Rev. Matthew Zickler’s Sermon for May 21, 2017

May 21, 2017
John 14:15-21

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  This morning we meditate upon the Gospel Lesson previously read.

If you were able to be with us last week, you know that I spent a fair amount of time in the sermon talking about some of the thinkers who have influenced how we think today.  I talked about sort of the prevailing philosophies of our culture and offered for us to consider how even we as Christians fall prey to these currents of thought without realizing it, so that we would instead cling to Jesus and His Word as He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.  This week I’d like to do something similar, but rather than discuss current philosophies so to speak, I’d like to discuss and ancient one called Gnosticism.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned Gnosticism before in a sermon and made the point that I wasn’t talking about agnosticism, which is the belief that we can’t know about God.  No this is something different.  First of all, I’d like to talk about it because some of the New Testament, in particular the Gospel and Letters of John are written against it, and when we can talk about something that will help us understand the Scriptures, that is beneficial for us as Christians.  Secondly, we see many parallels with it today.

So, what is this “Gnosticism?”  Well, if you read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, you’ve at least been introduced to the idea.  You see in that story the “historian” of the story speaks about this secret church that was supposedly crushed by the mean Orthodox Christians who were jockeying for power by putting down women, especially Mary Magdalene who was married to Jesus.  He’s referencing the Gnostics.  Unfortunately, he got that wrong about putting down women and the jockeying for power and whatnot, as the Gnostics were actually in their writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, far more anti-feminine than the orthodox Christians.  He also didn’t express the theology all that correctly either.

So, what were the Gnostics?  Well the Gnostics believed that we are really just spirit, but we got trapped in a body and that was holding us back from experiencing the true “spiritual” reality.  So, because the body was bad, and “stuff” was bad we wanted to get away from it.  For some this meant that we wanted to avoid any earthly attachments and sensual pleasures.  These Gnostics were what you would call ascetics.  They fasted intensely.  They didn’t eat meat.  They refrained from sex and marriage.  But others said that since the inner spirit was essentially good and would return to the light of the divine after life, they could be libertine.  They could do whatever they wanted.  Sex?  As much as you could get married or not!  Food and drink, dig in!  Eat, drink, and be merry!

You see it didn’t matter because what did was a secret knowledge.  An inner “gnosis.”  In fact, one of my church history books described the Gnostics saying, “They frequently professed indifference to the life of ‘faith and works’ and to the need for witness in martyrdom.  They had or seemed to have, little commitment to the communal, institutional life of the church.  They were apparently, at least in the impression they conveyed to others, quite literally above it all.”  You see, what was important to these Gnostics was their inner belief.  They didn’t need to be connected to the external church per se, they were above it all, they had their knowledge.  They didn’t need to gather with Orthodox Christians because they were above all of the things those people clung to.  In fact, many of them in particular opposed Orthodox Christianity in that they saw the God of the Old Testament as mean and judgmental, but they believed in the God of the New Testament, the God who sent Jesus, who was so much more kind, gracious, and loving.  

And hopefully, as I say this you can begin to see the connections to our day.  How often do you hear that it’s untenable to believe the Bible because the God of the Old Testament is mean, capricious and unjust?  That Jesus is so much more loving?  Or to tie to some of the other pieces, how often do you hear people professing, not “knowledge” per se, but “faith” that believes and doesn’t need those people in the Church who are so judgmental?  And how often do you hear people talking in such a way that the actions of this life, the “faith and works” are inconsequential because we’ll all be in heaven anyway?  And to be clear there, I’m not speaking in opposition to the fact that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, that is true, but we still know from Scripture that our faith will certainly manifest itself in good works.  But how often do you hear those things?  If you’re like me you hear them a fair amount.

So then, you can begin to grasp some of the context when John recorded those words of Jesus that He spoke in our Gospel Lesson, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  What commandments?  Well, this is John Fourteen, you can think about just before this in John Thirteen, do you know what Jesus said there?  He said there, “A New Commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  So, what does Jesus command?  He commands love.  Love one another as Christ has loved you.  Now think about that command to love as John is writing here against the Gnostics. In other words, think about what love is today.

What is love today?  When we “love” in our culture what do we see?  Well, as I was thinking about last week’s sermon a bit in this, I couldn’t help but think of the quote from Marcusa, “Make Love Not War.”  That’s love for many today, isn’t it?  Let’s go have sexual freedom, as I do that, that’s “making love.”  In fact, think about what we call that, or used to more so: having a “lover.”  

