Thursday, May 21, 2009

Exegesis by the Book

Sheepscott Community Church May 17, 2009

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1 John 5: 1-6
John 15: 9-17

Exegesis by the Book

I think this morning’s gospel is such an important one that I thought I would do exegesis per se on the chance that someone would garner an insight he or she might not have otherwise, bringing home the message of the gospel more forcefully and thereby making the entire project worthwhile. There will be time enough for the application of the scriptural message after the exegesis, but let us now look at this text.

First, exegesis. What is that? Simply put, it is explanation, exposition, especially of the Scriptures. And this morning, because I’m up here, I’ll play the role of exegete. That given, let me say that each of us is not only entitled to be an exegete unto himself or herself, thanks in part to Martin Luther, but if we are to grow in knowledge and an informed faith, we have a responsibility to do personal exegesis. That means reading the Scriptures, thinking about them, using references and commentaries that proliferate on the shelves of bookstores and libraries, and certainly praying into the scriptures, trusting the Spirit of God to enlighten. All of these means will enable our private exegesis and we will be better off for thinking about what we believe or don’t believe, having come to a reasoned, and hopefully enlightened position from close attention.

That said, let us do a limited exegesis of this morning’s gospel because it is such an important one. First, we will place the gospel chronologically. John 15: 9-17 occurs on the last night of Jesus’s life. It was an ominous time. In the preceding chapters, Jesus had predicted his death for the third time. He had washed the disciples’ feet at the last supper, had predicted his betrayal by one of the disciples––Judas––who dipped his bread into the same dish as Jesus, and had predicted Peter’s denial in a lesser betrayal as well.

The disciples were greatly disturbed by his saying that he was going away and that they would not be able to follow at that time, but he offered comfort. In fact, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Counselor. He promised to send the Spirit who would teach the disciples all things. He reassured them that they were like branches attached to him as the vine. That was the gospel we heard last week., which opens out into today’s gospel of love and a command.

Let us review verses 9 through 17. We have established that these sayings of Jesus were placed in the context of the night of the last supper and followed ominous other sayings and actions of Jesus. The passage is without narration; rather, it is supposed to be one protracted soliloquy by Jesus. He attests to his love: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” and then challenges them to “remain,” or live on, as it is in the New American Bible, “remain in my love.

The question immediately arises: How do we do that? How do we remain in your love? The text has Jesus answer that question. “If you obey my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” Another question then arises: What are your commands, Lord? He is ready with the answer. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

How have you loved us, Lord? “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends.” That is the gauge of Jesus’s love for his disciples, which we know in hindsight, will be proved out over the next three days after that fateful night.

But how are we Jesus’s friends? Right back to the top: If /we/ remain/ in his love. How do we remain in his love? By obeying his commands. And what is that command? That we love one another as he has loved us. We can go ‘round and ‘round on that.

One indication of the importance of the message is that he had already spoken it in John 13: 34, where he has just told the disciples that where he is going they will not be able to follow. “A new command I give you,” he said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, each of the writers makes the same declaration as the writer of John has Jesus declare, but in slightly different words. As it reads in Mark, under the heading, The Greatest Commandment, “The most important [commandment] is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Were the disciples able to lay down their lives for their friends, as Jesus said he would do? Would they have to love to that degree? Would we be able to do that? There is this Spirit Jesus promised them, the Comforter and Counselor. Maybe that One would make it possible to meet such a challenge. It is exciting to think that we will celebrate the descent of that Spirit in two weeks on the feast of Pentecost. It is the same Spirit that descended on the disciples in the Upper Room. Same Spirit. Different time and place. Same Spirit. Sheepscott, Maine. Now. But that is still ahead of us.

Meanwhile back at the last supper where Jesus is telling the disciples what they have to do, to love one another as he has loved them, they indeed are wondering how this might play out in their lives. How much more would they have to give? Hadn’t they already in a real way given up their lives? They may have trembled inwardly when they considered the idea of having to literally give up their lives. They had to accept that they could only wait to see how it played out. In John 13: 34, from which I quoted earlier, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Now hear this: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I hear this as the cross piece of the cross. The vertical is our private time with God where we go into our closet, as scripture says, and shut the door, and there God will speak to us. We take what comes to us there, in our time away or apart, and bring it back to the marketplace, the horizontal, where we interact with others, where we really try to love one another, to see past the differences that would separate us, to the places of agreement, which join us. When that Spirit comes, we will not simply try to see past those places of disagreement but will rejoice in the differences, because that is who God is and what God does: God is One. Much and many in One. What we cannot see or understand as One, where we see only dichotomies and opposites, God is One, the Seat of Reconciliation, the Ground of our Being. His Spirit enables that kind of understanding which can bring us into the place of truly loving one another in God. All you have to do is think of someone at the way other end of the political spectrum to test the power of the Spirit in this area. Really, God? One? It will take your Spirit to enable me to see that. And the Spirit will enable you to see that and therein is God glorified. You know it’s not your own doing, that grace, a.k.a., God, is in the world.

