Monday, April 3, 2017

"Living Our Baptismal Calling: Believe" - Sermon, April 2, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“Living Our Baptismal Calling: Believe”
Pastor Andrew Davis
April 2, 2017
John 11: 1-45

        On Friday evening, several of us from church went to see The Shack, playing at the Town Hall Theater this weekend here in town. Now I have to admit that since being in seminary, I usually come to such films that have a religious theme prepared to hate or eviscerate it. Surprisingly, it did not disappoint and I actually enjoyed it. Without giving too much away, in case you decide to go see The Shack this afternoon or Tomorrow evening, the main character, Mackenzie, or Mack, has to come to terms with his pain and what he believes in at this remote shack when he encounters three people representing the Trinity; God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. But it takes believing and trusting in each one for Mack to ultimately make peace with what happened in his life and to begin healing.
        As we near the end of our Lenten journey, we come to three of the most important questions we are asked when we affirm our faith: Do you believe in God the Father?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ?  Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?  This morning, we conclude our series, “Living our Baptismal Calling,” as we have been re-visiting the vows that we take at baptism, or if you have not been baptized, visiting these vows that we take in what I hope will lead towards the journey of baptism.  As we talked about in the first week of our series, Lent, or the forty days before Easter was historically a time of intense preparation for baptism, which would happen on Easter.  I remember while in my first semester of seminary at Wesley, we talked about baptism in the early church in introduction to corporate worship and how the season of Lent involved intense lessons in learning about what it means to be a baptized believer, culminating in entering the waters and rising from those waters into a new life in Jesus Christ as the sun came up on Easter morning. 
        While on this Lenten journey, we have also been thinking about what it means to tell Satan to take a hike and renounce and resist evil, injustice, and oppression by accepting the power that God gives us to do so.  We have been thinking about what it means to confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, much like the Samaritan woman at the well did, then talked about what it means to nurture our children and each other in the Christian faith, in which the blind man restored to sight found at Jesus's invitation.  Today, we come to the point when we get to say what we believe as Christians, as the final vow essentially recites The Apostles Creed, which we will say together after the offering.  But today, we also get a lesson about what it means to believe AND to trust in Jesus when he tells Martha and each of us when he performs his greatest sign or miracle in the Gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus. 
        As we read and participated in our Gospel lesson together, Jesus gets word that his good friend, Lazarus is sick, but doesn’t come to Bethany right away. Sadly, Lazarus dies while Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha aren’t too happy with Jesus for dilly-dallying.  Yet Jesus had something in mind even though the disciples did initially not get it, but Martha did.  I think we have all come across what Jesus tells Martha in verses 25-26 when he says “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.  Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11: 25, NLT).  Jesus basically says, ‘trust me, I’ve got this.  You’ve just gotta believe.’ Although I could also imagine him going "Dooooon't stop, belieeeeeeeeven..." Martha believes, as she trusts Jesus and what he is saying, yet Jesus is also foreshadowing what’s to come in his own death and resurrection, as we stand two weeks away from Easter.
         When I first heard these words from Jesus, it was through a song that went like this:
                I am the resurrection, and the life!
                All who believe in me will never die.
                I am the resurrection, and the life!
                All who believe in me will live a new life.

        It was a popular little song when I was in Sunday School and in youth group some twenty-something years ago, but these are also well-known words by Jesus, as we oftentimes begin memorial services with these same words, also known as the words of hope.  They’ve been spoken at the memorial services for Barbara Prince, Barbara Elsken, Geri Bernard, and Zigie Hedin who have passed away in my almost one year here in Quincy.  These words of Jesus telling us that death does not have the final answer are indeed words of hope, as this is the same hope and promise of resurrection that Jesus is giving each of us when we believe in him.
        Even though Martha has some second thoughts when Jesus asks for the stone of Lazarus’s tomb to be unrolled, Jesus once again tells Martha in verse 40, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” (John 11: 40, NLT).  And just as Martha believed and trusted Jesus at his word, he pulls off this greatest miracle by raising Lazarus from the dead, although it would ultimately cost Jesus his own life.  And yet, amidst all of what Jesus has to go through and even lose his own life, Jesus is reminding Martha and each of us that it takes belief in him and trusting him to reach new life, much like what we profess to believe when we take the vows of baptism.  Do you believe?  I do! 
      A few years ago while interning at Hope Presbyterian Church in Mitchellville, MD, I had the opportunity to preach on this same passage.  However, I said that Jesus resurrected Lazarus, which actually was not a resurrection.  Thankfully, I was only giving a preview sermon to my mentor at the time and she was very quick to point that fact out.  Instead of a resurrection, Rev. Rob Fuquay says in his book, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Statements of Jesus that
it was, indeed, a resuscitation, but it was also a postponement.  Lazarus would die again.  His sisters would one day have to relive the loss of death.  But when that day came, they would be able to face it with not only a belief, but also a trust.  The One who is Resurrection and Life works on both sides of the grave.[i]

