May 25, 2014

“Not Ruled by Anxiety”

John 14:15-21

I think the most anxious days in my life were the ones I spent waiting to see my doctor after discovering a small lump in my breast. That was more than ten years ago, and it turned out to be benign, but I’ll always remember how it felt when I had to wait… wondering, worrying, imagining the worst.

These days I don’t have any major worries like that… but I do get a bit anxious about getting my school work done on time and well. A week from now I’ll be on my way to Toronto again for my next intensive course, and I’m worrying about getting all the reading done before then. I’m worrying about the bibliography that I’ve put together, but have not yet annotated (adding my summaries of the various articles and books on the list).

Of course, I also worry about the church… about our congregation and whether our ministry here is going to survive and thrive… about the other congregations in our presbytery, especially the ones I’m responsible for as interim moderator… and about the Presbyterian Church in general and what our future might hold.

A basic definition of anxiety is this: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Synonyms are: concern, apprehension, uneasiness, fear, disquiet, agitation, angst, misgiving, nervousness, and tension.

When anxiety gets out of control and goes beyond what is to be expected by the circumstances, it may actually be a psychiatric condition that should be treated medically. Clinical anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behaviour or panic attacks.

Some of you will have experienced that kind of severe and ongoing anxiety, but all of us have felt anxious and worried at times… maybe even today.

We are worried about work. We are worried about debt and paying bills.

We are worried about our children. We are worried about our aging parents or grandparents.

We are worried about health, about medical tests, about prognoses. We are worried about potential accidents and injuries.

We are worried about whether we will find a good job, or whether we will have enough money to retire comfortably.

We are worried about the environment and global warming. We are worried about wars, and terrorism, and crime. We are worried about the health care system, about the integrity of educational institutions, about the sustainability of social services and programs.

We are worried about the people of the world, and whether they will hear the Gospel and change their lives. We are worried about the future.

Sometimes we hear the stories from the Bible, and imagine that the people of Jesus’ era lived in simpler times without so many worries and anxieties. They didn’t even know that the world was a sphere, let alone fret about the melting of the ice caps and its effect on water levels in the oceans.

But, of course, they had other things to get anxious about… like the Roman occupation, and the violence and persecution that went along with it. First century Jews probably worried more than we do about health and well-being because when people got suddenly sick, they didn’t know what had caused it, and more often than not, they didn’t know what to do to treat it. Illnesses were likely due to sin, many of them believed; Seizures might be some kind of demon possession. That would be rather worrying!

And even though Saskatchewan people today still get pretty anxious about the weather and the crops, our ancestors would have literally gone hungry when there was a bad year. It’s hardly any wonder that many ancient cultures were inclined to worship and sacrifice to rain gods and sun gods, and whatever divine powers might help them to survive.

But today’s reading from the Gospel according to John points to another source of anxiety for the first Christians – a worry about being the followers of Jesus, about being the Church of God, and continuing what Jesus started without his physical leadership and help.

The Gospel of John invites us to imagine what it was like for Jesus’ first disciples as they prepared for his immanent death. Some of them tried to deny the possibility of his being arrested and killed, and even claimed that they would fight for his protection, but Jesus knew that wasn’t the way to go.

In a long discourse that lasts from Chapter 14 – 17, he tells his closest friends what is going to happen – not only that he will die, but that he will be raised and ascend into heaven to be with God. The disciples will need to continue his work without Jesus being with them – at least, not being with them in the same way that he was before.

Jesus says to his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… [who will] abide with you, and be in you. I will not leave you orphaned.”

One of the things I notice about Jesus’ assurance is that he doesn’t say, “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be just fine.” He doesn’t promise an easy life, or suggest that there will be divine intervention whenever something doesn’t seem to be working out for the disciples. In fact, the choice to become and to continue as followers of Jesus means that these people will actually encounter more difficulties and challenges than the average person.

Instead of just worrying about livelihoods and families, safety and health, these Christians will take on concern for the wider community, for the spreading of the gospel and the well-being of others beyond their immediate friends and family. Instead of just worrying about random encounters with Roman soldiers or royal decrees that could affect them negatively, these Christians will put themselves at risk by speaking about their faith, challenging the status quo, and claiming allegiance to the One God of Israel over any human authority.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” and the Holy Spirit will be with you and help you with the troubles and trials that will inevitably come your way as a result of the way you live.

In a reflection on the biblical text, Richard Adams explains that “The Fourth Gospel likely took its final shape at the end of the first century CE, in a community where most of the members never knew Jesus on earth. This community saw itself in the telling of the story of the anxiety of the disciples facing life without their teacher. The community addressed its own anxiety by repeating the calming words of Jesus, reminding them that access to the Father continues in the community’s adherence to his commands and the promised [Holy Spirit.] Regardless of time or place, Jesus’ message stands: ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you.’”

The Jewish Christians of John’s community at the end of the first century struggled immensely with persecution, not only from Roman powers, but from their Jewish neighbours and friends who had kicked them out of the synagogues and rejected them because of their insistence that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and Lord of all.

But in the midst of their struggle, these early Christians persevered and placed their trust in the promises of Jesus. They told one another the stories of Jesus’ love, and power, and grace. And they wrote down the stories so that others would know, not only that Jesus lived, and died, and was raised to live again at the right hand of God… but that God continues to be present with God’s people in a very real and powerful way through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Today we celebrated the baptism of Nell Kirkpatrick. Together with her parents and her biological family, we (as her church family) welcomed Nell into the community of followers of Jesus, into the Christian Church throughout the world. Of course, we pray for Nell’s safety and well-being, and that God will bless her with a bright, happy, and wonderful future.

As I poured water over Nell’s head, I was aware that the physical act of the church’s ritual makes visible to us an invisible reality that is the action of God alone. It is God who made her, and who loves her… who claims her as God’s own, and pours out of the gift of the Holy Spirit to live within her and guide her in the way of Jesus.

Of course, baptism is not magic. It won’t protect her from illness or accident, or any of the other difficulties of life. In fact, when Nell reaches an age when she is able to claim and affirm her baptism and choose the way of Jesus as her way of life, her baptism may in fact lead her into trouble, into risk, into loving service and self-sacrifice for the sake of following Jesus and doing what is right and good.

But baptism is one way that we, like the Johannine Christians at the end of the first century, repeat the calming words and promises of Jesus, reminding us that Nell, and each one of us, belongs to God and will never be abandoned by God. We are God’s offspring, God’s children. In God we live and move and have our being. Regardless of time or place, Jesus’ message stands: “I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you.”

I’m sure that any of the young parents of our congregation would be able to tell us that they have a lot of things to be worried and anxious about with their new babies and young children. But I think they would also tell us that one of the most helpful gifts in the midst of those worries is the assurance that they are not alone.

Maybe it’s the presence of a spouse and partner with whom to share the anxiety, or a mother or mother-in-law who is available for help or advice. Maybe it’s the support of other parents who understand the challenges, or relatives or friends who listen and try to understand. Hopefully it’s also the church community that, when we are functioning well, can be a source of prayer, support, and help to one another through all the seasons and events of life.

But today, we particularly give thanks for the presence and help of the Holy Spirit who is with us, in us, and between us. We celebrate the Spirit who assures us of God’s deep and abiding love for us; who comforts us in our sorrows; and who empowers us to live as disciples of Jesus who love, and serve, and witness to the reality of God in our world and in our lives.

Although there are many good reasons to be anxious and worried, let us not be ruled by our worries and concerns. Let us remember Jesus’ continual refrain to his followers, “Do not be afraid.” And assured of the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, let us venture into the future that God is preparing for us with courage, with confidence, and with joy. Amen.