Our passage from Romans this morning is probably one of the most famous passages that deals with the struggle of the Christian life: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” My first encounter with this passage actually came through a book called “The Confessions” written by a famous and very faithful Christian living in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine.
The Confessions recounts Augustine’s life through reflection on his own process of conversion to Christianity. When examined through the lens of faith informed by and in the process of being made more and more like Jesus Christ, the events of Augustine’s life were given new perspective. They were seen - not simply in the scope of the everyday, the visible or the known and immediate future - but rather in the scope of God’s providence. Or in other words, these events were seen from the perspective of God’s mission of drawing or gathering all of history and bringing it to completion in himself in and through Jesus Christ.
For Augustine, as for Paul here in Romans, human beings naturally long to "rest" in God, to be drawn to God, to know God and to harmonize their wills with His will: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, I can will what is right ….” But, complains Paul “I cannot do it … I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Augustine shares Paul’s dilemma, offering that because they are weak and sinful, humans can never hope to harmonize their wills with God’s without God's assistance. This particular story is Augustine's alone, but as he presents it, it can also express the story of all humanity, painfully separated from God and always struggling to return.
Indeed, we are always struggling to return to the place we have rest: to God that is. We do seek him in various ways. Yet all of us at some point succumb to the temptation of being drawn back to what Paul calls, ‘our old life’, a life in slavery to sin. This struggle is certainly not an unfamiliar tale, as we know from the Scriptures. There is Peter’s story of denying his fellowship with Jesus three after Jesus is arrested. There is Thomas’ demand to touch the resurrected Jesus’ wounds. There is Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise of a son. There is Israel’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf made by Aaron to satisfy a people hungry and thirsty, wandering in the wilderness and contemplating a return to Egypt from which God had freed them. There is even Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene: “Father, if you would take this cup from me ….” Scripture is not short of accounts that detail the struggles God’s people have in following him!
What lies at the root of this struggle? I would suggest, that it is fear. Fear of stepping out from what we know, what we can see, touch, understand, and control. Surely this is a frightening thing.
I have a friend, who I shall call Dave. Dave is a student at Wycliffe but prior to this he and his family were living in BC. Dave was the CEO of a small business he had started up with his wife. His family was well integrated into the community with close ties, financial stability, modest assets, and extended family around them. Business was booming and he was beginning to be able to delegate work out to his employees. This gave him more time to get involved with his church. After some discernment, Dave and his family found themselves considering the possibility of Dave entering into ministry full-time. This would involve returning to school to train as an Anglican minister; leaving behind the ties to family, friends and employees; entering into a period of financial insecurity and doing so not as a young teenager heading off to school, but rather as a middle aged man with a wife and children. Should we do this he asked? Will we have enough money to last us three years? What if I don’t find a job at the end of my time? What if no diocese and no bishop accepts me? How will we provide for the family while I’m in school? What about moving away from all our family? What about moving the kids? What if they hate us for doing it? And two and a half years later, with the assets sold off, the bank account nearly drained, the children uprooted, and not a job in sight, Dave tells me that he sometimes questions his choice to come. Was this right? Should I have stayed back in BC with the work and the ministry I was doing? In his fear, the comforts of what was tempt him; they create doubt and uncertainty, and he admits, sometimes falling back into old patterns of acting and responding to situations. Indeed I think Dave is right when he says: “I think it is fear that often makes us succumb to the temptation to see our actions only within the scope of what we can see and control and therefore away from God; it is fear that causes us to turn back to our old ways.”
Our lesson from Genesis this morning provides us with a Scriptural account of just these struggles and of our place before God as we live with them. Just prior to the section of Genesis we read this morning, we are told that Abraham commissions a servant to find his son Isaac a wife from his own kinsfolk. It is not simply that it is the servant’s duty to find Isaac a wife; rather in fact, Abraham outright refuses to allow Isaac to make this trip into the land of the Cannanites (where his kinsfolk live) on his own: by no means should Isaac return to the land and family that Abraham had left behind.
Abraham’s command conveys an important truth: Abraham is worried about sending Isaac back to the Israelites and with good cause. For remember that when faced with a fearful future – one that involved wandering, homelessness, concern for food, water and shelter, for protection and for relationship – the Israelites wanted to return to the the real but familiar liabilities of life – even a life of slavery – in Egypt. In other words, in order to quell their fears, the Israelites were prone to turn to worldly powers rather than to God.
But just here, Abraham’s command that Isaac not return to his kinfolk marks a departure from ‘returning to one’s old life.’ You see, Isaac carries the promised seed of the future: Christ Jesus (see the geneology at the beginning of Mt’s gospel). Rather than be tied to the past – to his kinsfolk – Isaac serves to show us how he, and so as God’s creatures, we too, participate in a larger story: a story with greater scope; one that tells of Christ’s mission to gather all the people and all the events of history to himself as the fulfillment of this history. By his not returning to Abraham’s kinsmen, Isaac serves to draw us into and shows to us, and to all who read the Scriptures, the broader scope of God’s work in the world. We are, in a sense, compelled to test out the role that Isaac plays; to see how we compare; to see where we fit within the narrative of God’s unfolding mission. And so here we find Isaac in the particular circumstances of his life: a man wandering alone, facing the death of his mother and isolation from his kinsfolk, a son awaiting marriage and children (critical for people of the time), a son asked by a father not to turn back, but to face into a future that is God’s. An uncertain and frightening prospect indeed … if in fact one cannot see or control how all the pieces of one’s life might fit together. The fear and temptation to turn back is surely real and grips all of us at some point. Yet here Isaac obeys his father and awaits the events that follow by which he will, with his wife, partake in God’s mission by bearing the future seed of God’s promise.
But our story does not end with Isaac, for both Abraham’s servant and Rebekah have a role to play – as we all do – in God’s mission. Like the servant who returns to Abraham’s kinsfolk to find Isaac his wife, we must live in the world to provide for the present and the future: to tend to family and friends, to jobs, to illnesses, to responsibilities, to day-to-day chores. But in so doing we should no more return our faith and hope to the limited powers of the world to appease our fears than should the servant take Isaac back to Abraham’s kinsfolk. We are called to live in the world – the servant shows us this – and this is part of who we are and must be; but we are also called to see our work in the world within the Scope of God’s mission as we find it given to us in the Scriptures. This we are shown by Isaac’s story.
Finally, we have the role of Rebekah herself; the one who will join with Isaac in marriage – another sermon itself – to bring forth and carry on the future seed who will give new life to the world. In the passage we read, Abraham’s servant asks Rebekah’s brother for permission to take her back to Isaac. The brother does not simply give Rebekah away to the servant but rather asks her: “will you go with this man?” There is no force used here. Rather, she replies: “I will.” Freely, of her own accord she replies, I will.
The meaning of that response goes deeper than just Rebecca’s pending marriage to Isaac, however. And this is so because in her response of “I will” to the servant who asks at the behest of Abraham and of God, we are pointed to Christ’s response of “I will” to God. But it is important we get the order of these responses right: it is Christ’s willing response of “I will” to his Father that gives meaning to Rebekah’s response. And in Rebekah’s response, we are pointed to and thus we see how her particular story is taken up, redeemed, and placed within God’s mission to the world.
And of course this is a response – a response given by unique individuals in unique circumstances – that we see repeated elsewhere with Abraham, Moses, Josiah, Peter, and with Paul. Rebekah, is asked to leave her homeland and the safety of family and the bonds of affection therein, the duties to which she had to attend, and the places that she new, for the sake of marriage to an unknown man on the word of Abraham’s servant who prays to God for help. And she replies: “I will.” Lord, despite my fears and my doubts, I will rest in you, I will. Her response – for us given purpose and meaning in and through Jesus’s own giving up of himself, his “I will” – demonstrates the wider scope of God’s work in the world.
Here in this brief passage, is one particular event by which we might see God’s mission of drawing things to a rest in himself. Indeed, as Augustine, I think rightly assessed, all people, and all things seek to find their rest in God. Rebekah, and so too Isaac and the servant, provide particular figures that conform, in their own unique ways, to Christ’s own: a giving up of oneself for the sake of the other: in Rebekah’s case, Isaac; in Christ’s, humanity. It is here – in the giving up of oneself to God in relationship with others, that one finds rest in Christ Jesus and the means of turning toward God and away from our fears.
