Filed under: Sermons | Tags: catholic-lutheran dialog, christian unity, community, lutherans, marriage, relationship, Unity
BibleGrace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Almost ten years ago, Jeff and I left our wedding guests and headed up north to enjoy our honeymoon. Our car was well decorated with love notes in shoe polish from family and friends. We were so much in love, too exhausted, and excited for our new life together that we were oblivious to the world.
Jeff went into a gas station and the guy at the counter greeted him by name. Jeff stopped, trying to recognize him, not being too far from his hometown, until the guy laughed and said he read our car’s “Liz + Jeff = married” decorations.
There was something so fresh in those days, that even people who didn’t see our car knew we were on our honeymoon. As grad students, a tropical beach vacation was beyond our means, so we went with the next best thing: the beautiful coast and mountains of the UP.
One morning, we walked into a gift shop near the Lake of the Clouds to pick out the beginnings of our vacation magnet collection. An older man stood at the counter, smiling at us, asking if we had just gotten married. We had parked our “just married” poster on wheels pretty far away, so I asked how he had guessed.
He pointed down to Jeff’s hands, where Jeff was still fidgeting with this unfamiliar piece of jewelry. “Your ring is so bright and shiny. It hasn’t been dulled or nicked, it’s perfectly smooth, brand new.”
That’s what the beginning of a relationship is like. Or maybe it’s what any relationship is like that hasn’t seen much interaction, much depth, much conflict or growth.
Looking down at my own ring today, I notice that its shine has dulled. It’s come into contact with many surfaces and probably more harsh chemical than it was meant to. Jeff’s is bent, no longer a perfect symbol. It slips off his finger, as his body has changed.
I know we could go into a jewelry shop and have our rings resized and renewed, scratches polished away. But I don’t know that a new ring would fit our relationship anymore. We are still so much in love, and we’ve been able to grow in love because we haven’t tried to keep a perfect veneer over our relationship. Sometimes relationships are gritty and rough, with friction and tears. Love is about commitment to unity through all the strains and struggles of life.
As Jesus prepares to die, he prays for his disciples, that they would experience the love and unity that the Father and the Son share. Jesus longs for them to be drawn up into the relationship that exists within God.
Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, (the disciples right there with him) but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
We get to listen in to Jesus’ prayer, just as those first disciples did, and we realize that Jesus is praying for us. Jesus prays for us- and not just us here at Cross, but the people worshipping down the street and around the world and across the ages. God’s prayer is for all of us to be one undivided whole in Christ.
If this is God’s prayer, then surely God will make it happen, in God’s time.
The painful reality for me is that we have not reached the fulfillment of this prayer.
We believers are not all one. Our disunity dilutes our ability to share the love that God has placed within us. In an age when it’s more socially acceptable to be skeptical of religion, when so many claim to be spiritual but not religious because to be religious means to be overly dogmatic, close-minded, and hypocritical, we Christians cannot afford to have our witness derailed by division.
Neither can we settle for false unity. Unity that is only a patina on surface relationships is not true unity. My wedding band may have a few scuffs and scrapes, but it’s solid all the way through. We’re going to have to stretch this analogy because of course, my band isn’t pure gold, and pure gold is softer anyway. But imagine if my ring was plated gold, and instead of something less expensive, but stronger beneath the shine, it was something even softer, like lead.
It would be like a funny trick my brother liked to play, where you hand someone what looks like a wrapped Starburst candy, only to have them discover it’s an empty wrapper, neatly refolded.
You might try to wear the gold plated lead ring, and for a little while it would look shiny and beautiful, but soon it would show signs that its core was inferior and structurally unsound. With enough pressure, it would collapse and the thinness of the gold would be exposed.
Christian unity, Church unity, isn’t accomplished by pretending we’re all on the same page, that we believe the same things, or practice the same ways. We live into unity when our core is strong: when our core is Jesus. When we come together to hear each other’s witness to how God is at work in our lives, when we recognize that God has gifted others, and we are not afraid to speak the truth of God’s revelations within our traditions and our lives, then we step towards celebrating the unity that God creates from our diversity.
In First Corinthians, we read about the Church as Christ’s body, with many members that look and function differently, but are all interconnected. Their diversity is so needed that the hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you, nor the foot to the hand, I have no need of you.
It’s a natural fear, to think that the more we know about each other, the more we’ll be divided. But that’s only if you’re living according to a world whose truth declares that you’re only safe when your group is all the same. When our safety, our justification, our salvation, is something God has already accomplished, so that we don’t rely on anyone else’s opinion of us to determine our self-worth, then we are free to be ourselves, to speak from our lives, and to really listen to the other. We have nothing to fear from real relationship that grows out of God’s love.
