I AM Serious (and Stop Calling Me Shirley!) – a sermon

Today was my final Sunday at First Christian Church of Winston-Salem, the congregation that has supported me as a student for the last three years while I have been attending the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University. It was a bittersweet occasion, just like my final Sunday at Foothills Christian Church was three years ago. I can’t thank First Christian enough for their unending support and undying faith in me since the first Sunday I visited, back on August 8th, 2010. It has meant the world to me.

May 19th, 2013 – Pentecost Sunday
Texts: Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-21
Hymns: “Sing a Song” (Third Day), “Sing for Joy” (Lamont Hiebert), “How Great Is Our God” (Chris Tomlin), “Everlasting God” (Brenton Brown), “All Who Are Thirsty” (Brenton Brown), “Nothing But the Blood” (in the key of ROCK!)
Anthem: “God of This City” (Bluetree)

“I AM Serious (and Stop Calling Me Shirley!)”

A little less than a year and a half ago, I had a final paper assignment for my New Testament class. “Write an expository paper on a given passage of Scripture,” we were told. So I picked a certain passage, which I at first thought would be a good passage to write on. But the deeper I got into it, the more frustrated I got. So I made an appointment to go sit down with my New Testament professor and talk to him about the passage.
Well, he was not very encouraging. “Jimmy,” he said, “you have picked a passage that I have never preached on, and I don’t think I ever would.” Now you have to understand, when this professor, Dr. Fred Horton, says he has “never preached” on a given passage, that carries a LOT of weight. You see, he was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church (USA) when John F. Kennedy was President, and he has been a fixture in the religion department and, later, the Divinity School at Wake Forest University since 1971. So when he says he has “never preached” on a passage, that means it’s never happened in FIVE DECADES of preaching and teaching.
“But wait,” he said. “There is one exception I would make. If it was my last Sunday at a church, and I had had a good run there, and I was leaving on good terms, then I might consider preaching on that text.”
And so it was that I kept that in mind when I set forth to write my paper on John 14:8-21, which I would invite you to join me in reading at this time.
John 14:8-21
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Creator, and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Creator. How can you say, ‘Show us the Creator’? Do you not believe that I am in the Creator and the Creator is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Creator who dwells in me does God’s works. Believe me that I am in the Creator and the Creator is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Creator. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Creator may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Creator, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees the Spirit nor knows the Spirit. But you know the Spirit, because the Spirit abides with you, and the Spirit will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Creator, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Creator, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
The Word of God, for the people of God.

