"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Behold, I make all things new

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Easter 4C, April 24, 2016, Revelation 21:1-6, Ps 148, John 13:31-35 (new commandment), SJE Edmonton

We’re continuing in our post-Easter exploration of the consequence of the Easter mystery.  Jesus died and risen, and what exactly does that mean?  In this pair of readings, Revelation and John’s Gospel, we learn more about the downstream meaning of Easter for our discipleship.

We’re following the lectionary right now – a common schedule of readings that is used by most traditional churches.  In case you didn’t notice, the cycle of Revelation is a little spotty.  In fact we’ve jumped from last week’s reading in the 7th chapter, all the way to the closing dialogue in the 21st chapter.  As one commentator mentioned (Pulpit Fiction), we have skipped over all the scary stuff in the middle.  This is one of the failings of the lectionary, that lots of the scary and troubling stuff has been skipped over.  As I mentioned last week, Revelation is a key book to understanding our discipleship in this world and the next, and is worth more mention that a few chapters a few times per year.

What is most interesting about this snip from Revelation is what it foretells, and how contrary that foretelling is to our sense of the way the world works.  As we all know too well, our lives begin in youth, progress through to maturity, and then such a short journey to death.  The physical cycle for we humans is birth, new creation…through to death and an ending.  God’s reality is different and so it is with some surprise that we discover what comes at the end of the God-narrative is not an ending, but another beginning.  The start of that narrative, in Genesis, speaks of the creation of all that is from the formless void.  Now at nearly the end of the narrative there is another creation event happening, as John tells us, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.”  As the God-story in this Bible draws to a close we are left not with death and decay, but another re-creation and fulfillment of all that had gone before. (idea from Eugene Peterson’s book Reversed Thunder as mentioned by Darrell Johnson).  So, this day as is fitting is one that is fundamentally about new life, even in the passing and ending of all that has gone before.

This re-creation is also reflected in the Gospel reading where we hear of this “new” commandment, that the disciples love one another.  The love they display for each other, and for others, reflect Jesus’ love for them.  And why should they love each other?  Because, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”  As reflected in the hymn, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Almost as soon as I say that, I want to laugh nervously, because I know too-well that we Christians are often not marked by our love, but by our disputes and anger.  It leads me to ask a difficult question of myself, is the way I conduct my life and the way I love something that causes those around me to exclaim, “how this man loves…what is it that makes him different than those around him?”  Or, am I a paragon of hypocrisy that causes those around me, upon learning that I am a follower of Christ to say, “See, these Christians really aren’t that different from the rest of us.” More on this in a moment.  Let’s explore those two themes.

This small snip from John’s Gospel tells us some significant things about Christ’s ministry here on earth and about God’s plans for the creation.  If you read a bit further down past the end of this passage you’ll find the prediction of Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ.  We start this reading with the departure of Judas from the Upper Room.  So, this passage is bookended by betrayal on one end, and denial on the other.  I’m starting with this observation because this really has to inform how it is we read what Jesus says in the passage.  When He speaks of glorifying God, and of loving one another, this message comes in the midst of a context which is right at home in our world and also in our lives.  Betrayal bookending love bookending denial.  It is worth highlighting this again because we sometimes fall into the trap of putting Jesus into a different category than ourselves…sure he could turn the other cheek, but then he was the Son of God, how can I ever hope to do that?  Rather, Jesus lives in a context just like our own, full of the same trials and challenges that we face.

This is also an important context for the commandment to love one another.  Jesus does not issue this new commandment out of a happy existence without conflict, danger or stress but rather a place where he knew that the final act of the play had already started.  His parting word was not a worldly, ‘get others before they can get you’, but rather that the disciples love one another because that would be the mark of the followers of Christ.  Why is this the mark of the followers of Christ?  Because this is the relationship displayed between the Son and the Father, one where the Father is eternally well-pleased with His Son.  That relationship epitomizes love, and this is the reason why we, as Christ’s disciples, are to display that relationship between one another.

