I am delighting in reading the Gospel of John again,
and would like to share a reflection each week on this beautiful and thoughtful Scripture.
Reflections on John 17
I love Jesus’ words about unity. It is encouraging to know he cared not only about our relationship with him, but our relationship with one another as well. And Jesus understood that unity was key to our experience of his presence and our witness to the world.
The most profound example in my life occurred during the year that I spent in Russia in 1990-91, a year before the coup. The year before I left, I felt like I was stepping into a black hole alone. I was confident that God was with me, but I would be serving on a team with people I did not know, in a country I had never even visited, doing ministry in a context where no missionaries had been permitted to live for a very long time.
But the Lord is good all the time. He put me on a team with wonderful people who quickly became friends. But it was more than that too. We shared a common love for Christ and desire to share the good news with people who had not had that opportunity. Though we didn’t know each other, each of us knew the Lord. We shared a unity in Christ and a bond of the Spirit. These were the ties that bound us to one another. I was not surprised that we experienced the reality of what we all knew we shared in Christ. But a remarkable experience drove home how important this was to our ministry in Russia.
We lived in a dorm on a campus in Moscow. On our floor was a woman who served as a kind of receptionist, a door keeper. She spoke only Russian. Most of us were just learning the language, but one of our team members spoke well. She asked him how long we had known each other, and he explained we had only met three weeks earlier—just before coming to the country together. She responded by shaking her head saying “no” and a lot of other words the rest of us couldn’t understand.
Finally, Jim explained to us that she couldn’t believe we had just met and had known each other three weeks. When he asked why, she responded, “Because you love each other so much.” And there it was: the living truth of the hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Jesus’ command “To love one another as I have loved you” and his great prayer for unity are critical not only for our lives but for our mission together. Our love and unity are the signs that the great Three-in-One is with us continuing his work in and through us—not as individuals but as his corporate church. Our life together is the greatest witness to those who do not know.
In many ways I miss those days in Russia when our little team knew how much we needed the Lord and how much we needed each other. We saw God do miracles in and for and through us. In our culture, it is easy to slip into that individualistic, independent mindset that we can make it on our own. But we were created to be dependent on God and interdependent with others. No matter who we are or where we are, all of us are in the process of becoming like Christ together for the world.
Reflection on John 15:18-16:4
The past few weeks we have been looking at Jesus’ last words to his disciples. In chapter 15, Jesus tells his disciples how they can continue to love him even after he is gone by living out three priority relationships—to Jesus himself (as we abide and bear fruit), to other people (as we love one another), and to the world (as we point people to Jesus).
In John 15:18-16:4, Jesus calls his followers to bear witness before the world of his love and lordship (15:26). He warns us to be very realistic about his call and encourages us again that we are not left to do this on our own.
In John 15:27, Jesus says that we are to bear witness to him. If we belong to Christ, we are a witness to him whether we want to be or not. If we are strongly connected to the true vine, our lives will bear fruit in who we are, how we live, and what we say. Our life either reflects that Jesus Christ is alive and Lord of our life, or it does not. What does that mean to be a witness for Christ? What does it look like? A witness is not just someone who speaks—rather a witness is a life-style patterned after Jesus Christ. And our witness must include our lives as well as our words. As believers called to give witness to the world, we are to point to Christ by who are, what we say, and how we live.
In his book The Fight, which deals with basic areas of Christian living, John White says this about witnessing:
Essentially a witness is someone who is truthful about what he or she has seen, heard or personally experienced. Moreover, the witness of Jesus must not only tell the truth but live it.
Two illustrations will serve to clarify. In a court of law a witness in response to questions tells the court what he heard, said, or did…. The court cannot deal with a witness’s conjectures or rely on secondhand stories. In the same way your Christian witness must be firsthand witness. It must be about what you discovered when you read the Bible, prayer, put your trust in Christ or whatever.
The second illustration of witness is that of a signpost. A signpost points to a destination. It matters little whether the signpost is pretty or ugly, old or new. It helps if the lettering is bold and clear. But the essential features are that is must point in the right direction and be clear about what is pointing to.
In a sense it matters very little whether you are an antique rural signpost written in elegant ancient script or a bright green modern one strung up high over the freeway. You do not exist to draw attention to yourself but to direct people’s thoughts to a divine destination. A signpost has defeated its purpose if it is so attractive that it draws attention to itself rather than to a city.
That is very liberating. A signpost need not be perfect—just faithful. Who I am, what I do, and what I say points to something. The question is, what does it point to—myself, my children, my career, my possessions? The destination to which we are called to point is a person—not even Christianity or the church, but the person of Jesus Christ. I encourage you to examine your life and honestly ask yourself this question: do I point in the right direction—is the arrow at least pointing toward Christ?
