Sunday, May 6, 2007

(Easter 5) The Down-to-Earth Love of God

Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

This is the fifth Sunday of Easter, in the church year.
During these weeks our minds are taken, repeatedly, to resurrection.
We are prompted, by the scriptures we read,
to reflect on God’s victory over earthly powers.
We remember the day that Jesus arose
and “burst the bars of death and triumph’d o’er the grave.”
We celebrate the glorious Easter truth that Christ
has become the first-fruits of all those who one day will rise.
We worship the God who has the power to raise us
above and beyond the limits of our bodies,
and this physical world.

But when I sat with the texts for this Sunday,
my mind was taken, unexpectedly, in the opposite direction.
I found myself thinking less
about the wonder of rising above this physical realm,
and thinking more
about the wonder of God joining us right where we are.
I found myself pondering the miracle of incarnation—
the “enfleshment” of God—
more than the miracle of resurrection.
I was connecting with the story of Christmas as much as Easter.

Of course, both those stories, both those realities are central to our faith.
Incarnation and resurrection are connected to each other.
Either one would lose its meaning without the other.
How could we feel any human connection
to the resurrection of the divine Son of God,
if that Son had not been one of us,
had not taken on our full humanity.
And why would we make a big deal
about the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth,
if God had gotten stuck here forever
in our plain of existence,
and had not conquered death,
and returned home, from whence he came,
to bring together earth and heaven.
So we need incarnation and resurrection.

But as a I studied these Easter texts this week,
my mind was drawn more to incarnation, the enfleshment of God.
It was Revelation 21 that took me there, surprisingly enough.
The wild images of Revelation
usually take our minds to other worlds.
Almost all these word pictures painted by John the Revelator,
are other-worldly.
Dragons and angels,
multi-headed beasts,
flying creatures with eyes all over the body,
a lake of fire, and streets of gold,
horsemen with swords coming out of their mouths.
But the picture in Revelation 21 shows another side to the story.
The picture is, as a matter of fact, down-to-earth.
We heard this text just a few minutes ago.
Look at it again, if you will, chapter 21, verses 1-6.

In John’s vision, at the end of time,
when there was a new heaven and a new earth,
and the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
John saw the holy city coming down out of heaven.
Catch that, in v. 2? “...coming down out of heaven.”
And John heard a loud voice, v. 3,
saying some profoundly comforting words:
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
And it continues, with the good news that death will be no more,
mourning, crying, and pain will be gone forever.

This is a well-known, and well-loved passage.
I’ve read it many times.
Often at funerals.
I think our default way of picturing this place—
where there will be no crying and pain and death,
and where God is with us all the time—
is that it’s a place way out in the cosmos somewhere,
a place beyond our ability to imagine,
an otherworldly dreamlike place where all is peace.

But no! That’s not the vision that John saw.
John saw this place of wonder and beauty
coming down “out of heaven.”
Think about that! Out of heaven, and to where we are.
In Revelation 21,
God in one who longs to live with us mortals,
with us, in our very physical, mortal, existence.
God deeply desires to be among us, where we are.
To come to us.
To make us his peoples.

Imagine that! God wanting to make us “his people.”
That is not a condescending, patronizing God,
trying to bring a bunch of people into his world,
and trying to transform them
into a people worthy to be seen with him.
What we have here, it seems to me, is an immigrant God.
A God who emigrates from heaven,
to be with us, where we are,
to make himself at home among us mortals,
and to make this place and people,
his place and people.
A God who is both the Creator and King of the universe,
but is also like a kindly neighbor
who lovingly and attentively walks the streets,
and finds us in our places of grief,
of brokenness,
of pain,
of sinful alienation,
and tenderly comes to us,
and wipes away our tears.
It is here, among us, that God will finally conquer death.
It is here, among us, that one day death will be no more,
that mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

Revelation 21 is a picture of the future, to be sure.
It’s about the age to come, the eschaton.
But it’s more than that.
Thanks to the reality of Easter,
this picture is being born among us now.
It’s not a picture of something entirely new and unexpected
that will someday suddenly break in upon us.
There is a continuity between the first earth and heaven,
and the new ones to come.
V. 5: The One seated on the throne said,
“See, I am making all things new.”
He did not say, “I am making all new things.”
There is continuity here.
This picture of the Holy City, the coming kingdom of God,
is the trajectory of our life right now.
Yes, it’s a future portrait,
but one that is now being born among us.

