6th Sunday of Easter

May 21, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 98
Reading 3: 
Acts 10:44-48 or 1 John 5:1-6
Reading 4: 
John 15:9-17
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Texts:

All the texts for this Sunday point to the life-giving power of God and our proper response to that gift of life: expressions of joy. Continuing with the theme of vine and branches from last week, John roots the connection between vine and branches in commandment. There is a strong sense of the conditional: if/then. If you keep my commandment, then you will abide in my love. Life is conditional on the connection with the vine. This connection is paramount. The command upon which it rests is simple, yet profound: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He goes on to describe the nature of this love. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus claims his listeners are his friends, implying that he is willing to lay down his life for them, and they for one another. Within the context of this connection, and this understanding of the commandment to love, we are able to bear much fruit, that is, we are encouraged to become more human. Bearing fruit is to exhibit the marks if being a good human being: compassion, forgiveness, mercy, grace, respect, creativity, etc. 

1 John, again, continues the theme from the gospel of John and extends it. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the messiah is a child of God.” To believe that Jesus is the messiah is to understand the meaning of “messiah” in contrast to the definition of messiah in the model of King David. Jesus and David are not the same vision of messiah; they represent two very different ways of being in the world. To follow Jesus is to enter a whole different way of being in the world. It means to adopt Jesus’ teaching, his example, and finally, his trust in the power of God by facing death with hope in God’s power of  transformation.

The Acts text is the conclusion of the Cornelius story and the expansion of the gospel to include the gentiles, i.e. everyone. An important implication of the gift of the Holy Spirit to everyone is that right relationship with God does not mean simply being a good Jew or a good Christian, but points us to a deeper level of connectedness with God: being a good human being. The very act of restricting rightness with God to values or characteristics of one tribe or worldview over against others is to miss the whole point of the gospel. The point of the gospel being, following the way of trust in God’s transforming power that was modeled in Jesus’ teachings, life, death and resurrection. It is a path, a Way, toward being more fully human, and experiencing the full capacity of the joy of life that is available to each one of us. Not following that path means diminishment of our full capacity of creaturehood.

Why else would the psalm text encourage us to sing a new song? To make a joyful noise to the Lord? The gospel, truly understood at it’s deepest level, is an affirmation of the sheer joy of being alive.

Process Theology and the Texts:

Agape love is a deep recognition of, and acting out, the basic interrelatedness of everything. If our being is inherently relational, then our well being depends upon the well being of others. Hence the focus on laying down one’s life for the other. We rise and fall together. We are not strict individuals, separated from one another, and then choosing to have relations with others. We are who we are because we emerge from a web of interrelatedness; we would not exist without relations. Process thought understands that the world is made of events and not things. Our own experience is the best example of this view, because we have first-hand access to our own experience. Each moment of our experience emerges from the way we take in our past, our environment, with God luring us to bring together all of those relations in the most intense harmonious way. God calls us to be fully alive in the present moment, with an eye to contributing to our future and the future of others. Agape love is about being in community, naming creative transformation of God, worshipping that power, and living our lives in accord with that power within the context of others walking that same path. Process thought is a theology of connectedness, relationship, solidarity with, community--all directed toward fullness of life and mutual wellbeing for all creatures.

Preaching the Texts:

Working from the world view of interrelatedness, I think the texts call us to joy. The worship service would then be a joyful expression of trust in God’s transforming power. The sermon could then focus on the reality and potential joy of being interrelated in an intentional community that worships the power of God and lives life based on trust in this power. Trust, the opposite of fear, would allow us to shed anxiety, fear, manipulation to gain advantage over others, etc, all values that go against being a good human being.

Working from a process view, a sermon could address our naive assumption that life should be easy and that conflict is necessarily bad. But if God’s purpose for us is intensity and complexity, held together in harmony, opening ourselves to wider and wider reaches of experience, then conflict and struggle could contribute to God’s purpose for us. Not that we would need to seek out conflict and struggle; life provides enough of that without our asking. But showing how conflict and struggle can contribute to the depth of our lives is a way of redeeming much of the wreckage of our past. An effective way of communicating this is to talk about reframing events. Losing a job can be see as simply a negative experience, and it can be. But seen in a larger context, such a loss might very well open up new possibilities for our future. Conversely, winning a big lottery is often seen as a solution to life’s problems. Such naiveté can invite conflict, problems and struggle. If the winner shuts out the conflict and simply tries to avoid it at all costs, such an attitude could diminish the winner’s experience of life.

Another approach to a sermon is to talk about true joy. The Bible speaks frequently of joy. But look at the context in which is it described. Right relationship with God leads to joy. Following the path of trust in God leads to joy. Incorporating conflict and struggle into life’s complexities and possibilities can lead to deeper joy. Struggling to take in more and more of the world in trust can lead to joy. Joy is not accidental, but a life can be disciplined to lead to it. Ultimately, being a disciple of the Way of Jesus leads to joy. The time with the children (below) would make the point as well, providing an introduction to the idea that life is difficult by nature and that joy can result, given a wider context.

Another approach to a sermon could be to focus on the Acts text and describe the life of a healthy community as having a spirit that is more than the sum of the community’s parts. The Holy Spirit could be seen as a natural yet divine expression of the power of a trusting, open, respectful community that is actively involved with the gospel and the world. A healthy worshipping community is a vehicle of creative transformation in the world. As such, the church can be an expression of joy.

Children and the Texts:

A children’s sermon could focus on sports. Why do we play baseball or some other game? Well, we play to win. But is winning always easy? No, sometimes it’s hard to win as we play against another person or another team. We struggle and push and play hard. Even if we lose, can that be helpful to us? How can losing help us?

What would happen if everything in life was just given to us? Just handed to us without us trying or working for it? What if they just said to you now, oh, you don’t have to try at school, will just say you’re finished. Or what happens when someone lets you win at a game? That’s not much fun. Or what would happen if, after you grow up, you didn’t have to work. You could just keep living at home and you mom and dad would do everything for you and you didn’t have to keep your room clean or do anything around the house. Would that be good for you?

Sometimes, struggling helps us, doesn’t it? What do we learn from dealing with hard things in life? We learn how to be strong. We learn to work with others and get along.

May the awareness of God’s presence be with you as you preach and bring clarity of thought and action together in loving power. Amen.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.