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