Praying Like Jesus Prays

St. Lukes Building Sunset CroppedMessage for Easter 7 on John 17:1-1-21 given on May 16, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. This sermon and other worship services can be seen on YouTube.

And you thought the pandemic was hard! Before we have even figured out how to be back in the building, we have received an unsolicited offer to sell it and our property to a growing church in the area. We face challenging days ahead as we struggle with a proposition few congregations ever must consider. This will take even more spiritual resources, and greater depth than we anticipated having to muster at this moment.

We thought we mustered all we had to, to get to today—and you truly did amazingly well! So, we hoped for a season of simple moments of relief, salve to the soul, a joyful sense of communion, and soaring spirits as we sing together even masked, as Dale plays the organ—and we do feel that today.

But after a year of getting used to spending time alone and isolated, we enter a process that will require more togetherness than usual, more conversation, more interaction, and more patient listening than we have done in 14 months. The Council has set forth a thoughtful process with expansive time for questions, research, answers, ideas, discussion, and more discussion, so we have time to be in community again. This is very good.

We are also going to need more than good process. Our Gospel reading from John offers us that something more.

In John 17, Jesus offers us a way to pray through this summer, through this process, to give us what we need to listen to God, to discern God’s will, and to be centered in Christ. Did you know that there is no version of the Lord’s Prayer in John? Did you know that there is no Garden of the Gethsemane prayer in John where Jesus asks the cross to be taken from him? There is neither of these prayers in John—there is only this prayer—called the “high priestly prayer” as Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and departure. Many of us repeat Jesus words in Gethsemane for our suffering to be taken away. Many of us pray the Lord’s prayer every day and we of course say it every Sunday in worship. But Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is not a common way for us to pray at all. It is, however, an essential way for us to pray in the coming weeks and months as we discern God’s future for us.

What is so different about this prayer, making it so uncommon, or perhaps even uncomfortable? The first person Jesus prays for is himself. Jesus prays for his ministry, what he has done, what God has asked him to do, and this present moment he has come to. Jesus asks for God’s presence, love, affirmation, power, embrace in the present moment that God has brought him to, so that he can continue to fulfill all that God has sent him to do.

Have you ever put yourself at the top of your pray list, before anyone or anything else? We tend not to do this because we think others are in more need than we are. Imagine doing this just for a moment. How does it feel? To ask God to be with you in the present moment so that you can faithfully do what God wants you and calls you to do. What if the primary purpose of your prayers is simply this: to experience God’s love, affirmation, power, and embrace? Carmelite nun Ruth Barrow expands this understanding of prayer—putting ourselves first as Jesus does so that we might be changed by God’s love:

What do we mean by prayer? Almost always when we talk about prayer, we are thinking of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, illusions multiply. For me, it is of fundamental importance to correct this view. …prayer is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God but what God is doing for us. And what God is doing for us is giving us the divine Self in love….Divine Love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! We must realize [therefore,] that what we have to do is allow ourselves to be loved, to be there for Love to love us. . . . True prayer means wanting GOD not ego. Prayer, from our side, is a deliberate decision to remain open to the inflowing of divine love. 

This is why Jesus prays for himself first. To ground himself in God’s love—to ground himself in eternal life. At the beginning of John 17 Jesus describes eternal life as living in a relationship with him and knowing God now: “3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

In addition to good process, when all of us pray for ourselves first, receiving the divine outpouring of love, grounding us in God rather than our own ego and preferred outcomes, we will bring our best selves to our shared discussions.

The second petition in Jesus’ high priestly prayer is to pray for his disciples. Jesus prays for their protection from evil, for their unity, for their sanctification in the truth, and for their joy. Jesus knows he is going away and is sending the disciples into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit to live out a relationship of eternal life with God in a world that rejects and resists such radical, all-encompassing love. Their mission is to make real John 3:16—to show forth that God so loves the world that he sent Jesus to embody that love.

So, Jesus prays for their relationship with God and their community to be protected from temptation, from evil, from all the forces that defy and rebel against God and that thwart love. Jesus prays for their faith to be deepened and sanctified, and the truth of their beliefs to be strengthened. Jesus prays for the close union he experiences with God and with the disciples to also bring them the same joy of communion, so that the people of faith would endure the challenges of life together as one community.