        When Jesus tells Martha and us that he is “the resurrection and the life,” we have this new life to look forward to when we believe and trust in Jesus. One understanding that I have learned over the last several years is that although we will experience our earthly grief over the loss of a loved one just as Mary, Martha, and even Jesus did when Lazarus died, we have this hope of new life and this hope of resurrection that awaits us when we believe. 
        A few years ago, some friends and I were sitting in the Lounge at Wesley and doing our nightly ritual of watching Jeopardy! when we saw a commercial for a new show, Resurrection.” We were a little intrigued, but also disturbed by the idea that ABC would play with such a powerful theological theme of resurrection, although didn't see anything about believing in the previews.  In the show, a town in Missouri begins seeing relatives suddenly appearing, as these were relatives who had passed away, but appearing at the same age they were when they passed away, such as an eight-year-old appearing to his parents telling them that he’s their son some thirty years after he died.  I didn’t get the chance to see this series, but it got me thinking that we will ultimately see our relatives again when we go onto glory.  That’s what I believe when I trust Jesus that we will have new life. 
         Sometimes trusting in that promise might be easier said than done, but that’s what faith, belief, and trust in God is all about, as “the great goal of the spiritual life is not only to believe in God but to believe God.  It is a trust issue.”[ii] In fact when we take the Greek word for believe, pisteuo, it literally means to trust.[iii] Jesus essentially asks Martha in verse 25, do you trust me, and she does.  So think about it if we change the words around and substitute belief with trust.  Do you trust in God the Father?  Do you trust in Jesus Christ?  Do you trust in the Holy Spirit?  The good news is that we can trust Jesus when he asks us “do you believe?”
        Believe and trust is essential as we live into our baptismal calling and as we navigate this journey of faith together.  You trust me as your pastor to bring you God’s word, when you allow me to visit your home or at the hospital (although I admit that I still fall short there at times), and we trust each other in carrying out the mission of the church throughout the week and take the message that we hear to our workplaces, classrooms, and greater community.  But now next Sunday, we will take the journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, then throughout Holy Week, we will get to journey with Jesus to the cross, and to the grave.  In order to live into the promise and hope of resurrection that we are asked to believe, we need to go through Good Friday to get to Easter.  We also need to go through death to get to new life.  It's something where we trust and believe Jesus each step of the way.
Even on the metaphorical level, our Lenten journey gives us the opportunity to die to old ways of life and our old selves so that we can fully live into new life and experience resurrection that Jesus promises us at Easter.   Same thing we saw in Mack's story on Friday night in The Shack, as Mack had to die to the pain and guilt that weighed him down. Like Martha, we too need to be open to believing what Jesus tells us, as “Easter occurs not in spite of death but because of it.  Christian faith offers hope because it faces death squarely and moves through it, not around it.  It means that pain, disappointment, and heartache are not final realities.”[iv] Even more good news is that when Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, that we can all have new life when we believe, he means it.  While we may have been walking through the wilderness of Lent and still have a little way to go through the darkness of Holy Week, we have this new day to look forward to.  And as we continue the journey of faith and gather for Holy Communion shortly, we have this new life after our earthly life that Jesus promises each of us when we believe in him.  And we have this opportunity to eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation at the table of grace. Let us continue trusting and believing in Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN. 

[i] Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Statements of Jesus” (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2014), 113. 
[ii] Ibid., 109.

[iii] "Genesis Chapter 1 (KJV)". 2017. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed March 30 2017.

[iv] Fuquay, 111.

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