Easter 7, 2017, Acts of the Apostles 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in Glory everlasting. Amen

In today’s collect we ask God not to “leave us comfortless”. And my question is, “What should comfort a Christian? Should full churches comfort us or financially secure ones?” Or, on another level, should the ability of the church as we know it to continue comfort us? Should we be comforted by a clear and assured future? If we could know that our church – or the good parts of it – would continue beyond our own deaths would that comfort us?

And I must say yes, could I have all these things, I would be comforted. And my soul would be in danger because each of these things can be sought and obtained without love, each can be sought for the satisfaction of my own vanity or the easing of my own anxiety. So my original question needs to be refined to: “What sort of comfort does God desire to give us?” He may need to educate us a bit about what we ought to seek. And things have been called the Holy Spirit which are not.

The reading from Acts reflects this problem. Instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel, which was the comfort the disciples looked for, Jesus promises them the ability to be his witnesses to the whole world. That was what the comfort sent by God enabled them to do. They were comforted by knowing that the Spirit of Christ dwelt within them and their task as a Christian was to seek the Spirit’s expression in and by means of their own lives.

So instead of a securely restored, powerful kingdom what Christ gave to his disciples to comfort them was the chance to be martyr witnesses on his behalf – the chance to die alone and misunderstood and rejected in strange lands – but in the rock hard conviction of their hearts and minds that their inner identity was secure with Christ and nothing of this world, even death, could shake it.

We hear the same thing in the gospel reading. It is all about connections, about relating, about the relation between Jesus and the Father and consequently, the relation between the disciples and Jesus which ties them to the Father. It is participating in that relationship with Jesus which brings us to the Father and also brings us true comfort.

All else, the full churches, the financial security, the continuation of the church which we have found good, are things we legitimately desire – but it is of the essence of Christianity to discover what we should desire most of all and so avoid confusing the marginal with the central. A full church means nothing without the love of Christ moving among the people filling it. And there are lots of ways to fill churches having little to do with Christ. There is violence and fear of judgment and collusion with the values of a culture. There is the church whose object is to help us feel good about ourselves without challenging us to sacrificial and righteous living. As for financial security, Jesus leaves us with two messages. First, don’t be like the man who built the tower but didn’t estimate the cost and had to stop halfway through. But also remember that the lilies neither toil nor spin and yet God cares for them. Sorry, such tensions are a part of the New Testament message and we must do the best we can with them. Consider such things closely, but do not let them rule you for they are not God.

So what should we desire most? What would comfort us most? And Christ gives us images for this: build your house upon the rock; lay up treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt. And it is God’s relation with us which comforts – not even ours with him, but his with us. Comfort comes to those who are open to receiving his gifts, which are frequently strange and unexpected.

And how should we think about receiving the comfort of his gifts? Well, every witness we make to having received a gift – even giving thanks with a friend over a cup of coffee in your kitchen – is like a pebble tossed into a lake. The ripples may disappear from our sight, but the hidden movement of the waters reaches the edge of the lake. Every act of sharing Christ reaches ultimately to the ends of the earth. As to the fact that you do not see the results of your witness – well, how much of your day do you spend watching the ends of the earth to see if your words show up there?

So what comforts a Christian? The knowledge that he or she has been given the Spirit of God and is, therefore, called to witness and to ministry. We are comforted not by the results we achieve – all results are in the hands of God – but by the fact that God thinks so much of us that he actually gives us tasks in the grand process of bringing in the kingdom. You are valued by the tasks you have been given, not by the results you achieve. There may be more glory in heaven for the one who dares the impossible for Christ’s sake and fails than the one who shrinks from all but the easiest tasks because he knows they can be accomplished.

Now, I will be frank with you. This congregation is not rich, not numerous, not distinguished in what this world regards as resources. In addition, most of you are, shall we say, maturing. It is easy to look at this and say, as I find myself saying about my own ministries, I can no longer do for the church what I once did. I have less stamina, less energy. I am disappointed that numbers and resources have eluded me. Will there be anyone to carry on when my friends and I are gone? And so the temptation, and it is a true temptation, is to slip by almost unnoticed degrees into anxiety and from anxiety to despair and from despair into a joyless and grim obedience while I wait for the end. But let us have instead a lively seeking of God’s love and a firm belief that because I am loved my witness counts and counts in the courts of eternity even as I watch things I care about slip away in the history of this world.

But what comforts Christians in their confrontation with aging, and loss, and seeming failure is that to express their witness to Christ is always possible. His relation to us is secure. We may forget. He does not. Let me illustrate: Your primary witness is to worship God in his church with his people on Sunday morning. Your presence here witnesses Christ to every other person here. Faithful witness here is foundational for all other genuine witness. Your presence here witnesses to the strangers and visitors who occasionally come. It witnesses to the clergy who can be quite vulnerable to despair – believe it or not. And it witness to yourself in the development of the habit of putting first things first. It is no small thing to sustain with your words the body of Christ by adding your voice to its worship. And unimportant as you may feel, that is exactly what you are doing every Sunday. Your words, your presence are the stones from which the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem are being built and it goes on here at St. John’s, Sunday after Sunday. The body is incomplete without you.