As we think about the challenges of the coming the weeks—the discussions and the decisions, what are the gifts we need to pray for in each other, in our fellow disciples and in our community members, so that we can remain protected, strengthened, united, and even joyful that we are together? This is not a rhetorical question! What do we need to pray for, for each other? [Response: understanding, patience, listening, compassion, empathy, discernment, hope, faith that God is with us, gratitude for those who came before us]. Doesn’t it feel better to come to the meeting next week knowing everyone is praying for you to have these gifts?

This is why Jesus prays for his disciples second—rooted in his loving union with God, he extends this loving union into loving Communion with his disciples who manifest his love and spirit in their life together—so our second prayer in the coming weeks after we pray for ourselves and receive God’s love, is to pray for each other and our communion together.

The third petition is Jesus’ high priestly prayer is to pray for the new believers who will come to faith through the mission of the disciples. Jesus is praying for the future church that does not yet exist, but will surely come to be. Jesus was praying for us, and here we are! (Did you get that?!) Jesus prayed for us, and here we are! Even though Jesus is leaving, even though the world resists God’s love, even though there may be evil to battle, even though there may challenging days and questions ahead, God’s mission has a church in the world, and that church has a purpose—to share the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So, the third group we are praying for in the coming weeks are those for whom St. Luke’s exists—new believers who will come to faith because we are faithful to the Gospel. We are praying for new believers, we are praying for families with children who want to raise them in an inclusive community, we are praying for spiritual seekers, we are praying for believers who never felt welcome anywhere, we are praying for people who are lonely and need community, we are praying for people who never felt loved by God, we are praying for people who are ready for their spirits to come alive.

The future focus of St. Luke’s is not about the physical location or the specifics of this or any other building-–those are tools for the mission. As we pray for the new believers, for the mission God calls us to, and receive more clarity about that, I am confident that the answer about the right tools for that mission will become clear.

Jesus’ high priestly prayer invites us to pray for ourselves first, opening ourselves to the inflowing of God’s love for us and work in us, grounding us in eternal life. We go from union with God to communion with each other as we pray for the gifts of wisdom, patience, listening, empathy, understanding compassion, hope in others as we discern and discuss together. Finally, we pray for the new believers—the people and the mission to which Christ calls us—embodying John 3:16 in the Richardson community and beyond.

 As we offer these prayers, we trust that Jesus prays with us. He prayed for us as the future church—we are the evidence of his answered prayers. Jesus prays with us now as his disciples of today, as we join him in mission for the next future church.

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To Love As Jesus Love Us

larger Jesus washing largeMessage for Palm Sunday on John 13:1-17,35 given on March 28, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. This sermon and other worship services can be seen on YouTube. A congregational reading of the Passion did not work outdoors nor on video, so we made a transition to Holy Week by reading the footwashing story for the Gospel after the Palm Sunday procession.

I remember when I was in middle school and I first heard the popular saying, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

It was the first time I began to understand that real love was not about possession, but rather about freedom. But if there was ever a night for Jesus to give up on “love as freedom” and engage in a little “love as possession,” I think the night before he died would have been a good choice. It would have been understandable if Jesus would have put the screws down on the disciples a little harder and said,

“Look, I’m going to die tomorrow, and I need you to show up. I have given you my heart and soul, my prayers, my healing, my time, everything I’ve got. Now it’s all coming to a head tomorrow and the political and religious leaders are going to have my head. I need to know that you are with me. Peter, are you in? Matthew are you with me? James and John, can I count on you? Philip and Andrew, will you be there for me? Bartholomew and Thaddeus, will you stand with me? Thomas and James, Simon and Judas, are you in?”

But he does not do it, does he? Instead, he instructs them to love one another as he has loved them, and he demonstrates what this love looks like as he wraps a towel around his waist, gets on his knees, and washes their feet.

Their feet were already clean, actually—they were washed before they came into the house for supper. The roads were dusty, and their sandals were open, and nobody wanted all that dirt tracked into the house, so feet were washed upon entering, much like taking off our shoes at the door. Foot washing was usually done by a servant and if there was not a servant in the household, it was done, of course, by the woman of the household. In addition to an act of cleanliness, it was also an act of hospitality, warmth, welcome, and humble service, especially after a hard day’s work or a long journey.