These three figures point both to the need to deal with our own particular circumstances, but to hold these up to the Scriptures in order to determine how we might respond to our various situations and what purpose our situations might serve in God’s kingdom. What, for example, is the purpose of our relationships with one another? We find the measure of that purpose not in our culture and particularly not in our feelings alone; although comfortable and assuring since these are known standards by which to measure. For finding our answers in these things fails to acknowledge our dependence upon God and our particular place before him.
So yes, we are called to examine our lives and hold them up to the Scriptures to see where we fit into God’s unfolding mission; that is to find out who we really are. And yes it is here that we can find our place and the way we can respond in love, and so faithfully to God. But our redemption and our transformation as Christians is not accomplished by us. Note that I have said we participate in God’s mission. That is, we participate in what God has already accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is Christ who fulfilled all of history and so God’s promise by willingly giving himself up for our sakes on the Cross. It is Christ who gives meaning to all of the Scriptures and so too to all of our lives. And it is to Christ that each person, that each event, somehow points. Our participation then, is a response – I repeat, our participation is a response – to what God has already accomplished. It involves our finding our place in and of our coming to know God through the narrative given to us in the Scriptures. For this is where we might receive what has already been given: rest and redemption. By giving up ourselves to this continual search for God enfigured and revealed in his Scriptures and in his Church, we can come to know the sure promise and hope of life eternal won for us on the Cross. And in this way, our fears and our struggles are brought into the light in order that they might be seen through the lens of God’s redemption of our lives. This will certainly not erase our fear and the desire to turn back to what is comfortable for us. But it will pull away the scales that blind us to God’s presence with us more and more, so that we might see the irresistible gathering to which he is bringing us. And this will indeed begin to reorient our thinking and our actions as we are conformed to Christ’s own self through God’s love for us: for his love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things: Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death? “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest … in me you will find rest for your souls.” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
For so long, we in the West have become comfortable with the idea that our science, our economics, our education, and our possessions, are the things that define us; these things have come, we believe, to define our relationships, our values, ethics, morals, even our worth, and our status in this world and with one another.
To say that COVID has pulled down the figurative curtain on our ‘comfortable assumption’ about what defines and gives our live value meaning and worth, would be a severe understatement. COVID has just begun to shatter all the ways, all the things that we presume are somehow deserved, givens, expectations, the proper ways. Of course we have economists, politicians, medical specialists, professors of various disciplines, all offering their various analysis about what has and might happen. And it’s certainly important to pay attention to these analyses.
But we as Christians must go deeper that this, to the root of what it means to have life at all, and then to ask, ‘where is God in the midst of this?’ This is really difficult for us to do at this point in time for a single reason: we most often presume that we have control over our futures, that rational choice, that careful planning, that competent management or government will lead us in a direction that keeps us generally in the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. And precisely because of this it is very difficult for us to imagine what God might be doing in the midst of this COVID pandemic. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine that God could be using COVID as a test or a trial – if not as its cause – simply using its outcomes as a trial.
But I think we need to ask ourselves whether this might actually be what God is doing in the midst of this pandemic. Why? Because we have precedent for God using the most difficult of circumstances we can imagine in just this way. And that’s what we see in our story from Genesis this morning.
God says to Abraham, “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” At first glance this seems a most horrific command. Sacrifice in death, the child whom you prayed, begged, and longed for. Sacrifice the child who, as I said two weeks ago, is the very extension into the future of Abraham’s and Sarah’s own life; the person, the means by which God says he will fulfil his promise to Abraham to make of him a nation. We know from this passage that Abraham’s son is spared. An angel intervenes and Abraham, standing over his son with a knife, instead sees a ram caught in a thicket and this ram becomes the sacrifice offered to God.
The story remains shocking to us though. It does so, I believe, because we are so used to dictating the terms of justice on the basis of an illusory sense of power and control over ourselves and over creation. So to imagine that God would test us in such a way, given our perspective, can seem only an affront to goodness. The test however, isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It is intended to force us to face into our brokenness, our frailty, our violence toward one another and ourselves – original sin – that manifests in each of our lives and in all of the structures and relationships we develop, in so many ways. God testing us then, is absolutely an affront to our presumption that we must depend – before we seek him – upon broken things, upon the frailty of who and what we are and what we have, upon how we have made and structured our societies, our relationships, our countries, our economy, our possessions, our governments.
We can see this in the story of Job. God allows Satan to take Job’s entire world from him. Everything that ‘makes Job who he is’ is stripped away. Likewise with Abraham in our reading this morning, the dependence upon natural procreation as providing true life, is shown to be not irrelevant – no not at all – but not primary; not the first thing to which a person must attend in order to make sense of all the other things he or she encounters in life. In other words, if you wanna know what procreation is about and use it well, if you wanna know what owning property, or managing a company, or being in relationship with people, or having possessions is about, you must FIRST SEEK GOD. And not just seek.
You see what the story from Genesis this morning suggests, I think, is that out of those things we are tested by – whether the coronavirus, illness, or death of a loved on, or the trials of our jobs, or our relationships – God shows up in his most magnified form, his most powerful, precisely because we are stripped of all the things that give us a sense of control, order, protection, that we construct apart from him, that can be conceived apart from him.
You see Isaac represents the fruit of human fertility and life: he is ‘the next generation,’ the means of human survival and perpetuation. This is a reality possible only through human procreation. We can’t will a child into existence or create them from nothing. Abraham’s trial demands that he act in accordance with the reality that it is not by his own power that his future will come about; but by God’s own fulfillment of the promise that he makes to Abraham. Abraham that is, is entirely dependent upon the action of God for God’s promise to occur. Abraham’s role in this, is to be faithful to that promise and to the reality of how that promise is going to be fulfilled: by God himself. The trial then, is reorienting Abraham to fulfill the first of the two commandment’s, summarizing the 10, that God will give in Jesus Christ: to love God first and foremost. Nothing can or will be undertaken toward the fulfillment of goodness and truth, unless it is done foremost by seeking to do the will of God. In this case, Isaac stands in not just for the fragility of human fertility but also for the ways that we come to depend upon ‘making our own futures:’ plans, projects, governments, investments, etc.
For Abraham to be willing to put the knife into Isaac, he must first give up his life (remember that his life is essentially tied to his child’s life, the perpetuation of his family line). To gain life, one must lose one’s life, Jesus Christ says. And so we see in Abraham’s act, God’s own act of sending his Son into the world to be a ‘propitiation’ or a sacrifice, taking human sin upon him as the sole true human, and obliterating its effects upon human nature. This is why living into the defects of a fallen nature can only lead to brokenness and death: because not seeking God first leads us to seek death instead. It leads us to seek things that break, hurt, fall apart, and are self and other destructive. For in God alone we find the good, the truth, the way, and life. To give up one’s life – as Isaac symbolizes, as Job’s commentary demonstrates – is to seek, in everything a person does, the will of God instead of the frail and distorted constructs we have come to depend upon.
Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean we should retreat from the world. This lesson today is about how we live in this world we have. If we see COVID as a way through which God is testing us, we are not to retreat into little domiciles of isolation, rather we are challenged to ask how those things we have depended upon, our governments, our education systems, our ideological presumptions, our medical sciences, fit with God’s will for us. It may be that we have to live in peace and order with certain aspects of our culture and society. It may be that we need to challenge others. It may be that we need to make or challenge or strive to make changes. But central to our life as Christians in the midst of what is in fact a trial in which and through which God is acting, is the recognition that we ARE NOT to put our hopes in false things, but in God himself. From there – having renounced worldly things as being our be all and end all – from that orientation of loving God first and foremost; from that turning from worldly things to spiritual things; we can seek things like justice, good governance, medical interventions – not as goods themselves, but as things and as people that belong to God, being shaped, challenged, and pressed in ways that illumine his will. Attending to this perspective or orientation to worldly events, we can engage in this world seeking to learn and share God’s truth and wisdom with others, not with condemnation, but by reflecting the love and hope we have received in him. AMEN.
One of the things that I have been turning over and over in my mind is this question: “how long O Lord.” At first, it was a question to God about how long we would be away from one another in our worship and fellowship. How long would these restrictions go on, where social distancing is often being experienced by people as social isolation and fear. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that much as I thought I was coping with it, what I was really experiencing was the rebound effect of a global trauma. I felt dead inside.
That changed as I heard about and then saw a string of events – black people killed at the hands of police officers – occur. I have spent the last two weeks or so dealing, not with a slowly unfolding shutdown, but with shock at what appears to me to be a bleak world and a bleak future. I know many of you don’t like to read and hear negative things. But my friends, to ignore what is going on in the world, to stick our heads in the sand and only speak about those things that make us feel good at a time when everything has been thrown up into the air - to not speak about it, to not question, challenge, listen, and be open to change – is to fail to take hold the gift of the Spirit we have received in God. To ignore what is going on in the concrete in the United States and Canada is to persist in the sin of systemic racism.