It is a privilege to be a signpost pointing others to the source of life. But that is not all that Jesus says in this text. He also warns us that as we point to others, we will encounter hostility, so as believers called to give witness to the world—those who point to Christ, we must also prepare for opposition.
Jesus warns his disciples: “Do not be surprised by the world’s hostility.” Some will see the signposts and joyfully take the exit off the freeway to head for Christ. But others will resent the signpost. Some will despise the sign, even to the point of plastering it with mud or even ripping it down. Specifically, Jesus warned his first disciples, “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue; an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think he is offering service to God” (16:3).
We in the Western world are blessed to live in pluralistic, democratic societies where we are free to believe, and worship, and witness to Christ. But let us not be so naïve to believe that persecution still does not happen today. More Christians have been martyred in the last century than were martyred the previous 1900 years since Christ’s death and resurrection. We should be on our knees for our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering for their faith.
Though we are not persecuted in the way this passage talks about, it can be uncomfortable and perhaps even costly to admit to being a believer. I recently heard of one person who was candidating for an academic position who made an offhanded remark about being a Presbyterian, and may not have gotten the position because of their faith. That is illegal, but there are certain arenas where faith is perceived very negatively and those who believe endure prejudices.
Jesus not only gives his followers a word of warning, he also gives a word of encouragement. Jesus assures us that we are not left alone to be his witnesses. “When the Paraclete comes…that is the Spirit of truth…. He will testify about or bear witness of me” (15:26). The Holy Spirit—the Advocate—will work ahead of, alongside, and in and through the church as the divine Advocate for Christ and his ways before the world. As believers called to give witness to the world, we are to put our trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will convict. Jesus warned that the world will reject our witness and us. We don’t have to take this personally. Nor do we have to take it upon ourselves to be “successful.” It is the Holy Spirit who defends believers and convicts or literally cross-examines the world.
The Holy Spirit also guides us into all truth. It is very comforting to know that Christ does not expect us to be and know and do everything right now. He knows our limitations. He knows the ways we need to grow and change. Just as it takes a baby years to learn to crawl, and then walk, and then run or say one word, and then a phrase, and then sentences, so our Christian lives are a process of maturing. The Holy Spirit will be with us throughout our lives to help us grow, change, and mature. And all along the way, he will guide us into truth.
The primary role of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Christ. And he will empower us to do the same. He will empower us bear fruit in our characters and help us to be more like Jesus in who we are, what we say, and what we do. And he will empower us to be Christ’s witnesses by articulating who Jesus is and what he has done. But in the final analysis, it is the Holy Spirit who wins people to Christ. That is good news! (For more on the Holy Spirit, see March 26 sermon.)
Reflection on John 15:12-13 and the “I AM” statements, March 15, 2017
In John 15:12- 14, Jesus gives a new command: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Throughout the Gospel of John, believing is a key theme, and that true belief or trust in Jesus is reflected in trusting in who Jesus is and relying and what he has done in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
This is the focus of all the “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. They are meant to help us understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. The question is this: Do you believe—really believe Jesus is the one sent from God to do for us what we could not do for ourselves? Does the way you live your life reflect that you believe in Jesus?
One of my favorite movies is Les Miserables—a powerful redemption story of unconditional love and grace. The movie opens with broken, beaten-down Jean Valjean who is released from prison and cannot find work, food, or a place to stay. But then the Bishop—the Christ figure—welcomes him into his home. The Bishop loves Jean Valjean as he Jesus has loved him.
In this scene, all of the “I am” statements are represented visually and symbolically in the story as a depiction of the presence of Christ in this moment of transformation. The bishop opens the door (or the gate) and gives what he needs—. He is like a good shepherd who sees a lost sheep and is willing to do what he can to provide and protect. He generously gives bread and food to meet his hunger and drink (fruit from the vine). When Valjean steals the silver, the bishop could have given one word that would send him back to prison, but instead he becomes the way and the truth to a life in God. In addition, the bishop even gives him more valuable candlesticks—which Valjean keeps throughout his journey as symbol of God’s light, grace, truth, and love.
Jean Valjean is confronted with the choice to believe or not believe. He leaves his past life, believes in Jesus, and becomes a new man. And the recurring theme throughout the film is “Who Am I?” In relationship with Jesus, he becomes the kind of man who was able to do for others what God had done for him.
To believe in Jesus takes us in a new direction. And we too need to answer the question “Who am I?” Jesus gives us the answer. After his resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples, breathes on them the Holy Spirit, and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20: 21).
Who am I? Who are we? As followers of Jesus, we are his body. Together we are the sent ones. We are meant to live our lives as Jesus would live them if he were us—opening doors, welcoming home prodigal sons, feeding the poor, tending his lambs, shining his light. As those who believe in Jesus as the Great I AM, we are to live our true identity in Christ as those who have been sent by God to bless the world. May it be so!