Because their feet had most likely already been cleaned, Jesus washed their feet, not to get the dust off, but as an act of love, an act of humility, an act of service. He got down on his knees, taking the form of a slave or serving them a like woman—talk about bending gender roles! Jesus offers hospitality, warmth, and welcome, love, and relationship as their time together comes to a close, shifting social and gender roles to demonstrate that true love is a life of service. Imagine the discomfort this might have caused these tough, hard-working, weather-worn men, especially James and John, the “sons of thunder”—to watch Jesus behave like female. Maybe they teased him, accusing him of “throwing like a girl,” or acting like a sissy. Certainly, Peter’s discomfort led him to argue with Jesus.

But Jesus let them live with their discomfort of his gender-bending, socially upending role reversals and he persisted. On his knees, like slave, washing and rinsing, welcoming and cleaning, drying and loving, behaving like a subservient female.

Judas sits down and Jesus washes the feet that will betray him. Peter sits down and Jesus washes the feet that will deny him. James and John, Andrew, Philip, and Matthew and all the rest, sit down and Jesus washes the feet that will run away and leave him to be scourged and nailed and killed alone. What is even more surprising than Jesus demonstrating true, deep, liberating love by behaving like a slave or a woman, is that Jesus washes all the feet that he will betray, deny and abandon him. Jesus knows they will all fail him, and he washes and loves them anyway.

The night before death in our culture—if you know it is coming on death row—it’s all about the food, the last meal. Jesus does have a Last Supper with his disciples, but he spends so much time rinsing and rubbing 24 feet, 120 toes—all feet that will flee and leave him to journey to the cross alone.

“If you love something, set it free…” Jesus loves them enough to wash their dirty souls and let them go… We all have the freedom to walk away.

Judas does this first—he allows Jesus to wash his feet, and then he leaves and goes into the night—which is to say that he has turned toward evil. That is the worst betrayal of all—it was not turning Jesus over to the chief priests, but the worst betrayal is abandoning the relationship with Jesus. Judas is struggling with all kinds of things—fear, turmoil, greed—and in that suffering he turns away from Jesus instead of moving toward Jesus.

The other disciples will walk away from the relationship with Jesus in one way or another, but Jesus will not walk away from them. That is why he gets on his knees and washes their feet. He will love and serve them like a slave, like a tireless woman to the end. When they are ready to return to him, he will be there. It may not be until Easter morn, but Jesus will always show up.

Can we bear to receive that much love? Jesus kneels before you to wash your feet, all the while knowing we have failed Jesus, and will fail him again—not because we are bad people, but because we are human. And still, Jesus shows up and loves us, and kneels again at our feet, with warmth and love and welcome. With towel and water in hand, he announces, “I love you. I am here, and I will always be here—even when you walk away, I will be here when you come back.”

Jesus will never betray his relationship with you,
• no matter who you are,
• no matter what you have done,
• no matter what you have thought,
• no matter how weak your faith feels
• no matter whether or not you deserve it.

Jesus gets on his knees as a servant and says, “I will not betray you. I will not deny you. I will not abandon you.”

We can always come back. No matter what, we belong to Jesus.

As we freely offer ourselves in relationship to Jesus, he fills us with the ability to love others as he loves us. This is what his commandment really means. To love others the way Jesus loves is to love those who betray, deny, and abandon us. On our own, such love is impossible. But through our relationship with Jesus, who will never betray, deny, or abandon us, we can love anyone and everyone through the power of Jesus’ love in us.

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Reflection Questions

• How do gender and class roles today still define or limit ways of showing love or serving others? Are their ways to let go of these limiting definitions to enter lives of service that express the fullness of love that Jesus expresses in this passage?

• When have you experienced love and forgiveness from someone after really screwing up? How did it feel? When have you loved and forgiven someone after they have really hurt you? What enabled the relationship to heal…or not?

• What does it mean to you that Jesus always gives you the freedom to walk away, and the love to always to return to a relationship with him? How does this change your faith or how deep you are willing to go with him?

• Is there someone you are struggling to love, forgive, or even tolerate right now? Can you bring this struggle to Jesus and ask for help—if not in loving them as he does yet, but in taking a first step, such as praying for them?

• What is it you need from Jesus or from your faith the most this Holy Week? Ask boldly.

Image: Paynter, David, 1900-1975. Jesus washing the disciples' feet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57351 [retrieved March 31, 2021https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trinity_College_Chapel_Mural_(2).jpg. 

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Bearing the Fruit of Love

field 5297329 1920Message for Lent 5 on John 12:20-33 given on March 21, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, TX. This sermon and all worship videos can be seen on YouTube.