“How long O Lord,” these words of lament were not about racism per se. They were a cry to God from his people – individuals and the whole gathered body of Israel – to deliver them from enemies, from persecutors who physically (so likely mentally and emotionally probably sexually as well), harmed them simply for being Israelites. When will you deliver us from the hands of our enemies? When will you stop our suffering? When will we see the hope you say you have in store for us, O Lord.
Our first story from Genesis tells of the barren marriage of Abraham and Sarah. Life was understood in different terms for the Israelites than it is today (for the most part). To have life wasn’t simply about the individual, but rather about the children two individuals could bear and raise together. To not be able to have children, for Sarah, would have been experienced as an existence empty of life: the persistence of one’s family through children. Whatever we might think of that now, for the Israelites of the day, the ability to have children would have been understood in the same way we might today understand life as necessitating autonomy (rather than coercion) to serve one’s family and community, competency (education) to serve one’s community, and safe space to engage in relationships, work, and play. In other words, children provided the equivalent of those things we value today as constituting a true life. We hear that due to advanced age, Abraham and Sarah believe they shall not be able to have children. Their visitors tell them God has heard their anger, their fear, their pain and Sarah’s deep lament for her life. He hears, and, they promise, God will deliver a child to her. And so, as we know, Isaac will be born to the aged pair. A supernatural miracle of life, surpassing the finite limits of natural life. God hears. God answers.
I can hear those of you who demand a better answer than this though: really? Where was God to hear and to heal my lament about my cancer, my husband’s Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the lament of my family or my people who lived in slavery for hundreds of years. These miracles sound lovely. So why has God not delivered me? Why has God not delivered my people? Why has God allowed racism and evil tyranny to run rampant over the globe now, or frankly, for the whole of history? How long, O Lord, will you let evil triumph. This isn’t an abstract question. George Floyd was suffocated for 9 minutes with no answer to his begging for mercy. How long, O Lord, will you let gun violence kill child after child after child in American schools? Recall the words of one parent who responded to Christians saying, ‘you’re in our prayers.’ We don’t need your prayers. We need you to act NOW.
You see there’s this thing that people do when we’re faced with a hard, brutal, stunning, shocking truth: we suddenly turn to God. Most of us spend a lot of time ignoring God in our day to day lives. Or we say we’re seeking or relying on God when in fact we’re turning to our own inclinations, our own biases, our own prejudices, in order to mitigate our fear and justify acting out of it.
I would suggest the cost of our individual and social ignorance of God in Canada and the United States – most particularly of those who call themselves Christians – is the very seat of our undoing. You see, a person whose character, whose very core self, is formed by deep immersion in God’s Word, is able to let go of their fears and their presumptions to have certainty about everything. A person who seeks God with hunger and depth, might not always agree with someone; but that disagreement will not be harsh, fear driven, so angry dismissal, harassment, violence, or social and institutional blackballing; and it won’t be antagonistic political, social, educational, job related, or medically related denial of service, or denial of disparities in access, or disparities in treatment.
A person who seeks God, that is, all of us gentiles who have merely been grafted into the root who is Jesus Christ, will have as their focus not exclusion, but the fullness of inclusion God promised first to his people, the Jews, and then second, to ALL gentiles. The disciples were all Jews. They were sent first to the Jews to fulfill God’s plan to deliver his people. They were told to force no one, nor even to try to invoke civil laws, nor divine judgment (Jesus healed the soldier’s ear and would not let the disciples ask for harm to come to people for their lack of adherence). Being grafted in to this body and its head, Jesus Christ, this WAY OF LIFE applies to us now. To follow that way is to “read, mark, learn;” to draw on those people we find in Scripture to learn from how God responds to all of them, what not to do, to be sure; but importantly, how to build, as Paul says in our letter from Romans, chapter 5, “character, and so endurance and perseverance.” Why? So that we can do the exceptionally hard work of being in relationships that often involve sacrifice and some degree of suffering, of holding back, of not lashing out in anger and fear, of not forcing or hurting others, of checking the known and unknown privileges we have so that we aren’t undermining other’s ability to see God in our words and actions.
How can we do this? The ways will of course vary in their particulars. But I think they begin right here with what Paul says to us in his letter to the Roman Church. Remember this, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” If we can remember that we are loved by God, desired by God, commissioned by God (given jobs or vocations to share his life with others through what we do and say), then this love that isn’t contingent on our actions, sets us free to really open up so we can figure out what it means to concretely love others in this time of tumult, anxiety, worry, stress, and recognition that we are a very broken society in so many ways.
Why doesn’t God perform miracles in the ways we expect, with regularity and equality as we’d expect? Getting rid of the evil and uplifting the good? Why doesn’t he just heal? Why doesn’t he just end the life of the tyrant? I don’t know for sure but knowing Scripture, I can begin with this: “no one is good, no not one.” Many secular people have said that we are all capable of evil. I would go further and say that I don’t know a person that hasn’t done evil. To wipe out the ‘tyrant’ would be to flood the earth once again, to destroy all people, who, as we know, are all sinners through the ‘one man’s sin.’ Why doesn’t God heal the social fractures that have resulted from racism and slavery? Once again, in the scales of divine justice, would anyone survive such judgment? Where then are we left? We are not left to our own devices.
We are not left in the clutches of the Deist’s ‘clockmaker God’ who sets the world in motion at its beginning and then stands far off watching us rail at one another. No. He completed his greatest miracle in sending his Son into the world to take on our nature, to become us, to suffer the consequences of death every one of us has inside us that explodes out far too often in our actions, and to eradicate the proper end of those words and actions: DEATH. He rose so that we could enter him, to give up our distorted inclinations that lead us toward death and to follow our natural end of life in God. He enabled us to live this reality in the here and now with one another.
I don’t know what the reality of God’s love for you looks like. You need to dig into Scripture to figure out how that unfolds in how you engage with others, in what organizations your support, in how you live, where you give your money, how you treat people, in how aware you are willing to make yourself, of other’s struggles and how you might support them. That’s for you to determine; I cannot say, nor can I force, for that is not the work of a disciple. I can only remind you of God’s truth: the one who endures in love, to the end of his or her life, this is the one who will see God. AMEN.
Today marks a day that can worry many pastors and preachers: how on earth am I going to preach about the Trinity! And throughout history, people have hauled out many analogies: there’s the three leaf clover where each leaf is to symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But of course, this is sort of problematic because that suggests that God is somehow three separate things. Then there’s the analogy of the egg: there’s the shell, the white part, and the yoke; but again, same problem, it suggests that God is actually three separate substances, or things.
So people decided on another analogy (and this one is probably my favorite because I was hugely into the Transformers as a kid). If you know anything about the Transformers, you know there was this character named Optimus Prime. Now Prime, as he was called, could transform between three different types of things: a robot, a command center (where all the transformers hung out to plan how to defeat the Decepticons), and finally, a transport truck. Now the problem with this analogy – in terms of applying it to God – is that it suggests that God is one thing – the Father, in the Old Testament, then he sort of transforms into something completely different when the Son is born into our world becoming incarnate, and doing ministry here on earth. And then finally, he transforms to become a third thing: the Holy Spirit who does some other stuff like makes people speak in other languages or leads people into some new truth. So God becomes sort of like this ‘transformer’ always becoming something new.
And here’s the thing. It really took people quite a while (hundreds of years and several really anger filled councils) to figure out exactly how God who claims to be one, could be encountered in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s face it, when you hear or when we pray the collects or the offertory prayer before communion, or the prayer after communion or the blessing at the end of the service and you hear, ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, surely it must sound like either we’re praying to three different gods, or to a god that can change forms at different times in different places right?
I don’t think that it’s actually possible to understand how God can be one and yet three. But our Church has insisted that God is one substance, one being who is simultaneously three Persons. This means that all three Persons we name in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are identical, except that they are not each other. Confusing right!! I think that ultimately we have to hold this a little bit loosely because we don’t have any analogy (a comparison, that is, with any created things) that can make sense of who God is, because there is no one or nothing like God in any way. He is completely unique and unchanging. He doesn’t become who he is by moving from Father to Son to Holy Spirit, or showing up in history in these forms or persons. He is, who he is, as He himself says to us in Exodus: I am who I am, eternally unchanging. So our trying to compare him to someone or something else isn’t really going to help us.
