Easter 7B Sermon (2024)

7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 17:6-19;
1 John 5:9-13; Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Facebook Live (sermon begins 24:55): https://fb.watch/s0OK7efjIE/


On this Mother’s Day, we will explore a double irony. (See also the accompanying Sermon Notes.) The first Mother’s Day irony is that, in reading from both the Gospel of John and the Letter of John (as we’ve been doing all the Easter season), we are reading from texts that use the word “Father” 121 times. One hundred twenty-one! This morning’s Gospel is a prayer from Jesus to his Father that we might be ‘kept’ in the Father’s name. In other words, Jesus is praying that we might be kept in our new identities as reborn children of Jesus’ God, whom he calls “Father.” It’s not going to be easy to be ‘kept’ in these identities in this world that still refuses to know the Father.

The second Mother’s Day irony is that Jesus’ God, whom he calls “Father,” is so completely different from our typical human gods that we might more truthfully call her “Mother,” because Jesus’ God is so completely about the power of love both to give life and then to help it flourish. Jesus’ God is about “boundless life.” Jesus’ God, John tells us, IS love.

Let’s unpack the first irony first. More than 95% of the time that the Gospel-writer John uses the word “Father,” he or Jesus himself is referring to the one Jesus considers to be the true God. The notable exceptions are in John 8. From beginning to end, since John’s Gospel starts with Jesus’ direct challenge to the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus is challenging the Jewish leadership on who God truly is. The true God is not really into killing things on altars in temples. The true God is so much about nurturing life that Jesus does God’s work by healing people, even if it’s on the Sabbath. And the true God is never about condemning and executing people through events like stoning adulterers or crucifying so-called blasphemers. John 8 begins with that famous story of Jesus halting the stoning of a woman accused of adultery — “You who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they all drop theirs. But John 8 is also flanked by attempts of the Jewish leaders to stone Jesus himself. When those leaders claim Abraham as their Father — Abraham who actually stopped the practice of child sacrifice — Jesus challenges them with one of the most bracing and dangerous passages in the Bible:

“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not have faith in me. (John 8:44-45)

Wow! Now that’s a pretty different use of the word “father”! ‘Your father is the devil, a murderer from the beginning, and the father of lies.’ It’s also quite dangerous if we use who Jesus is speaking to, to spark our own hatred and murder. Since Jesus is speaking to Jewish leaders, these verses have been used by Christians throughout the ages to fuel anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews. It’s the kind of thing used to justify the Nazi Holocaust or the horrific rise in anti-Semitism since the Hamas attack against Israel last October.

No, the truth of Jesus using the word “father” that way cannot be heard unless it is heard on the anthropological level of applying to all human beings. Not just to whom Jesus is speaking. It is the anthropological truth that has changed my life and faith that I’ve been seeking to pass onto you. It’s the truth that we human beings evolved with religions relying on killing scapegoats, religions that do things like killing people on altars, executing people by stoning and hanging, and sponsoring endless wars against our enemies. Jesus comes with the truth of our evolution in violence such that our true father-god for us is named as the devil, Satan, a murderer from the beginning of our species and based on the Big Lie — the Big Lie that the only way to stop violence is with more violence. That is the truth which is so impossible for us to hear and understand that Jesus had to let himself become our scapegoat and be raised from the dead as our forgiveness, in order for to finally begin hearing and understanding, Jesus had to become the lamb of God in order to take way the sin of the world.

So in the prayer Jesus is praying in our Gospel Reading today, Jesus is praying that his Father would keep his followers in their new identity of nonviolent love — which is so hard to keep in a world that is so violent. Much of the world would continue to not hear and understand him, so it continue to be a dangerous world for those who follow in Jesus’ new identity, his new way of being human that begins by trusting the God of love rather than gods of violence. This worked for several centuries when the early Christians largely maintained their nonviolent, loving ways in the face of the Roman Empire’s violence. But that began to change in the 4th Century, when Christians began to ally themselves with empire again. And we mostly lost that unique identity of love and nonviolence for many centuries. There are still many Christians today who claim the old devilish identity of gods who sanction violence — the so-called Christian Nationalists who even now seem to be plotting the use of political violence.

By God’s grace, many other Christians were given — another irony! — a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi, who once again took Jesus’ identity of loving nonviolence to heart, calling it Satyagraha, the “Spirit of Truth.” The same Spirit Jesus talks about in our readings from John. He revived the movement of the new way of being human based on nonviolence and loving care of one another. We do well to learn from all who have taken Gandhi’s movement to heart, which I truly believe is in the same Spirit of Truth that Jesus came to bring into the world.

I’m tempted to share some of those stories on nonviolent resistance, but Mother’s Day brings us the appropriate stories we need, appropriate to the Day. Which brings us to that second Mother’s Day irony, namely, that the God whom Jesus calls “Father” is so different from the violent, deadly gods of our human evolution that it would be more accurate to call her “Mother.” For the God of Jesus is all about giving new life to us, so that we can become all about life, too. Never death, but life. So that our lives can become a testimony to the power of life and love. Our lives can testify to God’s boundless life. We see this God whom Jesus called Father when women live into their special roles as mothers to both bring new life into the world and then to do their best to nurture it and help it to flourish. But it can also become the task of all of us, in honor of our mothers, to do our best to nurture life and help it to flourish. To make our lives about that! Whether we’re women or men, single or married, we can take up the new way of being human that’s all about life, boundless life.

Mother’s Day actually began as movement of nonviolent healing in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ann Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe sought to heal not only the physical wounds of war but also the spiritual wound of division and hatred between the states. They were mothers who called all people to join them in healing, not harming. They put into action what Jesus prayed for when he prayed to his Father that he would make us one like they are one. You can read about their stories at the webpages I’ve shared with you in today’s Sermon Notes.

I’d like to end with a TV recommendation that is packed full of stories about a mothering commitment to life. It’s the PBS show by the name Call the Midwife. It’s about nurses in the 50’s and 60’s who service the poor east-end of London. They fan out into the neighborhood on bicycles to help mothers give birth to new babies and to treat other diseases and ailments. These nurses are headquartered out of a religious house for women, so it includes ‘sisters’ who have taken a vow of chastity. But they are also complemented by young nurses, many of whom are unmarried. But they live lives that are the epitome of loving mothers. I’ve never seen a television show whose main characters are so completely dedicated to the work of loving, compassionate service. To nurturing life.

I close with the closing of last week’s episode. Woven through the stories of not only new births but also adoptive parenting, there’s the process of choosing a Mother of the Year. This particular year, 1969, they choose not a mother who has given birth herself but one of the Anglican sisters who, as a midwife, has helped to birth thousands of their neighborhood’s children. As everyone is cheering her selection, the narrator closes with words that remind me of Jesus’ words to his Father:

We are all knowing nothing and no one but our mother. Never again will the world feel so complete. Our time on earth becomes a quest for love. We look for love to feed us, love to teach us, love to help us grow and keep us safe. And we will find it, because love is always closer than we think. Love is in every smile we exchange, every lesson we share, every hand we hold, every gift we give and we receive. Love is in every breath we take. It is the greatest prize of all.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, May 12, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins 24:55): https://fb.watch/s0OK7efjIE/

Sermon Notes

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