Or think about the whole politically correct movement.  I have to love someone’s spirit and accept what they feel in that spirit no matter what their body says.  We saw a video about this at the Pastor’s Conference that you perhaps have seen. A man went on the campus of the University of Washington and asked students various questions to find out how far they would go with this.  For example, something like me standing here saying: “If I told you I was an 85 year-old, five foot tall Chinese woman, what would you say?”  To be fair, at a point as the pieces, a woman, then Chinese, then five foot tall, then 85 years old, were added, various students began to balk at things that were obviously not true, but a few said, “Well, I would have a hard time telling you you couldn’t think that.”  That’s love in our day.

But what does Jesus say?  What is love for Jesus?  Think about what Jesus says about the Old Testament Law.  The man comes to Him and says, “What’s the greatest commandment?” And Jesus answers “Love the Lord Your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  You know where Jesus got those two commandments?  The Old Testament!  Jesus doesn’t say anything about love that is at odds with the God of the Old Testament.  Hopefully you’ve learned this from me.  If you want to know how to love, where do you look?  To God’s commands.  Many of the Gnostics apparently liked to separate love from The God of the Old Testament like we do today, but looking at Jesus’ words, where should we look?  The Ten Commandments!

Love God by not having other Gods, not misusing His Name – not saying false things about Him, coming to Church, keeping the Sabbath holy.  And our neighbor by honoring authority, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not gossiping, not coveting.  To make that concrete, is it loving to God to deny what His creation of the body tells you that body is for?  Is it loving to God for me to deny being a male, and to deny that the male body is intended for procreation with the female.  Likewise, is it loving to a woman if I call her my “lover” while using her body for my own pleasure, not making the commitment to her of marriage that love truly demands?  That’s not love!  It’s Gnosticism.

But this is the world into which Jesus came.  And Jesus came as the opposite of a gnostic.  He came to us, body and soul, dying on the cross, redeeming us body and soul.  He came shedding the blood from His own body to death, so that in His resurrection even our bodies would be raised.  He came redeeming our utterly sin corrupted souls so that at the last day we will be raised body and soul and there will be a perfect unity to our existence.  There will be no dissonance between our bodies and our souls, no tension where our body will want one thing and our soul another.  Both will direct their attention toward our God perfectly as well as to our neighbor in perfect love.  That will happen then and that’s what Jesus directs us toward now.

You see, as the anti-gnostic, Jesus doesn’t just work in this “spiritual” or even merely “intellectual” sphere of knowledge, of “gnosis.”  No, He doesn’t come to you to bring merely knowledge, He comes to bring to you real love.  Love of His cleansing from sin to you in the waters of baptism.  Love to your broken sinfulness in the words of the Gospel and His Holy Meal where His body comes to yours.  He comes tangibly, through stuff to the stuff of your body concretely giving His grace to you, and that is how He calls you to love.  

You see of ourselves we fail at this love, right?  We don’t love God with all our hearts, we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves.  But yet He calls us to.  How do we reconcile that?  Well first off, we acknowledge how hard it is.  We acknowledge that we are just as broken as the world, we are just as lowly and unable to “receive the Spirit of Truth” in our sinfulness.  But in His grace and mercy, He sends that Spirit into our hearts, the Spirit given to you in baptism, continually given again and again through His Word.  That Spirit who is the promise of what He said.  Hear His promise again, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…  Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.

Christians, He does manifest Himself to you.  He comes to you in His love.  He has not left you as orphans.  So love.  Love as He tells you to.  Love the broken people of this world by still caring for them even when they come up with all kinds of crazy gnostic ideas about their bodies.  In fact, acknowledge how hard this may actually be for some people.  For many this is a very real struggle which requires our care and compassion.  Love those people around you who have been hurt in adulterous relationships.  Tell them the truth about why these things reflect our brokenness as people.  Tell them gently and patiently, but confess it to them.  Love them and forgive them when they get angry for it and mistreat you.  Like Peter said, “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  Know that some will reject this like they rejected Paul in the story from Acts.  But love them nonetheless.  Love because He has not left you an orphan, but manifest Himself to you.  He has manifest His love in you.  And promises you that you will live in that love forever.  Amen.