text : John 16:29-33
theme verse : “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33b)
Do you know courage when you see it? Some people possess the abilities to approach physical challenges with a sense of fearlessness. And yet the ability to override fear is not courage. It may be bold to speak one’s viewpoint openly, but speaking up, alone, is not necessarily courageous. Jesus says to his followers, “take courage,” and so it seems that some faithful reflection on matter is in order. Especially, because thatis precisely what willbe required if there is to be any measure of wholeness in (y)our life.
anthem : 'My Prayer' (D.Foster) :: Bet Wallace & Kelly Ford, vocals; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader : Deborah Gist
preaching : Rev Kevin Howe
special music : 'You Make Me Brave' (Bethel Music) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
John 16: 29 – 33 (NRSV)
29 His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
The inescapable truth to which the entire biblical story testifies is that our God deeply desires wholeness for creation. Which is really good news, because it seems that you and I are seldom far removed from brokenness. We find ourselves wrestling with the realities of aging bodies, strained relationships, worn out by the conflicting desires of our internal world. “Surely,” we say, “there is something more perfect, more beautiful, more…whole.”
This morning we enter into a new series where we will explore aspects of the wholeness to which God is calling us, examining a few of the spiritual tools that are important in seeking out—and living into—the sort of wholeness that we find in Christ. Today, we begin with the notion of courage. Who doesn’t love a good tale of courage? The shepherd-boy David stepping toe-to-toe Goliath. Cinderella’s resolve to show up to that ball. Harry Potter and his classmates making their stand against the dark wizardry of Voldemort. Stories of courage are lifted up throughout time and across cultures.
The kind of courage that is most widely celebrated is that of physical bravery, for which we offer our praise in the form of awards and honors. But courage takes many forms. It takes courage to express ideas that are not the majority opinion. You have to pluck up your courage to witness vulnerably to your personal experiences. One must have courage to face the hostilities or ridicule that accompany departing from social norms. And it most certainly requires courage to move into the wholeness to which God calls us.
You know, our society has handed us more than its fair share of lies about what wholeness looks like and how we are to achieve it. In our commodified culture, we’re sold a vision of wholeness that is associated with feelings of happiness and contentment, and we’re told that that it can be achieved through buying all the right stuff and consuming all of the right things. The theological equivalent of this notion of wholeness can be found in an article written in 1977, where author, Timothy Luk,e presented the concept of the “commodified God.”1 He used this term to define the increasingly popular theology of the televangelism movement in marketing God as we might a car, or clothing, or a prescription medicine.
This commodified God is sold alongside the other things that promise us feelings of happiness. And like the best of all prescription drugs that we are pitched, the commodified God will remedy our ailments without any fundamental shifts or lifestyle changes on the part of the user. And given the inordinate number of prescription drug ads I’ve been exposed to this football season, I can almost generate the commercial spot in my mind: It opens with that grayscale shot of a middle-aged woman with a deeply troubled look on her face and the following voiceover: “Do you suffer from pain and discomfort?” Then we’re shown the image a dejected businessman. “Are you ready to escape adversity and conflict? Well, look no further! Introducing: God! That’s right, belief in God will have you feeling warm and fuzzy in no time. Say ‘goodbye’ to pain, dis-ease, discomfort, and say ‘hello’ to all those good feelings life affords.” It’ll sell, right!?
But try pitching the faith as one that exempts us from facing our fears of pain and discomfort, and as the late, great preacher, Fred Craddock, said, “Sooner or later…somebody is going to say to you, ‘Then what happened to Jesus?’ Then you have to tell the truth: he was sentenced to die and was executed. He was about thirty-five years old when he died. He was executed by the Roman government in order to maintain the peace of Rome.”2 Now, tell me, where does that fit into a theology where God provides wholeness without movement through pain and discomfort?
In our scripture this morning from the Gospel of John, we heard the final remarks of Jesus to his disciples, before he is turned over to the Roman authorities to be crucified. And for all of the figures of speech he has used to teach his followers something about God’s impending reign, he has chosen to be very direct with them in these final hours. “At last!” they exclaim, “You’re talking straight with us, Jesus! And now that you’ve laid it out for us this way, we’re convinced you’ve come from God. We’re all in!” But little do the disciples know that things are about to get a lot worse before they get joyful. Little do they know how counter their actions will be to this profession when fear takes hold; about the fragility of their resolve when danger will present itself. And Jesus says to them, “You say you believe now, but before you know it, you’re going to be making a run for it. You’ll be cowering for your lives—terrified about how this whole gospel thing will play out.”
