Look to the Lord, Easter 6 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9; Psalm 67

There is something perplexing and difficult at the heart of the Christian faith. This perplexing something is the central value of the Kingdom of God; the primary, identifying characteristic of the Christian Church at its best and the clearest picture we have of our relationship with Jesus and his relationship with us.

At the same time, this perplexing and difficult something at the heart of our faith is both the best description we have been given of who God is and the clearest command our Lord gives to us. It’s a quality or a type of relationship, and it’s proclaimed as the greatest, strongest, and most persistent gift we are given.

It’s what the Gospel today talks about. The English word is “love” and that’s really a shame. The early church was smarter than we are. The early church knew that this difficult and perplexing quality of relationship was a new thing, its own thing, revealed by Jesus and in Jesus. So, when the early church talked about this new thing, it pretty much invented a new word. The church took a seldom used, vague and antiquated Greek term and used it to describe what it was talking about. The Greek word, we all know, is Agape.

The advantage of doing this was that every time the Church used this word, people would know exactly what was being talked about—they would know that what was meant was the command of Christ, the life of God, the goal of the Christian and the greatest power in creation. It meant that, and nothing else. There was really no other meaning for Agape. This was real handy; it avoided confusion. Also, by doing this, nobody thought they knew what the word meant until they learned it from the Lord and through the Church.

We haven’t been that smart. We took that precise and specific Greek word “Agape”, and we ended up translating it as one of the most vague, most misused and abused words in the English language. We call it “love”, a word with a jillion meanings. So, most of the time when we hear the word “love” used in the Bible we think we know what it means. But we almost certainly don’t. Instead, we’re probably confusing agape with one of those jillion other things that the word “love” means in English.

So we hear Jesus saying, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” and we actually think we understand what Jesus is talking about. After all, we love our new car; and we love chocolate; and we love our spouses and our kids; we love to go fishing; Romeo loved Juliet; and – judging from bumper stickers – we love every conceivable breed of dog and cat – and many cities. Or at least we “heart” them, which I guess means love. And none of that has any real connection to what John is talking about when he says that God is Love, or with what Jesus is commanding us to do when he commands us to love him or one another. When we love in any of those other ways we are not keeping the Lord’s commandment, we are not imitating the nature of God.

The word is a problem. The King James Version of the Bible generally used “charity” instead, which has some advantages – at least it’s not erotic and it’s clearly voluntary. No one comes home from a long weekend and says, “I’m so happy, I just fell in charity with Elbert.” But, for better or worse, “charity” got taken over by other non-profits and really doesn’t work these days. We’re stuck with “love,” but I wish we weren’t.

All of this is to say that when we hear the word “love” used by and about Jesus Christ, God, and the Christian community, we cannot automatically assume we know what it means. Certainly, when we talk to non-Christians about love, we can safely assume that they do not know what it means. Ordinary English usage seldom gives us even a hint of what the Bible is talking about. Yet this peculiar difficult and perplexing thing is both the purpose of our lives and the way to that purpose.

Listen: There is only one way to learn what the Christian faith is talking about when it talks about love. There is only one way to discover which of all the different experiences we have are really experiences of love in this sense. There is only one way to know what we are commanded to do when we are commanded by our Lord to love God and one another. Only one.

We can learn of love – Christian love, agape – only from Jesus Christ. Period. It’s only from knowing him: from knowing what he said and what he did, who he was and who he is, that we can know what love is. Until we realize this we will always miss the point. The call to love is a call to Jesus: to know him, to live his life, and to walk his path. The Bible, theologians, living examples, saints and other greats of the faith, these can help, but only if we know Jesus first. You see, the truth of the matter is that there is no single, precise, definition of Christian love, of agape. There is, instead, a person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lives it and who shows us what it is and who gives it to us that we may show and give that same love to the world.

Last week we heard Jesus say, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So says the Lord to the Church. What does this love mean, what does it look like? To discover this, we have to look to Jesus. And when we do that, the first thing we see is that it has nothing to do with how we feel inside; it’s about how we choose to act; it’s about what we do. So, we know that, in part, love looks like turning one cheek when the other has been hurt; it looks like going two miles when one mile is unfairly asked; it looks like offering prayers in response to insults.

