Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone. ”There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
Sermon for June 6, 2021: Is Jesus Your Cornerstone?
Based upon Acts 4:5-12
by Pastor Intern Becky Walker (thanks, Becky, for preaching while Pastor Chrissy was on vacation)
For the past few Sundays, starting with Pentecost, we have been reading from the Book of Acts. Last Sunday, Pastor Chrissy and I talked about the crippled man and how the Holy Spirit worked through Peter and he was able to walk, having been crippled since birth. After that amazing healing, Peter preached a sermon, with John by his side, in the temple complex to a group of the people who had witnessed the crippled man walk.
This wonderful act of healing set up a chain reaction of misunderstanding, resistance, and opposition. Those who had witnessed the healing misunderstood what had happened. They saw and heard Peter summon up the healing “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk”, but assumed that Peter had caused the healing. When people assume, it is difficult to get them to see or hear the truth. Peter and John were not powerful, shaman-like healers and Peter had to set them straight: “It wasn’t our power at all that caused this healing, but the power of God and the power of faith in the name of Jesus” (3:12-16).
In his commentary on this scripture, F. Scott Spencer noted that the temple authorities were comprised of chief priests from the Sadducee party. When they heard what was going on, they showed up “much annoyed.” They are angry with the commotion over the lame man’s up-rising in the holy place and, especially, with the disciples’ crediting this wondrous event to the risen Jesus Christ. The wisdom and authority of the temple leaders was being seriously challenged on their own turf. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead under any circumstances. But they would have been particularly disturbed, and not a little jealous, over the people’s rapt attention to the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus. They presumed they had the power to put a lid on the good news. For it was Jesus whom the chief priests had delivered over to the Roman Pontius Pilate as a blasphemer and traitor.
In her commentary on this text, Mitzi Smith notes that the temple officials held Peter and John in jail overnight, thinking that time in the cell would change their story. It also gave the officials time to gather the high priest and other leaders to figure out what to do with these followers of Jesus who kept claiming . . . the impossible. The following day, they summoned Peter and John to interrogate them. Like the leaders and the people, Peter and John are devout Jews, and disciples commissioned by Jesus. The leaders wanted to know the source and authority of their power to heal a man crippled from birth: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 4:7. Now, the issue has shifted from healing, resurrection, and the mercy of God to the issue of power. Power. This disabled man, who had to beg for food and money to survive, could now walk after he rejoiced praising God, and that act caused the priests to see this event as an attack on their authority and a challenge to their positions of power. Thomas Long in his commentary on the text described the shift this way: a bunch of “uneducated and ordinary men” have been filled “with divine power to instruct people in positions of power about the true source of power.”
How does an act of charity, or kindness cause so much trouble? You would think that bringing health to someone who has been sick his entire life would be cause for rejoicing. The disabled beggar certainly saw it that way. He immediately got up, took a few steps, and started leaping and praising God. He had made eye contact with Peter and John, hoping for a few coins. Instead, he had experienced a life-changing event. He was changed forever by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, and he simply couldn’t be quiet about it. That simple, amazing act of charity created a power struggle.
Dr. Long states that there are two main reasons why power was suddenly introduced into the equation. The first of these is control. The religious authorities are jealous and protective of their franchise on religion. They wanted people to be prayerful and faithful, but to do so under the exclusive banner of the temple and its protocols. With the outbreak of the Holy Spirit, the Christian movement was spreading like wildfire. The temple officials couldn’t control it with their rules and structures. The second reason was the religious authorities concern for their protection from the scared. They felt the temples, churches, and religious structures not only brought people close to God, but protected them from the full, unmediated glare of God’s glory. The leaders were frightened of the work Peter and John were doing.
Peter understood the fear and ignorance of his audience. He understood what motivated their questions and behavior. Peter’s message is not only to members of the high-priestly family, but to all of Israel. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he tells them “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ Peter knows that pointing a finger at the rulers as the ones responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, that three more fingers point back at him. He denied Jesus three times and that put him in the same category as these priests. Only a few weeks earlier Jesus had stood on this spot, before these same religious rulers and spoke about the cornerstone, referring to both Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28. He challenged the religious systems of the day, summing up the parable of the wicked tenants with the quote from Psalm 118 that describes a rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.
If you’re not familiar with building stone walls, stone buildings, or archways, you probably don’t know that much about the importance of a cornerstone. I’m not a stonemason, so I needed to do some research:
What is a cornerstone? The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All the other foundation stones are set in reference to this stone. That means the cornerstone determines the position of the entire structure. For a building to be sound, all the foundation stones must line up with the cornerstone as their reference point.
