He will dwell with us

‘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.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

That blessed hymn at the bible’s very end, at the conclusion of the Revelation of St. John, is our human heart’s desire.  In thirty-eight words, ciphering a visionary voice from the throne of God, St. John the Divine touches upon virtually every yearning of the soul.

How many of us suffer, for instance, even this very day, from chronic or acute pain?  How many of us experience that way that pain clouds everything else, adversely affecting all our experiences and joys?  But in the end, St. John promises in today’s hymn, pain will be alleviated.

Who here doesn’t know mourning?  Who here hasn’t lost one we cherished and loved?  But in the end, St. John promises, death will be no more, and mourning will be no more.  Every tear from our eyes will be wiped away.

What could possibly be worse that mourning and pain?  There is one thing, as we all know.  It is that thing which, when added to pain and to sorrow renders them exponentially worse.  It transforms the difficult into the unbearable.  It is what Henri Nouwen calls our “suffocating loneliness.”  There is nothing in this world worse than the unrelenting feeling that we are abandoned.  And that makes St. John’s first promise the greatest: “See,” the voice from the throne says through John, “the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”

Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen

In the end, God promises, our suffocating loneliness will blow away like storm clouds when the sun returns, and in its place we will abide in the very and immediate presence of God, enveloped by a love that has known us since before we were formed in the womb.[i]  We will never be alone!  Even in our solitude, we will know that we are not abandoned but held in presence of love.

It is because this hymn with which the bible ends encompasses, in such an economy of words, these comforting promises that we read it so often at Christian funerals, not really for the dead, who are in the bliss of heaven, but for us, who remain on earth.  (After all, in Revelation St. John the Divine is talking about things in our world, not heaven.)  In our moments of grief, when pain, mourning, and suffocating loneliness are all felt at their gnawing worst, we need to hear these words in their eloquence and grace.  We need to know that God is there, and God is for us.

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For some, there will be a faint familiarity to this passage, as if, here at the bible’s end, we remember something else about God, from long ago.  And, in fact, the end recollects the beginning.  You see, in the biblical narrative the last time God dwelt among humans was “in the beginning.”  We are told in the third chapter of Genesis that God “walked in the garden [of Eden] in the cool of the day,”[ii] which is to say that God dwelt immediately with the archetypal man and woman.  In other words, our frequent experience of God’s absence, both deep in our own souls and in our relationships in the world, is not as it was in the beginning nor as it should be.  Something is broken.

Jesus surely knows this in today’s Gospel.  Jesus will, momentarily, encounter all of those things that we earlier said cloud our joy.  Jesus will be wrenched from his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane and know the grief that comes with the loss of the life he has lived; he will have inflicted upon him the most excruciating pain; and he will experience the suffocating loneliness of the cross, where he will be utterly and completely forsaken.

In today’s Gospel passage, all of these things are encroaching like a shadow, and Jesus senses it.  Huddled in an upper room with his friends, Jesus seeks to give to those he cherishes most the remedy, the antidote, the solution to the brokenness that clouds joy.  “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus implores, “Love one another.  Just as I have loved you, love one another.”

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“As I have loved you, love one another.”

The Book of Revelation—one of my very favorites in all of scripture—is a tale of perseverance through struggle.  It first reveals to us just how devastating life can and eventually will be, how heartless man can be toward man, how brutally this world can bring down the hammer on those most vulnerable and exposed.  But Revelation is also a tale of what God will do with this world in the end.  As N.T. Wright says, ultimately God will not allow God’s creation to suffer “in the darkness of Hiroshima and Auschwitz.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Wright adds, “but there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God.”[iii]

God will ultimately return to God’s garden, where God walked in the beginning, and the blessed hymn that we read today is what the world finally will be when that occurs.

Barbed wire-Dachau

“There will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God.”  N.T. Wright

But when will God act?  When will God do these things?  When will God wipe the tears from our eyes, alleviate our pain, dispel our suffocating loneliness?  Christian people validly ask why, two thousand years after Easter, the world it still a broken place.  Why is God still absent from the garden?  Why does God not yet dwell among God’s people?

