May 16, 2021 / 7th Sunday of Easter/ Richard Holmer
First Reading Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 / Second Reading 1 John 5:9-13 / Gospel John 17:6-19
Life is momentous – momentous because we have the capacity to change and to choose. And our choices matter. They make all the difference. Of course, the most momentous choice of all is one that has already been made: It is God’s choice to love us, to demonstrate the abundance of his love in Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals most completely what the whole bible aims to make known: the way, the truth, the life. These are not three different things, but like the Holy Trinity, three names for the same thing: what God wills for us – true blessedness, abundant life, abiding joy.
God chooses us to be his children. You and I, then, can choose to live our lives as God’s beloved children – or . . . we can choose to run away from home, like the prodigal son; we can choose to wander off like thoughtless, stray sheep. We live with the consequences of our choices.
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Today’s psalm, Psalm 1, serves as an introduction or foreword to the whole Book of Psalms. The first psalm describes the defining choice, the Either / Or, that we all face: There is the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked: two paths from which to choose. Now this is not simply choosing the good or the bad. The righteous are by no means paragons of sinless perfection – nobody is. What they choose is to be loyal and faithful to God. Likewise the wicked are not despicably evil – they are self-centered, self-seeking and rebellious: preferring to go their own way rather than God’s way.
The bible narrates how the tension between these two choices has been present from the start. Adam and Eve disregard God’s guidance and choose to have it their way. Time and again the people of Israel make this same short-sighted mistake. The gospels present those who choose to follow Jesus and those who turn away: A rich young ruler cannot let go of his possessions in order to go with Jesus. Peter follows – but then denies Jesus. As they are about to enter into the Promised Land, Moses calls on the people to make a choice: “I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Joshua later reiterates this essential choice: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
Jesus presents the choice by way of an explicit invitation. “Follow me.” He illustrates this choice with a simple parable:
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”
The choice before each of us is momentous, because what’s at stake is nothing less than happiness. Everyone wants to be happy. No one deliberately chooses to be unhappy. We make choices, presuming they will lead to happiness. Sadly, however, we can choose poorly. And we do. We think we know our own good, what is in our best interest. We trust our own ingenuity and so: We imagine that the easy way is always the best way. We presume that a diet of sugar, fat and empty calories is a good choice. We believe that the key question in life is: How does this work for me?
The consistent message throughout scripture is that God wants to bless us, God seeks our happiness and that God knows better than we do what makes for a happy life. The very first word in Psalm 1 is “happy.” Happy are they who have not wandered off down the wrong way, hung around the wrong crowd, or followed the path that leads away from God.
Those who are happy delight in the law of the Lord. The Law of the Lord is more than a set of rules. The happy delight in God’s teaching, what God shows us about how to live. Micah says this: “God has showed you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) The way of happiness is the way of justice, kindness and humility. Jesus summarizes the Law of the Lord as loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Then, what is a happy person like? Psalm 1 says, “Like a tree that has been planted by a flowing stream.” Such a tree flourishes in all seasons. Its leaves do not wither. And that tree bears fruit in due season. The tree thrives in its own right – it prospers. And it also provides fruit as a blessing to others. A happy life isn’t lived purely for one’s own sake – its nature is to be a blessing to those around it. This image of a tree sustained by a flowing stream brings to mind Christ’s picture of the vine that sustains the fruitful branches.
As an introduction to the entire collection of Psalms, Psalm 1 invites us to pattern our lives along the lines described in all the psalms that follow. That life includes:
Living our lives consciously in the sight of God, practicing the presence of the Lord.
Continually seeking after God – even when God is elusive and unknowable.
Praising God for all God’s blessings, taking nothing for granted.
Sharing our sorrows, laments and even our complaints with God.
Trusting God in all things, and loving God as best we can.
This is the shape, the outline of a happy life. We all long for happiness. On which road will we find it?
In a commentary on this psalm I found some words which ring true. Larry Broding writes:
“The faith-filled person is happy.” I have found that statement to be true by experience. The people I most admire are those who live happily with God. That commitment shades their entire existence in a joyful glow. Their smile is genuine, their love for their spouse and children overflows. These are the people I want to be around; these are the people I am proud to call my friends and my heroes. I find their happiness is infectious, because it finds its roots in something I value most of all: a deep love for God.
His account is true to my own experience. I see this faith-filled happiness in your lives. This way of happiness is both simple and radical: simple, in that it is available to everyone; radical, in that it goes against the happiness the world proposes.
The world would have us believe that the way to happiness is through cultivating a deep, self-centered love. It’s the way of: accumulating more and more, pursuing exciting experiences, having things your own way.
The scriptures point to a different way: In loving God with all our heart and loving neighbors just as we love ourselves, we discover our true and lasting selves – and a happiness that is not fleeting but enduring.
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There are two ways to see the way of the Lord. From a worldly point of view, the gospels tell a sad and unsatisfying story. Jesus is perceived as a man who never took time for himself. He was over-committed. He loved too much. He wasted his incredible talents on persons who didn’t deserve it – who could never pay him back. He never owned anything, never had a family. He had so much to live for, and yet he died a miserable death in the prime of his life. He is to be pitied. Certainly to see Jesus this way would discourage anyone from following.
The eyes of faith see a very different story. Jesus is neither sad nor pitiful. He is joyful and free. Jesus welcomed everyone as brothers and sisters. He brought health to the sick, mercy to sinners, hope to the despairing, life to those who were dead, whether in body or spirit. Jesus lived each day on purpose. In him was life – life that brought light to all people living in the darkness. He was not compelled by anyone – he freely chose to do everything he did, even to the point of laying down his life for those he loves. Jesus understands what’s worth dying for.
Jesus painted a picture of those who are blessed with happiness that endures: they know their need for God; they are hungry for genuine goodness; they are humble and merciful; they are peacemakers; they live gratefully with God and one another. You and I can choose to be included in that number. We can choose the way of love and faithfulness – in the choices, both large and small, we make every day.
keeping God in the picture,
looking to God in all things,
staying faithful to God and the people of God,
showing up: to help others
to worship and praise
to meditate on God’s good word
to share our blessings.
Happy are they who delight in the way of the Lord!