Judgment Day

5 Easter 2011-05-22

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

I want to talk about stewardship today; the stewardship of the Good News of Jesus that is the responsibility of the Christian Church.

I think of our stewardship of the Good News in the light of “Judgment Day”, which was to have taken place yesterday, according to the calculations of a retired civil engineer from Oakland, California with a love of numerology and an apparent lack of whatever psychological characteristic that keeps people from opening themselves to ridicule.

I’ve shared in some of the fun at Harold Camping’s expense, but now I’m drawn to think about his victims; those who left all to follow him. While they do have responsibility for their decisions, I feel sympathy for them as of this morning, when they awaken to the reality that things go on as before. My guess is that most of these folk are not the rich and powerful of this world. My guess is that they are people who are feeling something of the hopelessness and helplessness that a lot of people feel when they have no sense that their voices are heard in the world or that they have a place in this world. Their distress is an occasion for the Church to pay attention to our stewardship of the Good News of Jesus.

The stewardship of the Good News is a responsibility we share. It isn’t just the responsibility of the clergy.

“We receive you into the household of faith. Profess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood”, we pray at all baptisms.

The moment we’re in is a moment to live out that invitation. It’s a time to proclaim Good News.

“Judgment Day” is come and gone in one sense, and the media can now find another sensation to sell advertising.

Judgment day continues in another sense, in that each day is for the Church a day of crisis. “Who are we, and what do we really believe? What do we really trust in terms of the truth about God and God’s relationship to the world, such that we put our hearts and souls into something? Given that the likes of Harold Camping claim the Bible as their authority for their doom-and-gloom vision for the world, how do we make our claim for the Bible’s authority for a different and hopeful vision of God’s love for the world? Harold Camping and his followers are willing to commit themselves to their cause, to the extent of enduring ridicule. What real commitments do we make for the sake of carrying out the mission and ministry of Jesus? Do we realize how much people need and want a word from God that gives them life? ”

These things are in mind as I read Scripture such as today’s Gospel reading from John, especially these words:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

I’m fully aware that there are people who hear this text, and it doesn’t come across as Good News.

I remember clearly being on a college campus in the South some thirty five years ago with a another college student, from whom I was to learn how to witness for Jesus. I watched with growing alarm as he tried to convert a young female college student to his brand of fundamentalist faith by using this text to threaten her with eternal damnation if she didn’t accept Jesus. She was reduced to tears, and he to frustration.

It’s a sorrowful memory, and I’m fully aware that such uses of Scripture continue to drive wedges between peoples. I could have been one of those disaffected people, except for coming into contact with Christian communities who showed me another way and with scholars who belonged to communities of accountability which enriched and deepened my understanding of how we read Scripture and interpret Scripture together.

In that community I’ve learned to look again at passages we thought we knew, like this one. And when I look at it, I see how pointless it is to use it against people who do not yet believe that God was in Christ.

People like, Philip, for example, who is the disciple of Jesus to whom this statement is addressed. His lack of belief is acknowledged by Jesus, who says it right out loud:

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”

It isn’t Philip’s intellectual or cognitive grasp of what Jesus is saying to him that is his hope of salvation, it is Jesus own gracious and patient initiative that offers Philip a path to God.

The way home is embodied in Jesus himself; Jesus who takes the initiative, Jesus who is patient and waits for his followers to understand and trust him, Jesus who doesn’t wait for them to love him fully before he loves them fully.

This is the Jesus who invites us deep into God’s own life, but who we never will own or control. This is the same Jesus who, as John’s Gospel also affirms, is a “shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” and who tells his disciples that “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

In this light, we are free from the burden of having to believe that Jesus here is condemning all unbelievers in him to eternal damnation, as I once felt myself obligated to believe, to my great consternation. This text is anything but a text to buttress Christian exceptionalism or triumphalism.

What this text is to me is a great invitation to exercise trust that God is good, and gracious, and steady in purpose to win us to God’s good purposes. That invitation is to put out an effort to receive the Good News, welcome the mercy of God into our souls, and extend it to others.

As Eugene Peterson puts it:

“Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”

Thank God, all the fuss of “Judgment Day” is behind us.

Thank God as well that we always have a judgment day before us, a day to decide how we'll follow Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.

How might that look?

Brian McLaren tells a story* about his friend Tony Campolo, a Baptist preacher who was away from home in a distant city. He couldn't sleep, so he got up and went to a nearby coffeeshop, where he was seated near a couple of prostitutes talking with one another.

Tony heard one of the prostitutes, a woman named Agnes, say that her birthday was tomorrow, and that she'd never really had a birthday party in her life.

Tony went to the coffeeshop owner, and with the his help and the help of his wife they came up with a plan.

The next night Tony showed up at the coffeeshop, and when Agnes showed up they surprised her with that long-awaited party, complete with birthday cake, candles, balloons, the whole thing.

To this point Tony hadn't revealed that he was a minister. When the coffeeshop owner learned that he was amazed.

“What kind of church are you from, anyway?”

To which Tony replied: “the kind of church that throws a birthday party for a prostitute at 3:30 in the morning.”

That's the Jesus way, the Jesus truth, the Jesus life. No one comes to God except through this life.

*re-told by Greg Garrett in The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love.