Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Approval vs. Obedience

John 15:18-27
Preached at North Valley Friends Church
March 31, 2019

I was out walking the other day, thinking semi-random thoughts, and this one came to me: “Give us this day our daily bread” does not refer to my daily need for approval. In point of fact, needing approval has been a weakness of mine that has given others the opening to manipulate me, even into doing things I disapprove of.  I would give examples but they are too embarrassing. 

I remember when I had just gone through an involuntary detox from approval seeking, and found myself in contention for the job of yearly meeting superintendent, and getting that job required the APPROVAL of the YM.  Quakers call for “approval” in our non-voting decision-making. It sets some of us up for pathology.

So it comes as an unpleasant shock to hear Jesus say as reported in Luke in the anti-beatitudes: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that’s how their ancestors spoke of false prophets” (Luke 6:36). 

And here, in this passage from John, Jesus says, “I chose you from this world, and you do not belong to it; that is why the world hates you.” That’s even worse than having a few detractors, even worse than failing to win universal approval.

So I have some questions. Who is this “world” character, anyway? The Gospel of John has at least 58 verses with Kosmos (the Greek for “world”) in it, sometimes twice, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined have around 16. The world is a constant presence in John’s Gospel, and it is almost always what we might term the human world—the world of crowds, of politics, of religion, of nations, of money, of education, of culture. It is the world humans always build around them—all the ways humans find to organize themselves and set up expectations with rewards and punishments. We can hardly move in a day without encountering systems, and we violate their norms at our peril.

And this world is hostile to Jesus and to Jesus’s followers.


When Jesus came into his calling and mission, he was not the first Messenger from God, the first wonder-worker his people had seen. He was not the first charismatic leader that crowds followed around. But he was the first one to do so with the public designation from God, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It isn’t clear how much of the crowd heard this as Jesus came up out of the water of the Jordan. His cousin John, who was baptizing, witnessed it. “I have seen it,” he said, “and I tell you that he is the Son of God.” Taken up in his spirit by God’s Spirit, John said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But some time later, from a jail cell, John sent messengers to Jesus and asked, “Are you the one? I thought you were, but now, you’re not what I was looking for.”

Jesus answered, “The blind can see, the lame can walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the good news is preached to the poor. Happy are those who have no doubts about me!” (Luke 7:22-23, Good News Bible)

We think from our vantage point, how sad that John couldn’t continue believing in Jesus as the chosen and sent one, the Son of God. If we saw a guy with these abilities, we think, we wouldn’t doubt that God had sent him. But just like then, today Jesus would act or refuse to act in ways that raised questions. I think we too would wonder.

In this gospel of John, Jesus frequently confronts expectations from his followers and pours cold water on the fire of their enthusiasms.

His mother asks him to do a little miracle regarding wine at a wedding to spare the hosts embarrassment. (This reminds me of a lot of my own prayers for Jesus to intervene in my life.) Jesus tells her, “You must not tell me what to do. It isn’t the right time.” The most baffling part of this story is that Jesus does do the miracle, and his mother appears never to doubt that he would do what she said. But even in the doing of the miracle, Jesus upends religious practice by using water containers set aside for ritual washings, which were so important to observant Jews. Suddenly, these are full of great wine (John 2). Christianity as it could be is, to quote Jacques Ellul, “an explosive ferment calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ, in the name of the incarnation.” (39) Note that phrase, “calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ.” Might that make anyone you know uncomfortable?

Jesus visits Jerusalem at Passover. When he comes to the outer courts of the Temple, he drives out the animals brought there to sell for sacrifices, and he turns over the tables of those who exchange money so that worshipers had the right coinage for religious purposes.  The marriage here of commerce and religion is one we can recognize when we look around our Christian subculture. Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2). The authorities said, “What miracle are you going to do to show you have the authority to reorganize the Temple?” And Jesus was right back at them, “Tear down this Temple and I will raise it up in three days.” He baffled the authorities rather than complying with their demand. Later, his followers realized he was talking about his body and the resurrection, but at the time, how preposterous! And notice how in identifying his body with the Temple of God, Jesus overturns the tables of religion as well.

Nicodemus visits Jesus at night to ask some questions quite respectfully. But Jesus says to him, “You have to start over, you have to be born all over spiritually. You can’t bring all this religion and whatnot with you if you want to follow me.  Just like the wind blows without your input or expertise, God’s Spirit moves me, and will move you too if you are reborn in your spirit” (John 3).

