Today I had the pleasure of sharing a message with the folks at Nova United Methodist Church in Nova, OH. What a great group of people! Below is a transcript of that sermon. I didn’t present it verbatim. But, this is close enough.
Thank you all for allowing me to share this morning with you. It’s a great pleasure for my wife and me to join with you.
I also want to express a special thanks to Bro. Harry for inviting me. You have a real treasure in him. He is blessed and a blessing.
When Bro. Harry asked me to share, he suggested that it might be good to share a little of my experience with him. Especially, the time we have spent working through what are called the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. For those who are unfamiliar with that, I will explain a little more later. For now, though, I’ll just say that these Exercises were developed by Ignatius of Loyola in the late 16th century as a practical means of discerning, or determining God’s desire and will for a person. In a way, many of us are on that very journey of discovery. Ignatius simply wrote down his method for others to follow.
So, that being said, I would like to share with you a story. I like stories. I like to read them and I like to write them. Stories allow us to share our perception of the world. More importantly, they provide an avenue in which our stories intersect with the stories of others.
I began my story with Jesus about 43 years ago. I was in high school at a time when we in the West were in the throes of tectonic cultural upheaval. There was a war raging in Southeast Asia, morés and traditions were questioned, and many times abandoned. There was growing unrest among young people. And, there was an immense amount of mistrust. In the midst of this, God’s grace touched me. I was soon involved with various religious and church groups. I found stability and acceptance in that time of great change.
Soon, I began to have thoughts of pursuing a career in pastoral ministry. I knew that would involve earning an undergraduate degree followed by seminary. As the time for my departure to college neared, I found a job that paid real money! As an eighteen year old with a car and a few bucks in my pocket, I decided to enter the workplace and lay college aside.
Over the next 30 some odd years I became a father and a soccer coach. I was involved in a couple different music ministries that had the opportunities to play throughout the northern Ohio/Western Pennsylvania region. We also were able to team up with other organizations and play in Australia and Brazil. I worked as the music/worship leader of a small church in Elyria for over 15 years. During that time I realized that much of the music that was being sold as ‘Christian’ was very shallow and theologically questionable. That was the primary reason that I sought a seminary education. I needed to know what God really expected from us mere mortals.
In 2005 we were at our daughter’s graduation from Mt. Vernon Nazarene University. As I watch her cross the platform to accept her degree, I sensed that I should attempt to go back and pursue my own degree. I inquired at Ashland Theological Seminary and attended a fact finding weekend. I asked one of the admissions representatives about my chances. Especially, since I had no undergrad degree. She told me that the chances were slim, but that they were allowed to admit a certain number of ‘special’ students each year. So, I began the admissions process. In June of 2006 I received my letter of acceptance. I was going to college!
During my time at Ashland God began to touch my heart in new ways. My 1st year I took Theology 1. I learned something profound that colored the rest of my time there…and since. I found out that it was ok for Christians to think! Imagine that! Up until that time I had been in a community that pretty much taught us that we needed to accept whatever the leadership said because, well…they were God’s anointed leaders. We were taught not to question them much. And, especially, not to question God.
Later, I was introduced to people who practiced what we today refer to as the ‘spiritual disciplines.’ These involve practices of prayer, meditation, contemplation, fasting, etc.
I began to understand that there were many ways to approach God. There was more than just the Lord’s Prayer and saying grace at the table. I began to follow what is called the Daily Office. This is a series of prayers for each day. Normally, morning & evening prayers and readings taken from a source like the Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Catholic Breviary. Those in my church tradition felt that reciting prepared prayers dampened the spontaneity of the Spirit. These kinds of prayers were always wooden and unfruitful because they could not voice what was happening right here; right now. But, I found freedom and life in this practice. I felt as though I was truly part of a larger body of believers. People around the world were saying these very same prayers. I experienced a sense of unity with followers of Christ world-wide.
After I graduated from Ashland in 2011, I continued many of the practices that I had begun there. Then, on November 3rd of that year, things changed. I woke up on that Monday morning and got ready for work. I didn’t feel well. I bent down to tie my shoes and immediately felt something like bad heartburn. But, it was different in some ways. I told my wife and she, being the dutiful nurse that she is, gave me some aspirin and we drove to the hospital. We arrived at the ER and the folks there hooked me up to an EKG machine. Within minutes I heard a voice over the overhead speaker say, ‘Code Crimson; room 4’. That was my room. They called the code and I was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of people poking me with needles, taking my clothes off, starting IVs and shoving aspirin and Nitroglycerin in my mouth. I was having a heart attack. They wheeled me into the Cardiac Cath lab and began to look at my heart. The main artery of my heart, the so-called Widow maker was 100% blocked. By all accounts, I should have died that morning. But, thanks to the people at the hospital and God’s grace, I’m still here to talk with you.
