"When The Obvious Is Not So Obvious"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 20, 2007

Psalm 97; John 17:20-26

    This morning’s lesson is one of the most difficult passages found in John’s Gospel.  In fact, the long prayer that makes up most of Chapter 17 contains wording that is difficult to read.  Nowhere in the Gospels do we find Jesus struggling to find the right words to communicate with God.  The Greek in this passage is very repetitive and complicated, unlike the flow of most of John’s Gospel.  What is going on in Chapter 17?   Perhaps we can find an explanation by learning more about the relationship between Jesus and John.    

     John was the child of Zebedee and Salome, who incidentally was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  This made both James and John the first cousins of Jesus.  They had known each other since they were children.  Because they were family, this made it easier for them to leave their fishing nets and become followers of their cousin.  The Gospel suggests that John and Jesus were extremely close as some first cousins are.

     Some traditions have John dying of old age in the city of Ephesus.  From the Scriptures and tradition we learn that John could not write.  Thus, he told his remembrances to one of his disciples whose name was also John – John, the Elder.  This younger John, according to early Christian tradition was a scribe who wrote down the stories and anecdotes told by Jesus’ only surviving disciple.  That is why John’s Gospel has a flavor of an eyewitness account.

     John knew that his cousin Jesus had a grave concern.  Jesus’ fear was that his message would be forgotten and that the few of his followers who did understand might not have the courage to carry on with his ministry after he left them in death.  John also knew that this concern of Jesus was becoming a struggle for him.   

     This concern was the reason behind the symbols of the bread and the cup Jesus used during his last supper with the disciples. He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” What we have in Chapter 17 is the embodiment of John’s remembrances of the most troubling thoughts that Jesus had toward the end of his life.  These thoughts were awkward for Jesus.  He trusted God with the outcome of all things, but he also knew that the feedback he was receiving from his own disciples suggested that he was failing in his mission.  Many of them did not understand.

     This concern of Jesus is very timely for our generation.  What Jesus brought into our world is on trial every day in our lives through what we do, say, think and feel.  Jesus gave us a map to the abundant life and we often neglect to follow it because we confuse the abundant life with material prosperity, with cash reserves, excellent health, with having a good time and having personal security.   

     Actually, abundant life has to do with the spiritual power to navigate in life without losing our intimate connection to God.   Such a life has little to do with the material world, but rather the power to bear fruit while living in the midst of so many events we cannot explain. 

     Most people do not understand life this way and as a result their inheritance is never discovered. Their potential remains locked away inside of them while they are busy looking in the external world for all the solutions to life’s countless reversals, riddles and mysteries. 

     For example, why is communication so difficult between people who live together?  Recently, I saw a cute commercial on television that featured a mother talking with her little boy.  She said, “I would really like to get all new floors in our house from Home Depot but I don’t know how to tell your father.”  The little boy yells to his father who is upstairs.  “Hey Dad, Mom wants all new floors from Home Depot.”  

     I cannot tell you the number of times I encounter parents whose sons or daughters will have little to do with them.  Communication is not happening.  Feelings are hurt.  Words are not heard.  Kindnesses go unrecognized.  Expectations go unfulfilled.  Accusations become the consistent pattern of communication that comes from these sons or daughters.

     It may surprise you that God has the same problem that some parents do.  People may think that it is impossible for God to have a problem, but that is not true.  God’s problem is that God cannot communicate in such a way that every person on earth hears and understands the same message. 

     That message was once distilled into three words that came through Jesus.  The way to begin each day, the way to travel through difficult times and the way to greet every relationship is to “Love your neighbor.”  What about this message remains unclear in our minds and hearts?  Something has been lost in the human equation, that mysterious pattern of our design that came from the mind of God. 

     The other day I had a meeting at the Conference Center and was traveling on Rt. 197 to get to the Baltimore Washington Parkway on my way to Columbia.  I had reached the place where the road narrows to two lanes. There were three of us in our cars.  The lead car was traveling below the speed limit so the driver in front of me decided to pass.  As he did so, the first driver picked up his speed preventing what should have been an easy pass.   

     Over the horizon came a car headed toward Bowie.  Now there was drama because we had two cars traveling toward each other in the same lane.  The passing driver either had to quickly increase his acceleration to get around the lead car, or fall back in behind.  He chose the former and barely made it.  I slowed my car in disbelief at what was unfolding. 

     Why the drama?  What made something so simple as one car passing another that created a situation that put people’s lives in danger?  What was so important that would cause an average driver to become aggressive enough to use his car to communicate an attitude, “No one passes me without paying a price.”  This driver’s inheritance, his potential, is to reflect courtesy and respect for the wishes of others.  “Love your neighbor” apparently had no relevance for his life. 