We know that it looks like a father welcoming home a son who was lost; like paying a full day’s wage to a worker who showed up an hour before quitting time—and it looks like rejoicing in each of these. It looks like losing your life in the hope of finding it; and it looks like obedience to a God who will tell us neither the specifics of our task nor the consequences of our faithfulness.

It looks like all of that, and much, much more. But really, finally, and at its clearest, it looks like this. It looks like a cross—it looks like the cross. This is what we Christians really mean when we talk about love. And if we ever mean anything else, then we most certainly mean something less—and we are unfaithful to our Lord, and we mock his commandment. This cross (without the pretty symbols) is what it means for God to love us; this is what it means for us to love one another. You won’t find this on bumper stickers, in cheap novels, or in plain brown envelopes. But it can be found.

That’s really the central thing I have to say about love. We must constantly be reminded of this, lest we confuse our Lord with either Pollyanna or Hugh Hefner, and thus reduce our faith to another cheap route to self-delusion or to empty self-gratification.

So, to find out what John means when he says that God is love, or to discover what it looks like to love one another as Jesus has loved us, we do not look deep within our selves, we do not look around us, or at our families, or at our society or at the natural world. Instead, we look to the Lord, and to his life—to all of his life. There we will find, in all its depth and simplicity, what we Christians really mean when we talk about love. And there we will find life.

Download the sermon for Easter 6C.

Written by The Reverend James Liggett

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

A home to long for, 6 Easter (C) – 2013

May 5, 2013

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Today we come to what is, for practical purposes, the conclusion of the biblical story, the climax, the consummation, the finale. We hear from the last chapter of the last book of scripture, and what we hear is glorious.

Do you want to know something of heaven and why it is a home to long for? Then ponder the words of this passage found at the end of the Bible. Let its rich colors and images soak into your soul, enlighten your heart, renew your faith and hope and love.

John, the author of the Book of Revelation describes the city that has come down to be the center of the new heaven and the new earth. He extols the beauty and perfection of this city, challenging the capacities of human speech.

This new Jerusalem is a golden city, and crystal clear like a rare jewel. The wall surrounding this four-square city has a dozen gates, with three gates on each side, each a giant lustrous pearl, each one guarded by an angel. This is a stable city, resting not on a single foundation, but on twelve foundations, one atop another, each foundation made of a different precious stone.

Hearing of this new Jerusalem, as John describes it, can elevate and enliven the desires of our hearts for God and the consummation of God’s purposes. But what we learn of the new Jerusalem can function in another way as well.

It can help us recognize glimpses of heaven that intrude into our lives. For when we live by faith, heaven is not a far and alien country, but rather we find ourselves dwelling, some of the time at least, in the suburbs of the new Jerusalem; and moments come when we are granted sights of its golden crystalline splendor, often when we least expect this to happen.

There are three points to remember about heaven that influence the glimpses of heaven that we have here on earth: Heaven is a community; heaven is a place of healing; and heaven is a place of vision.

First, heaven is a community. The story of humankind in the Bible takes us from a garden with only one couple to a vast city with a cosmopolitan population, this new Jerusalem.

Away then, with any small, narrow, cramped view of heaven or the salvation it represents! Away then, with any spirituality that distorts the intimate and the personal, turning them into merely the private and the individual.

There is intimate, personal encounter with God, with Christ, but properly it always leads us to a generous embrace of the world, which God created and for which Christ died.

Yes, the new Jerusalem described for us is a vast, cosmopolitan city with people of every kind, people from every nation. It is the capital of the God who delights in diversity.

If you want a foretaste of heaven, a little nibble to whet your appetite, go on a fine summer day to a city park where there are several big family picnics taking place. Catch the spirit there in the hubbub and the conviviality. Or go to a playground in that park where dozens of kids dash about in perpetual motion, each on a different trajectory. There before you on a fine summer day is a slice of what heaven will be like.

Second, heaven is a place of healing. John points to this when he describes what we may call the horticulture of heaven. Through the city runs the river, the beautiful river, the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, more splendid than your favorite waterway. On the banks of the river appear rows of magnificent trees, bearing fruit not once or twice a year, but a super tree astoundingly fruitful. Then John slips in the kicker that we miss if we do not pay attention. He tells us that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The healing of the nations! So heaven has medicine for the wounds that separate and scar nations on earth. The new Jerusalem is thus a place of reconciliation, where old and deep antagonisms no longer produce their poison, where traditional enemies enjoy peace with one another. It is not that these costly antagonisms, these wars and feuds and oppressions, are forgotten, repressed or ignored. What happens is that the wounds are healed. Brokenness gives way to wholeness. Hatred gives way to love. Nations once at odds now together bring their glory and honor into the new Jerusalem. Leaving behind anything false or foul, they freely offer their particular gifts. All this happens because of the healing leaves of the tree, and the tree bears the shape of a cross.