Do you ever think Jesus had moments where he just wanted to smack his forehead and shake his head in despair at the ignorance of His apostles? A “facepalm”, it is known in modern Internet parlance, where one just can’t fathom how somebody could be so dense. And surely Jesus must’ve been tempted, when Philip asked Him to show them “the Creator.” This group of flawed men, whom Jesus had repeatedly told needed to have eyes to see and ears to hear, once again, is failing to understand the basic tenets of what Christ has been TRYING to tell them for the last three years.
Now, I will admit, this is not the time I have preached a “facepalm Jesus” sermon in the last few months. About three months ago, in my preaching and worship class, I preached on the story of the Transfiguration from Luke – you know, the one where Jesus goes up on Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John, and then Elijah and Moses appear to them, and Peter suddenly decides to be a builder of booths. I can only imagine Jesus’ frustration at that moment – and yet, one has to wonder if that frustration even compared to the frustration He must have felt at this particular moment in time. Here He is, trying to bid His apostles “FAREWELL!” before heading into Jerusalem, trying to tell them that the Holy Spirit is going to come to take His place, and all Philip can think about is wanting to SEE.
Let he who has eyes to see, LET HIM SEE.
Do you think that Jesus, just for a moment, may have had a moment of looking at Philip and wanting to say, “Surely you can’t be serious.” Do you think He might’ve thought that divine sarcasm could cut through Philip’s blindness, or was Philip just at a point where he would look back at Jesus and say, “Dude, I am serious. And stop calling me Shirley.”
Here’s the thing, though. Philip’s not alone here. He isn’t the only one who wants to see who God is going to send next before it’s time. I mean, think about a church where the pastor has left. Foothills Christian Church, my home congregation back in Phoenix. The campus ministry I was part of in Flagstaff. Yes, even First Christian Church of Winston-Salem. Of the last four communities of faith with which I have been involved, three have had pastors leave during my time there. All three have had to embark upon a journey to replace that spiritual leader – and in all three cases, there has been some degree of impatience.
And that impatience is entirely understandable. We want to SEE. We want to KNOW who God is going to send to us next. Foothills was so anxious to find the right pastor that we ended up extending a call to somebody who led us down a disastrous path and created an environment from which it took years to recover. The campus ministry I was at had a somewhat easier time of it, because with the natural transience that comes of being on a college campus, we didn’t cling quite as much to the idea of one pastor or another – but we were still anxious to know who was coming next, even as the search committee told us that it would be some time before we had any idea at all. And of course, here, we want to know who’s going to come on board after Dr. Ledford’s interim comes to an end – but the thing is, it’s not TIME for us to know yet.
It’s something we just can’t grasp sometimes, as human beings. Philip certainly didn’t grasp it – it wasn’t yet time for him and the other apostles to KNOW who they would see among them in Christ’s place. Earlier in the gospel of John, Christ tells His followers that unless He leaves, the Spirit CANNOT come to them. He has to leave FIRST. But they want to know who’s coming to them BEFORE He leaves, and that’s just not how it works.
But that’s not the only reason that Philip gets called out by Christ here. He also gets called out because of his lack of belief. Three years now he has followed Christ, and he still doesn’t believe enough in his teacher to be the apostle and evangelist that Christ NEEDS him to be. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,” Christ tells Philip, patient as always. In other words, Philip didn’t NEED to see the Creator in order to be that apostle and evangelist – all he needed to do was BELIEVE.
And you know, I can tell you that that is not an uncommon problem among graduating Divinity School students. Thirty-one of us received our Master’s Degree hoods last night at Wake Forest, and will graduate tomorrow morning as Masters of Divinity. We’re supposed to know it all, right? We’re supposed to have the theological training to teach others, the discernment to interpret Scripture, the knowledge to relate to what the Church has done before. But the problem we have is believing that we can actually do all of that.
For all of our education and knowledge that we have attained, the students coming out of modern academically rigorous divinity schools are severely lacking in confidence. We acknowledge that we are scared to death of practicing ministry in the real world. We grow frustrated at our inability to find a place to be the voice of God to the people – I can tell you from very personal experience of my frustration at that very thing right now! But what we never express is the confidence, the BELIEF, that we are readily equipped to go forth and be that voice.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve experienced three years of extremely strenuous academic environments. Perhaps we’re just burnt out, exhausted, in need of a break. Or perhaps it’s that, even though we recognized our calls from Christ years ago, even after three years of being taught in the ways of Christ, we still have trouble believing in that to which we have been called. Just like Philip and the other apostles, we do not necessarily see that to which we are going, and so lacking in faith, we ask Christ – “SHOW IT TO US.”
But here’s the thing – and this might be a slightly radical concept that I’m about to run by you, so I’m gonna ask you to bear with me. In the first century AD, as Christ was speaking to His apostles about the Advocate who was coming in His place, He told them, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” He was about to physically depart the world. He would no longer be seen present among His people, but they, through the Advocate, would still see Him. And so I ask – what if that means that that group of 31 of us graduating from Wake Forest University School of Divinity tomorrow, what if WE are the paraclete for the modern world? What if WE are the Advocate through which Christ will be seen?
Consider, if you will – the paraclete was being sent to the apostles, so that they could continue to commune with Christ, through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The paraclete was the Advocate for those apostles, the one who kept them connected to God, the one who would strengthen their faith and help maintain their belief.
That sounds an AWFUL lot like the job of a modern minister. Be the Advocate to the congregation – check. Help keep them connected to God – check. Help strengthen their faith and maintain their belief – check. It seems to me that those 31 of us graduating tomorrow are indeed among the many who make up the Advocate that Christ has sent to the world at large to allow Him to be seen, through us.
And so, when we consider that, it becomes even more important to maintain belief. Yes, exhaustion has set in, weariness of hearing about theology has overwhelmed, and by God, if we have to hear about criticism of the source texts one more time, our heads might explode. But our commitment to this life of service means that we need to believe not only for our OWN sake, but for the sake of those around us as well.
It’s no simple thing, setting off on such a journey into the undiscovered country. In the words of a most unlikely source, rapper Kanye West, we must pray to God that our feet don’t fail us now. Jesus walks with us, but we must maintain our belief, lest we be entirely unable to see Him walking along beside us.
The world today has a desire to believe in something, but they haven’t yet been provided with something in which to believe. We have. The apostles didn’t need to SEE the Creator, because they had Christ with them, and the Advocate coming. So too, today’s world doesn’t need to SEE the Creator, because Christ is available to them, and there is an Advocate to bring Him to the people.
And so it’s time for those of us who ARE the Advocate to put our exhaustion and frustration away, to embrace our beliefs, and to grasp with relish the role that we have been given. Christ IS serious, and it’s time for us to stop calling Him Shirley.
Amen.

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