Sometimes my dad and I will – along with other things we need to know – talk about what we’re going to preach about on Sunday. This week, my Dad said, ‘you know, I’m just not really sure where to go with our readings.’ Is there a common core to them and if so, what if anything, can we say that helps those of you sitting in the pews?
We read the passages over a few times. Then we hunted around in the Scriptures as the passages that we read, evoked links or connections to other passages through the Old and New Testaments. And we settled on a common theme amongst the passages: healing. From there, we both set off on our own ways in thinking and writing.
What seemed to my dad important, was what really mattered about God’s healing? What did it mean or does it mean for people suffering from a disease? And he said to me: God has not healed you from your type 1 diabetes, he has not healed you from the gender dysphoria that you experience, or the fact that your anatomy and hormones aren’t typical. What about my parishioners who have cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or in wheelchairs, or who struggle with deep depression, or who were raped or assaulted or abused? What connection can I make between their suffering, and Jesus’s healing, in John’s Gospel, of the man who was sick for 38 years? Why hasn’t God healed them.
I said to my dad: as for the healing miracles, yes, I believe they have and still happen. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why they happen for some but not others. Faith isn’t necessary for healing. God heals those who did not believe, and in being healed, they recognized their having been healed by this one called Jesus, who says he is one with the Father, and only then do they come to belief. Lack of faith then, wasn’t a deterrent to being healed. So there must be a bigger lesson – something more going on in these readings – than just a physical healing.
And if you dig a little, you’ll find that this is indeed the case. If you look at the reading from Acts, you’ll see that we’re following on, once again, with God’s commission to go and proclaim the gospel. This time, it’s not merely about a promise – that the King, the Messiah, the Christ has come into the world – a message we heard people go out to proclaim during our season of Epiphany. This time, the commission is about God’s promise fulfilled by God himself, in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his Son. In him is life and you are invited into it. Let the world know. So sure enough, in our reading from Acts, Paul is following Jesus, having seen the truth for the first time, the scales falling from his eyes, he sets his eyes on the Cross, and so out he goes into the world to say, ‘my friends, your sins have been forgiven, you are healed, now live into that reality.’ And so to Lydia he goes and baptizes her and her whole household.
How does she reply to the cleansing from sin, the forgiveness, to being invited into the freedom of new life in Christ? She says, ‘my Lord and my God, I open my life, my house, my world, my possessions, my everything to you, come and stay with me, with us, for in receiving your servants and their healing message, in the Spirit, they are one with me and we are together being made new. How do we know this is what she was doing in saying, “if you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home?” Well because to invite someone – strangers – into your household on the basis of your faithfulness, would imply that you recognize the thing that has happened – your baptism or initiation into a new life – is a gift and it is such a gift that you are willing to open your whole life (your home, yourself) to the members of the body of which you are now a part. The gift of new life in this family and the promises it holds are enough, it seems, to move Lydia to say, I believe enough in this new life, this new family, that I am willing to freely share of the limited resources that I have, without fear that I am not enough, that I do not have enough, that I am not good enough to do so. This promise of God fulfilled in Jesus and communicated to her by Paul is sufficient to alleviate her fear and to invite God and his people into her life to reshape and reform it.
Yeah, we can probably get that just out of this one passage from Acts given the whole history of mission recorded in the Book of Acts. But today, our reading from the Revelation God provides to John fills out this story in a little more academic or spiritual sense. God gives John this revelation of what IS coming. Not what might come, but what Jesus has already sealed for us in himself, in his life death and resurrection. It is a reality we will meet because of the one who came into the world for us. We hear that the new Temple is God himself, that this new city that God is restoring or reconciling to his intended creation – this new earth that God is now reforming and will complete, it will not require the sun or moon because all that is needed for us to see and to live, is God himself; there will be no more brokenness, no disease, no holocausts, no murder, no rape, no abuse, no torment of disease or disconnect between brain and body; no one who is unclean will enter it for God will make the clean and burn away the chaff that we all become far too often. He will make flow again the river of the water of life, which is simply his presence, his very being, holding us in and as the perfected creation he made us.
The nations will be healed by the leaves of the tree of life. All will be reconciled by Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, when he brings all things to completion, when he is all in all and has made his enemies, disease, destruction, pain and anguish, a mere footstool with no power, no capacity. And he will thereby wipe every tear from our eyes, the literal tears of anguish, suffering, exclusion, loss, anger, frustration, feeling trapped and helpless, he will wipe those tears and the figurative tears of a whole world, animals, plants, the solid earth, mountains, snow, planets, that cry out in longing for reconciliation of all things to their creator.