This is a ‘new’ commandment, not in the sense that Jesus was introducing something brand new that had never been seen before, but because this brought about the ultimately fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  We say at the beginning of each Eucharist service in the Book of Common Prayer these words, a reminder that Jesus remade the Shema y’Israel, the “Hear O Israel” into its fulfilment with this commandment:  Our Lord Jesus Christ said, Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One Lord, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all thy mind and with all thy strength, this is the first and great commandment.  The second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.  It is a “new” commandment in the sense that the incomplete and impossible to fulfill Law of Moses has now been brought into a new reality, a reality where that Law, and all the words of the Prophets, are finally completed with the command to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.  As Jesus said he had come not to destroy the Law, but rather to fulfill it, so too the command to love one another brings ultimate fulfilment to the commandments of God.

This is, of course, far easier to do than to bring into practice.  Our default setting is not to love, but rather to hate…or if that word is too strong for you, perhaps our default setting is closer to disinterest.  Those we find difficult to love we simply ignore or avoid.  This is what leads to what I’ve sometimes called the ‘presumption of malicious intent’.  When someone does something that bothers us, we are often quick to presume that the act was intentional, and moreover was directed specifically at causing us harm.  So, when someone cuts you off on the Whitemud, the first thought is not…I guess he didn’t see me, but rather that he did that on purpose.  When your IT system goes down at work for several days, you assume that the IT specialists aren’t fixing it quickly because they’re lazy, or maybe just making a point at how often we take those who support our work for granted.

That presumption of malicious intent is an artifact of our post-modern world, where we have been trained to contextualize everything in terms of how it impacts us personally.  I heard philosopher Ravi Zacharias describe the modern era as one where people hear with their eyes and think with their feelings, and this presumption of malice is one of those artifacts.  Our assumption is that someone that really cared about us would know in advance how a particular action or inaction would impact us.  When they do it, the conclusion is that this is proof that they just don’t care.

This is a destructive aspect of our post-modern world, that draws people into a fundamentally narcissistic mode of operating where everything that happens can only be perceived in terms of how it impacts each of us personally.  In 1981, sociologist Daniel Yankelovich published these comments after studying a number of married couples and how they sought to achieve self-fulfillment.  This is a secular writer, and listen to what he concludes from his study after considering one couple named Abby and Mark:

“If you feel it is imperative to fill all your needs, and if these needs are contradictory or in conflict with those of others, or simply unfillable, then frustration inevitably follows. To Abby and to Mark as well self-fulfillment means having a career and marriage and children and sexual freedom and autonomy and being liberal and having money and choosing non-conformity and insisting social justice and enjoying city life and country living and simplicity and graciousness and reading and good friends and on and on. The individual is not truly fulfilled by becoming ever more autonomous. Indeed, to move too far in this direction is to risk psychosis, the ultimate form of autonomy. The injunction that to find one’s self, one must lose one’s self, contains the truth any seeker of self-fulfillment needs to grasp.”  (found in a Ravi Zacharias talk)

As I read this several times it kept striking me how much it sounds like an advertisement for many of the different products, services and places to live that we see around us all the time.  We are literally bombarded with this message every moment we are awake with our eyes open…yes you can have it all, and anyone who tells you differently is doing so just so they can get ahead of you in the line.  The message is one of scarcity, and the importance that we grasp everything around us that we can hold, so that we will get our fair share.  By contrast, Jesus depicts a world full of his disciples who are so full of His love, the Father’s love, that there is more than enough to go around.  The love of the Father bursts forth in Jesus in the same way that the wine and the bread bursts forth from the Upper Room as the body and blood.  In contrast to the world’s refrain of scarcity, Jesus offers us the liturgy of abundance (cf. Walter Bruggemann).

The place this hits us most obviously is in our relationships, and it is so common to leave behind relationships where we feel our needs are not being fulfilled.  If I’m not feeling completed in my marriage it must be because my partner is not giving me what it is I need.  If I’m not feeling completed in my friendships, it is because my friends don’t satisfy my needs…and we do the same thing with our jobs, our hobbies and so on.  You can hear the refrain of self-fulfilment driving all of this.  Now, what stands in strong opposition to all of this yearning for self-fulfilment is the cross of Christ.  Faced with such a selfless act carried out by God Incarnate, it is difficult to sustain our personal yearning for fulfilment by means other than the Lord.  Faced with such a selfless act carried out by God makes it difficult for us to continue to objectify those around us, and to make them disposable people that exist only to serve our fulfillment.

