The following is the sermon that I preached to the Presbytery of Boise today. The scripture texts are from John 20:30-31 and John 21:25.
A series called Last Lecture was a popular student-faculty event during my years at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The idea, as the title suggested, was that faculty and administration would be invited to spend an evening giving what they would want to be their “last” lecture.
Despite its morbid title, the Last Lecture was an opportunity for students to get to know school leaders outside the rigors of the academy.
Our professor of worship talked about bread making; carefully measuring the ingredients and carefully mixing, kneading and working the dough. He spoke about the science of baking – the reactions of flour and yeast and water and heat – and the different types of breads. He spoke about the spiritual aspects of bread as a means of individual nourishment and communal gathering.
Sib Towner, the Professor of Old Testament, shared his passion for sailing. He talked about preparing that sailing required, and the freedom of sailing along with the exhilaration of wind and salt spray as his boat would glide across the waters of coastal Virginia. He talked about the power of wind and wave reminding us that there are times we can control what seems to be the uncontrollable but reminded us that there are also times when we can be at the mercy of these elements.
So, today as I preach to the Presbytery of Boise, not hypothetically as was the premise of our last lecture series, and I meet with you for what is most certainly the last time as your Presbytery Executive, I selected the verses I just read from John 20 and 21 since they serve to wrap up the story of the evangelist while acknowledging that the gospel has an ongoing and unfolding purpose in the world. Our witness…your work as followers of Jesus Christ is not and should not be defined by any particular set of years or events.
If you skim the content of these two chapters, you find that they contain powerful stories of resurrection and post-resurrection events. It is the first day of the week when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb where Jesus’ body has been placed. Something there is amiss and she races to tell the disciples. Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb, finding it empty and as John writes, Uncertain of these events because as we learn“They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.” 20:9-10
What follows is Jesus’ appearance to Mary and his appearance to the disciples (except Thomas) with another appearance to Thomas 8 days later. John concludes this chapter with these words, “Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing you will have life in his name.”
Resurrection alone was miraculous and is vitally important to the church but I think John wants to emphasize that resurrection cannot be the ending of the gospel story…that resurrection is the launching point for us in belief and in the way we are to continue something powerful and miraculous in the world even today. John sets the stage for the Great Commission and the story of the book of Acts.
From a literary point of view, it would seem that the ending in chapter 20 provides a fitting conclusion to the story, but John has more to tell us. In chapter 21, the story resumes…maybe as a P.S. or “oh there’s one more thing” describing breakfast on the beach and the powerfully restorative conversation between Peter and Jesus concluding with verse, “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.” 21:25
So my final words, or last lecture/sermon arise from what I derive as the meaning/intent of these concluding verses: the power of the gospel cannot and should not be limited to what has been defined or contained within a closed Canon. It is alive…a living testimony to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and one that we now participate in as disciples of the one who is risen and who still makes an appearance in surprising ways to his followers. Jesus continues to do many other things some of which get written down but much of which goes unrecorded.
Over the course of this year I’ve discovered something that I’m beginning to call a hobby – running. I recognize that some of you might be considering calling for an examination of my mental state when I make such a claim. And I would never have considered running a hobby especially as I was beginning.
Early this spring I became very much aware that winter’s hibernation had turned me into an out of shape slug. I challenged myself as the weather began to improve to begin walking – a three mile loop around my subdivision. The first weeks were difficult: from a physical standpoint because muscles that had not been active for months were being asked to work, and from a mental standpoint keeping the excuses not to walk from overruling the need to just do it.
I persisted in walking each day despite the aches of body and mind. With the arrival of the General Assembly meeting in Detroit, I was presented with a new challenge: a nine-day period of endless sitting in meetings in a new location and long days. I resolved that I would take time each day to walk and did so, even when it meant I was headed to the hotel gym at 9p.m.
After General Assembly I added a jog to my routine feeling it was time to push myself even more. The first weeks of jogging were evidence to me that even though I had been walking I was far from in shape. I would run a bit, huff and puff a lot and walk a bit more. Eventually, my pace and endurance would improve and today I am able to run a daily average 3 to 5 miles.
As winter approaches, and by winter I mean Michigan winter, I have come to realize that running will be do-able but will happen in a different way. The places I run will change, the equipment I need to run will be different, the access to running will not be the same. I cannot let my running be limited to the way I have done so up till now.
I have benefited from running. I have more energy. I am in better physical shape. I have lost weight. I have found a way to minimize some to the stresses of work, family and life that were destructive to my mental health. Its made me more aware of a theology of movement. While the idea of Sabbath or rest is essential and a commandment that we cannot ignore, I am equally aware that movement is an important part of faith life too.
Much of the Bible’s stories deal with movement. God creates this world not as a fixed, stationary place but commands that we be active participants in creation. We note that movement in the Bible is equated with faithfulness and in some circumstances is the result of faithlessness.
While movement is an action in much of the New Testament, I am more keenly aware of it when reading the accounts of the resurrection. The news of Jesus’ resurrection was not taken casually. It prompted running and movement without hesitation. The appearance of Jesus to disciples either in the upper room or at dinner on the road to Emmaus resulted in activity or movement.
And even Jesus gets into the action, as John tells us. Not merely is he risen – he is on the move. He is engaged in the miraculous appearances behind closed doors and he is actively present in the ordinary smells of a campfire and cooking fish beside a lake. While these things are recorded for us, John would also have us remember that there are even more things, even more movement and activity, that are not written but yet as we come to recognize the power of the resurrection they too become the catalyst for belief in him.
I believe that the events written as the testimony of the disciples are an essential witness: teaching us who Jesus is and about what God desires for this world. I also find the meaning of the verses we read today to be important lessons as I – or we the church – go about the mission or task of proclaiming Jesus Christ – in a world that doesn’t question Jesus, but does question the way the church has presented Jesus.
I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ continues to be written as individuals and congregations live out their faith. I experience a living gospel in the work of our summer camp program at Camp Sawtooth or in the ministry to college students at the College of Idaho. I believe the gospel is being written in the relationships built at the Homedale church with the children of its neighborhood or at the number of churches in our presbytery where food is shared with those who are hungry.
None of these events or persons are written in what the church calls the Canon, but each is a demonstration of the ways that the gospel is living and continuing in our day and time.
It is unfortunate that our history will include this period when our Presbyterian family is divided and that these years were a grey period in this presbytery’s history, yet we should not…you cannot allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to be defined by divisiveness. It is your…our responsibility to share how God has walked alongside us even in this valley of the shadow.
Even in the midst of this season we need to remember or to be reminded of the many things God has done and is doing – things that are not written down but that are working to bring people to belief in Jesus Christ. We cannot give in to the hibernation of this winter season, if we so choose to characterize this time as such, but must challenge ourselves and be challenged by our risen Lord to participate in a theology of movement. A calling to live and move and have our very being in God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.