My Father is still working

File:Cornus florida 02 by Line1.jpgA reflection on John 5:1-9 and Revelation 21:9-10, 22-22:5 (the texts for Easter 6 C) on the occasion of my grandson’s first Sunday in worship and the first step towards his baptism.

There are a couple things I need to say about our texts before I share with you what I have written for this morning.  This passage from John is an amazing narrative.  The man has suffered for 38 years.  When asked whether he wishes to be made whole, he answers by saying he has no one to help him into the water.  The legend held that an angel would occasionally descend and stir the water and the first person into the pool would be healed.  But this man has no one.  His answer expresses brokenness and despair.  He has no hope of healing.  He has no community, no family, no friends, no one to care for him – until Jesus finds him.  And Jesus does find him. 

The leadership of the nation responds to this wondrous healing by criticizing the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  We didn’t read this part.  We should have, but that would have required us to read the whole chapter.  But it is important to note this because religious people are often this way.  We respond to God’s wondrous work with nitpicking and legalism.  He’s not supposed to work on the Sabbath and carrying your mat is defined as work.

The conflict over the Sabbath is the central element of this narrative.  When Jesus, himself, is criticized for working on the Sabbath, he answers by saying, among other things, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  The leadership of the nation imagined God’s work of creating was over.  God had created for six days and now God was ‘resting’.  But Jesus declares that God is still at work.  God is still creating — and God’s work is a work of healing.  God is working to make us whole.  God is working to make the world whole.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work.

Our second reading was the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John of Patmos.  It is a vision of the world made healed and restored.  At the time John writes, the earthly city has been destroyed by rebellion and war.  Rome has crushed it.  But at the consummation of human history, in that day when all human rebellion is overcome and all things are made new, in that day the heavenly counterpart of the earthly city descends to earth.  And though we don’t get the measurements of the city in our portion of the reading, the city is a giant cube some 1,200 to 1,500 miles across and high. The reason it measures as a perfect cube is that the holy of holies inside the temple, where God was present, was a perfect cube.  The world is now the holy of holies where God dwells.  The consummation of human history is God coming to dwell with us.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work – and that God’s purpose is to dwell in our midst.

*   *   *

As you know, my daughter and her husband are here this morning and we are doing a rite of blessing in anticipation of a baptism that will happen later where they live.

There are things I want to tell Finn, but he is not ready to hear them.  I want to tell him about the beauty and grandeur of the world around us.  I want to tell him about the Grand Canyon and the waterfalls at Yosemite in springtime.  I want to take him to the Monterey Aquarium and talk about the mysteries of the deep.  I want him to gaze into the wonder of those tiny flowers in the grass outside and the supple lines and color of a rose.  I want him to watch with wonder the flight of a swallow and the migration of the monarchs and to hear crickets in the evening.  I want him to see how seed turns to sapling turns to towering tree.  I want him to walk among redwoods and see dogwoods in the spring. 

I want him to know the beauty of the world.  I want him to know its goodness before he learns its sorrows.  I want him to play in a soft summer rain before he feels the power of a storm.  I want him to see the wonder of a bird’s nest before he learns that other animals would prey on the babies.  I want him to delight in bunnies in the yard before he worries about hawks overhead.  I want him to know human kindness before he learns of human cruelty.

I want to tell Finn this story we have received of a world conceived in love, of a creation called into being by a divine Word and that God saw and declared all things good and noble and beautiful.  I want to tell him this story that he is made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God.  I want him to know that he was made to live in God’s presence and tend God’s garden – that he was made to live in harmony with all things.

I want Finn to know the goodness before he learns what happened in that garden, how humanity broke faith with God and broke the ties that bind all things together. 

I want Finn to know the beauty of the earth before he tastes its tears.  I want him to know the goodness of family before he learns about Cain and Abel and the bitter envy that tears the human family apart.

And I want Finn to hear the voice of God speaking to Cain, telling him that we can choose kindness and faithfulness.  I want him to know we can choose to listen to the breath of God rather than the murmurings of bitterness and revenge.

There are so many things I want to tell Finn.  I want to tell him of Abraham’s courage in trusting God’s promise, of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, of Jacob the cheat burning all his bridges and wrestling with God at the river Jabbok.  I want to tell him of Joseph who forgave his brothers and Moses who stood before the burning bush.  I want to tell him about Pharaoh’s hardness of heart and God’s determination to bring freedom to both the oppressors and the oppressed.  I want to tell him about Sinai and the wilderness and the radical notion that God is a god who travels with us, that God is not a god of rock and stream but a God of love and mercy.  

