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A New Beginning: A New Resolve

January 13, 2008

The Gospel of John

As you know, Clare and I recently returned from a week at Hilton Head. Some of you have asked me how my “suffering for the Lord” went. I was very busy through Wednesday, speaking and counseling. Then we had two days of rest and relaxation. We are glad to be back at Morningside.

I want to talk with you about something that happened Tuesday. I had the opportunity to hear a well-known pastor of a very large church. He brought a message that was a real stem-winder. As I sat in the audience listening to this message, I felt myself sliding a little bit lower in my seat. It was not because I was sleepy; it was because I started feeling so negative about myself. I looked around at the other people in the room, mainly a group of ministers of music, dear people who labor hard in church. They also sat there, listening to this man bring his message. Near the end of the service, everybody in the room looked as if they felt as miserable about themselves as I did. The message made us feel as if not one of us was doing anything that was spiritual enough. We felt as though we were not being the kind of Christians we should be. I suppose that type of message is supposed to be good for you, but it is good for you in the same way that castor oil is. It just made everyone feel bad.

I actually left that session a little early and walked outside onto the beach. Reflecting on the pastor’s message, I prayed, “Lord, I know that I am not doing everything I need to do.” It is as if the Lord spoke to me and said, “Kirk, look at the ocean. Look at the sky. I made these things, and I created you.” I called to mind the first tenant of the old catechism: What is the purpose of human beings?

Our first purpose is to love God and to enjoy Him forever. That pastor’s message to our group was the kind of condemnation that can be very detrimental.

I want you to open your Bible to the Gospel of John, Chapter 1. John, writing against a heresy known as Gnosticism, sets the theme of his book right at the beginning. Gnosticism is a word that comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The Gnostics were people who focused on knowledge. They based their understanding on the old philosophy of Plato, that the body, being human, is bad and that the purpose of humans is to rise above themselves and become spiritual. According to Plato, we must put away everything associated with our humanness. Many people adhere to this kind of spirituality today.

John writes his gospel in the same way a good fisherman sets the hook. He begins with the philosophical word Logos. Clearly, he is talking about the Lord Jesus as the Word. For thirteen verses, John speaks about the Word coming into the world. Then in Verse 14, he flies right into the face of Gnosticism and states, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” John is saying that the very Son of God took on a human body and that God became one of us. This is the focus of the incarnation. This is the truth we celebrate at Christmastime.

In the first twelve chapters of the Gospel of John, Jesus had numerous encounters with individuals who all have negative feelings about themselves. I want us to trace these encounters:

Chapter 1:27 – John the Baptist confesses his unworthiness: “I am not even worthy to untie this man’s sandals.”
Chapter 1:46 – The cynical Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus calls him to be a disciple.
Chapter 3 – Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, a man of status and importance, was so ashamed of his life that he came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Chapter 4 – A Samaritan woman who had been married five times comes to the well at noon because she is ashamed of her life.
Chapter 5 – A man paralyzed for thirty-eight years lies by the sheep gate leading into Jerusalem. Jesus confronts him: “Do you really want to be healed?” The man makes excuses, saying that no one will help him. Of course, Jesus heals him.
Chapter 6 – 5,000 hungry souls receive Jesus’ attention and hear his words.
Chapter 7:5 – The brothers of Jesus do not believe in him.
Chapter 8 – A woman caught in the act of adultery is about to be put to death by stoning.
Chapter 9 – A man born blind is healed by Jesus. The disciples raise the question, “Is he blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned?”
Chapter 11 – Grieving sisters, Mary and Martha, receive comfort from Jesus. He resurrects their brother, Lazarus.
Chapter 12 – Mary, who anoints him, is criticized by one of the disciples because of her act of devotion.

None of the individuals has it exactly right. Some of them have really messed up their lives, and every single one of them needs a new beginning.

The word gospel means “good news.” I am afraid that the gospel becomes very bad news for some. People will say to me, “Pastor, you need to step on a few toes. You need to fuss at us.” Would that really help?