Reflection on John 15, March 14, 2017
I think Jesus’ final “I am” statement is my favorite because it helps us to understand how we are to live this life in the kingdom: I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
Here Jesus states an obvious truth: if branches want to live, they have to stay connected to the vine. When they stay connected, they produce much fruit. I want you to hear the really good news in this passage: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Our life in God is entirely dependent on God’s grace to accomplish for us what we cannot accomplish on our own. We are free from trying to prove ourselves or earn our way. The key is abiding, staying connected to Jesus. From him we receive life, love, joy, and peace. These are undeserved gifts of grace that naturally come to us as abide in Christ.
This is not only for the glory of God and the abundance of our own lives—this is for the sake of others. We are meant to bear fruit in the world. We are to love others as he has loved us—not because we are gutting it out and trying harder. But rather because as we stay intimately connected in this interactive relationship, Jesus’ life and love naturally flow through us bearing fruit in the world.
Reflection on John 14, March 7, 2017
I have never liked change. As a child, I was very anxious. I liked predictability. I didn’t like surprises because I wanted to anticipate and prepare for what was coming next. I was a bit of a control freak.
Thankfully, I have changed, and I don’t feel the anxiety I use to. But the truth is that transitions can be hard as we live into these seasons in which there are many unknowns.
I think that is what Jesus’ disciples were feeling on the night before his death. Jesus’ followers are feeling anxious, confused, disoriented because Jesus is talking about his departure. Jesus wants to reassure them that he is preparing a place—a home for them. They are thinking in terms of a physical place, so Thomas says, “Show us the way.” Give us a map and directions. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him’” (John 14:6-7).
It is a popular idea—and many religions do subscribe to this—that many roads lead to God. If you study world religions, you will find that most have at least three things in common. They have 1) a charismatic leader, 2) holy writings, and 3) an explanation of what humans must do to reach God or heaven, or paradise, or nirvana.
But Jesus doesn’t point to the way as other great religious leaders do; he makes clear that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus didn’t come to provide another religious path or road. He is the path. He’s not interested in religion at all. Religion reflects the common longing among humans to know what God is like and what we have to do to reach God; but Jesus is God’s effort to reach us.
It’s not about religion; it’s about an interactive relationship with God. And Jesus is the road—the one who leads us into unconditional love found in relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is an uncomfortable, exclusive statement; but when he makes it, Jesus sets himself apart as the only begotten Son of God. Jesus leaves us with no misunderstandings; he is the road to our home in God.
This is good news for our salvation, but it’s also good news for our day-to-day living. In the midst of changing circumstances and an uncertain future, we find comfort not in knowing the future but knowing the one who holds us and holds our future in his hands.
Reflection on John 13:12-17, March 2, 2017
After his amazing act of humility in washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus makes clear he is setting an example. They have to receive his love and be transformed by it. However, that’s not the end of the story. He is calling them and preparing them as leaders to do as he has done by loving, serving, and giving themselves away.
Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. This is the hallmark of discipleship. It is our mission here at VPC—to love the Lord and love the people, to serve the Lord and serve the people. Yet I wonder if we understand the radical nature of this calling.
Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” He has modeled what that love looks like by washing their feet, and he will show them how great his love is when he dies on the cross. We are exhorted to love one another as fully as he loved us, a love that may indeed find its expression in the laying down of one’s life. This kind of love has no limits.
Jesus’ death as the ultimate act of love enables us to see that the love to which Jesus summons us is not the giving up of our lives, but the giving away of our lives. The distinction is important, because the love that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with his Father and of God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death was not an act of self-denial, but an act of full and complete love. He was living out his life and identity fully, even when that living would ultimately lead to death.
Did you hear that? Jesus did not deny himself; he lived his identity and vocation fully. To love one another as Jesus loves us is to live a life thoroughly shaped by a love that knows no limits, by a love whose expression brings the believer closer into relationship with God, with Jesus, and with one another. It is to live a love that carries with it a whole new concept of the possibilities of community.
Jesus made this radical idea of community possible by his death and resurrection. He showed us what it looks like, and it’s not like anything the world would tempt us to believe. Following Jesus in this model of love and service is radical. It’s counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.
The late Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors, offers us an example of Christ’s radical love. He was a Catholic priest and theologian who taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. However, late in his career, he moved to Daybreak, a residential community serving a hundred mentally impaired adults.
Nouwen could have remained in highly respected academic institutions or simply traveled around as a renowned speaker. However, he chose to live a life of humility and service because he was convinced that in doing so he would be brought closer to God and the truths of the gospel. In choosing to wash the feet of others in the name of Jesus, he experienced his own feet being washed in ways he could never have predicted or imagined. I heard him once share that he experienced the blessing of being loved and loving in that community more than he ever had in his entire life.