This is some heady stuff and might sound a little out there. The point though, is that God made all that is, all that exists. And he promises us that he has already fulfilled his reconciliation of all that he made by sending us his Son who took on every pain of every type that we suffer. And in taking it on, he endures for all time, the fate that we would suffer had he not done this: a life of mere suffering without hope; a life of mere brokenness or the need to strive and climb on top of others and crush and deform others, to make ourselves invincible and immortal, so that death might not swallow us and all that we are up. He endures for all time the generations of people whom he is drawing to himself, often without their even recognizing it.
So where does that leave us – those of us who live these little spec of time lives that are filled with good and bad, that always come with suffering that is common to everyone whether our experience is Job like or Sarah like or Ruth like, or Peter like, or the beloved disciple like. Where does this leave us? I can’t speak for you. For me, it leaves me with hope that is grounded in the only one who has the power to truly fulfill his promise: the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The only one who could come into the world he made and reconcile what he made to himself. The only one who is goodness itself, who is love itself. The only one who promises that despite my frailty, my inevitable decline and my major suffering, and my transient triumphs, he has me and will not let me go.
Only with such a promise can I get beyond myself, beyond my own fears and anxieties and rage filled tantrums of pain and inability, and impatience, and lostness, and helplessness to live a life where I can invite others to share the gift of life and particularities that God has given me. The alternative is that I feel I must somehow manipulate and control others to accomplish a path I feel is worthy, always sinking into the quicksand of the impossibility of this task in a fallen and treacherous world of our own making. Does God heal? I believe absolutely he does. He did not cure me of my diabetes or my gender dysphoria. Instead, he gives me the hope that these things do not define my worth and value to him, and they do not define my ability to be loved and to live eternally with him. And so he heals me in giving me the capacity to live with and endure these things, never collapsing into them as limits that prevent me from sharing God’s love poured through me as a catalyst to others receiving that very same love and acceptance and healing. AMEN.
What has been your greatest challenge in being a part of the Church? In calling yourself a Christian? In telling others that you are a Christian. I would consider that one of the things I am naturally drawn to doing is sharing what I believe in with others, not to promote myself, but rather in the hope that I might give them support and hope. Or that I might create space in time – open up a space in time through a relationship, a connection, where we can exchange, knowledge, answering or asking questions, challenging the way someone thinks, and being challenged myself – creating space in time for that person to be able to become the person God intended them to be.
But you know what, I often find this hard to do. Why? Because we as Christians belong to a body, and perhaps even have participated ourselves, in eroding the trust necessary for people to believe that we have a message that is true and so worth hearing. I’m going to be really blunt this morning. Have you ever heard of Westboro Baptist Church? Here is an example of Christians who – trying to live faithfully – have turned the good news of Jesus’s coming into the world for the sake of everyone, into an angry, violent, and exclusionary message. How? Well, as I’ve talked about before, it isn’t so much what they have to say that is problematic (although in some cases, it has more to do with secular moralism than the Christian faith), it is rather in how they proclaim the message of the Christian faith both to other Christians and to those who aren’t Christian, who have yet to hear the good news or who have abandoned it for one reason or another.
So let me get really specific. This Christian group has proclaimed and stands behind these words:
Concerning gay men: "Filthy sodomites crave legitimacy as dogs eating their own vomit & sows wallowing in their own feces crave unconditional love."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, Jan. 15, 1998
"We told you, right after it happened five years ago, that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist."
— Fred Phelps, “9/11: God’s Wrath Revealed,” Sept. 8, 2006.
Concerning Jews: "JEWS KILLED JESUS! Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry! God hates these dark-hearted rebellious disobedient Jews."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, April 23, 2009
This sect of Christians makes it very difficult for me to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as, ‘good news,’ or as something that provides hope to all, or as something that isn’t a mere tool of those who want to control or witch hunt others. I MUST recognize these persons as my brothers and sisters in the faith, for indeed they have been baptized into Jesus Christ. I cannot dismiss, therefore, their testimony as if a Christian has not uttered these words. These words are what the world hears – they are one part of Christian witness to the world. And I must therefore, acknowledge that in Jesus Christ, they are one with us.