What characteristics does a stone need to have in order to become the cornerstone? Because of its function as a reference point, the cornerstone needs to be of fairly good size, and relatively square.
What would cause a stonemason to reject a particular stone as a cornerstone? It needs to be a solid chunk of good quality rock, without defects. The whole building is going to rest on this stone, or be lined up with it, so most stones will be rejected for one reason or another.”
Peter is clear in his statement and names Jesus as “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” How would you respond to Peter’s statement? Are you staying in line with Jesus and his purposes? God laid the cornerstone in Jesus, but the foundation is made up of other stones, “living stones.” We are those living stones and if we wish to be part of a strong foundation, we need to consciously line up with the cornerstone. How do we do that? Well, we could read the Bible regularly, pray all the time, and keep in community with each other. Great answers, but I think there’s more we can to do. We must desire to do God’s will, make Jesus central to our lives. This cornerstone is crucial to the foundation and he needs to be the focus of our faith and our lives.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her commentary on this Acts scripture, “As important as this particular cornerstone is, it is curiously passive. After the builders rejected it, it did not leap into places under its own power. Someone else placed it there. What does this say about the power vested in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth? Is it the muscular power of someone who can make things happen, or the power of one willing to lie wherever God places him, trusting God to use him well?”
Dr. Taylor continues, “Peter trusts that he does not stand in the dock alone. He is filled with the Holy Spirit. While the verb is passive, Peter is passive in the same way that a cornerstone is passive. This rock is willing to be where God places him, trusting that God will use him well.”
Do you trust in God to place you where you are needed? It is in our human nature to resist change. Many of us like a routine and when there is change, we dig our heals in and resist. The problem is, we don’t realize we need to trust in God when things turn upside down. God always has a reason and a purpose for a change in course. Trust in God’s process. Be a passive cornerstone to be used where you are needed. Once you’ve put your trust in God, think about where your relationship is with Jesus. Is he the strong cornerstone center to your life? Remember.... Alignment is everything. AMEN.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Thomas G. Long, “Fourth Sunday of Easter,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pgs 430, 432, 434
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Fourth Sunday of Easter,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pgs 433, 435
Mitzi Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-45-12
F. Scott Spencer: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-45-12-2
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,
Why Do You Wonder? Acts 3:12-19
Sometimes you need to hear that story that comes before the story. Today is one of those days. So much happened on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit empowered disciples to speak in a variety of languages that they didn’t know in order to reach the multilingual audience of Jewish people gathered for the holiday in Jerusalem. Peter preached the Gospel and people were so moved that, the book of Acts tells us, 3,000 people were baptized and became followers of Christ. In chapter 2, in the section between last week’s reading and this week’s, we learn that the new followers fully committed themselves to learning from the disciples, to breaking bread together, and to praying together. We also learn that they shared all of their money and their food. Chapter 2:44-45 says that they would “sell all of their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to any all, as any had need.” That is a deep commitment to share literally all they had without questioning whether someone “deserved” the help. This generosity, fellowship, and communal learning drew many more people to the ministry that Jesus began, and that the disciples are continuing in the books Acts.
But, that’s not all that has happened. That’s just the beginning. There’s another story before our story. It’s a healing story. Peter and John, two of the first 12 disciples, were going up to the temple to pray. There they encountered a man with a physical disability. He does not appear to be able to work easily and must not come from a family with money, because his friends help him by bringing him to the gate of the temple so he could ask strangers for alms. Alms probably means money and maybe food. We’ve talked before about what it means to rely on strangers to survive. It is not easy. It requires a lot of tenacity and bravery. Think of how you’ve seen people who ask for money from strangers be treated today. It is often not kind. I imagine this man was often treated as a nuisance, as well, though maybe his choice to ask for help outside of a religious temple meant that he found people in more generous spirits.
He asked Peter and John for money. They proceeded to do a thing I don’t actually recommend doing if someone asks you for money on the street, I mean, unless you are really sure you can pull it off. If you can’t do this, better to share some money or one of those extra granola bars you keep stashed in your purse. Peter and John said they didn’t have any money, but Peter says they can offer something else. Peter looks at the man and says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have to give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And they take his right hand and raise him up. Scripture tells us that, immediately, his legs and ankles grew strong enough to hold his weight.
You heard some of what happened next in Pastor Becky’s story. He was so excited to be healed that he jumped and danced and walked and praised God. He walked into the temple, where people had gathered to offer prayers and sacrifices, and people saw him healed. Many recognized him as the man who often asked strangers for help outside of the gate. They had hopefully even shared money with him sometimes. Scripture tells us that the people “were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” He clung to John and Peter, the ones who had offered him healing, and all the people who realized what amazing thing had happened gathered around them in an area of the temple known as Solomon’s Portico. And, Peter and John saw the wonder and confusion in the people’s faces and began to explain what happened.