Jesus calls all of us to follow him in loving others as he has loved us—in giving away our lives, in laying our lives down in love. I don’t know what that looks like for you. In many ways, I’m still learning what it looks like for me. But I do know this: The deepest sense of joy, meaning, and fulfillment comes in loving others as Christ has loved us. When we love like this—not only individually but as a community—we are living out our identity and purpose as God’s people.
Lent is a wonderful time to engage in intentional acts of love. How could you take on some radical acts in the next 40 days? Here are a few ideas:
1) Take the initiative to meet one new person at church and get to know them.
2) Make a phone call or write a note to encourage someone you know who may need it or someone you haven’t seen for some time.
3) Reach out to a neighbor with an act of kindness or service.
4) Visit someone who is sick or unable to get out for one reason or another.
The possibilities are limitless! Ask the Lord for his leading, and then set out to love someone as Jesus has loved you— unconditionally, sacrificially, and extravagantly.
Reflection on John 13:1-11, February 28, 2017
As Lent begins, we turn our attention to John 13-17, a portion of scripture known as the Upper Room Discourse. John’s Gospel was written decades after the other Gospels. John is undoubtedly aware of what is said in the other Gospels, but after years of walking with Jesus and reflecting on Jesus’ life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection, John chooses to share a Spirit-inspired account of Jesus’ last words and actions that have shaped his own life, ministry, and leadership for a very long time. As someone who has been following Jesus for over 30 years, his words become more relevant and powerful to me as I continue to reflect on Jesus and seek to live and love and lead as he did.
In John 13, Jesus is the host of the Passover meal, but rather than focusing on the details of the Last Supper as the earlier gospels do, John highlights a very unusual act. Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. Providing water for guests to wash their feet was an act of hospitality, a way of welcoming a guest and meeting a tangible need. Sometimes a servant would do it on behalf of the host. However, what is extraordinary, powerful, and truly radical is that Jesus did this himself. The Master is washing the feet of his servants; the Lord of the universe is washing the feet of his creations. When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he combines the roles of servant and host—meeting the needs of those who have come to him and welcoming them to this meal, into his life, into his family.
This profound act is simply a reflection of a deep truth. Jesus knew who he was. His identity is completely tied to his loving relationship with the Father that has been reflected in all he has done in loving and serving others. However, as his death draws near, Jesus wants to burn into the memory of his disciples just how long, and wide, and high, and deep is his love for them. Therefore, he washes their feet on the night before he goes to the cross, which of course will be his ultimate act of love.
It’s interesting to note Peter’s response. When Jesus begins to wash his disciples’ feet, Peter refuses, “No, you shall never wash my feet.” But Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
It’s easy to look at Peter and think, “Here’s that impulsive disciple again speaking and acting before thinking.” But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit just how much we are like him. I am always aware of the pride in me that doesn’t want to be served that way.
We are all like Peter. We want to call Jesus master and Lord. We’re willing to follow his ways, do his will, work for his kingdom, even love others as best we can, but we don’t like the idea of having our feet washed by Jesus. As human beings, we don’t like to face the truth of just how vulnerable and needy we really are.
I think it is ingrained into us as Westerners to be self-sufficient, self-reliant. Like many Americans and even Christians, we’ve believed those words that “God helps those who help themselves.” But those words are not in scripture. It takes humility to admit our weakness and sinfulness and need for Jesus’ unconditional love and amazing grace for Jesus to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Those who follow Jesus must place ourselves completely in his hands and give ourselves to him. We must let our relationship with Christ be defined by God’s love and his alone.
Lent is a great time to be honest with God and honest with ourselves about what it is in us that keeps us from God and to find ways to receive the love of Jesus on his term—not ours. Jesus longs to love us in those ways and those times. Think for a moment. Is there a place in your life that you sense you are resisting Jesus? Is there place, a relationship, a situation where you are coiling back not wanting God to get up close and personal?
What is keeping you from letting Jesus touch your heart, your soul, your life? Is it pride? Fear? Guilt? The foot washing removes the possibility of distance between Jesus and us. When we’re this close and this personal, we cannot escape the love of God for us, and we cannot help but receive it and be transformed by it.
As Lent begins, consider how Jesus might be inviting you to allow him to touch and transform you. How will you arrange your life to engage in intentional practices, relationships, and experiences that will allow Christ to do in and through you what only he can do?
John 12, February 23, 2017
The beginning of John 12 is bittersweet. It is bitter because it is surrounded by death. The religious leaders are seeking to kill Jesus because he is getting too much attention. They are even going to go after Lazarus because Jesus raised him from the dead. Then there is Judas in the midst of the fray, his words and actions betraying his character even before his ultimate act of betrayal.
