Victory in Jesus

1 John 5:1-6
© Stacey Steck

Winning. It’s what everybody wants to do. I want my Cleveland Indians to WIN, not just to compete. Competing? Doing your best? Nice ideas in principal, but WINNING is where it’s at. Victory. Complete and total victory is the goal. Annihilation of the enemy. Domination of the opposition. Second place is just the first loser. Winning is what makes our country great, right? At the Olympics, it’s the medal count that matters. Which nation or which competitor takes home the most gold medals. That’s what matters right? Nobody remembers who won the silver medal!

Now, maybe you didn’t know this, but Presbyterians are in a dogfight with Episcopalians for being the winningest Protestants in the United States, the most powerful and prestigious. The Episcopalians, part of the Anglican Communion, of course, have a historical advantage, coming as they do from the English elite, who were after all, the colonial power that subjugated these United States for quite a number of years. And who were these subjugated? The Scotch-Irish of course, who came from poorer stock in the first place. But we’ve evened things up somewhat over the last 240-plus years, and so in terms of economic power and societal privilege, Presbyterians are second to one. I guess that makes us losers, right? Of course, you may not feel like you’re on top of the heap here in Western Rowan County, but you are definitely part of the second place team. We do lead in one category at least. We are the best in prayer. They may have the famous Book of Common Prayer, but our prayer is anything but common. It’s the best! Yes, if you take the word Presbyterian and rearrange the letters, you get “best in prayer.” It’s true! However, the Episcopalians like to point out that if you take the word Presbyterians, and do the same thing, you get Britney Spears. So, there’s that.

Yes, winning and victory are pretty important virtues in our common life, and the Bible even says so. In First John it says, “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” I mean, that’s pretty clear. We believe that Jesus is the son of God, so we are the conquerors. Cue the “We are the Champions” soundtrack please. All those other phony religions don’t stand a chance against us. We rule the religious roost. There’s something superior about Christianity, isn’t there? And isn’t it nice to be on the winning team? That’s kind of the thinking behind the very all or nothing, black or white worldview you find throughout the letter of First John, good versus evil, light versus dark, saint versus sinner, and there can only be one right answer. If you’re not for us, you are against us. I guess they thought there was a lot at stake.
The thing is that you have to really read the fine print to see what victory is all about. Yes, John paints a pretty stark portrait of the difference between those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and those who don’t, but what is the real difference? What makes a winner in John’s eyes?

Well, basically it’s love. It all comes down to love. If you love, you are on God’s side, and that makes you victorious. Over and over again in this slender letter, it’s love. Perfect love casts out fear. Love conquers all. “See what love the father has given us that we should be called children of God.” “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” And it all comes together in this morning’s collection of verses, where the content of our love for God becomes clear: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Obeying God’s commandments. Following the divine rules. No wonder Presbyterians are on the top of the heap, or almost are. We follow the rules! Isn’t our famous motto that we do everything “decently and in order?” So, the bottom line here is that being a winner, being victorious in God’s love, gets you the grand prize: more work to do! Because isn’t following the rules always more work that just doing whatever it is you feel like doing? We are only a couple of weeks removed from tax day, a reminder that following the rules is a lot harder than ignoring them.

Except that John also adds a little golden nugget to it all. Right in the middle of these verses this morning, he reminds us simply that God’s “commandments are not burdensome.” Oh, what a relief! Because John says so, it must be true! Easy for him to say! Those old commandments sure feel burdensome to me sometimes. I don’t know about you but I’d rather keep my tithe for myself, and lay around reading the New York Times on Sunday morning, and skip Session meetings. I’d rather not be burdened by sorrow when I see homeless people or guilt when I see starving children. I’d rather do all kinds of other things than doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with my God. Those things are tough, if I do them right. What does John mean that they are not burdensome?
Well, he might mean that following what God wants us to do is no more burdensome than a parent’s nurture of a child, or a child’s caring for aging parent, or one friend lending another a listening ear. Doing those things might be challenging, and worrisome, and even really, really draining, but they are not burdensome because love is not burdensome. Love may be aggravating and tempestuous and even heartbreaking at times, but it’s not the love itself which weighs on us, it’s all the other stuff that comes with delivering on our love for one another. Yes, that stuff is hard. But love is no burden. If it were, we wouldn’t put ourselves out for others, for those we love intimately, and for those we don't even know. If love were a burden, we’d just lay waste to one another, and try to claim victory after victory over one another. We’d try to conquer one another rather than cooperate among ourselves, and we’d try to dominate one another rather than delight in one another. And maybe worst of all, if love were a burden, we’d stop being able to see ourselves as created in the image of a loving God. We’d shed that too, like every other burden we could get off our weary backs. And then where would we be?