So, we have two stories about the earliest iteration of the church: the first one showing us people who shared money communally, learned together, and broke bread together, and the second a story of disciples offering healing to someone who needed it. Generosity, communal care, and healing... this is what it means to carry on Jesus’ ministry in this world. If the Holy Spirit can empower you, you can offer healing through Jesus’ name. It is a ministry without the physical presence of Jesus but completely filled with the Holy Spirit, guiding them through their days. In her commentary on today’s scripture, the part of the story that comes next, María Teresa Dávila says, “A religious community’s faithfulness is to be measured by its concrete inclusion or exclusion of those persons whom society deems disposable or outside of history.” The earliest church understood that no one was disposable and all people deserved to be included. The healing this kind of community offered, symbolized in the physical healing of this unnamed man, is what made the people wonder. Peter had to make sure the people gathered around him and John and the unnamed man knew how the miraculous healing could happen.
Sometimes people think they know what’s going on, but they don’t really know what’s going on. And, sometimes, people want to give credit to the wrong people for things they see. Both of those things are happening here. In her commentary on the text, Mitzi Smith notes that the disciples will spend a lot of time in Acts explaining what is happening and who is making it happen. Dr. Smith says that the disciples have to continually deflect praise from themselves and reorient people’s attention to God. Remember, in this era, many kinds of people were known as healers and miracle-workers. The miracle itself wasn’t enough to point people to God. When Peter and John are standing right in front of you and the man they offered healing to is clinging to them, you might want to give them credit for the healing. Peter and John want to make sure you know who should get credit, and it’s not them.
Calling upon their shared religious tradition, Peter preaches and reminds them of how God worked through Abraham and God worked through Isaac and God worked through Jacob and said that God also worked through Jesus. Jesus was who empowered them to offer healing. This healing is about Jesus at work in world, not about them being particularly faithful in the world. In her commentary, Dr. Smith notes that God had many servants before Jesus. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were three of them. But, Jesus was different. He was the Messiah, the Incarnation of God in flesh, in the world. He brought Life and continues to bring life, even after death and resurrection. Peter needed to make sure that when they saw this healed man, they knew it was because of Jesus, not because of them.
We must remember, that while followers of Jesus are a separate religion now, at the time of this story, Peter and John were just considered to be Jewish, and they followed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and as an interpreter of Jewish law. They are speaking to other Jewish people, frustrated that they did not follow Jesus during his life, but clear that following him now was still an option. They understood Jesus to be offering the best interpretation of their shared religious tradition at the time. And, they wanted the crowds who had gathered to see the God they knew from their scriptures at work in a new way. Peter said that he and John were witnesses... they had seen and felt the Risen Christ. They had known the Messiah intimately. They knew that healing and communal good were possible. They wanted to make sure the people gathered knew that they could still be a part of this movement.
Dr. Smith also notes that the story just before our reading is clear that Peter and John actually did the physical work of raising the unnamed man to his feet, while the Holy Spirit did the work of renewing his strength. This is part of what it means to be a witness. To raise up another, to offer the healing that we know is possible. As Dr. Smith says, we should probably share our silver and gold, too. After all, they can also be tools of healing, as the first story of the people living communally shows us. That being said, what makes us followers of Christ is our persistent search for those in need of healing and our willingness to share how we have been healed. Not because we are particularly special. But, because we know the source of healing and we want to share it. When people see what we can do together with God and wonder how it happens, may we be willing to see them fully and share how Jesus has brought us together and invited us to help take care of the world.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-312-19-2
María Teresa (MT) Dávila, "Second Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011
Acts 2:1-21 The Coming of the Holy Spirit
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The story we read on Pentecost is one of my favorites because I always like a story with a good ruckus. This story is quite the ruckus! There’s a big group of Jesus’ followers, about 120 of them, gathered in one place in Jerusalem. It is the time of year when they celebrated Shavuot, a festival that follows 50 days after the first day of Passover. This holiday was also called by the Greek name Pentecost. Yes. That’s right. Our Christian holiday of Pentecost is named after the Jewish holiday. They were all packed into one room together. Can you even imagine 120 people in a room together? When’s the last time you saw that many people in one room? While they were all gathered together, a terrible wind kicked up. It was probably a very scary wind, less like standing in front a fan and more like that terrible storm we had a couple Octobers ago. You know the one that knocked over all the trees? It was the kind forceful, violent wind that could blow open our doors and rattle these windows and fling papers everywhere. It would be pretty scary. Those 120 disciples were probably pretty frightened by what is happening.
