Violence, racism, and all forms of intolerance and discrimination are heralded by some as “good Christian values.” Regulations against corporate fraud and pollution are decried as government overreaching while, often in the name of faith, the same people demand government regulation of women’s choices about their own bodies, parental decisions for their trans children, and loving relationships shared by LGBTQ couples. Individual and mass shootings seem to have become the norm rather than the exception. Autocratic nations, not content to dominate their own citizenry, reach across their borders to intimidate, start wars, commit war crimes and atrocities, and unlawfully detain citizens of other countries. And all that is just the tip of the iceberg of things going on this week!
We live in a dual culture, characterized by Jesus in his Parable of the Wheat and Tares, and in other religions and philosophies by various similar imagery of good and evil in constant conflict. There are people of all different religious views who desire the good for the betterment of humanity through love, peace, harmony, spirituality, and cooperation. And then there are those who seek the opposite, often in the name of the same religions. The whole Bible narrative assures us that eventually, good will entirely overcome evil, and all sorrow will be displaced throughout Creation with perfect love and true happiness. We are invited to support this vision of Christ, individually and collectively, as we cultivate relationships and nurture faith. We pray as Henry Van Dyke wrote in “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,”
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.
God invites us into eternal spiritual relationships of true happiness.
Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. (Psalm 16:11 KJV)
The 17th-century friar, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, emphasized “The Practice of the Presence of God.” He invited us to cultivate increasing awareness of God’s presence through our ongoing natural conversation with God. At my Dad’s memorial service, a woman told me that years before, Dad had taught her about “conversational prayer” and said that her life had never been the same since. This kind of natural flow to our relationship with God is much like our relationships with the people we love. We share experiences and talk freely together. We encourage each other, and it makes us happy just to know someone who loves us is around.
The more we think about God and the people we love, the more we feel spiritually connected. The more we intentionally engage God as a spiritual friend and companion, the more our fears of God subside and our love for God increases, and with that love comes true eternal happiness and endless joy. Cleland Boyd McAfee wrote,
There is a place of full release,
near to the heart of God,
a place where all is joy and peace,
near to the heart of God.
On the way to the Garden, Jesus told his disciples, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11 KJV). The invitations and teachings of Jesus, and of the whole Bible, are meant to offer us a vision of joy to accept and vanquish the visions of despair within and around us. Maybe that’s why “Just a little talk with Jesus makes it right,” as Cleavant Derricks wrote in his song.
How we understand God’s presence makes all the difference in how we understand our faith.
Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance. (Acts 2:28 KJV)
You have shown me the paths that lead to life, and your presence will fill me with joy. (Acts 2:28 GNT)
The Bible presents two opposing realms of thought and addresses the conflict of choice for humanity. This dichotomy comes from how people have historically understood God’s presence and speaks more to who we are than to who God is. Today as in Old Testament times, there are those who choose to invoke an irrational terror of the kind of God they present as enraged toward humanity, only reluctantly allowing the possibility of a few to escape eternal wrath. Others, now as then, have embraced the relationship with God described in the familiar imagery of Psalm 23, who “leadeth me beside the still waters… restoreth my soul… leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for [God’s] name sake” (Psalm 23:2-3 KJV). We choose which relationship we will accept. The Bible has plenty of material we can interpret to support our decision either way, so the actual choice is ours to make.
Love resolves that choice. Consider the reconciling position of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor…” “love one another as I have loved you…” “Perfect love casteth out all fear…” (Matthew 22:36-40; John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:18).
Jesus reassured Nicodemus in John chapter three that God’s presence is not one of scorn and condemnation but of love and merciful salvation.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17 KJV)
Our hope and joy come from believing in the loving presence of our Creator.
Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: (1 Peter 1:8 KJV)
In today’s Gospel reading from John, Thomas famously doubted the Resurrection until he saw Jesus for himself. Jesus told him, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29 KJV). Peter repeated that idea in his letter, emphasizing that we love Christ even though we have not seen him, yet are filled with amazing happiness because of it.
Why might it be a greater joy to believe what we have not seen?
Perhaps because of the way we come to faith “having not seen.” It isn’t just blind faith without any reason, because that kind of faith does not produce the kind of love and joy Jesus and the Apostles described and demonstrated. This faith comes as a gift through love. We are being loved into believing, and through our love, others are coming to believe.
The kind of faith Jesus taught is reflected in his Parable of the Mustard Seed suggesting that the tiniest amount of faith will eventually grow into something remarkable. True faith is a contagious confidence that spreads not only throughout our own personal hearts and minds but throughout the hearts and minds of those around us. The seeds of faith Jesus planted in his day continue to spread from person to person, community to community, and generation to generation.
We plant seeds of faith by uniting at points where our beliefs intersect with those of others. The Golden Rule… The Good Samaritan… Love thy neighbor… These are the kinds of seeds that take root and grow. These are the seeds that transcend religious differences. Many Christian faith seeds are shared concepts with other religions and even with people who profess no religion.
In his hymn, “Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory,” Barney Elliott Warren wrote this poetic imagery,
I have found that hope so bright and clear,
Living in the realm of grace.
O the Savior’s presence is so near;
I can see His smiling face.
We believe in God because God believes in us.
But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20:31 KJV).
We may have trouble believing what some people insist we must believe about various particulars and interpretations coming out of the Christian religion.
People believe what they choose to believe, based on their own experiences and understanding. We understand that and respect that, just as Paul respected and affirmed everyone on Mars Hill with all their various beliefs. Then he told them about Jesus.
We share a variety of creeds in our worship services. Sometimes, someone will tell me they don’t believe this or that tenet in one of the creeds. My response is, “That’s fine, just don’t say that part.” Some people and some churches don’t believe in freedom of thought, but we do. The personal and group affirmations of faith are not intended to be imposed on others, but only to share with others these particular opinions we find helpful as spiritual guideposts. Those who do agree with the statements made in a creed may also disagree as to what those statements mean.
To believe in Jesus is not just to believe facts about him, as James pointed out in his letter when he wrote, “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19 KJV). To believe in Jesus is to believe in what he is doing. To believe in Jesus is to believe in what Christ is about -- his love, his compassion, and his vision for humanity. We believe in his goal of transforming everyone from sorrow to joy.
Talking to Nicodemus, Jesus illustrated what he meant by “whosoever believeth” with the story of the Serpent in the Wilderness. Everyone only needed to believe just barely enough to peek up at the symbol Moses had put on a pole, and they would be saved – they would be healed.
In her hymn, “Freely, Freely,” Carol Owens wrote, “Because you believe, others will know that I live.”
Jesus provided several strong metaphors in his parables for the difference each person or group can make, no matter how small or inconsequential we may feel our contribution is. Light shining in the darkness… seeds planted in good soil… the tiniest of seeds growing into large plants… yeast spreading throughout the bread… all speak to us of love growing by the power of the Holy Spirit working within and among us to spread faith and happiness and unity.
Love may seem to grow slowly and tediously. Think about how Christianity began with a handful of people who were scattered at the Crucifixion and then reunited around the Resurrection. Little by little, over the years and centuries that followed, generations of people have encircled the globe with Jesus’ vision of love, right in the midst of all the opposing forces. Even today, even here, even now.
Love grows within us throughout our lifetimes and into eternity. Love grows among us in our congregation and spreads throughout our community and the world at large. Love “lifts us to the joy divine.”
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.