We’d be friendless, that’s where we’d be. Victorious, but friendless. Winners, but losers. In the words we heard from the Gospel of John, Jesus is talking to his disciples in his last long conversation with them. He’s getting ready to go to the cross. The handwriting’s on the wall. And so he’s making sure they know everything they need to know, including all about love. “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.” Now, he’s not telling them to be a human shield when the Roman guard comes for him. He’s not asking them to go on a suicide mission to protect him. It’s not like, “Well, if you were really my friends, you’d bail me out of this mess I’m in.” No, he’s saying that he’s going to do that for them, and for us all. He’s the one who will be laying down his life for his friends, and get us out of our mess. Like he does so often in the Gospels, Jesus redefines what we think we know, and this time he does it to victory. Victory may be about vanquishing your enemy, but you have to pick the right enemy. The Romans weren’t Jesus’ enemy. Death was Jesus’ enemy. The Scribes and the Pharisees weren’t Jesus’ opponents, sin and injustice were his foes. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” he says from the cross. That’s victory. From John’s perspective, Jesus’ death is the victory because it’s the ultimate expression of love, the kind of love we are to emulate as best as we can. “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” No, Christ’s love for us was no burden because he never stopped being able to see us as created in the image of a loving God, born of God. We never stopped being his friends, even when we were crucifying him, the friends for whom he willingly laid down his life.

In a few moments, we’ll come to the victory table to remember Christ’s glorious victory. But it’s not the lavish spread you’d see the winning team eating after taking home a championship. There’s no champagne spraying on victory lane, no garland of roses on the victor’s shoulders, no gold medal around the victor’s neck. There’s just a little bit of bread and a little bit of grape juice, and a whole lot of memory. Do you remember the story in Matthew when the mother of James and John went to Jesus and asked that her sons be seated at his right and left hand when he was seated in his kingdom, in his glory? What she meant was that when he was victorious and ruling Israel, she wanted her sons to sit right next to him at the winner’s banquet, for them to be as close to greatness as they could, to be identified as winners, to be seated at the places of highest honor. She wanted her sons to be winners! And what did he say to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

“When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The other ten disciples may have been angry, but it’s only because they didn’t know then what we know now, that winning the world’s way creates only tyrants, but loving Christ’s way makes friends, the kind whose faith conquers the world by serving it. It won’t be true for each of you this morning because of the way we are seated, but many of you will literally have the opportunity to serve one another as you pass the trays of bread and juice. And as you do, let me invite you to share a toast to the winner, and remind the person next to you, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you,” when you pass the bread, and “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you,” when you pass the juice. And together we will remember the one who laid down his life for his friends, of whom we are numbered. Amen.

Ride Out With Me

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12
© Stacey Steck

There is a moment in the film, “The Two Towers,” the second in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which kept coming back to me all week. It is the moment just before dawn when King Théoden of Rohan realizes that his invincible stronghold is about to fall to the savage forces of the wizard Saruman, to the thousands of orcs, goblins, and other creatures of the night besieging them, and that not only will all his warriors fall, but also the women, children, and infirm who have taken refuge in the depths of the fortress. With a glazed look on a paralyzed face, he simply says, “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” And this week, in our own community, we might add to Théoden’s lament, and say, “What can men do against such feckless fate?” the fate that awaits each one of us, the fate of our mortal bodies, and the fate to remain behind and grieve for those who have died.

2018 has been a tough year already and we’re only four months in. We’ve suffered through a stubborn flu season, through tempestuous weather, through the deaths of five members of this community of faith. Around the world, we’ve heard the reports of Syrian civilians gassed by their government, continued chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, drivers plowing vans into innocent people on German and Canadian city streets, a troubled teen shooting his teachers and classmates in Florida, and more than one murder here in Salisbury. What can men and women do against such reckless hate and such feckless fate?

Alas, the horror, unease, and grief our community has experienced this year is neither new, nor merely in the imagination of Hollywood blockbusters. The prophet Habakkuk seems to offer his prophecy with the same fatalistic resignation: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing, and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore justice comes forth perverted.” Give us a break, O Lord, give us a break! In Habakkuk’s time, like our own, violence begat violence; the eagerness of Israel and Judah’s kings to disregard the ways God had given to protect the beloved community, their wholesale participation in perpetrating the violence of poverty among their own people made it certain that Habakkuk would witness violence twice, first at the hand of his own people, and then at the hands of the Babylonians whose violence God used to punish the violence about which God’s people were duly warned. A witness from his watchtower, Habakkuk basically asks the same question, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” And through it all, he witnesses the grief and loss of saying goodbye to loved ones and to the promised homeland. Such feckless fate.