This section of scripture reminds me of words I recently read in David Benner’s book Desiring God’s Will: “Reflect on what it mean for Jesus to take up his cross. When we think about this, the first thing that comes to mind is of course the physical cross he carried on the road to Calvary. However, this external cross was merely the symbol of many inner crosses he had long before this day learned to bear in his choosing of God.… Think, for example of Jesus’ relationship with the religious authorities who viewed him with suspicion and hostility and constantly sought to entrap him. Think of how hard it must have been for him to love those who persecuted him and turn his other cheek to those who abused him. He did this, but he did it because he chose to bear in love the people whom he would never have naturally written into the script of his life.
“Even his own disciples often constituted a cross that had to be embraced.… How hard it must have been for Jesus, who lived every moment of his life by faith, to be surrounded by people of little faith.
“Living and working in the intimate company of Judas had to be another cross of immense weight for Jesus. He who knew hearts of all whom he encountered (Matthew 12:15; John 2:25) had in his inner circle of closest friends one whom he knew would betray him. Daily Jesus had to choose to love Judas and offer him the chance to choose the kingdom of God over the kingdom of self. And daily he had to embrace the cross of discouragement that must have arisen as he saw where this relationship was heading.”
However, in the midst of this desolation and Jesus’ approaching death, there is Mary demonstrating her love and devotion as she pours oil on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. This action seems a little strange to us, but it is an expression of her humility and gratitude. She believed in Jesus, and she believed worshiping and blessing him was the highest priority.
The amount of the oil was worth a year of wages for an average worker. So this was extravagant generosity. I am sure Judas wasn’t the only one wondering if the money couldn’t be better used. The passage seems to point to a deep truth: Worship is never waste. Jesus is always worthy of what we have to give.
As Lent begins this week, it offers us an opportunity to frame this season as both a time to “take up our cross and follow Jesus” and a time to engage in meaningful ways to worship and serve him as we “love the Lord and love the people, serve the Lord and serve the people.”
Pastoral Prayer inspired by John 11: 1-45 used at the 11:00 service, Sunday, February 19, 2017. It was written by Martha Spong, and posted on Reflectionary.
O Lord, we hear you calling,
but we are bound in the grave-cloths of earthly expectations.
We believe in you,
but we listen to the world’s call and think we cannot follow.
We must study for the right degree,
apply for the right job,
buy the right house and furnish it just so;
we must, we must, we must.
All that seems true until the day something terrible happens.
All that seems true until we lose someone we love.
All that seems true until we love someone we can’t be with.
All that seems true until the body we relied on to carry us from one place to another,
fulfilling the expectations, falls ill or stops working the way we think it always will.
Hear our prayers, O Lord, for we are in pain.
We are ill. We are dying.
Unbind us from expectations.
Give us strength to live through disappointments.
Grant us courage to overcome obstacles.
Fill us with your presence
and make us living carriers of your love to others who need it.
Hear our prayers, O Lord, for those we have named.
(We speak those names.)
Hear our prayers, O Lord, for those we have not named, the stories we cannot tell and the woes we do not even know.
(We pray in silence.)
Hear our prayers, O Lord, for the wider world,
for the people of Japan and the people of Ivory Coast,
for the people who have lived with war and violence on a daily basis,
in ways unthinkable to us in this quiet town.
Hear our prayers, O Lord, for ourselves.
(We pray again in silence.)
Call us out of the caves in which we dwell.
Help us to roll away the stones for each other.
Bring us to new life,
we pray in the name of Jesus, the Ever Living. Amen.
~ written by Martha Spong, and posted on Reflectionary.http://marthaspong.com/category/lent-5a/
I recently passed the three-year anniversary of my father’s death. I was remembering and reflecting on how hard it was to watch him die, how vulnerable he was, and how powerless my mother and I felt as he slowly declined and then finally passed away. I am now keenly aware of others who are in the early stages of grief experiencing those same feelings
Jesus understood the feelings and experience associated with death and grief. In the face of the grief of Martha and Mary upon the death of their brother Lazarus, Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
Later in the passage, Jesus raises Lazarus from death to life, demonstrating his utter power to overcome our greatest of human problems—death itself.
This great story connects with our human experience. As Mark Twain said, “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” This passage in John is one of my favorites to share at a funeral because it gives such comfort and hope in assuring us that death is not the end. Those who believe never die—we simply experience a transition from life in the body to life in the presence of the Lord. That is a true message of comfort to those grieving the death of a loved one.
But we mustn’t miss the thrust of what Jesus is saying here. We all have to face the truth that this fleshly body is wasting away, and we will all one day die physically. That terrifies many people. I sometime wonder if the frenetic, compulsive nature of life in the world today is the desire to push against the natural boundary of death. We think we have to do more, have more, accomplish more before the end of life. I wonder if some people really believe that he who dies with the most toys wins. But as this church sign reflects, that is not a good philosophy because “He who dies with the most toys…is still dead.”
Jesus reveals another way. Jesus has conquered sin and death and opened the door to eternal life. We can live a resurrection life right here, right now and forever. We don’t need to fear. Jesus has done for us what we could never do for ourselves, and we can live in trust, joy, peace, and love right here, right now.
