[This sermon was proclaimed at the Community of the Savior, Rochester, NY, on April 22, 2018, based on Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18.]
About two weeks ago, Late Night TV host Seth Meyers told about the sudden arrival of his new baby. As he and his wife, Alexi Ashe, were walking in the hallway of their New York City apartment building, to get in an Uber waiting at the curb to whisk them to the hospital, Alexi said she couldn’t wait—the baby was coming quickly. Seth called 911 and said, “My wife is about to have a baby; my wife is having a baby; my wife just had a baby.” Sure enough, the baby came before they left the building. (I hope someone told the Uber driver.)
We might wish the journey to spiritual maturity was so speedily done. But, in fairness, Alexi had been carrying that baby for nine months. And now that the baby is born, the life transition for the baby’s parents is hardly over. Sometime over two years from now that baby might just be potty trained. And then come school costs, dental work, and clothing for well over a decade. It is a long and costly journey to maturity.
And we want to become spiritually mature in the snap of our fingers. It just doesn’t work that way. Take Peter. We know so much about the apostle Peter, largely because of his mishaps and failures. Trying to walk on water. Denying three times that he knew Jesus. That Peter. Now in the book of Acts Peter is a towering figure.
In Acts 4 he and John are dragged before the authorities, both civil government and religious (that can be a toxic combination!), and asked to explain how a sick man was healed. Peter speaks up—no surprise there—filled with the Holy Spirit: “…if we have been brought to trial today for helping a sick man, put under investigation regarding this healing, I’ll be completely frank with you—we have nothing to hide. By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One you killed on a cross, the One God raised from the dead, by means of his name this man stands before you healthy and whole. Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one.” (Acts 4:9-12, “The Message.”)
Such inspired boldness and such clarity. All because the disciples reached out to a man in need and helped him. They didn’t heal him. They helped him and God healed him. Those words of Peter are sometimes used to make the Good News may sound exclusive; Peter is speaking in the public square, not the church, giving all the glory to God and inviting hostile authorities to consider Jesus. This is more of an inclusive message, by pointing everyone to Jesus. And it all happened because of an act of kindness, a good deed done.
Bible trivia question: in what book of the New Testament does the word love occur most? How many said 1 Corinthians? The answer is 1 John, which is just five short chapters. Yet it contains the word love more than any other NT book. And the word used throughout is agape, the Greek word that connotes God’s unique love, which is love marked by self-giving and serving without regard to getting anything back. John, Peter’s partner in this, writes about love in action. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Just about everything John writes about love in this little letter is about love in action. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”
That leads right to gospel passage this morning, from John. The passage is the second half of Jesus teaching and self-identification as the good shepherd. How does the good shepherd do his ministry? “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. I am the good shepherd…. And I lay down my life for the sheep…. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” God’s love is expressed in action; in giving and doing. Jesus comes not just preaching and teaching about love, but living it in the costliest way: laying down his very life for those he loves.
God’s love is more a verb than a noun. It is a way of living, a way of giving, a way of serving. In my early years as a pastor, the common goal was to build an attractional church, one that would draw people in with its wonderful facilities and programs. That worked for a while in the mid to late 20th century. When people moved to a new location, they would have a list: find new a doctor and dentist, find a market, and find a church. When people were looking for churches, the attractional model was somewhat effective. Things have changed. Finding a church is missing from most people’s lists now. Churches have lost much of the credibility that was once given them. Now, churches are commonly seen as judgmental, legalistic, and exclusive. People are not looking for churches in great numbers. They are often looking for genuine community and they see the church as not offering it. They might more likely find it in an exercise group or a book group. Instead of the attractional model, much thinking has shifted to a missional model. Which gets us back to the time of the New Testament, when believers did not have attractive buildings and cutting edge programs for babies, children, youth, young adults, middle adults, and older adults. Rather, they had a mission to live and share the Good News of Jesus. In the Book of Acts, that was constantly getting them in trouble, getting them dragged before the temporal authorities. But that didn’t bother them. They took it as an honor so to live and give witness to Jesus, who modeled missional living.
There have been too many arguments about faith vs. works or good deeds. Let’s end this. They go hand in hand. Or better, one should lead directly to the other. As a child I memorized Ephesians 2:8-9 about how good works cannot save us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” That shouldn’t be memorized unless verse 10 is included in the package: “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Good works is to be our way of life. Helping the hopeless. Lifting the lowly. Nourishing the needy.
There was a powerful image of this way of living in the news five days ago. Southwest flight 1380 had left New York and was just reaching cruising altitude, when the left engine malfunctioned. A part flew free and broke the window of row 14. The woman in the window seat, Jennifer Riordan, was quickly being sucked through the window. Oxygen masks lowered and the crew gave instructions in calm voice. The pilot, Tammie Jo Shultz, aware of the gravity of the emergency, took over in calm confidence and brought that plane to a safe landing at the Philadelphia Airport. But it would be 20 minutes before that landing.
From row 8, a firefighter named Andrew Needum left his family to help Riordan. Andrew was flying home to Texas with his wife, two young children, and his parents. Quickly, almost without words, the grandparents took care of the children, aged 8 and 6, freeing both parents. Stephanie Needum knew that a mother and young daughter were right behind her. She went to them and helped the young mother keep her daughter safe. Andrew and another passenger, Tim McGinty, left their oxygen masks and went to row 14 and pulled Riordan back into the plane, at some risk to their own lives. A retired nurse, Peggy Phillips, left her oxygen mask and ministered CPR to Riordan until the plane landed. Riordan could not be saved, but everyone else on the plane was. Needum told the press that he felt God had him on that flight for a reason. That is a good way to live; wherever we are, whatever we are doing, let’s be looking for how we may serve others, especially those in need. Their need is reason enough for us to be there, demonstrating the love of God in action.
This brings to mind the United flight 1549, which lost all engine power after takeoff on January 15, 2009, and landed safely on the Hudson River. That pilot, Chesley Sullenberger III, known as Sully, commented on this week’s heroic landing with these words: “These kinds of events are life-changing for everybody on the airplane. They divide one’s life into before and after.”
When Jesus laid down his life for us, it created a before and after life-changing experience. This afterlife doesn’t begin when we die, but when we let Jesus be our good shepherd. And here is what the afterlife is like: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”