I experienced this during my formation for the ministry of spiritual direction. For two years, twice a month, I prayed with and listened for God’s work in the lives of six other Christians. While we talked about church, we didn’t dwell on denominations. We listened to how the other talked about God, experienced God, and lived out of his or her faith. I was surprised at how real God’s presence was for us, how strangers could become pillars of faith, supports for my own faith, wise eyes that saw God with me in places I had been blind to God’s work. After two years, when we finally met in person and could measure our heights against each other, when more open conversation about our own denominations and practices happened, I was surprised that these might not have been people I would have chosen as spiritual companions. If we had started with the reasons we were different instead of the source of grace at our center, it wouldn’t have worked. It worked because we lived out of our unity in Christ. In our conversations about theology and practice, we asked questions like, “where did that understanding of God come from?” or “how is that practice life-giving for you today?” rather than closed statements of “that’s not what the Bible says” and “my church says that’s wrong.” We came with the intention of living into unity, trusting that God really is present in the other’s experience of faith.
Our ELCA is a part of fascinating conversations with other Christian denominations as part of our living in to Jesus’ vision for the Church. We start at our common center: Jesus Christ, and then tackle the harder stuff, not to win in a debate, but to discover how God has been present in each other’s faithful living. You’ll find some of the recent work with the Lutheran-Catholic dialog includes hearing again words we’ve always assumed we’ve understood. When we have 500 years of division behind us, it’s easy to think we’re too far to ever come together again. But the fascinating thing about the documents out of this dialog is that it’s about really listening to understand each other and finding that we’re not always so different. Or at least coming to respect how God has been working in both our traditions. I’ve linked in our website some of these documents, so that you can glimpse a way that we are refocusing on unity in the whole Christian Church.
Jesus may have prayed for our unity, and we may be joining in God’s work to reconcile all people, but we are not there yet.
I experienced that in a startling way this week, when I was informed the leader of a Reformation History study tour I was signed up for didn’t want any pastors or people from the ELCA in his Lutheran tour group. I was surprised and angry and sad… and perhaps now I am hopeful.
Because I’ll find another option for my own study… and our unity isn’t up to this pastor, but is in God’s hands.
Maybe there’s a bit of irony in that- when God’s plan is finally complete, those who once rejected me will find out I’m their neighbor in the city of God.
I think by then, it will be ok. My resentment will be gone and their judgment will be gone, and all we will know is God’s love. Because one day, we will be filled with the love that the Son and the Father share- and we will be certain that that love is for us. All of us.
Bible I’m proud to say I’ve grown a lot over my lifetime. For the most part, I’ve grown out of a childish fear of bugs. At least… I’ve come a long way. When I was about 7, my reaction to creepy crawlies was so bad that I remember a friend’s parents telling me to keep my eyes closed as we boated under a bridge where there were plenty of bugs just waiting to drop down on me.
I might have transitioned out of my irrational fear of creatures a fraction my size were it not for some bad experiences. At least one bad experience. At some point in my teenage years, I remember getting one of those crunchy stink bugs stuck in my hair, it’s legs all tangled up. I couldn’t get it out.
So my perspective on the dangers of insects grew disproportionally to the reality. I became convinced that I needed my home to be a bug free zone. I deserved to be safe there. The bugs didn’t get the message. One night, I came home after second shift, taking reservations at the Kalahari. My parents had left the light on over the door into our house. The bugs had treated that like the “open” sign inviting them in. When I opened the door, earwigs streamed out from under the welcome mat, dropped down off the door frame, and scurried their way between my legs into my sanctuary. I freaked out and started smashing everything. I took a can of Off and started spraying everywhere, trying to create a barrier that would repel the nasty things far away.
In case you were wondering, that’s not how Off works… and filling the house with Off is a sure way to get your parents ready to send you back to college.
When I hear this text from Revelation, I think about all that grosses me out, all that makes my skin crawl, all that makes me feel unsafe, and I imagine all those things no longer bothering me. The new Jerusalem is a place of safety and wellness. God paints a vision of perfect peace as the foil to our anxious fears, and God declares that our new home will be there.
If God were to prepare a place where you could live without fear, a place that would heal all that hurts you, what would that place be like? What would ease away all your pain and restore your life?
That might be how you would see the new Jerusalem. These culminating chapters of Revelation describe the new thing God is doing: creating a new heaven and a new earth, bringing all God’s people into a new life, which is like and yet different from the life we have known.
