Love and Obedience – Sermon Notes for Easter 6, Year B (RCL)

If you’re new to my Sermon Notes, you can read about why I prepare them here. The notes aren’t just for preachers; they’re for everyone!

Thesis 

The lessons for the Sixth Sunday of Easter really boil down to those two words: love and obedience. Focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on the Collect and the two Johannine texts, the lectionary passages tie together the doing of God’s will/obeying God’s commands with our love for him (and his love for us). To love God is to obey him and to obey God is to love him. 

Analysis 

Collect

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Love and desire. Upon reading the Collect I am left with two questions, “What is it that you love more than anything else?” and “What is it that you desire more than anything else?” It may seem as if the answer to each question should be different, but I believe the two should be the same. I have often heard—and perhaps you have too—the claim that if you love God he will give you all the desires of your heart. It’s used to suggest that once we love God we can ask for anything we want in more of a prosperity-gospel type setting, but I think there is something powerful going on here.

If we truly love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength then he will be the only true object of our love and desire. To love God is to desire him above all else. So when the Collect says that God’s promises will exceed all of our desires it is really suggesting that God’s promises will exceed all that we desire about him.

Follow me into the knee-deep waters of philosophy once more. James K.A. Smith (and therefore Augustine) will be our guide. Here is what I wrote during Lent:

Our desire is not in a vacuum. All desire has an object. Human desire began in creation and the only object of our desire was God; this is as it should be. However, with sin our desire became misdirected, unaligned, disordered and instead of God we found other objects and things toward which we point our desire.

Desire here is much more than affection it. It is kardias, our gut (or core) love. Through the work and person of Jesus Christ our desires can again be ordered toward God and that is the main sentiment of this collect: taming and ordering our unruly desires. To love God’s commands and to desire his promises is indeed to be a covenant-member of his family, a kingdom citizen of his already inaugurated but not yet consummated kingdom. And it is this coming Kingdom—the new heavens and the new earth—when God shall be all in all—where our true desires should be fixed.

First Lesson – Acts 10:44-48

This passage requires a backstory. One of the lesson options for Easter was Acts 10:36-43 and you may have preached from/with that text, or perhaps not. Either way it has been at least 6 weeks since Acts 10 was part of the lectionary and likely even longer than that if you opted for another text on Easter. Act 10:44-48 is the climax of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his household.

Remember, Peter first had the vision of a great white sheet with all types of animals and he was told to eat and kill. God commanded him to consume things that were “unclean” as a way of opening his heart and eyes to the reality that the new Israel was for both Jew and Gentile. Peter then goes to the home of a Roman centurion, Cornelius and preaches the Good News of Jesus. Our passage for Sunday comes at the tail end of that preaching, of Peter’s first intentional ministry among the Gentiles, and the result is conversion.

I have found that Acts 10:44 is an important verse for a theology of preaching: the Holy Spirit falls upon those who hear Peter’s words. It is not Peter who is responsible for conversion or transformation but the Holy Spirit working through human words. You better believe as a preacher that the Spirit needs to descend and be active for your sermon to carry weight or significance; maybe you could try praying at the beginning of your sermon (either privately or publicly) that the Spirit would anoint you and open the ears and hearts of those hearing your words…just a thought!

The Spirit is present and the newly converted are amazed that the Spirit would be given to Gentiles. Friends, there is neither Jew nor Greek in the body of Christ! There is no longer a dividing barrier between “us” and “them” in Christ Jesus! The Spirit goes where he pleases and pours himself out upon whom he desires—we cannot contain him.

Notice the connection here between the Holy Spirit and baptism: the two are intertwined and one cannot be separated from another. A good and healthy view of baptism would suggest that baptism (be it infant or adult) is both a baptism by water and the Spirit.

Peter is obedient to God’s command to preach to the Gentiles and through his obedience a Roman household comes to faith, receives the spirit and is baptized. I think of Jesus’ words in John, “Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.” Peter’s obedience to Christ is birthed from his love for his master.

Psalm 98

“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” Immediately your mind should be racing to the great victory songs of Scripture: Moses and Miriam after the Exodus, Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving after leaving Samuel at the temple, Zechariah’s prophesy once he regained his voice, and Mary’s Magnificat upon learning that she would be the mother of our Lord. 

Israel rejoiced after release from Egypt, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:1) and Miriam added, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21).

Hannah prays, ““My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory,” (1 Samuel 2:1).

Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” (Luke 1:47-48).

Zechariah prophesies, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them,” (Luke 1:68).

The Psalmist is instructing the people: sing to the Lord because he has acted! Sing a new song because he has done great things! Notice that with each highlighted story above and the charge from the Psalmist that the call is to praise God BECAUSE he has done something. God is worthy to be praise at all times and in all places but this specific call to worship is based on His saving acts and deeds.