For centuries, Christian theologians and clergy claimed that God was waiting for committed Christians to spread the Gospel in every corner of the earth, offering heathen everywhere the opportunity to convert.  That notion is, I think, a misunderstanding of our Gospel calling.  God tarries, I believe, because Jesus’ Maundy Thursday commandment still lingers there before us.  The last words of Jesus, before Jesus showed us on the cross what love looks like, continue to implore, unheeded and unfulfilled: As I have loved you, love one another.  You see, the Gospel is, in the end, this love.  This is what we are called to share to every corner of the earth.

But even (and perhaps especially) Christian people, to whom the commandment is given by the one we call “Lord,” do not yet love one another, not in the way Jesus loves us.  We disregard and hurt one another.  We hedge.  We selfishly calculate risk and gain.  We do not, on the whole, open our arms as wide as Jesus’ arms on the cross, welcoming all of God’s children into embrace.  In this political season, there are candidates left and right who proudly claim the title “Christian” and yet who pit us against one another and use anxiety, grief, pain, and loneliness as avenues to power.

What is God waiting for?  Why is the blessed promise of Revelation not yet manifest?  Perhaps God is waiting for the followers of Jesus to be faithful to Jesus’ dying wish.  Perhaps God is waiting for Christians at least to make the attempt, with heartfelt conviction and sacrificial faith, to love God’s children as Christ loves us.  It is not nominal conversion the world is lacking; it is Christ-like love.

You see, we have work to do, aspirational work.  We at Christ Church Cathedral must continue to be a vanguard, always willing to ask forthrightly of ourselves where we are already loving as Christ loves, and where we have yet to make that love manifest.  Like the disciples sent out after Easter to spread God’s grace far and wide, we are called to spread grace, to open our embrace to those we meet, to ready our community for God’s great day in which crying will be no more, pain will be no more, loneliness will be no more.

For those who know John’s Gospel well, we know that even now we live by hope, and we do this work not alone.  No sooner does Jesus give the new commandment, than he also promises that even now, in this meantime, in this waiting period between Easter and the End, we are not alone.  Even now, God dwells with God’s people through the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus promises never to leave us orphaned, never to leave us in suffocating loneliness. [iv]  Even now, we are empowered to love and to share love because God is already here, loving us with a love that will be with us always and everywhere, sharing our pain, assuaging our grief, and moving us toward God’s hope-filled future.

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[i] Psalm 139:13.

[ii] Genesis 3:8

[iii] Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 179-180.

[iv] John 14:18

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Do you love me more than these?

I owe to my colleague, the Reverend Eileen O’Brien, an insight that has stayed with me now through two Lenten seasons and two Easters.  It was on March 1 of last year, which was the Second Sunday of Lent 2015, that Eileen preached new life and dramatic tension into a Gospel scene so familiar that it sometimes risks being domesticated in our telling.  It is that portion of the Gospel in which Jesus has been dragged from the Garden of Gethsemane to appear before the high priest.  His friend, his Rock, his Launcelot, Peter– the same Peter who declares to Jesus just minutes before the uproar in the garden, “Even if I have to die with you, I will not disown you”–follows close behind and keeps vigil in the high priest’s courtyard during Jesus’ interrogation.

What Eileen reminded us more than a year ago is that the dramatic action of this scene shifts continually between what’s going on inside and what’s going on outside.  Imagine it, if you will, as if seeing the scene in a movie, in the hands of a director like Spielberg or Scorsese.  Inside, Jesus is starkly alone, sweating with anxiety in the clutches of men who intend to kill him.  Outside, Peter the bold, who moments before drew his sword and struck the ear of one of those who abducted Jesus, is free from shackles and warms himself by the fire pit.  And at the same moment, both inside and outside, the same question is asked.  It is the life or death question.  It is the question of identity, of stake, of complicity with the Good News of God.  The high priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Christ?” and simultaneously a woman in the courtyard asks Peter, “Are you one of his disciples?”

