St. Luke’s UMC
March 28, 2021
John: A Changed Life
1 John 2:28-3:3
Church Elder: Greetings my fellow Ephesians. As so many of you know, our church was formed a little more than 40 years ago following the visits of the great Apostle Paul to our city. During that time our church has grown significantly, not only in number, but in influence and impact. Though our beliefs and practices have not always been understood or well received by fellow citizens, our service and acts of mercy have made an impression upon all of Ephesus. Through plagues and persecution God has not only kept us secure, but enabled us to prosper, recognizing that our prosperity means the prosperity of our city and world.
This is a fascinating but also uncertain time for our church. What does the future hold and what will be our part in it? (pause) We are coming to the end of that generation of first Christians. So few of those eye witnesses to the events of our Lord Jesus in Galilee are still with us. One by one they have passed away or been martyred for their faith. We represent the next generation of believers and it is time for us to give attention to what our Lord calls us to do and who He calls us to be.
As many of you know, that last living Apostle, John son of Zebedee, has come to live among us here in Ephesus following his long exile on the isle of Patmos. While his body has begun to fail, his mind has remained sharp and his heart full of faith and love. And so we prevailed upon him, for one final time, to address us this morning about what it means to be people of faith in these times.
Ephesians, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us listen attentively as I call upon our brother John to speak to us now…
John: (looks around as if taking it all in, then begins sobbing) Seeing your faces is like seeing the face of God. I feel as though I have been in exile for a lifetime. Isolated. Alone. It’s so good to see so many faces I remember. And yet there are so many faces no longer among us. I just came from visiting the grave of the mother of our Lord, who died since I’ve been away. So many have gone.
But so many new faces are here now, and you’re probably wonder who is this old man and why should I be listening to him? Well, at the risk of boring those who know me, and boring those who don’t, let me provide a bit of context.
I come from a small village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee called Bethsaida. The name means “Place of the Fishes.” The whole story of my upbringing is fishy. They had a saying where I come from, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll never go back to work.” Now the reason that was funny is because fishing was work. That’s all we did. My father, Zebedee, like his father before him, and his father before him, operated a fishing business. His dream was that one day my brother, James, and I would take it over. Its always a difficult thing when your dreams don’t line up with the dreams of those who love you.
One day James and I heard a man named John the Baptizer speak and that was it. We heard something we could not unhear. He spoke of repentance, of change, of our lives and world being different, and we knew we had to go follow him. I told me father, and I’ll never forget what he told me. You’ll understand why in a few moments. He said “After all I have given up for you, this is what you tell me?”
We set out to change the world, but John the Baptizer made it clear. He was not the Messiah. He simply came to prepare the way, that there was one coming after him whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. Then, one day, he pointed at someone and said that’s him. He’s the One. He must increase and I must decrease. I looked up and saw that he was pointing at…my cousin. The sister of my mother Salome was a woman named Mary who had a son named Jesus. I was so much younger than him growing up I didn’t really know him. I only knew what people said about him, that he was spoiled. That his mother treated him like he was God or something. All I knew was I wasn’t ready to devote my life to him.
So we tried to go home, but it wasn’t the same. It was awkward working with my father again. My brother and I both knew this was not where we was meant to be. Then one day, sitting in our boat, I looked up and there he was Jesus standing there. He simply said, “Follow me.” He was my cousin but it was like he was someone I had never known. He had this strange sense of authority about him. Even though I didn’t believe in him. He believed in me.
It was one of those moments when I knew what I did next would determine the rest of my life. If I stayed in that boat I could see my life. I would take over my father’s business. I would marry and have a family and live in Galilee. It would be a good life. But instead I got out of the boat and learned the first lesson of discipleship. It always involves leaving something behind without knowing exactly what’s ahead.
But if I had my apprehensions about my cousin, Jesus, He must have had his about me. For one thing, I had a terrible temper back in those days. So did my brother. When we were fishing, we used to get into such fights we would yell so loud our voices could be heard all along the shore. People nicknamed us the “sons of thunder.”
One day that thunder came out in front of Jesus. He had led us through a Samaritan village. I hated Samaritans. I know, you would never expect the “Apostle of Love” say he hated anyone, but I did. It was a racial hatred. I look back now and realize why he led us that way. He took us in directions that made us profoundly uncomfortable. But being made uncomfortable is what it takes to change. And we don’t change the wat we see people until we see life from where they live.
Anyway, we were just looking for a place to stay or possibly a meal, but everyone shut their doors in our faces. So my brother and I said to Him, “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume every last one of them?” Understand what I was saying. To hell with these people!
But he scolded us harshly and then just kept walking. Nobody said a word for miles. I just felt like I wasn’t getting it. I thought this whole thing was about helping the good people, and now I felt like I was the one needing help.
On another occasion, perhaps a year or more later, I came upon a group of people who were trying to perform miracles in His name. Now mind you, his fame has spread considerably by this point. They had heard of Jesus and the things he was doing. But I didn’t know these people, I had never seen before. They were imposters. So I went to Him and asked if I should stop them? He said, “Of course not. If they aren’t against us, then they are with us. Let them be. We’ll have enough people against us.”
