Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Greater Works": The Privilege of a Lifetime

The readings for Easter 6 (Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21) raise some really important issues for you and me to reflect on and pray over:
- How are we to bear witness to personal faith in Christ, while living in the midst of a secular society of what William Willimon calls “cultured despisers”? Can we blame people for not taking Christianity seriously when folks like Harold Camping, of recent shame, use baseless and false conjectures like the so-called Rapture as “Christian” teaching?
- What does the reality of suffering in our human lives really mean? And how are we to deal with it?
- How are you and I to follow, to understand/see, and to be with Jesus on whom we’ve chosen to set our hearts and lives?
One couldn’t deal with all of that in a month of Sundays, I think!

Nancy Claire Pittman, professor, ordained Disciples of Christ minister and New Testament scholar, says that what’s “ issue is how the followers of Jesus will live faithfully once he is no longer with them...How will the disciples and indeed all those who believe in Jesus continue to love him even when he is no longer present? How can they, and we, live in unity with him when his physicality is not available for them, and us, to hold on to?” What St. John has to say in his Gospel, both last Sunday and today begins to address in a profoundly theological way the issues raised by today’s Scriptures. The key question, I think, is what does it mean for you and me today, in the 21st century, to be in relationship with Jesus the Christ? One thing which we can say first is that it surely is not simply some far-off, unattainable goal to which we aspire.

In his masterful book, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering A Life of Faith, Marcus Borg identifies these central, foundational, affirmations of Christian faith: 1) the reality of God; 2) the centrality of Jesus; and 3) the centrality of the Bible. Of the second one he says: “It means seeing Jesus as the decisive disclosure of God and of what a life full of God looks like. It means affirming Jesus as the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the light of the world, the way, and more, all known in a person…

Borg elaborates on that by describing Jesus, in addition to being a real person, as both a metaphor of God and a sacrament of God. As metaphor of God, “Jesus discloses what God is like. We see God through Jesus...As a metaphor of God, he is the heart of God made flesh.” As a sacrament of God, says Borg, Jesus is “a means through whom the Spirit of God becomes present...I am convinced that Jesus’ followers sometimes experienced the Spirit through him and in him as a palpable presence. And in the centuries since, Jesus continues to be a sacrament of God. The Eucharist of bread and wine is a sacrament of his body and blood whereby we become one with him and thus present to God, and God becomes present to us. The sacred texts about him become a sacrament of God. And the living Christ continues to be known in Christian experience as the presence of God…

In thinking about all this, it might be helpful to briefly look at Chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel, also called the Book of Glory, which tell us of Jesus’ last gathering with his disciples over a meal. Secondly, we can then how our relationship of being with Jesus might express itself, through hope, in a modern context, in our own daily lives.

John’s 13th chapter begins: “...Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, [he] got up from the table...and began to wash the disciples‘ feet and to wipe them with the towel...After he had washed their feet...he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?...if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you...I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…” Jesus washes their feet prophetically symbolizing his impending death in humiliation in order to
save others. John the Evangelist also recognizes it as an example of humility for the disciples to

Bear in mind that, as Jesus interacts intimately here with his beloved disciples, they’d been with him for the past three years, but, as all the Gospel accounts hint at, what Jesus was trying to tell them often seems to have gone right over their heads.

Jesus now says to them: “...I am to be with you only a little longer...I am giving you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you too must love one another. By this will all identify you as my disciples -- by the love you have for one another…” 

In last Sunday’s passage from Chapter 14, Jesus talked about his going away, urging the disciples not to “let your hearts be troubled”. He mentions “many dwelling places” in the Father’s house, and he assures them that he’s going away precisely to prepare places for them, and that he’ll return again “to take you along with me, so that where I am, you also may be.” The word John uses for dwelling places” can refer to a resting place for a traveler on a journey. Throughout his Gospel, John often uses the idea of staying, remaining, abiding with Jesus and the Father; so also here. As you and I travel the journey of our life, our resting place, our abode or dwelling, is the very Person, the living presence of Jesus and his Father, here and now, just as it will also be our permanent dwelling after death.

Jesus then says: “And you know the way to where I am going…” Clearly frustrated, Thomas objects: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. So how can we know the way?” The Apostles had some inkling that “the way” was Jesus, but less sense as to where this way leads. Jesus patiently explains: “I am the way and the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me. If you all really knew me, then you would recognize my Father also.” It still doesn’t make sense to Philip: Lord, show us the Father. That’s enough for us.” Once again, Jesus tries to spell it out: “Philip, here I am with you all this time, and you still don’t know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...The words that I say to you all are not spoken on my own; it is the Father, abiding in me, who performs the works...I am in the Father and the Father is in me…

To express the desire, to say that you and I want to be in relationship with Jesus, is to have it already fulfilled. Jesus the Christ, with the Father and the Spirit of Love, indwells us, ones us to Godself: in our creation, through the cross and resurrection, in our Baptism, and continues to indwell us forever as we pass through this life’s veil. Jesus is the way because he is the truthi.e., the divine reality made understandable through his words and actions; and he is the life, i.e., the divine reality as shared by human beings. Jesus presents himself as the only avenue of salvation, “the way”, because he is the truth, i.e., the only revelation of the Father who is the goal of the journey.