Let me ask you several questions: How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? How is your diet going? How about that exercise program? How about your decision to read the Bible? Are you up-to-date on that resolution, or have you gotten several days behind in your reading? How are your daily devotions going? All of us start a new year with plans of self-improvement, with tasks we plan to do, differently or better. We want a new year’s makeover. Some of us want an extreme makeover.

Today, I want us to consider just one of the encounters Jesus has in the Gospel of John. The woman caught in the act of adultery in Chapter 8 has sinned. We have no doubt about her actions and no question about her punishment, as prescribed by the law. The penalty for a woman caught in the act of adultery is death, by the act of stoning. A circle of men are standing in a circle, ready to throw fist-sized rocks at this woman when Jesus arrives. They plan to wound her repeatedly until she is unconscious and finally dead. This circle of self-righteous men make up what we might call the Circle of Condemnation.

A woman this week said to me, “Some men do not want women in leadership positions in ministry because those men do not want to be confronted with their own arrogance.” She might be right.

I know a woman who has absolutely no trouble confronting me with my arrogance. In fact, she takes it as her high calling. She believes that a part of her calling is to make sure I am caught up on humility.

Who confronts these men with their arrogance? Jesus. Jesus confronts these men, saying, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Scripture records that the oldest men are the first to drop their rocks. They have more mileage on the odometer. They have been around long enough to know that their lives, too, are pockmarked by sin. These men are not so different from this woman. They are more like her than they are different. They drop their stones and walk away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus turns and asks, “Woman, does no man condemn you?” “No one,” she answers. The Lord Jesus then replies, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more.”

I wish that we knew what happened to this woman. I wish we knew the rest of the story, but we do not. We can only imagine, speculate. I believe her encounter was a new beginning that changed her life. At the core of John’s gospel is this Scripture: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:17, the next verse, is just as important: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

Around this woman was a circle of condemnation. I am afraid that one of the great temptations of the Christian church is to stand in a circle and condemn others. I like the poem by Edwin Markham: “He drew a circle to shut me out, Heretic, rebel, thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win; We drew a circle that took him in.” The kind of circle the church needs is not one of condemnation. It is one of love. That is the reason the Apostle Paul could say, “Now, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Do you know whom Jesus condemned? He did not condemn people who felt unworthy. He did not condemn a blind man. He did not condemn a crippled man. He did not condemn Nicodemus who came to him under the cover of darkness. He did not condemn a Samaritan woman, though she had lived a life that certainly was shameful. He did not condemn grieving sisters. He did not condemn a woman caught in adultery. Whom did he condemn? Jesus condemned the self-appointed condemners. He condemned the self-righteous, those who pointed the finger and condemned others.

You have heard the story about the prince who became a frog through magic. The evil spell could be broken only if a beautiful princess kissed the frog. The princess would have to take some risks. I guess she would have to risk getting warts.

I heard a spin-off on the story about an old man who was fishing in a river, sitting on a log. A frog hopped up on the log next to him and said, “I am really a beautiful princess. If you will kiss me, I will turn into the most beautiful woman you have ever seen in your life.”
Without a word, the old man gathered his fishing gear. He removed his hat and put the frog inside it. Then he walked to his pickup truck, got up in the bed of the truck, and put the hat on the seat beside him.

He began driving down the road in silence. The frog again said, this time a little louder, “Maybe you are hard of hearing. I said that I am a beautiful princess. If you will give me a kiss, I will become a beautiful woman and marry you. We can be together.”
Without commenting, the old man kept driving.

Further down the road, the frog pleaded, “Listen, I am not teasing! I really am a beautiful princess, but you have to give me a kiss. I will become a beautiful woman, and I will be your wife.”

The old man thought for a minute, and then answered, “You know, I am pretty old. I can have a lot more fun with a talking frog than I can have with a beautiful princess.”