If you cannot be here, say one of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families found on page 137-140 of the Book of Common Prayer. Then let the congregation know you prayed with them and for them on Sunday when you couldn’t be here.

If you have guests and cannot be present on Sunday, invite them to pray with you as you say the office. Better yet, of course, invite them to worship here with you. When you can no longer physically attend church insist on regularly receiving the Holy Communion in your place of residence. It is your right to pester the clergy to fulfill one of their most important functions, enabling your witness to the fullness of the body of Christ. And your witness to the body of Christ is your comfort.

Another important and frequently overlooked witness is to have instructions for your funeral arranged ahead of time and on file with the church. Consult with your clergy and leave instructions as to the prayers and hymns you wish used. Thus your witness to Christ extends beyond your own death. Making sure that your financial and business affairs are in order is such an obvious act of love and charity toward your survivors that I shouldn’t need to mention it as Christian witness and it carries with it the comfort of knowing the evidence of your love extends beyond your physical death.

The Eucharist on Sunday morning cannot do it all – it is intended to be the summary and climax of a life of prayer, not its entirety. I know many of you pray much. St. John’s is a praying church. I do not know you well enough to know what disciplines you use in your prayer. Is there some systematic method by which, between Sundays, you pray for the church and its mission, the nation and all in authority in government, the welfare of the world, its peace and good order, for the concerns of local communities, for those who suffer or are in trouble and for the dead? That list should be familiar. It is the outline of what we pray for every Sunday in the prayers of the people and is an excellent outline for a life of private prayer – comprehensive but not so detailed as to be burdensome, open to a variety of forms of usage: one category a day, for instance, with meditative thought on who and what is in that category of prayer.

Do you know the resources the church provides to assist you with private prayer? For starters, read slowly, a few prayers a day, through the prayer collection on pages 814-841 of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of the finest prayers ever written are there and it is the duty of every Episcopalian to be able to utilize the resources provided by the church to enrich his or her private prayer.

And also remember, our witness to Christ is first to each other and then to the world. But it is finally a witness to God himself. Even though the world does not consciously hear your private prayer its sound goes out to the end of the earth and to the ends of heaven.

Well, that’s enough of that. And I haven’t even touched on witness as a part of our public and relational life with friends and family and neighbors and colleagues. That will have to come at another time. But when we pray today’s collect and ask not to be left comfortless, what we are asking for is a ministry, a way of witness, a conduct of life that is centered on God and because centered on him does not fear the world nor allow the world to bring us to anxiety and despair. To be comforted is to be sustained in relationship, to be steadfast in faith and hope and love. And steadfastness is not dependent on your energy level, on your physical strength. When I have visited in care facilities I have been careful to use the standard Lord’s Prayer because it is the one older people know. And I know of no witness to Christ more powerful than a room of people, many of whom cannot remember their names or the day of the week but who nevertheless remember the Lord’s Prayer and still find it giving meaning to their lives in the midst of encroaching darkness. Let us all live lives of prayer so that the last words on our lips are words of witness to Christ as our comfort and our hope of glory.

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Easter 5 A, John 14:15-21, 2017

“I am going to send you another counselor, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive.”

Now the last part of that phrase, “whom the world cannot receive”, has been used to say, “Well, you’re not a Christian (frequently that has meant my kind of Christian) so you cannot understand what we’re about. You’re part of the world so you can’t receive the Spirit of truth.” Thus people absolve themselves of responsibility for dialogue, for compromise, even for love. It is a defensive and exclusionary interpretation, used to forestall critical engagement and to support dogmatic certainty. If you aren’t one of us you can’t be expected to understand why we do and believe what we do. Jesus himself says so.

I don’t know what the author of the Gospel according to John had in mind when he wrote this passage. Maybe it was this pernicious meaning, maybe something else. People do not lose the capacity for destructive thinking simply because their names are on the calendar of saints and the early church is not the repository of all light simply because it’s early.

Scripture is not just what I find in it, or what its author intended me to find in it. It is what God is capable of meaning by it. We Christians need to be responsible to the text of scripture and guided by it, but not trapped in it. Scripture is misunderstood if it is turned into a closed box rather than an arrow, a pointer.

Those who use this passage to throw up walls believe they have the truth right now. The Counselor has spoken to them, they have heard what was said and they understood it. Thus they know the truth that needs to be known. And thus faith slips from being a guide to the way into being an ideology – and ideologies are idolatrous worshippers of themselves. The world cannot receive the Spirit precisely because the world seeks answers but the Spirit gives guidance, not results.