     Almost everything about us communicates that we are different when God made us the same.  What is obvious is not so obvious.  We do not feel the same way about life issues.  Our ideas about God are all over the intellectual landscape.  We become upset when people have values different from our own while discussing many of the volatile topics being debated today.  The list is endless.  It is no wonder that Jesus became fearful that his way would be lost.  Jesus knew well the ways of our world even though God placed the same potential within each of us. 

     Jesus was asking God to protect those who understood.  He wanted to have the spiritual powers and skills of the few preserved so these qualities would become visible for generations not yet born.  Listen again to Jesus as he pleaded in his prayer, “The world does not know you, but I know you, and these disciples of mine that you sent to me know you.” (John 17:254)  Jesus gave his life to communicate, “The powers of this world are not strong enough to break your union with God.  Trust God even during the worst of times.” 

     When our one goal is to allow God’s spirit to shine through us that is all we need to do.  Other people are going to remain exactly who they are regardless of what we think, feel or know.  Who we are becoming has to do with demonstrating our inheritance and nothing more because that was the pattern Jesus demonstrated with his life. 

     When others frustrate us, why have we given them that power?  When others do not have the same communication skills as we have and their words are coarse, arrogant and uninformed, why do we personalize what they say?   These people are what they are. When we are not happy anymore, realistically, can we hold anyone else responsible for that?   

     If we allowed God’s spirit to show through our personality, the ripple effect, the light would be blinding to others.  Remember Jesus said to God, “The world does not know you.”  We cannot expect love to come from those who have never learned that love and happiness are a natural part of their inheritance.      

     Clearly we are not the same mentally, emotionally and spiritually but that is not because God made a mistake in our design during creation.  The problem is clearly ours because of the way we choose to perceive, the way we hear, the choices and responses we make.  We are the creators of the spirit in which we use our abilities, and when our thought and emotional patterns are not in harmony with our design, we have no one else to blame. 

     Cancer cells begin growing on their own. These are cells that have lost their identity concerning their primary function to serve the body.  Their lack of control could eventually destroy the host that gives them life, but they go their own way regardless of the cost to themselves and all other cells operating according to their design. 

     When we do not understand what Jesus came here to communicate, it is very easy to lose our way.  It becomes easy for someone who feels victimized by everyone to buy weapons in order to damage or destroy the cells of an the organism known as the Virginia Tech student body, cells that had been demonstrating great promise and potential.   

     Jesus’ prayer ends with these words, “Father, I made you known to them, and I will continue to do so, in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and so that I also may be in them.”  The implications of these words are enormous for us.

     Jesus was aware that the world’s people did not know God at all.  He wanted to make God visible and for that he was killed.  Isn’t that event one of the strangest in history?  If you believe God does not have a problem communicating, what about Jesus’ message merited his crucifixion?    

     Let us all engage in a little experiment.  Sometime this week attempt to play the role of God for one day.  Spend time radiating your energy without making any judgments about other people.  Let them be what they are.   Remember Jesus’ prayer, “The world does not know you.” The truth may be that many people in our environment do not know anything about their spiritual endowment. We were created by God from the same design.  Again, what is obvious is not so obvious.  It is what we have done with that design that creates the illusion that we are different.

     Lois and I have been in every state in the continental United States.  We have been in the British Isles, Italy, Greece, Spain, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Crete and Egypt.  We have learned that when we listen to people and the issues with which they struggle, they are just like us.  They weep when their loved ones die.  They feel betrayed when someone steals their belongings.  They celebrate at weddings and birthdays.  They show intense gratitude when someone does something nice for them.  They have hopes and dreams as beautiful as our own.

     All of us need to invest our lives in using the inheritance that God placed within us.  We have to understand that we cannot expect others to be like us because they may not know what we know.  Everyday people are revealing to us exactly who they are.  This should be our opportunity to make a difference by revealing who we are.  

     When was the last time we invited someone to church?  When was the last time we refused to be offended when someone was merely communicating from his or her unhappy spirit?  When was the last time we decided that “today, no one will ever rain on my parade again?”   When was the last time we decided to march into hell for a heavenly cause?  This is precisely where Jesus wanted us to go to be that light in darkness.  We all know the verse, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”   Let this be our homework assignment for this week.  We will then become the evidence that Jesus’ message was not lost and that his words did not fall on deaf ears.


     We thank you, God, for creating us with spirits that can be discerning as well as compassionate.  We have learned that self-interest has made it easier for many of us to achieve material success.  We have also discovered that reaching beyond ourselves and our family needs requires more from us.  Not everyone begins life on the same level playing field.  Jesus taught, “For those who have, more will be required from them.”  We ask for guidance that will offer us more choices to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zones.  May we use the markers of discipleship to define ourselves.  Help us to remember that you have no favorites and that you created us the same.   Thank you for your mercy when so many of us do not recognize your handiwork.  Amen.