And yet, precisely because they are, in Christ, one with us (even if they would deny it), the love to which Jesus Christ calls us in this case is very particular: it is NOT, NOT, radical acceptance of ‘just any witness to him.’ Rather it is faithful witness to the one who brings not hatred, not rejection, but invitation and so mercy, by grace for ALL, all who are all undeserving. And so to love God is not to accept my own actions of disobedience under the pretense that anything is forgiven or acceptable to God and it is not to accept other actions that contradict God’s own laws, his order, his discipline and his redirection of our erroneous desires (often given to us by the culture we live within).
To love God, which requires that we love one another, even those whose words or actions make them our enemies, is not to merely accept them, but to know God deeply enough to challenge false witness and to challenge it not with condemnation and vitriol and hatred – since this simply drives people away – but rather to do so with love, patience, kindness, perseverance in relationship.
I need to reiterate this. If we are going to respond to God’s love by returning the love we have received; that is if we are going to follow Jesus when he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another – then we MUST come to know who this God is who sent his Son to reveal himself to us. We know the basic outline. Adam and Eve sin, we call this the Fall. God clothes them and raises up a people, Israel, to be his witness. They often fall and are chastised and sometimes cast out by God so that they might understand their reality without him, turned over to nations that rout out and destroy and plunder, rape, and ravage them – a kind or Lord of the Flies reality that humanity lives within without God. God sends his Son who suffers the fate to which all human beings are subject. And fulfills his promise to Abram that he might be the Father not just of the Israelites, but through adoption into Abraham’s own family line which includes Jesus, opens the way to God for all people, more than the number of stars in the sky. We know this broad outline right? But what about all the details? What about all the side stories in this grand narrative? All these side stories of fear, anger, sickness, a fear of and the reality of abandonment, of being turned over to what seems like a life long evil, or enslavement, or uncertainty? Do we know these stories? If we don’t know these stories – all of them – how can we say that we know the one whom we promised to follow?
Part of the reason that I have trouble, that I think many of us sitting in here, have trouble not just talking about, but living our faith out in the world around us, is because we don’t actually know God very well. And I include myself in these ranks of not knowing. It’s much easier to watch the news, youtube, Netflix, Prime, etc. It doesn’t really require self examination or a challenge to my own lifestyle. On my own I can construct an entire way of life that accords with my own beliefs and inclinations. To come to truly know God, to come to know that we are loved by God, actually requires some really difficult grappling with who we are and what we believe. But it is precisely in that challenge of our own self proclamations – when we have to figure out how we can share this WITH THE PATIENCE, PERSEVERANCE, LOVE, SELF CONTROL, JOY AND HOPE, that Jesus calls us to, that Jesus in fact gives to us as a new commandment, it is precisely in going more deeply into the Scriptures and learning the side stories to this over all narrative – what was God’s response to the cutting up of the concubine in the Book of Judges, or God’s response to David after he murders Bathsheba’s husband, or God’s lack of response for so long to Job, or why did God command Isaac to sacrifice his only Son, what does Sarah’s and Abraham’s miracle birth of Isaac mean about the purpose of marriage, about the purpose of sex – it is only when we dig into these stories that we can actually follow God, and truly share him with others.
If we are going to love one another as Jesus loved us, we must first understand who it is that Jesus has loved – ALL PEOPLE - and how God in Jesus, has cast the light of his grace in judgment and in law and in command and in correction and in affirmation, and in challenge, to each person and each situation encountered in Scripture. For in Scripture we find ourselves and therefore our own lives revealed. To receive God’s love, we must know God. That’s not because our effort to know him causes his love to come to us. No. it is simply because we are unnaturally inclined – this is SIN – to hide from the love of God who sometimes calls us out in a desire to redirect us. If we do not know him, we will keep hiding from his love, and when we go to share what we presume to be his love with others, we will, like the Westboro Baptists, tend to distort his love by HOW we share it (i.e. in a way that contradicts Jesus’s own commandment to love, and his very definition of what love is: self giving that is patient, kind, embodied in hope that perseveres through push back and rejection that comes out of anger and fear, and yet firm over time). Or, we may in fact retreat – as I do too often – to not sharing the full extent of challenge to current presumptions about the lifestyle, the morals, ethics, the ways, in which God calls us to live. God demands of us Christians much more than we have been willing to offer for so many decades. He has asked us to have love for one another. Love is NOT acceptance of everyone’s own personal opinions. Pragmatically, this sort of – what we call, moral relativism i.e. anything goes – has led us to epidemic levels of loneliness and depression. Love, discipleship, is coming to know God so deeply, that we allow ourselves to be filled with Jesus Christ – his whole life, his ways, his inclinations – and thereby raised up beyond our own fears we try to eliminate by satisfying our own ego demands for control. In this way – filled with the love of God himself, we are equipped to share our hope in God, with love that often includes the challenge of others and disagreement. This was what God gave to us in his Son. Isn’t it time we stopped sharing secular moral relativism that is easily converted into terrible ideologies – things like ‘be good, treat others as you would like to be treated, be the change you want to see in the world’ and instead share the particular life – that is, the love of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ?