I see the passage differently. The world cannot receive the Holy Spirit precisely because the world wants answers and the Spirit guides but does not give results. The Spirit pulls us toward the truth, but does not give us possession of it. The truth is God’s, not ours. Very few of us have arrived. Bluntly phrased, most of the time I don’t know what I’m talking about when I make statements about God. In general, the more answers a person claims to have about really basic questions the more I want to run the other way – especially if they are clergy. When the church claims to speak the truth, rather than to struggle with the one who is the truth – watch your step. If the church does not weep over its incomplete understanding of truth, its incomplete expression of the truth in its own life, beware of it.

On a positive note, I think the question raised for us by this scripture is, “Toward whom are we being pulled?” rather than, “Where are we already?” Even the unity of the church, that which makes the Christian community a single community despite appearances, does not rest in its member’s agreement with each other. We are unified in our seeking, not in what we have already found. Those who already know the truth no longer need to seek it. But I am a seeker and the more my seeking discovers the bigger God becomes and the more searching is left to do.

The counselor is, then, a guide. He is not an author of certainty but of dedication to search. Love itself is hardly ever knowing all about someone; it is a dedication to searching the future with this person rather than another by one’s side. Christianity is a dedication to searching the future with love by one’s side, searching for love and searching by means of love and searching toward love. By the way, there is the truth of the Trinity, so you will never again have to say you don’t understand it. All you have left is to discover how to be Trinitarian Christians in the utter concreteness of your lives – and that is much more challenging than mere understanding.

So the Counselor and Spirit of truth in John’s gospel is always one who guides, who directs, who even cajoles. It’s not that we have it, but that we move with it, by means of it, toward it. The truth is in the Spirit, not in us, but its gleam draws us as the gleam of a single candle flame can draw the weary mountaineer toward his campsite from miles away across rock and ice, through darkness and weariness and danger.

I do realize this doesn’t get rid of all problems because one can be moving in the wrong direction and not know it. There are betraying will-of-the-wisps in the spiritual and well as in the physical world. That’s why communities are important. They help us discover if we are headed in the wrong direction. Even religious traditions, if we work at understanding them with a critical intelligence, can do that. While we listen to the inner voice of the Spirit with one ear we listen to the outer voice of the church with the other.

Even this doesn’t land us in safety because a church can be a whole culture moving in the wrong direction. For instance, one of the dangers I see for the church, a movement in a questionable direction, is a reliance on authority and tradition, in other words, the making of the past into the authority for our life rather than a guide to life. Right now, I’d guess that our rose colored glasses for viewing the past make the church of the 1950’s and early 1960’s the ideal. The church was then successful as the surrounding culture understood success. Buildings were full – the problem was producing enough clergy to fill full time positions, not staffing part time ones. And so success as the world saw it, numbers, institutional power, relative wealth, became our hope and expectation. And our success meant we had the right answers. And at last our hope became to maintain what we were; not to listen to the counselor who leads us into a truth we do not yet have. This explains all those glossy brochures that used to come across my desk promising new insights which would increase attendance at least 25% if I would only send $350 and attend their conference.

But we forgot one cannot be successful by the world’s standards and, at the same time, preserve a platform from which the world can be examined and called to account for its way of being. We cannot be successful in the light of a set of values taken from the world and then preserve the ability to critically examine those values. The church needs to think carefully about this.

One example and I’m done. Long long ago and far far away in another diocese we once elected a new bishop. He was elected in a very efficient and peaceful fashion. The people who voted for the man who lost were, most of them, prepared to accept the man who won. So it was, for the most part, a peaceful election. I’d been to worse.

But I heard someone behind me talking about the candidates, about reasons for voting for or against them. They agreed that they didn’t vote for one of the men because “He didn’t seem to want the job enough.” I thought about my own ordination. I didn’t want to be ordained and spent nine years trying to do other things. But nothing else would work. So there were two possibilities: either I was incompetent at a variety of things, in which case the church would be as good a place for me as any, or this was a job from which intelligent people would flee, but which one did whether one wanted to or not because it was the task God had given.

Of course, not everyone was thinking like the persons I overheard. But does not this belief, picked up from our culture, make hash out of the ideas of calling and vocation? If the bishop were elected because he wanted the job, what, for instance, do we do if the bishop stops wanting it?

The world assumes that people ought to want their jobs. And yet, in the most important things I find myself doing, wanting doesn’t have much to do with it. Sometimes I do work because it needs to be done and discover later, to my surprise, that it has become as much gift as burden. Sometimes I do it because of commitment, because of honor. Sometimes I do it not because I love the work, but because I love the people for whom the work is being done. Changing diapers fell into this category. I didn’t like the work, but liked what it got done for people I cared about.

So about bishops, and priests, deacons, and BAC members, altar guilds and all the apparatus of the church, the question is not whether they want their jobs but do they love the people on whose behalf they serve? Love may not conquer all, but it is an excellent community glue in the face of adversity. So be careful of institutional visions for St. Hilda’s, but seek to love each other and see what the Counselor, the Spirit of truth will send us through that love.