The joy of Psalm 98 is found in the hope that YHWH is not yet finished in his salvific works. Verse 4 says, “He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,” though Israel would sing this Psalm while in exile and under foreign rule there was still hope because YHWH had revealed himself as faithful and had promised freedom to his people.

We proclaim the same hope in our Eucharistic prayers: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Or even, “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” Our Christian hope is based on that which has already taken place—we cannot have hope without remembrance as the foundation and we cannot remember without seeing hope born in our hearts as a result.

Epistle – 1 John 5:1-6

For five chapters John has talked about sin, light, darkness and love and now we arrive at the most concrete statement describing such love. “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” This may be the capstone of John’s argument in his first epistle: to love God is to obey him. We love because he first loved us—our loving response is nothing short of obedience, submission, and reverence.

Notice what John does in the last line of this passage: the combination of water and blood. John records this in his gospel, “Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out,” (John 19:34). The water and blood comment in 1 John must certainly be a reference to his own gospel account. Jesus’ baptism wasn’t simply by water when John baptized him in the Jordan, he was also “baptized” by his death which is why baptismal imagery suggests that when one goes under the water he/she dies with Christ and when one emerges from the water he/she is rising with Christ. One cannot truly understand the sacrament and call of baptism without seeing the road of discipleship leads to the cross.

Christ the conqueror of all things, he is Christus Victor, and by his death he has trampled down death. Our faith in him, in his resurrection, is therefore able to conquer all. We do not conquer, but in Christ we are more than conquerors. It’s a small shift but it’s an important one. Faith is born in us by the Spirit and is made perfect in Christ; Christ is the conqueror of all and invites us to be conquerors with him, through his work.

The hinge upon which John’s epistle—indeed, his view of discipleship—hinges is loving obedience.

Gospel – John 15:9-17

We again encounter John’s combination of love and obedience. Jesus shows his disciples how to love and to obey based on his relationship with the Father. Because the Father has loved him so he loves us and we are therefore called to respond with love; because he has obeyed the Father we are invited to obey him through loving action. My comments from last week can be found here and are still applicable to this week’s lessons. To abide is to love and obey.

Jesus predicts his death in saying, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He has already suggested in John 10 (read two weeks ago) that he has the power to lay down his life and pick it up again. He has already mentioned earlier in John’s gospel that he will destroy the temple and raise it up in 3 days. Finally, he has already shared a meal and foot-washing with his disciples and claimed that he would be betrayed. There should be no surprise by John 15—for the disciples or the reader—that this story is moving toward the point of no return.

Why shouldn’t it be a surprise for the disciples?

Because Jesus is inviting them to participate in the drama of salvation as friends rather than servants.

Because Jesus has shared his life and ministry with this group of followers.

Because Jesus is calling his disciples to become apostles and carry on his ministry.

The reference to “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,” point directly back to John 13 and the washing of the disciples’ feet. You cannot separate John 13 from John 15—they are not only part and parcel of the same concept, they take place on the same evening in the same discourse!

One bit of humbling reality: Jesus’ chooses us; we do not choose him. Now, in Christ the way to salvation has been opened up to all people, but it is still Jesus who moves first. The call to discipleship, as I’ve said before, is simple: Jesus calls and we follow. We do not need to go out and find a master, rabbi, mentor or pastor; we do not need to go and find the Shepherd. We are the sheep of his pasture and he has called out to us already, the question is now this: do we hear his voice and will we answer him? That’s the true call to discipleship.

Liturgical Considerations

The Psalm is quite clear that we are to SING and make a joyful noise to the Lord. Here is something I’d like you to consider: consider working with your music and/or liturgy minister to pen a song or prayer recounting the mighty acts of God in the life of your own church. This is a type of lyrical/musical/liturgical Ebenezer, a remembrance stone based on the many ways God has acted in, through, and amongst your flock. Perhaps you had a building campaign, or a tragedy in your congregation, or an important leadership transition or anything else significant and now is the time to praise him about it.

You could incorporate this piece into your opening worship or the prayers of the people or even as a responsive reading as part of your sermon. The important point here is that your church has the opportunity to corporately and concretely give thanks and praise for God’s saving deeds. Use the songs of Moses, Hannah, Mary and Zechariah as a launching pad into your own celebration. 

Synthesis

The second half of Eastertide has shifted from encounters with the Risen Lord to Jesus’ words and teachings prior to his death. This shift can and should be seen as an exploration of Jesus’ call to his followers about what it means to be a disciple and ultimately what it means to be the church, the pilgrim people of God. Shifting from a week in John 10 to two weeks in John 15, Eastertide culminates in Jesus’ highly priestly prayer recorded in John 17. Jesus prays that we all may be one and the following week we celebrate Pentecost and the birth of the church.

This progression is not a coincidence! To encounter the Risen Lord is to be called further into discipleship; as we spend a second week in John 15 may we remember that we love and obey him because he has revealed himself as faithful and loving through the crucifixion and resurrection.