Mind you we still try so hard to convince ourselves how deserving we are.  As GK Chesterton wrote, meaninglessness does not come from being tired of pain; but from being tired of pleasure.  The path of this world is one that demands more fulfilment all the time, because the need we are trying to meet is one that is constantly hungering for more…for larger and larger things.  Christ instead says come to me, and I will feed you the real food and drink, after which you will hunger no more.

The first part of the Gospel sets out what is, in many ways, an even more challenging question to consider.  Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in Him.  If God has been glorified in Him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify Him at once.”  That’s a lot of glory circulating around and through this relationship between the Father and the Son.  The Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him.  Because God has been glorified in the Son of Man, God will glorify the Son of Man in himself at once.  Glory comes to us out of the Greek doxa, which literally means to make glorious, to honour, to magnify, to make clear.  If you think of a common expression, “that movie glorifies violence” you’ll get the meaning…glorifying meaning to magnify and worship something.

So in that twisty sentence of glorifying going on between the Father and the Son, there is another question that arises for us.  What parts of our lives glorify God?  This is a much more useful question than the popular “What would Jesus do?” and also much more onerous to really consider.  In our call as disciples we are called to model Christ in all we do, meaning as Christ glorified the Father, so too should our actions point beyond us to glorify God.  Is what you are doing right now in your relationships, your work, your volunteering, your movie-watching, your book reading, are all these things glorifying God.  Now my last question about loving one another is one you can kind of wiggle out of in some circumstances, because you can convince yourself that not loving a particular person is really that person’s fault for being unlovable.  But now I’m suggesting that we need to assess those situations by an even more challenging metric, which is to ask how our presence in that situation is bringing glory to God.  If you’re not feeling like making a break for the door at this point it means God has either already won your heart, or you’re not really hearing me clearly.

To bring in another GK Chesteron quotation: Christianity has not been tired and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.  These calls are hard to consider, because I know too well how far I fall short of bringing glory to God in my daily life.

Now, I need to wrap this all up, which we’ll do by quickly looking into Revelation as at least part of the answer to the challenge of glorifying God with our lives.  John sees this image of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more tears, no more death, nor more mourning, crying or pain.  Then the one seated on the throne says something…”Behold, I make all things new.”  What strikes me about this passage are the tenses of the actions that are going on.  While I acknowledge that God is acting from beyond our linear space and time, what John is describing are, for us, future events, things that are to come.  But this line is talking about something that is happening right now in our midst, a re-creation that engages each of us who professes belief in Christ and throughout the creation.  So God, in this chapter at the end of the story, is affirming something we have heard throughout both Old and New Testaments, that God is constantly at work within His very good creation, constantly making all things new.

What this means is that our equally constant failure to glorify God with all aspects of our lives is not the end for us, any more than the presence of sin is the final word, because God is constantly and consistently making all things new including turning around our best efforts so that they will achieve more than we can ask or imagine.  That includes the renewing of our hardened hearts.  Behold, I make all things new is what allows the people of God to live a life resistant to the pulls of the culture, and to survive situations that even extend into the truly horrific.

So, as we continue our worship, and as we go forth from this place today, let us go forth in the knowledge that God continues to make all things new, and to re-focus all aspects of our lives to the greater glory of God.  Amen.

 

——————————————————

Ordinary Saints (Malcolm Guite)

The ordinary saints, the ones we know,

Our too-familiar family and friends,

When shall we see them? Who can truly show

Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?

Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold

That is and always was our common ground,

Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold

To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound

From which the light we never noticed fell

Into our lives? Remember how we turned

To look at them, and they looked back? That full-

-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,

Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.

But one day we will see them face to face.

I’ve based portions of the material on Revelation off of Darrell W. Johnson’s excellent book, Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation, Regent College Publishing, 2004, and specifically Chapters 28 & 29, I Make All Things New.

Daniel Yankelovich, “New Rules in American Life: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down,” Psychology Today (April, 1981)

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Written by sameo416

April 23, 2016 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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