Sunday, April 10, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Genesthai"

John 8:48-59

The Jewish opposition answered, “We were right to say that you are a Samaritan and have a demon, weren’t we?” 49 “I don’t have a demon,” Jesus replied. “But I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I’m not trying to bring glory to myself. There’s one who is seeking to glorify me, and he’s the judge. 51 I assure you that whoever keeps my word will never die.”

52 The Jewish opposition said to Jesus, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham and the prophets died, yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never die.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died and the prophets died, so who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is meaningless. My Father, who you say is your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 You don’t know him, but I do. If I said I didn’t know him, I would be like you, a liar. But I do know him, and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day. He saw it and was happy.” 

 57 “You aren’t even 50 years old!” the Jewish opposition replied. “How can you say that you have seen Abraham?” 58 “I assure you,” Jesus replied, “before Abraham was, I Am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the temple.  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Two

At the risk of sounding like that stoner roommate you had in college, being able to look up at the night sky and see that which existed years ago, decades ago, is a very humbling experience.  Because the stars in the sky are so far away and the light, even being the fastest of all things ever created, takes so long to get to earth, by the time it does arrive, we are looking into the past, at what the stars looked like years ago compared to what they look like now.

And alongside them is the moon, the same face of which has been gazing upon the earth for eternity, waxing and waning, meaning it is the same face of the moon that Jesus saw in His day, or that Abraham saw in his, thousands of years ago, or that the very first humans saw hundreds of thousands of years before us.

The significance of that sort of timelessness has not been impressed only upon us.  In his bestselling book Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom writes about what he discovered about what one other culture believed about the heavens:

As my visits with Morrie go on, I begin to read about death, how different cultures view the final passage.  There is a tribe in the North American Arctic, for example, who believe that all things on earth have a soul that exists in a miniature form of the body that holds it—so that a deer has a tiny deer inside it, and a man has a tiny man inside him.  When the large being dies, that tiny form lives on.  It can slide into something being born nearby, or it can go to a temporary resting place in the sky, in the belly of a great feminine spirit, where it waits until the moon can send it back to earth.

Sometimes, they say, the moon is so busy with the new souls of the world that it disappears from the sky.  That is why we have moonless nights.  But in the end, the moon always returns, as do we all.

This is what they believe.

The notion of eternity that the moon carries with it in this story is crucial to understanding the entire concept of faith: that before you were and are, there was this soul-sized version of you that was as well.  It is this truth that Jesus tries to convey, in His uniquely divine dimensions, here in John 8.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that fire burns, or that the 49ers won’t ever win another Super Bowl (my pandering knows no bounds).

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

Last week, we talked about the creation of right faith within the apostle Thomas, and this week, we’ll be looking at another story from John, of Jesus responding to the accusation that He has a demon, and what He has to say illuminates something very important about the nature of faith: its longevity.

Paul famously wrote in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is patient, but really, what he is saying in the Greek is, “love suffers long” (put that in the ol’ noggin and let that roll around for a minute the next time you hear that passage read at someone’s wedding!).  But he could, and should, just as easily be saying that about faith: faith suffers long.

Faith’s longevity is one of its greatest hallmarks, the reality that far from being an altar call-induced flash in the pan, faith has the capacity to, and is fundamentally meant to, endure and survive across lifetimes, across centuries, across millennia.

And our faith can do that because that faith is put in someone who is equally timeless: God as revealed by Jesus Christ.  That is why Jesus responds the way he does to the accusation here at the end of John 8 that he is a demonically possessed Samaritan.  Jesus is saying to His opponents that if they genuinely claimed the mantle of their ancestor Abraham, they would be fulfilling Abraham’s mission of building up the nation instead of trying to rid themselves of Jesus.

So Jesus’s opponents basically double down on the insults: not only is Jesus demonic, but he is a demonic Samaritan!  Samaritans, lest we forget John’s explanation in his fourth chapter, when he recounts the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, are persona non grata to the Judeans.  This is why the parable of the Good Samaritan is of, well, the Good Samaritan, and not the Judean priest or Levite who come before the Samaritan and pass on the other side of the road so as to avoid the man in immediate need of care.

It is also why Jesus’s opponents call Him a Samaritan.  It is meant to basically be a religious slur.

No wonder, then, that Jesus rebukes them for not acting as children of Abraham, and he takes His point one step further: that He in fact knows Abraham, because even before Abraham existed, some 1,800 years or so before Jesus, Jesus Himself was.

Before Abraham was, Jesus says, He (Jesus) genesthai, was.  That word genesthai is an aorist-tense verb: a type of past tense to emphasize that Jesus pre-existed Abraham.  It even onomatopoetically sounds like the beginning of time itself: genesis.  And it should.  Because while God was creating the heavens and the earth, Jesus in some way, form, or fashion, was created into existence as well.

Not as a man, no.  But as a spirit, as the Spirit?  Sure.  There was always that side of Jesus that was far bigger than you or I or any other person.  That is why we say that He was both human and divine, the most divine person to have ever existed.

And so it is right for us to put our faith in Jesus, not merely our belief.  We do not simply say that we believe that Jesus was real, but that we have faith in that reality of His divinity, because He is the One, the one person who can transcend the sun and the moon and the stars, who encompasses life and death and the passage in between, that even when we confront death ourselves, whether in our own mortal shells or in seeing the death of a friend or relative or even a total stranger, that we have faith in a God more timeless than even the heavens themselves.

A heavens which we gaze into with eyes cast upwards and see timelessness itself, played out right before us.

Those skies which welcome in souls and beings, that bears witness to both life and death as the First Nation Peoples say, Jesus is hearkening back to them when He says that He genesthai, that He was before Abraham was.

It would be colossal, tremendous error to interpret this as Jesus saying that He has usurped the Abrahamic tradition; no, Jesus is not denigrating Abraham.  Jesus is pointing out how this generation of Abraham’s children has failed their collective forefather’s great legacy.

And in so doing, Jesus points to another truth altogether: that when we put our faith in the One who sent Him as we ought, that we too may live so long as to one day see Abraham for ourselves.

That is no small thing, to see the good forefather of three of the world’s great religions.

But then again, Jesus is no small Messiah, either.

He is, and always will be, a faith-sized, soul-sized, kingdom-sized, world-sized Messiah.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 10, 2016

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