If the national wounds can be healed, so too can smaller but no less painful wounds: strife between tribes and clans and families and classes and groups and individuals. All these are healed in heaven at the price of the cross. Everyone leaves behind what is evil and makes a particular offering to God.

So if you want to see a bit of heaven on earth, go someplace where reconciliation is real, where wounds big and small are treated and healed. Or bring this heaven to earth yourself. Work for justice and peace. Or bring it still closer to home: forgive someone who does not deserve it, maybe even yourself. You’ll catch a bit of heaven’s glimmer; you’ll be in the near suburbs of the new Jerusalem.

Finally, heaven is a place of vision. Note the references to light in today’s passage from Revelation. We hear that the light of the new Jerusalem is God’s glory and its lamp is the Lamb. By this light the nations will walk. The gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.

And what is the object of vision in this city of purity and light? John tells us in a few words: “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

God’s servants will be marked as belonging to God, even as now the church marks the brows of newly baptized with the sign of the cross, the seal of the Spirit. It is the privilege of these servants not only to worship God, but to see God.

This, the sight of God, is what, above all else, makes heaven, heaven!

Here in our present life, worship remains indirect. We use sacraments and signs, images and words that suggest the divine reality to our hearts and minds. There, we shall see God face to face.

Here we encounter God amid the shadows and uncertainties of life. There we shall see God in the bright light of eternal day and in the delightful rest of eternal sabbath.

We shall have achieved the purpose of our existence and entered into abundant joy from which there will be no exit. In the celebrated words of St. Augustine, “We shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.”

We do not now live in that great city, but from time to time we find ourselves, perhaps to our surprise, in one of its near suburbs. And so, as John might put it, we catch a glimpse of its golden crystalline walls, its gates of stupendous pearl.

This glimpse may come as a strange warming of the heart. A refreshment of hope and courage. An assurance in time of hardship. A beauty that beguiles and delights.

The creator of all things, the lord of all time is versatile in giving us glimpses of that great city, reminders of our true home. We cannot dictate when these glimpses will happen, but we can leave ourselves open to recognize and welcome them when they occur.

We can learn and re-learn that heaven is a community, a place of healing, a place of vision. We can long for heaven in its fullness and also enjoy the glimpses that appear to us now in moments of vision and healing and community. Then, when we come to the new Jerusalem, it will not seem like a strange and alien city, but will feel a lot like home.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals“ (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Proclaim the Good News, 6 Easter (C) – 2010

May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Picture this scene. There’s a person we will call “Samantha,” who is a good, faithful Christian. She has attended church most Sundays for about a decade. She volunteers when needed and even served on the vestry for a term. She always attends special church events and Christian education offerings.

But somehow, Samantha feels that something is missing. She somehow senses, and secretly fears, that despite all this church activity, she’s not much different than her friends who don’t attend church at all, who go to yoga class, soccer games, or just sleep in instead.

Author Reggie McNeal, in his book “The Present Future,” describes people like Samantha:

“The faithful, maybe silently or not so silently, wonder when their ticket is going to be punched, when they are going to experience the changed life they’ve been promised and expected to experience at church. In North America, people have been led to believe that their Christian life is all about church, so this failure of the church not only creates doubt about the church, it also leads them to all kinds of doubt about God.”

Now picture another scene. A few first-century travelers set out on a journey. They are on fire with the Holy Spirit. Their traveling conditions are tough, funds are tight, and there is frightening opposition to the group they represent in some of the places they plan to visit. Despite all this, they set out with conviction and faith. They’ve mapped out where they will go, retracing the steps that one of them took on a previous journey. Then one night, one of them has a vision. Because they believe the vision is calling them to proclaim the Good News in a way different than they had initially thought, they immediately change their plans and set off in a new direction.

What faith. What dedication. What a commitment to sharing the message, story and life of Jesus Christ with others.