So we can see some reasons why following Jesus might be dangerous. First, Jesus undermines the power of religion. He violates the norms, he disrespects the system, and he asserts that he is as holy as the center of worship itself, and that God’s spirit tells him what to do and when. He is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and righteous.  People who are reborn and free from the rules of morality, religion, and hierarchy, but instead are obeying the whimsical Spirit of God rip the fabric of the human Kosmos. They are new wine in old bottles and the bottles burst. They are new cloth on old clothing and they tear holes rather than mend them.  The systems of the Kosmos, of the world, see them rightly as destroyers, and they hate, persecute, and kill them.

And it isn’t just religious leaders who recognize the threat that God’s Holy Spirit poses to the systems in place. The masses have their own systems that they want Jesus to fit himself into. They want a wonder-worker, and when Jesus makes wine out of water and feeds crowds of more than 5000 using some kid’s lunch, they know they’ve found their man. They like the healings and the resurrections. But Jesus refuses to let their desires be his guide. He calls them petulant children in the marketplace, complaining because they piped and he didn’t dance.

He tells them that he knows why they are following him—bread and miracles—and that unless they eat his body and drink his blood they have no part in him. He offers them springs of living water in themselves, the Spirit of God. He says he is the bread of life, he says he is the light that God sends into the world, and he says he is their only help and hope for freedom.

They shocked and appalled—they deny needing help—we have never been slaves—this saying is too hard—God is our father, too—come on, just tell us if you are the Messiah.

Jesus does not offend for his own ego reasons, his need to look special and chosen. He’s not speaking truth to power because he likes to annoy people. He says, and we can believe him, that everything he does and says is in obedience to what his Father tells him to do and say. His radical obedience to God is what is so upsetting to the systems he finds himself in conflict with.

And this passage we have before us from John 15 tells us that Jesus is sending the Spirit to fill us, the Spirit who reveals the truth about God and comes from God. This is the Spirit who moved Jesus through his days, from whom Jesus heard what to say and do and when to say and do it. No system in the world is going to welcome a person or group that bases their lives not on what the powers-that-be want or expect but on a relationship with the living and present God. 

I want us to keep two verses in mind as we listen today. “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls.”
And, from the same Jesus: “You who want to be my disciples will take up your cross daily and follow me.”

Jesus says, Put down your heavy loads and all the expectations of your country, your religion, your family, your followers, and just follow me. Listen to and obey God’s Spirit. This is your freedom and your daily cross.

I was pushed to read portions of Jacques Ellul’s The Subversion of Christianity as I thought about this passage in John 15. Ellul challenges us with the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus has set us absolutely free. Both Jesus and Paul teach that those led by the Spirit are free in every respect. As Ellul phrases it, “a risk with no cover, a joyful and perilous acrobatic feat with no net!” (43)

He goes on to say that this radical freedom is not what humans are looking for. Freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom from war, freedom from conflict, sure, but radical freedom? Not so much. Here’s how Ellul describes it:

[Radical freedom] carries frightening social risks and is politically insulting to every form of power. …On every social level and in every culture, people have found it impossible to take up this freedom and accept its implications. (43)

The freedom acquired in Christ presupposes perfect self-control, wisdom, communion with God, and love. It is an absolutely superhuman risk. It devastates us by demanding the utmost in consecration. Free, we are totally responsible. We constantly have to choose. (42)

For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor. (167)

I agree with Ellul that absolute freedom is hard to embrace. I want habits, norms, guardrails, laws, insurance, peace treaties, and so on. But it is clear that Jesus was working without a net, living each act in obedience to God, finding himself not satisfying anyone and not being understood or approved of by anyone, even his mom. Now who wants to follow Jesus?

Well, a small determined part of many people does in fact want to follow Jesus, to be set free by the his life, death, and resurrection. For instance, I want to live in contact with God, I want to do what God tells me, I want this relationship to be alive, not static. Maybe you want that, too. 

My good dead friend, George MacDonald, challenges me every day with his insistence on charismatic obedience.

“Do you ask, “What is faith in [God]?” I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of [God’s way and God’s self]; the leaving of your trust in [humans], in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as [God] tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this obedience.” 

“Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because [God] said, Do it, or once abstained because [God] said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in [God], if you do not do anything [God’s Spirit] tells you.” 

So let me end by asking myself and you as well to consider that Jesus wants to partner with us in our daily lives and to lift from us the burden laid on us by human systems. Jesus wants us to be free. And as we learn to live in freedom, we ask God’s Spirit for help, we listen, and when we hear, we obey.

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