Sermon: What are we known for? May 19, 2019

Sermon–William Bradbury

Easter 5—Year C  May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Well, I mostly enjoyed my 50th high school reunion three weeks ago in Atlanta. One startling fact: of the total class of 149, 22 of us have died. I was talking to a classmate, a retired neurologist, who was also shocked by this, given the fact that most of us had every advantage of health and wealth. One of my best friends, unbeknownst to me, died nine years ago and one of the loveliest girls died at the age of 39 of ALS.

One sure takeaway is this: we are all just passing through. So we waste our time devising strategies to pretend we are as solid as a rock. Rather, what we should be doing is devising strategies to pass through this life well—to make it count for something other than ego gratification which  makes us look good to others.

At his last supper Jesus knows his passing through is almost complete, so his goal is to help his disciples know how to pass through as faithful disciples of the Kingship of God.

So, did he say: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if”:

  • If you read your Bible?
  • If you say your prayers?
  • If you attend Church?
  • If you believe the Nicene Creed?
  • If you live a moral life?
  • If you decorate your house at Christmas?

No, he says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”

The truth is it’s a lot easier to go to church, read the Bible, say our prayers, believe the Creed, and be a nice person, than it is to love others with Jesus’s type of love, which requires a lot of inner soul work. So the temptation is ever before us to make these covenantal practices our goal, instead of using them to help move us along the way to the goal.

As Buddhists wisely say, “the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” To glory in our practices is to slip into idolatry, the worship of the self. It is to stop our journey to Fenway Park at the first road sign pointing the way.  

That’s why Jesus tells us even now to follow him, because he is leading us all the way to the goal of life—which is to fall into the eternal, infinite, and unconditional Divine Love which has already fallen into us in Christ.

What Jesus is asking on his last night is to love those of his followers who are difficult to love. One can only wonder how much love there will be for Matthew the tax collector, or poor, blind Bartimaeus, or the sex worker who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, once Jesus isn’t around.

 Jesus gives his life away as a sign of what true love looks like, but he knows this requires more than wanting it: it requires divine assistance. Peter is moved to a higher level of loving by a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals coming from the sky where he learns, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  Now he can love a Roman centurion in the same way he loves his brother, Andrew.

To transform us into such lovers, Christ has to change at least two things in us: our image of God and our image of ourselves.

Many have been raised to think of God like a Judge in a courtroom, ready to punish us for our many failings. But when we look to Jesus for our image of God everything changes, for Jesus doesn’t come to judge us but to heal us, so we can follow him on his journey into communion with God and our neighbor.

Therefore, Jesus says, God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 on the hillside to go in search of the one lost sheep. God is like a woman who loses one coin and tears the house apart to find it. God is like a father who never gives up on his lost children—neither the one in the far country with a dissipated heart, nor the one who stays home with a judgmental heart.

God comes to us in Christ, to teach us how to pass through this life with a meaning, purpose, and beauty that reflects Christ.

Even in the cosmic vision we are given in Revelation shows God coming to us:

“I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, COMING DOWN out of heaven from God…. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them.”

There is no floating off to heaven for a ghostly existence. For just as God is incarnate in Jesus, so God is incarnate in us, as us.

As Colossians 3:11 puts it, “In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people. Common English Bible

The prevalent idea today that we are each an isolated individual is simply mistaken. But again this unified vision of humanity requires divine assistance to see it.

So we notice this strange line in the reading from Revelation: “And the sea was no more.” Do you remember this line appearing near the end of the 1997 Oscar winning movie “Titanic”? The great luxury liner is in its death throes as crazed passengers are trying to get on the too few lifeboats, while Jack and Rose are running to the stern which is slowly lifting into the air. In the middle of that chaos we hear a clergyman reading this passage today from Revelation: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

For most of us the sea is a place for play and rest, but for the ancients the sea is a symbol of chaos, full of unpredictability, destructive power, and frightful monsters. The original hearers of the Revelation of John were suffering the chaos of empire-sponsored persecutions that were destroying their communities of faith.

Today the chaos of our inner life and corporate life threatens to swamp us.    

John receives a vision that is calling Christ’s people to live in the now with the hope that God can handle our chaos and bring us to that reality where “God himself will be with us;
and will wipe every tear from our eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Pastor and teacher Brian Zahnd therefore reminds us that the Book of Revelation, quote, “does not depict New Jerusalem as belonging purely to the future, but as a present reality in the process of becoming. And the baptized are called to participate ‘right now’ in the newness from above.”

So Jesus reveals two images:  The image of God coming to us to heal and the image of human beings in union  with each other in Christ: so that as we do the practices of covenantal faithfulness the love of Jesus rises in our hearts. And it is his love that gives this life of passing through meaning, purpose, and such tender beauty.