The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Third Sunday of Easter
April 19, 2015
Allow me to be reminiscent, but I’m thinking back to my days playing middle school football. Actually, it’s pretty funny to think about. A bunch of kids who can barely dress themselves in the morning or do their own homework are out there playing a very complex game. Sometimes, our team would feel like grown men. We would pull off a play just perfectly, and we’d feel so proud. Like we could take on the world. We felt like men. And then, on the next play, some seventh grader, usually me, would run the wrong way or drop the ball, and we’d all look stupid. Like little kids. Middle school football is an amazing thing – you feel like a little kid and a grown man at the same time. There was a fluidity in our identity. We had the helmet, the pads, just like real, grown up football players. We played the game, but not well. We were men and boys.
But perhaps that just because being a middle school boy is confusing. You are changing, school is changing, things are weird. For a middle school boy, there are moments of wonder and joy, followed by moments of pain and doubt.
That’s the story from the Gospel of Luke today. The disciples and their companions are confused when they see the risen Jesus for the first time. They think he might be a ghost. The passage says that the disciples are joyful, but they don’t believe. They’re all mixed up and confused because they feel two things, they are two things at the same time – just like little boys who think they’re grown men on a football field.
Now, we all go through different stages of our faith, we believe and we disbelieve, we are filled with joy, we are filled with terror. Sometimes it’s feels like we’re just little kids in the faith, and sometimes it feels like we’re all grown up. That’s part of the process. We feel many things at once in our Christian journey.
And, I think, our journey to know Christ are like the story of the Old Testament. So, if you didn’t know, the first five books of the Old Testament are called “the law,” or the “Torah.” If you have read, or tried to read, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy, you’ll get it. It’s all about laws. What you can eat and cannot eat. What hairs you can cut and cannot cut. The precise animal to sacrifice to cover the precise sin that you have committed. It’s the law.
The law is really simple. It’s black and white. And that’s like our first step in towards spiritual maturity. And it’s good step because we need to know the basic parameters. We need to know right and wrong, good and bad. That first step toward a relationship with Jesus is like my middle school football team putting on our pads for the first time.
But just because you’re wearing the pads, doesn’t mean you’re playing the game. If you try living as a Christian long enough, you realize pretty quickly that the law doesn’t get you all that far. We come across situations and times in our life, where there is no black and white. When you’re really starting to follow Jesus, you can’t look everything up in a rulebook. You need to grow up and mature. So, the next part of the Old Testament is called, “the prophets.” The prophets were the internal critics. The prophets pointed out all the things that the law missed. For instance, the law says that for some sins, you should sacrifice a bull. Well, a prophet would point out that God doesn’t need the blood of bulls. What God is really after is your heart. The books in the Old Testament about prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and a whole bunch of other little books.
Now, the problem is that the prophets weren’t as clear cut as the law. Since the prophets criticize and point out where the law fails, prophets are very unpopular. If we’re stuck in the law stage of spiritual growth, we’ll think the prophets are being subversive and disloyal. That’s why we try to kill prophets. Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Isaiah, Daniel, and so forth.
Many faithful Christians don’t want to move past the black and white nature of the law because it’s easy. It’s all laid out nicely. Getting past the law is hard work. For instance, when I was a kid and I put on my football pads for the first time, it was in the air conditioned gym. I though it was great. Then I stepped out into the Texas summer heat. In my helmet and shoulder pads and pants – it was miserable. That’s the image of going from the first step in spiritual maturity to the second. It’s a hard step. We have to understand that a life with Jesus is not about dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. A life with Jesus is about giving our hearts and lives to Jesus, even if it doesn’t fulfill every letter of the law.
So now you’ve got your pads on, you’re out on the field, but you’re still not actually playing football. The next phase in our spiritual development is like the Old Testament books of wisdom. These books are Proverbs, the Psalms, Job. These books do not talk about particular laws. These books don’t have prophets. The books of wisdom are just that – wisdom. Godly wisdom that surpasses our own wisdom. This is the level of spiritual maturity that is able to take a step back and look at things from another perspective. This would be like when the disciples understand what it means that Jesus is the Messiah and not a ghost. This would be when my middle school football team actually started playing football.
In my experience, the people I have met in their process of spiritual formation who have made it to wisdom, are incredibly humble. When you’re stuck at the law, you’re really loud about it. The one who has attained wisdom knows Jesus in deeply profound ways. When we have reached a stage of wisdom, we build off our knowledge of the law and prophets to follow Jesus. We’ve put on our pads, we’ve made it out to the field, and now we’re really starting to play. But I think there’s one more step to spiritual maturity, and that brings us back to the Gospel of Luke.
What makes the disciples stand out when they have seen Jesus, is their joy. When Jesus comes to see the disciples, the gospel says that the disciples, even though they didn’t really know what was going on, were joyful. Joy in Christ, I think, is the highest level of spiritual maturity. These are the Christians whose lives are truly Christ centered in ways that we can hardly grasp. These are the Christians that have made that long journey from law, to prophets, to wisdom, and to joy. That’s like when I was wearing my football pads, I was out on the field, I had learned the game, and our team scored our first touchdown. To me, that’s the process of growing into our relationship with Christ. The end, the goal, the touchdown, is joy in the risen Lord.
And of course, this process of spiritual formation is not just about individuals. Whole churches go through this process. Churches can be all about the law. This is right, this is wrong, and we’re not going to back down, and we’re going to be really loud about it. Churches can move around to be prophetic. They call out injustices and rush to action. Churches can mature into wisdom churches. Wisdom churches are those churches you walk into, and you can feel that the walls have been drenched with prayer. And of course, there are joyful churches. These are churches where joy in the risen Jesus is palpable and contagious. These are churches that aren’t caught up in the little things, but keep their focus on the only thing that matters. And that’s Jesus.
From the time I first put on my football pads to the time we scored a touchdown, my middle school football team had a lot of work to do. We had to sweat, a lot. We had to learn the basics of a complex game. And once we scored that first touchdown, we knew that more would have to follow. We had to put our pads back on and keep on practicing. This year at Holy Comforter, we are focusing on four spiritual practices. These spiritual practices are aimed to help us grow closer to joy in the risen Jesus. Worship – more than you don’t. Serve – at least once a month. Give – so that it affects you. And pray – everyday. These four practices are before us so that we continually make our way toward Jesus.
Do not be discouraged that a relationship with Jesus takes work. That it takes practice. Put on the pads, step out onto the field, practice hard, and joy will come. Worship – more than you don’t. Serve – at least once a month. Give – so that it affects you. And pray – everyday.
Finally, I need to say this: on our journey to know Jesus, we will change. We will grow. We will have commitments to make. We will find joy and see the risen Jesus, but then we’ll change again. That’s okay. Remember that God does not change. The joy and the comfort and the grace and the mercy of God, is eternal and constant. And wherever you are in your spiritual journey, God is near. God is always near. You may not recognize God. That’s okay too, the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost. But God is always near, and God, the eternal, merciful, loving God, will give you joy.