Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sermon for VI Easter

Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign--I Jon 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

Most of you are probably aware that, for almost the last three years in the Episcopal Church, we’ve had a Presiding Bishop who is relentlessly on-message, one of the most disciplined leaders in staying on-message that I have ever encountered. “We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” and every Episcopalian who pays attention to the wider church knows this by now. I, for one, find this development very encouraging. It’s now fashionable to talk about Jesus in the Episcopal Church, not something that could always have been said, so … what’s not to like?!  

The Jesus Movement, of course, is not something brand new that Michael Curry made up. It’s how Christianity got started, two-thousand years ago: as a movement—a movement centered on Jesus. But, more accurately, perhaps, we should probably be talking about Jesus movements, in the plural. The community that Jesus left behind after his Ascension, and which caught fire ten days later on Pentecost—this movement initially went in multiple directions. We don’t have direct knowledge of some of these different directions, but we can find shadows, echoes, traces of them in the New Testament. If you’ve spent very much time reading the four gospels, you’ve noticed that “three of these things belong together; one of these things just isn’t the same.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke are clearly in the same family, while John is another thing entirely. And if you’ve read the New Testament epistles, you know that the letters attributed to Paul are somewhat similar to those attributed to Peter, but rather different than the one attributed to James, and nearly on a different planet than the ones attributed to John. Most scholars infer that there was what they call a “Johannine” community, evidence for which is preserved in the gospel and epistles of John. And when we look at these “Johannine” documents closely, we can see evidence of a rupture within that community, a serious rift that led to division and walking apart. Of course, we only have one side of the narrative, so we’re short on the details.

Now, by the early second century, the Johannine community and the other streams of the original Jesus Movement came together and congealed into the “Catholic church,” that is the “holy catholic church” that we profess in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Today, however, and all throughout the Easter season, we have an opportunity to poke around the ruins of this pre-Catholic “Jesus movements” environment, an opportunity afforded to us by the First Epistle of John.

One of the first things that always strikes me when I read I John is the constant undertone of conflict, of “us vs. them” rhetoric. A couple of examples, first from chapter two, verse 22: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.” And this from chapter three, verse 10: “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” There are many, many more that I could cite. Clearly there are obviously adversaries to the Johannine community, but we know about them only by allusion and veiled reference. They have apparently broken away from the community and become a rival “Jesus movement,” and this incurs the strong condemnation of the author of this epistle. He sets out successive litmus tests, strewn throughout the epistle, all following an “If this, then that” formula, and all eventually involving confession that Jesus is the “the Christ” and “the Son of God.”

And it all kind of comes to of a head in the passage we have this morning from chapter five, the mysterious and hard-to-decipher verse that talks about the water and the blood and the Spirit. What’s going on here?  Let me try to break it open for you if I can! John says that Jesus didn’t just come by water, but by “the water and the blood.” So, we can infer from this that there was a faction that liked to use the expression “came by water” in referring to Jesus. “Water,” in this context, quite possibly refers to Jesus’ baptism, in the water of the Jordan River, and anointing by the Holy Spirit on the same occasion, descending on him in the form of a dove. For the “came by water” faction that John is opposing, the importance of Jesus lies in his incarnation, and in his teaching and in his ministry of healing. Now, it’s impossible to deny that this—this “came by water” position, is precisely the sort of “Jesus Movement” that gets good traction with a great many people even today. Anglicans in particular seem to “major” in the Incarnation, even taking a measure of pride in doing so. Many people find a connection to Jesus through his ministry of compassion and healing, and in his teaching around justice for the poor, and non-violence, and the like.

But “John” pushes back on this. Sure, Jesus came by water. He was baptized in the Jordan and visibly anointed by the Holy Spirit. But that’s an incomplete picture. It doesn’t say enough. Jesus came “not by the water only, but by the water and the blood.” John is trying to say that you don’t know Jesus until you know him crucified and raised from death. “Came through blood” refers to the cross—and, more specifically even, death on the cross as an act of atonement. The work of Jesus is sealed and accomplished only on the cross, signified by the flow of … wait for it … water and blood from his pierced side, the side of him who is the Christ, the Messiah, both the Son of God and the Lamb of God. The Son of God is revealed in the waters of the Jordan; the Lamb of God is revealed in the blood of Calvary. As far as the author of this epistle is concerned, his opponents, the ones he castigates at every turn, should have already known this, because John the Baptist himself testified, right after Jesus’ baptism, “Behold the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”

Just as there are “came by water only” Christians, I suppose it’s true that there are “came by blood only” Christians, those who concern themselves only with the atoning death of Jesus and effectively ignore his teaching and example. I suspect that John would have harsh words for them as well. You may remember Mel Gibson’s movie from about fifteen years ago called The Passion of the Christ. It was really controversial and provoked extremely polarized opinions. Some absolutely loved it and some passionately hated it. In reflecting on that experience over the years, I’ve developed a theory that latter day “came by water” Christians are the ones who hated it, because it focused solely on Jesus’ atoning death. Those who understand, along with the author of I John, that Christ “came by water and blood” were among those who were more favorably disposed to the film.

In any case, what the liturgy for the Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year B holds us accountable to is that the Jesus Movement that we are part of calls us to follow the whole Christ, the Christ who came not just “by water” in his incarnation and life, but by “water and blood” in his death and resurrection. In so doing, we are disciples whom Jesus calls “friends” and not just “servants,” as we read this morning in the gospel of John. We are those whom the “whole Christ” has chosen to “go and bear fruit.”

Alleluia and Amen.

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