Now the Orthodox have this really helpful way then, of thinking about God. Because we can’t compare him to anything or anyone else, the Orthodox said, okay well then how can we know God. And some brilliant theologian amongst them said, well, we can say what God is not. In theology this is known as apophatic knowledge: defining what God is not. So we’ve already said that unlike all the things he’s created, he doesn’t change; he is not becoming something else, which would imply that he was imperfect and had to come to perfection. We can say that he is not impotent in what he created. What he made will come to pass because he is perfect, what he made is perfect, and so because he is our maker, he will bring what he made to its perfection. He is not created and therefore he is not finite. Because he alone simply is, without having been created by something else, we can say that he is the creator of all that is, the sustainer of all that is and the one who brings everyone of us to perfection just how he made us.
Now see this stuff is actually really important. It’s not abstract and it’s not philosophy: it’s actually the testimony of Scripture itself. This is what the early Church was doing at the councils: it was reading Scripture and saying, how can we make sense of this God whom the Scriptures tell us about. How can we love the one God and no other gods (how can we make sense of this in light of Father, Son/Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit we find in Scripture), how can we love neighbor and enemy (who is our neighbor when we are not of the same race, religion, language, culture, etc; and aren’t we supposed to destroy our enemies, what sense of this are we to make given the testimony of our Scriptures). This is why it took our Church hundreds of years even to come up with the Creeds that we read: it took hundreds of years to make sense of God’s testimony about himself that is recorded in the Scriptures. And guess what, the Church has had to examine these Scriptures and our testimony about who God is and how he calls us to act and react in every age, again and again and again, for God is the sole and eternal source for us to understand who we are at any moment in time, as our creator, our sustainer, our redeemer and our final end.
So what does this mean for you and I here and now. What importance does this seemingly so abstract idea of the Trinity have for us. Well one reason we say the creeds, along with reading Scripture every week, is because we need to remind ourselves continually, given our changing contexts, who God is, and who God is not. Let’s imagine for a moment that we fell into thinking that God was actually three different things – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit representing our present. You see one of the things we could easily do, or claim is that the Holy Spirit is leading us into our personally chosen truth. And guess what, this has been done throughout history in the early centuries by the Montanists, in the medieval period by spiritualists who thought a third age of the Spirit had arrived, and at present, the Holy Spirit has been turned into a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’ book where individuals and Churches all claim that he is leading them into their own personal perspective of what the truth is:, using church funds to buy a giant yacht, being the only group to recognize the end times, or leading someone to choose whether or not to marry someone or go to grad school or pick a stock, etc.
Apophatic theology – thinking about what God is not so we can figure out what we can say about who he is – can really help us here. You see it presses us back into the Scriptures where we find God with his people. Does the Holy Spirit operate on its own? Heck no. Jesus told us in the Scriptures last week, that the Spirit testifies about the things that he, Jesus, heard from the Father. So there is your first clue: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit don’t each say or do things that would be self-contradictory: the things each Person says and does conform to the one being that God is, the same God, the one God who speaks to us in the Scriptures. So in every single act or word that we hear from God in Scripture, it is the one God who acts; what the Father does, so the Son and Spirit share in this work (see for example how this manifests in the transfiguration or in Jesus’s baptism or in Jesus’s sayings in John).
So then one thing we have to be really careful about is imagining that we can write off what is said in Scripture in one place because that’s just what the God of the OT, the Father said, whereas Jesus or the Holy Spirit are doing a new thing. Presuming this is an act of self-justification, not of faith. You see in our Gospel lesson today when Jesus says, ‘go therefore, and make disciples in all the nations,’ he is equipping us not to ‘do a new thing,’ but to do an old thing: the thing God gave to us through Abraham and Moses that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ: to love God and to love neighbor and even, to love enemy. Why? Because as Jesus said through the Scriptures that unless people encounter Jesus Christ they cannot come to know their Father who in his Son Jesus sustains them in his perfect ordering of their lives, through his Holy Spirit. And how do they encounter this Jesus who gives them life? That my friends, is where you and I come in. They encounter Jesus as we live his own life, in our unique ways, in our relationships with other people. For us to be the hands and feet, the mind and eyes, the ears and hearts of Jesus, we must know this one God: Father Son and Holy Spirit. In him, as we come to know him, our lives become the testimony of God’s love for everyone he created, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I want to conclude by sharing a reflection from a colleague of mine, Scott Sharman, a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Edmonton. He writes: “One of the mysteries we are invited to learn from the concept of Trinity is about the coinherence -- the overlap, so to speak -- of persons. The three persons of the Godhead share one and the same essence. We can say, therefore, that Divinity is so perfected in love that the three persons are not in fact able to be divided from one another at all, even if they are still rightly able to be distinguished.
From this it follows that if we, as human beings, are created in THIS image, we have the basis for some pretty radical conclusions about social justice: We are called to be persons who come to understand ourselves to be so deeply interconnected with all others that the idea of using someone's race (or gender, or sexuality, or anything else) as a reason to hate or exclude them from us becomes nothing less than a form of heresy.
Another principle we can receive from Trinitarian thought is that the persons of God are mutually kenotic. In other words, they exist to give themselves over entirely for the sake of the good and glorification of the others, even at personal cost.
Here again, if we, as human beings, bear THIS Divine mark in us, than our lives ought also be marked by a willingness to give ourselves away in compassion for everyone else; especially those who are neglected, excluded, and oppressed; even when facing up to this reality is hard.
I think it comes down to this: One of the best ways to honour the great mystery of the Triune God is to put it into creaturely actions -- to tell the truth about racism in our midst (and all the other isms that keep people apart), and to pour ourselves out to dismantle systemic abuses, whatever the personal cost.” AMEN.
Ten days ago we marked Jesus Christ’s ascension, his return to the Father. Then today we hear about this tremendous tornado like wind that rushes through the house where Jesus’s followers are staying and, “Divided tongues as of fire” appear and rest on each of them. We’ve called this: Pentecost. God’s Spirit is now made present again just as we heard going “before and behind” in the exodus, that rested over the tabernacle as recorded in Numbers, and that filled the temple in Kings. This same Spirit now hovers over and fills up God’s new dwelling – not a temple, not a church building, but God’s very people. Having entered into relationship with God in Christ through their baptisms, now receiving the Holy Spirit as members of Christ’s body. Being made holy even as we remain sinners here on earth.
The Spirit rushes through like a tornado, but it doesn’t destroy. He burns upon his descent to us, but doesn’t consume. How is this possible? Because Jesus stood in our place. Destroyed and consumed by God’s holy presence at the cross so that God could be present with – take up residence in – us, his temple, his Church, his people. The Holy Spirit fills the disciples and in so doing, they’re able to speak in other languages. If we remember in John’s Gospel especially, Jesus had promised to send the Spirit to empower his church’s witness in the world. So here on this day of Pentecost, we celebrate each year, the ascended Lord keeps his word.
Where does this strange moment fit within the story of redemption? How does it tie the old and new testaments together? How should we understand it? We must begin with the audience in attendance on that day. So just imagine it: here we have pious Jews from “every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem, and they gather around to see the commotion. To their astonishment, these foreigners hear the disciples preaching about God’s mighty works in Jesus in their native tongues.
Now to catch the significance of this, we’ve got to reflect on another part of God’s story with us: Remember what happened with the tower of Babel; God had judged and restrained rebellion by confusing languages and dividing the people. Off they went in their own directions, a theme we hear repeated in Scripture. Remember at the end of the book of Judges, “and the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Think too about how I’ve recounted the last 500 years of our Church’s history of doing precisely that – going off in our own direction, according to our own wishes – we’ve done it as individuals and as a Church, and as divided parts of the Church – right to our present.
What we hear about today is God’s overcoming that self-righteous claim to be right in our own eyes – an idolatry that leads to lack of life and so to a lack of true purpose and meaning. How does this take place? Of course it begins with Jesus’s coming into the world, sent by his Father, it is brought about with his faithfulness which results in his death and his redemption in his resurrection, it is fulfilled in his ascension that we celebrated last week. And the reality of God’s overcoming our self-righteously formed divisions is poured out for us as a promise of reconciliation in his giving us his Spirit, which is what we observe today.
The story we hear today is that God pours out his Spirit not to give us yet another new way to be in the world, but instead to draw us back, that is, by being conformed to Jesus; to draw us back to being conformed to the law and gospel that is fulfilled in Jesus’s own life: to love God, to love neighbor, to love enemy. To love God so that we might come to know him. In his security, being able to let go of the things we cling to – our fears that lead to a sense of self-righteous proclamation, to excluding or harming others – so that instead, we can make room in our lives to love others as Christ loved us. And in loving others, to serve as a catalyst, working in our various gifts as Paul talks about, to share the Holy Spirit, who draws our neighbors and enemies to Christ, who transforms them, shaping them in accordance with Jesus’s own life.
Some of you might have learned that Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. It’s not. It’s actually the overcoming of the consequences of our divisions in culture and language that have lead us to things that still plague us like racism, sexism, hatred, envy, jealously, gossip, sloth, gluttony, pride, and cruelty. It’s the restoration of the kingdom. It is Jesus coming into the world and in his death and resurrection, ending these divisions. Yes, ending them. That is, bringing words and actions that rely on those divisive ways, into the light; showing that they are a failure to heed God’s commandments, therefore bringing them under condemnation.
This in turn gives shape to God’s commandments to love God and neighbor. To love God, one must seek the good of one’s neighbor, and reconciliation with one’s enemy. We are given not just the command, but God’s presence to fulfill it: the Holy Spirit comes amongst us – so we mark at Pentecost – to lead us to live according to Christ’s own life. That is, leading us, guiding us, securing us, giving us the courage to act with the fruits of the Spirit: kindness, gentleness, patience, love, and self-control. Why? Because these are the things Christ did. They are the attributes Christ had that drew others to him, that over turned the harsh, brutal, violent, unfair, disgusting ways of the world as having any validity for the way we treat one another even where there is disagreement, tension, fear, and frustration. We are called and given the Spirit to secure us in our hope in Christ so that we can create space where the Spirit works to transform someone into Christ’s own way of living.
So what do the events of Pentecost mean? Peter’s preaching in Acts seems to imply that this coming of the Holy Spirit, following Christ’s ascension, is a wake up call. It is a call out with respect to how we treat one another – friend, enemy, people of different cultures, of different colored skin, of different language, of different upbringing or class. Why: because as Galatians puts it, “all are equal in Christ Jesus. Distinct? Yes. But equal in being and value and worth.” The Holy Spirit though a comforter, like a good parent, also cuts people to the heart. If what Peter declares in our reading from Acts is true, what must God’s followers, US, do? We must repent—agreeing with God about the sinfulness of their sin and looking in faith to Jesus—and enter the church through the covenant sign and seal of baptism. Having been marked as Christ’s own in baptism, receiving God’s fullness of love – himself – and the forgiveness and life of his indwelling Spirit, we are to love those whom we encounter.
I’ve been talking to you over the years I’ve been here about sharing your gifts; gifts given to you by God, not for your own good, but to bring other people to God; to be a catalyst who allows the Holy Spirit to work through you, to proclaim the universal language of the Gospel, Jesus Christ for all those who are willing to hear, to seek, to follow. How can you, how can we do this in a world where God’s love is so evidently not being fulfilled? To put it in theological terms, how do we witness to the hope of God come in Christ in between Christ’s having come, our living in the Spirit being constantly pointed back to his words and his ways, and this time of waiting for his return where, as we’ve seen particularly in the last few years and months, racism, sexism, and hatred run rampant from the top levels of authority, to the most local?
I think this is a question on everyone’s mind. The world really is a mess. Yet another black man lost his life when a police officer, unprovoked, kneeled down on his neck cutting off the air and blood flow to his brain. In just a few moments – three other police officers standing around watching – a man made in the image of God had his life suffocated out of him. The officer, charged with homicide, is at the center of a firestorm of sadness, anger, and protest that has caused damage to various properties in the Minneapolis area where this occurred. This isn’t an isolated incident. American news of late has been filled with people in positions of authority at the city and State levels, misusing their authority in acts of violence leading to harassment, assault and murder of black individuals, with no justifiable cause. This is far too often the result of what psychologists call, “implicit bias,” by which they mean presupposed assumptions about someone’s guilt based not on evidence, but on false conclusions associated simply with the color of a person’s skin. It is racial profiling and it is sin because the presumptions begin with a failure to recognize others first and foremost as God’s own. As people God made and loves. To act out of presumptions based in fear rather than based in real evidence violates God’s commandment to love neighbor. Why? Because the presumptions made lead to decisions and actions that lack the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
This event has inspired intensive rage for many as you might expect. But God also calls us to refrain from responding out of anger toward our neighbor and to refrain from losing faith and hope in him. God come to us in Christ, and granting us the Holy Spirit calls us to something quite different: he calls us to speak the truth in love.
The truth, in this case, is that while we must take the time to proclaim condemnation of this act in the name of God who gave his life for the sake of all, we must not turn away in fear, in hurt, in anger, or in a sense of helplessness. We must seek to make the places we live just and equal places of safety and opportunity for everyone whom God has made. To do that, we have to work out of hope and faith, not out of fear and cowardice or selfishness. For the one who gave us life and his Spirit to follow him did so out of the courage and conviction of faith; of laying down his life and his capacity to control us. What would it mean for you to live out of hope and faith; to lay down your life for your neighbor who is not of your skin color? Of your culture? Of your class? Is it simply developing a friendship; not an acquaintance, but a real deep friendship with commitments and sacrifices? Is it learning about why ‘implicit bias’ occurs and learning how we can participate in reducing its effect on us and on those we elect into power? Is it sharing in the resources you have? Is it writing to those in government? Is it talking to your neighbors about this? Is it raising awareness that this is occurring with friends and family members? Is it talking to you children and grandchildren? Is it being an ear for someone who is targeted? Is it letting go of biases you have and asking yourself why you hold them? I can’t give you the answer. This is yours to come up with as you pray to God. But I will say this: God did not give us his Spirit for our self-satisfaction and mere comfort. God gave us his Spirit so that confident in God’s love holding us securely, we can risk testifying to the truth in love in order that the world might come to seek and know him. How can we share in this hope in the midst of seeming darkness, to help others navigate a time that can seem so very dark? AMEN.
Our readings for celebrating both the 7th Sunday of Easter and Jesus's ascension to the Father: Ascension Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=45 AND: the 7th Sunday of Easter Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=46
Today we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension, where we remember Jesus’ final return to the Father in Heaven, as recounted in Acts 1:9 – an event further testified to in 1st Timothy and 1 Peter. Further on in Acts, Saint Peter, in one of his addresses, affirms that Jesus was ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (2:33), and uses this fact as confirmation that He has fulfilled the promises made regarding the Messiah in Psalm 110. Of course with the Church from very early on and across the world, we affirm this very thing in our shared profession during worship, of the Apostle’s Creed, which says that Jesus is now ‘seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead’.
So, it would seem that the Ascension is a vital part of Christian belief. Yet it’s rarely something we talk about in the Church. I would suggest this is for a couple of reasons. First, I think we’re uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy and power because, well, it’s often been experienced or described to us as a political order that has not only established order, but also enforced brutal and sometimes violent laws. So the language which describes Jesus as being enthroned next to the Father is often left to the side or simply absorbed into the resurrection discussion so we don’t have to deal with language we might find repellant.
Of course Scripture itself can give us warrant for doing this. The Ascension is seen as continuous with the Resurrection, something particularly noticeable in Saint John, who presents it as something both present and yet to come. This can be seen most clearly in Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene, where He says ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17). Even Saint Luke in the gospel and in Acts talks about the Ascension as both a current and a future event happening. So again, how tied is this Ascension of Jesus to God’s ‘right hand’, to the resurrection. Do we have to think of them as separate events? If so, why?
Saint Augustine seemed to share this view of the Ascension being continuous with the Resurrection, but he also affirmed its role as the seal of the whole process, as something without which the previous events would have had no effect. In a homily given on the Feast of the Ascension* he says:
‘This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together,
without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.’
What Saint Augustine says here resonates with the passage in Ephesians 4:10, where Saint Paul says that ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ – i.e.; that by ascending into Heaven, and taking our very selves, our nature as human beings, up with Him into the heavenly places – had he not ‘gone up’ – something that required waiting, a separation out from his resurrection, we could not have been reconciled to God.