In this passage Jesus speaks as Wisdom personified, hearkening back to the apocryphal book of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, in which Wisdom says: “In me is all grace of the way and of the truth, in me is all hope of life and of virtue.” (24:25) Jesus as "the truth" is a description of himself in his mission to us: “The reason I have come into the world is to testify to the truth.” Jesus is also "the way", in the sense that he’s "the life" in terms of his mission to us: “I came that they may have life and have it to the full.” And Jesus always remains the way for us, not just at the moment we first believe. In living as Christian followers of Jesus, you and I share in the power of Jesus’ words and works; in looking at Jesus, we see God; in accepting, setting our heart on, Jesus as the way, we enter into the wisdom and life of the Father. We abide with Jesus.

These rich passages lead us to further profound implications in the vine/branches image which
John uses in Chapter 15 for our call, our ordination, to be part of Jesus’ ministry to one another. “I am
the real vine and my Father is the gardener...Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot
bear fruit by itself, without remaining on the vine, so neither can you bear fruit without remaining in
me...for apart from me you can do nothing...My Father has been glorified in this: in your bearing much
fruit and becoming my disciples...Love one another as I have loved you…

In today's Gospel passage Jesus promises One who will accompany us and the faithful community in its mission, even when it’s treated with hostility and disregard. “...I will ask the Father, and he will give you be with you forever.” The Greek word John uses is par√°kletos, which can mean something like Advocate/ Comforter/Encourager/Counselor/Ombudsman/Helper. Jesus himself, of course, remains the first Advocate, but
the Spirit will come in his place bringing the truth which Jesus is, something which “the world” can’t receive, but only those who’ve set their hearts on Jesus, Son of the Father. There’s a story about a missionary sent to work among a people whose culture had no word for Paraclete/Advocate. So they created a new phrase in their language, describing the Holy Spirit as “the One who helps you get your heart around the corner”, which is really another way of saying the One who helps us live out Jesus command to “love one another, as I have loved you”.

This brings us to the question of how you and I might embody this reality, this being-with Jesus as a follower in practical day-to-day living. How can we be bearers of hope to a world which has become increasingly cynical,
overwhelmed with suffering, and devoid of much hope? Were St. Paul here today, I believe he’d address that question with the same plea which he made to the Christian community at Ephesus: “therefore...beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… Each one of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,...promot[ing] the body’s growth in building itself up in love…” (Ephesians 4:1; 7; 12-13; 15-16)

In last Sunday’s Gospel, where Thomas and Philip were having difficulty with Jesus’ idea that, in truly “seeing” him, they, at the same time, come to know the Father, Jesus gives them (and us) a remarkable piece of advice: "believe me [at least] because of the works themselves" because "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these...However it is that you and I "see", however it is that we set our hearts on Jesus the Christ, which is a description of what hope is, especially in light of all the suffering which surrounds us, all that frustrates and depresses us, particularly the burden of our own personal brokenness, nevertheless, we somehow still find ourselves capable of doing for ourselves and for others "greater works", greater generosity, greater understanding, greater love, than perhaps we ever thought was possible. For the way we’re walking, the truth we’re seeking, and the life for which we’re yearning each and every day all
constitute that “narrow path” which Jesus mentions in Scripture. It’s the path which evolves in ever deepening stages of awareness and consciousness for us of the wholeness and holiness of life, beginning with those quickening moments, those stirrings of love, those fleeting flashes which you and I experience from time to time: in nature; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in observing children; in helping others; and finally, even in experiencing death, our own or that of others. 

Every such moment is a revelatory moment, in which God in Christ awakens you and me to God already within the being that we are; awakening us to see that you and I possess the capacity to live and move and have our being in habitual awareness of God giving Godself away. Every moment of our existence is the sheer reality of God’s compassionate love. Infinite Love is always in charge, despite all our human failures, shortcomings, tragedies, illnesses, death, and all that is evil around us. Regardless of how things ultimately play out in any one of these given situations or events, Infinite Love always has the last word. Through the mercy and hope which God gives us “new every morning”, we see revealed in “the glory of Christ”, in the “the face of Jesus”, the utter powerlessness and meaninglessness of any of our failures, sufferings, or other negative in our lives to
name or define who we are.

By happenstance, I celebrated Eucharist this morning in the parish to which my friend, Judy Rose, belongs. It's the parish's practice to ask a parishioner each month to write and deliver an "epistle" to the parish on some aspect of gratitude (what we used to call "stewardship"). Again, by happenstance, Judy, in her Epistle to us this morning, unknowingly summed up the point of my homily just about as well as anyone could: “We each have the ability, should we accept our Father’s invitation, to know, love, and serve the God of gods..,to live our lives through the power of his Holy Spirit. Whether we are old or young, healthy or ill, educated or not, rich or poor, male or female -- we are each given equal be made into his hands and feet, his heart and spirit here on earth…The ability to be used as God’s servants, in whatever capacity God chooses for us, is the greatest ability and gift we could be given….to be our Master’s channel of love right here, on our particular spot of earth, is the privilege of a lifetime.

1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Happy Anniversary!