Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 22, 2018 10:30 AM
Καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐντολὴ αὐτοῦ, ἵνα πιστεύσωμεν τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους, καθὼς ἔδωκεν ἐντολὴν ἡμῖν.καὶ ὁ τηρῶν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ μένει καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι μένει ἐν ἡμῖν, ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος οὗ ἡμῖν ἔδωκεν.
Now this is his commandment: that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us. Indeed, those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he remains in them; and in this we know that he abides in us, by the spirit that he has put in us.
I learned my best theology in airplanes, not in seminary. In seminary, your beliefs can earn you good grades or help you find another line of work. In airplanes, your beliefs can keep you alive or make you part of a smoldering heap in some farmer’s field.
I only experienced vertigo once in an airplane, but it happened to me on a turbulent trip from Knoxville, Tennessee to Winston-Salem one evening as I was joining the instrument landing system for Smith-Reynolds airport. The city and its lights lay below an undercast; a layer of wind-smoothed clouds lay above me, and I was glad to be making the final turns to land at my home field and put the jarring, unpleasant ride to an end. Suddenly, nothing seemed right. Although I had just eased the plane onto the course the course the controller had given me to intercept the localizer, the airplane suddenly felt as though it were turning sharply and diving towards the ground. What I saw outside the window looked like an abstract painting with no way of telling which way was up or down. Every cell of my nervous system wanted to jerk the yoke to the right to make the phantom turn stop and add power to end the headlong rush my senses told me I was making towards the ground. Had I done those things, some other priest would be preaching this sermon.
“Trust your instruments,” your instrument flight instructor shouts at you constantly over the roar of the engine from takeoff to landing. “Step on the ball! Trim for best glide! Scan the instruments! Scan! Scan!” It could be like a computer game, I suppose, if I played computer games. Whatever your body is telling you, ignore it. Keep the little needles where they belong. And if one of those little needles goes haywire, you’re going to have to trust all those other needles to tell you it’s haywire. The uncomfortable hood instrument students wear keep them from looking out the window and to focus attention on the gauges, on the needles, on the life and death game of keeping them in their right places. That focus can save your life.
And it is all just a game—until it isn’t—until your inner ears and your whole digestive system tell you that you are racing toward the ground, and those silly needles tell you the airplane is flying straight and level. Instrument training is about one thing whether we call it belief or faith or trust. Lose that faith and you become a brick falling from the sky. So, when the unknown author of 1 John tells me there is only one commandment, to trust in the name of God’s Son, I hear a voice from the right seat of the airplane telling me that trust isn’t just a nice thing to have; it’s survival.
Trust is risky business, though. I recall a unique exercise in trust in the form of trip from Chapel Hill to Schiffman’s Jewelers in Greensboro to buy Patricia her engagement ring. You have to be twenty years old and in love to try to buy a diamond ring with five dollars in your pocket to purchase gas for the borrowed car you’re using. But that’s what we did. We borrowed the Presbyterian minister’s car and set off for Greensboro one Saturday morning in April. Now it wasn’t that I thought Schiffman’s gave out diamond rings for free. I had some summer earnings in a passbook savings account in Roanoke that I figured I could use, but the passbook together with the money it represented was in Roanoke. Still, if you’re going to get engaged, you don’t tell your beloved to wait, do you? So, we went to Greensboro, and the nice man at the jewelry store helped us find a stone and a setting my summer wages could afford, and the deal was done—except I had no way to pay for it. I confessed my plight to the salesman asking whether I could return later to pick up the ring after making a Trailways bus trip to Roanoke. A high-level discussion between the salesman and the manager ensued, during which all the reality of the real world came crashing down on me. Then the impossible happened.
“Just take it with you,” the salesman said, returning from the office with the ring in a box and a sales slip. “Write your name and address here, and send us a check next week.” And that’s what I did, after which we walked out of the store and left town. I doubt that kind of trust was commonplace fifty years ago, and I imagine it would be unthinkable now; but I learned something about trust that afternoon.