To love God is to obey his commands. His new commandment (John 13) is to love one another. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In Jesus our desires and love are re-directed, re-aimed at God and we can find our heart’s truest desires and more when we love him because he is the object and subject of our love! Love is not passive, it is active and it is obedient.

Have you heard the call?

Have you responded?

Will you love and obey?

This is what it means to be a disciple…this is what it means to be the church.

What Does It Mean To Abide? – Sermon Notes for Easter 5, Year B

Thesis

What does it mean to abide in Jesus? It’s a beautiful word but too often we miss out on any substantive definition or depiction. The RCL lessons for Easter 5 provide some concrete portrayals of this concept: trust, obedience, proclamation and a sort of “knowing” that moves beyond cognition and into something deeper. Prepare yourselves because Easter 5 and 6 will both feature gospel lessons from John 15.

Analysis

Collect

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This is another situation when the Collect and the Gospel lesson seem to miss each other by a small margin. Upon first reading of the Collect one would assume that John 14 is the appointed text given the reference to “the way, the truth, and the life.” However, the Gospel lesson appointed for Year B is John 15:1-8 where Jesus talks about abiding in him and his relationship with the Father. There is a connection to John 14 and although it is simple it is also overlooked: John 14-17 constitutes the “Upper Room Discourse” from which we get Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. The final “I Am” statement of John’s Gospel should not be separated from his words about abiding or from his priestly intercessions.

To abide in Christ is to know him as the way, the truth and the life. To know him ‘perfectly’ is to abide in his love just as he abides in the love of his Father. To follow him (think to last week about the Good Shepherd) requires a trusting obedience and foundation of “knowing” that moves beyond mental assent. It is a knowledge that is based in love and based on faith. Jesus is the life and therefore to know him is to have life, both now and evermore.

First Lesson – Acts 8:26-40

The Lectionary gives us another opportunity to discover Philip’s apostolic witness. It was on the Fifth Sunday in Lent that we last encountered Philip. Philip was then approached by some Greeks (read: Gentiles) who desired to see Jesus. Philip and Nathanael took the Greeks to Jesus in a move that reminded the reader of Philip’s “Come and see” comment to Nathanael after encountering Jesus at the beginning of John’s Gospel. The two Philipian stories serve as bookends on the “Book of Signs in John and now we are again reading of Philip’s ministry among the Gentiles.

Here Philip encounters a god-fearing Ethiopian Eunuch who has been worshipping in Jerusalem and is now traveling home. It is important to note that the Holy Spirit leads Philip to the man. The Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness is the same Spirit that urges Philip to the Wilderness Road and to engage the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip is an example to us all in that his ministry is not complex or complicated; in fact, it is actually quite simple: obedience and gospel proclamation. In this story we see that Philip is both obedient to the urging of the Holy Spirit and that he proclaims the Good News of Jesus to the Eunuch and to those in Azotus.

The Ethiopian Eunuch is reading from Isaiah and cannot understand the words on the page. Think about the lessons from last Sunday and how Jesus had to open the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures. Philip makes himself present to the man and asks him plainly, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip then takes the opportunity to explain the Scriptures to the Ethiopian and he does so through the lens of Jesus; just as Jesus explained the meaning of the Scriptures to the companions on the Road to Emmaus and how they were fulfilled in him, so too does Philip present Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah, the law and the prophets.

What is the proper response to Gospel? It is conversion and initiation! The Eunuch is baptized on the spot after hearing the Gospel. Baptism is an extremely important event in the life of an individual and in the life of the church; it is one of the two dominical sacraments and it is initiation into the family of God. It should not be entered into carelessly but it also should not be withheld until someone reaches a certain level of spiritual knowledge or maturity. The Eunuch was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit because clearly he believed that Isaiah foretold of Jesus who was both crucified and risen. There would be time after ‘conversion’ for mystagogy, discipleship or “membership classes.”

Psalm 22:24-30

What a difference a month makes! It was just one month ago that we were reading this Psalm but in a much different context. Psalm 22 came up on Good Friday and I wrote about it here in relation to Jesus’ words on the cross.

Just to recap, verses 24-30 form the movement of the Psalm from lament to praise. The Psalmist and those proclaiming the Psalm in the holy gathering are able to place their trust in YHWH because he is faithful. The Psalmist has these things to say about YHWH:

Kingship belongs to God, he rules over all nations

He alone is worthy of all worship, all bow to him

He has performed saving deeds 

The Psalmist can therefore move from “my God why have you forsaken me?” to “My soul shall live for him!” based on one reason: God’s covenant love is steadfast and he has revealed himself as faithful time and time again. Even in the midst of lament there can still be praise!

