Sermon for World Communion: In the World

In the World

World Communion; October 3, 2021

John 1:1-18

Last Sunday I wondered what I could do about church. I knew I would eventually watch the webcast of our service, but my travel schedule was such that I knew I wouldn’t see it on Sunday. The timing of my layover in Philadelphia was such that I also didn’t plan to look for a church downtown to attend. On the train that morning I had said Morning Prayer from my Presbyterian Daily Prayer book and my Bible, but I do that every day. What was I going to do about Sunday? I mentally shrugged my shoulders and figured, “Probably nothing.”

After my train got into Philadelphia I put my luggage in the Metropolitan Lounge and went for a walk. I exited 30th Street Station and walked down Market Street, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, the morning joggers and folks walking their dogs. As I got close to City Hall, I heard music. It was attractive, so I started looking for the source. When I got to a small park, I knew I was close; I realized I was hearing a praise song and I saw a woman dancing. Of course I walked over. There among the people enjoying their donuts and coffee and the joggers running through was a small gathering of Christians, holding worship in a city park.

The music stopped and the preacher began. He read some lines from I Samuel and some more from II Samuel, announcing his theme would be, “Trust the Process.” He stumbled over words as he read the sermon, which made it all rather hard to listen to. More than once I decided to move on, but I stopped myself. I told myself the quality of the delivery didn’t matter if the preacher had a word from the Lord, so I stayed and listened. I was encouraged by what he said, as he used the story of David to tell his listeners to trust whatever process God is putting them through. After he finished and another speaker came up to encourage people to give their lives to Jesus, I did resume my walk, thinking about the wonder that the Holy Spirit had led me to church, because church wasn’t confined to walls but was worshiping in a park in downtown Philadelphia.

For the month of October, the “Year of Bible” has us in the Gospel of John, which begins with some of the most beautiful and theologically dense poetry in the New Testament. I enjoyed Cindy’s reference a couple of weeks ago to “sound theology;” there is a wealth of sound theology in these words. One important theme that sounds loudly is that in Jesus Christ the Word of God was in the world. If you’d like, on Wednesday evening during my Zoom Bible study we can talk more about the many implications of John’s use of this idea of the “Word,” but what arrests me today is that the Word was “in the world.” You don’t need to climb a mountain to seek the hermit who lives up there; you don’t need to spend hours in a library poring through obscure texts. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” The Word of God is in the world: in synagogues and on hilltops and on the Sea of Galilee and in a park in center city Philadelphia while joggers run through and a wandering Presbyterian minister tells himself to stop being critical and listen.

How will we recognize the Word? Our Church’s Mission Statement is to “Seek Jesus Christ every day, everywhere, in everyone.” I have sometimes joked with you that while we seek him, I wonder if we will recognize him when we find him. John tells us how to recognize the Word of God in the world, too. “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Even though the preacher stumbled over his words and his illustrations were sort of silly, I knew that his words were the Word of God because they were filled with grace and truth. He encouraged people to trust that God was taking them somewhere in the process; he used Scripture faithfully and well; he was not there to judge anyone by the Law but to encourage them in the name of Jesus.

Two weeks ago Cindy introduced the Book of Hebrews by telling us that the congregation receiving the message was tired; I was certainly tired before I took my vacation. I think most if not all of us are tired of the so-called culture wars of our time and I don’t think they’ll be over any time soon. Rather than ignore the news or check out of the struggle, can we find the Word of God in that struggle? After all, John says that the Word was in the world; he didn’t check out of the struggles and the culture wars of his era but he put them in perspective with the wonderful stories he told, always pointing to grace and truth. Can we find grace and truth in our time?

A few stories come to mind. An old friend of mine used to write reflections he called Glimpses of Grace. One that is vivid is something he saw in his neighborhood. A neighbor girl had a cat that she loved; one day the cat escaped the house and, while running across the street, was hit and killed by a car. The little girl was heartbroken. Early the next morning, before hardly anyone else was up, my friend saw a neighbor woman out in the middle of the street with a brush and a bucket of soapy water; she was scrubbing up the blood still on the pavement, so the little girl would not have a constant reminder every day she walked to school or went out to play of the tragic death of her cat. Later in his Gospel, John gives us a picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and wiping them with the towel around his waist. For years, my picture of grace and truth has been a neighbor lady scrubbing a cat’s blood off a village street.

Although I strive to love everyone in my care, some people of course stand out. One of them is Ruth, whom I knew more than 30 years ago when she was in her 90s. She invited me to tea at her home and she served me tea, toast, and chilled tongue on her mother’s china. She told me that it was the first time she had used that china since her mother died; I said I was honored and she replied, “You should be!” Well, she also told me about her grandson, whom she didn’t understand. He had gotten a divorce from his wife and had taken up with a man. She didn’t understand what it meant to be gay. But she also said that it didn’t matter if she understood, because she loved him. When I look for the Word in the world, full of grace and truth, the Word looks to me like Ruth, looking across her cup of tea, telling me she didn’t understand her grandson but she knew she didn’t have to understand; she needed only to love him.

Of course, these are pictures in my life. I’m sure you have similar pictures. The picture we all have in common is the Cross of Jesus, which Cindy reminded us last week was not the result of some mugging but was his freely chosen destiny for the sake of our salvation. I don’t think you and I need to understand the doctrine of the atonement – none of the Gospels, including John, explains it, but they all focus on the Cross – for us to be able to look at the Cross of Jesus and see the fullness of grace and truth. When you look for the Word of God in the world, look for the Cross. I don’t necessarily mean an illuminated Cross towering over a building or on a billboard; I mean look for people loving sacrificially, look for grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

It has not escaped my notice that today is World Communion. John said that the Word “came to what was his own, and his own did not accept him.” Our translation says “his own people” but that’s because a translator was trying to make sense of it; in reality it simply says “his own,” which could mean his own family didn’t accept him; his own nation didn’t accept him; or his own race, the human race, all of us, didn’t accept him. We have all had a struggle accepting grace and truth, because law is so much easier to grasp.

Yet grace and truth are for everybody: John calls the Word “the light that enlightens everyone” and says the “life was the light of humanity.” The Word is for the whole world; this day of World Communion we rejoice that the Word is in the world and for the world, and not for us alone. The Word is for a little girl who lost her beloved cat, for Ruth’s grandson, and for a church gathered in a park in center city Philadelphia. Yet the Word is for us, the Word is our light, the Word is our life. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska