Sunday, May 31, 2015

Letting God In, by Rev Steven R Mitchell based on John 3:17

Letting God In

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, Co 5/31/2015

Based on John 3:1-17



            A few months ago, someone left a book on my desk titled, Ecumania, and I thought I would like to start this morning’s reflection by citing  a  couple of stories from its pages. 

1)   At an ecumenical conference, several ministers were talking informally during the morning coffee break.  During a brief lull in the conversation, one of the ministers introduced the hypothetical question: “If Jesus were to visit our town next Sunday, whose church would he attend?” 

A Catholic priest said: “Obviously, he would attend our church.  Its unbroken apostolic succession makes it his authentic church-therefore, the only one he would attend.

A Pentecostal minister said, “You’re mistaken, my friend.  He would attend our church because its spontaneous, enthusiastic expression of Christian faith would genuinely appeal to his warm heart and sincere spirit.”

A Baptist pastor concluded the interchange with the observation: “Of course, he would attend our church.  After all these years, why should he change?”

2)   During WWII, a Catholic priest and a protestant minister were asked to call on a wounded protestant soldier.  The Catholic priest was a rotund, jolly cleric, who was well liked by all.  When they visited the boy, he turned to the priest and said, “Father, I appreciate your visit, but I’m a Protestant.  I hope you won’t try to change my faith.”  The priest smiled at the boy and said, “Son, I don’t want you to change your faith.  I want your faith to change you.”

This last story is very poignant to today’s text of the Pharisee Nicodemus and Jesus’ incounter.  Nicodemus is like many of us who have been raised in the church, in that we have been taught how to look at scripture from a particular way, and yet find that those teachings somehow fall short in fulfilling a deep hunger within our souls.  Nicodemus, knew his bible, he knew all the verses that told him what he needed to do to be “saved”, yet he finds himself coming to Jesus in the night, looking for answers that might fill the hunger.

Nicodemus is a great role model for those of us who do not experience what the Evangelical church calls, “instantaneous conversions” or being “born again.”  Many a follower of Jesus has been raised in the arms of the church and have never had an experience that would qualify for the classification of “being born again”; like that hand popping on the side of the head commercial that says, “Gee, I could have had a V-8” type revelation.  For those of us who were born of church-going parents, many of us experienced infant baptism, then as young adults went through confirmation, and a life time of church schooling and of attending worship, listening to the pastor clarify the mysteries of the scriptures.  Intellectually we are God’s children, but we have not experienced the “emotional” side of being “in” Jesus or what the Pentecostal side of Christianity would say as “Being born of the Spirit.”

Yet in the Gospel of John we read about Nicodemus in three separate instances, each time showing Nicodemus in a deepening commitment to Jesus.  The first time was his visit to Jesus by night.  In the Gospel of John, this is significant, as darkness to John, symbolizes lack of truth [people walked in darkness; the darkness hid from the light].  Nicodemus, even as a religious leader in his community, seemed to not comprehend the truth that Jesus was trying to share with him [how can a grown man go back into his mother’s womb]. Then a second time, we see how Nicodemus’ belief in Jesus had changed so much that he was one of the few who stood by Jesus at the end; defending Jesus during the trial.  Finally, we are told in John 19:39 that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus.  I would suggest that most of us tend to grow in our faith in the same way Nicodemus grew in his, over time, without fan fare or dramatic epiphanies.

Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, had a very developed understanding of the concept of God as defined by the Hebrew religious community, as well as how the coming Messiah would act. Most of us have a specific image of what God looks like when asked.  Confirmands are often asked as they enter their confirmation studies, “What is God to you?”  The reason for doing this is to get them to start thinking about God in differing ways as an ongoing practice in their Spiritual journeys.

When Jesus told Nicodemus that, “unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom”, Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus out of his comfort zone, of his learned understanding about God, so he could become open enough to “who” Jesus truly was.  Many of us have grown up learning doctrine which tells us what is the right way and wrong way to believe, the right way and the wrong way to live. As we grow older, we start trusting in our old experiences and close the doors to new opportunities; opportunities that have the potential to make us feel alive again; sometimes out of fear of the unknown, sometimes because it just takes too much energy.

