1 Peter 2:2-10 + John 14:1-14 Listen!
May 18, 2014 – The Fifth Sunday of Easter
We are believers, you and I, that’s why we’re here – at least would-be believers, part- time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in Jesus is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come rain or shine putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child1.
The traditional approach to joining the Protestant church starts with believing. The three B’s, believing, behaving, belonging2. Membership starts with answering a series of questions: -Do you profess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you believe in the trinity: God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit? Will you be a faithful member of Christ’s church? And the new members say: I do, I do, I will
On the surface, membership is contingent on adhering to a certain set of rules of doctrinal belief and human conduct in order to join the church. Then after those questions are answered, they are a part of the church. They start to “belong.”
But theologian Phyllis Tickle presents a new model that I think rings true for us here at Saint Mark: not believing, behaving, belonging; but first belonging, then behaving and then believing3. First people come to our church and feel a sense of belonging, of community, of a place to call home. Then the behaviors begin: making food to take to Crossway, Re-building together, witnessing against gun violence, going on mission trips, joining a small group, serving as an elder or a deacon, taking communion. Through those behaviors a belief begins to take shape. “Yes the belief begins with the answers to those questions: The Trinity, the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, etc. But as we discover more about our community and ourselves, we also begin to discover more about our faith.
I think this story of belonging, behaving and then believing is the biblical story as well. First Jesus’ disciples felt like they “belonged.” They didn’t profess a certain faith to follow Jesus. The first disciples who followed Jesus in John’s gospel started literally just like that. They saw Jesus and started following him. When Jesus turned and saw them following him, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They told him and he said “come and see.” From then on, they followed him. Here was a person who had no idea who these men were and where they came from, but immediately they felt at home with him.
The earliest confession of faith in John is a confession of belonging. When things start to get hard and confusing and it’s pretty clear that Jesus is on his way to trouble, and lots of other people have run the opposite way, he asks the twelve, “do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answers him: “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe.” The passage today takes place right after their last supper together. Jesus is reassuring the disciples, encouraging them to keep believing, and not to let their hearts get troubled by what’s to come. How does he do that? By reminding them that they will still belong, that there will be a place for them with Jesus and that their community will continue. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Through following Jesus, the disciples learned the behavior that Jesus was calling them to. They distributed bread and fish to a large crowd that had no food, they looked forJesus when they couldn’t find him. They let Jesus wash their feet.
The lectionary readings for the Sundays after Easter are full of instructions for the disciples about how to live as Jesus taught them, without Jesus’ actual physical presence. Here Jesus gives us instructions for how to pray: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, he says, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name, you ask me for anything, I will do it,” he says. Well I’m pretty sure that this doesn’t mean that if we ask in Jesus’ name we’ll win the lottery, or lose 10 pounds in a week, or get that parking spot right in front of our apartment.. Works that glorify God issue from prayer that is in accordance with Jesus’ own mission. When we are instructed to “ask in Jesus’ name,” we’re being asked to align our spiritual longing with that of the Lord, he’s asking us to believe in God with deep trust and hope.
But it’s that believing and trust part that’s often the hardest isn’t it? The disciples really had some trouble with it too. When Jesus tells them “I am the bread of life,” their answer is: this teaching is difficult, how can we accept it? Even now, 14 chapters into knowing Jesus, the disciples question. They’ve been following Jesus since his ministry began, but they are, at best, adolescent in their understanding of Jesus’ message, vision and mission. They don’t even realize that their lives are about to radically change. Or maybe they do realize it, but aren’t ready to admit it. Either way, it will be a long time before they realize that death will have neither the last, nor the lasting word. And we see this happening before our eyes: the disciples’ understanding and trust in the mission of Jesus, and their own mission, is slipping away.
Isn’t trust the hardest thing to come by in relationships? Jesus says to the disciples: believe in God, believe also in me. But wait, they say, we still don’t know, we still don’t see. Tell us, show us, they say.
Jesus asks the disciples to believe, to believe in God and in him. They have witnessed his power when he raised Lazarus from the dead. They can trust that, though he might go ahead of them, they will be empowered and able to follow him, just as they were when they first met him. And Jesus tells them that they learn about God by what they see in him. “What they learn about God is that they will not cease to belong, that there will always be room for them with God. Even for those disciples who question, and stumble, and fall, and deny. Thomas, our always curious friend who tends to speak for all of us, doesn’t know “the way” that Jesus talks about. Philip doesn’t know where this mysterious “father” figure is coming from. They sure had a hard time believing.
In an essay on this passage, theologian Frederick Buechner asks the same question as the disciples, How do we go where he is? How do we who have a hard enough time just finding our way home in the night find the way that is his way, the way that is he? Who of us can say, and yet who of us doesn’t search for the answer in our deepest places? I think that what we are to do is to try to draw near to Christ and to each other any way we can because that is the last thing Jesus asked of us. “Love one another as I haveloved you” (John 15:12) is the way he said it.
By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world and to transform the world. Believing, behaving and belonging are lived out here, at this table.
On the second season of the AMC show Mad Men, young up-and-coming advertising copywriter Peggy Olson scores the account “popsicle” by comparing a mother’s act of taking a twin pop from the freezer, breaking it in two and giving it to her children to theritual act of sharing in the sacrament of Communion4.
Sharing a popsicle, she tells the executives and ad men seated around her, is not just something you do during the heat of the summer, but a ritual that is enacted year round. No matter if the popsicle came from the freezer or the ice cream truck, each time you:take it, break it, share it, love it. ”
Communion is not just a story we tell or a service we attend, but a full sensory experience that we have together as a community. Everyone in our community belongs at this table: from the youngest to the oldest. Here, where we belong, we learn how to behave: to share, to love, to welcome. As for the believing part, well, if any of you get that part down, can you let me know? I’ve been to seminary and taken communion countless times, and I’m still working on understanding what this meal means. But in the mean time I’ll take it, break it, share it, love it.”
What resonates so much for me in Peggy Olson’s comparison of sharing a twin pop and sharing communion is the joy that it invokes. Too often, communion is a somber event, but in truth, it is the joyful feast of the people of God. And nothing is more joyful than sharing a meal with those with whom we belong. What many of us came here for is a sense of belonging. Through that belonging we learn how to behave, through that belonging we come to believe.
Two-year-old Elizabeth Carr, whom some of you might recognize as “baby Jesus, 2012,” said to her mom Jenn the other day, when they were in the car on the way to daycare, that she wanted to go see Sierra and Kenzie (Fleisher) and Max and Eli (Ferguson). “They are my friends,” she firmly told her mom. Elizabeth knows she belongs, just like Peter and Thomas did. She knows that she is at home here at the church with these other children, alongside whom she will learn to behave and explore her belief, all grounded in the fact that she knows, deep in her heart, that she belongs.
May it be so for each of us. Amen.
2 Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI 2009; page 159.