Things that are assumed to be necessary are no longer: the temple to meet God, sun and moon to give light, locks to bar people in and out. All these things are gone- and yet not missing. God has transformed everything. There is no temple, because God has come to dwell right with the people. The lights of the sky aren’t needed, because God lights up the city, so that there is no more scary darkness. Gates don’t need to be barred, because there is nothing bad, nothing to fear.
Revelation is an apocalypse: a vision with meaningful, poetic language, that opens up our imagination to try to glimpse a bit of what God’s intention is for us, so that we can live in trust and hope.
Knowing what’s coming next changes the way we live today.
I’m reminded of a campaign a number of years ago that was meant to encourage young people who were getting bullied, who might be considering suicide. Voices from all around the world declared, “it gets better.” Thousands spoke out for hope, sharing their stories, urging those in the midst of despair to hold on, to be held, to look ahead for the dawning of a new day that would bring something better than their current hell.
How might you be changed if you knew things would get better? If the pain of the current moment wouldn’t be all you ever felt?
Imagine a breakup. Young love. Over.
If at the moment when you realized your first love wasn’t going to last – you knew the joy you would ultimately find in your spouse- would it have made the break up easier to bear?
At the time, a break up is horrible. When I’ve had a friend call me over after breaking up, I’ve found it much better to bring over some chocolate and a closed mouth rather than waste my breath saying “he wasn’t good enough anyway,” or “there are more fish in the sea,” or “a year from now you won’t even remember his name.”
At that moment, platitudes aren’t helpful. Grief and pain are real and we deserve to have our pain honored rather than dismissed. That’s what God does for us. In our hard times, God is there for us, right in the trenches of our difficulty. God takes in the experience of pain in Jesus’ crucifixion. Not so that God could say, I know exactly how you feel, it’s not really that bad, I got through it. God enters our pain so that God can say, “I’m here with you. I’m here for you.” And- so that as God drew Jesus up out of death, God could assure us that we, too, will be taken up out of our pain into a new future where our tears will be dried.
As a Christian community, we’re called to be God’s presence to those in the midst of painful life experiences. To be compassionate is to suffer with another, to ease of burden of being alone while facing difficulty. Then, in the days, the weeks, the years to come, we continue to look for signs of God’s healing as wayposts that point us to the full healing in the future.
The Christian community has struggled with the question of how to live life today while trusting that God has a new future in store for us, a future with such whole living and joy that our current experience pales in comparison.
Faced with a vision of what it more important, the Christian community has sometimes ignored the importance of this life. Living only for the future, some choose celibacy, some ignore the command to steward creation, some live today only as a student watches the clock tick, waiting for class to be finished and summer break to begin.
We cannot envision this life only as something to be endured when we remember that it was with joy God declared this creation good, and choose to enter it so fully in Jesus Christ. And yet… we know the brokenness of this world so much so that we long for the vision John experienced to come into our present. Rather, this vision is meant to help us live the life we have with hope. These days are given to us, time during which we can join God’s work in creation, encouraged by this vision to be working towards God’s goals, and still hopeful even when we see no results of our work today.
What in this vision inspires you? It’s those open gates that feed my spiritual imagination. Jesus – the blood of the lamb has cleansed all – transformed all- so that even the nations, the foreign kings, are finding their way into the new Jerusalem. They are no longer foreign occupiers, not even humbled vassals bearing tribute, but they are finding their home- their healing and life- as residents in this new city ruled by crucified king. Can you imagine how radical it would have been for John’s people to hear that even their enemies might have a future as their neighbors in the new creation? It is a reflection of the words God spoke to Peter in our Acts reading from last week: “What I have made clean, you must no longer call profane” (11:9).
God is creating a new future for us. There we will find a safe sanctuary from all that once brought us fear and pain. There God will surprise us. All that we thought was necessary and as good as it could get will be outdone by God’s presence among us. All we did out of fear will be unnecessary and foolish. When we experience God’s welcoming embrace and find God’s made a home with us, we’ll also discover that the scope of God’s welcome is greater than we were able to embody in this life.
The barriers I’ve spent so much energy creating will be unnecessary. Even bugs and ex boyfriends are counted in the all creation God is drawing to Godself. Maybe God’s preparing not only to transform those I once was repulsed by, but is transforming me as well, so that I can see through God’s eyes of love and joy for all creation. I may have grown from my childhood, but God hasn’t completed that great transformation in me yet.
Maybe it’s only in hindsight that we can evaluate the relative importance of all that we once stressed out over. We’re given this future vision so that it can impact our lives today. We know the end toward which God is drawing us. There peace, healing, welcome, and connection with God are the founding principles. We’re not there yet, but we can try to live according to those building blocks of God’s kingdom today.
The future is coming. Through Jesus’ work, God has prepared good for you. Live today in hope: that’s God’s gift of faith for you.