This open letter to St. John was shared from the pulpit this Sunday morning. Several folks requested I put it online for them to read again. Improvisational changes that were made on the fly are not included here. This is the manuscript that I read and adapted from this morning.
Date; Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Scriptures: 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Message: “A Different Kind of Audit”
April 15, 2018
Greece circa the end of first century CE
(No friends, this isn’t that kind of letter…)
Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. I am writing this letter to you today from the community of the saints found many centuries and many miles from Patmos. Tradition tells us that you spent your last days in exile in Patmos, although people wonder if you are the same John who scribed the book of Revelation. In fact, to be entirely honest, many scholars wonder if you wrote the three letters which have been ascribed to you. Did your students write those letters after your death?
To be entirely honest, while authorship is an intriguing discussion for a Bible study, I’m writing today because our community is celebrating the season of Eastertide. We’re looking at stories of the resurrection, pondering the words of 1 John, and wondering what is expected of us. We live in a different age, a different time, and in different circumstances. It has been nearly two millennia since you witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection. It has been nearly two millennia since Jesus told Thomas that those who did not see but believed would be blessed. It has been a very long time.
I’m the pastor of this flock and that means a lot of different things in this time and age. I am here to encourage and to train people in the ways of faith. I am here to educate and inspire people to seek after Jesus. I am here to proclaim mysteries that seem ancient to many of the people in my church. I am called to witness to the life, the teachings, and the blessings of life with Jesus. I am called to witness to the life, the warnings, and the challenges of life with Jesus. I am called and ordained to baptize, to share the Lord’s supper, and to proclaim the word of God.
Yet, I wonder… What must it have been like to have seen Christ in the flesh? What must it have been like to see him take fish and eat after he had died? It must have been much easier to say to people “I have seen these things with my own eyes!” How much power rested in your lips when you proclaimed these truths which are now considered practically ancient to people for the first time? How much did it change their lives?
In a world with such high infant and pregnancy mortality rates, did grieving mothers and heart-broken widowers weep with joy to hear of one who had shown there was life after death? In a world without modern medicine, scientific method, or basic understanding of things like germs, was it awe-inspiring to see people be changed by stories of Christ’s healings? Could you see the hope show in their eyes?
The people I minister with have their own struggles. We’ve figured out a lot about germ theory, but cancer has become a faceless horror in many life. We’ve learned many mysteries about the human brain, but we have people who are still lost in the midst of depression, anxiety, and grief. War still remains and I sometimes wish we had swords to beat into plowshares instead of bombs, bullets, and grenades. We still face a world filled with challenge, sorrow, and pain.
John, how did you get the people to understand? Was your personal witness enough or was it an insistent, consistent, and powerful reminder of who God was in their lives? When the world would not recognize them as God’s children, did you invite them to remember God’s claim on their lives? When they themselves lost hope, did you remind them that even the darkness of the grave could not overcome Christ? How did you get them to see? Was it all God’s work in their lives or was there something they needed to claim, to grasp, to believe in order to find hope?
John, I’m a Methodist and our founder John Wesley believed that God gave grace to each person to help them come to a place where they could encounter Jesus. He called it prevenient grace and it was a grace that was poured out on all people. He taught God’s love was a source of light to all people and to me that grace is hope. The world can come to know a God who can change people.
The letter we read invites people to become pure as Christ is pure. The letter we read invites people to understand that they are invited to live lives marked with righteousness and goodness. The people are invited to live lives which are desperately needed in my world John. How do I convince them to see the truth of this life? The world is dark, but they are being remade into the likeness of the invisible image of God. Jesus told them that they are the light of the world and sometimes it seems they forget that concept.
In our day there’s something called an audit. An audit is a very close examination. For many folks, this word makes people especially nervous around the date I am writing you this letter. Today is traditionally the day that taxes are due in this country and occasionally the tax collectors will audit what an individual says they owe. Yes, tax collectors are still unpopular nearly 2,000 years later. Some things must be cross-cultural.
I bring up the idea of an audit because audits are meant to keep people honest. A tax audit is a close look at how one calculates what is owed to the government. Do you remember when Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? A tax audit is meant to make certain that our Caesar is getting what our Caesar claims for things like roads, protection, etc.
How do I convince people that we all might need to do a different kind of audit for our own sake? If we are made to be in relationship with you, if our hearts and souls are meant to be filled with love for God and neighbor, if we are meant to be remade in the image of God, doesn’t it make sense to slow down and see where we are on our faith journey? Does it not make sense to take a close look in seasons like this one?
To put it in practical terms, let’s look at a scripture Jesus said he came to fulfill. Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). If we were to take a close look at our lives, do we see ourselves in the midst of Christ’s mission as people who are being remade in Christ’s image?
Christ came to proclaim good news to the poor. Poverty is about more than money. My people and I live in a world where substance abuse is claiming lives all around us. People are addicted to alcohol, opioids, narcotics, and a host of other substances. Some of the people who are in the midst of these addictions open their eyes in sobriety and only see hopelessness and death. When we look in ourselves, do we see people who have experienced the risen Savior? Do we see in ourselves children of God who walk in hope? Can we dream of a world remade in your image where the hopelessness they feel is overshadowed by life? Can we share with them a world in which death has been overcome by life? Can we dream of a world where people look at one who should be dead or a ghost and find a Savior who is alive?
Christ came to restore sight to the blind. Blindness is about more than sight. Blindness is a way of life. The blind are often forced to trust others with their safety, their wellbeing, and their journey from one place to another. The blind are vulnerable in ways people with sight are not. Can we proclaim a world where people truly see the way and find hope beyond death, a place where none of us can truly see? When we examine ourselves, do we see beyond the curtain of death? In other words John, how can I invite people to ponder resurrection beyond their sight?
Christ came to set prisoners free, to break oppression, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor. John, how do I invite people to take a close look and see if they are shackled to things that just drag them down? John, you knew favor. When we celebrate the Lord’s table, we do not often draw attention to the fact that you were right there, sitting by Jesus’ side as the powerful words we remember were spoken…
Actually, that’s not true. You were not just sitting by Jesus’ side. You were reclining with Jesus. You were at peace with a teacher you loved and who loved you back. For all the oppression of Romans and pressures from religious leaders that might stand outside the door, you were at peace with Jesus. For all of the people who were planning to bind up Jesus in chains and for all of the challenges ahead, you were at peace with Jesus. You, John, of all people, knew what it means to be at peace with the person who was revealed to be the very image of God made flesh.
How do I invite people to be at peace like you? How do I find ways to cultivate that peace within myself? There are so many things we let take us captive John. We live in fear of war and sorrow. We live in fear of cancer and heartbreak. We live in fear of loss. We have been taught that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As one who reclined with perfect love, saw that love resurrected from the grave, and as one who spent his life teaching others about that love, how do we believe like you believed? How do we live as you lived?
John, I realize that you cannot really write back. Patmos is another time and place isolated by nearly 2,000 years and a world of cultural differences. Still, perhaps the Holy Spirit can help us with answers to these questions. Your gospel did tell us that Christ would leave an Advocate who would teach us on God’s behalf. While I await God’s response through the Holy Spirit, I will say that I look forward to seeing you at the resurrection on the final day. Until then, may you rest in God’s peace.
May all honor, glory, and power be given to the God we both love,
Rev. Robert Dean
Maine Federated Church
Many miles and years in the future.