This also shows us the nature of God’s love,
a love that’s the same yesterday, today, and forever.
This eternal love of God is all about
a deep desire to dwell with us mortals, in our time.
It’s an embodied love,
most fully realized in God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth,
the Christ.
But that’s still what God’s love is all about.
It’s a down-to-earth love.
It’s a love that longs to be with us.
And that will be the nature of God’s love in the age to come,
when the new kingdom of heaven comes down to us,
and saves, restores, recreates, and renews all things;
“makes all things new.”

That’s a profound truth, it seems to me.
One that I don’t think we’ve fully grasped.
That the incarnation of God’s love
was not only a once-in-history event,
when God became enfleshed in Jesus.
That particular incarnation only happened once.
It was, and always will be, unique in history.
But the deepest expression of God’s love is, and must always be,
Because God longs to dwell with us mortals,
always has, always will.
God does whatever it takes to come to us,
and be among us.
That’s what we see in this wonderfully comforting picture
of the end of time.
One day, at last, God’s down-to-earth love,
and down-to-earth kingdom,
will be fulfilled in such a complete way,
that death will be no more,
mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more.

But we all are painfully aware, especially in recent days and weeks,
that we live in the meantime.
We live in a place where there is death,
there is crying,
there is pain,
there is brokenness, alienation, and sin.
There are all kinds of reminders that we are not there yet.
The question is, “how do we live in the meantime.”

That’s where today’s Gospel reading comes in.
While Revelation 21 speaks of a down-to-earth kingdom,
of the embodied love of God,
the Gospel of John tells us what difference it makes
in the way we live with each other.
John chapter 13, vv. 31-35.
Jesus and his disciples are still in the upper room here.
He has celebrated his last Passover meal with them,
and has stooped to wash their feet.
All of them are there, except Judas, who has just left the house.
Verses 31 and 32 sound a little esoteric, a little hard to follow.
“The Son of Man has been glorified,
and God has been glorified in him,
and if God has been glorified in him,
God will also glorify him in himself
and will glorify him at once.”
But boil that all down, and what John is trying to establish here
is that the character of Jesus’ life
honored the One he came from.
In the Mediterranean world, honor was a core cultural value.
It’s hard for us Americans to appreciate that.
We don’t live in an honor and shame based culture.
Jesus did.
So John’s readers understood
that the way Jesus lived his life honored his father.
It glorified him.
And in return, God honored the life Jesus was living.

So...God, who sent Jesus to embody God’s love for the world,
was being glorified by the way Jesus was, in fact,
embodying that love.
Jesus was honoring the character of God’s love.
Jesus was the faithful and authentic embodiment
of the eternal love of God for us.

We need to remember that
when we read the second part of the text, v. 34:
Jesus said to his disciples,
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus embodied God’s love
in the way he walked with and loved his disciples.
They are to love in precisely the same way.
Jesus says,
“Just as I have embodied God’s love to you,
so you should embody God’s love to each other.”
It’s a follow-up to what he said after he washed their feet,
a few minutes earlier.
“Just as I have washed your feet,
so you should wash one another’s feet.”
Love is authenticated
when it moves beyond words,
and becomes embodied.
Embodied love is the only kind of love that rings true.
V. 35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”
When Christians embody love for each other,
they point people to Christ.
They honor the source of that love.
They glorify God.

I’m afraid we have a long way to go
on this matter of love for one another.
The predominant mark Christians leave on the world,
is not, I’m fairly sure,
an overwhelming impression of how well we love each other.
I doubt I’ve ever heard it said, by purely outside observers,
that the way Christians live in this world
is an honor to the life and character of Jesus,
whom we claim to follow.

