Ephesians 2.4-10 (NIV)
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace,expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Somewhere, I read that “you can get a sense of how healthy a community is by paying attention to how much they laugh.” If someone tells a joke and no one responds, that might be a sign the organization is having a difficult time dealing with some sort of stress or anxiety.
But, that also assumes the joke someone tried to tell is actually funny.
I remember being asked by the Presbytery of Arkansas to moderate the session of a church whose pastor had just resigned. I anxiously made the hour-long drive to the church wondering what the meeting would be like. I wasn’t sure about leading a meeting for a group of people I had never met. Especially when they were going through a transition. My imagination started to run wild. Would they be sad? Would they feel hurt that their pastor had left? Would things be difficult and contentious? Would my style of leading meetings work with them?
As we sat around a big table in the church’s library … there was a lightness and warmth to the group. They joked and teased each other in good natured ways … they laughed a lot. I could tell they took leading and nurturing the life of Jesus’ church seriously. They had a mission and a purpose they wanted to live into, but they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They were willing to laugh at themselves. Even as they spoke about serious and heavy things, they carried themselves with an energizing sense of lightness. As I watched that session go about their work with laughter and joy, I realized I was more anxious than they were, and I got the feeling that that church and their leaders would be just fine.
Douglas Abrams, the guy who facilitated Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama’s conversations that would later become “The Book of Joy,” is convinced that a sense of humor is a sign of spiritual maturity. Humor is included as one of the eight pillars of joy. It’s not necessarily stand up comedy humor we are talking about. It has to do with being able to laugh at ourselves and to joke in ways that bring people together. As I think of the spiritual leaders I know, people who have been following Jesus as disciples, and have a sense of Christlikeness about them, I agree. These are people who take Jesus seriously, but at the same time they are more than willing to laugh at themselves. When something doesn’t work out the way they hoped, when they make a mistake, they are able to laugh and move on.
They know they rely on God’s gift of grace to make it and not their own efforts.
They receive God’s grace. They offer other’s grace. And, they even give themselves some grace.
When the Gospel writers share stories about Jesus’ disciples, I am curious if they were grinning as they wrote them down. Those disciples try so hard. They have so much enthusiasm and eagerness. They can be so sure they understand, but it quickly becomes clear that they have missed the point. They get distracted. They were stretched so far out of their comfort zones as they followed Jesus through unfamiliar and awkward situations. The disciples we meet in the gospels are not superheroes. They are very human, maybe even painfully human. As the gospel writers look back and as they introduce us to Jesus and his first disciples, they had to be smiling and laughing at themselves as they remembered some of these stories.
Toward the end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus starts inviting people to come with him … to follow him.
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
Two days in a row, John the Baptist sees Jesus and shouts something about how Jesus is the Lamb of God. John was a guy who seemed to have a clear understanding of his role in life. He insists he is not the Messiah. He is the one who has been sent to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Later, in John’s Gospel, people approach John the Baptist concerned about how Jesus and his disciples are on the other side of the river and “everyone is going to Jesus.” John the Baptist responds with this great line about his relationship to Jesus and his purpose in life, he says, “Jesus must become greater; I must become less.” John takes his mission to point people to Jesus seriously. His life isn’t all about feeding his ego and building up his following. He is just fine with his crowds getting smaller and Jesus’ crowds growing.
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Staying and remaining are ways John often talks about discipleship. It seems like kind of an awkward way to start a conversation, but Jesus’ conversation with these two disciples, seems to be happening on two different levels. They want to know where Jesus is staying. They wind up staying with Jesus as his disciples.
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God;you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’the Son of Man.”
I think these verses might be some of my favorite in scripture. Philip and Nathanael’s conversation … Nathanael and Jesus’ conversation. So far, in John’s Gospel, Nathanael is one of the first people to respond to Jesus with hesitation. Philip tells Nathanael that Jesus is the one that all of scripture has been pointing toward … that their history and traditions have been pointing toward this one, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph. Nathanael responds in such a brutal and short way … “Nazareth? Are you serious, can anything good come from there.” Later in John’s gospel we learn that Nathanael was from Cana, the town where Jesus turned the water into wine. There are theories that maybe Cana and Nazareth were rival towns. It might be like me, a Colorado Springs kid talking trash about Pueblo … “What? Can anything good come from there?”
But since we have access to information that Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael don’t, we know that Nazareth, might be where Jesus grew up, but it’s not where Jesus is from. Jesus is from God – “He was there with God in the beginning. Through him all things have been made … in him was light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Nathan is so brutally short with Philip. There is no way Jesus could be the Messiah, he thinks. But then when Jesus is talking to Nathanael and mentions he saw Nathanael hanging out under a fig tree, all of the sudden, (snap) that is just what Nathanael needed to hear. I can totally imagine Philip shaking his head (“What?!?! That’s what did it?) and I can picture Jesus smiling as he tells Nathanael that he is going to “See even greater things than that.” As Nathanael, Philip, Andrew, Peter, as you and me follow Jesus, we will see more and more that he is the life and presence of God in human flesh and blood.
Scripture remembers the things things that tripped the disciples up … it remembers the moments where it all comes together and the disciples see Jesus for who he truly is, scripture remembers the times when everything seems to fall apart – though it all the disciples are very human. Scripture doesn’t present Jesus’ first disciples as super-human, super-believers, who have everything figured out and who don’t seem to stumble or have any weaknesses.
I would have a really hard time identifying with that.
In scripture, the disciples are a lot more like us than we might be comfortable with. They don’t have it all figured out, but when Jesus approaches them, when he invites them to follow him, and to be in relationship with him, they see something in Jesus and they stick with him … they figure out more about who Jesus is and what it looks like to live in his grace and follow him as they go.
As disciples, as people who are seeking to follow Jesus, we take Jesus seriously, we take the mission he gives us to reach out beyond ourselves to share his love seriously, but we also are willing to laugh at ourselves … we recognize that we live in grace … we are God’s beloved, dearly loved, but still very human.