Acts 14:818; Revelation 21:2222:5; John 14:2329
My texts this morning are from the Gospel of John:
Jesus said, “ Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you.” John 14:26
And also from the Revelation to John the Divine:
And the city has no need of sun and moon for the glory of God is its light. … Nothing unclean will enter it,… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God. On either side of the river is the tree of life … and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. Revelation 21:22-23, 27-22:3a
Now, that’s where I want to live.
First – John’s gospel. It’s helpful to know something of the context. This passage is taken from what are called the Farewell Discourses. It is John’s telling of the last supper and incorporates Jesus final instructions to his disciples. As John remembers it, the Last Supper begins with the washing of the disciples feet followed by this lengthy discourse. It is punctuated with several concerns expressed by the disciples and ends with a lengthy prayer — the High Priestly Prayer.
What is interesting for our purposes is the series of concerns that Jesus addresses; often enigmatically. Peter and Thomas ask, “Lord, where are you going?” And Phillip, “Lord, show us God and we shall be satisfied.” Finally, just before today’s gospel, Judas (not Iscariot) asks, “How is it that you will manifest yourself to us.”
These are really good concerns, aren’t they? If we had Jesus right here, wouldn’t we want to raise these concerns? Lord, don’t leave us behind. Lord, we won’t be satisfied until we see God. Just give us a peek at the cosmic truth. “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, how will we be able to see you?” Don’t these concerns somehow sum it all up? When the chips are down, aren’t these your questions, too? In this high energy, charged-up world, where is God? In this frequently difficult, often troubled life that we lead, with all its cares and concerns, it’s easy to become distracted; “Lord, how will you reveal yourself to us; to me?”
And even in the ordinary days, how is God manifested in the world? In the daily grind, the hum-drum world of monotonous routine where is God? Many years ago, my daughter Amy and I were watching television when an ad appeared that some of you may remember. Two men are relaxing on the porch of a cabin in the woods after a day of fishing or hunting or something else; something away from the cares and concerns of life. They lean back in their chairs with a cold beer in hand and one of them says, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Amy, then a teenager, looked up and said, “It doesn’t get any better than that?” Does life get any better than that or not? Does life have meaning and purpose or are we just growing old?
To all of those questions and concerns, Jesus answers, “Those who love me will keep my word.” Jesus was good at ambiguous answers to tough questions. The question that precipitates today’s gospel was asked a Judas not otherwise identified in John — Jude the Obscure. In that he was pretty insignificant in the gospel, completely ordinary, just like me and perhaps you. In fact the disciples were a pretty ordinary bunch when you think about it working at making ends meet in a world where that was a challenge and mostly they didn’t get it about Jesus. Jesus himself was not a particularly prominent person in his own time. He build no great Cathedrals, nor even a modest mission church. In fact he didn’t establish a church of any sort. What he did was to gather together a community that became a church. And in that community there were just plain folks who earnestly tried to understand him. Men and women who listened to him speak, who ate with him and walked with him and kept on being human.
Yet with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their human frailty all their uncertainty, they changed the world. These were not extraordinary people. They were fishermen and tax collectors and deli operators and taxi drivers or whatever they were when they met Christ. They were an odd lot of people. They didn’t get together to fight for a cause or to lobby some important legislation through the Roman Senate. They weren’t united in their interest in anything but Jesus and because of their passionate and earnest devotion, they were transformed in a way that transformed the world.
What he told had them that kept their attention was that the Kingdom of God is at hand. So that no matter how tedious life had become, and no matter what its challenges, the kingdom of God, he said, is nearby; among us, perhaps even within us. But it’s not always obvious, because it’s like yeast working quietly and secretly but you know it’s there when you see the results. Or it’s like a treasure buried in a field, that’s so valuable anyone would sell everything to buy that field so as not to lose the treasure.
The Kingdom of God is that state of being where we are at our best. It is that time when we can go beyond every dream we thought we had dreamed, even the most impossible and it is that place every prayer is answered. The kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home.
Jude the Obscure and Doubting Thomas and Peter the Rock and Phillip and Paul and Barnabas and Mary and Martha and the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker and you and me; all of us together are searching for that kingdom where God is and love rules the day.
And because we have the same questions we’re all part of this family-like organism that earnestly seeks God and seeks to do God’s will. We call ourselves the church. Now, make no mistake about it, the church is not the kingdom of God. But, at its best, the church tries to model the Kingdom of God. And those early disciples didn’t do half bad, if you look at the results.
The reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles seems to say that. Paul and Barnabas were ordinary people touched by God. It was they who first began to call it church and they found a way to share God’s love wherever they went with amazing results. Sharing God’s love means knowing that our lives are dependent on each other; our joy and our peace are all mixed up in each other’s joy and peace. And that’s especially true of those who have no joy, no peace.
And that is what Jesus meant when he said, “if you love me you will keep my word.” And that is the peace of Christ that we share if we keep his word. And that is the love of God which when shared has the power to change the world, has the power of God’s kingdom.
Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
“Our happiness, our own peace, can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it with people who, the way things are now, have no happiness, know no peace. Jesus calls us to show this truth forth, to live this truth forth. Be the light of the world. Where there are dark places, be light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be alive truly. Be life-givers to others… Love each other. Heal the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Cast out demons. That is what loving each other means. If the Church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be.” 1
The church, it is said, is the holy people of God called together into a transformed kind of human community in which private, controlled and hierarchical modes of living are overcome by a universal reconciling love. And that love frees us from sin hostility and cruelty. 2
Perhaps when you came to this Cathedral today you came with the disciples’ questions in mind — implicitly or explicitly. God, how can we see you; how can we really know you? And if so, you’ve come to the right place, though you have to look for what’s in the center of it all. This church building and yours, no matter how magnificent, and clergy and the Protestants and the Puritans and all that, the stuff of church history, come afterward. Sunday services and altar linins are later. First, there is Jesus.
In some ways it might be best if we could go back to the time of the disciples. Then it would only be Jesus and us; no other distraction. This time we’d get it right. This time we’d really hear him when he says, “those who love me will keep my word.” Those who love me will follow my example, carry my cross, love others as I have loved. Those who love me will bring good news to the poor proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
This time we wouldn’t be distracted by endless debates over human sexuality or get bogged down in the carnage and brutality of war or of partisan power struggles and rancor. This time we’ll remember that violence begets violence and that the ends never justify the means.
This time we will care about children who kill each other on our city streets; we’ll care about Chelsea Cromatrie and the way things are in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh and Baltimore. This time we’ll do something about the disgrace of the grinding poverty that is allowed to exist in the capital of the richest and most powerful people in the history of civilization.
This time we’ll get it right. This time it will get better. This time we’ll carry his cross and keep his word. This time we’ll love one another.
This time the city (will) have no need of sun and moon for the glory of God is its light …. Nothing unclean will enter it, … (I)n the middle of the city will be the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God…. On either side the tree of life … and the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will be with us this time and forevermore.
1) Frederick Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, “The Church” p. 155. I am indebted to Buechner for this general way of thinking about the church.
2) Peter Hodgson and R. H. King, Christian Theology, p. 271.