The next part of the story probably only adds to their confusion. You see, the people thought they saw fire... inside the room... in the air... leaping across their bodies. Now, fires in buildings aren’t usually a good thing. But, these 120 disciples, all Jewish, knew the ancient stories. Fire in unexpected or strange places is often a sign of God in their religious traditions. God once spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Their people once followed a pillar of fire through the desert, trusting that God was leading the way. When they saw the fire in the room, they thought it might be different... special. The fire wasn't outside of them. It was on top of them, maybe even inside of them, filling them up with the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. And, that Holy Spirit was about to spill out and do something none of them had expected. The Holy Spirit was going to help them talk!
We should remember that these 120 people are Galileans. In their everyday life, they likely spoke Aramaic or Greek. They probably understood a little Hebrew for religious purposes. They might know a smattering of Latin. This story tells us that they began to speak many other languages, just out of the blue. Why would they need to speak other languages? So they could speak to the rest of the people who had crowded into the city for the festival. Remember, Jewish people from all over came to Jerusalem to celebrate. We don't know exactly who was in the crowd, whether it was Jewish immigrants from across the Mediterranean who had settled in Jerusalem or Jewish pilgrims who had traveled to the city for religious observance. Whomever it was, the people who had gathered around the 120 suddenly realized they were hearing speech in their own mother tongues. More than a dozen regions are named in the story from the Bible (our reading today simplified it a little), and people from each place understood the words the disciples were saying. And, the people gathered around the disciples were astonished...like, the confused and surprised and suspicious kind of astonished. Some even wondered if the disciples were just hearing the almost coherent ramblings of a bunch of morning drunks.
Isn't this an incredible image of what church could be: people from wide ranges of ethnicities, genders, social classes, and ages, all hearing something new and moving about God in a language that they could understand. Even if they didn't understand how it was happening (and it's pretty clear, no one understood how it was happening), still, they heard and could understand something new about God. The Holy Spirit had made sure that each person in the room could hear something familiar, even as they were miles and miles away from home. What is interesting is that hearing words they know doesn't appear to comfort them. In fact, scripture says that they were pretty perplexed by the whole thing. And, yet, it seems like this situation is just exactly what the Holy Spirit intends. At least that's how Peter understands what's going on.
Remember, the book of Acts is a sequel to the book of Luke. When we see Peter’s response to the Holy Spirit, it is meant to mirror the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. When Jesus started preaching in Luke, he stood up in the synagogue and read parts of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Acts, Peter understands this Pentecost moment as an expression of the work of the prophet Joel. He explains to the bewildered crowd that they will know that God has come close to them when the differences within humanity are no longer excuses for humans to avoid coming together in community.
Peter recites this part of Joel to the people gathered:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Peter, in an effort to help the confused and suspicious witnesses, said that God will empower all kinds of people. That was the Good News they were sharing that day. God will allow people of all genders to prophecy, erasing the notion at women were not able to speak through the Holy Spirit. Peter said that youth will not be seen as incompatible with wisdom and agedness will be linked with creativity. The enslaved will share a place of righteousness with the free and they will speak truth to all. It is through this kind of boundary-pushing community that humanity most clearly speaks of the fullness of God.
It is as if the amazing differences present in the people aren’t a barrier to building relationships among them. Instead, it shows us a community where different and varied life experiences help people understand God in different ways, setting a foundation for us to understand our differences in life experience and religious experience as gifts from God, and assets to our faith. Without varying testimonies of God, our faith becomes static and closed-off, just the opposite of this wild, diverse testimony presented in this part of Acts. This kind of diverse sharing of the Gospel is what allows faith in Jesus to spread, first through a multi-ethnic diaspora of Jews, and then into Gentile communities, and, eventually, to us. And, the Holy Spirit sets the whole thing in motion right here, by making sure everyone could hear a word of God that they understood and inspired them to live differently because of what they heard.
I once read an article by Billy Honor who was critical of churches that talk a big game on Pentecost and then avoid modern-day Pentecost situations. That is churches that don’t know what to do with rooms of people from different backgrounds and different languages and different experiences. He worries, that in order to feel safe and stable in what they already know, churches miss out on incredible movements of the Holy Spirit in something unfamiliar. We never get the rushing wind and tongues of fire because we do all the same stuff and invite all the same people all the time.