But – love lives in a world of uncertainty about results. We hardly ever know where love will lead. My love for my children has led to both joy and to terror. My congregations have led me into deep satisfaction and into almost unbearable frustration. The problem with love is that it does not lead to control, or certainty, or predictability. The Holy Spirit of God never has control as its goal, but our culture certainly does. And with bishops as with ourselves, we want things to be measurable, we want the other guy to be measurable so we can know whether he is doing a good job. That way we need have no anxiety because a good job means things will turn out all right, doesn’t it? And I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy.

And yet in a technological society we do need measurement and predictability and therefore control. But the church needs to be more than that. What we are after is not control, but to know and seek and love a future worth knowing and seeking and loving, a future worth caring about. It is that future we care for by means of our work and it is that future we desire. The road to it may be desirable or miserable, but it is the road to God’s future that constitutes our vocation. We desire the Kingdom, but the road to it may consist of many things, some desirable and some not. But to refuse the undesirable on the way to the kingdom is to refuse the kingdom itself.

And at no point in that process of discovering what is worth caring about and how to care about it are we immune from change. This is what Christianity means by saying that one listens for the Spirit. The Spirit of truth, the counselor, is the means by which we move through changes, through a life in which we are asked to preserve the past, to value it, but always to use it to express a new form of love and love in new forms. The old loves reheated and served as left overs will not do. To love God is to accept a constant process of change into his likeness, constant, infinite change to grow into the likeness of an infinite God. So we accept change in our neighbors, our children, our spouse, our church, our world. But while accepting change, we still listen to the Spirit in order that the change we accept may be change into his likeness and not into something else.

Please stand for the creed.

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Easter 4, 2017, John 10:1–10, Hymn 343

Graduals, Names, God’s Love and a Hymn

The hymn we sing just before the reading of the Gospel is called the “Gradual”. Where does the name come from?

Probably from the Latin word “gradus” or “step”. In the early medieval church a deacon used to sing a set of antiphons (short biblical quotations relevant to the lesson) between the lessons. We have substituted a congregational hymn for this. These antiphons we sung either from this step or from steps going up to the pulpit from which the lesson was read. So the gradual is the “step Hymn”. At St. Hilda’s, of course, it has nothing to do with steps, but we still use the ancient name.

OK. That’s your piece of church trivia for the day. Only don’t dismiss this kind of trivia as valueless. Worship is the proper work of the church. It expresses our relation to God and, based on that relation, our relation to the creation. Everything else the church does finds its origin and justification in worship. So worship is the foundation for the Christian life for each of us – and a workman can do his work with more confidence if he or she can name the tools involved in doing it. Knowing correct names can help us think clearly and knowing the names of the parts of the service can help us think about what we are doing here. And thinking about is a step toward doing better. To be able to call things by name enhances our ability to respond to them, to relate.

Thus the importance of being able to call by name, as today’s gospel puts it, spreads beyond people to things. After all, God names all things when he creates them and it is naming that overcomes isolation and creates community. It is difficult to even recognize, let alone address, the nameless. To be able to call by name is a step toward being able to love more fully. For Jesus to call us by name means he is able to love all that that name stands for. Ultimately to love the creation means to be able to name it as God named it when he created it. So I hold that knowing names is not trivial antiquarianism, but a step toward loving, a step toward being able to fulfill God’s will for both animate and inanimate creation.

If you want to grasp all this from its negative analog – consider that in hate names frequently, not always, but frequently, disappear. There is a reason why concentration camp inmates were identified by numbers tattooed on their wrists – to name is a step toward acknowledging separate existence and identity: The very things concentration camps are intended to destroy.

In prejudice, names also tend to disappear into derogatory titles which expresses the prejudice. For a very mild example, consider the term “institutional religion” as in variations on the theme: “I’m spiritual but I don’t like institutional religion.” The term enables a person to dismiss a huge complexity by shoving it all into a category with negative associations. Then we don’t have to consider the specific reality of what we are dismissing.

So naming is important, whether it is of persons or of parts of a service – and I don’t think I’ll apologize for subjecting you to trivia about names.

On to the gradual hymn (Hymnal 1982, Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless). The first verse begins with shepherd imagery just as we find it in today’s gospel. Instead of taking care of sheep, the hymn shepherd takes care of souls. “Refresh” and “bless” are words having to do with sustaining, not with creating, and point out that God not only begins (creates) but also supports continuation (sustains). In terms of the Christian life, these are two complimentary facets: conversion and sanctification.

Conversion is the discovery first, that there is a God to turn to and second, the actual process of desiring, seeking, to turn. Conversion is, thus, a matter of beginnings. Conversion is not a one-time event, but a lifelong process of discovering that our lives are not centered on God, that parts of our lives have evaded that centrality, and seeking to move, to use the classic Christian language, from being centered on the world to being centered on God. The very Latin derivation of the word “conversion” points to this: con combined with vertere, turning. To live a life of conversion is to live a life of turning, as a constant process, from the world to God. This is done not once, but as a constant aspect of our existence. We are always in the process of turning from the world to God.