There is a moment of cosmic pause.  What will they say?  Will Jesus take the escape hatch?  Will Peter prove his boldness?  Neither, of course.  Jesus says, “I am,” and Peter says, “I am not.”

In the clutch, Jesus claims his purpose, and Peter denies his friend, who happens also to be the embodied love of God.  The cock crows, and Peter’s failure rings out for millennia.  Indeed, in the ninth century Pope Nicholas I decreed that every church in Christendom must have a symbol of a rooster on its steeple or tower, so that Peter’s failure would never be forgotten.[i]  Unwittingly, we remember it still wherever a rooster-shaped weathervane survives.

rooster weathervane

Then, of course, Easter comes (as we celebrated in grand style two weeks ago), and the Resurrected Jesus begins appearing to the disciples.  We hear nothing of Peter in all this, except that he slow foots it to the empty tomb on Easter morning, perhaps intentionally falling behind John in shame of his failure in the high priest’s courtyard just days before.  Finally, we reach today’s Gospel passage, the very last chapter of the Gospel of John.

Today, Peter goes fishing.  That’s understandable.  It is where he began, after all: as a fisherman.  And though he was commissioned by Jesus to become a different kind of fisherman, a fisher of people who casts nets of grace to a drowning world, Peter failed that calling in the clutch.  So what to do but regress to the old place in life, the place where he began, the place of comfort, of the known.  We do that, don’t we?  But Peter discovers, as we do, that going back isn’t as easy as it seems.  He catches nothing.  His nets come back empty.  The Peter who said “I am not,” who defined himself apart from the love of God, can catch neither fish nor men.  He can’t go back to the life he’d left behind any easier than he found going forward.  In his failure, in his betrayal, Peter is stuck, like the boat adrift that he is on.

That is where such stories often end.  Failure compounds failure.  Disappointment festers and grows.  People—people like us—sometimes find ourselves, as a result of failures and flawed choices irrevocably made, unable to move forward, and we know deep down that neither is regressing backward healthy or holy.  We find ourselves stuck, and our nets come up empty.

But John has a few verses left yet.  The Resurrected Jesus appears.  He fills Peter’s net with fish to bursting, and in the final conversation of the Gospels, he engages his lost disciple.  Jesus will not sugarcoat Peter’s failing.  He no longer calls his friend Peter, “the Rock” on whom he’ll build a church.  It is now back to “Simon, son of John.”  But beyond that acknowledgement, notice, there is no condemnation.  There is no mention of Peter’s shame at all.  There is a question asked, and a way forward offered.  Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter fishing after resurrection

Biblical scholars generally assume that the “these” in Jesus’ question refer to the other disciples, as if Jesus is asking, “Simon, do you love me more than the other disciples love me?”  (That’s always seemed to me an odd question for Jesus to ask.)  But scholar Craig Keener believes that the “these” in Jesus’ question refer to the fish Peter has just caught[ii], in other words, the symbols of Peter’s old way of life, his original, comfortable way of being in the world, the one to which he tried to regress after abandoning Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard.

If Keener is right, and I think he is, then through his question Jesus is saying to Peter, “I give you another chance.  I’ve just filled your nets, just reminded you what your old world felt like on its best day.  So here’s the question again, the same question the woman asked you in the high priest’s courtyard: Who are you in this world, Simon?  What is your identity?  Are you the work that you do, or the place that you’re from, or the sum total of your fears, the things that paralyze you from moving forward?  Are you these things?  Or, are you, first and foremost, my disciple?  Do you love me more than these?”

And this time, in the light of the Resurrection, Peter knows the only answer that gives life.  “Yes, Lord,” Peter says, “You know that I love you.”