I want to tell him of the prophets.  I want to tell him of the psalms of joy and the cries of lament.  I want to tell him of the faithfulness of Ruth and the courage of Esther.  I want to tell him about the gifts and call of God.  And I want to tell him about the child of Nazareth, the song of the angels and the message given to shepherds.  I want to tell him about the boy Jesus in the temple and the grown man at the Jordan.  I want to tell him about the words he spoke and the things he did.  I want to tell him about Zacchaeus in the tree and the woman at the well and the banquet in the wilderness that fed five thousand families with twelve baskets left over.

I want to tell him about the empty tomb and the gift of the spirit and the dawn of God’s new creation in the world and in us.  

I want him to know about the women at the tomb and Mary, the first witness.  I want him to know about the boldness of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter trusting the voice of heaven and baptizing a Roman centurion and family.  I want Finn to know of Lydia and the Philippian jailor bending to wash feet.  I want Finn to know the healing of the world is at hand.

I want to tell Finn about the courage and faithfulness of Perpetua and her companion, Felicity, who were martyred in the arena, and how she guided the executioner’s hand when he faltered.  I want to tell him about Francis of Assisi and Katy Luther and how Bach wrote “Soli Deo Gloria” – wholly to the Glory of God – on all his music.  I want to tell him of all the courageous men and women of faith and this wondrous mystery of the church gathered from every nation on earth to bear witness to the grace and mercy of God.

And I want to tell him about the promise of his baptism and the promise of the table.

I want to know that there is mercy in our sorrows and strength in our challenges and hope, always hope, for the grave is empty and the arms of God are open to us and to all.

I want Finn to know all this.  Even more, I want his parents to tell him these stories.  And I want all of us to tell him these stories.  I want the community of God’s people to uphold him in his journey and to uphold one another as we try to live Christ for the world.  I want us to sing and to pray and to labor side by side in hope and faithfulness, 

I want Finn to hear with us and understand with us this story of Christ and the man at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I want him to know Christ as healer and to know that this is the work of God.  I want him to know the power and promise of Jesus’ statement: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 

And I want Finn to hear and understand with all of us the power of this vision of the New Jerusalem, a city without fear, a city whose gates never close, a realm that gathers all that is good and noble of every culture and people, a city shaped like the most holy place – a world that has become the dwelling place of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornus_florida_02_by_Line1.jpg Liné1 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit?”

Saturday

Acts 19

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Peristeria elata, “Flower of the Holy Spirit”

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

It is a question that divided congregations when the charismatic movement swept though mainline denominations some years ago. This narrative from Acts 19 seems to suggest that there is a difference between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. Several Christian traditions depend upon that distinction. Personally, I think the text shows the exact opposite. Baptism and the Spirit belong together, and whenever they seem separated, it is a situation immediately remedied.

But the right use of the text is not first of all as data for a theological conversation on the doctrine of Baptism and the Holy Spirit. The right use of the text is to let the text speak to us – in this case, to question us.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

We are the Ephesians. We are those who, at least in name, are following Christ. So, as we come to stand before the text, the voice of God asks: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

Paul may be asking the believers in Ephesus a question of fact, but the question comes to us as a probing of the heart: Did you receive the Holy Spirit? What has become of it? Is it working in us and around us? Is it shaping our lives? Is it drawing us into a deeper faithfulness to God and to love of our neighbor? Do we see in ourselves the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Do we know how to recognize the promptings of the Spirit? Do we know how to discern its presence? Do we know how to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit?

If the Spirit is not alive and kicking within us, then it is time to seek the Spirit, then it is time to fan into flame the gift of God(NIV). And if the Spirit is alive and kicking, then it is time to trust it, to depend on it, to let it burn brightly. The only other choice, I suppose, is to renounce the faith and go home, for there is no in-between way, no adopting the name of Christ without engaging the Spirit of Christ.

So here we are, standing before the text, standing in the presence of God, who asks a simple but crucial question: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?”

And whether we are spiritually alive or spiritually moribund, it is important to wrestle with the answer.