Several hundred years later, another group of God’s people was also feeling surrounded by violence and loss beyond their means to control or understand, a church in Thessalonica to which Paul writes, “we boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions you are enduring.” The specific violence and loss to which that church was witness goes unnamed in this letter, but it must have been severe enough to provoke prophecy of the righteous vengeance of God. We may be uncomfortable with this Old Testament sounding language about God repaying “with affliction those who afflict you…when the Lord Jesus is revealed in heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus,” the orcs and goblins of his day, but there is also something comforting about hearing pretty straightforwardly that those creatures of the night persecuting the church “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” According to Paul, not only are the bad guys not going to win in the end, but boy will they suffer too. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” and better at God’s hands than our own, is all I can say, for in our clumsy hands, violence begets only violence. The waiting will be the hardest part and the test of our faith, to neither give up nor strike back in vengeance, but to endure and resist, even at the cost of our own lives, so that the violence we experience directly and indirectly might end with our own generation. God’s reply to Habakkuk is a challenging one: “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely not delay.” That’s a hard kind of waiting to do, isn’t it? And it’s all well and good for God to say, “Just wait,” but Lord, it is easier said than done. We believe you, Lord; help our unbelief and help us in our grief.

At the risk of sounding like I am following the Gospel according to J.R.R. Tolkein rather than that of Luke or John, let me return us to Middle Earth and the response the dazed King of Rohan receives from another character in the story, the yet-to-be-crowned-king Aragorn. Sensing the King’s despair, Aragorn responds, “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them,” meaning to ride out of the fortress and through the enemy lines and to go on the offensive, rather than remain inside on the defensive. Théoden’s face brightens, and he replies lustily, “For death and glory,” to which Aragorn replies, and here’s the Gospel: “For Rohan. For your people.” Aragorn’s reply is Gospel because it serves as the correction to Théoden’s shell-shocked reasoning, a correction to his sense of personal failure at having let down his subjects. But Aragorn reminds him of the true purpose of a true king, not to be remembered as a glorious figure that died a valiant death, but to lead one’s people bravely and faithfully even if the result was an untimely death. You see, there are a number of responses one can make to the threats to one’s life and one’s psyche, and some are better than others, but the best responses are those that issue forth from a reason worth dying for, and in King Théoden’s case, that reason was to live into his role as the King, and ride out for his people, rather than simply to his death. And since Théoden and Aragorn are the good guys in the movie, you have probably already figured out that they rode out and were victorious in the end.

If the best responses to the threats in our lives are those that come from that place in our souls which recognizes a reason, or a person, worth dying for, it behooves us to check out that place in our souls and see what and who resides there. The Apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians just what is in their souls as they endure their persecution and affliction: “…we always pray for you,” he says, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Deep down, Paul knows, and they know, that it will only be through their faith in Christ that they will endure and find the strength to continue in their faithfulness no matter their circumstances.

We do have some options as we face the horrifying hate and fate that seem to be surrounding us daily. Some people choose a form of vengeance or vigilantism, returning evil for evil, seeking an eye for an eye. Others choose despair and paralysis, turning inward because it’s just too hard to look elsewhere, retreating in compassion fatigue, taking comfort wherever it can be found. But I have a hunch that Paul would agree that neither of these, nor any ultimately human strategy, is the best option for glorifying the name of our Lord Jesus, or being glorified in him. We can ride out with our own guns blazing and extract the justice which seems perverted, or hole up in our homes with our own guns trained on the front door by day and tucked under our pillows by night, but neither taking matters into our own hands nor retreating from them seem like the works of faith to which we are called as the people of God. I think we will find that the best option is to ride out armed with Habakkuk’s wisdom that “the righteous shall live by their faith,” a faith which sends us forth according to God’s purposes and using God’s methods. It may well be that we die confronting the reckless hate of the world, as many faithful persons have done, but if we are slain, they had better find us lying on the battlefield or the street with plowshares in our hands rather than swords or guns, and pruning hooks rather than spears or missiles, for only with those weapons can our “good resolve and work of faith” be empowered by God. We are indeed called to ride out, but Christ will not be glorified, and we will not find ourselves glorified in Christ Jesus, unless we are riding out for God’s people, rather than to satisfy our own fatalistic sense of despair or our own mistaken notions of glory.

I have seen your faces these last four months, dazed and paralyzed at the suffering and loss which has touched our community, and on the news I see the dazed faces of first responders and emergency personnel descending on the scene of the crime, international aid workers digging through rubble, parents grieving children, nurses tending the sick, hospice workers comforting the dying. So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate and such feckless fate?

Ride out with me, Thyatira, Christ answers. Put on your armor of love, faith, service, and patient endurance and ride out with me to bring Good News to Mill Bridge, and to Salisbury, and to Rowan County, and to North Carolina. Ride out with me with your weapons of compassion, and generosity, and grace, those Christian virtues you share with the Church at Thessalonica that also shares your beleaguered hearts. Ride out with me, Church of Christ, Jesus is saying, and let my power affirm your call as my people and fulfill every good resolve and work of faith that you do in my name. Live by faith, my righteous ones, and I will prepare you to experience the dawn, a vision of Good News which will make you forget forever the horrors you have seen and the sorrow which weighs down your hearts. Ride out with me, not for death and glory, but for Mill Bridge and your people. Amen.