As another scholar, Margaret Aymer, once wrote, "in the midst of the chaos of Pentecost rests an anchor." That anchor is the legacy and ministry of Jesus Christ and his first followers. Maybe remembering that, even when we are in wild, windy rooms filled with too many words, we don’t have to be afraid. We are rooted in Christ and he continues to invite us to hear the Gospel through our own experience and listen to our neighbors interpret God through theirs. Jesus helps us stay and listen to the new, strange, surprising thing. With his help, and the help of the Holy spirit, we can remember that we can be strengthened by the varieties of gifts people bring when they feel truly welcomed into Jesus' community. We can be empowered by the new testimonies we hear so that, we, too, dream dreams, see visions, and serve our neighbors. The Holy Spirit is always there, waiting to fill us up. May we be willing to be moved by what the Spirit helps us hear and finally understand.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Billy Honor: https://www.onscripture.com/my-struggle-pentecost-church’s-vacation-home-not-its-residence
Margaret Aymer: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3282
‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’
When I worked in hospice and most of my patients had some kind of memory loss, I learned one particularly important lesson. If my patient was a Christian, even if their memory was so poor they couldn’t remember how to speak clearly, they would still likely know the Lord’s Prayer. When I visited, I would do my best to connect in whatever way was possible... looking at pictures, reading, watching television, mentioning things I knew that they had loved in their lives, and praying together. I learned that if I started the Lord’s Prayer, I could almost always count on them to pray with me. Some would pray clearly, saying the most clear sentences that they had said during the whole visit as recited the familiar phrases of the prayer. Some would remember the rhythm of the prayer, mumbling alongside of me, saying a few words clearly. Sometimes they would only remember the Amen, but would make sure to say it with me. Sometimes they would just hold my hand tightly while I would pray.
In thanksgiving for their lives, would you say the Lord’s Prayer with me:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
I tried to remember where I first heard what’s known as the Serenity Prayer. I can’t remember. It might have just been at church. I was a pretty churchy teenager and paid attention to prayers. I also watched a lot of television and read a lot. Maybe I came across it there. It could have been that time in college that I went to an AA meeting with someone who need to go to one and hadn’t been in several days. I don’t know if you’ve been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting before. The founders of the program had deep roots in the Episcopal tradition. Somewhere along the way, AA meetings incorporated this prayer, likely originally written by UCC theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I mean, he probably used the first versions before the United Church of Christ even became a denomination in 1957. In one article I saw, it suggested that some folks from AA came upon the prayer after it had been shared with service members by military chaplains.
The first version I remember hearing goes like this: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. There is a different version that Rev. Dr. Niebuhr evidently preferred: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. As much as I like this prayer, I also appreciate Dr. Angela Davis’ reminder that we don’t have to be serene in the face of that which is unacceptable. She said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” That’s a prayer I’ve needed sometimes, too.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been preaching from the part of John that scholars call The Farewell Discourse. It is the part of John where Jesus is preparing his disciples, his friends, for his eventual death. At this point in the story, it has become clear to him that they will need to know how to preach the Gospel without him. So, he spends what amounts to four chapters of this Gospel preparing them for what will come next. He washes their feet, teaches them about being a servant, reminds them that he will guide them as a shepherd guides sheep and that they are so close to him that they are likes branches on the vine that is Christ. He makes sure that they know that God will abide in them, just as God has abided in him. They will be able to preach the Gospel because Jesus will abide in them, as well. He tells them to love each other, because they are going to need it. And, then he prays. That’s the last thing he does in the Farewell Discourse. He prays.
The scholar Cláudio Carvalhaes, in his commentary on this text, says that this final prayer is “as if Jesus is wrapping up his ministry by telling God what happened and what will be needed as the disciples move forward.” In essence, he is praying for his friends and asking God to tend to them and empower them. These disciples who have become friends, these vines that he prays will grow good fruit... his last action, as he teaches them for the final time before his arrest, will be to pray for them. Dr. Carvalhaes also points out that in his prayer, Jesus beautifully reasserts the relationships that connect the disciples to him and all of them to God. “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” Jesus prays for their protection, asking God “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus knew that they must work together... that their many must also be one if they are to help the kindom come. Jesus wanted his joy to be complete in them, for them to be made holy in God’s word, and for them to be protected from evil, even as they find themselves in conflict with the powers of the world.