This morning’s lection reading has one of the most memorized and most grossly mis-understood and mis-used verses found in scripture, John 3:16-17, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. One reason for the mis-use comes from a mis-understanding of the concepts of “eternal life” and what it means to be “saved” in the Jewish mindset.  Last week I shared that Salvation in most Christian circles has come to mean, Eternal life. Yet the root word of salvation is, salvus: meaning “whole,” “sound”, “healed,” “safe,” “well,” or “unharmed”. Modern Christianity has thus intermingled the understanding of Salvation with eternal life as meaning life after this present physical existence, sometimes identified as “heaven.”  In his book, Love Wins, Rev Rob Bell points out, “When Jesus used the word ‘heaven’; he was simply referring to God, using the word as a substitute for the name of God. Sometimes when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Eternal life, as used in scripture, is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Pg 58 Love Wins, by Rob Bell

   Bell continues to say: When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity. Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. Pg 179, Love Wins, by Rob Bell

If we have grown to understand and to experience Jesus through what we were taught as children and are not having any new experiences, then we like Nicodemus need to be asking the question, “How can I be born anew?” as a way of opening the door and letting God in, so we too can live in the promise of what Christ gives to us; the promise of eternal life, of being sound, healed, whole within Gods Kin-dom – here and now.  For God so loved the world, that through Jesus, none should exist as the living dead, like zombies, but have eternal life!”   Life filled with liberating experiences of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy, peace, and love.   Amen

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Final Question, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on John 21:15-17

The Final Question

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 5/17/2015

Based on John 21:15-17


        There is a story that the secretary from my first pastorate use to like to compare me to time to time, usually when I would start asking a lot of “why” questions.  She would say, Pastor Steven, you are like a man who is walking along the street, totally broke , knowing that all he had to do was pray and God would supply him with something to eat, and when a hamburger would appeared in his hand, instead of first thanking God of this miracle and then eating the sandwich, he would first start asking “how did that happen.”  As anyone who has ever spent time volunteering in the church office knows, I quite often am bouncing off questions about a piece of scripture that I am meditating on that particular week.  When I am doing this, my asking isn’t to find a definitive answer, but rather, I am seeking other points of understanding so I can dream up more questions to struggle with.

        Jesus did this quite often as well.  In traditional Jewish form, when asked a question, Jesus generally answered with a question.  When he saw teachable moments, he would often employ questions as a way of teaching.  In his parables, he often used a question as a way to end the story.  During Lent, I preach from a book written by Rev Martin Copenhaver, titled Jesus is the Question: The 307 questions Jesus Asked and The 3 He Answered.   With the help of this book, we explored some of those questions like: “What are you looking for?”, “Do you see this woman?”, “Where is your faith?”, “Who is your neighbor?”  This past week Ascension of Jesus into Heaven occurred, and next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost (so be sure to come with your brightest red clothing), so I decided I wanted to close out our last Easter Sunday with the last time Jesus ate with some of his disciples before ascending into heaven. 

        We find ourselves at the end of the Gospel of John, with some of the disciples fishing.  We are told that Peter and some of the other disciples didn’t really know what to do after Jesus’ death, so they decided to do what they do best, fishing.   They weren’t really having much luck, until a voice from shore suggested that they put their nets on the other side of the boat, which when they did, they harvested a bumper catch.  As they came to shore, they realized that the voice was that of Jesus.  Jesus had a fire going and cooked them breakfast.  Then after breakfast Jesus took Peter to the side and asked him, “Peter, do you love me?”  What an interesting question for Jesus to ask the man He himself had appointed to build his church. 

        I have been with you here at Mountain View now for three years; the same amount of time Jesus spent with his disciples.  How would you respond if I asked you, “Do you love me?”  Would you respond by saying, “Yes pastor, I love you.  More importantly, what do you mean in that response?  In a recent theological discussion with someone who grew up within the church and has a pretty good grasp of the bible, we explored the reality of how hard it is to understand scripture.  Now on the surface, understanding what is written is usually pretty simple to comprehend, but are the words that we are reading, accurately translated to the correct words for our language and culture?  I am not saying that God’s word is secretive, but rather the difficulty comes because the original manuscripts that we have used to translate into our language were written in a particular time and culture that is not our time or culture.  

        Specific to this morning’s scripture the word that is difficult to understand is found in the question that Jesus is asking Peter?  Peter, do you love me?  The word “love” is the word that does not easily translate from the original text.  The writings of the books in the New Testament were written originally in Greek, and if that isn’t difficult enough, the original Hebrew texts were translated from Hebrew into Greek as well.  This shouldn’t be a problem for us as the two primary languages that English is based on is Latin and Greek.  Yet, a cultural difference in language use is problematic with the word “love.”  When we say this word, what do we mean?  Is the meaning of “love” the same when I say, “I love ice cream” as when I say, “I love my child”; or when I say, “I love my spouse” mean the same as when I say, “I love my parent”; or when I say, “boy, I would love to hook-up with that gal or guy” what am I saying?  

When we use the word “love”, we have to look at the context to which it is being used.  The Greek language took out the guessing of what “love” meant by creating three words for our one word “love.”  In Greek, there are three directions of love: Agape, which is an unconditional love, the love that does not ask for anything in return, self-giving love, or sacrificial love.  It is the kind of love associated with Jesus or God.  Phileo, is a brotherly or sisterly love.  It is the kind of love associated with friendship – warm and generous but not completely unconditional.  It is the level of love that we as humans most commonly operate on.  The third type of love is called Eros, which is at the basic instinct level, that which is sexually charged.

So why did Jesus ask Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?”  Especially when Peter’s first answer was, “Yes Lord, I love you.”   When we just read this story through the eyes of our usage of the word “Love”, it would make little sense for Jesus to repeat the question three times.  One explanation some theologians have come up with to justify our use and understanding of the word “love” is that Jesus asked this question three times as a way of absolving Peter’s three denials of Christ, in order for Peter to be able to become the rock in which Jesus was to build his church upon.

The translation that we heard this morning differs from the standard translations in that each question asked by Jesus and each answer given by Peter uses the original Greek translation instead of our generic English use of the word “love.”  In the original Greek, we see Jesus asking Peter, “Peter do you Agape me; Peter do you unconditionally love me?” Peter responds, “Yes Lord, I phileo you; I love you Lord like a brother?  Peter does not answer Jesus’ question.  So Jesus asks again, “Peter do you unconditionally love me?  Peter again responds, “Yes Lord like a brother.  Again, Peter is unable to answer Jesus’ question.  So on the third time Jesus asks a different question, “Peter, do you phileo, me? Do you love me like a brother?  An exasperated Peter protesting responds with, “Lord you know I love you like a brother, why do you keep asking me?”  Finally Peter responds to Jesus’ question, phileo to phileo. 

What I glean when I read this story with this definition of “love”, is this: Jesus, finally realizes that Peter is incapable of following Jesus at the level that Jesus was asking.  So much so, that Peter didn’t really hear (this is conjecture on my part) what Jesus was asking which is why he became so upset with being asked three times.  I think also, it shows the reality that most of us, when we say we love Jesus, and God, and work toward ministering in Jesus’ name, can only do this at the level of Phileo, at the level or commitment of brotherly/sisterly love; a love of compassion and giving, but not without some sort of conditions. 

The second piece that I gain from this scripture is that we are being asked by Jesus to follow him at whatever level we are at in our understanding of Jesus’ request to love him.  In other words, “No matter who you are, or where you are at in life’s journey, you are welcomed.”   It is a story of our ability to inter into relationship with God at where we are in life, of who we are in the present.  God isn’t demanding us to be anyone other than who we are in order to be in relationship with God.  Our goal as children of God is to strive for the “agape” in our lives, but the true reality is, most of the time we will not be conducting our lives at that level, and I see through this passage, that God understands this and still “agapes” us.