Jesus asks twice more, so that his threefold question mirrors Peter’s earlier threefold denial.  Each time, Peter responds without hesitation, and each time Jesus charts Peter’s course: “Then feed my sheep.”

As I said earlier, this is the very end of John’s Gospel, and given the way the ancient biblical compilers ordered the four evangelists, this is the very end of the Gospels overall.  In other words, this is what we’re left with to consider at the very end, to answer for ourselves.

But first, before we answer, we need to name again the Good News of this passage, and it is this: As for Peter himself, even in what we experience to be our moments of abject failure, even when we take the worst path, even when we betray those dearest to us and all that is good in our lives, the love of God returns to us and seeks us out.  Peter’s “I am not” is not greater than Jesus’ “I am.”  Jesus is the embodiment of a love that runs so graciously and deep that there is nothing we can do and nothing we can deny that will prevent that love from finding us and offering to us, ever again, the way forward in hope.  We are always given the gift of turning our “I am nots” into “I ams.”

But beyond that, the meaning behind the “I am” proclamation is that we find our identity solidly in the love of God.  That is who we are resurrected to be: followers of love and feeders of those starved of love.  It is the only way forward for us and for this world.  And when asked, whether while in the discomfort of others’ clutches or the comfort of a warm fire, no matter the context, no matter the questioner, no matter the risk and danger, we are to leave behind all the old things that defined us and claim our place as disciples of the One who has come to us in love, who is love.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks.

[i]  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-chicken-conquered-the-world-87583657/?no-ist

 

[ii] Bruner, Frederick Dale.  The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1234.

 

Mirroring

This week I was fortunate to spend several days learning with and from the Franciscan contemplative and spiritual writer, Richard Rohr.  The conversations were riveting, and topics ranged from the spiritual practice of contemplation to the cosmic Christ.  Sooner or later, our discussions always came back around to the questions: “What is the role of the church?  How does the church transform lives?”

Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr

These recurring questions led Richard Rohr to bring up the relationship of a new mother to her baby child.  Pediatricians tell us that when a mother nurses her child, two important things occur, one hormonal and the other psychological.  Hormonally, oxytocin is released in the mother’s milk and in the mother’s own brain.  This is the same swooning hormone released when we fall in love, and the result for the mother and nursing child is similar.  Both find themselves awash in feelings of security, acceptance, and mutual love for one another.

Psychologically, the nursing baby experiences reality for the first time as reflected in the face of her mother.  The child’s very first impression of the world into which she has been born is encompassed by who she sees gazing down upon her.  Psychology Today writer Mark Matousek says, “You learn the world from your mother’s face. The mother’s eyes, especially, are a child’s refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother’s eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love.”

Mirroring in infancy and early childhood is the most crucial way that children learn security, emotional wholeness, and empathy for others.  It is surely a mark of the image of God in us that we can communicate such things from one generation to another through something as simple as an intentional and loving gaze.  This is sublime.

Mirroring

But we also know that the mirroring between mother and child is not always so pastoral or positive.  Some people encounter other, insecure or destructive emotions reflected back to them in their earliest days.  And others still are left bereft of mirroring altogether, by absent or neglectful parents.  In such instances, attachment disorders can manifest, where it is woefully difficult either to receive or extend love.

“Perhaps that is why,” Richard Rohr suggests, “people keep coming to church.  They seek mirroring from Mother Church: the gaze of love, acceptance, grace.  Even if the church has in the past been abusive in its theology, we still approach it in longing.”

I agree, and I would add that this gives the church its enduring purpose and mission.  On some level, all those who walk through the church’s doors are seeking the mirrored reflection of the God, the swooning encounter with the One who holds us securely in the bonds of acceptance and love.  As the church, it is our sacred calling to mirror grace to one another, through our preaching, the sacraments, and even our smallest and most incidental interactions with one another.  Like a mother’s eyes, the church is called to be the world’s refuge—the embodied and reflected gaze of the One who creates us in love—which forms people in wholeness and empathy with spiritual milk.  May it always be so.