Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.
Because I was not an official voting delegate at the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Namibia this last week, I did not always have to be in the plenary sessions the entire time. For a little while I was able to help my friend Dirk Lange with his worship committee of awesome people. Dirk Lange was one of my worship professors at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, and he was also the worship planner for the Joint Commemoration service with both Catholics and Lutherans last year in Lund Sweden for the 499th anniversary of the reformation. That service was led by both Pope Francis and the previous president of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Munib Younan, who I also met last week.
Dirk asked me to help with worship last week as I was available, in addition to preaching Tuesday night. Another night I was asked to help distribute communion, which was no small task for a congregation of about 1000 people who spoke or understood English as a second or third language. It was a beautiful and holy chaotic mess, with much patience and graciousness required.
At one point, I tried to flag down one of the hard-working volunteers who was running around with extra bread. Unfortunately, I ran out before he could get to me, and I had to say to the next person in line – Sorry, I’m not Jesus! I hope they understood that I did NOT have the power to multiply the loaves as Jesus did, and in any case, they laughed. And thankfully in a moment, we had more bread.
I am not Jesus, obviously. But that night, giving the body of Christ, Jesus was IN me and WITH me. In the bread and in the wine, Jesus was present IN us and WITH us that evening in the worship tent in Windhoek, Namibia, with a thousand Lutherans gathered together from all over the world. Even when we ran out of bread and had to wait for more, or were confused about which line to be in, or perhaps a little hungry or tired from late dinners and long days, after traveling across continents through far too many international airports to get there.
This is exactly what Jesus is trying to get across to his disciples during the last night they are together, the night of the Last Supper – though the disciples don’t know yet that this is what it will be called. Judas Iscariot had just left the group to go get the chief priests, scribes, and the detachment of soldiers that will arrest Jesus in only a few chapters. Night had just fallen, and the darkness of evil and death were drawing closer to cease their chance to pounce.
Jesus knows what is about to happen. We know what is about to happen. But the other disciples don’t know. For them, the arrest, torture, humiliation, and death of Jesus is still in the future. The disciples will very soon abandon Jesus, but they will also feel abandoned BY Jesus. Jesus here is trying to get them ready for this future that looks as though darkness will win the final victory.
This is a passage that speaks to us as well, right here and now, though we of course know the story ends with resurrection. But even so, we don’t get to see the risen Jesus walking around in our midst. He’s not wandering the globe in his sandals in a world-wide game of “where’s Waldo?”. So how can Jesus be present with us when he seems more absent, especially in the world we live in that is hurting and divided by the powers of darkness and death?
In many cultures around the world, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, come from traditions holding that loved ones who have died have gained higher knowledge and wisdom, and therefore become present to us and guide us. To theologians who come from these parts of the world, Jesus returns to his disciples through the presence and guidance Holy Spirit. And to a science fiction nerd like me, this very much sounds like the brilliant and moving story-arcs from the Star Wars movies saga.
Because I had a lot of time on my hands as I flew across the world to get to Namibia, I watched through ALL the Star Wars movies, including the 2 recent ones. The original trilogy will always be a favorite, you know, the one with Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, and Princess Leia. There is just something about hearing a good story from a galaxy far, far away to make something about your own story even more clear.
As young Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker is put through his paces by the small green Yoda, Yoda teaches Luke the nuances of the Force. When Luke yet again doubts the Force, Yoda takes him to task. “Judge me by my size, do you?” Yoda asks. “As well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is… Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere.”
In this universe far, far away, this all-embracing Force gives Jedi masters the ability to commune with the living after they have died. So, again and again, whenever Luke is in dire need of guidance, Luke’s other mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi return to guide him. Sometimes Obi-Wan leads Luke where he needs to go, as when he tells Luke how to find Yoda to receive training. Other times it is to teach Luke hard truths about his past and his identity. But no matter what, neither Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor the Force, abandons Luke. Not even as Luke comes face-to-face in a battle against the galaxy’s darkest evil… in which he finds the true evil he must combat is not the galactic empire, but within himself.
In universe of the Force, we are luminous beings, and not this crude stuff of flesh and blood. But in OUR universe, we believe that we are BOTH luminous beings and flesh and blood, created as all of this, by a loving God. This loving God sent his son to us, who was both the word of God and the light of the world, so that he would become flesh and live among us – crude matter and all.
Jesus came to live WITH us and AS us to show us that GOD LIVES in us too. Jesus came to live with us, to die as one of us, so that when he lives, we will also live. Jesus came to show us that we are also part of one another, that we are all part of God’s Family, and that God does not abandon God’s children.
Jesus had to come to remind us, because the littlest thing makes us forget. Even Lutherans from around the world need help remembering. This is why the overall theme of the Lutheran World Federation Assembly was “Liberated by God’s Grace.” And the three sub-themes reminded us of what we too often forget – Salvation, Creation, and Human beings are Not For Sale.
These were the themes for the assembly because all-too-often we forget – we forget that ALL people have been created for freedom and dignity, from the girl who are trafficked to the untouchables from India to African Americans whose ancestors were slaves less than dozen generations ago. We forget that Creation is not a magical never-ending resource, especially if we don’t in our own country don’t directly see the high cost of our throw-away culture. We forget that it is not Wealth and Money are not our gods, but the God of Love gives us our salvation freely and abundantly.
We forget that our command is to love one another. We forget that we are to love the Lord our God by loving our neighbor. Our Republican neighbor and our Democratic neighbor. Our gay neighbor and our straight neighbor. Our neighbors who are women and men and transgender, our neighbors who are black and white and Muslim and Jewish and not-religious.
If we as global Lutherans – Namibians with Indonesians, Canadians with Bolivians – can find common ground and break bread with one another for an entire week, can’t we do the same with the people who are right here, around us?
So if Jesus seems to repeat himself and seems a little wordy, especially in the Gospel of John, it is because we don’t seem to be listening the first or the fortieth time. And we don’t have to go half way across the world to keeps these commandments of love. The Holy Spirit is always at work, looking out for us over our shoulder, pointing us down the right way, and sometimes telling us the hard truths.
But the Holy Spirit is also the one who says, You are a child of God, and I am a child of God, and together, we are all part of one family of God. We breathe the same air that God has created. We are part of one another, just as Jesus will always be part of us.
“Sorry, I’m not Jesus,” – but Jesus does live us me, and will use our hands and feet. And together as one family we are called to walk into God’s unknown but exciting future. We live, because Jesus lives. Amen.