So what do we do when our efforts to love each other come up short?
I don’t think it’s simply a matter of trying harder.
I think we return to the source.
The profound truth we encountered in Revelation 21,
is that God longs to dwell with us.
We are loved, deeply, by the God of universe,
who chose to embody that love in the flesh,
in particular, the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus made God’s love visible.
So our first calling is to ground ourselves in that love,
that visible, particular, and embodied love.
When we are grounded in that love,
we are then in a position to embody that love with each other,
in a particular way,
in a Jesus-shaped way.
We can say we love each other all we want.
We can say we love God.
We can say we love our neighbors.
We can even say we love our enemies.
But love is only love when it gets particular.

The new commandment Jesus gave his disciples,
was not just a commandment to love.
That commandment had been around since the days of Moses.
It was codified in their law.
Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor.
They grew up reciting those commandments.
The new commandment was that their love
would be shaped according to the life and death of Jesus.
“As I have loved you,
you also should love one another.”
If we in the church want to be known to the world by our love,
we must immerse ourselves in the person of Jesus.
That is the particular shape our love needs to have.

What does embodied love look like?
Let us look to Jesus.
Let us see who Jesus loved, and how he loved them.
Let us learn the story. And live the story.
Let us immerse ourselves in the continuing story of Jesus,
who is the present and living Lord,
we remind ourselves at Easter.

As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.”

Can we love as Jesus loved?
Do we have the capacity to imagine
how to more deeply embody the love of Jesus
in the way we live with each other,
and the way we live in this world?

I invite us into a time of holy imagination,
as we pray together.
The refrain of this prayer is one we will sing together.
I think you know it by heart.
It’s the first verse of “Blessed be the tie that binds.”
If you need the hymnal, it’s #421.

Let’s begin our prayer by singing this confession,
that the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,
is like to that above,
is intimately connected to the love of God.

Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Living and loving God,
we confess our frequent failure to love.
We look to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
asking for your mercy,
asking for your strength,
asking for your holy imagination to come upon us,
and help us to find new and deeper ways to love each other.
We want it to be said, when others look upon our lives,
“They love like Jesus.”
So, Lord, we seek you and your love,
and together we confess...

Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Lord Jesus Christ, who embodies the love of God,
strengthen us for the work of loving others.
In our own fellowship, there are persons we say we love,
but whom we avoid.
There are things in our past that have caused some
to be estranged from each other.
And it seems too difficult, too complex, too risky,
to engage in the work of reconciliation.
Lord, give to us your holy imagination.
Help us find a way, your way,
to move beyond what we thought possible,
and into an altogether new way of living together.
So together we confess...

Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Lord Jesus who embodies the love of God,
We also fail to adequately love some in our fellowship,
not because we have been estranged,
but because we have chosen not to get involved to begin with.
They live in a different world than we do.
They look at things differently.
They use a different language of faith.
They dress differently, act differently,
have different convictions.
We shy away from entering into deeper relationship with them,
out of fear of having our own settled lives and thoughts,
become unsettled and complicated.
Lord, we need your holy imagination,
to help us find a way to conquer our fear,
and love more deeply those who are different from us.
So together we confess...

Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Lord Jesus who embodies the love of God,
We also often fail to embody your love
in the way we live in this world.
We shield ourselves from the very ones you came to serve.
We separate ourselves from those whom you went out of your way,
to be with.
Give us, Lord, the holy imagination
to find new ways to not only welcome the stranger,
the foreigner, the widow and orphan,
the poor, the oppressed,
but also find ways to be welcomed by them.
Save us from the pride that prevents us from truly being with,
and learning to love,
all your beautiful children.
Save us from our failure to love,
because love is inconvenient, and costly.
So together we confess...

Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Lord Jesus who embodies the love of God,
give us the holy imagination to love in a deeper way
than we have been able to love before.
So that your love will be more fully embodied in us.
And that people will know that we are your disciples.

—Phil Kniss, May 6, 2007

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