This is what we hear in our gospel reading from Luke: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Of course we know the disciples had been with Jesus from the beginning, watching the Scriptures being fulfilled. Only with the resurrection then, could they truly come to know what the Scriptures mean and how every single word of Scripture is fulfilled in his suffering, death and resurrection. But you see, this is important: it is not simply that the Scriptures were fulfilled, but that all of history was fulfilled in this moment; all the events of history are and will be fitted into those Scriptures, drawn into God himself in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
It is one thing to know this. But it is quite another to understand and then be moved to witness or testify to this fulfillment of the Scriptures; to the very person, the life, death and resurrection itself. It was essential for Jesus to return and be with the disciples again, to be present, to be with them, for them to see, hear, and put their fingers into him, to be able to proclaim this real event to those who would not be able to directly be with Christ, but who, as Jesus says to doubting Thomas, would have to come to Christ in and with persistent faith, not sight. And time, the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension is a living embodiment of simultaneous waiting for God to act, and of persistent waiting in him, in faith. Waiting, without being able to touch, in literal terms, his cloak like he warned Mary not to do. “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet ascended.”
You must wait, my children, wait in faith, sometimes in suffering, sometimes in fear, sometimes with deep Peter or Thomas like doubt. Wait as we are stuck in a desert of serpents who bite at one another for power and control to quell our fears, wait with self-doubt, confusion, loss of purpose, broken love and years of facing its consequences, wait as a vulnerable babe borne in a manger in a world of uncertainty and possible threat, wait in a world filled with false hope, distorted purposes conditioned into us from birth; wait as our minds and bodies decline, looking back to see what trail of witness we have left in this world. Wait, not however, in despair, but knowing that the time of our waiting has actually been lived, taken on, and taken up when Christ is with us between his resurrection and ascension.
This time between his resurrection and ascension is critical to recognize because it is a sign to us, that God has been with us from the beginning, that he remains with us in our waiting, whatever form of good or bad unfolds in our lives, and that, as he says, to the disciples in Luke, that when he ascends, he will not depart from us but remain as the Holy Spirit draws us into him and unites us to the Father in heaven. In heaven and on earth we persist as his body. In our faithful witness and in our failures to do so, we are sanctified (stripped of false coverings, revealed more and more for who God made us), enabled to see how we are being drawn into his life if we’re willing to look not at ourselves alone, or ourselves in the constructions of our world, but ourselves as we are being moved by the Spirit and conformed to him.
Saint Augustine, in another homily on the Ascension, affirms this point:
‘He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven.
So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.’
When Jesus came into the world – which we celebrated at Christmas – he took on every part of us, our whole nature and ever peculiar aspect of who we are, he took with him all the brokenness of that nature to the Cross and when he was raised, he made for us new life. But it was with the Ascension that this union was completed, our humanity being forever joined to God through our baptism, so that, as Augustine says, ‘we by our union with him are the children of God’.
The Ascension is therefore truly a seal and guarantee of our redemption – the confirmation that He who entered into the depths of our experience has torn down the veil between God and human beings. This is the truth and the sure hope on which our faith can endure waiting. And as represented by Christ in the time between his resurrection and ascension, we are given the time to come to know his love for us. What would it mean to you to be loved unconditionally; where all the places in your life of shame, deep anguishing shame, of guilt, of fear, of loss, of regret, of worry, of hope, of joy, where all these places are met by the one who gave his life so that you might have life, forgiveness, and deep abiding love not contingent on your success at life, but merely your faith in opening up to receive this love? What would it mean to you? What would it mean for how you treat those around you? What would it mean about how you live your life, the things you hold of value, the things that you cling to, the things you’re willing to let go of? What would it mean for you to be set free from fear and despair, in the time that you have left, free to love as you have been loved by God in Christ? AMEN.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
14:17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
14:21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."
Have you ever heard the phrase: the ‘gospel’ is ‘good news?’ If you’ve heard it, what comes to mind for you? I guess the first thing you’d have to consider is: what is the gospel? This is my short answer. The gospel is God’s coming into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ (we call this God’s sending his Son), taking on human flesh (we call this the incarnation), being faithful to God his Father throughout his life on earth in how he interacts with people even to the point of death on the Cross (we call this obedience and perfect love returned to perfect love, the Father), wherein the sin that puts him on the cross (we call this an actual sin that grows from original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve), is overcome when Jesus rises/is raised from death (we call this the resurrection, where love given and love received, results in love poured out for all the things God has created): in him, Jesus, was life, and that life is the light of the world. Jesus puts it this way in our Gospel reading from John today: after I have been raised, I will ascend into heaven, “the world won’t see me, but you’ll see me, my friends.”
So what’s the ‘good news’ then? Well that life – Jesus’s own – brings the hope of life for all. That’s the basic reality: Jesus says: “you have seen my resurrected body (we know this by the Easter testimonies we have heard)” and in this way you can know that God has come for you and gathered you to him: “you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me by your baptisms. So then I will be in you.” In short Jesus declares: I am your evidence of your reconciled to life with God.
But of course we have this peculiar thing we call time! We often mark it by successive generations, you, your kids, your grandkids, you’re great grandkids. And so while the potential exists for each generation to be in Christ, a next generation needs to know that’s a reality for them, and they need to know why that potential is such great news. So Jesus gets at how that is going to happen because as he says in John’s Gospel today, “the world is no longer going to see me even though you folks do see me through your own worship and witness.” But the thing is, you need to show that to those who don’t know: to your kids and grandkids, to your neighbors, to your community because “the world cannot receive God because they simply aren’t going to open themselves to him if they don’t know him.”
So how is that going to work? Jesus says, “I’m not going to leave you orphaned and I’m not going to leave you without a guide as you proclaim my mission to your friends, family, and neighbors: “I’ll give you my Holy Spirit as guide.” He’s going to guide you as my people – the whole Church not just individuals - in following me, so that because I’m in the Father, and you are in me, you too will be in the Father. In other words, through me, as my Spirit guides you, you’re going to be a witness to God himself. And so that’s the key: we are made coheirs with Christ to the mission of God himself as he is drawing everyone to him.
Being a coheir though, means we have a task, a mission, a purpose as the Church, and each of us plays some particular role in that. But the Church’s mission, and each of our tasks in that is contingent or dependent upon one thing: obedience. Jesus says that our ability to be witnesses depends upon our willing conformance to his life. So just as he fulfilled the commandments to love God, neighbor and enemy, so he says of us: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” If we’re going to be successful in our vocation or job of being witnesses, we have to see and know the God who reveals himself to us, and we have to communicate that knowledge to others in all the things we say and do not just in our church services, but especially as we go out into ‘the world,’ our community.
We can see that even Jesus had to go about amongst his own people – the Jews of a particular generation – to tell them who he is, to show them that he is God, that God the Father is in him and that he is in the Father. So that what he says and does reveals the very will of his Father, of himself, of the Holy Spirit; of God himself, that is. And that’s what he goes from town to town doing. He shows how his words, his works, his miracles, his healings, his teachings, his very life all the way to his death and resurrection, are a fulfillment of God’s promises to the Israelites recorded in all their Scriptures. If you know God from your Scriptures and your teachings, Jesus says, you will see that I, your God, am here with you to gather you to me.
God has NOT abandoned us, even when – as the disciples first thought after his death, and as we probably often do in our own personal or social or work or cultural moments of darkness, our moments in the desert or in the valley of dry bones – God comes right into the middle of our lives, on a mission FOR US. He scours the fields, as we heard two weeks ago, even for one of us sheep that goes astray, that wanders off, that gets lost, that struggles with doubt or fear or frustration or anger or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. God comes right smack into the middle of our lives and shows up, as we see Jesus do – in the most peculiar and particular of ways. So the good news is that Jesus’s life (as we hear it lived out with people) is fundamentally a mission that concerns drawing us and all people to him.
I have been talking to all of you over the last eight weeks of this pandemic social isolation. We’ve talked on the phone and I’ve heard a whole range of stories, events, worries, hopes, and coping mechanisms. I’ve not really talked much about how I’ve found this event with you, mostly because I want to listen to what you have to say. I think most of you are aware of this but being a priest really doesn’t give you a spiritual advantage in handling adversity. In fact, being a priest, and worse, being a theologian(!), can actually make grappling with who God is and what he might be doing and how to care for people and what the right Church/theological response ought to be, can add to the adversity rather than relieve it!
One of the things I’ve struggled a lot with is: what is God doing here? Because for me, that question must come before being able to determine how we should respond with respect to the ways we try to continue on as a worshipping community, and as Christian individuals. If you’re not already aware of this, there have been debates about doing ‘online services,’ about doing ‘online Eucharist,’ about how we should track or not track certain variables of interaction and church life. And all of this of course – as is the case for every single person – is having to be considered in the wake of an event of unprecedented universal/global shock at every possible level.
