March 17, 2024

Today, we continue with a time of reflection and self-examination during this Lenten season.  We begin with this rather weird passage from the Gospel of John – actually there’s a lot in the Gospel of John that’s pretty weird.  According to this account, there were some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover, and they came to the disciples and asked to see Jesus.  When Jesus was told these guys wanted to see him, he seems to have simply ignored the request and launched into a monologue about           the hour coming to be glorified, and grain falling to the earth, and talking to God about glorifying his name, and a lot of other stuff.  He appears to have totally blown off the request by these guys to see him (sometimes I think John was on something when he was writing these things down).  Be that as it may, apparently the implication here is that the act of these Greeks wanting to see Jesus was a reflection of the spread of the gospel to the gentiles, and that was the moment when all was fulfilled, and “the hour” had come – or, at least that’s how some biblical scholars interpret it.1

Anyway, the part of this rather rambling discourse that interests me is this: “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.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”  It’s a little oblique, but I’ve read it over and over, and it finally struck me what he’s getting at.  It’s this: faithfulness – “bearing fruit” in this Christian life – means getting caught up in something so much bigger than yourself that you kind of lose yourself in it.  And when that happens you discover that you’re walking in the very footsteps of Jesus (“where I am, there will my servant be also”).  I think that’s a lot like Jeremiah’s high, sweeping vision of the “new covenant.”  He says that “days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant,” when, in other words, the Divine Law will not be just a book or a bunch of teachings; it will be written on everyone’s heart.

Clearly the New Testament writers thought Jeremiah’s vision was fulfilled in their time.  They recount the last supper with Jeremiah’s phrase on Jesus’ lips.  He says, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood.”  And the Apostle Paul says, “[God] has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit.”  In fact, what we refer to as the “New Testament” is simply another name for the “New Covenant.”  So, is it true?  Is Jeremiah’s vision a reality?  Are we living in the time of the “new covenant?”  Is faithfulness the rule?  Is the law written on our hearts?

All we need do is pick up the newspaper to have some serious questions.  The law of mercy, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” – let alone “turn the other cheek” – was clearly not written on the hearts of Hamas raiders when they murdered children and babies and raped women in Israel.  And it was not written on the hearts of Israeli soldiers and rocket launchers when they wiped out city blocks and killed men, women, and children by the score.  All we have to do is read a little history.  That law was clearly not written on the hearts of white “Christians” around the turn of the twentieth century in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Central Illinois who slaughtered black residents and set fire to their homes in orgastic binges of racial hatred.2  And if we take that peek in the mirror, we suspect the law of God is not entirely written on our hearts either.

And yet . . . and yet . . . I don’t think I’d be here doing what I’m doing if I didn’t think we were living under that “new covenant.”  I think the divine law of love that holds the universe together is, in fact, “written on our hearts.”  I think it’s imprinted on our DNA.  How can I say that?  Because over the past seventy years or more I’ve been keeping score.  And I have met more and more and more people like all of you, people who don’t care a lot about rules but care deeply about love, people who don’t pay as much attention to appearances as they do to the needs and hurts of others, people who aren’t as interested in getting as they are in giving.  And this place is not unique.  We’ve got churches full of them, all over this country – in fact, all over the world.  The reason a fanatic with a gun makes international headlines is that it’s the extraordinary exception.  The reason racial hatred gets attention in the media and the history books is that it represents a stunning divergence from the irrepressible tide of human history, a history that reveals a halting but sure evolution toward a more human humanity.

Faithfulness – the kind of faithfulness that comes from losing oneself in the bigger picture of justice and love, the kind of faithfulness that means the Divine law is written on your heart – is, I’m convinced built-in to who we are.  When times and circumstances get chaotic, when lives and institutions turn ugly, those are the anomalies.  Jeremiah’s vision is here, dwelling beneath the surface of all our lives.  Its full realization is emerging, painfully slowly, but dependably.  And each one of us contributes our share to that evolution with every choice we make.  C.S. Lewis said, “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think,” he continues, “that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”3  That’s a wonderful insight; every time you lose yourself a bit in a choice for the greater reality, you’re reflecting more of the law that is written on your heart.

Does this mean we don’t need laws written in books and constitutions?  Of course it doesn’t.  We need to have a social contract to set some boundaries on human behavior.  But looking over your shoulder and thumbing through the rules of the road to see what you can get away with is no way to live a life.  And it’s no way to run a church.  That’s why we don’t post any list of rules or dogmas around here, or say who’s in and who’s out.  Trying to live by the rule book can suck the life right out of a church.  That’s the testimony of Michael Lindvall in his wonderful little book, The Good news from North Haven (a place which I suspect is a little like Lake Wobegone).  He tells the story of “Second Presbyterian Church.  There is no First Presbyterian in town,” he writes, “and there hasn’t been for years.  More than a century ago, the newly founded First – and then only – Presbyterian Church enjoyed a fine church fight.  Folks still tell the story of the Sunday in June when half the congregation walked out during the sermon and founded Second Presbyterian.

“All memories agree as to what the fight was about: whether young women ought to lead discussions at Christian Endeavor meetings or keep a low profile and ask questions when they got home, as St. Paul seems to have counseled.  What memories do not agree on is who was on what side.  Some people now say that the Second Presbyterian group that left was in favor of women speaking at meetings, some say they were against it.  Whatever the truth, everyone agrees that Second Presbyterian church was squarely established on the firm foundation of an important principle, even if no one is now quite sure what that principle was.”4

Lindvall makes a humorous but worthy point.  What matters most in a church?  Not correct interpretation of the admonitions of the Apostle Paul, not adherence to officially sanctioned doctrine.  What matters is that we all come here and find a place where we can lose ourselves in something far greater than ourselves.  What matters is that we recognize that our presence here, our faithfulness in attending, is not a matter of fulfilling a duty, it’s a whole-hearted devotion to this wonderful living organism that we call a church family, and a recognition that it is a little crippled by each absent one of us.  What matters is that here we eagerly learn, as if in a kind of laboratory, about the power of love and the presence of the Spirit of holiness.

So what is true faithfulness?  I don’t think it’s toeing the line, or watching one’s p’s and q’s.  With all due respect to our Trustees and financial officers, I don’t think it’s making the right size of monetary contribution.  With great appreciation to all those who give of their time and talents to the church, I don’t think it’s putting in time on church Boards, or programs, or even singing in worship.  I think true faithfulness is an ultimate kind of freedom.  I think it is becoming so caught up in the greater good and the larger truth of divine love that we kind of lose ourselves and therefore find ourselves – find a deeper more meaningful life.  I think it is, in the words of Richard Foster, “nothing more than falling head over heels in love with the everlasting lover of our souls.”5

1 cf: Wilbert F. Howard, The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 8, pp 660 ff.

2  Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Random House, 2010. p. 40.

3 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, Touchstone Books, 1996.

4 Michael L. Lindvall, The Good News from North Haven, Simon & Schuster, 1991.

5 Robert J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Harper, 1992.

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