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.

The Good Shepherd – Sermon Notes for Easter 4

Thesis

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In fact, he is the Shepherd for whom Israel had been waiting (Ezekiel 34). The resurrection of the Son of God means that he is living and actively guarding his sheep and shepherding their hearts toward him. To dig into the nuts and bolts of this passage from a pastoral angle it is important to understand the role of both shepherd and sheep. 

My friend, Margaret Feinberg, wrote a book called Scouting the Divine in which she explored the agricultural and agrarian themes of the Bible that might be lost on most of the western world. Margaret spends time with a shepherdess from Oregon and provides excellent insight into this important biblical theme—go read it!

Analysis

Collect

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect highlights three distinctive features of the shepherd-sheep relationship. First, Jesus is the shepherd and therefore we are the sheep. Simplistic but important. We should never forget that Jesus is the one who leads his people.

Second, we are called to hear and recognize his voice. To hear his voice is the first step but it is not enough. I may hear the sirens blaring behind me (I haven’t been pulled over in years!) but if I do not recognize that the sirens are a police car urging (commanding) me to pull over then my auditory skill means nothing.

Third, we are called to follow. To hear and recognize the voice of the shepherd should always result in following. Once I’ve discerned the police siren and understood that it was directed at me, I am left with a choice: pull over or run for it. It’s an imperfect analogy but it still works on some level. Bonheoffer suggested that discipleship is rather simple: Jesus calls and we follow. But why do we follow? We follow because we know the one who is calling us. That’s the point here! We’re not following a stranger; we are following the good shepherd! The lessons for this Sunday provide a beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd.

First Reading – Acts 4:5-12

Peter and John have been arrested. Why? Because they preached Jesus and the resurrection! The resurrection is both folly and scandalous to those who do not yet know Jesus. This is the second time in as many chapters that Peter has been at the center of a controversy due to a healing miracle.

Peter’s response to his accusers is quite simple—and it echoes what he said in chapter 3 after that healing episode. He says: “the power to heal comes from Jesus of Nazareth; you crucified him; he’s been raised from the dead; he is the one way to salvation.”

Look at the lessons for Easter 3 and read my summary of Acts 3 here to see more on the same point. Peter has a basic message and formula for sharing the Good News with those around him: Jesus, crucified and risen. There is nothing fancy or flashy about his words or technique—its just Jesus.

Peter roots Jesus firmly in the history and tradition of Israel. This is something that Paul and the other New Testament writers did on a routine basis—read N. T. Wright and Richard Hays for more on this—because Jesus was an actual person who walked this earth and who inhabited and embodied an ongoing story. The Old Testament (as we know it) was the interpretive matrix for the Gospels. Here is a long excerpt from something I wrote several months ago on the topic:

A helpful methodology, according to Hays, is that we learn to read backwards. He believes the Old Testament to be the “interpretive matrix” for the fourfold Gospel.

Hays’ view, which he expounds on in much of his writing, celebrates that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, that he lived within a very Jewish context, and that the stories of Israel were his own. Further, to fully understand the many claims of Jesus as recorded in the gospels one needs to understand the story from which they were launched. For example: Israel was waiting for Messiah and many believed that the Anointed One would be a political and/or military type leader, and yet this was not who Jesus was. Instead Jesus was the Suffering Son of Man and the only way to grasp such a concept is to be aware of the “Son of Man” motif in Daniel and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

Rather than reading the New Testament into the Old, or “searching for Jesus” within Israel’s Scriptures, we are challenged to embrace these writings as our own corporate memory just as we’ve been adopted into Jesse’s branch. This has all sorts of ramifications for preaching and discipleship. One is a call to radical discipleship and an authentic engagement with culture. To read Scripture well is to begin living Scripture daily and publicly, it is to engage with a world desperately in need of the triune God, and it is to occupy space in the here and now according to Jesus’ vision for life. The faithful presence that Hays sees for every Christian begins with understanding the story of Jesus through the lens of Israel and then embodying Jesus’ kingdom presently.

By referencing the stone rejected by the builders, Peter is placing Jesus squarely in the salvation history of Israel and verbally recognizing him as the Faithful Israelite.

Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm was penned by the shepherd-king and is about the Shepherd-King. David’s own context is important when understanding the imagery contained inside: it’s not just poetic; it’s utterly accurate.

The entire Psalm hinges upon the opening five words: the LORD is my shepherd. Everything else in this Psalm is totally dependent upon this one phrase. You could literally insert this clause at the beginning of every verse like this…

Because the Lord is my shepherd…I shall be in want.

Because the Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures.

Because the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear evil when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Why? Because the LORD is a good shepherd. He cares for his sheep. Shepherds were known to defend their sheep against predators, to lead their flock to new grazing every day, and to care for them when they were in need—to literally go after the 1 when the 99 were safe. You can use Psalm 23 in a variety of ways but for the sermon this Sunday you should use it as a living picture of the shepherd’s goodness.

Epistle – 1 John 3:16-24

1 John 3 is a direct reference to John 10: we know this great love because Jesus laid down his life for us. He goes on to say that he has the power to lay his life down and pick it back up again. This is a radical love and radical love is always a call to action. If Jesus loves us so, how can we see a neighbor in need and refuse to help? If Jesus loves us so, how can we continue to consciously or unconsciously contribute to racism, sexism, ageism, or unfair economic structures in this world? If Jesus loves us so…then what?

John moves further into that call when he writes, “not in love or speech, but in truth and action.” Our heartfelt words are not enough; the language of grace is insufficient. Grace is sufficient, it is more than enough, but simply talking about grace will not do. We are called to love beyond boundaries, beyond borders, beyond our means and beyond ourselves. Why? Because he first loved us, even while we were still sinners. Love is therefore a response to God’s grace.