 

Photo: By TommyCrash (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Into thirsty sands

Wednesday

Romans 6

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Benin Baptism, By Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland

 4 We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life

I don’t know exactly what it is about this picture of a woman being baptized in Benin that I find so compelling, but compelling it is. Perhaps it is the posture of kneeling. Perhaps it is the gentleness of the hands pouring water over her head. Perhaps it is the white robe. Perhaps it is the expression upon this woman’s face. Maybe even her simple beauty. Somehow all these elements together move me deeply.

Baptism is a remarkable thing. It declares a majestic holiness and tenderness of God that gathers us from far and wide and brings us near to him who is the center of all things. It speaks of homecoming, of welcome, of center, of peace. It speaks of limping from brokenness into wholeness. It speaks of answered longing and belonging. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

Baptism also speaks to us of dying and rising, of old and new, of what is left behind and what is embraced ahead. No longer are we bound in the realm of life’s sorrows and struggles; now we have entered into the realm of grace and life. Yes, we must all get up and go home and deal with the challenges each day presents. Yes we must work the day’s labor in the sweat of our brow. But we have been embraced by the holy, our shame set aside, washed away into the sands. We have become citizens of heaven even as we dwell on earth, citizens of the age to come even as we live out this present age.

In world of violence we have become part of the realm of peace. Buried as frail, mortal creatures we rise to walk in newness of life. All this is present in that kneeling figure, in the gentle hands, in the simple splash of water, in the white robe, the bowed head and the thirsty sands.

A royal priesthood

Saturday

1 Peter 2

File:USMC-051204-M-0944-002.jpg9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Do words like this get stale? Have they been used so often they lose their power to stir the soul? Do we not understand the grant of honor they contain? Perhaps to people who have much, who have education and income and social standing, who feel in some sense already as if they were people of significance, perhaps to such these words have never echoed with power. But they were not spoken to the elite. They were spoken to the spiritual descendants of that strange collection of Galilean fishermen, tax collectors and women who were not people of significance.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

Except for Paul, we know of none who were citizens of Rome. Luke, the companion of Paul was a physician. Lydia was a wealthy woman, dealing in purple dyes – but to be in service of the elites of society doesn’t make her one of the elite. The Philippian jailor was a jailor. The Ethiopian Eunuch, for all his high position, was a eunuch, marred in his flesh and ritually unclean for the temple. Samaritans. Gentiles. These were by no means a royal priesthood. But now they are children of God, members of the most noble of all families. Their dishonor had been lifted. Those who were far from God’s holiness had been washed, cleansed, forgiven. They had become a holy people, a people belonging to God.

And they had become a priesthood – a people chosen to represent God in the world.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

Say it to a member of the urban poor and see if you cannot discover its power. Say it to the old woman in a nursing home. Say it to any of her caretakers dealing with bedpans and bibs. Say it to those weakened by disease or pain. Say it to any with a painful history of addiction. Say it to the castoff family. Say it to the shamed, the discarded, to any whom our society devalues because they are not thin or beautiful or successful.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

Speak it in the favelas, the Mumbai slums. Say it among the migrant workers. Say it among the sweatshops or on the streets where trafficked children are drugged into despair.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

Then you will taste the power of the baptismal words that sins have been washed away and you have become a child of God. Then you will feel the shaking earth as the name is given that is above every name. Then you will see the significance of Jesus cradling peasant children and blessing them in the name of the Most High. Then you will understand Mary’s song and the song of Zechariah and the song of Simeon.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

And then you will understand why the rest of this sentence hardly needs be spoken, for who would fail to share such a treasure?

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

In order that you may proclaim… The honor of heaven is bestowed for a purpose, to carry the word of grace into all creation until all the earth is gathered into the everlasting light of a perfect and holy love.

Sunday Evening of April 28

The water has been carried away, the table cleared, the baptismal font moved back from the center of the worshiping community to the entrance aisle – but the joy of the celebration lingers:  the darling baby, the big crowd, the tender affection of all towards this child and her family.

And the words of Jesus linger: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”  “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I don’ t know what will become of the washcloths handed out to the children in the children’s sermon.  I do know I won’t forget the wonderfully expressive look of shock from one child at the idea of washing feet.

It was shocking what Jesus did.  (That’s why Peter tried to stop him.)  But it spoke to his point.   God’s world, God’s kingdom, God’s reigning is different than this world.  And now Sara has become a citizen of God’s world living in the midst of this one.  People will know that she is a student of Jesus if she lives his love.