I recently read the inaugural sermon preached by Rev. Peter Gomes, the minister of Memorial Church at Harvard University on January 18, 2009. Reverend Gomes included a note about the sermon preached by the layman John Winthrop aboard the ship Arbella just before the Puritans landed in New England. It’s a cautionary exhortation suitable for any group embarking on a new adventure together. I appropriate Winthrop’s exhortation here as an expansion on the need to love one another in obedience to Jesus’s command. Winthrop told the people that they had to stick together or their society would fall apart and that they should set an example and be as the biblical city set on a hill. The only law that would count would be the law of love whereby they bore one another’s burdens, wept with those who wept, rejoiced with those who rejoiced, shared in everything and looked after one another, knowing that on their own they could not survive.

Back to the exegesis, Jesus still speaking. Jesus has just said that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And he then calls them friends, if they do what he commands. He no longer calls them servants, or slaves in another translation, because a servant doesn’t know his master’s business. But he, Jesus, has made known to them everything that the Father has revealed to him. It just hasn’t been quickened yet, as it is in Jesus, because he has not yet sent his Spirit. They are hearing all this and registering it but not really understanding what he means. Our minds are able to grasp only just so much of this esoteric information before the light starts flashing: Overload! Overload! But the Spirit can enable us to bear joyfully all of it, all of the information that we seek out or that comes our way, in conversation, or through prayer or any other medium.

I am reminded of a priest I knew years ago. This was a man who had been ordained for many, many years and who read the Scripture faithfully. Reading the psalms was part of his daily devotion. At a certain point in his career he was in prayer with other priests for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, what John Wesley experienced in his famous “warming” incident, where his heart was suddenly warmed and his preaching, which had been lukewarm at best, caught fire and he ministered out of doors on the hillsides of the English countryside to his thousands of eager listeners. And this priest? What happened to him was not a warming in his breast, but after praying for what in the nineteenth century was called sanctification, this priest opened the psalms as usual the next day for his devotions, and they came alive on the page in a way they never had before. God will meet us on our own ground, the ground that he sanctifies by his Spirit, the ground that makes it possible for us to love one another, in obedience to Jesus’s command, regardless of how far apart we may be in terms of economics, politics, even religious practice. You’ll see. Pentecost.

Remember William Skiff: You pray for the Spirit to come, God hears. The Spirit comes. William had none of the blockages we have. His little child spirit is as pure as pure can be. The Spirit settled on him like a dove, as the Spirit settled on Jesus at his baptism.

That Spirit is who enables us to go and bear fruit. In verse 16 of the gospel, Jesus continues, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit––fruit that will last.” Last Sunday I talked about our helping the children of our families and communities to bear fruit. Now it’s our turn. Because Jesus has chosen us and appointed us––and now I am appropriating the language of today’s gospel for us. I have moved from simple exposition to application––because Jesus has chosen us and appointed us, no less than the disciples, we will bear fruit unless we actively resist the movement of the Spirit of God in our lives, and we can do that because we have free will. But why would we want to do that? Why would we not want to bear fruit for God? All of us have to deal with whatever in us resists our own goodness or the action of the Holy Spirit in our human spirits. Some of us have more of a battle than others, so let us be patient with one another and not judge. In other words, let us love one another where we are in as complete a response to Jesus’s command as we can.

I love the straightforwardness of that command, the unqualifiedness of it: Love one another. That’s pretty clear, huh?

We all notice how people do that, how they love one another. Metaphorically, it is laying down one’s life for another or others. I think of any number of people in this congregation, this community. Last Sunday Chrissy Wajer and her family prepared individual pots of marigolds, beautifully presented, to every mother in the church. The whole family was involved in making, delivering, and presenting. No one asked them to do that. That’s just the way they are, one way of loving one another.

At Sonnie’s prompting last Sunday, I recognized Ken Hatch in absentia for having been named volunteer of the year by the Pemaquid Watershed Association. Here’s this former academic administrator and teacher of French working in the Pemaquid Watershed. He has exercised his administrative gifts there, yes, but he has also done work to maintain and improve the Watershed’s preserves; he has mentored four students from the Center for Alternative Education in a footbridge construction project; and, as the writer of the article in the LCN pointed out, he can also be counted on to do the heavy lifting and grunt work behind the scenes that make the Watershed’s annual fundraisers a success. How do we lay down our lives for our friends?

Linda Zollers' volunteering at the Wiscasseet, Waterville and Farmington Railroad (the Narrow Gauge Railway) right down the road has opened up a way for us, for the church, to raise funds for maintenance and upkeep, even as the Saunders Grant is running out. Can you say manna from heaven? God provides, but we have to be listening and at the ready with our aprons lifted at the corners to catch the quail that fall, to pick the manna off the ground. How do we lay down our lives?

I can’t not mention Jan Kilburn’s leadership, yet again, at the suppers at Second Congregational on the second Wednesday of the month. Lily, Clara, Sonnie, Carroll and Ted, Lee and Michael and Esther, Dede and all those who cook and bake, have all responded to Jan’s patient leadership and clear commitment. How do we lay down our lives for our friends? Who are our friends?

We are a community called by God to worship together in this village of Sheepscot, Maine. We are being as faithful as we can be, and we wait as the disciples waited for the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost to enable us to more effectively give witness to the life of God by how we love one another, in obedience to Jesus’s command. Therefore does he call us “Friends.” One can do worse than to be a friend of Jesus. Amen.

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