There’s of course the immediate threat of getting sick, or our loved ones getting sick. There are the lineups for food and basic supplies. There’s the economic impact that affects people’s savings, yours or your kid’s or grand kid’s jobs for years into the future. There’s the social distancing that for some, really is quite isolating. There’s the boredom. And out of some of this stuff I’ve heard people ask some deeper questions about life’s purpose, about whether one is really doing something valuable with their lives, about whether various things really matter at all, about whether they want to continue living or doing things the way they have been living.
Finally, I’ve heard Christians say things like, “I’ve had to stop and consider whether I have conformed God to my own desires, or whether I am waiting on God, listening to God, opening up to God and allowing God in to my life so that I can get on board this mission he’s on to gather people to him.”
You see this is really what our readings are driving at: we have been raised up with Jesus and we are being built into the house of God, as last week’s reading stated, so that we can go out and join him in his mission. There are rooms for all of us in this house, we heard last week. But the house isn’t for us to sort of sit around and watch TV in. The house is a place of comfort, of growing, of nourishment even where there is struggle in community. It’s a shelter where we find truth, even when it is sometimes hidden, and where we encounter love in many different dimensions from the perfection of God come to us in Christ, to the fragmented witness of those of us who try to follow, sometimes fail, confess and repent, knowing God is there for us, and out of that, learn how to love anew and so grow into the very life of Jesus to which he calls us.
So this is a house where we receive these things not to become complacent and set in our own comfort zones and ways. Nope. It’s a place where we are given the food and water of life, the very body and blood of Jesus, so that we can draw others into this House, which is Jesus’s own body. It is a place yes; it is also a Person, an abiding reality, that takes in billions of lives through time, where each one is nurtured into the fullness of who we are.
But that house we heard about last week is not for God but for us; a place of nourishment and care that enables us to ‘go out into the mission field of our community. The house/church is a place where we see God revealed in our Scriptures and worship; where we hear the good news that we have first been loved. I mean that. Not loved because we fit someone else’s definition of goodness or worth or value. Loved because God’s act of making us is love manifest in a particular life which Scripture and theologians refer to in various ways as an image or fragment or part of witness to the fullness of him. We are loved so deeply, despite the trials we face and the fears we have and the frustration and boredom we deal with now and in all our lives, all the way to our life’s end. If we just look at Jesus’s own life with his people in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, we will find in those people, ourselves before God, and then with God, in him, walking with him. If we can see this – if we can see the Father in Jesus’s words and acts through the Scriptures – we will see how much he longs for us, how much he desires us, and that he remains with us right to our end.
This, my friends, is good news that he wants us to share. So he gives us his Spirit, to keep us on track in following in Jesus’s own life. This is how people will see God. If we are willing to let go of the desire to control our lives, to control the boundaries on whom we let into our lives, to control with whom we are willing to share in worship and church life, to control everything so that we only get comfort, if we are willing to let go of these things and to instead seek, read, watch, listen, and go up to God with our hearts and minds open to God’s own life as he interacted with others, we will not be able to help but pour out this love to others. We will not be able to help but to open ourselves to others even when they worry us, don’t make us necessarily comfortable, or even annoy us! We will seek to live with them in the one house God has made in his Son, so that together, we can go out with Jesus in mission, to gather this community to him. AMEN
Click here for the readings for this Fourth Sunday in Easter
This last month I read a book suggested by a friend and colleague on facebook. The book is called “The Plague,” written by an Algerian-French philosopher named Albert Camus. In brief summary, the book traced the story and lives of a few key characters, as they confronted – very slowly – the resurfacing of ‘the plague’ in their town.
The story runs through a whole variety of responses to the plague: fear, anxiety, tension, the presumption of knowledge and certainty, people giving up on knowing, and the escapism so many folks turn to when they find their circumstances too difficult to face directly. Camus’s underlying point – he’s an atheist you see – is to attempt to show that despite the absurdity of suffering in general and in this case, specifically manifested in the plague, the right response isn’t to presume one has certain knowledge about something – for certain knowledge cannot protect, but nor should one despair, give up, or use escapism in an attempt to avoid suffering, loss, sickness, and even death.
Camus argues that in the light of what is – at least to us a confusion or lack of clarity or loss of purpose and meaning – the key to finding meaning in life is to persevere in living, in fighting to survive, in taking what one is given on any particular day or week or month or year, and to live that moment, that relationship, that event, to the fullest extent that one can. In this way, one neither succumbs to the overwhelming fear of the unknown, nor does one imagine that one has grasped full knowledge of all that is and all that matters. Either extreme squashes, so Camus seems to imply, the reality of receiving life as a gift, and living with what is given.
Camus’ insight about purpose and meaning in absurd circumstances seems quite appropriate for our reading today from John’s Gospel. Far too often Christians have associated the truth, or God, with their own sense of having certain knowledge: God has given me knowledge of this or of that in totality so now I know what to do. When suddenly however, people are thrust into the midst of chaotic circumstances, they, we, suddenly have to grapple with the fact that the things we have clung to as providing a sense of certainty, of meaning, of purpose, can simply disappear, come undone, or not come to fruition. Maybe it’s a relationship, or health, or a job, or a potential future. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the piercing of our tentative hold on life; the piercing of our imagined control over suffering and death.
We often think to ourselves, “I’m a good person or this person is good and so why should I or they suffer, get sick, die.” We’re a robust, capitalist culture, how can things suddenly shut down because of a virus that happened on the other side of the world? Why didn’t we have things in place to prevent this. Why didn’t we know, why don’t we know how long or how much, or when all of this will be back under our control. We expect to have knowledge which can provide us with a way of measuring that which we believe to be our purpose and our meaning in the world. But is knowledge, is knowing, a matter of obtaining proof, like one can prove 2+3=5?
Jesus says to his disciples as recorded in John’s Gospel: “when I came into the world, I transformed it so that you could see in me, the will and works of my Father, for I am in him and he is in me. And my sheep, my people, they “follow me because they know my voice.” And any shepherd who might lead my sheep, my people will follow for they will see in his words and works, my own life. They won’t follow a stranger, they’ll end up running from him because they don’t know his voice.” So if one knows the voice of the gatekeeper – God that is – one will follow it. That’s the basic claim.
But what does Jesus mean, by ‘knowing.’ Camus would seem to claim a sort of basic ignorance about our knowledge of the why and the what of life. This isn’t Jesus’s claim. Jesus comes into the world and says: “the purpose of life is really quite basic: it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and body, and the second is like it: to love your neighbor and your enemy as God has loved you.” This we know with certainty since it is revealed to us by the source and the end of everything and everyone that exists. So also then, God gives us our purposes. The real challenge for God’s sheep isn’t this basic reality. Life is not, as it is for Camus, absurd or seemingly meaningless. It is given perfect meaning in Jesus Christ’s life: that is, to love God and to love God is to love all of what he has made. The tricky part then is how that love is to be carried out when we cannot see, understand, or hold on to the fullness of how that love gets concretely lived out, especially when we go through all the difficult things that we do in life: relationships, jobs, family issues, diseases, conditions, and whole societal shut downs.
But where Camus’s direction meets the Christian life is, I think, just here: we don’t have to know how everything is going to turn out, or even if everything is going to be okay, to find meaning and purpose and value in life. To find these things is a matter of one thing: faith. Faith isn’t an emotion. Emotions are too fleeting to constitute faith. Faith isn’t a belief system where your own personally derived beliefs are affirmed by empirical evidence. No, faith is perseverance, holding course because doing so is an affirmation, a response, a giving back with interest, what one has been given as a gift.
For a Christian, faith is the knowledge that God came into the world for us in the Person of Jesus Christ; that he took our flesh and so also all humanity’s sin, and was hung on a Cross for doing so in faith to his Father; faith is acknowledging that act of God on our behalf, and then recognizing that his life, his ministry, was the very gate that has opened the way to relationship with God, the Gatekeeper, so that we might enter into God’s own sheepfold, his people. Knowledge then isn’t about our particular affirmation of some personally held ideals, or ideas, or preferences; knowledge is seeing God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s own life and jumping on board his mission i.e. following him.
Knowledge then isn’t cognitive affirmation; it isn’t just words, or ideas and getting these right. Knowledge is holding onto to Jesus, in the midst of “voices” – whether people or ideas – that make us feel uncertain, insecure, and fearful. It is holding to Jesus in faith and not succumbing to the way that fear and uncertainty can cause us to react toward others in the midst of trying circumstances. It is living into Jesus’s own life: a life of love, compassion, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, sometimes correction. It is not allowing the voice of the strangers to thwart our mission with Jesus, of receiving his grace and sharing it with those who, especially in these times, need it most.
