Saturday, January 16, 2016

January 17, Epiphany 2, Worldview #2: What Are People For

The Wedding at Cana: Water into Wine

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

Worship services are the last places in American life where ordinary people regularly sing together. This very basic human practice would be otherwise lost to us. And worship services are the last occasions of ordinary people regularly gathering to hear a speaker speak. Human beings used to do this all the time.

Your body tells you that human beings need to sing together and listen to speakers speak. You have these marvelous vocal cords unique among the mammals for their musical capacity, and the location of your ears and eyes upon your heads is perfect for communal listening to a speaker. Two weeks I said that one of the reasons you come to church is in order to be human beings. And if you come to church to talk with God, back and forth, that too makes you human beings.

You know that you come to church for God, to worship God and praise God and thank God. And you know that you come to church for yourself, to be comforted and reconciled and convicted and encouraged and directed. I’m asking you to consider that you come to church to be fully human beings. I’m not going to force the syllogism that not coming to church keeps you from being fully human, but I will say that one great purpose of Christianity is to make you a proper human being.

This claim cannot be proven, and to secular ears it sounds preposterous. Do Christians think you are more human than the rest of us? But it is hard to be a human being. The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, before he died, said that his goal in life was to “be a human being.” Wasn’t he one already? It is hard to be a human being.

Note the awful messes that our species keeps making in the world. We’re the only animal to which the word “sin” applies. No other creature adds so much evil to the world. Look how hard it is to be humane. Not only among violent men, but even when you’re just trying to defend yourself, and you get caught in the fear and the reaction, and you get less humane. We are the only species that comes short of being what we are.

The Christian claim is that to be a human being means that you are made for God. That’s what people are for, and that’s why we’re so horribly destructive, whenever we don’t live for our true purpose. That’s also the key to the differences between our species and the other species. That’s why you have that special mix of physical traits that distinguish you from other animals: your vocal cords, your opposable thumb, your bipedal legs and feet, your remarkable brain, your memory, your mind, your self-awareness, your ability to abstract, your reason, and your soul. The Christian claim is that these special traits of our species serve our purpose of being made for God.

But hold it, we weren’t made, we evolved. We were not designed by God in some laboratory in a garden East of Eden—we evolved out of prior species just like every other animal. Very true. But if this confuses you, let me commend to you the very readable book by the great evolutionary biologist Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (2006), which demonstrates that there is no real contradiction between the theory of evolution and the Christian claim that we are made for God.

Does this mean we are not for the world? Some folks teach that to be for God, we must turn away from the world. If we are meant for heaven we must forsake the earth. But our lessons today tell the opposite: that we are for God so that God may be in the world, even on the ground.

Isaiah says, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called Hephzibah, My Delight is in You, and your land shall be called Beulah, Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” The prophecy proclaims the marriage of heaven and earth against their great divorce and the restoration of the desolation, and you may hope for the great reconciliation and the greater restoration. You are meant for God so that God may be present in the world in a wonderful way through you, because God actually inhabits you.

God is moving. That’s the general story of the Bible. It raises many philosophical problems, and the facts of the case set up mysteries, but it seems to be the case that God is moving from residence in heaven to residence on earth.

It’s gradual. It’s in stages. In the beginning, God created heaven for God’s self and the earth for us among the creatures. The Bible tells stories of God visiting the earth, but only visiting. Then in Jesus, God actually moved in, if only a while, in the second person of the Trinity. When he ascended back to heaven he took his body with him, not just as a souvenir of the earth, but as a pledge, a key, an investment in a future habitation, when he shall come again, and when, in the vision of the last two chapters in the Bible, in the Revelation, God will fully, all-in-all, move in, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three persons of the Trinity, and God “will be all in all.”

In the meantime, until then, and since the day of Pentecost, in the person of the Holy Spirit, God really has moved in for good, though only partially. God inhabits the world in us. We are God’s house, God’s dwelling place. There has been a real advance within God’s story. God is moving in.

That’s what people are for. That’s why we are made for God. So that in us, God can inhabit the world. God does this not to possess us but in partnership with us. Not to lessen us and overwhelm us, but to magnify us and give us more abundant life. God enters our water and turns us into wine.

This is how to understand your spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit. They are as diverse and as varied as you all are. And they are yours, but they also manifest the Spirit of God who is in you, and in you for the common good. You cannot separate the Spirit’s share in what you do from your own share. You cannot ever say, “Oh this here is the Holy Spirit and this here is me.” What the Spirit does is always in, with, and under what you do. That’s the great advance in how God is moving in. God is making of us and God a complex unity, an absolute community, a fellowship, and a full communion. It’s not that God must increase and you decrease, but that you magnify God in your own magnification.

You may have been taught to think of spiritual gifts as supernatural, and I suppose they are, but this does not mean unnatural or anti-natural. Your spiritual gifts are in, with, and under your natural talents and faculties and aptitudes. The Spirit needs your water to make God’s wine. To be gifted by the Holy Spirit is not to lessen your hard work of learning and study and down-to-earth organizing and even institution building, but to inspire these things with the hidden flame of heavenly love.

So then we as a congregation have the mission of sharing in God’s movement into the world. That means we’re not just a community of Jesus in Brooklyn, but a community of Jesus for Brooklyn. Our mission is not to keep our historic congregation going against the odds, nor even to bring the community into the church, but to serve God’s moving into Brooklyn for its reconciliation and renewal, by our witness and our service. Our church building is a wonderful and necessary symbol and center for this, like when tomorrow night we will bring the presence of God into the civic issues of American life. If you just come to that prayer service, just show up and pray, you’re bearing witness to what kind of world our God is moving into and your witness to what God is like.

Because the moving-in of God is not all peaches and cream. The mystery of evil is real, and the facts of human sin are real. The water turned into wine is the water of cleansing and purification. Your gifts of the Spirit have to engage your tears and crying and lament. The new creation is not just evolution and enhancement but also judgment and repentance and healing and repair. Humans are bent and the world is broken. The glorious body of our resurrected Lord still bears the scars of crucifixion. And whenever we celebrate Holy Communion we first remind ourselves that the Lord Jesus instituted it on the night he was betrayed, among his friends who would deny him and desert him. We have to die before we reach the new creation. God’s final moving in will not be simple evolution.

This is the most wonderful advance. When God moves in, it is not into a world pristine and pure and innocent, but a world repaired and revived, with the signs still on it of loss and grief and of reconciliation and of hope against hope.

In the meantime, what the Holy Spirit inhabits in you is not your perfections but your imperfections, as much your weaknesses as your strengths, as much your mistakes as your successes, as much your tears as your laughter. What the Holy Spirit inhabits in you is all of you, and by this the Spirit illustrates that the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts is love. God’s love.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

No comments: