April 29, 2007

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

I’ve already encouraged you this morning to actively engage in doing the works of God — to get around to doing the good works that God has called you to do in Jesus’ name in and for the world. I hope that I don’t need to remind you that your good works are not, however, what saves you. You do not earn God’s love or favour or salvation by giving to the poor or engaging in mission, by caring for the environment or loving your neighbour. God loves you simply because you are God’s creation — God’s own children. You are saved by God’s grace through faith. It is a gift from God — not an honour that you have earned or that you deserve.

That is a really good thing to remember, especially on days when you “haven’t gotten around to it” — on days when other stuff has gotten in the way, and when doing God’s work has taken second place, or third place, or perhaps has been left off the schedule completely.

Doing the good works of God, seeking justice, caring for the poor, and loving our neighbours are not the things that win us God’s love or favour. But they are, as the song reminds us, the ways that we are known and seen to be Christians.

They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

At the end of the first century, when the Evangelist was writing the Gospel according to John, the Christians in his community were not only known by their love, but also by their belief in Jesus of Nazareth — the man of Galilee who had died, but had risen from death. They said that he was the Messiah of God. He was sent into the world by God — sent to reveal God and God’s love to the world, as light into deepest darkness. The world, of course, did not receive him. We rejected him and put him to death on a cross. But to those who did receive him, who believed in him, he gave the power to become children of God.

The believers who were part of John’s community were known by this unique and unorthodox belief and their insistence on following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth — the one they called “the Christ.” Of course, they had originally been part of the mainstream Jewish community, but when they embraced this new teaching about Jesus, they had been kicked out of the synagogues. And the relationship between “the Jews” and the new “Christian Jews” had been strained ever since.

Much of John’s Gospel is written with the express purpose of convincing the reader to join the Christian Jews in their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. It is a series of signs, discourses by Jesus, and dialogues between Jesus and others — all pointing to his divine identity, and inviting the reader to believe.

John 20:30-31 says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

In our text today, we heard one of many dialogues between Jesus and the adversarial group that the Evangelist simply refers to as “the Jews.” “The Jews” that argue with Jesus in this story probably represent the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, but John’s community also would have thought of them as representing that “other” community of Jews — the ones who kicked them out of the synagogue — the ones who refused to believe in Jesus.

One day, as Jesus was walking in the Temple, “the Jews” gathered around him to ask him about his identity. Their question to him is somewhat difficult to translate. In the NRSV translation, they ask “How long will you keep us in suspense?” It’s as if they are excitedly awaiting the news of whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. Another possible translation is, “How long will you keep annoying us?” They’re fed up with Jesus’ signs and symbols. They’re tired of his speeches and his metaphors. They’d like to see him either boldly make his claim to be the Messiah, or have him go away.

You see, Jesus has been identifying himself as the one sent from God, but he hasn’t been doing it as plainly as some would like. Already in John’s account of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus has turned water into wine, healed several people, fed a crowd of five thousand people, walked on the water, and given sight to a blind man. Jesus has already described himself as the Son who was sent into the world by God, as the One who offers the water of eternal life, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

But even though others have thrown about titles for Jesus like “Messiah” and “Christ,” Jesus himself has not been quite so clear. He has used metaphors and images to identify himself, rather than just outright claiming to be the Messiah.

But when the Jews ask him to “tell them plainly,” he says, “I’ve already told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”

In most of the Gospel accounts, Jesus says even less about his identity than he does here in John’s Gospel. And I think the reason for that is that it’s Jesus’ works, Jesus’ actions, Jesus’ life in the world — rather than who he claimed to be — that convinced people to believe in him and follow his ways. If Jesus had walked around Galilee or gone up to Jerusalem with just a series of speeches or sermons about his identity as Messiah and Son of God, he wouldn’t have convinced anyone. Jesus could have just told us about God’s love. He could have just lectured about God’s grace. He could have just made a rational argument about turning our lives towards God and living in relationship with God through him. Perhaps some people still would have listened.

But what Jesus did in our world was more than words. As he told the Jews that day, “the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” It wasn’t what he said or who he claimed to be that convinced people to believe and to turn their lives towards following him. It was what he did. How he cared. Whom he loved.

They knew he was the Christ by his love.

After speaking about his promise of eternal life to those who follow him, John’s Jesus makes a very bold statement. He says: “The Father and I are one.”

Sometimes, when modern Christians read a statement like this from Jesus, we are inclined to assume that it’s a statement about the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are One in Three. Jesus is identifying himself with the Godhead. We must remember though, that “Trinity” is a later Christian doctrine — not one explicitly set out in scripture, and certainly not one elaborated by Jesus himself.

The commentators note that when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” the Greek word for “one” is neuter, not masculine. Jesus is not saying that he and God are one person. He is saying that he and God are united in the work that they do. They are one in purpose. They are one in mission. Jesus’ work and God’s work cannot be distinguished, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work.

Later, when Jesus called his followers to join in his ministry, and to take up his ministry after he ascended into heaven, we were called to be united with him — to be one with him — in the same way that he was one with the Father. We were called to share in doing the works of God. We were called to share in demonstrating the love of God, in shining the light of God into dark places, in providing the bread of God to the hungry, in pouring out the water of God to all who thirst.

The apostle Peter is a wonderful example of one of the first followers to be united with Jesus in doing the good works of God. He not only preached good news to all who would listen, but by the power of God’s Spirit he brought healing to the sick and even brought the dead back to life. He did exactly the kind of things that Jesus did before him. He was one with Jesus and one with the Father — united with God in doing good works.

But not every one of Jesus’ followers is given the power to perform nature-defying miracles. Another example of a disciple who was united with God was Tabitha (or Dorcas, as her name was translated into Greek). The Book of Acts tells us that Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She clearly took responsibility in her community for looking after those women who had become widows. She had a talent for making clothes, and she freely shared it with those who were in need. When Peter raised Tabitha from death, he not only restored a dead woman to her family and friends, he also allowed a community of poor widows to continue to experience God’s love and care through God’s partner, Tabitha.

Today, in our community right here at St. Andrew’s, there are many followers of Jesus who are united with Jesus as they carry out the good works of God within our church and reaching out to the world. I only need to pause for a moment to think of individual people who are sharing in God’s works through visiting, welcoming, youth work, teaching, outreach, and offering so many other gifts with care and generosity.

Remember, we are saved by God’s grace, not by our works. But we are invited by Jesus to be united with him in doing good works. We are meant to be using our gifts for the building up of God’s kingdom on earth. Like Peter, we are to be people who heal. Like Tabitha, we are to be people who care for the least people around us with compassion and dedication. May God inspire us and help us to be one with Jesus in doing good works, to the glory of God.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”