Saturday, May 17, 2014

SERMON: Encouragment Along The Way... John 14:1-14 May 18, 2014

INTRODUCTION. The phrase 'the way' is our central image this morning. In your mind consider life as a path through a dangerous woods where one could easily get lost or harmed. One could lose awareness of what their life is about. Such a tragic loss that would be. The author of John has Jesus saying there is such a path or way for each of us and Jesus has found it and shown us how he walked it. I grew up the youngest of seven boys. The summer before I began first grade, one day at the dinner table my Dad said to one of my brothers, ' Gene, take Jimmy today and show him 'the way' to school, show him  'the path' to take.' So that afternoon George showed me the literal narrow red earth path that went off an alley, through a heavy thicket, up a hill and opened up on a main street where the grade school was. It as less than 200 yards from our back door. But till then I had never noticed where the school was or how to get there. Five year olds are not that aware of their extended surroundings. But now I knew 'the way' to school and had an image of 'the path' from my house to the place I'd be going many times for the next eight years. This gave me a sense of security, foundation, groundedness about that part of my life.

You now hold a hard stone in your hand. Of all natural earthly things nothing is so certain, solid and dependable as the hard rock of the earth. The timeless  imagery of such natural  dependability  fits the deep meaning of  Jesus assuring his friends that he had found 'a way', a way to be, a way to live, a way to behave as a human being in this life. “ I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” This statement can help us know what Jesus was doing for his friends as he also says,' Let not your heart be troubled.' ….You can know and feel confident there is a 'a way' that is given to you to make your way meaningfully all the distance of your human life. Jesus wants all people to have that kind of assurance.

Yet this passage became a problem for me about the time I hit midlife. This full passage should encourage Christians to be free to accept people of other backgrounds and faiths but has notoriously been used to claim that one's religious faith is the best or only faith that assures being accepted by God. Many Christian people have not yet found a way to own their own assurance without suggesting others are rejected by God. This way of thinking of our faith contradicts the spirit of Jesus' other teaching. For example he informs his followers to 'not judge others, lest we be judged negatively also' and he practiced accepting people as approved by God whom his own religious group rejected. It is said of Jesus that he came to “save, not to condemn the people of this world.” Hopefully our own traditions and interpretations help us to not be caught in such an embarrassing intellectual trap in our use of scripture.
    I. It is somewhat common for one's religion to become something that makes them feel superior to other humans and judge them as not saved, less related to God or as perhaps not as moral, or ones who have not performed necessary sacraments etc. This is an interpretation problem in the Christian religion today. Recall the warning in Jesus' story of the Pharisee and tax collector. The religious Pharisee judged himself as right with God and the tax collector as not. The tax collector knew and declared his imperfections without any judging of the one who judged him. Jesus said this less respected person was the one who was finding the meaning of heaven , thus was walking 'the way' we are discussing. There are honest and responsible ways for this passage to be fully embraced without leading us to imply the condemnation of others.

    II. We can hear these words in the gospel as highly symbolic rather than literal or historic. Some of the very best biblical scholars explain that much language in the Bible is symbolic, not literal. This does not make the meaning less real or authoritative. This writer is likely using symbolic language here to explain how the Christian community years after Jesus died interpreted his life and how it had captured for them the very presence of God. We might consider that this includes the same God that other World religions are also describing in their view of the Divine. Just as Jesus especially imaged God as a Heavenly Father he would not have likely said that is the only way to image God. He also referred to God, in this same gospel, as a Spirit which is how many non Christians describe God, including most native American religions. That is that God is not ever fully definable and predictable but is like the 'wind that blows where it wishes.' So we can hear Jesus saying that to follow his way of life, trust and action will lead one to think of and experience God in the same way he did...as a loving Father. But he would not have said this is the only path to relating to God.
    III. Let me ask you to consider  this at yet another level. When we speak of walking Jesus' way. Just think about it; we know so little actually of the details of how Jesus himself handled the many situations of his personal life. He likely did much that would surprise us? One story says he sent a herd of someone's swine over a cliff to die; and it does not imply he took responsibility for it. Don't we have something very general in mind when we ask the good question, ' What would Jesus do?' Much too general to think we can copy it in any consistent way. It seems to me 'the way' Jesus, and other spiritual giants,walked is even larger than Jesus, yet also as small as any single person's unique 'way' of living life responsibly and as fully as has been placed within them. John's gospel's author's goal is to make Jesus uniquely 'the way.' Many sound scholars doubt that Jesus of Nazareth thought of it that way personally or placed himself in that light? It required his admirers to see that in him. And they really did begin to see him that way, especially after he died and as several generations reflected on the remembrances of him. Such a development led to these statements of who Jesus was, what he did and what it meant to following generations ?
    IV. Finally, followers of Jesus, as in Acts 9:2, were referred to as people of 'the way' before being being called Christians. So to think of Jesus being 'the way' did not at first refer to a formal church, organization or creed but to 'a way', a way of trusting, valuing, acting and living. 'The way' refers to Jesus' values and his willingness to follow those values. He said that every human person should be seen as a most important thing in the world. And when he saw humans being cast aside, abused, mistreated, marginalized, held back from the full use of their gifts or discounted by higher powers he was disturbed. The gospels all finally describe Jesus' way as the 'way of the cross.' The 'way of the cross' was the way of serving others, of standing up for the underdogs and mistreated of society, of being willing to give of oneself for such a cause. The 'way of the cross' was the way of trusted resurrection. Symbolically that can mean that any Good done which appears dead always eventually comes back to life. Resurrection spiritually speaking can only follow some death experience. So when Jesus' way' is what we choose to follow, we are agreeing that the way of God and the way to God is one of service to others, standing up for the value of other humans even, if need be, to the point of sacrifice. And we believe that even if this effort looks like a total failure it will in ways we can't anticipate bring about the good that God approves and supports. This 'way' certainly implies we would never indicate that someone is not presently acceptable to God. Such lack of value and trust in another person is the opposite of 'the way of Christ.'

CONCLUSION: We can recognize and give God thanks when we see such a way being followed whether by a Christian, Jew, Buddhist,Hindu, Muslim or nonreligious person. And we can rejoice that the same way which Christ found has likely been found by other deeply spiritual persons as well. As Christians, Christ's way is always our chosen way. We are, as our text says, always encouraged by the Living Spirit of Christ. Because of 'the way' our hearts are not overcome by trouble or fear, and we are enabled to value the many ways God opens 'the way' of life to others.

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