Epistle – 1 John 4:7-21

I have made several comments in recent weeks about the apparent disconnect between the RCL lessons for Year B and the appointed Collects. That being said, I have been extremely pleased with the Eastertide Year B pairings of John’s epistle and his gospel. 1 John 4 matches very nicely with John 15 as they both stay focused on one topic: abiding. Even better, John gives us another word for our working definition: love.

To abide is to love and to remain in God’s love. The basis for all such love is the love of God that is first, it is sufficient and it is complete. God loves us and therefore we should love one another. God so loved the world that he sent his son to be the sacrifice for our sins; therefore we should love each other.

The contact points with John’s gospel are amazing. 1 John 4:9-10 matches up with John 3:16-17; 1 John 4:16b is John 15; 1 John 4:21 is John 13 with the new commandment. The possibilities for overlapping and interrelation are endless but one point is clear: we are called to radical love of God and neighbor because God loves us radically.

There is a big difference between “the fear of the LORD” as seen throughout the Old Testament and the concept of fearing God. The fear of the LORD is a phrase that is used to convey the awesome and awful-ness (original meaning) of God. Almighty God is awe-inspiring and therefore we should have a healthy reverence for his might and power. That being said, he has drawn close to us and has revealed himself in both testaments as loving and as good. It’s like that famous scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: the children are with the beavers and are eventually told that Aslan isn’t safe, but he’s good. We can draw near to the throne of grace because the Lord has conquered all by trampling down death by death and has beckoned us. He loves us and now we too can love him.

Gospel – John 15:1-8

As mentioned in the ‘thesis’ section, John 15 is part of the Upper Room Discourse and it precedes Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. Jesus has shared a meal with his disciples, he has washed their feet, and he has declared himself to be “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father but through me.”

We now enter into a lengthy section with the analogy of vine, vinedresser and branch. I have already made reference to my friend, Margaret Feinberg, in my sermon notes for Easter 4, but I commend her book to you again. Margaret spent time with a shepherdess, a vintner, a farmer, and a beekeeper in order to unlock some of the lost meanings of biblical imagery. Much of the western world is no longer agrarian and so certain references that were normal for 1st century Israel are lost on us. Pick up a copy of Scouting the Divine for Easter 5 and 6 to read about vines and branches.

The analogy is simple: Jesus is the vine, the Father is the vinedresser, and we are the branches. Branches that bear no fruit are removed. Branches that bear fruit are pruned. Why would you prune a fruitful branch? By removing the branches that have no fruit you are able to give more nutrients to those that do and by pruning the fruitful branches you are helping them to grow stronger. I have a Forsythia bush and several Lilac bushes in my backyard and I have been told to prune them by up to one-third after the first bloom of the year. In gardening ventures one cannot win through preacher’s math! You have to cut to grow. Plants are able to devote more healing, sustaining and growing attention to areas that have suffered intentional cuts.

How do we abide? Well, it’s a two-way street as Jesus abides in us. Jesus’ words are to live in us and we can then live in him. In fact, we can do nothing apart from Jesus! Have you ever heard someone say, “I love Jesus but not the church. I’m just going to do “church” on my own,”? Church cannot be down alone or apart from Jesus because it is the body of Christ. You cannot have the church without Jesus. Through obedience, and love, and action we are able to abide in the vine and therefore in the Father as well. Link John 15 with 1 John 4 for a robust image.

Liturgical Considerations

Consider using the Apostles’ Creed this Sunday instead of the Nicene Creed if you plan on highlighting the baptismal scene in Acts 8. The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal statement of faith of the Church and can/should be used on Sundays when there are baptisms or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows. I’d encourage you to have baptisms on this Sunday if you have any in the pipeline and/or weren’t able to baptize during Easter/Easter Vigil. Baptism is certainly a way of “abiding” in Jesus.

The other liturgical element on offer is the Eucharist. In the Rite of Baptism we see individuals initiated into the family of God and in the Holy Eucharist we see the church become that which she already is and we are all nourished in the Body and Blood of Jesus. In short, the Eucharist is a tangible example of the Lord’s invitation to abide.

The combination of baptism and Eucharist—and the two should never be separated—would be a robust example of knowing and following Jesus.

Here is the baptismal liturgy from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer

Here is the baptismal liturgy from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

Synthesis

To abide in Jesus is to love him and to know him to be the way, the truth, and the life. To abide is to have the abundant life promised by Jesus and to have it now. Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another.

We see Philip abiding in Jesus through his obedience to the Holy Spirit and his proclamation of the gospel. We see the Psalmist abiding in YHWH through his praise even in the midst of tribulation. We see John calling us to abide in Jesus through love in his epistle. We see Jesus calling us to abide in him through keeping his words.

We are invited into an abiding relationship through our baptism and through regular participation in the Eucharist. May your sermon be an invitation into such a relationship and may it be life giving, even if you have to offer some pruning along the way.