Sermon for 18 May, 2014: Being in Relationship with God
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me…Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Amen.
Today is the Fifth Sunday of the great fifty days of Easter. We made it through Lent; Jesus has been crucified and risen; and we have been saved. So why do today’s lessons suggest that the honeymoon is over?
Our first reading is the story of St. Stephen, who is accepted as the first (proto) Christian martyr. Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who was converted to Christianity by the apostles and appointed a deacon in Jerusalem. The fact that he was already considered an outsider made it exponentially more dangerous to preach about Jesus and Stephen knew it. But he did it anyway and, as we heard, Stephen died for his witness.
But why? Couldn’t he have just dialed down the rhetoric a bit? Maybe witnessed to more likely converts? Moved to a less hostile town? We may admire his courage, but can’t help but wonder about his common sense. What would compel someone to knowingly put himself in a life-threatening situation if he didn’t have to? But people do. Not just ancient, unknowable people like Stephen, who lived a life so removed from our own that we cannot hope to understand why he did what he did – but saints in our own time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a German concentration camp; Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot for promoting civil rights in El Salvador, and the Nag Hammadi martyrs, Coptic Christians who were slain by Muslim extremists only four years ago as they left their church in Egypt. We can pick up a newspaper and be inspired by people like Malala You-sef-zai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls. We can pray and weep for the more than 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped for wanting to graduate from high school. But would we – could we –do the same?
It’s hard to know. I don’t know if the disciples fully knew what they were getting into either when Jesus tried to talk to them about who he was and what would happen when he was gone- when he went home to a place he called, “his Father’s house.”
But where was that? That’s what Thomas wanted to know – where was Jesus going? And how were they going to find him? But when Thomas asked, Jesus gave him what have to be the most confusing travel directions ever. Jesus told the disciples that they already knew the way, because he was the way. He was the way they have been allowed to know God – even though they didn’t know it. He was the broker – the mediator – between God and the disciples. Jesus told them that he was part of God, that he was God. He affirmed to them what John’s gospel declares to us: Jesus was God in the world – and, because he is part of the Father, they can be part of the Father too.
This must have made no sense at all to the disciples, who probably thought Jesus was talking about a physical dwelling. But Jesus was talking about relationships. He was telling his followers that God’s household is a spiritual place, a dwelling made not of cloth or bricks, but of mutual loyalty and love. It is a committed relationship grounded in faith and located in the collective soul. “Know me,” Jesus tells them. “Love me. Trust me – and you will be part of God. And, what’s more, if you do that, you will have power like mine. You will have power greater than mine. I will show the world the glory of God – through you.”
That’s an astounding idea – if you think about it. If you believe in Jesus, you will have the power of God – and permission to use it. Think how that promise resonated with the poor and oppressed people who followed Jesus. Think how the belief that they are part of God has sustained demoralized and subjugated people for thousands of years since. I think Jesus’ promise of power is one of the primary reasons that Christianity grew to become so powerful so quickly. I think it’s the reason that people are still willing to die for it. I think it’s the reason that people are willing to kill for it. They think that they can harness the power of God. But I don’t think it works that way.
My husband and I once took a trip to South Korea by Military Airlift Command. MAC flighting (as they called it) was a great way to travel to places you could never afford to go otherwise – if you had the flexibility (and stamina) to deal with uncertainties in your travel plans. Basically, you packed your bag and showed up at an air force base where you could watch a board of posted flights. When you saw somewhere you wanted to go, you got in line and, if you were lucky, you got on a plane. You got home the same way – or you hoped you would. This particular trip started out well, but when we got to Korea, we found out that there were a lot of people who were considered a higher priority for placement on a flight than us joy-riders. So, every day we packed our bags, checked out of our hotel and went to the base. And every day we didn’t get a flight, returned to the hotel, and checked back in again. Now, this was before ATMs could be found all over the world, so after about the third day we were down to about ten dollars in traveler’s checks and living off Dunkin’ Donuts and granola bars. The next day when we went back to the base we met a young couple who were in the same predicament as we were. We told them we were thinking of buying plane tickets to get home, since it seemed possible that we might never get a MAC flight. “Well,” said the young woman, “didn’t you just tell me you are Christians”? “Yes,” we said. “Then why aren’t you praying”? she inquired. “We are praying,” I said, “but we’re not necessarily expecting God to get us on a MAC flight. He probably has bigger things to worry about.” “Well,” she huffed, “I guess you don’t have much faith, do you”?
I’ve thought about that incident many times over the years. She believed that I lacked faith because I didn’t believe that God would provide what we needed. But it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that God would provide what we needed. I just didn’t think I had the right to decide if what we needed was to get on a MAC flight. (And for the record, what God ultimately provided was a promotional direct flight from Seoul to San Francisco, complete with a meal and hot towels. Amen).
So what was different in our approach to prayer? Was one of us right and the other wrong? What did that mean for how I should pray? Should I never pray for things? Should I never pray for myself? The writer of John’s gospel provides a very comforting answer to these questions. He tells us that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Believe in God. Believe in me – because you know me. You have seen what I can do – and I’m willing to do anything for you, because we are in a relationship and, because of that relationship I will always answer your prayers.
I think anyone who is in a committed relationship can understand this. Because whether it’s a marriage, romantic partnership, parenthood, or a treasured friendship– sometimes you do things just because the person you love asks you to.
How many times have you gone to a movie that wasn’t appealing to you? Or spent the night cleaning up after a sick person? Or gone to church when you had no interest in learning about God or Christianity? That’s love. And Jesus’ love for us opens the door so that we can find our place in God’s household. Allowing himself to be bound to the sinful earth and its inhabitants in the form of Jesus is God’s priceless gift to us.
But what are we willing to do for God – and what is it that God wants from us? Peter’s answer is the same as the gospel message – believe. “Grow into salvation…Come to him…Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…a holy priesthood.” God wants us to be part of him. Bishop Pedro Cas-al-da-lee-ga said, “I am thinking more and more that God will not judge us either for the good or the evil that we have done, but simply for whether we have been capable of accepting God’s love and transmitting it to other people.” God asks us to open our eyes and see – see and believe that such complexity and beauty cannot be random. To acknowledge that the challenging, confusing, and amazing people with whom we share our lives are not just replicated DNA. To admit that there are places inside of us that cannot be filled by earthly things. God asks us to accept what has been given to us. God asks us to believe. But for many people, that’s nearly an impossible task. For many people, they can’t imagine such a belief. So we must imagine it for them. We must imagine it with them. We must keep telling them what is in our hearts. We must keep showing them what we see. We must, like Stephen, gaze into heaven and allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Because the power that comes with being in relationship with God is not the power to know things or to have things or even to be things. It is the power to love others as God loves us. And that is worth dying for.
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