The Greeks are in Jerusalem for the Passover festival and they have heard about a new teacher named Jesus. They find one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, and say to him, “Sir we wish to see Jesus.” What a great request – who wouldn’t want to see Jesus? After all, he has declared that he is not just a wise teacher, but he is the very embodiment of God. If I had never met Jesus, I would want to see that as well!

Philip, thinking that this is a great way to expand the circle of disciples, goes to Andrew and tells him that a group of potential followers are wanting to see Jesus. Andrew takes up the mission and finds Jesus and tells him. At this point, we would expect Jesus to welcome these worldly disciples to his movement and describe the rights and responsibilities of being his follower. But that is not what Jesus does. Instead he tells a very strange parable about a grain of wheat that must die.

What an odd response to such a straightforward request! But Jesus never wants us to simply see him; he wants us to know him. When we truly know Jesus, we not only recognize him for who he is, we also take on his mission that he summed up so eloquently back in Chapter 3: For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, his unique and only begotten Son, his one and only Son, so that all those who believe in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.

When we behold God’s very self, the great “I AM,” Yahweh, in the person of Jesus, we are joined his mission to save the world. For he came not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus tells his parable to let us know that he did not come to save the world through conquest and earthly methods; rather, the Son of Man comes to save the world like a single grain of wheat. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

A grain of wheat. How on earth is Jesus going to save the whole world like a tiny grain of wheat? Those of you have lived on a farm or are avid gardeners will understand this more readily. You cannot feed anyone with one grain, or even a whole head of wheat. If we save that one grain of wheat and do nothing with it, it is useless. But when that one grain falls to the ground and dies, it springs back to life as a new plant, producing up to 110 new grains! Plant those 110 grains, and you are up to 12,000; by the third harvest of replanted seeds you are up to 1.3 million grains of wheat. Very quickly you are talking about enough wheat to feed the whole world! All because one seed fell to the ground and died in order to bear much fruit.

This is how the Son of Man loves and saves the world. Not through domination, but by letting go, by dying, sacrificing. He will fall to the ground and sink below, so that his death will bear much fruit. And where is this fruit? We are the fruit. Bringing a few Greeks along builds the kingdom by addition; Jesus builds His kingdom by exponential growth. And like Jesus we produce a million-fold when we are willing to be planted and bear fruit as well. Jesus calls us to follow him to bear more fruit so the world can experience God’s love through us. Jesus’ death is a transfer of power—like a seed into a new plant—a transfer of the Spirit’s power from him to his followers, so that we can be filled with the power of his life, his love, his forgiveness, so that the whole world can be loved and fed and freed for an eternal relationship with God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That is the mission that God calls each of us to—deeply rooted in our relationship to Jesus, for us in order to share God’s salvation with the world. Jesus clearly states, “those who love their life lose it”—if we love only ourselves to the exclusion of bearing the fruit of God’s love in the world—we become a single grain that is not planted. We are of no use to God’s mission and thus we have lost our purpose. But, “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This does not mean we hate ourselves or the life God has given us so we can go to heaven—it means we are wheat, willing to be planted, and bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. We participate with Christ in loving the world, not with conquest, but by letting go, by dying to ourselves, by sacrificing earthly desires and values in order to bear the fruit of service in the world God so loves. We can live out this mission by:

  • Dying to our ego and starting a relationship with someone with whom we have absolutely nothing in common to bear the fruit of love and understanding.
  • Dying to our need to be right and humbly look for Christ in the person we can’t stand, asking God to help us find a way to work them or forgive them to bear the fruit of love.
  • Dying to our self-importance or busy-ness, and as soon as we are vaccinated, visit someone who cannot get out and does not have many visitors—someone who is sick, homebound, in a nursing home, or jail, to bear the fruit of love.

The Greeks wanted to see Jesus. And like them, so do we. But Jesus sees so much more in us. He sees not only those who will look at and know him, but who will take up his mission to share his love and mercy with the world. Jesus wants us to move from seeing him as God, the great, “I AM” in the flesh to being him and embodying his love in our own flesh. Jesus sees us as disciples who can go from seeing to being; to being the bearers of John 3:16—through Jesus, we become participants with the great “I AM” in the world! God wants to love the entire world through us, each just a single grain of wheat, but through Christ’s power, able to produce 100 and 1,000 and even a million-fold of love for the kingdom. This is the vision we embrace, when we not only see who Jesus is, but join his mission to save the world that God so loves.