Knowledge is asking, in the midst of these times of social distancing, ‘who are we as individuals and as a community; how are we serving God now with one another, how will we better serve God, as his flock, bound together with of his sheep, when this time of distancing ends?’ Will we live out of a desire for our own personal comfort, evading reality of finite life and resources, living into the escapism so ripe in our modern era; or will we be willing to take risks and perhaps allow ourselves to face uncomfortable circumstances to join with others in proclaiming the gospel to our community? What, if you were really to look at Jesus’s own life and follow his voice rather than your own or that of strangers, would God be calling us to do next? AMEN
Imagine for a moment, put yourself in the place of Mary Magdalene. Along with the other disciples, she’d been following Jesus, telling others of his deeds, tracing his steps, perhaps going about to tell her friends and neighbors of his time spent with her. While telling others about him, coming to know him more, drawing closer to him, seeing his works of healing, coming to see firsthand how the Scriptures she’d grown up with as a Jewish woman, were being knitted together, and fulfilled in this Jesus that she had come to know. Hearing of his promise and his testimony to be the Son of God, the Son of Man, the promised one, the Messiah. Can you imagine this? Can you imagine what it would be like to be with Jesus as he was fulfilling the testimony of the only faith, the only way of life you knew? Can you imagine what it would be like to love someone with all your heart and mind and soul and body? I bet you can.
And then like a thief in the night, to have that love filled with the hope of life, or fulfillment, of reconciliation to God, ripped out of your heart and soul and mind in the blink of an eye. Ripped away from you not as a slow passing, not with a readily apparent good life lived, leaving behind a big family, or wealth, or anything really. But ripped away from you as a relatively young man, the mission for which he was pressing so hard, seemingly, over, emptied of all effect, nailed to a cross like a common criminal, hanging there with a mere thief. And what had she heard? “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “It is finished.” “Into your hands O Father, do I commend my spirit.”
What must she have been thinking? I can hear a psalm of lament pour from her mouth now: “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Dry, dry bones, stripped again of flesh and spirit, of blood run dry as the desert; stripped of hope, of life (ps 31).
Have you ever been at this place in your life before? Where are you Lord? I am in distress, I have lost you and my eyes waste from grief, from your relief, from your water in the desert of my life, my soul and my body have been emptied. I am lost, he is gone, she is gone. I have lost my love. I have lost the one knitted to my soul. I have lost my husband, my wife, my son, my daughter, my mother, my father … Why O Lord, hast thou forsaken me? Haven’t we all been here before?
Maybe some of us are here now in the midst of a pandemic that has swept the earth, killed indiscriminately – all ages, races, Christian and non, conservative and liberal – death has no partiality we have had confirmed for us. Maybe our struggle isn’t life and death. Maybe it is simply isolation, loneliness, uncertainty where we wonder what’s next with fear: will I have a job, how will my finances be after this, can I get food and medication as I need it. In the midst of this – even simply the inability to gather together as a community – we might struggle with a sense of profound loss and disappointment. Where is God? Is He there? In whom have I believed all these years?
Remember the disciples Simon Peter and the other man. They ran to the tomb, went in and saw that it was empty. The Gospel tells us that they both believed, but what exactly did they believe? We’re not sure because all it says is that they returned home; presumably they figured that was it. Jesus had come to share some time with them and then what? We’re not really sure. What does it mean that they simply returned home? Was the mission over? Was something more to come? What were they making of their experience? Was it just a personal revelation to them or for them? Did they doubt? Were they confused? Were they in shock? We simply don’t know. And I daresay that many of us would respond just as they did: we would figuratively go home, walk out of the church, away from our mission, and go home. We’d maybe talk about ‘those years when’ which would prompt us to some momentary celebration that would eventually fade with time and die out before it reached a next generation. This would make sense because as the Scriptures tell us: they did not yet understand that he must rise from the dead. What good is a dead man returned to the dust? What hope of life with God, what promises of God does this fulfill for humanity?
But Mary, Mary doesn’t do this. She prays aloud the very words Jesus himself has just lived. “O Lord why have you forsaken me and all your followers, Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Where are you Lord, where are you O my Lord. And she remains at his grave. You see Mary’s hope was grounded in something deeper even than her love for Jesus.
Mary’s hope was grounded in the words of God heard in the Scriptures: I will come to you Ephraim, I will be with you Israel, I will be your God and you will be my people. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. And her hope was grounded also in God’s words to Abraham through the prophets: I will gather all things to myself, not just Israel but Jew and Gentile alike. I will gather all things and place them under my authority and I will be all in all (c.f. 1 Cor 15:28).
Mary’s hope, grounded in her love for Jesus caused her to bend low. She weeps at the magnitude of what she believed she’d lost: her Lord God. Life shattering moment of grief. She looks in at the tomb for a last glance. And sitting there are two angels. Remember back to our first Sunday in Lent, Satan’s words to Jesus, “jump from this tower Jesus, fall down, go down to your death, do this, the angels will raise you up, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.” Remember Jesus’s reply, ‘it is said, do not put your Lord your God to the test. Not my will, not anyone else’s will, but yours be done, Jesus says to his Father.’
And while Mary first sees the angels, she then sees a man she does not recognize, she thinks maybe it’s the gardener and so and she says to him, “please, if you have taken him, let me have him and I will take him with me.” But the man says to her, “Mary, it is me, Jesus!” It is not the angels who have borne Jesus up; they merely testify to his rising from the dead. No, it is not, as Satan would have it, as our world would have it, that anyone raised Jesus, or moved his body from the tomb. It is Jesus himself who has risen, raised up by and as God himself.
Astonished, exhilarated perhaps, she shouts, “rabbouni” (teacher). It is you my Lord. She had apparently at least attempted to embrace him for he says to her, “Mary, do not yet hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Don’t hold onto me yet. It is not your time to go where I am going. I have work for you Mary, “go and tell my brothers that I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” Now you are in me as I am in my Father, and you will be called my brothers and sisters.
Overwhelmed with joy Mary rushes off to tell the disciples, to testify to what she has seen. And as we know, she is one of the first to make this proclamation. This Jesus was not a great man by the world’s standards. Yet the life that he lived, he lived in perfect love for his Father. A love that led to the cross he bore for our sakes even to the end of his life, the cross that would bear the iniquity, the sin of us all; a love that would overcome the darkness, the death that is life without God; a love that would draw us up from the dead to be reconciled to God (c.f. Isaiah 53). This was the life of God that Mary recognized in Jesus’s coming to her, coming amongst the disciples, coming into the world to transform a fallen and broken creation.
Of course like Simon Peter, and the other disciple, and like Mary, so often we struggle to recognize Jesus’s presence in a world that so often appears to us violent, broken, painful, tiring, confusing, sometimes even full of emptiness; and now a world – an entire world of individuals all brought to our figurative knees by a virus. And we too wait with confusion, worry, exhaustion, emotional turmoil. Maybe some who look at the news, or who must bury a friend, or child, or grandparent, or parent, they weep. In the most profound sense, we weep not only literally, but as persons with hearts and minds that grow sad with Mary and Jesus when we look out with fear on a world so filled with uncertainty and often pain and suffering, we look out sometimes not just with a sense of sadness, but sometimes hopelessness, and helplessness. We cry out with Jesus, “O God why have you forsaken us, where are you.” Or perhaps it is in those moments where someone or something dear to us is lost: a child, a husband, a wife, a friend; or when things we’d hoped for fail to take place, marriage, health, a child’s flourishing, a grandchild’s well being; or when things fall apart, relationships, home life, our bodies, our minds. We don’t just weep, we cry out, in agony, in gut wrenching pain, ‘why O God have you forsaken me?’
These moments, Mary moments I sometimes call them, are inevitable. We are finite, mortal beings. This virus before us is nothing new to our history; countless generations across history have experienced this, and worse than this. It is a reminder that our earthly lives do not persist forever. But they are indeed a gift for a reason: so that like Mary, and like the disciples, we might have a life in which we can come to see the risen Christ in the midst of our own lives, over and over. We are given life in order that we might see God at work not just when things are going well, but so often in the midst of our greatest trials, in those moments where we are most vulnerable, most laid bare, most open to receiving the one who brings true life: Jesus Christ himself. So do not worry, little flock, God says to us, for I am with you. I will bear you up and bring you to me in the darkest moments, in the last moments. This is the promise Mary knows and goes to share, and it is ours if we are but willing to follow: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not, in him, also give us everything else? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during his childhood. He attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which he continues to do to this day.