This week I was watching a British show on TV, and there were sheep in it. I was taken back to my recent trip to Ireland and the beautiful landscape and the many, many sheep and shepherds that we saw.
There are also many sheep in Israel—both today and in Jesus’ day, so Jesus uses this image to help us understand the relational nature of God through one of the most beloved images of Jesus as a shepherd when he says, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’” (John 10:7-10).
Sheep are rather dim, prone to wander, and somewhat directionally challenged. They are vulnerable creatures who need to be watched over, protected, provided for, and guided. Sheep were often gathered into pens at night to protect them from weather, wild animals, and even thieves. In Jesus’ day, these pens were caves or open areas surrounded by walls made of stones or branches, but they had no gate. The shepherd would position himself at the opening and serve as the gate, letting in the sheep and keeping out anything that would harm them.
I suspect that many of us look at the picture of sheep in a pen and resist being thought of as a sheep. We prefer to think of ourselves as powerful as a lion or as fast as a cheetah. We don’t like the idea of being hemmed in. Songs like “Free to Be Me” and “I Did It My Way” come to mind. And we certainly do not want to be that close to other sheep. After all, we are Americans who need to have a certain amount of personal space.
But Jesus uses the imagery of sheep because whether we want to believe it or not, we are broken, sinful, weak, and vulnerable people who are easily distracted and prone to wonder in many and varied ways.
And the reality of our world is that there are many voices—inner voices and outer voices in our culture and in the world—bombarding us daily with false ideas of who we are, what we need to do, what we need to possess to be somebody. Lately I have become more aware of the many ways I personally succumb to these false messages.
But here’s the truth: The good life isn’t out there somewhere, fulfilling the expectations of others or doing what we want. Jesus is the gate to the good life, the abundant life we were created for. The only question is whether we will trust Jesus, listen to his voice alone, and walk through the gate.
Jesus goes on to say, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).
I Am the Good Shepherd: Here we see Jesus’ motivation for why he is doing what he is doing. Unlike a superhero, it’s not about being spectacular or powerful. Jesus’ motive is love. He alone loves, protects, provides and cares for his flock. As our Good Shepherd, Jesus knows each of us by name. His love for us reflects the love of the Father for him. He is the one sent to draw us into this intimate, interactive relationship with the Triune God. We are to find our home in Jesus and in being a part of his flock.
And Jesus isn’t like a hired hand who is paid to take care of sheep but flees when the going gets tough. He’s not even like a superhero who is willing to risk his own safety in the service of good. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus loves us so much that he willingly lays his life down for us.
We are invited to trust and follow this true, gentle Good Shepherd. So do you believe “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”? and “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need” (Psalm 23:1)? I do have everything I need—right here, right now, in this relationship with Jesus. Whatever comes my way, the shepherd is with me and for me and always loving, caring, protecting, providing for me—always working for my good. Do you believe that?
~Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Learn more about Pastor Glenda here
The month of January was tough for me. I suffer from SADS (Season Affective Disorder Syndrome), so as the song says, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” at least physically and emotionally. But those dark days also remind me of how grateful I am that I no longer live in spiritual darkness. In John 8:12, Jesus declares, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” I thank God that whatever my circumstances, I can walk in the light of Jesus. That is good news.
In this second “I am” statement, Jesus again uses a common Old Testament image of light to connect his listeners to God’s story. Light was God’s first creation. In the exodus God went before Israel in the wilderness as a pillar of fire at night “to give them light” (Exodus 13:21) Light is a symbol for the law or the Word of God.
In this context, Jesus is in the midst of the celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacle, in which light was an important element. On the first day of the feast, four enormous lampstands were lit reminding the people of God’s Shekinah glory—his very presence filling the temple. So much light was produced that every courtyard in Jerusalem was filled with light.
Jesus is not just the light of Jerusalem for the Jewish people; Jesus is the Light of the World. Again, we as humans are confronted with two choices. To live apart from Christ is to live in spiritual darkness. But to follow Christ is to have the light of life.
Again, this “I am” statement helps us understand Jesus’ identity and backstory connecting with God’s cosmic story in the creation and God’s redemption story through the nation of Israel. It all comes together in Jesus—the one who is from God and sent by God.
This week especially, I have been aware that we as believers are not only blessed to experience the light of Christ for ourselves, but we are meant to shine his light to others who are still living in darkness—emotionally, physically, or spiritually. I’m grateful for the many volunteers serving at our hypothermia shelter this week and next. And I’m grateful for all those who shine God’s light week to week through the many ministries in our church as a deacon, Stephen Minister, Renewing Prayer minister, small group leader, Sunday school teacher, usher, coffee hour hosts, and so on. It is a privilege to be able to shine Christ’s light not only in our church, but we are meant to do it 24/7 in all the places we live and work—in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and work environments. Let’s do it.
~Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Learn more about Pastor Glenda here
My family and I enjoy watching movies about superheroes because they are interesting, engaging, and suspenseful. Superheroes have extraordinary powers or abilities and a secret identity that protects them. When you watch movies about them, you need to see them in order or you will miss the backstory that explains how they acquired their abilities or how they became a superhero. They are also set apart by a strong motivation for why they are doing what they are doing and a strong moral code, including a willingness to risk their own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward.
Jesus’ identity and mission are main themes throughout the Gospel of John. It is clear that he possesses special powers that no ordinary man could have. Crowds of people gather around him and ask in different ways, “Who is this Jesus?”
Of course, superheroes are fictional, but Jesus is real. And he wants us to understand who he is, where he came from, why he came, and the lengths he will go to accomplish his mission. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals his true identity as the Son of God in many and varied ways including the seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John.
In John 6, Jesus once again demonstrated his extraordinary power and abilities by feeding thousands of people with a little bread and fish, so crowds seek to find the man who can supply “wonder bread.” Jesus acknowledges three reasons people follow him: for what they can get, what they can do, and what they can see.
Materialists come for what they can get—in this case, food for their bodies. Jesus tells them, you have to think beyond this material world and think about eternity.
Legalists believe in eternal life, but they also believe there is something they can do to gain God’s approval and earn their own way. But Jesus makes it clear: there is nothing we can do. “The work of God is to believe in him whom God has sent.” Jesus is the one God has sent, the one who does for you what you cannot do for yourself.
Finally, there are those who are looking for a sign because seeing is believing. How many times have you said or heard others say, “I just wish God would give me a sign to show me the way”? Someone in the crowd says, “Moses gave our ancestors bread from heaven.” Can you do something like that? Really? I guess feeding 5,000 people with two fish and a few loaves wasn’t enough.
But this is a great setup for Jesus to explain his backstory. This crowd knows of the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years—in a dry and barren land where there was no food or water. They know the people of God could not have survived in that wilderness on their own without the miracle food of manna raining down from heaven. But they think Moses gave their ancestors this “bread from heaven.” But Jesus says, “No, let’s get the backstory straight.”
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’” Notice he doesn’t just say he gives bread to the Israelites in the wilderness but he gives life to the whole world. Of course, they want some of that action:
They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:32-35).
This is the backstory for Jesus. When God calls Moses to lead the people out of Israel, Moses asks, “Who shall I tell them sent me?” God says, “I AM WHO I AM….Tell them I am has sent me to you….The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14-15).
Unlike a superhero, Jesus doesn’t want his identity to be a secret. He is no ordinary man—he is the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the God of their ancestors, the one who led his people out of Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness. Jesus is the great “I AM”— the one who is sent by God.
When he says, “I am the bread of life,” he is taking hold of this deeply understood religious experience of manna in the wilderness and the very ordinary, everyday reality of human experience—the need for food. He is making clear that he is the source of life. The implication is that we are faced with two choices. In our physical bodies, we either eat and drink or we die. For eternal life, we must believe in Jesus as the one sent down by God. There is no life apart from Jesus. But the promise is that those believe in him will never hunger or thirst.
~Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Learn more about Pastor Glenda here
My family and I just returned from Disney World, “Where Your Dreams Come True.” It has been my younger son’s dream to go to Disney since he was in kindergarten, so he was especially excited about this trip. We had a wonderful week as a family enjoying warm, sunny weather, fun rides, exceptional productions, and so many varied experiences that Disney has to offer. Of course, there were many other families—even extended families with multiple generations—and groups of friends enjoying all that Disney has to offer.
However, what captured my attention most were the people who work there—“the cast.” From the moment we walked in, we were greeted warmly as someone said, “Have a magical time.” Throughout every day we approached many cast members asking what they thought we should prioritize, how to get from one place to another, and many other questions. Every single person was friendly, kind, and eager to help. Not one person ever said they didn’t know the answer or say, “That’s not my job. I’m a shop keeper, a street sweeper, a photographer….”
I witnessed one busboy at a restaurant having an extended conversation with a couple as if he were the information guru. And then it hit me. He is. Every cast member is trained to know information about the park inside and out—and how to be a warm, friendly presence to everyone they encounter. It’s their job to be ready, available, and willing to help the “guests” have the best experience of their lives. It is their job is to be hospitable.
I was inspired by the example of the cast members but also convicted. Those of us who believe in Jesus are not living in the Magic Kingdom where dreams come true. We are living in the real kingdom—the Kingdom of God. We are not employees. We are children of the living God, servants of the King of kings and Lord of lords. We have the joy of not just helping people have a wonderful day but helping them live in relationship with God for all eternity. Ours is a high and holy calling.