Reflection Questions:

• The disciples bring the Greeks to see Jesus which is adding believers; Jesus’ response is to talk about planting seeds, which is to build disciples by multiplication. One seed brings in or produces 114 new ones. How does this change how we think about evangelism?

• As a Christian community, how do we make disciples who make disciples?

• What is it about your relationship with Jesus that has made a difference in your life? When have you experienced God in your life? Being able to briefly share those experiences with someone who is struggling is part of being an evangelist in daily life. Have you had this kind of opportunity to share your faith? What holds you back from trying if the opportunity presents itself with someone who is struggling? Can you ask God for an opportunity to help bear this kind of love in the world?

• Dying to ourselves can include letting go of our ego, our sense of superiority, being right, and a sense of our separateness from the well-being of others. What part of dying to self is hardest for you or what does it mean for you to die to yourself?

• What does it mean for you to bear Christ’s love in the world? Who or what in the world is it most challenging for you to love? How might you ask God to help you in loving that situation or “those people?”

• Have you thought of yourself as going from seeing Christ to being Christ? Who has been Christ for you? Has anyone told you that you have been Christ or a sign of God’s love for them? Pray about what it means to be in the ELCA, whose motto is: “God’s work Our hands” and what this means for you to be filled with the power of Christ in your daily life, in everything you do.

Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay 

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Lifted Up

Mercy Labyrinth by Amber DjpgMessage for Lent 4 on John 3:12-21 given on March 14, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, TX. This sermon and all worship videos can be seen on YouTube.

About seven years ago I was in a time of transition. I had resigned from the church I was serving and was not sure yet what my next ministry would be. Five years post cancer treatment, I was still battling fatigue and other issues that were not going away. Dan was also in pastoral transition. Our oldest child was in college and the next two were not far behind. I was perplexed, frustrated and ready for answers about my health and our future. On a fall day in September, I felt a strong inner urging to go up to a retreat house and walk their outdoor prayer labyrinth. It is a great way for me to pray when I have a hard time sitting still for long. Maybe God would finally give me some answers—as you can imagine, I was ready for a plan—chop, chop!

Just before our Gospel reading today, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, also came to Jesus for answers. Jesus had turned his world of religious rules and customs upside down—cleansing the Temple and doing signs of healing such as Nicodemus had never seen. He recognized God’s power at work in Jesus, but Nicodemus wanted to understand what Jesus’s message really was. What was the true point of his mission? What was his purpose and where did Nicodemus and we fit into it? Nicodemus was ready for Jesus’ plan—chop, chop!

Jesus does give Nicodemus what has become the most famous passage of the bible, seen on bumper stickers, placard signs at football games, t-shirts, and ball caps: John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It’s a darn good mission statement, but not really a plan.

Our passage does, however, give us much more than just this one verse. We hear what comes before and after John 3:16 so with Nicodemus we can discover what this really means for him and for us. First Jesus makes a somewhat odd reference to a passage in Numbers when the Israelites complained against God’s provision in the wilderness. God did not like their grumbling and punished them with poisonous serpents; the people who were bitten, were dying. The Israelites repented of their grumbling and asked Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up above the people. When they looked at the bronze serpent they were healed of their bites, and spared from death. Notice that God did not take away the source of their pain. Instead, when looking to the bronze serpent, the Israelites would see both the consequence of their sin, and their need for God. This one image symbolized their brokenness and their dependence on God’s provision, their need for God’s forgiveness, and the pure grace of God’s gift of life—none of which would have happened if God just took away the serpents that tore at their ankles. As Jesus says later in the passage, their deeds had to be brought into the light, and once acknowledged, they are forgiven and given life.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

We may wonder why God did not just take away sin without the cross, but Jesus’ image of the Son being lifted up like Moses’ serpent gives us an idea. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross of crucifixion, we are reminded of our own sin while, at the same time, acknowledging our need for God. In looking up at our suffering Lord, we must see the violence we inflict on others, on ourselves, on this planet, we must see our own suffering, and the suffering of this world; and we also see our need for God’s forgiveness, and the pure grace of God’s love given in Jesus, and the gift of eternal life—none of which we would grasp if God just eliminated sin for us. Our darkness had to be brought into the light and then we are given life. Those who looked up at the bronze serpent were given life; those who look up at the cross and believe in Jesus are given eternal life.