That other word, sanctification, has to do with sustaining us in our conversion. Because once we have turned to God there is a great deal more to be done. We must learn how to live the new life, how to express in our deeds the new understanding we have discovered and are constantly discovering in the turning. To be very American about it, conversion is deciding that a project is worth it, sanctification is the process of carrying out that initial decision.

So there I am, naming, again. The names of aspects of the Christian life: conversion, sanctification.

Anyway, the words “refresh and bless” point to sanctification more than conversion. The sheep are already in the shepherd’s flock, now, how does he care for them? He refreshes and blesses them. The hymn, in verse 1, uses two images for the means by which this is done: Manna in the wilderness and water from the rock. It’s easy to get lost here if one isn’t familiar with the Old Testament. To what part of the Old Testament story do these images refer?

From the congregation: To the Exodus story. God gives the Israelites the necessities of life while they travel through the wilderness after fleeing slavery in Egypt.

So, in this hymn we have a comparison between the present life of the church and the Exodus from Egypt. When it seems the church will lack the necessities of life, God will provide, if they are open to receiving – food from heaven and drink from a dry rock. (What prevents us from receiving needs a separate sermon.) Specific references are in The Book of Exodus chapter 16 for manna and Exodus 17:1-7 for the water from the rock.

The 1st verse looks at Old Testament roots. All the images in it; the good shepherd, the manna, water from the rock, the chosen flock, the wandering in the wilderness; are Old Testament images.

Verse 2 is an expansion of these themes by images from the New Testament. To live by bread alone refers to what event in gospel narrative of the story of Jesus? To his reply to the first temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:3-4; Luke 4:3-4). The imagery in this verse is mildly complicated, because if you know the Old Testament imagery of manna it is bread in the wilderness. In the Old Testament God gives bread in the wilderness, in the New Jesus refuses to make bread in the wilderness. And the image of bread reminds us of what Christian ceremony?

The Eucharist. So the images move from the Old Testament to the New to the story of the church. The hymn traces the theme of God’s bread through all three.

And this Eucharist sustains us in our journey through the wilderness of life. In other words, in our earlier terminology Eucharist is part of sanctification. So this verse refers not just to the written text of the Bible, but also to the text of the Eucharist as sustaining the Christian life – always remembering that the event of Eucharist includes reading, reflecting on and absorbing the word of scripture – which is precisely what we are supposed to be doing right now. The theme of bread then becomes rooted in the present experience of the people of God after its long journey; Old Testament beginning in verse one, New Testament expansion in verse two.

Having brought the story to the present in two short verses, verse three begins the process of applying scripture and Eucharist to our present situation. (Luke 24:13-35, especially vs. 31b) Notice that in this story Jesus is not known to the disciples in eating the bread – which would be the result of the first temptation, but in the breaking of it, which is done to enable inclusion and is the point to the Fraction in our worship – we break the bread to be able to include at the table. No breaking, no sharing.

So verses one and two set the stage, verses three is a prayer that our fate be other than that of the two disciples in the Emmaus story – that Jesus not depart from us because there is a table in our hearts at which the bread of life is constantly being broken. The inclusion of others made possible by the breaking of bread for sharing becomes a way of existence. Sanctification, like conversion, is the on-going content of the Christian life. To return to earlier words, vs. 3 is a prayer for our sanctification. And the external table we face today is to become an internal one we carry with us always and everywhere. This Eucharist becomes a constantly present internal reminder of who we are and whose we are and what that means for the life we strive to live.

In vs. 4, in the phrase “that living bread, that heavenly wine” the word “that” means “in order that”. Vs. 4 completes the prayer begun in vs. 3. Remain with us, in order that in being with you we may experience what today’s gospel calls abundant life. The reason Jesus has come is that we may have life and have it abundantly. The gradual hymn is a hymn about the process by which our worship helps this happen.

The Greek word for “abundant” carries with it the idea of excess. It is not a word for simple adequacy, but for an abundance which passes reason and need. A better translation might be “overflowing” as in the 23rd Psalm where the cup at the feast in the presence of enemies overflows. God’s love is so vast that he gives more than we need, more than we can use, more than we know how to manage. Sanctification is the process of learning to recognize what this overflowing life is and how to begin, constantly begin, participating in it. It is the main task of the church in regard to its members as conversion is the main task of the church in regard to the world outside itself.

