Thursday, April 28, 2016
May 1, Easter 6: Faithful to the Lord
Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29
Our three lessons this morning differ so much in tone and style and literary effect.
The first lesson, from Acts, reads like journalism, like some travel writing in a magazine.
The second lesson, from the Revelation, is a fantastic vision, in a graphic and cosmic genre that no one writes in today except artificially.
And then the gospel lesson is intensely conversational, but with John's unique tone that is simultaneously intimate and distant, at once appealing and evasive, both comforting and confusing. "How can we find ourselves in what you are telling us? Is there any room in what you say for me?"
One of the things I love about the Bible is the variety of voices within the various genres of its literature. Compared to other scriptures of the world, the Bible feels complex and messy and even contradictory.
The Holy Qur‘an is an extended unitary recitation in a single voice. This generates an Islam that is unitary and efficient, even in its schisms. This expresses its vision of a unitary God, singular, absolutely absolute, the exaltation of oneness. And in that unitary singleness is their peace.
But the Bible generates a religion which is messy and complex, not unitary but a field, a room, and it plays across the boundaries of logic and essence. This expresses our vision of God, who is a unity but also an eternal interplay of persons in relationship, and in that interplay is love. That love makes space, and God moves into that space that God's love creates, and in that space is our peace.
The Bible claims that God loves to come and dwell in us, not merely in the world, but inside us, inside us human creatures. That is something no Muslim would ever want to say. God would never dwell in such a mess. In their view, God does not play like that. God does not play at being God.
We Christians treasure this interplay. And this morning we have the interplay of these three divergent lessons. When you try to bind them together they don't compact, they push against each other, they make a space between them, a room, and in that space you find the flowing of faith and love, two energies also in interplay. What I feel in these three lessons is the dynamic relationship of faith and love, both of which you want, and what you want to be able to do well. That's one reason you came here today, to practice your faith and your love, and to find yourself within this room.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus says that if you love him, himself, Jesus, then God comes into you and dwells in you, and not just part of God, but, strangely, the whole of God, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit. We thought God was supposed to dwell in heaven, but Jesus says that God's dwelling is inside human beings, any human being, and in many human beings at once.
How much is this metaphor? How much is this real? Or is it both reality and metaphor? This all could say so much as to end up meaningless, which is why the Christian church developed the careful doctrine of the Holy Trinity, in order to not say foolish things. So we would say that God still does dwell in heaven, but yet also in you, by means of God's Spirit. And what our Gospel lesson says is that how God moves into you is through the hallway of your love for Jesus.
The lesson from the Revelation says it differently. The angel shows John the city of God coming down into the world, so that the dwelling of God will be among the peoples of the earth. Not inside us but among us, at the center, uniting the nations all together. So the terms are different.
The vision speaks to the landscape of the earth, of streets and a river and a tree, and of the glory and honor of the nations, which means our cultures and societies, our musics and arts and histories and languages and economies. Of course the vision is a metaphor, but how else shall you speak of a new reality? The vision expands into all the world. The earth will be full of the glory of God.
But, again, the gospel's conversation is about the inner space of the human soul. That's personal and smaller. But just how small? Rather, how vast is the inner landscape of your human soul. Your human brain (Marilynne Robinson) is the most complex organism that we know of in the universe. Your complex brain supports your expansive inner life. There is plenty of room inside you for God.
As God dwells in you, God inhabits your musings and your memories and the tunes you hum and all your remembered conversations with your friends and relatives. To love Jesus is to welcome God in, and you love Jesus somewhat with your feelings, yes, but I think mostly in your mind.
And now, from the Acts, again the terms are different. God is moving in to dwell in the house of Lydia. We read that God opened her heart to listen eagerly to the message of Paul, and then she opened her home, which was also her place of business, to be the house of God within the city of Philippi.
That was a big deal, because Philippi was a colonia, a Roman military city, specially dedicated to the Roman gods of Mars and Julius Caesar, and therefore intolerant of any other gods within the walls. That's why the women had to pray to the God of Israel outside of town.
That's why it wasn't a given that Paul could absolutely trust in Lydia to be faithful. Her business was selling purple garments to the upper class men of Philippi, who wore the purple as a sign of their power and prestige. But when she got baptized into the sovereignty of Jesus she put herself in tension with the loyalties of her clients to the sovereignty of Caesar.
Could she keep faithful? Did Paul believe that she knew what she was doing when she got baptized? Could he trust her? Could he have faith in her? She believed that she could be faithful to herself. Blessed Lydia, who was faithful to herself and called on Paul to honor that. And so his faith in her-faith-in-Jesus was the hallway through which the reign of God was entering into her household and God was dwelling in Philippi.
Faith. Faithful. Trust. Trustworthy. Fidelity. These words all relate to love. The feeling of love, yes, but more the practice of love. As Jesus says in the gospel, "Those who love me will keep my words." He's talking about your fidelity as the expression of your love.
Your love and your faith are how you cross the gaps between us as individuals, your love and your faith are how you maintain your relationships across the spaces between us, your love and your faith are how we hold together across the differences that would force us apart. Your faith in me allows me to love you back. Your love to me calls me to be faithful to you. I believe in you, and you believe in me.
That's how we keep crossing the space between us. We want some room between us, we don't want to collapse into each other, we don't want to become unitary, we value the wonderful dancing of our differences, and so our unity is of community, just as the One God is a Trinity. There is room in here for you.
Jesus said these things, on the night before he died, to his friends whom he knew would desert him. How could he say to them, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." How could he be at peace? If not in his feelings, at least in his mind—that he had to trust in the long-term faithfulness of God his Father, that God would keep those resurrection promises, and he had to believe that God would love him to the end, and through the end and past the end to the new beginning.
I am inviting you today into this same peace, which you can believe in, and which will get you through your nights of trial and suffering. I am inviting you to love Jesus with your mind, to believe in him as the faithful medium of God's promises, for precisely in and through your believing God makes a spacious home in you, and you become a dwelling place of the love of God for all the world.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.