Filed under: Sermons
Read the texts When I was in college, I studied psychology. Through my studies, I got to do some really cool things, like putting electrodes on people’s heads and studying their brain activity and heart patterns as they entered a time of prayer or relaxation. The role of experimenting scientist was fun, but some of my classes frustrated me. I didn’t like the need to diagnose, learning labels, boxing people in to personality types with a fatalistic view that they would act out of who we had determined they were. My own personality is much too independent to want to be known and anticipated in that way.
And yet… now that I’m living in a household with three other people, I can see the value of knowing that people interact with the world in different ways. Some people need structure to feel secure, others need time alone in quiet to process their days, and giving them the things they need makes for a better living situation for all of us.
In our household, it’s a mix of personality traits and developmental stages that needs to be managed. Our young child has gained a stronger sense of time, so that words like today, tomorrow, and yesterday now have meaning as they didn’t even a year ago. With that knowledge comes a need to organize her time. At the beginning of each day, we talk about what will happen: school, daycare, supper, babysitter, and anything exciting that might be coming up: a birthday party or a visit with grandma and grandpa. It doesn’t always make the transition to daycare any less whiny, but it prepares her. And the calendar days are eagerly crossed off when there is a special day that she can visualize coming closer.
As people of faith, we also have our own personalities and needs. These special ways about us form how we interact in our faith community, how we approach sacred texts like the Bible, how we analyze confessional documents like the creeds, what we see as central in our actions, how we visualize God, and the ways we grow in connection to God.
Some of us need to know what’s going to happen next. That’s where these Easter texts are most powerful. This is the season that we hear most powerfully God’s promised future, and hear the witness of the first people to start to experience its dawning.
John experiences a revelation, in which a messenger of God leads him through strange sights to feel the greatness of the power of God and the wonder of God’s triumph over evil and death. John and his people live under the power of the Roman empire, they are sometimes in danger because of their faith, they see some faithful losing interest, they have not experienced Jesus’ promised return, and their loved ones are dying. God pulls back the curtain of fear, sadness, and pain to show the future God intends, so that John can return to his community with a message of hope.
In this promised future, God continues God’s work of creation. A new earth and a new heaven are formed, but instead of two realms which divide people and God, God chooses to locate Godself right in the middle of the community. God comes to be with us. God will take away all fear and pain; God will wipe away all tears. The sea, symbolic of chaos, all that is dangerous because of its unpredictability, is no more. Death is no more. Mourning and crying and pain are no more. God is making all things new.
This is a beautiful promise, but it doesn’t translate well into a countdown calendar. Plenty of people have tried to turn it into one, pointing to this or that happening in the world as a sign that the next stage of God’s plan is happening.
Instead, it might be better to point to experiences in our lives that mirror how God works. The other day, I told my daughter she could have a few jelly beans as a treat after lunch. After she had some, I told her that was enough, no more. Then she looked at me, shot out her hand, grabbed some more, and shoved them in her mouth.
The consequence of her action landed her in a time out, tears streaming down her eyes as she experienced separation from her mother, her family, and distance from the table where she’s had a place. After a few moments, there was reconciliation, when I came to her and hugged her, when we talked about the way we’re meant to live together. Holding her close, I wiped away her tears.
God has come into our world, Jesus Christ united God and humanity, in order to take on himself the separation and punishment that would be the consequence of our sin. Instead of us experiencing separation and death, Jesus did. All the pain of this life is temporary and will be washed away by the loving, forgiving, life-giving embrace that awaits us when God welcomes us into the new Jerusalem.
We don’t know when God will bring us into the new creation, but we receive moments in which we experience what that will be like: when we are forgiven, loved, brought into community; when we are washed in these waters and told we belong to God forever; when we are fed with the very body and blood of Christ that have been broken to make room for us at the table. We live in hope for the future God is bringing.
God is making all things new. That sounds like a wonderful promise, but it can just as easily be something terrifying. It is the ultimate change. We know death, fear, division, and judgment. Do we know how to live without them? Could we handle a future that isn’t marked by those certainties?
Those first disciples were really put to the test as they lived into the new future God intended for them. I don’t think someone at my child’s level would have been able to cope with the work God was doing. My daughter is a concrete thinker. Rules are important.
If we think back to the jelly bean example, it would be like my consistent rule that we eat food that makes our bodies strong- fruit and vegetables- before we’re allowed to eat the jelly bean treat. That’s just how we do things in our household. But when we have friends over, I don’t make sure everyone eats at least the minimum number of carrots – everyone is welcome to enjoy as much of the whole meal as they want- dessert included. That can be confusing and frustrating to someone who sees the world in black and white. How can they be rules, if they are sometimes ignored and broken?
The first disciples are Israelites. Through generations of trying to remain faithful while living among and under many other empires and their cultures, the Israelites adopted ways of living that were meant to help them keep an identity as a separate and distinct people.
I think my daughter would understand: she needs her food to retain its purity- if a speck of mashed potato gets on a carrot, she’ll never eat it because it touched the wrong thing!
So when news reaches the early church that the disciple Peter has been eating and drinking with Gentiles – that’s all they can focus on. His being in community with these outsiders is such a scandal that no one hears the really big thing God has done: God has sent God’s Spirit on the Gentiles to make them God’s own. God commands Peter to set aside all the rules that were meant to make God’s people holy and separate, and to go see the new thing God is doing: God is going out and claiming, bringing in the Gentiles, those who are not marked as God’s people, by placing God’s Spirit in them and thereby marking them as God’s own.
Much of the New Testament deals with the struggle of those early disciples to understand what God is doing in reaching outside the defined boundaries of God’s own people to draw more and more outsiders in. This new thing changed and built the Church. It wasn’t easy and it was confusing.
Each of the early Christians engaged in that mission as much as they were able to. Some were ready to embrace this new thing God was doing, like Paul, who travelled far into other cultures to proclaim Christ to those who never knew God. Others stayed closer to the familiar, the practices and prayers that had grown in their hearts from childhood. To the extent to which their personalities and faith lives allowed, each of those first believers joined in God’s work to bring new life to all creation.
That’s what we’re about today. God uses each of us, all our varied personalities, all our experiences, to serve in God’s work of restoration. Today we rejoice to see Tony set on that path. In baptism, God claims him and unites him with Jesus, freeing him from sin and death, in order to join in God’s work towards the completion of God’s vision. Together, we are being brought forward, into the new creation, trusting that in God’s time, all will be made well.
I traded a future in psychology for one in religion, embracing the mystery over the science. God is beyond our ability to define and box in, but God has shown us who God is and what God intends. We worship a God of love, who runs to us to make us God’s own, forever. God is making a new thing, in which all that has given us pain will be gone, and the distance between us will be bridged. This is our sure and certain hope.
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