What I was reinforced for me in my prayers as a chaplain and in hearing people pray together in AA is that sometimes it just really helps to hear someone pray for you. It matters deeply to us that we are listened to, remembered, that someone hopes good things will happen for us. I imagine that you have experienced the grace of being prayed for. I don’t mean those passive aggressive prayers, when someone says “I’ll pray for you” and really means they are cussing you out in their head. I mean when someone sees and hears what’s on your heart, and acknowledges it before God, and then prays for your relief or your protection or clarity or a change of heart. It is powerful to hear yourselves be prayed for. And, it seems like Jesus’ disciples, his friends, heard him praying for them.
I didn’t necessarily assume that he would have prayed where they could hear him. I don’t know why. It says right at the beginning of chapter 17 that after he stopped teaching, he started praying. He didn’t go off on a mountain for quiet time this time. He prayed in earshot so that they knew he was praying for them. Jesus want joy for them, even as he knew that their mission would sometimes be painful. Jesus wanted love for them, even as they lived in a world where they were often at odds with powerful people. The last thing he will give them before he is arrested is love and joy. Joy that they are tended to. Joy that that are cared for. Joy that they are empowered, in Christ, by God, to love one another and love the whole world. This is him doing that Good Shepherd thing again: making sure they know they are not alone in the valley of the shadow of death. Dr. Meda Stamper, in her commentary on this text, puts it this way: “There it was that they should have joy in his command to them to abide in love; now they are to find joy in overhearing Jesus’ prayer on their behalf for the same thing — that they should be protected for love by the one in whose love they dwell.” And, having been bolstered by this love, they will be able to enact the same love in the world.
What prayers remind you that you are loved in this world? Is it the Lord’s Prayer, likely taught to you by parents or beloved Sunday School teachers, one that you’ve known so long that you may even remember it when you’ve forgotten so much else? Is it the Serenity Prayer, said alongside others who are taking it one day at a time, making the best choices they can, and showing up for one another, night after night, in church basements and community centers across the country? Maybe it’s the prayers that are only in your heart, heard best by God, even in your silence. When we pray for each other, we are repeating this action of Jesus, showing love by speaking love aloud and listening to the needs of each other. Did you know that Jesus prayed for us, too? In the part just after this one, Jesus prayed for those who will come to believe because of the words of the first disciples. That’s us, many generations removed. This week, I hope you can live out the Gospel like you know Jesus prayed for you, and that you will get the chance to love the way he first loved you.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted:
Cláudio Carvalhaes: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-176-19-5
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-176-19-3
About the Serenity Prayer:
John 15:9-17As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Even though we are gathered in the Easter season, with the stories of the Resurrection fresh on our minds, we should remember that today’s reading is not one that takes place after the resurrection. Today's reading comes from the time just before Jesus was crucified. At this point in the Gospel Jesus seems to know that something bad is going to happen. And, he knows that he needs to prepare the disciples for whatever scary thing is coming. In fact, the last several lessons we have read together have been part of him preparing his disciples. First, there was the promises of the Good Shepherd who never leaves his sheep. Then there was the instruction to be branches of his vine and the assurance that they had been empowered to bear the fruits of love and justice. In today’s reading, Jesus extends his teaching on his relationship with the disciples beyond that of farmer and fruit. In today’s reading, Jesus offers friendship.
First Jesus affirms his own love of the disciples, saying that is like the love God has for him. He wants them to have the kind of complete joy that one might feel if they know that they are truly loved. Then, he goes to on to give them a larger context for this love, and it is friendship. "I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends." This passage is the only time in the whole book of John that Jesus calls the disciples his friends. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that he does so in the midst of crisis. When Jesus speaks of his love, he invites his disciples to "abide" in his love. Scholar Meda Stamper reminds us of something important about this word "abide." In the book of John, this word is often used to indicate more than just the simple act of resting. To abide is to make a comfortable home.
For example, early in John, Jesus spoke of God has having many mansions for God's people. Dr. Stamper tells us that the word that gets translated as mansions is actually better translated as abiding places. God will provide for people homie-ness, a place to feel safe and comfortable and wanted. So, when we talk about Jesus asking the disciples to abide in his love, he is asking them to make a home in love... to find safety and rest in love. That must have been a comfort for them, these itinerant and homeless preachers who would be threatened for doing the Gospel work and sometimes run out of town. Regardless of their physical home, they could always abide in Jesus' love.
He says that they will abide in his love if they follow his commandments, just as he has abided in God's commandments. He tells them that following his commandment will bring them joy. And, what commandment will bring people such joy? A new commandment to love one another just as Christ has loved them. This is the commandment that Maundy Thursday is named for. In Latin, Novum Mandatum means new commandment. This commandment is so important that it has a part of Holy Week named after it. It is through the act of loving one another that the disciples become friends of Christ.
