Kingdom Train to Glory
Two weeks ago, on New Year’s Day, I went to church with extended family on vacation. New Year’s Day is what we call a ‘low Sunday.’ Yet, to my surprise, the worship center, built to hold 1,600 people, was mostly full. Parishioners were eager to maintain a right relationship with Jesus (by avoiding a whole checklist of sins including homosexuality) to ensure each of them, individually, would be among the few people raptured to meet Jesus in the sky and taken to their eternal home in heaven. (Okay. There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s set aside the part about the rapture for a moment).
So, what do you think? Can we get right with Jesus and ensure our individual eternal survival by avoiding a list of sins? It’s a simple formula. Grace abounds—except for anyone not living right by Jesus. Hop on the Jesus track and ride the Kingdom train all the way glory. But what if, sometimes, people go off track? Can they hop back on? What if the moment we fall off track is the exact moment of the rapture? Do we get a pass for at least trying?
We find a clue in today’s gospel. John points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world.” It may seem small—but notice—here John does not say, Jesus takes away our sins (plural), but our Sin. In other words, Sin isn’t a check list of bad behaviors at all. Sin is a narcissistic human condition. It is a kind of tunnel-vision of heart and mind locked solely in on our self. Our fragile ego, our petty interests, desires, and grudges become the whole world. The remedy Christ Jesus, the logos, turns our hearts and minds outward toward God, the world, and each other.
In fact, Jesus ripped up all forms of checklist religion once and for all. Jesus takes away the sin of accounting for sin. Just stop it. Stop trying to justify your own righteousness or to elevate yourself above others. In Christ, there are no most-favored people, no most-favored race, no most-favored gender, no most-favored orientation, no most-favored nation, not even a most-favored religion. What’s more, this Jesus rips up any notion there is some big book of life, somewhere just inside the pearly gates, recording all your merits and demerits. Jesus is not Santa Claus. Jesus did not die on the cross to appease the wrath of a violent God out for blood. It was the crowd. The mob. It is us who demanded that Jesus die.
Instead, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, not by blood sacrifice, but by becoming our lifeblood. Here is the body of Christ, given for you. Here is the blood of Christ, shed for you. The one-life flowing in, with, under, and around all things now, knits us together with God into the Body of Christ. As the blood flowing throughout the body nourishes and sustains every part of it, so now the life of Christ Jesus flows within and between us. Or, as we like to say around here, “Grace is for everyone, or it isn’t grace. It’s that simple! It’s that amazing.”
Perhaps this is where our gospel takes its most surprising turn not toward the sky, or to the afterlife, but here and now, on earth as well as in heaven. Five times in four verses, (John 1:29-42, 38-39), John’s gospel uses the little Greek work, meno, typically (but not always) translated by the English word, abide. (Which I highlighted for you in reading the gospel today.) The gospel of John encourages us to see these linkages to what comes later, namely, Jesus’ teaching that he abides in the Father and the Father in him. And we as his disciples are then invited to abide in him and he in us. Today’s gospel reading introduces us to these themes, showing us how the Father’s Spirit comes to abide in Jesus at his baptism, and how Jesus invites the disciples to abide with him.
As followers of Jesus, we become a new creation, through Word and sacrament. Little by little, and sometimes, all at once, we are joined together in the One life of God within the Holy Trinity to love and care for each other, creation, and for the common good just as God does. (Which brings us to what scholar Barbara Rossing has called the non-biblical idea of the rapture.) Christian faith will not allow us to make of our religion an ejector seat from this world. Rather, we follow our Lord Jesus from our spiritual home in heaven down into the world to bind up the broken hearted, heal the sick, preach forgiveness of sin, work for justice, and let the oppressed go free.
Christianity is not a religion of escape, but of incarnation. The Word became flesh and lives among us. Faith is not what we do separately and individually, but what we do collectively, collaboratively, generously, hospitably, communally, and mysteriously. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb, he named me” (Isaiah 49:1b). Notice, that God called us by the name—Israel! We are individuals who find our true self as living members of that giant family as children of Abraham and Sarah.
As Isaiah testified, God proclaims “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
The disciples could not have imagined where their decision to follow Jesus would take them. He just said, “Come and see” (John 1:39). He would take them to the cross. He would show them the way to live under and within the shelter of God’s abiding presence even while they walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Dave Daubert, pastor of Zion Lutheran in Elgin, Illinois has said, “The work of the church is renewing its people.” We’ve been trying and failing to renew congregations for years. You can’t do that. You can only renew God’s people and let them renew the congregation. “God isn’t interested in a bigger church as much as God is interested in a transformed world. And that means reconnecting the church with what God is up to in the world.”
Martin Luther King famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In his letter from a Birmingham jail King also warned the universe doesn’t bend toward the better all by itself.
Come and see. Abide with me. To answer the call to discipleship is to actively engage with Jesus. John uses a string of active verbs–to follow; see; seek; stay; find. Jesus invites us, as if to say, ‘If you follow this pathway with me, and are open to God’s vision for your life, you will see what you truly need to experience wholeness, vitality, and hope in the midst of finitude, brokenness, and loss.’ As we dwell with Jesus Christ our heart and mind is renewed, and our energies reverse direction and begin to turn out from over focus on ourselves toward love of neighbor as our self. Bending and weaving our strength together for the common good, here and now—however we are given to understand the common good—we make life better for ourselves and everyone else, while riding that kingdom train into glory.