“The Church without Jesus”
May 29, 2011
My sermon title this morning, “The Church without Jesus” is not meant to disparage this congregation or the United Church of Christ. There is, of course, the old joke that “UCC” means “Unitarians Considering Christ,” as if we were no longer certain about the significance that Jesus has for us. Remember, however, that a few years ago the UCC General Synod approved a measure stating that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.
The “church without Jesus” is not some heretical or theologically confused organization. The church without Jesus is every congregation, every denomination. Since the resurrection, we “Easter people” have been trying to understand what it means to “follow Jesus” when Jesus is nowhere to be seen. The great New Testament scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, asked the question this way in his reflections on this morning’s Gospel lesson: “Can the disciples still love Jesus when he is gone? Can the next generation love him, without having had a personal relationship with him?”[i]
As the different Gospels attempt to answer such questions, they give different pictures of the encounters of the risen Christ and the disciples.
In the Gospel of Luke, the risen Jesus appears to his followers several times after the resurrection—teaching them, breaking bread with them. He sends them out to all nations and then is taken up to heaven, a theological affirmation that we mark next week on “Ascension Sunday.”
John tells another story of the post-Easter Jesus. As we have heard on these Sundays in Easter, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb. Later on Easter day, he appears to the other disciples, locked away in a room, hiding in fear. A week later he returns to them and even to “doubting” Thomas. He shows up on the beach, giving Peter, John, and others some new lessons in fishing and offering them breakfast.
And that’s it.
No final instructions. No last words for the early church. No departure scene.
John doesn’t tell us how Jesus left. He simply concludes that Jesus did a lot of other things, too, but all the books in the world couldn’t contain them.
Parents going out for the night can leave pages of detailed notes for the babysitter, covering where they will be, how long they will be gone, how to contact them, what to do in an emergency.
A teacher who will be away from school will write specific lesson plans for the substitute, stating what to teach, when to give the test, and assignments for the days ahead.
When you leave on vacation, you might tell the post office to hold the mail or arrange for a teenager in the neighborhood to mow your lawn.
In the Gospel of John, the risen Christ does little or nothing to equip his followers for life in his absence.
Instead of final instructions, John gives us the “Farewell Discourse” of Jesus—five chapters presented as a conversation that Jesus has with his closest disciples on the night of his arrest. It’s a very one-sided conversation. Jesus does most of the talking. The novelist, the late Reynolds Price, once said that “a glance around one of those…New Testaments with the words of Jesus printed in red will indicate that where Matthew is reddest near the start, and Mark and Luke red fairly evenly throughout, John’s long red stretch is held for…chapters 13 through 17.
His disciples occasionally ask questions, trying to get a better understanding of what they are hearing.[ii] But mostly it’s Jesus who talks.
The words in the Farewell Discourse loop around and fall back on themselves, always returning to the theme of love. And it’s been said that, like a love letter, this discourse is difficult to outline. It’s more about ardor than order.
“If you love me,” Jesus says, “You will keep my commandments.”
Again, that’s not much to go on, is it?
No organizational chart. No model for growth. No leadership hierarchy.
Simply—love Jesus and keep his commandments.
A little later it sounds as though Jesus is repeating himself when he says “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” But perhaps we can hear this more as clarification than repetition. We listen—and we begin to sense that to love Jesus is to keep his commandments; to keep Jesus’ commandments is to love him.[iii] The two actions are more closely connected than we might have imagined.
Gail O’Day teaches New Testament down at Emory University in Atlanta. She says that the disciples will continue to love Jesus, not by “clinging to a cherished memory of him nor by retreating to their private experience of him. Rather they can continue to love Jesus by doing his works and by keeping his commandments. When they move outside their own private experience of Jesus, when they live what Jesus has taught them and demonstrated in his own life, then¸ they will find themselves once again in his love.[iv]
And this is the case for those of us who would follow Jesus even to this day. The words of Jesus invite us, not into a private, mystical communion with God, but into a public community of love that exhibits the love that God showed in Jesus.
“Keep my commandments,” Jesus says. A little earlier he gave his followers what he called a “new commandment,” the commandment that we remember each year on Maundy Thursday—love one another as I have loved you. Connection with Jesus does not depend on a physical presence but on the presence of the love of God in the life of the community, this community.
Jesus speaks to a group, not simply to individuals. This is somewhat obscured in English translations by the word “you.” Jesus is using the second person plural—“you, the whole lot of you.” His concern is with how all of us together will behave toward one another and how we will live in the larger world.