Fear, I’m sure you know, is a powerful adversary. And it comes in all shapes and sizes. Some fears, for example, are tied to our desires for control. This is why loss can be so traumatic, because we feel at the mercy of factors beyond our choosing, that loss of control can be panic producing. Other fears are associated with the risk of discomfort and suffering. You know these, as they are the ones that have you checking worse-case scenarios on WebMD in the middle of the night for that pain in your pinky toe. And as I eluded to earlier, our society—with its desire to avoid pain at all costs—has not done us any favors for building a resiliency to fears of dis-ease and discomfort. Then there is one that is so powerful I dare speak its name: fear of failure, which is predicated on the lie that we are somehow insufficient.
But all these fears—whether they are spawn from our external environment or our internal thinking—work in the same operative way: they all threaten to render us powerless. You’ve heard the saying that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, I would like to propose that—in the case of our fears—the inverse is true: powerlessness tends to corrupt and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely. That is what our fears seek to do to us; to make us believe that we have no power to stand against their oppressive ways. Author, John Pavlovitz writes “Fear wants us to believe that we’re outnumbered, alone, defenseless—that our demise is secured.”3 And so it is, that when our fears have us convinced that we have are powerless to stand against them, we retreat to the safety and security of old habits and thought patterns, even when those things are far from safe and secure. As one friend put it to me this week, “Sometimes we would rather be stuck in our harmful ways than to go through the process towards wholeness.” Because of fear, we take on a position of stuckness, spinning our wheels in a way of living that is far less than the fullness and wholeness of life to which God calls us. You see, the decision to do nothing can often be more dangerous than choosing to face our fears.
Enter courage. C.S. Lewis wrote that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point…A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions.”4 In other words, courage is that which pushes our ability to love beyond a conditional love for our neighbors and ourselves (no less our enemies). Courage is that by which our hope can move beyond the pain of grief and immediate loss. Without courage, a world of fears will try to threaten you into believing that there is no wholeness to be found. The bottom line is this: If we want to live out our faith in an unconditional way, if we want to claim wholeness in our lives, then where do we find the courage to do so?
We are privileged as a people of faith that we have volumes of Scripture which tell story-upon-story about people who have acted courageously for their faith. But I will share one such story with you now: it takes place just a few chapters later in the Gospel of John, when the disciples are found together, reeling from the dreadful events of Jesus’ torture and subsequent death. They have sealed the doors of their meeting space in fear of what might become of them. Talk about fear and stuckness! But would you believe who managed to find his way into their self-made prison of fears? If it wasn’t the resurrected Christ. And that was a game-changer for the disciples. You see, they had feared the finality of death. But in the presence of their resurrected Lord, that was obviously not the case. They had been afraid that God’s reign of peace and justice had been snuffed out. But in the presence of the resurrection, they discovered that God’s work and mission in the world was not to be deterred by its violence. They had thought that their journey as disciples had come to its conclusion, but then the resurrected Jesus says to them “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and they realize that their discipleship has just begun.
The resurrection was a game-changer. There was power in his resurrection unlike any power they had known, including that of their fears. And emboldened by this Good News, those disciples unlocked the deadbolts, marched right back out into the midst of a cruel world, full of persecution, to love and serve in the name, and for the sake, of the Risen One. And the way that they carried themselves seemed to say it all: “Take courage! For He has conquered the world!”
And so, it goes that we are the heirs of a tradition that anchors its courage in the resurrected Christ. We lay claim to the power of his resurrection not just as the cognitive assent to an event that took place, but to the whole truth of what resurrection embodies: death has no power over life. I see and hear that message in all kinds of folks who do all kinds of courageous, death-defying, fear-dispersing, justice-building activities in their lives and even to the ends of the earth. That isn’t to say that these faithful followers have not suffered. Those systems and powers that benefit from our brokenness will continue to give fierce and powerful resistance. You’ll likely encounter many stories of these folks who have made sacrifices and took risks. Risked their name, their reputation, their fortune, their livelihood, their life. But in every case that one chooses courage for the sake of the gospel, Christ is present there, recalling the promise that He gave to those who followed first: “Take courage! For I have conquered the world.”
The inescapable truth to which the entire biblical story testifies is that our God deeply desires wholeness for creation. Question is: will we find the courage to play our role?
God, it is a tall order you have set before us—
to be courageous for the sake of the gospel.
But we follow your lead,
trusting that you are with us, in all that we endeavor,
To bring your vision of wholeness
into our lives, our community, and your world.
May we take courage in your name and for your sake.
1Tim Luke. “From Fundamentalism to Televangelism.” Telos, 58 (Winter 1983-1984), 204-210.
2Fred Craddock. “Why the Cross?” The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock. Westminster/ John Knox Press, 2010 .p. 236.
3John Pavlovitz. Hope and Other Superpowers: A Life-Affirming, Love-Defending, Butt-Kicking, World-Saving Manifesto. Simon & Schuster. P. 87.
4 C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins, New York. P 161.