The scholar Choi Hee An, in a commentary on this passage, notes that it was no small thing to be called a friend during the era in which this Gospel was written. The common hierarchy of relationships during that time would have made it difficult for disciples of a teacher to imagine themselves to also be friends. Even the common metaphors Jesus used, liked plant and vine, slaver and enslaved person, shepherd and sheep, even parent and child, implied an unequal relationship. But, friend doesn’t. With friends, there is the possibility, of sharing, as Dr. An calls it, “mutual responsibility and interdependency.” To love one another is to depend on one another. To depend on one another is to befriend one another. This is what love is... depending on one another, including each other in plans, assuming you will be active in one another’s care. And, being willing to make sacrifices for one another.
In John, Jesus demonstrates that there can be a real cost in loving another person and being a friend as he’s outlined it. Love can provoke inside a person a willingness to put one's own life at risk for the people that one loves. Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." In this one sentence, Jesus reminded his followers that love and joy are not shallow things. They are deep things, things that abide in the very life and love of Jesus. It reminds me of those words from the Song of Songs when one of the speakers says to their beloved, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.” Jesus’ love of his friends was stronger than death and fiercer than the grave. But, I don’t think they understood that yet. They won’t, I don’t think, until the resurrection.
Jesus loved loudly, proclaiming healing to the broken and justice to the oppressed. He took joy in the healing work he did. But, his love and joy did not lead him to safe places. It led him into dangerous conflicts with the ruling elites and to the bedsides of the sick and dying. His love was not passive. It was active, driving him towards the places of greatest need and great danger. We have heard the stories of the crucifixion. Jesus’ friendship with the disciples and his love of humanity put him at risk. But, I guess love always puts us at risk. There is always a danger is loving one another as Christ loved us. Inside the joy of the Gospel also dwells the potential for deep pain. But, friendship with Christ, and love for one another, calls us to move towards that possible pain, knowing that Christ's ultimate joy and our beloved friends can help carry us through it. I think this is how we get a taste of Resurrection in our lives right now. Love carries us through the pain out to the other side of it.
To be a friend of Jesus is also to love, or attempt to love, as he did. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, in her commentary on this passage, puts it another way: what part of your life are you willing to lay down out of love for another? The sacrifices being asked of us rarely are our actual lives but are regularly the things we know of as our lives, the things that help us understand our lives and make a place in this world. In that same commentary, Dr. Brooks asks “What does it take to set aside all that one believes about others, to set aside the prejudices that prevent or stifle friendship, in order to join others in being truly the Body of Christ?” Can we love Christ and our neighbors enough to set aside what seems necessary and comfortable to us so that they may have a chance to merely live? This is one of the most challenging questions of our time. Can we act in love when we are called to sacrifice something important to us? May we find the love that offers us true comfort and may that love help us lay down a life lived only for ourselves.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Choi Hee An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter, " Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-5
John 15:1-8 Jesus the True Vine
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I read something last week while preparing for my sermon on Good Shepherd Sunday. I mentioned it just at the end of the sermon because I didn’t know what to do with it in that particular sermon. It’s about that part of John 10 where Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks said this part of the reading on the Good Shepherd reminds us that the community as it now stands does not complete the body of Christ. Jesus calls sheep from all corners to join the fold. And, as the sheep are gathered, they become one flock... one body. A central issue in Christianity, a flock with lots of different kinds of people, especially people not welcome in many other places, is helping people understand themselves as one Body of Christ made by people of different backgrounds with different gifts. Jesus preaches about it several times as recorded in John and Paul preached about it to several of the churches he founded. In just a few weeks, it will be Pentecost, and we’ll hear a story from the book of Acts about the Holy Spirit empowering the disciples to speak in different languages in order to be able to preach to people from many different countries. Jesus’ flocks is designed to be a flock of all kinds of people. But, how do you get people with real differences to understand themselves as one Body of Christ.
The central metaphor of today’s reading, the vine and branches, I think, can show us something about how Jesus’ followers, with all our wonderful variety and necessary differences, grow with Christ into one whole body. Jesus said that he was the vine and God was the vinegrower. The ones who hear the Gospel and are moved by it, becomes branches of that same vine. The branches cannot grow without the vine and the vine cannot grow without the vinegrower. Also, though, we should note, the vinegrower receives sustenance from the fruitful vine. The scholar Karoline Smith says we need to pay attention to the fact that the relationship between growers and plants is mutual. Each party is necessary for abundant growth and life. No one part grows by itself. Intimacy among God and Jesus and Jesus followers is necessary for the vine and branches to thrive.