Note that in vs. 4 it is not the food that is immortal. The meal is the expression of, the means toward, our immortality. Life with Christ can only be life everlasting. Since the shepherd loves us, and God’s love is an everlasting love, to be included in the flock is to already experience everlasting life. The life of Christians is a life of sanctification in that it is a process of discovering how to express a gift that we have already been given. Life everlasting is an already given gift, not just something to come. And the task of living life everlasting now is immense and somewhat terrifying — it is no less than to express the overflowing reality of love in a world with so much hate in it, to witness to the persistence of life in a world which believes that the death of one’s enemies will solve one’s problems. In truth, the death of enemies simply makes them a permanent part of the lives of those who kill them and of the social structure that countenances their deaths. If we insist on dealing in death, death comes to live with us and becomes part of us. We become death. Christ calls us to become life everlasting.

So on the surface this is a comforting hymn – pastoral imagery, echoes of everyone’s favorite Psalm, 23, the familiarity and comfort of the Eucharist. But behind that comfort – which is real – is a recognition of our location in the valley of the shadow of death. It is because we live there that we need the heavenly wine and living bread. It is because we live in the midst of the desert, the wilderness in which both our souls and bodies fail that we need manna from heaven and water from the rock. This hymn is a prayer not for a luxury, but for that which is essential.

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Lent 5, John 11:1-45, 2017

“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Now there are at least two things that need to be said in response to this. The first is, in itself, rather trivial but points to something much more important than itself. That is, this statement, understood in common sense and literal language, is nonsense. There are plenty of people who have believed in Jesus in all sorts of ways who have died. So, of course, we resort to non-literal interpretation – something along the lines of, “Well, we’re not talking about literal biological life in this world, but about life with God in heaven.” And there are all kinds of ways to say this and however the literal language is reinterpreted it runs up against the fact that in at least one way we all die. And many of us experience death in more than one way. If the language is not true in its common sense usage, how is it true in the more elusive world of symbol and metaphor and speech that talks indirectly because it talks about what we experience only indirectly?

So reserve that, we’ll talk about it a bit later. The second thing that needs to be said is that our understanding of Martha tends to be colored by the story in Luke 10 in which Martha is distracted by house work and Jesus delivers his famous rebuke in defense of Mary, that she, Mary, in choosing to listen to Jesus has chosen the better part and ought to be allowed to keep it. In this story, Martha comes off rather better if we just listen to what is said here, uncolored b y presuppositions from another place. Martha says, “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of him.” This certainly sounds like a faith statement, and a pretty powerful one. The clear implication is that Martha believes that if Jesus asks God for the life of Lazarus he will live again.

Jesus then says that her brother will rise again, a statement that Martha understands as a reference to a final state in opposition to our ordinary life in this world – “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Alas, poor Martha‘s purpose in these stories seems to be to be set right by Jesus, Jesus then corrects her with his statement, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Now this statement certainly has the feeling of a correction about it, especially the final question, “Do you believe this?” That question would be unnecessary if Jesus did not intend to add something to Martha’s statement about resurrection at the last day. Yet much of Christianity does not seem to go beyond Martha’s statement: We die, but that death is not final because we will live again at the end. This is what Martha says and what Jesus corrects.

So let’s unpack Jesus response. “I am the resurrection and the life”. In other words, eternal life is not an historical fact that happens to someone at some point in their existence. It is found in a maintained relationship with Christ who is resurrection and life. It’s not a gift he gives us, it’s not something we get as a reward for life well lived or believing the right things about Jesus. It’s what happens to us and in us and through us when we are related to Christ. Christ is these things. He doesn’t possess them as articles separate in themselves from his own being. A Christian cannot discuss eternal life without discussing Jesus. Jesus’s statement is, “I am the . . .” It is not “I have eternal life at my disposal to give to those to whom I please.”

So life, and therefore resurrection from death, is relationship, not thing or fact. To be Christian is to relate, not to possess. To have faith in Christ is not to believe about, but to relate to. Thus faith in Christ goes beyond words, goes behind creeds, Every prudent man or woman knows that the verbal claim “I love you.” is something that needs to be scrutinized for signs of coherence with reality. So it is with belief in Christ – a life centered on Jesus is distinct from an intellectual conviction in the existence of a creator God or from the ability to manipulate theological statements in an intricate intellectual game.

“Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live.” Now the world the author of the gospel of John inhabited was highly dualistic – I apologize for introducing a philosophical term, but it is relevant to understanding the passage. All the word means is that John and people of his time tended to see the world in terms of a tension between two realities: light and darkness, spirit and flesh, good and evil, life and death. This same dualism is becoming more and more prominent in our own political and social life – red or blue? And the feeling it engenders is a kind of subliminal despair – can the divisions ever be healed? And we suspect that they cannot.
And we act as if they cannot, as if the only possibility is the triumph of on side and the destruction of the other. That is much like the ancient world in which John lived. Life and death were two poles of existence and the object of religion was to escape one pole and live entirely in the other. In this case, the goal was to escape death and live entirely in the realm of life.