“The Father and I are one.” These are the very last words we hear in our Gospel reading from John this morning: ‘The Father and I are one.’ How incredibly important are these words? They are the very foundation of hope not just for each one of us, but often more importantly to us, for those we love. As I talked about in Remember back to Epiphany. I talked about the fact that Jesus Christ had come into the world to transform it. And only he alone – its creator, the creator of all that exists – was capable of changing it. We of course are in the midst of celebrating this now in Easter. Jesus took on everyone’s sin on the Cross, he descended into hell where sin leads, and he overcame it, he conquered it, conquered death, through his faithfulness, and then he rose from hell, having vanquished sin. And these last few weeks, we have been witness once again to his presence amongst the early disciples. Having left the linen wrappings of death in the tomb, out he went the first and the last, the creator and redeemer, to show his followers who knew him, that yes, the world really had changed: the dead are not dead, they are made alive in him.
We hear this story today in the Book of Acts. Tabitha, a faithful disciple of Jesus, fell ill and died. They began to prepare her body for burial, for this is what we do when someone we love dies of course. And yet … and this is pretty darn important, along with this preparation for death, some fellow disciples sent out for Peter to come to see Tabitha. Why? Why would they do this? Well remember the story we’ve been following so far, it’s one that Paul will recount in 1 Corinthians 15: God sent his Son into the world, that Son died for our sakes and released us from sin when he rose from the dead. This wasn’t simply a great feat of magic. It was a fulfillment of God’s promise to gather us; to come for us; to never leave us. And so Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he appeared to some disciples and then to many others. And we hear that he sent his disciples out again and again to share this reality: his forgiveness of sins, his promise to raise us from the dead into new and everlasting life with him; to reconcile us to life with God.
Of course this gift of life that we have a foretaste of now, something promised to us in perfection and fullness of relationship with God in the life to come, well this can seem so far off that it’s almost easy to take for granted. To be perfectly frank, we often don’t think much about how Jesus turned the world upside down with his resurrection, simply because where we live here in Etobicoke, we are quite shielded from some of the worst atrocities of sin – things like holocausts, starvation, massive violence that sweeps through and destroys whole cities. And because we don’t face the struggles that so many people throughout history have – those for whom death, violence, danger, disease, was a common and regular occurrence – grace can seem like a quaint add on to what we have already accomplished. And this is so much so the case that many folks under 60 simply don’t go to Church at all. They see no need, no reason. They see nothing in Jesus’s claim that he and the Father are one, that evokes a sense of desire, hunger, passion, and hope. What need have we for hope.
Let me stop just there. What need have we for hope? We heard from our speaker, Carol, last week, that the number one reason kids end up in bad situations, on the streets, it isn’t abuse. It’s neglect. For all we have as a culture and a society, for all the material things we can buy, for all the million dollar homes and hundred thousand dollar cars we’re surrounded by in this neighborhood, far too many children here (and I mean young children) experience neglect, not necessarily intentional neglect, but neglect that often comes because parents cannot simultaneously work, one, two, sometimes three jobs, spend all day and evening commuting, somehow find a way to prepare meals and then get the kids off to one of the numerous activities the kids must do if they wish to ‘be successful in life.’ And because so many, and not just young kids, but people into their 20s and even 30s, have had their lives directed by a whole society, culture, language, and vision of ‘success,’ of meaning and of purpose, built and bent to the possession of more goods, if they do not seem to be achieving these things from extremely early ages, if they seem not to be keeping up, if they seem not to be driven to the same purpose of possession as others, they begin to feel a sense of shame. And that shame builds over time.