Mike Yaconelli wrote a little book before he died two years ago called Messy Spirituality. He talked about a time when he had gone to a spiritual enrichment retreat and left feeling pretty awful about himself. He knew that he was not being the Christian he should be. He was not doing his quiet time of prayer and devotion exactly the way he knew it ought to be done. He sometimes lost his temper and did not always act the way he thought Jesus wanted him to act. Yaconelli said that he felt as if his spiritual life was somewhat messy. He felt the same as I did after listening to the pastor preach a very strong message that was condemning.

At the beginning of one chapter in Messy Spirituality is a letter to God from a little boy named Frank. The letter says, “God, I am doing the best I can. I love you, Frank.” Yaconelli says that most Christians are pretty much doing the best they can. We all know that we are not doing it perfectly.

I was talking with a young man between services today about how his faith is mixed with doubt. I said, “Listen; there is no such thing as perfect faith. I hear people talk about that, but I have never seen it. Faith is always diluted with doubt. The two go hand-in-hand.” That is my experience, and I think it is yours, as well.

Mike Yaconelli tells about Margaret, a nine-year-old girl with several younger siblings. Her mother was a single parent. Every morning, Margaret fixed breakfast for her siblings. Before she herself could walk to school, she had to be sure her children caught the bus. The teacher did not like that Margaret was consistently late to school and fussed at the child.

One day, Margaret walked into class late. Fed up with the girl’s tardiness, the teacher said, “Margaret, I want you to come to the front of the class.” To the other students, she said, “Margaret is irresponsible and undisciplined. We must punish her. I want each person in this class to come to the blackboard and write something on the board about Margaret that will help her be a better person.”

One by one, the students wrote on the board comments like, “Margaret is ugly,” “Margaret is a dummy,” “Margaret is stupid,” “Margaret is fat,” or “Margaret is selfish.” Each of those twenty-five negative comments pierced the heart of this nine-year-old girl.
Finally, the last student in the class, a girl, came forward and wrote on the board, “Margaret is my friend.” Forty years later, Margaret was in psychotherapy. She told her therapist that those negative comments on the blackboard had almost destroyed her life. In fact, she was ashamed to say, she had just about become each one of them. That last sentence, “Margaret is my friend,” was the one statement that had kept her from taking her own life.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Folks, that just is not true. Words hurt. Condemnation hurts. Humiliation hurts. People are alienated from the Christian church because the church has engaged in name-calling: “ungodly,” “uncommitted,” “unspiritual,” “unbiblical.” That is not good news; that is incredibly bad news. Jesus said there would be those who would do violence to the gospel. Flannery O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away focuses on a young man who had lived with so much condemnation that he became mentally ill.

What is the purpose of the church? To put it simply, the purpose is to kiss frogs, to help people see that they are created in the image of God. There is not “one perfect, not one righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). God loves every single one of us. The purpose of the church is to communicate a gospel of grace, unconditional love. People need to change. Every one of the people Jesus encountered needed a new beginning, a change, but first things first. God loves without condition. That is grace. Grace is receiving love and acceptance that we do not deserve.

John was the last of the original apostles to die. Tradition says that the townspeople living in Ephesus would bring him, a very old man, to church on a pallet. When asked to pray or speak, John always added, “Love one another.”

At the beginning of this new year, could one of our resolutions be that we give up condemnation and focus on grace? Could we just believe that everybody wants to be loved, even the ones who are hard to love? Could we take to heart the words of Jesus as found in John 13:34: “Love one another, as I have loved you”? If that can be our commitment, our resolution, we will be the church God has called us to be. The message that we give will be the simple gospel truth that God is love.

Let us bow together for prayer. O God, we do love You. We long to love You more. We want to be more like Jesus. We pray that You will allow us to have the eyes of Jesus, to see others as he sees them. Give to us the ears of Jesus so that we can hear others as our Lord hears them. Give to us the heart of Jesus so that, in compassion and love, we may speak the word of truth, the word of grace. Help us to be the church of Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we pray. Amen.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely


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