“If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments.” If all of you love me, all of you will keep my commandments. There is no place here for some warm, fuzzy, individual “love of Jesus” apart from our love of one another. There is no place here for the ill-will that characterizes so many congregations (ask your friends). There is no place here for the exclusivity that favors some over others.
Jesus calls us to respect one another, to seek the good the community of faith, to—simply put—do to others as we would have done to us. As a congregation we can’t rely on a few people to do this. We are—all of us—called to love. We are—all of us together—called to keep Jesus’ commandments.
Suddenly being the UCC—the United Church of Christ is not as “freewheeling” as we often think it to be. To be a part of this congregation takes some discipline so that in what we do we might all keep Jesus’ commandment of love. It is a great calling and a high challenge that you took on in covenanting to be a member of this congregation.
Herman Melville touches on this in Moby Dick when he writes: “All the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, God oftener commands us rather than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves.”
Keeping Jesus’ commandment to love one another does not necessarily come easily. As we obey Jesus, we will often find that we are disobeying our own impulses. So we need each other to help all of us keep the commandment.
In the Congregational tradition we often emphasize the responsibility that each individual has before God. And that is an important part of our tradition. It makes faith a personal commitment. It is one of the deepest roots of democracy in our nation.
But as important—and in the light of this morning’s lesson, perhaps more important—is our behavior as a community. Our Congregational tradition is not about isolated “believers” but the whole people of God assembled in a particular place and time. And love for one another is commanded of the whole community.
Perhaps now, we can better understand the words of Jesus when he suggests that his absence will result in a deeper sense of connection between him and those who would still follow him. “I will not leave you orphaned. I will not abandon you,” Jesus says. The Spirit of God will come to those who “believe,” that is, to those whose lives show a commitment to the way of Jesus Christ.
My guess, however, is that there have been times when you have felt abandoned—orphaned—by God. There, no doubt, have been times in your life when God was known most deeply by God’s absence. Such times carry many names: the dark night of the soul, a dry season, the winter of the spirit. Maybe you came here this morning in spite of feeling abandoned by God. Maybe you came here because you feel abandoned.
It’s crushing to feel abandoned by God—to carry the sense that the lives of others are somehow more favored, to suspect that even in their difficulties and trials other people draw closer to God and God to them, while you are left to your own devices.
At least that’s how it has felt to me.
Because we can feel the despair of abandonment, the absence of God, these final words of Jesus come as good news. Jesus speaks of another Comforter who will come to us in his absence—the Spirit of Truth. Just as Jesus was himself a Comforter to those who were with him, so the Spirit will be our Comforter, our Counselor, our Advocate.
Again, we need to hear in plural. As one person put it, “The promises of [God’s] presence are promises made to the community, not to the individual. All the personal pronouns in these verses are second-person plural, not singular. Jesus does not promise the Comforter, or his own return, or the [abiding presence of God] to individuals but to a community who lives in love.” When we follow Jesus’ model of love, it is possible for the relationship with Jesus to extend beyond the first generation of followers, because that relationship depends not on physical presence but on the presence of the love of God in the life of the community. And that love is present when we keep the commandments of Jesus.[v]
Do you begin to get a sense of how important you are to this community and how important this community is to you? Your love is a sign of God’s love among us. The love in this community is how you can know that you are loved.
The Spirit comes to the church without Jesus so that, knowing we are loved, we will be able to love one another
The Spirit comes to the church without Jesus so that as we love one another, we will know that we are loved by God.
How can we love Jesus after he is gone? How can we have a relationship with Jesus when he is not here?
The scriptures have pointed us toward a number of ways to do this in recent weeks.
We look up—to something beyond ourselves, something greater than our own lives, something that transcends our everyday, predictable reality. And Easter invites us to stretch ourselves into that new reality—to stretch who we are and what we do.
We look forward to the new things that God is doing among us and in the world rather than being trapped in the past
We look again at the new possibilities that are present when our old ways no longer work.
We listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us by name.
We lighten up and laugh with God who laughed at death in raising Jesus from the dead.
As we attempt this Easter lifestyle, we find that we are not abandoned. God’s Spirit is with us and among us.
We are a church without Jesus.
And because we are a church without Jesus, we continue to experience the risen Christ in new and surprising ways as we love one another as Christ has loved us.
[i] Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John, pg. 613.
[ii] Reynolds Price, “John,” in Incarnation, pg. 56.
[iii] Gail O’Day, “John,” Interpreter’s Bible, v. IX, pg. 745.