The final question before Jesus ascends into heaven is “Do you love me?”  For us to be in an active relationship with God, Jesus is asking us to make that commitment, no matter where we are at in our life’s circumstance, God in his unconditional love is able to welcome us.  Rev Copenhaver suggests: that if you want to grasp what a Christian life entails, repeat these three questions that Jesus most often asked, 1) What are you looking for?, 2) What do you want me to do for you?, and 3) Do you love me?   For the question, “Do you love me?” is the question asked by someone who wants to be in relationship with you Pg 128, Jesus is the question, Martin Copenhaver   .  It is the final question Jesus is asking of us?  Amen

In His Steps, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on John 15:9-17

In His Steps

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 05/10/2015

Based on John 15:9-17


“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  Love each other as I have loved you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. This is my command: Love each other.”

        I pulled these specific sentences from this morning’s text because they highlight three major points that Jesus is making in his farewell speech to his disciples, as he is nearing the time of his arrest and crucifixion.  These three points are: 1) Love begins with God, 2) The importance of “Abiding” in God’s love, and 3) we are chosen by God to bear fruit that lasts.

        As the majority of you know, I have just come back from a couple of weeks of holiday.  During this time I was able to spend a few days with six of my twenty grandchildren.  This particular group of grandchildren range in ages of nearly two years old to 17.  It was a marvelous time of doing guy things with the two older boys, chatting some with my granddaughter as most of her time was scheduled with friends, getting to watch the 1st grader play soccer and spending time with him in batting practice.   Then I had the opportunity with the two youngest on a refresher course of how to change poopy diapers.  This opportunity came about with the volunteering to babysit so that my daughter and son-in-law could take advantage of having an evening out with other adults their age.  What these activities represented is what it means to “Abide in”, to abide in the family setting.  Believe me; you know when you’re abiding when you are changing a two year olds diaper!

        We as Christians, recognize Jesus as embodying the essence of God; this is what we are saying when we say “God incarnate,” or “God with us.”  But in order for Jesus to have been able to show us the essence of God, Jesus had to abide in God.  This is where I would like us to focus on this morning, the importance, no the necessity of “abiding in” God.  What does it mean to “abide in?”  Does this “abiding” require something of me?  Can I “abide in” partially or does “abide in” Jesus’ teachings mean total by in?

        In this week’s View, I sent an amendment suggesting a couple of videos that could prepare you for this morning’s worship.  One of the videos was about the life of a priest in El Salvador back in the 1980’s, Archbishop Romero who along with other priests were martyred for their stand on equal opportunities for the poor of their country.  Those events are a part of what helped spark what we call “Liberation Theology.”  The second video was based on a novel written in 1896 by Charles Shelton, a Congregational minister titled In His Steps.  A fictional story about a minister who challenged his congregation to live just one year consistently asking themselves this one simple question, “What would Jesus do?” 

        In my very early twenties, my then, mother-in-law presented me with a copy of the novel In His Steps, which over its 119 years in print has sold over 30 million copies.   I have to confess that reading this book has been one of those life changing events in my life.  In its pages, I too was challenged to look at my life, evaluate what I wanted out of life, and what did it mean for me to be a follower of Christ.  In the safety of its pages, I was able to visualize the joys of “abiding in” the life of Jesus as well as the hurt and sometimes harm that comes along with that “abiding”.  For you see, the world in general is afraid of the power of love.  It is so afraid of it that it tries to kill the type of love that Jesus is speaking about.  It killed Jesus, it killed Archbishop Romero, and it subtly tries to kill it in those who work at following God’s dream for his creation.

        We live in a world that is so calloused through hurt, pain, and lose that it cannot envision a world that could exist by the principle of love one another.  We read in the book of Acts on how through the power of love, the Jewish-Christian community grew in leaps and bounds.  The power of “abiding in” Jesus was so strong in the early church that it drew thousands of people throughout the Mediterranean to live a style of life that has grown, has spread throughout the world, and has lasted for over two thousand years.  Why is it then, that in American churches we are wringing our hands and complaining about shrinking numbers?  The answer I believe is found in the pages of a novel written by Rev Charles Shelton; the church has lost the belief in the power of “abiding in” Jesus.  Oh, we give it lip service, but when given the opportunity to live out the teachings of Christ; of turning the other cheek, of offering our tunic when our coat has been taken from us, of sharing what we possess with those who lack, how well do we fare?  That is the question and challenge in Rev Shelton’s novel.

