religious leaders against Jesus and this hope that brought the full, crushing weight of Rome down upon Jesus with a cross.

But it is a hope that endured, and continues to endure, and it is a hope that endures because Rome did not have the final word, and to this day, and all days, power and force and evil do not have the final word. 
There are many days in our lives when it’s tough to hold to hope.  There are days when we feel as though we are hanging by that final thread and our grip is slipping away.  We feel that not only is there no hope in the world but as though the world has rolled over on top of us.

But the hope of God is a hope that will not only continue to endure but will usher in the promises of God.  It is a hope that reminds us not only that things can change, but that things will change.  It is a hope that will help us regain our grip, climb up that last thread by which we felt we were hanging, and claim the promise that God is ever with us!

While hope is the fuel that upends the status quo, it is love that fully ushers in God’s kingdom.  And it is a far deeper love than any kind of mere greeting card sentimentality, not that there is anything wrong with that kind of love.  The love to which God calls us is more powerful than anything this world could possibly imagine.  The love of which Jesus told and demonstrated reminds us that any love which does not work for the benefit of those outside of our circle of friends and family is not fully the love of God.  A love of friends and family is a wonderful and beautiful experience, but God calls us to a love that is all-inclusive, even, as we spoke last week, of our enemies.

Now, it is important to understand that kind of love is not an emotional state of being but one of will and action.  When we talk of the agape love of God, we are not talking about manufacturing an emotional feeling.  When we are called to love our enemies we are not being asked to have warm feelings toward them.  C. S. Lewis wrote that the rule for all of us is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did.  The love of which Jesus speaks is far more than just an emotional state of being; if means to work for the good of others, to work to see that they are treated justly, equally, and fairly.  To work to see that they are fed, clothed, and sheltered.  It is a love that says to an enemy even though you might hate me and mistreat me, I’ll keep loving you in return and working for your good!  To do this does not require an emotional feeling towards others; it requires a commitment to the agape love of God.

Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, DC, recently wrote about an experience he had when speaking at a conference at Harvard University. At the conclusion of his presentation an attendee asked: What do you people think you bring to our society?  I like his response, and include it this morning –
The reference to “you people” was to the front row of the audience, which was made up of representatives of a variety of religious traditions, all of whom were in their appropriate identifiable robes.
I answered with questions of my own: “What do you think the world would be like if it were not for the voices of all of those religious traditions represented in the hall? What would it be like if we did not hear voices in the midst of the community saying, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness? What would our culture be like had we not heard religious imperatives such as love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do to you? How much more harsh would our land be if we did not grow up hearing, blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers? What would the world be like had we never been reminded that someday we will have to answer to God for our actions?”
To his credit, the man who asked the question smiled and said, “It would be a mess!”

I like that response, and I agree that without faith, the world would be an even bigger mess than it already is.  But let us not lose hope, but hold to our faith and continue to live the love of God!

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