And in Christ all dualistic thought, all either-or, comes crashing down. This is why the idea of eternal life without the fact of resurrection is a distinctly unchristian notion. It is not in the idea of eternal life alone that dualism is overcome, but by means of the resurrection in which the inclusion of death within the realm of life is effected by Jesus. That is why Jesus is both resurrection and life. Not just life. He doesn’t just bring, offer or make possible eternal life – he is eternal life in the midst of death. Ins resurrection death is overcome not by destruction, but by inclusion. What is destroyed is the power of death to shape our values, our responses, to rob of love of meaning and sweetness.

What is wrong with Martha’s comment is that it is still within the world of dualism. For her, Christ is fully Lord not now, but only in the last day. Not in the world of time, but in the world of eternity. Let me put it as simply as possible. When a Christian says, “Christ is Lord” the statement is not subject to hidden qualifiers. It is not that Christ is Lord of heaven but death still rules this world. It is not that to know Jesus we must somehow, through worship or virtue or knowledge escape our ordinary world. It is not that the dead rise again at the last day, but until then their death is the most true fact about them – which seems to be the position Martha espouses. But Jesus claims to be Lord of both realms, of that in which everything dies and of that in which everything lives forever.

Let’s return to the first point, the persistence of death even for those who believe in Jesus and the meaning of Jesus’s sentence, “those who believe in me shall never die.” Well, Lazarus is raised from death, but apparently raised into ordinary life, and will, therefore, eventually die again.

AndLazarus is the sign that Jesus brings life into the world of finitude in which we live. We do not need to wait for the world to come to experience Jesus as life. The key symbol is Lazarus, who experiences Jesus as life, but life still expressed in the world in which we all die. Even in the world bounded by death Jesus gives life. Lazarus will die again despite Jesus’s gift. But Jesus gives the gift of life within the world of death. And so do we. It is why we care for the dying. We know what the end will be and we care for them anyway because that is the gift we have been given to give, the gift of life in the world of death. And the gift of life in the world of death is the sign of the presence of Christ, our acknowledgement that he is Lord of the realm of time in which everything passes away and Lord of the eternal in which everything lasts forever. It is in his being that life and death are bound together and their duality overcome.

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Lent 2, John 3:1-17, 2017

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Undoubtedly this is one of the most misused lines in the New Testament – quoted as it frequently is to imply that heaven is reserved for those special ones who acknowledge Jesus with an extraordinary effusiveness or who can answer with a positive that perennial favorite question, “Have you accepted Christ as your personal Lord and savior?”. There is a great deal of sorting going on, on both sides of the fence, of those who believe in Christ from those who don’t.

As for me, I think we have begun from the wrong end of the stick. Do we have, do all who quote this passage have, a clear idea of what they mean by faith or belief? Faith or belief in anything, much less Jesus? And we have surveys which come to the conclusion that 98% of Americans believe in God – with no provision for the distinction between a significant and a trivial faith. And with no attempt to make the concept of God into more than an empty basket into which a person can place whatever god he or she pleases.

Now, if one is going to say something the least bit upsetting, I’ve discovered that grammar is a good place to start, especially ancient Greek grammar. It lulls people into a false sense that all that follows will be erudite, dry and quite removed from practicality. There is, so the feeling goes, little chance of a life changing challenge emerging from the conjugation of Greek verbs. So we begin with grammar.

The word for “believe in “ in the above quote is, in Greek, a present participle, and therefore denotes “the ones continuing to believe in”. Thus, immediately, we have a more active understanding of “believe in” than the usual propositional understanding provides. You do not believe in Jesus unless you are in a condition of responding to him. To have faith, as the New Testament would have us have it, implies an active partnership, not a passive acceptance of fact.

In secular Greek the word “pistis” “faith or belief,” is used to talk about respect for a commitment, loyalty and fidelity. Again, an intensely relational word. It is not used to discuss mere intellectual acceptance of the truth of a proposition.

That merely intellectual understanding of faith is active in the church I know from a series of conversations I once – in a galaxy far, far away and long, long ago – had about resurrection. Time and again the question was asked me, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” It was crystal clear that my questioners meant did I accept it as historical fact – whatever that means. My return question was: You say you believe in the resurrection, how is your life different as a result of that belief? How does your belief affect your relationships? We were at a standoff and it was like a fish talking to a bird. To them, faith in the resurrection meant accepting it as a fact among other facts, to me it meant to have my life shaped by it.

And remember, our lives can be shaped by something we are not able to accept as factually true. We can hope something is true and that hope can be powerful for good or for evil. We can believe that something which is not yet true ought to be and live our lives around “the ought but isn’t yet“. We can even be in doubt, but live as if our doubts were nothing for the sake of the great good achieved if our doubts prove false. One of the great Christians and mathematians of all time, Blaise Pascal, had that sort of faith. Faith is more than ticking off boxes in a true or false test on what we believe the nature of God to be. I remembering shocking a class in the old Center for the Diaconate by saying I wasn’t sure I believed in God, but I believed the question to be so important that it was worth the rest of my life to try to find out. And that faith was more important and real than a bland acceptance, perhaps with no doubt but also with no caring or passion or commitment behind it.

