Friday, May 23, 2014
May 25, Easter 6, Community of Jesus #4: Conscience
Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
I can say that I’m a competent Biblical scholar, especially on the Gospels. I’m not an academic, but I do spend more time in the technical study of the Gospels than many other pastors do. Of course my conscience troubles me that my sermons are too scholarly and not practical enough, and I worry that my preaching drives away as many people as it draws. Every week I feel I’ve fallen short. So I have to make peace within myself, and honor the core commitment of my job to the serious study and teaching of scripture, and I thank you for supporting me in that and wanting that.
After years of study I have come to the not uncommon conclusion that the Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be written, and that it was written by someone who had a copy of the Gospel of Matthew, and maybe also Mark and Luke. It makes sense to me that it really was written by St. John, the best friend of Our Lord, an eyewitness, but more, an intimate who knew the mind and thought of Jesus. It also makes sense that he wrote it late in life, decades after it all happened.
So what you get with St. John’s Gospel is this remarkable simultaneous closeness and distance, Jesus here and Jesus gone, presence and absence, immediacy and abstraction, and also a wonderful simultaneous simplicity and subtlety. The author obviously rewrote and refitted what Jesus said and did, rearranging, repackaging, and distilling, but at the same time he manages to get you closer to Jesus than the other gospels do, closer to Jesus as a man but also closer to Jesus as God, so close that you come to know his voice. In the writing of St. John, you hear the voice of Jesus.
The Lord Jesus himself wrote nothing down. We know his voice only second-hand. But we know first-hand the voice of St. Paul, from the letters that he wrote himself, and his personality comes through. Compared to Jesus, St. Paul is more emotional, more confessional, more self-critical, more modern, more cosmopolitan, and closer to us than Jesus was, in terms of culture and philosophy.
You notice it in our first lesson, with St. Paul in Athens and preaching to the philosophers. He could be speaking to people today, people who go at spirituality like educated consumers, who design their own religions from the many options available, especially the exotic ones, people who like to regard themselves as open and who also do not like to make commitments.
We get the voice of St. Paul second-hand in the book of Acts, in which are recorded five of his speeches. Two of them are sermons, and this one is the second one. It was not a rousing success, if you count the conversions after it, compared to the sermons of St. Peter.
But the voice of St. Paul that we know from his letters is in this sermon: measured, articulate, adept in the classical liberal arts, and ambitious to engage philosophy and poetry. St. Paul was not one of the disciples nor an eyewitness like St. Peter nor an intimate of Jesus like St. John. The only Jesus that he knew personally was the Risen Lord, and seated at the right hand of the Father. St. Paul was the public herald of this new Lord across the empire, while St. John was the close friend who brought you to him. You get a wonderful complexity of voices in the Bible. The New Testament is a Community of Jesus in print.
The voice of St. Peter is different. In modern terms his writing is less articulate. It’s jammed and jumbled; he mixes metaphors and makes weird combinations. He writes in the fluid and pulsing rabbinic style that you can still hear in some synagogues in Brooklyn.
In our lesson today he zips through some obscure Jewish mythology, about the spirits in prison in the time of Noah. In Jewish legend these were the souls of the children of those angels who had made love to human women. So it seems that St. Peter was writing his letter to the little congregations of converted Jews in Asia Minor, who suffered trouble from both sides, Jewish relatives and Roman neighbors, and who had much to be afraid of.
St. Peter is just the one to address their fear. He’s the Cowardly Lion. St. Paul is the Scarecrow, and St. John is the Tin Man, and St. Peter is the Cowardly Lion. St. Paul had the brains, and St. John had the love, and St. Peter had the courage. Or not!
Remember his story. He was an intimate of Jesus, but not as close as St. John was. He was the loud guy, the strong guy, the impulsive guy, who stoutly promised Jesus to defend him to the death, and then, of course, famously didn’t, and in fear denied him, and then hid himself in shame. After Pentecost the Holy Spirit converted his courage, and freed him from the fear of death and suffering.
Yet even then, some years later, at the Council of Antioch, St. Peter was challenged by St. Paul for betraying his own convictions from fear of the criticism of the conservatives. For the most part, the greater part, he was faithful, for the 99% part, but we know him for his failure as much for his fidelity because every year on every Good Friday his denial is retold again.
Every Good Friday St. Peter has to get his conscience clear by trusting in the gracious promise of the love of Jesus. And he’s writing to little communities of Jesus with cloudy consciences. They love Jesus and they want to keep his commandments, but they are always compromised. Christian wives have to obey their non-Christian husbands and Christian slaves have to obey their pagan owners. They don’t have power over their own lives, and in a civilization which does not value freedom they have much to fear and much to feel guilty about.
He tells them that the way you clear your conscience is to trust the promise of your baptism. "I still belong to you, O God, not by right of my own righteousness but because you put your brand upon my head. I am compromised but I am baptized, so I will climb aboard that ark, as unclean as I am."
My conscience accuses me. I can be the Scarecrow and the Tin-man but far too often the Cowardly Lion. If you were to research the roster of people who have passed through this church in the last ten years, some of them have left because of me. Every time I only think of the names of certain people I can feel my face flush with embarrassment. "Why did I say that to him? Why didn’t I say this to her? Why didn’t I make that call? Just one more visit? Why am I so fearful all the time? Not for life and limb, but afraid of certain people and afraid of what people might think of me?"
You have to clear your conscience. To live the Christian life, with all of your compromises on the inside and the outside, you have to clarify your cloudy conscience. Just one drop is all it takes, just the promise that you are baptized. Just that thought, and hold that thought. It feels like your own thought, and it is, but it’s also the silent voice of your inner Advocate who is not you, your inner Counselor, your Comforter, the Holy Spirit, quietly dwelling in your own thoughts.
The silent voice of Jesus is in the writing of St. John, and it says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." He doesn’t mean, "If you love me, maybe you’ll keep my commandments," and maybe not. I can tell you from my technical study of this verse that the "Condition" is "More Probable" than that. It means this, "If you love me, you will be keeping my commandments." It’s a promise, it’s a conscience cleanser. It’s not about your performance but your groping and desire, even if only from desperation. It’s not about how good or true your love is, because the love that you love Jesus with is not your own love but the love that God has put inside you, so that it’s not up to you and your cannot compromise it even by your failure and fear and infidelity.
I’ve been saying all this to you as individuals. But as I said last week, the verbs and pronouns in the promises of Jesus here are plural: "you" plural. You have to comfort each other and believe in each other and honor each other in the midst of all your compromising for the love of Christ among you. When you are baptized it’s not just for yourself, for you are baptized into a community. The job of the Community of Jesus is to hold up each other’s consciences.
We’re all in the same boat, but it’s not sinking, it’s an ark, in which we’re being saved. You’re safe with each other. You hold each other up within this very compromising world. You believe in each other. A great part of practicing love within the Community of Jesus is to believe in each other. Not quixotically, not pollyannishly, and with maturity, but still to see that every last person among you is the object of God’s fanatical love. And God has that same fanatical love for you.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.