I was perplexed with myself. If what they were doing didn’t bother Him, then why did it bother me? And I discovered something I didn’t realize I had—jealousy. I didn’t like the fact that they were doing something only we, his true followers, should be doing. Now, if you had asked me that morning, “Are you a jealous person?” I would have said, “Absolutely not!”
When I was a boy there was this other boy who lived next door. He loved rub it in if he ever caught a fish larger than mine. He was a snotty, annoying little brat, and actually that was a compliment. One afternoon we were unloading our boats and he threw down his largest catch of the day. He said, “Bet you can’t beat that.” And I couldn’t. Now, was I jealous of him? No. I just wanted to beat him. So I did. I took my boat back out. Fished all night till I caught something larger than he did. The next morning he found my fish in his boat. I said very humbly, “Let me know if you need help today.”
Jealousy? No! But winning? Yes. Life was about winning. That is what appealed to me about Jesus. He said he was out to win people. But I would discover that what he meant by winning and what I mean were two different things. He set out to win people through love, not defeating them. He wanted people to know what love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God. If love isn’t accomplished there is no win.
But the day that changed it all for me was the day Jesus talked about his future kingdom. He said not just anyone was fit to enter it and that no one had left brother or sister or mother or father who will not receive a hundred times more in his kingdom. For the first time in a long time, I thought of home. I thought of all I had left behind: mother, father, career, security, a good life. I got so lost in thought I didn’t even hear what he said next about his own future, and the suffering that awaited him. I was lost in thinking about my future, and what rewards I might receive. What I deserve.
And you know what can happen when you begin to obsess on a thought. It can’t remain a thought. It must take action.
So I got my brother and we took him aside and requested that when he comes into his kingdom he would give us the positions of honor at his right and left. After all, we were his only family in the group. This is what would be expected. Why should the others take offense? But they did. They got violently mad. And then He took offense. He just put his head in his hands and said, “Have you not learned anything in our time together. You’re behaving just like the rest of the world. People looking out for themselves. Getting what they want. And then he raised his voice and said, “But that’s not who I called you to be! You are to be different. I didn’t come to be served but to serve, and that’s exactly what you are to do.
And suddenly I saw where my life was headed with Him, and it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I was about to tell him, “After all I’ve given up for you, this is what you say?” And before I could mouth the words, I remembered my father saying that same thing the day my brother and I left him. The words I had so resented were now the expression of my own resentment.
And yet, what exactly did I resent? Had he lied to me? Did he promise me things he failed to deliver? No. What I resented was not having life on my terms; not getting what I wanted. But then I considered that He didn’t either. At least not for himself. For all of his miraculous power, he never once used that power for himself, to get what he wanted. He used his power only for others.
I realized that while I had been willing to learn from Him, I hadn’t been willing to live like Him. I wanted to have a good life, but I also wanted a great life. Great in this life. And you can’t have both. If greatness is your aim, you’ll lose goodness along the way. But if you make goodness your aim, you’ll have to let go of greatness. Actually that’s not true. If you live for goodness you’ll discover greatness, just of a different kind.
That’s what happened to me. I chose goodness and found that I didn’t have to win any more. I was free to help others win. I didn’t have to have life on my terms. And I found myself changing. I didn’t get so angry anymore. I was no longer a Son of Thunder. I wasn’t as preoccupied with having enough. Whatever I had, always seemed to be enough. And I wasn’t as worried about the future. I was free to enjoy the present moments and the people around me.
Faith became easier. Instead of a faith that got me what I wanted, I was content with a faith that helped me see what I could give. Its amazing how much easier it is to believe in God when we put no conditions on God. And I suppose that is why I was able to go with him to the cross. I had this feeling that somehow this was all part of His plan.
I was the only one in our group at the cross. Not even his brothers came. And as I looked up at him, in his dying breath He asked me to take care of his mother. You understand what he did don’t you? He was the eldest son. It was his responsibility to care for his mother. He was asking me to take his place, to let him use my life to fulfill his obligation of love.
And so when I came here to Ephesus to serve among you, I brought Mary with me. I prayed every morning, “Lord, make me worthy to let you love through me.” And you know what I discovered? That is what leads to the good life.
Life is too short to spend it angry. Life is too short to live with avarice, and fear of being honest, and worry and lust. When we realize that life is not something for us to work out, or control, or even possess, that’s when we are free to live. The goal is for us to take his place and let him love through us. When we do that, we find there is goodness to life no matter what.
When they came for me, and bound me in chains and led me away to exile, you wept. And I wept too. But on that island something incredible happened to me. Something that I don’t know would have happened had I not be in exile. The Lord gave me visions. Visions of the future. Visions of His ultimate victory one day when goodness will win.
And that is my word to you today. When goodness doesn’t win, when your exile is long, and the night is dark, you are just seeing the page. The full story has yet to be told.
So I have one last project while I live here among you. I am going to write a book about my cousins life. A Gospel. But I won’t finish it completely. Because his story is meant to be finished in us. I encourage you to look at each day as a page for Him to tell the story of his love through you. What will He tell?
Dear Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God, and whoever loves has been born of God.
God’s peace be with you.