Let me tackle this from a slightly different perspective. The sentence “I believe in God.” is not necessarily a faith statement. It is not faith, in the New Testament sense, until a relationship exists which can change us, a relationship in which we experience respect for a commitment, which can change behavior, which can call to account, which can intellectually challenge, which can ask one to entertain the possibility of being wrong in fundamental ways. “We accept the existence of” is not at all equivalent to the New Testament “pas pistouon eis auton“, “all those having faith in him“.

I am convinced that the sentence “I believe in God” is a mask for much practical atheism, for a bland god who, so far as day to day life is concerned, exists somewhere out about the orbit of Neptune; for a god who lacks the power to call to our attention a moral lapse we didn’t even know we were committing; in other words, for a God who can surprise us neither about the depth of our sin nor the glory of our hope. In other words, a God who lacks the capacity to change us at depth. How convenient a deity! I have the comfort of a God, but of a God who largely leaves me to my own devices. If there is no challenge, no change, no questioning, no sense of inadequacy coupled with profound hoped, then to believe in such a punyu god is an act of practical atheism.

Now, allow me to turn this around. While it is true that not all who cry “Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of God” it is also true, I am convinced, that many who either cannot or do not cry “Lord, Lord” do, in fact, enter the kingdom.

People can express faith, New Testament type faith, respect for a commitment, loyalty, fidelity, people can know they are in a life forming relationship without giving that knowledge a form in words. Very young children have pistis, have faith, in their parents even before they can speak. On the other end of the scale I once knew a wonderful atheistic, at least that’s what he said he was, New York Jew, a professor and an expert in the intellectual history of the United States interpreted from the standpoint of labor unions, indigenous peoples, intellectual movements among slaves and other peoples who weren‘t supposed to have intellectual histories.. He was also a hiking partner and I shall never forget his reaction to rounding a bend in the Skyline Mountain Trail, being lifted out of the fog and getting his first ever – he was from New York, remember – close up view of Mt Rainier. He stopped, his jaw dropped, his eyes popped, there was a long pause and he turned to me and said, “Jon, It is a gift and almost enough to make me believe in God.” For months afterward he talked about the magnificence and surprise of it all.

So he accepted the given as a gift, as a gift that could change him – and maybe he didn’t come to formally believe in God, but to enlarge one’s concept of the majesty and beauty of creation is on the side of the angels. To open doors toward faith is a faithful thing to do.

I believe that man has faith in the New Testament sense – a sense of relationship, of the acceptance of life with a grateful and thankful heart, a heart which can be moved and changed by the unexpected around it, a heart whose fundamental tenants were open to question through the experience.

Conversion to formal Christianity frequently happens when people are given language to express what in their hearts they know they have already been. With the capacity to express comes a kind of freedom and an ability to move forward. So yes, while people can have faith without being able to say, “I believe in God,” generally it’s better to be able to say it. In other words, it’s frequently true that the church doesn’t make Christians, God does. But the church gives to those acts of God a venue in which they can be expressed, a possibility of witnessing that makes who we are inwardly into a public aned outer reality and in doing so allows us to have a truly catholic faith. A faith possessed of wholeness because the inner and outer person and one.

Because I say that one can have saving faith in Christ without knowing that that is one’s condition doesn’t mean I think an articulated faith is unimportant.

But it is so easy to make the church a narrow thing. I hold that none of us believe fully in Christ, and between my little spark and the flame of a saint there is no practical difference in the light of the all illuminating, searing, light of Christ. This verse about believing in Christ to be saved needs to be read in the light of the parable of the mustard seed – that faith the size of the smallest of all seeds is enough.

In short, the church exists to help people on the way to faith, not to sort the adequate from the inadequate or the saved from those in outer darkness.

In closing, I direct your attention ot the hymn we just sang. It is a description of an active faith: “Where generation, class, or race divide us to our shame, he sees not labels but a face, a person, and a name.” (Hymnal 1982 #603, When Christ was lifted from the earth) To have the seeking of such a world, in which this is what we see of each other, make us who we are is to have faith. Again, “Thus freely loved, though fully known, may I in Christ be free to welcome and accept his own as Christ accepted me.” Faith is not something owned or possessed. Its reality is in giving itself away. What I have received, I give. To be open to receiving is to have faith. To seek to share what I have been given is faith. To be surprised by the Christ who shapes me into what I had never imagined I would be is faith. To respond, to seek, is faith.

To be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of one living, acting, seeking, including, sacrificing, self. It is to be surprised into hope. To seek the expression of that image in us is faith.

It has nothing to do with a languid and bloodless acceptance of passive fact, even the fact of the existence of God. If God is real, but not relating to me his reality is unimportant.

I close with a definition of faith by the Anglican genius, poet and lunatic of 18th century London, Christopher Smart.

“and in the seat to faith assigned,
Where ask is have, where seek is find,
Where knock is open wide.”

Christopher Smart A Song to David

 

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