        One of Shelton’s characters explains the change in her life after taking on this challenge of asking “What would Jesus do” in this way: I used to think that to be a Christian, I had to live my life by keeping Jesus’ commands, but now I just let Jesus live in my heart.  This character was able to do this because she started to “abide in” Jesus instead of living what she thought Jesus would wish her to do.  Let me personalize it in this way: When Steve Mitchell stopped living his life the way he thought others expected him to live and started living the life that was true to who he was, he started becoming a whole person.  The transformation within my perspective of life was tremendous.  I was no longer fearful of being ‘discovered’, I was no longer intimidated by other men’s masculinity, because I discovered what being masculine was for me, but most precious of all, I found a peace that I had never known before, and that peace came through the internal sense that God loves me for who I am, not for who I ought to be. 

        Jesus says, no greater gift is there than the gift of love.  What Archbishop Romero discovered in his ministry was that love was not just a passive word, but is a verb.  Love meant giving up the power that comes through oppression, love meant standing side by side with those who were most in need, love meant providing basic necessities of food, shelter, and companionship to those who are powerless to provide for themselves.

        So, as a church how are we fairing with what it means to “abide in” Jesus? Do we fall short in this walk?  Of course we do.  Do we have all the answers to how we accomplish our mission of sharing God’s love in our community?  Of course not!  But I can say that as a congregation we do take up the challenge of trying to understand what it does mean to “abide in” God’s love.  Our latest opportunity in learning about “abiding in” God’s dream comes through a man named Ed.  Ed is job and home challenged.  A few weeks ago, during the monthly council meeting, a number of you joined in the conversation of how can we as a congregation best minister to Ed?  Although the meeting felt awkward much of the time, I believe it was done in a spirit of “abiding in” Jesus.  Not all of us came away agreeing with some of the proposed steps that we were willing to take.  And you know what, that is fine.  It is normal, for no one of us has a crystal ball that we can look into and know the answers.  That meeting was a sacred conversation, and those kinds of conversations can only happen when God is involved.

        As I came away from that meeting, I began to realize that our “abiding in” needed some horizon expanding.  I found that we were approaching Ed from a perspective that comes from our own experiences.  As I discussed this with Pastor Wayne, we realized that we needed to seek advice of those who work more closely with people in Ed’s situation.   Out of that several of you joined Wayne in a conversation with Ann Klienkoft of Denver Parish Ministries.  These are acts of “abiding in” God.  David Cunningham, Professor of Religion at Hope College, Holland, Michigan writes: The love that structures the inner life of God gives us a sense of the proper pattern for Christian love.  Far from a mere feeling of euphoria, it is a disciplined habit of care and concern that, like all the virtues, can be perfected only over a lifetime.

        As a congregation, we will never fully “abide in” God because it is a life time process.  As individuals who say we follow Christ and his teachings, we will never completely achieve a fullness of “abiding in” God, because it is what our journey is about.  But if we start asking ourselves “I wonder what Jesus would do in this instance”, and if the answer has the action of love in it, then we will not go very wrong.  For no greater love does one have for their friends than to lay down their life.  Those are powerful words.  Jesus went to the cross for his friends, for us, for the world.  Let us do the same by walking in his steps.   Amen

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Preparing for Sunday's Worship

If you are interested in preparing for this Sunday's sermon, two movies that speak to this weeks Scripture lesson John 15:9-17, can be found on "Youtube".  On is the life story of Archbishop Romero, who was a Priest in El Salvador who was martyred for his role in speaking out against the injustices of the poor.  The movie is called "Romero" .   The second movie is called "In His Steps", which is based on a book of the same name, dealing with the challenge of living a Christ filled life.  The scripture this week focuses on what does it mean to "Abide" in God?