I’ve been thinking about what our church might look like if each member had the attitude of these cast members. What if each of us came to worship on Sunday morning not looking to see what we can get out of it but with a mindset of being a servant for God? What if hundreds of members in our church took the time to learn about church in such a way that we could serve as a source of information and help to newcomers? What if we never had to say, “I don’t know” or “That’s someone else’s responsibility”?
What if each of us had eyes to see the people we do not know and took the time to greet and discover the story of even one person each week? What if each of us saw it as our responsibility to help others find their way from one place to another in our very large church? I’m not merely talking about getting from one part of the building to another, though that can be very helpful. More important, people also need help in getting connected to relationships, groups, and opportunities for service in our church or with a mission partner. What if each member saw it as their responsibility to be hospitable, invitational, and available to show others the way to experience the joy of belonging to God and to his family here at VPC?
I think one of the reasons this struck me so much is that I have been meditating on Jesus in the Gospel of John. I have been moved to see how he exudes a spirit of hospitality. His disciples approach him, and he invites them to first “Come and see” and then “Come and follow me.” When Nicodemus approaches him, Jesus is available and willing to speak the truth in love telling this deeply religious man that what he needs is a new birth.
While traveling, Jesus becomes tired and thirsty, but he doesn’t focus on himself. He sees a Samaritan woman getting water at the well, and asks her for a drink. While many undoubtedly ignore her, Jesus takes time to interact with her in such a deep and authentic way that she comes to salvation. Jesus sees people, listens attentively, takes time to discover their stories, and then shares the Good News in a way that they can hear and believe.
I long to be more like Jesus. I long to be more radically abandoned to God and radically available for God. I long for our church to exceed the spirit of hospitality that I witnessed at Disney World. It requires a change of heart and mind—to be ready, available, and willing to be God’s servant. I’m willing. Who’s with me?
~Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Learn more about Pastor Glenda here
It’s Not About Me: Reflections on John 3:23-36
John the Baptist’s ministry had been growing. He was becoming something of a rock star. People were coming from miles around to hear him preach. His disciples enjoyed being associated with him, but now they are whining because “all are going to Jesus.” They were feeling insecure, threatened, even a little resentful and bitter.
And then John the Baptist speaks words of truth to them in three different ways.
He declares, “It’s not about me.”
John provides perspective: “A person can receive only what is given from heaven.” In short, it is not about you or me. It is about God. John does not attempt to allay his disciples’ misconceptions. He simply tells them how it is—by starting with God. It’s not about holding onto position or power. It is not about keeping or maximizing what you have earned. It is not about you. It is about God—who he is, and what he is up to in our lives and how he wants us to be a part.
I’m not proud to admit it, but I know I have sometimes felt like John’s disciples when somebody new comes on the scene or others seem to be doing well when I am not. I’ve faced challenges in my life; some of them threatening or unsettling—illness, grief, a move. Life’s speedbumps can bring to the surface a myriad of emotions.
John was very clear: “I am not the Messiah.”
John resists the perennial human sin—the arrogance that wants to be God. People around him want him to fulfill a role that is not his to fill and to lead in a way he is not called to lead. He is very clear about what he is not.
John understood his limits. He was not the one who could baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He was not the one who could save people from their sins. He was sent ahead of Christ. He had the great privilege of announcing the good news, but he was not himself the good news. John the Baptist was a great leader—one of the best prophets ever, but he knew who he was and who he was not. Humility is not valued much by the world, but it is a powerful attribute that God uses to change lives and to change the world.
John reflects contentment.
John describes his role in a parable. He is the ancient equivalent of a “best man” who organized the details and presided over the Judean wedding. The Old and New Testaments use the imagery of God being united to his people as a bridegroom is united to his bride. John says his joy is complete as he sees the bridegroom united with his bride. John is content in his role.
The Art Institute of Chicago has a life-size painting of Jesus and John the Baptist portraying this passage. Jesus is stepping forward and John is standing still and pointing to Jesus. John understood that his life purpose was to point to Christ—the one who is the good news. We don’t have the unique role of John the Baptist, but that’s our purpose also—to point to Jesus. Do we as a parent, grandparent, a friend, neighbor, work colleague point to Jesus? Does the way we handle our responsibilities and relationships in life point to Jesus?
John the Baptist inspires and motivates me personally because he is not grudgingly conceding victory to a superior opponent. He wholeheartedly embracing God’s will and the supremacy of Jesus in his life and in the world. Jesus is Lord of the church and the world, and each of us has our unique gifts, abilities, and callings. What matters is that we are living wholeheartedly in the kingdom of God.
Here is what I have learned. I will always be disappointed if I focus on myself. If I start with God and who he is and what he has given me, I will never feel disappointed or cheated. Instead, I will be grateful. God’s grace has saved me. He has rescued me from the domain of darkness and brought me into the kingdom of his beloved Son.
~Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
Learn more about Pastor Glenda here