That shame comes, and I can tell you this from personal experience, from not knowing who your creator is. Not knowing that you – the very particular person you are called to be – was made by and is loved by God who sent his Son into the world to transform it and your destiny, so that he might reclaim you; hold you, comfort you, sometimes tear you down so that he can build you up into the person you are intended to be. Shame comes from all sorts of very concrete circumstances as Carol said last week (maybe you’re part of the lgbtq community, maybe you weren’t the most intelligent, maybe you weren’t very good looking, maybe your parents were harsh and judgmental, maybe you had some strange quirks, maybe you weren’t well liked). But beneath the surface of all of these things lies something we are often unwilling to talk about. We rather like many aspects of our society, I know I do. But these have come with a cost: a sense of self sufficiency; a sense that we do not need God.
I have heard it said that we are suffering from an epidemic of depression and loneliness in this country. I believe it. If our hope is anchored to things that figuratively blow away with the wind – material possessions, work, pensions, hobbies, even frail human relationships – we have no foundation from which to recover from the inevitable struggles, loses, fears, physical and emotional traumas – that we will encounter. The foundation isn’t merely a transcendent God. Rather this God created us in himself through his Son when we wanted to throw our with him relationship away; thinking that somehow, the sort of world that we have created and live in here in Toronto, or in the United States, or England, or in Rome, or Greece or Egypt during these society’s respective ‘golden eras,’ would be a utopia. It is not my friends. And we now see this well. The question is, what will we do about it? Some have proposed that the Church must change to meet the culture. Really? Others have proposed that we move away from the culture and create little Christian hives of a sort with home schooling and special worship groups.
I want to suggest something else to you. Many of you have lived long, long lives. You’ve watched a time of blooming for the Church and its subsequent massive decline across all denominations. You’ve had children, and grand children and sometimes great grandchildren. You have loved and loved deeply. And you have lost. I know you have lost for I have seen it, I have been in the midst of it, and I have seen how you push on, often, sometimes too often I think, burying your suffering and pain from others, attempting to remain strong and just carrying on. I get that. But it is also a product of a culture bent on, ‘keeping up appearances,’ of not allowing the messiness of death, pain, anguish, loss, doubt, anger, hurt, and yes, the hope you have found, to show through to others. We have been taught, particularly those of us who live/have lived a fairly middle class life, that being overly demonstrative or sharing our struggles, is somehow problematic. My friends, it is not. Hear again what happens when the disciples lose a beloved friend and colleague: “preparing her body for death” these folks went out seeking Peter, seeking help, asking him to come and to be with them in their loss, to maybe help in any way he can, to provide his own gift, to share of himself and his gifting. They went out in a hope that was met with the embrace of love, the fulfillment of God’s promise. It is precisely this that Jesus brought and in which he makes us and in which he commands us to go out into the world. Not in some false sense of strength or power, not living in accordance with the standards set out for us by this world, but in love received and still hoping, still pressing, still needing, being shared in our own strengths and frailties, with those whose own suffering might be buffered by the hope and love that enabled us to share with them. In conclusion, let me read to you a fine reflection on these passages from colleagues in ministry:
“Love works in this way. Love gives and returns and shares in endless exchange. Love has a voice and love gives a name. “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died” (Acts 9:36-37). Peter, acting in persona Christi, addressed her by name. “Tabitha, get up” (Acts 9:40). Even his actions are in Christ. “He gave her his hand and helped her up” (Acts 9:41). Receiving the hand of Peter, she received the hand of Christ, who then handed her to a Father from whose protection she could not fall. “No one will snatch [her] out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). She is presented alive in the life of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Her new life is much more than resuscitation. She is alive in the love that holds all things in being, for the Father has given everything to the Son. She is named in love, as are all things. “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Ps. 147:4). The love given to her is the same love that gives life and being to creation from moment to moment.
On the deathbed of our sin, weighed down by a burden of guilt and shame, we wait and languish. Jesus comes and speaks each and every name, and reaches with the strong hand of his grace, pulling us up from death to life, life everlasting, life evermore. He brings us to singing and blessing and wisdom and honor and thanksgiving forever and ever. Take comfort in this, take your purpose and your hope from this reality my dear little flock. I know many of you have lost spouses and children, mothers and fathers. Don’t hold in the pain, or the struggle, it is not yours alone to bear. God gave to you his grace so that you might be lifted up and in that, that you might lift up others so they can see his eternal light and life. AMEN.”