The intimacy with the Divine that is necessary to grow into a thriving vine comes from following Jesus’ teaching. In John, this is called abiding in Jesus. According to Karoline Lewis, this is one of the most important ways Jesus understands his ministry in this Gospel. He says that the ones who abide in him and in whom he abides will bear much fruit. To return to the work of Dr. Brooks, in her commentary on today’s reading, she says that “The guiding principle by which all would be transformed into the image of Christ is boundless love of God and neighbor.” A thriving vine of Christ will be fed by this love of God and love of neighbor. When you love God, you love your neighbor. When you love your neighbor, you tend to your neighbors’ well-being and make sure that any body of Christ you are helping to cultivate is capable of incorporating new branches. Because a vine that doesn’t grow can’t produce the fruits of justice and love. And what are we doing here if not growing towards the Gospel that Christ has shared with us?
This is where the part of how to make one vine out of many branches comes in. We are still in the season of Easter, where we spend time considering how Jesus would prepare his followers to carry on the Gospel without him being physically present. He did not preach the Gospel alone. He called them. They, too, will need co-workers. The Gospel is always the work of community, at work through relationships. The branches will be called and empowered to grow and carry on Christ's work in the world, long after Jesus himself returns to God. These branches must grow, pruning that which does not produce love and justice, and reach out into all of creation, bearing fruit of God's love on this earth. And, one way we will grow is by making sure this vine is prepared for new branches.
As I thought of the new sheep to the fold from last week and the new branches that grow this week, I could not help but think of the way new branches can be grafted onto an already existing plant. Just as each new branch that is grafted to a root stock adds to the strength and viability of a Vine of Christ, so, too, does it change how vine grows. If the grafting is done well, by a skilled farmer, a vine will respond to the new graft’s presence by knitting together old and new, creating a stronger plant. In time, this new plant will bear new fruit. Growing this fruit is only possible because the root stock and graft grow together. Doesn’t this sound like the part of the reading where Jesus described himself as a vine who relies on the vinegrower? But, it also helps us see the way the vinegrower tends to new vines to make the old vine stronger.
When I started thinking about grafting as a religious metaphor, I started to read up on grafting new branches onto plants. Here’s what I’ve learned about why people graft trees. For one, people would like to clone an apple or pear varietal that they've developed. This seems to me like when someone has cultivated great gifts for ministry in other communities, be they churches or neighborhoods, and decides to use those gifts to serve a new congregation in a new way. While carrying gifts from one part of your life into a new congregation isn’t exactly like cloning a plant, I do think that it is possible to replicate the attentiveness, prayerfulness, and dedication with which a person went about developing these gifts in another situation to fit the needs and joys of a new congregation. One of the great joys of being grafted into a new community is being trusted to bring all of the experiences you have had up until that point and being allowed to use these experiences to serve in a new way. It is a joy to see these gifts bloom in a new place.
A second reason that I learned that people add grafts to trees is to help heal injured parts of a tree. Healing is certainly foundational to the Gospel. Jesus spent so much of his time healing people. Congregations, ideally, spend a lot of time healing, too: Healing old hurts and arguments, offering comfort for the pains of everyday life, working to heal systemic injustice that wounds whole communities. Branches rely on the vine. The vine relies on the branches. In recognizing the ways we need healing and that the world needs healing, we are abiding in Christ and Christ is abiding in us. If we love our neighbors, we will seek healing. And, we will be confident that God is at work in our healing, too.
A third reason that I learned that people graft trees is probably the one I find most interesting. Grafting can be used to make a healthy tree stronger and create more variety in its fruit. New, healthier parts of the tree can be grafted in to keep it from cracking with wind and age. Also, you can help the tree pollinate more easily and successfully by introducing new grafts. Sometimes you can even make wild plants with several different kinds of fruit on them. I think I’ve told you about an apple tree my neighbor has. It has 4 or 5 different varieties on it! Every time new branches are added to the vine, we have the possibility of becoming more vital and more fruitful, growing things we could have never grown without the grafts. A vine with many kinds of branches will liven up any table with its fruit.
This body of Christ, the vine and branches, is not complete. There is always the possibility for new and different growth meeting the needs of new and different times. Whatever we will become is already growing in us, like the graft growing with the root stock. And, we’ll like get some new grafts, too, helping us reach out with Christ in directions we can’t even imagine right now. Storms will come. So will droughts, freezes, and caterpillars. Do not fear, though. We have a vinegrower with water to refresh, patient hands to pick away the bugs, and tools to prune and shape us as we grow. May our fruit be glorious.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
Helpful information on grafting: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/fruit/grafting-and-budding-fruit-trees/
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.