Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost/ 9th November 2014
In his classic spiritual autobiography Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) tells the story of his move from disbelief to belief in Jesus Christ. Belief is important, of course, but what Augustine discovered was something deeper—a relationship with a living Lord, a Lord who loved him through and through. And Augustine, in return, responded with deep love. “Lord, I love Thee,” he wrote, “Thou didst strike my heart with Thy Word and I loved Thee!” Christ’s love for us, our love for Christ—this is what shapes the life of faith. Deep connection. No separation. Deep fellowship. Heart-to-heart.
I last preached on this text back in May. And in that sermon I shared that there was a time when I thought that all God wanted from me was my belief. Belief is what mattered, I thought. I went to Sunday School. My mother taught Sunday School for almost forty years; she was my teacher twice (not because I had to repeat a grade). I learned that believing in God was important; I thought that that’s what God wants from us. As a result, I was so afraid of doubt or showing any sign of unbelief. Verses such as Acts 16:31 were seared into my brain, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (NIV). I was afraid that I didn’t have enough belief, enough to be saved, that is. Or, there was this one from Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV). I worried about being lost. Belief is the key to the door that leads to everlasting life. Or so I thought.
It was later, in college and in seminary, that I realized two things: the value of doubt and the meaning of God’s grace. I came to know what grace felt like. It’s then that I discovered that grace comes first—it always comes first—followed by belief. Belief matters, theological ideas matter, but belief unfettered by grace, belief apart from grace, is cheap and, worse, dangerous. Belief matters, but what matters more is our relationship with the object of our belief, that is, our relationship with God through Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Gradually, I came to realize: God doesn’t want my belief. God wants me.
So, what causes this confusion? Skewed readings of John’s gospel get us into this mess; they tend to confuse us. It’s not John’s fault. It has to do with the way we read him. We just heard John 14:1, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Then there is the conversation between Philip and Jesus. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time,…and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” (John 4:8-11) Jesus is helping both Philip and Thomas understand the unity between Jesus and his Father, with God. Jesus is saying in other words: If this seems odd or foreign to you, Philip and Thomas, then look at what I’ve been able to do because the God is at work in me.
It sounds as if Jesus is being harsh here. There is a gentle rebuke, but we have to hear the rebuke within the context of Jesus’ deep friendship with them, within his commitment to them, within the extraordinary trust and confidence Jesus has in them. Jesus isn’t some revivalist preacher demanding Philip and Thomas to make a decision: belief or unbelief. Their conversation is situated within the context of what they’ve already come to know about him.
Here, Jesus is a teacher who wants his students to deepen what they already know; he’s sharing this knowledge with them, this wisdom about who he is because Jesus trusts them. In fact, he has extraordinary confidence in them. Jesus wants them to realize that through him they are being drawn deeper and deeper into a relationship with the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life. It’s a relationship that the Lord of the Universe, the Source of all goodness and grace, the Fount of love and life seeks to have with you and me. How do we know this? Because it’s the same relationship Jesus showed us in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ disciples—you and me—have been and are being invited to live, to dwell in that same kind of relationship, a deep intimacy with God. Heart-to-heart.
This is an extraordinary claim—radical, life-changing in its implications for us. It must have been staggering for the disciples to hear. “I am in the Father,” Jesus said, “and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). What we have here is a mutual indwelling, one participating in the life of the other. Life flowing from the Father to the Son; life flowing from the Son to the Father. The Father dwelling in Jesus works through him. Nothing Jesus says he says on his own. Nothing Jesus does he does on his own. It’s all the result of God working through him. Jesus certainly had more than belief in God. He trusted in God. He rested in the strength of the relationship. He rested in God’s faithfulness and love for him. And in the strength of that relationship, that mutual exchange—God trusting Jesus; Jesus trusting God—Jesus was empowered to act, to serve, to save.
Therefore, when we hear the word “believe” here (and throughout John’s Gospel), we should understand it to mean something more like trust. When we trust in what Jesus has shown us with his life we discover that, like him, we are being drawn into a deep, intimate relationship with God.
Jesus came to show us that God wants more than your belief. God wants you. This is what God desires from us. It’s what God desired for humanity since the dawn of time. The Christian life is about more than saying, “I believe in God,” or “I believe Jesus is the Son of God.” The Christian life is about more than belief. It’s an experience. God is in me and I am in God. That’s what Jesus is suggesting to Philip and Thomas. God is in you and you are in God.