This is the scene from today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of Paul’s second missionary journey. J. Ted Blakeley, in his book “A Lector’s Guide and Commentary to the Revised Common Lectionary,” describes the setting of and background for this reading. On his first journey, Paul traveled with Barnabas to Cyprus and Galatia to proclaim the gospel and establish small Christian communities – we might call them “new church plants” today. On his second missionary journey, the one from which today’s story comes, Paul is traveling with Silas. Their plan was to retrace the steps from Paul’s first journey, checking to see how those who became believers on his first journey were fairing. By the point of today’s reading, Paul and Silas had been somewhat successful. They had been able to visit some of the places, but unable to visit others. They were now in Troas, a sea port, where Paul had a vision. Acting on that vision eventually led to the baptism of Lydia.

Contrasting the stories of modern-day followers like Samantha to early church followers like Paul, one sees a marked difference. Jesus’ early followers were alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, whereas many today seem to lack that fire, passion, and conviction. Perhaps the difference is because followers of Jesus in the early church were clear about what they were called to do, whereas some followers today lack that clarity. Followers in the early church were clear that they were to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we heard in today’s reading. How Paul and his cohorts accomplished this purpose can be instructive to us if we seek to reclaim and increase a passionate, fiery faith.

For example, Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ by listening for, and acting on, God’s word. If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we, like Paul, must also be willing to listen and act on God’s word.

Do we take the time to talk and listen to God through regular prayer and silent Holy listening? If and when we sense that God is leading us in a certain direction, do we test out that direction, seeking affirmation from church, family, friends and other trusted sources? If it does indeed seem to be God’s gentle hand acting in our lives and our discernment is affirmed, are we bold enough to act, or do we let fear, complacency, routine, or something else stand in the way?

We must listen for, trust in, and act on God’s will in our lives if we are to reignite a fire in our faith.

Another way Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ was by going to where the people were. “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” Note that they did not stay in a synagogue, or put up a new sign outside the synagogue and wait for people to come. Rather, they went out to where the people were.

If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we too must reach outside of our established churches. We cannot just open our doors and wait for people to come in. We cannot simply mow the lawn or make a new sign and wait. Instead, we must look at the needs of the people in the community, the places where there is hurt, where there is need for redemption and forgiveness, where there is spiritual longing, and reach out to address it. It is our personal responsibility as Christians.

In today’s rapidly changing social context, and in a society that is increasingly spiritual and decreasingly religious, searching out new ways to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ beyond our church buildings is mandatory. In doing this, we will find the fire of faith rekindled.

Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ, not limiting who was to be reached. Note in Paul’s vision it was a man of Macedonia who asked him to come over and help. However, as the story develops, he instead finds “a certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. … The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”

If we are to once again become on fire with the gospel message, we must not limit God by defining the people we are called to reach. We can seek the unexpected person who might be longing for the transformative message of Christ’s love, and risk sharing the gospel message.

With whom might God be calling you to share your faith?

Let’s return to Samantha, the woman we began with, who was feeling as if she wasn’t growing and changing despite her church activities, despite her commitment, despite her faith. There are people like Samantha in many congregations, people who aren’t experiencing the spiritual transformation for which they hoped. As one anonymous Christian missiologist observed, “They came to us seeking God, and we gave them church instead.”

Many congregations, despite their best intentions, seem to have lost focus and give those seeking Jesus a slate of church activities rather than avenues for spiritual growth that can be truly transformational. Our faith communities exist to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, and we, as people who are part of these communities, must ensure that our activities are in alignment with this purpose.

Today’s reading from Acts gives us three instructions for reclaiming our missional purpose. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ:

• by discerning and acting on God’s will
• by reaching out beyond our church walls as we seek to proclaim the message
• by being ready to share the gospel message with an unexpected person

By refocusing on our true purpose, we can help people like Samantha transform the smoldering embers of her faith into brilliantly burning flames.

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

The good news of rogation, 6 Easter (C) – 2007

May 13, 2007

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Today is Rogation Sunday, when the church has traditionally offered prayer for God’s blessing on the fruits of the earth and the labors of humankind. The word “rogation” is from the Latin rogare, “to ask.”

Historically, the Rogation Days are a period of fasting and abstinence, asking God’s blessing on the crops, for a bountiful harvest. Ancient pagan observances of robigalia included processions through the cornfields to pray for the preservation of the crops from mildew. And Christian honoring of Rogation Days has varied over the centuries: from observance on the fixed date of April 25 to great outdoor processions on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day. Elizabeth I of England ordered the “perambulation of the parish” at Rogationtide, a custom still observed in many places.