Real trust, or faith, or belief—they’re all the same thing in the Bible—involves risk and action. Trust involves putting yourself on the line, but it also involves doing something. The Schiffman’s store clerk and manager trusted me to pay them without knowing for sure that I could, but they also did something. They let me walk out of the door with a diamond ring. And trusting an airplane’s instruments involves puts your life and your passengers’ lives at risk in the hope that the airplane’s instruments are giving you the right information. You can think that something is true all day long, but faith occurs when you take the risk of that truth and do something about what you think is true.
The author of First John hopes you think that Jesus is God’s Son, but you can think that all day along with any number of other religious doctrines that comprise the body of our confession, but thinking and doing are two different things. Commandments concern actions, not opinions, and faith in Jesus Christ, our author would tell us, concerns what we do, how we act. Commands are action words, your grammar teacher may have taught you.
The Schiffman’s door First John wants you to walk through isn’t the one that has a sign over it that reads “Theology” but the other one, the door with the big neon sign that says “Love.” If trust involves doing something, then love is the thing our trust has us do. Trusting your instruments means keeping their needles in the right places. Trusting your customer means letting him and his fiancé walk out of the store with a ring. Trusting the name of the Lord Jesus, John would tell us, means loving each other. And for our writer, that love amounts to much more than kind thoughts and nice words. It means active compassion, John insists: “How can you say God’s love abides in you if you, having the earthly means to help, see a brother or sister in need and shut off compassion? (1 John 3:17)” Trust in the name of Jesus for John amounts to a love that is so great that it cannot bear the other’s suffering and takes the risk of doing something to relieve it.
Asking for compassion today is much like asking for fairy dust. Our children and grandchildren are afraid to go to school for fear of being murdered by somebody with a gun. They actually have drills in schools now that are supposed to train students and teachers what to do if somebody with an M-15 is stalking the halls shooting children. We might have hoped for a little compassion for these precious souls, but they received as much derision on cable networks as compassion and more thoughts and prayers than serious consideration of their terror.
We might have hoped that the richest nation on earth could have shown some compassion for Syrian refugees from the brutality of Bashar al-Assad or for Yemenites from the killing fields off the Gulf of Aden. Victims of violence in Venezuela, Columbia, and El Salvador might have hoped for a helping hand instead of insults and taunts. And in a country that obsesses about what threatened tariffs might do to the profits hog farms in North Carolina will gain, people starve while politicians condemn the starving for a lack of industry.
And all of that may not be too different from the pseudo-sophisticated society of Roman Syria when John wrote his letter. Their politicians too reserved their compassion for those who had political muscle, and their officials shamed those who struggled to find enough food to survive by having work requirements otherwise known as debt slavery for those who could not make a living. But our writer thinks that life in Jesus just has to be different from the ordinary indifference of the economic powerhouse in Antioch or Damascus. How could we believe in Jesus and put the brakes on our compassion? If Christ’s death for us meant something, if his suffering on our behalf amounted to something other than a vapid dream, then where was the action? What was going to change? What were believers going to do that was different from what the Isis worshippers and the devotees of Mithras and the elite Pythagoreans and the genteel despisers of all the gods were doing right now.
For our writer, the house of God had to fill up to bursting with compassion. Believing in the name of Jesus just had to mean more than reciting creeds and celebrating cultic meals; it had to commit its sons and daughters to a love that knew no bounds of language, color, wealth, or power. Trusting Jesus had to involve living the life of love Jesus lived and lives, accepting all of the risks of betrayal and ridicule and loss and even death to break open forever the doors of sympathy and kindness for sisters and brothers living in fear, living in poverty, and living in hunger.
The world we inhabit finds all of that love just so much soft soap and maybe it seems that way to us too sometimes. Maybe we too sometimes want to turn the airplane right-side up and pour on the gas and believe the pundits who tell us we are suffering from compassion fatigue. But trust is as trust does, John reminds us. Trust in Jesus implies overwhelming, careless, and bountiful love for our neighbors just like the bountiful, careless, and overwhelming love God lavished upon us in his Son who died for us.
 The Greek is singular here, but I have followed the modern convention of making the reference plural to avoid the generic “he.”
 ὃς δʼ ἂν ἔχῃ τὸν βίον τοῦ κόσμου καὶ θεωρῇ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχοντα καὶ κλείσῃ τὰ σπλάγχνα αὐτοῦ ἀπʼ αὐτοῦ, πῶς ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ μένει ἐν αὐτῷ;