Why does this matter? I’ve been building up to this point. Why is this so important? Because, as Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me”—that is, the one who trusts in me, rests in me, welcomes me, participates in me—“will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Now, that’s a bold claim.
Greater works than Jesus? How can he make such a claim? Because Jesus knew the potential power of human beings when their lives are bound to God, rooted in that relationship with God, like Jesus, and when the Life of God pours through them. What Jesus knew, we can and do know. When we are rooted in that relationship, when our hearts rest in the knowledge that God is working through us, we will witness the further unfolding of God’s love incarnating itself in the world, in the church, in you and me. God still desires the incarnation of divine love in the world.
The entire orientation of this text is toward the future. Not once did Jesus ever call his disciples to look back to a golden age. Instead, he called them forward toward a new age, to the new thing God was doing in the world through Jesus, but also beyond Jesus, through Jesus into the future. The story of God’s love is still being told, it’s still unfolding—and you and me are part of the story. By virtue of our baptisms we’re now inside the story of God’s love. And God is still telling that story, living that love through the way we serve him and follow him. Not with our “beliefs,” but with our actions. Even greater works.
You can see why our Stewardship Committee chose this verse for this year’s campaign. God is working through Catonsville Presbyterian Church and God expects great things from us and great and even greater things—kingdom things—are possible through this ministry when our hearts are in the right place.
The Capital One credit card commercials have gotten a lot of mileage out of the tagline, “What’s in your wallet?” That could make a good tagline for a stewardship campaign, “What’s in your wallet?” But from a faith perspective it’s a secondary question. Here’s the truth: we already know what’s in our wallets. We know the answer to that question. The more relevant question is this, “What’s in your heart?” “For where your heart is, there will your treasure be also” (Matthew 6:21). Our hearts can keep the wallet folded up, tight and secure. Closed hearts have closed wallets. Open hearts can open up a wallet and release its contents in love.
Several years ago we said good-bye to the celebrated writer and teacher, Reynolds Price (1933-2011), who taught English for many years at Duke University. He was also a dedicated Christian. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Price recalls asking his teacher and mentor Neville Coghill for some piece of advice, some pearl of wisdom to live by. Coghill shared with Price the words his mother said to him before she died. “Remember. I only regret my economies.” I “have to say,” Price later recalled, “that for the remainder of my life—and there've been great patches of my life in which I've had almost no money whatsoever, I've had to borrow $5 from friends to buy food for the next week or whatever—nonetheless, I've always splurged whenever possible, financially, emotionally, in almost any other legal way.” I only regret my economies.
As we move toward Commitment Sunday on November 23, prayerfully considering our financial pledge to this ministry, I invite you to listen to your heart.
We all know that our tithes and offerings are more than simply giving to a good cause or charity. Right? We all know what we give is not some measure of our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the church. Right? We all know that we’re not paying for services rendered. Right? Instead, what we give—and the many ways that we give to God—is a measure of our gratitude to God; it flows from our hearts.
There’s a great moment in Winnie-the-Pooh when, we’re told, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
When we connect with that feeling of gratitude to God, when we give with joyful hearts, we are blessed. There’s no doubt about that. That’s an amazing feeling. But consider the blessings that we share when we give through this ministry, the blessings we make possible through this ministry, when hearts are full and overflow with gratitude. That’s also an amazing feeling. This is what leads to great and even greater works. Consider the larger reach of this ministry when we give generously with love. There’s no telling the impact this church has had in the lives of God’s people throughout its history. And there’s no telling the greater things we will do when God’s people give with truly grateful hearts.
One day, “a congregation in the Carolinas received notice of a large and unexpected bequest—its annual budget amount several times over.” My friend, Paul Grier, who works for The Presbyterian Foundation, shared this story with me several weeks ago. He was meeting with the church’s finance committee and that’s when he first heard about the story. “No one knew, or had even recognized the donor’s name.” Paul “encouraged the church to be in touch with the estate executor, an attorney in Missouri.” “It turns out that the donor, who had died several months before, was from Missouri and had spent her entire life there. Although she was a faithful Presbyterian in adulthood (and also remembered her home congregation very generously), she had grown up in a largely unchurched home. Her mother’s mother was a member of this southern congregation in the Carolinas, and one summer brought her visiting granddaughter to Vacation Bible School. It was there that this child (probably about eight at the time) came to faith and remained grateful to this church throughout her life. At her death, some 70+ years later, she divided her estate between the two congregations that were the most meaningful to her.”
Those two churches certainly discovered what was in her wallet. They also discovered what was in her heart—and why. May it be the same for you and me.