Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” That’s quite a promise. Do you believe him? It’s from that promise that Christians typically end our prayers with such phrases as “in Jesus’ name” and “for Jesus’ sake.” It’s a promise we keep acting on, even when we do not see the proof of it or even an outcome. It’s a challenge as much as it’s a promise, isn’t it, to ask beyond our comprehension.
We Christians are expected to believe what we cannot comprehend. We are expected to talk about what we do not understand. We are challenged to know what we cannot explain. We are invited to go where we do not know the way, and even to want to go to we-don’t-know-where. All of this is included in believing. This is what agnostics feel they cannot do, at least for themselves, and what atheists feel no one should do, and we are fools for doing so.
Being a believer keeps you living right up against a boundary, a boundary on your knowledge and your certainty, a boundary of which there is another side. On this side of the boundary is our general common knowledge, with the predictability of nature and the availability of contentment and the reward of ease, provided you are privileged and lucky. Ease of knowledge, ease of proof, ease of self-examination, ease of contentment, ease is the ideal and possession is the proof, as long as your luck holds out. A non-believer is someone who believes the boundary is absolute, that there is nothing on the other side.
A believer lives on both sides of the boundary. We are firmly on this side in body and in soul, but we also traffic on the other side, the uneasy side, the side you can’t possess, the side of promises and visions and ethical challenges. Here are the things we don’t understand but talk about, here is what we can’t explain but yet we know, here is what we can’t comprehend but still believe, here is where we go though we do not know the way, and where we are welcome without possessing it.
The other side of the boundary is not an escape. It’s not an other-world, it’s not just heaven, the heaven that Stephen could suddenly see into as he approached the boundary of his death. Unless it’s the heaven not of mythology but of the Bible—heaven as the unseen reality pressing down upon us, heaven starting just above the ground and then heaven all the way up and all the way down again. The boundary is not across space or time but through the will, and the open welcome of the heart.
The other side of the boundary is not some other world but the spirituality of this world, it’s the transcendence of the very ground we live on. The promises and visions and ethical challenges on the other side are for this side to open up. Those promises and visions both confirm and challenge our possession and contentment on this side, whether for healing or revolution or both. What on this side you think of as firm and solid as rock is seen from the other side as living stones, appointed for praise beyond themselves. If you’re a believer you live on both sides of the boundary. And what on the other side you cannot possess is what gives you hope beyond hope for the ground on this side.
The boundary is through your heart, and your heart may be troubled, like the disciples in the gospel story. They felt that the Lord Jesus had drawn them up to the boundary, and now he’s going to cross it and leave them behind. “Where you going? We don’t know the way!” Can’t you just once right here show us The Father, and we shall be satisfied! The gospel writer had us in mind when he wrote this, for the absence of Jesus that they feared is the absence of Jesus in our ordinary experience.
There is a purpose to his absence though. The purpose is that we look back at ourselves, that we engage ourselves on this side of the boundary, that our belief about the other side affects how we perceive ourselves right here. We are invited to believe that we stand for Jesus as God’s presence in the world. Not that we are now the savior, not that we are God incarnate now, certainly not that we are the Lord, but that we are the living presence of God in the world. Where God was present in a person God is now present in a people. And now we are God’s people!
The Lord Jesus tells us, through the disciples, that he’s crossed the boundary to empower our lives on this side of it, and we need to come to terms with ourselves, and our status and powers and prerogatives and responsibilities. “Ask anything in my name. Greater works will you do.”
Extravagant entitlements, and rightfully doubtful to critique from on this side, and doubtful to ourselves, unless we judge ourselves by what he tells us about ourselves from the other side. We have to believe about ourselves what he tells us about ourselves, and then let him make it of us.
Most religions provide some certainties and monuments on this side of the boundary. Temples are built for the gods to be accessible to visitors, with their images and sacrifices and oracles, priests and priestesses inhabiting monuments of polished stone. But what a strange new faith was this one, whose converts had no such things, and why the Romans considered them atheists.
The church had no priests and they possessed no buildings of their own. Their only sacrifices were ethical, their only oracles were their intercessions, and their only images were love. To the Romans it looked like just an exalted view of ordinary life, plus all the improbables these people believed.
St. Peter in his epistle appeals to this temple language to teach the scattered little congregations in Asia Minor to see themselves as more than just gatherings of exiles and outsiders, but actually as the location of God’s saving presence in the world. That just as the Spirit of God came down upon the Temple of Solomon, and just as the Holy Spirit rested upon the Lord Jesus, so the Holy Spirit of God, not just a third of God but the soul of God, the full and inner self of God, the vitality of God, the Holy Spirit of God rests upon this congregation to be fully present in the world.
We might rather have God present in the world in a fashion less ambiguous, less tainted by our human weakness and less compromised by the sins of the church. More miraculous, more distinct from human experience, more impressive to the world, and sufficiently discernible from this side of the boundary without belief.
That would be the way of prestige and possession, but not be the way of sacrifice and love. That would not be the way of the God whose greatest work in all the world was to yield to us upon the cross, to yield to us at our very worst. It’s a remarkable extension of that same radical love that God should submit to us to be present in the world.
This has meaning for our congregation of Old First. Our mission is to be a community of Jesus, to worship God, to love God and our neighbors. But also our mission is to exhibit the presence of God within the world, to display it and declare it, by our doing and our saying and our singing, and even by just our believing.
You know people who are content to stay within the boundary and have no interest of the other side. But you know people who feel the pressure of the boundary and its restriction, and they long for openness and something more, for comfort and for challenge, for revolution, for healing, for hope beyond hope within this life.
Tell them, tell them what you believe. You don’t have to prove it, you can’t prove it, don’t bother. Just report to them what you hope for and what you sing about, because just within your simple believing God is present in the world, and just in your telling, the love of God is flowing through you out to them. You are how God has chosen to love the world.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.