John further weaves together the tapestry of his gospel and epistle by making reference to abiding in Jesus. In John 15, Jesus talks about the vine and the branches and how the disciples are to abide in the Father’s love—this is the pericope for Easter 5 and 6—and here he draws the connection: to love God and one another is to abide.

The commandments are simple: believe in Jesus and love one another. I have written on this extensively and may post a paper or excerpt soon, but covenant faithfulness will always result in loving action. There are a myriad of situations not covered by Scripture explicitly but if we keep these two commandments in mind (love God and one another) then we will not have to wonder how we should act. As Dave Ramsey said, “When you live a life based on principle 99% of your decisions are already made.” The life of the disciple is the life of loving action.

Gospel – John 10:11-18

The Gospel lesson for Easter 4 is the crowning climax of the lectionary readings; it is pastoral, sacrificial and eschatological in nature. Before digging into John 10 it is important to set the stage, Jesus’ words, “I am the Good Shepherd” are not simply poetic, they are prophetic. Read through Ezekiel 34 and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Israel had been given spiritual shepherds who had abandoned their flock, feasted upon their charges, and who had abdicated any real spiritual authority. Such action sparked YHWH’s fury and he speaks through Ezekiel to say, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” He lists five main actions of the shepherd: seek the lost, bring back the strays, strengthen the weak, heal the sick and bind up the injured. This was a promise, not a threat and so when Jesus speaks these words it is the fulfillment of that which YHWH has promised his people: he will be their shepherd.

Our passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ opening remarks about being the sheep’s gate—all who enter the pen must pass through him. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he begins. Our 8 verses cover in depth what it means for him to be the True Shepherd of Israel. Here are the highlights:

  • Lays down his life for his sheep, unlike the hired hand
  • Shepherd knows his own and his own know him just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him
  • Makes one flock out of many
  • Has the power to lay down his life and take it up again
  • This command has come from the Father

There is a lot that can be covered given these points, but let us briefly unpack them. Jesus is going to lay down his life for his sheep. We hear later in the Gospel that “no greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” It was common for shepherds to have their sheep sleep in caves and to lay down across the small opening. This way nothing could come in without first going through the shepherd; this is why he is both gate and shepherd. The hired hand would not do this because he isn’t invested in the sheep like the shepherd is.

The shepherd knows his sheep. Margaret does a brilliant job of capturing the shepherdess in Oregon who can spot her sheep uniquely based on birth marks, the coarseness of their coat, or even the sound of their bleating. These are things that a shepherd notices and remembers, just as a parent does for a child. Jesus know us this way and is also known by the Father.

Jesus has sheep of another flock that will join this flock so there is one flock and one shepherd. Sounds like Paul in Ephesians 4, right? The point is the same! Israel and the church are to become the new Israel and there will be one people. Jesus’ followers are to be grafted into the branch of Jesse and embedded in YHWH’s history with Israel.

Jesus’ power to lay down his life and take it up again comes from his Father and it is something that he will demonstrate on the cross and through the empty tomb. Jesus traveled to the cross willingly, allowing himself to be betrayed, and his Father vindicated him victoriously as he trampled down death by death.

This is the image of the Good Shepherd. This is the image of the Risen Christ who is Lord over his flock. This is whom we worship as part of the triune God.

Liturgical Considerations

Consider juxtaposing this week (Easter 4) with Christ the King Sunday (last Sunday before Advent). John 10 is often used in both circumstances. The RCL does not include Peter’s reinstatement by Jesus (John 21) during Eastertide this year and so that’s another consideration to make. When John 10 comes up on Christ the King Sunday the question to “What type of King is Jesus?” becomes, “He’s the Shepherd-King.” When John 10 comes up in Eastertide the question can easily become, “What kind of Lord is Jesus?” The answer is obvious, “He’s the Shepherd-Lord.” Christ’s Lordship and his Kingship are interwoven an intertwined. You might think of grabbing the Collect for Christ the King Sunday (Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.) and using it at some point in your sermon.

I have penned an alternative proper preface for the Eucharist on Easter 4:

But chiefly are we bound to praise you for our Shepherd-King; for your Son Jesus Christ is both the true Paschal Lamb and the true Shepherd of Israel who has bound up the injured, healed the sick, strengthened the weak, sought out the lost, and brought back the strays. May we hear and recognize his voice for by his death and rising to life again we are able to have abundant life now. 

Synthesis

I have often heard leaders (read: bishops) refer to themselves as “under-shepherds.” By this they mean that they are shepherding the flock on behalf of the Good Shepherd. I’ve also heard leaders suggest that we should look like sheep from the front and shepherds from the back. The point is the same in both instances: we are following the voice of the one and true shepherd of Israel, period. We are also called to lead others to the shepherd and therefore we take on the role of “under-shepherd” in a sense. Listen to the shepherd’s voice and help others to recognize it as well.

Major Request: Please do not use the tired idea that sheep are somehow stupid. Sheep are actually quite intelligent. However, sheep are in desperate need of a shepherd because they are vulnerable animals. There is a massive difference between being dumb and vulnerable. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd—and when God promised to be Israel’s Shepherd—it was not a backhanded way of suggesting that the sheep were stupid. Can you imagine a more insulting promise? Then why do preachers constantly begin this sermon by suggesting, “Well, sheep are actually quite dumb because they fall and can’t get up; they don’t know how to graze for new food, etc. etc.”?

To follow Jesus as the Good Shepherd is to believe that he is both the crucified and risen one. To follow him is to love him and learn from him. We follow Jesus because he is our Shepherd and we desire others to follow him as well. This may mean that the sheep are actually following you while you are following Him, but always point people to Jesus.