During my recuperation, I began to get up earlier to spend time just ‘being’ with God. Sometimes I would pray vocally. But, most of the time I was simply quiet in God’s presence. I started each morning by saying, “Here I am, Lord, your servant.” This was my way of stating that I was present and attentive to God. And, I began to pray each day, “Jesus, please come, abide in me. And, let me abide in you.” I figured that if Jesus had said this in John’s Gospel, then it must be a real possibility.
Let me interject a caveat here. I had been a follower of Jesus for about 40 years. I had tried innumerable methods of prayer. I tried to ‘will’ myself to spend even 10 minutes each day in prayer. Nothing ever worked. Having some kind of regular devotional time just eluded me. Now, I found that it was no problem spending time in God’s presence. I firmly believe that this was not the result of anything I had decided to do. There was no ‘willing’ it to be so. This was entirely the result of God’s grace alone.
This brings me up to the time I met Brother Harry. I felt a need to have someone in my life who could help me to develop this new relationship I was experiencing with God. I searched online and came upon a source that talked about Spiritual Direction. I contacted them and they sent me a list of names. Brother Harry was one of those named. I e-mailed him and we set a time to meet. That was 2 years ago this past March. After a year or so of meeting, Harry suggested that we begin Ignatius’ exercises. We began that process in November of last year. This is where I began to experience the reality of today’s Gospel text. Jesus said, “Abide in me, as I also abide in you.” Many translations of this use words like, “remain in me,” or “dwell in me,” or “live in me.” These are all valid translations. But, I like “abide.” That word, to me, is inviting and homey. It has the sense of being comfortable and relaxing with a friend. That’s exactly what I’ve experienced with the Exercises. Whereas, many people look at this text and see “believe in me,” that is, “give mental assent to what I have taught you,” Ignatius invites us to put ourselves ‘into’ the text. We learn to experience the stories. It allows us to build a relationship with Jesus, the apostles, and the others who were part of Jesus’ life. Memories are made as we imagine the scents, sounds and sights of ancient Palestine. Trust is built. Trust in God that what we are doing is guided by the Holy Spirit. I think that it is all part of our living God’s graciousness toward us.
Let’s take a closer look at this passage in John. I’m not going to do a full-on exegesis of this. There is so much that could be noted in here that I couldn’t possibly touch on all of it. But, I do want to share a little of what I think Jesus was trying to communicate. There’s a lot of talk about ‘pruning,’ and cleansing. This sounds painful. I don’t want anyone coming near me with hedge clippers! However, Jesus stated that the point of that was so that much fruit would grow. Then he said, “Hey, trust me. Abide in me.” At first glance this looks like a conditional statement…“If you abide in me, then I’ll abide in you.” Read this way, the emphasis is placed on human action. Jesus will abide only and if we abide in him first. However, this whole passage is focused on Jesus not on human activity. Jesus is the vine. Jesus abides in the Father. Jesus is the source of life for the branches. It’s all Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. If we can take into account all of the linguistic gymnastics that the translators have gone through, I think that we can find a better understanding of this text. Rather than an ‘if/then’ conditional statement, I think Jesus is offering an invitation. George R. Beasley-Murray, who wrote a commentary on this Gospel, suggests that a better rendering would be, “Come. Step into union with me, and be assured that I am remaining in union with you.” We are invited into a relationship with Jesus because he knows that he is the true source of our faith. Parabolic analogies and metaphor can only go so far. But, I don’t think it would be out of bounds to take the ‘vine and branches’ illustration a step further. Yes, the vine has its roots deep in the earth. From there nutrients are carried upward and outward to the branches. The branches, in turn support the leaves and the fruit. In return, the leaves collect the sunlight and transform that energy into food that supports the vine. It appears that Jesus was stating that he desired to have a living relationship with people. That this was not a one-way deal. We can’t just sit passively by and wait for inspiration to rain down on us from heaven. Yes, God’s grace is the engine that drives the relationship. But, our response to that grace is of vital importance. God really, really wants us to know Jesus. And, God wants us to realize that Jesus really, really wants to know us.
This is revealed explicitly in vv. 13-15. Jesus told the disciples that they were no longer considered servants, but that he thought of them as friends. Friends whom he trusted with the words of God. Friends with whom he found comfort and pleasure. Friends who he was willing to lay down his life for.
The Ignatian exercises are all about this friendship. From the beginning we work to understand our place in God’s world and our world. We travel with Jesus from his baptism through his ascension. We talk with him and allow him to speak to us. Like I stated earlier, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit leads us. But, I think that’s part of having faith. I’ve learned that the Spirit works in our hearts and lives even when we don’t see it. There is renewal and transformation happening for those who love God and are called according God’s purposes.
This morning I’d like us all to reflect and see where God might be working in our lives. Perhaps, God is calling us all into a more intimate relationship. A relationship with Jesus, not just as Lord, but also as friend and brother.
Heavenly Father, we are so grateful to you for loving us enough to come and join with us in humanity. You are a God who knows us and understands us. And, You are a God who desires us to know you. Please, allow your Holy Spirit to fill and guide us as we seek to build a meaningful relationship with you. Amen.