But Jesus does not only speak of his crucifixion when he talks about being “lifted up—for Jesus will be lifted up two more times. He will be lifted up in the resurrection with power over death, so that we can see this promise of eternal fulfilled here and now on earth. Jesus will be exalted over the power of sin! The truth can come into the light because Jesus conquers the power of all that separates us from God.

And then, even more so, Jesus will be lifted up in the Ascension when he returns to the Father so he can prepare for us, the abiding places and the many mansions in his Father’s house. The One who has descended will also ascend to make the abiding relationship he has with the Father available to each of us—that we may be one with Father as he is one with the Father.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus that God did not send him into the world for us to remain separated from God, but that through him we may have an abiding, eternal, on-going, relationship with God, the Creator that begins right now. That is Jesus’ mission and plan according to John’s Gospel—as he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself, so that they will abide in God as Jesus abides in God.

Abiding with God is to abide in the light, always recognizing our need for forgiveness and love in our sin and wrongdoing. God’s love and grace and life are always offered alongside our failures. The serpent and the gift of life are lifted up together. The suffering of the cross and the gift of grace are lifted up together. The reality of living in a fallen world and abiding in an eternal relationship with the Father through Jesus exist right now together. It is not a plan—chop, chop—it is a lived reality; it is being willing to dwell in the light every day; it is accepting that life is both deeply painful and full of immense love at the same time. It is being willing to let go of duality, either/or, and black/white thinking, and instead dwell in God’s “now” where God abides with us and we know fully even as we are fully known. Right this minute, we abide in God as we accept that we are a sinner and a saint, broken by sin and full of grace, a clay pot and a temple of the Spirit, in need of forgiveness and a gift to the kingdom always at the same time. Right this minute, we are broken by sin and abiding in God and God is abiding in us, all at once and the same is true for our neighbor, and the people we love, and the people we hate.

And that is what happened to me in labyrinth on that fall September day. I wanted an answer, and like Nicodemus, I wanted a plan—chop, chop. As I walked through the labyrinth, winding my way through the long circular paths—which was supposed to be meditative—my mind raced, filled with a jumble of issues and questions, and mostly, my desire for a plan, for a future, for, a little clarity. I arrived at the center and sat on one of the tree stumps to listen to for God to give me my answer. But that is not what God gave me. Instead, I got a picture, an image of God’s movement through time—eternal life is abiding with God now. Abide with me and I will abide with you. Live with the unfolding, engage in the journey, abide in the relationship. And finally, that is the only plan there is—I am with you until the end of the age.

There are parts of me that still do not like this answer. I still crave concrete direction—chop, chop. But so often, the response is not an answer, but an invitation: abide with me. This is the purpose of any of our spiritual practices, whether a walk or a table prayer, it is to listen, to be aware, notice, and pay attention to the presence of God who is abiding with us and in us. Jesus, who descended into the world has been lifted up on the cross, lifted up in the resurrection and lifted up in the ascension, so we might look to him and know that he prepares a place for us here and now that we might abide with God, and know that eternity begins right now.

Reflection Questions:

  • Read the first part chapter 3 to put the conversation Jesus has with “Nic at night” into context. When have you wanted clarity and plan from God? What kind of answers did you receive?
  • What are your experiences with John 3:16? Have you stopped to think about what it really means? How would you express this verse in your own words?
  • Ultimately, God’s greatest power is to love us through suffering rather than take it away. Is there a time of suffering in your own life that deepened your faith because you had to rely solely on God?
  • For the Gospel of John, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are one event—salvation is not complete without Jesus returning to prepare “abiding places” or “many mansions” in the Father’s house (see John 14). This makes the ultimate act of salvation, not forgiveness from sin or damnation, but an eternal relationship with God that is real and begins here and now. How does this change or impact how you think about and experience your own faith?
  • Martin Luther taught that we are at the same time sinner and saint—like the Israelites looking at the serpent and us looking at the cross—we see our sin and God’s love simultaneously. How does this help you balance pride and humility, ego and shame, healthy self-esteem and unhealthy self-negation? What are creative ways you deal with this inner duality?

Photo: Amber D., 2020 on Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/mercy-conference-and-retreat-center-st-louis?select=j2LBfwTcP-wFFRf9nyL9Ag

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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