This brings to mind an image of our processing down the avenue, declaring everything within the geographic boundaries of this parish to be specially set apart and consecrated as holy, pronouncing to every soul we encounter the liberation offered through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and staking our claim for the working out of the plan of salvation and the bringing of God’s kingdom here in earth.

And of course, in older days, the clergy had the responsibility of what we used to call the “cure of souls” within the parochial boundaries. That is, everyone within these lines was technically a member of the parish. Every institution was a chaplaincy concern. Not just every Episcopalian, every single person. And Rogation Sunday was a time to “beat the bounds” – to walk around the boundary of a parish – to be certain you knew just where those boundaries were and who was inside them.

Bookstores abound with resources for setting and keeping healthy boundaries. These books tell us when to say yes, and when to say no. They encourage you to “take control” of your life and to “stop hiding from love.” The objective is becoming separate, individual, and autonomous.

Now, healthy boundaries are a good thing. They help us live more fulfilling lives, respecting others and respecting ourselves. They help us overcome depression, codependency, and anxiety, and to avoid unnecessary anger and hurt.

And yet, as good as healthy boundaries can be, and as useful as they are – Jesus appears to be telling us something altogether different about boundaries. In the Gospels, his message is not about keeping a healthy balance between work and home, not about maintaining respectful distance from others. No. Jesus says he is the vine, and we are the branches. We are part of him, and he is part of us. Knit together, or grafted to one another. And if you do not understand what this means to us, do not let your hearts be troubled, as Jesus promises that the Spirit will come and teach us everything we need to know. The one who healed the sick will cure us of our ills as well. For Jesus, it’s all about being in relationship, connected, a part of the larger body, walking together in the Way.

The image Jesus offers of living a separate, autonomous life is horrifying: those who do not abide in him will be thrown away like a branch, to wither, be thrown into a fire, and burned.

You may remember this famous quotation: “No man is an island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” John Donne, the poet and priest who wrote those words some 400 years ago, seemed to understand. For Donne, as for Jesus, boundaries are an invention of foolish humankind.

For instance, what happens in a family when one member falls ill? Everyone is affected. Each member may also catch the disease; people get involved in the sick person’s care, things change – for everyone. Even if you are a child, if your little brother gets sick, you may not have new responsibilities – but you are sure to notice a difference in your mother’s ability to be attentive to you.

We are all part of one vine, all connected, all interrelated. When we realize this, we stop trying to work for our own selfish gain at the expense of others, for we know that harm done to anyone is ultimately harm done to ourselves. When we admit we are part of the true vine, we begin to draw nourishment from each other, instead of competing and fighting with each other.

This is not to say that the kinds of things we call “boundary issues” don’t have merit, or that “healthy boundaries,” as society understands them, are not good things.

If the Israelis and Palestinians realized they were part of one vine, they’d stop trying to hack each other out of existence, realizing that their violent efforts only serve to sever them from their common humanity and prolong the cycle of violence and oppression.

If politicians, or Christians, or any of us realized we are all part of one vine, we would search out ways to cooperate with each other and serve the common good, instead of championing partisan interests.

We in the church can perhaps understand this best, for Jesus tells us he is the true vine, and his Father is the vine grower. We are part of him, and he is part of us, and we are – all of us – rooted in the dirt, the same earth that connects us to every living thing: every plant, every person, every molecule, and every rock.

Everything we think or do affects this world – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in very big ones. Every time we cry, the world cries with us. Every time we laugh, the world laughs along. Every time we sin, the world is damaged by our actions.

But when we do our best, when we try to respect others, when we seek to follow in God’s ways – then the vine thrives, more shoots are sent out, leaves appear, and then, in God’s good time, the rich harvest of fruit comes: grapes for eating, for drying into raisins, for fermenting into wine, seeds to be planted for harvests yet to come.

This is the good news of Rogation Sunday, of Earth Day, of Mothers’ Day, of every day. This is the message of the angels, as brought to earth in the person of Christ Jesus. This is the hope for our salvation, the fruit of our inheritance, the future of our children. This is part of what the Holy Spirit has come to teach us, and accepting it is part of our collective healing.

We are all of us part of the one true vine. May we all come to rejoice in that revelation.

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates is associate rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York City.