(a sermon for April 24, 2016, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on Revelation 21:1-6 and John 13:31-35)
One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups, the Beach Boys, has to be Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It came out originally just about 50 years ago – if you can believe that! – in 1966, but it’s a song that still holds up even after all these years; it’s bright and fresh and leaves you feeling good. Which is interesting, because in many ways this song is typical of most of the popular music that came out in that era: you know, boy loves girl devotedly, girl loves boy forever, but boy and girl are tragically torn apart by circumstance; in this case, they’re just too young. But in this particular song, there’s something different, something almost theological about the lyrics:
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,
And we didn’t have to wait so long?
And wouldn’t it be nice if we could live together
In the kind of world where we belong?”
– “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Here’s a song that’s just chock-full of a profound sense of longing; that feeling of knowing that there’s something wonderful right there before you, but you can’t quite grasp it; and maybe, “if you think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true.” And unless I miss my guess, there are many of us in this room who have known that feeling at one time or another in our lives.
I remember this very well in the years after I graduated from high school; I mean, I knew that I was no longer a child, and that I was supposed to be at least close to adulthood, but it didn’t feel like I was there quite yet. It was more this feeling of being caught between two worlds; knowing I couldn’t go back to being a kid (and not really wanting to), but continually reaching out to the adult world, only to fall just a little bit short in my grasp! Of course, eventually I embraced and was embraced by the adult world; but right then, there was this aching inside of me for what I knew was coming, but which wasn’t real just yet.
My sense is that most of us can tell similar stories; because the fact is, longing is very much a part of what it means to be human; and furthermore, longing is very much a part of the Christian life! Now, at first that might sound kind of strange, but stay with here: in faith, you see, we are a people who live between the now and the not yet. On the one hand, by the power of God in Jesus Christ and guidance of the Spirit, we have been redeemed, restored and empowered for the living of these days; and that means this day, right here and right now. You and I are pilgrims on an on-going journey of faith; we walk the way of this life in the company of God! In fact, at the very heart of it all, that’s why we’re all here this morning; everything about our worship, our songs and prayers and proclamation, serves to give thanks and praise for that continuing presence in and through our lives!.
But that having been said, we are also a people who live unto a vision as yet unfulfilled; we are the people of a promise that is within us but which still stands before us. Jesus spoke of this dichotomy often to his disciples: that “the kingdom of God is among (or within) you,” (Luke 17:21), yet at the same time you “know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13) when it will come in its fullness.
We also see this in John’s vision of a new heaven and earth in our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation; a vision of the time after the End, the culmination of all things, the achievement of God’s final goal. Understand that this is the promise not of reformation, nor of a change from what already exists in the world, but rather the assurance of a completely new creation where God will live with humanity in a relationship of concern and comfort. In this new creation, we’re told, “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” for God will have made “all things new.” It will be a “holy city” of believers gathered around the very presence of God; because all the barriers that have ever existed between God and humanity will have been destroyed forever.
Now, obviously this vision is “not yet.” We know all too well that in this world, pain, suffering and death not only exist but seems to thrive. On any given day, the news is filled with painful reminders of how far from ever living in unity with one another, much less living in unity with God; story after story of violence, abuse, hate-mongering and purposeful divisiveness. Even in the church, the one place where you might hope to find some concrete examples of God’s dwelling with humanity, so often our own disunity, not to mention our inherent human weakness puts us at cross purposes with the vision, and we end up building more barriers than we tear down!
At times the vision seems beyond our grasp; and yet, friends, it’s right there before us! We feel it, for in the risen Christ we’ve experienced it; and in faith we know it’s true! We worship in sure anticipation of its coming, and we affirm it in our prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even given the state of the world around us, as Christians we live unto the promise that it will not always be this way. We dwell in this place between the now and the not yet, affirming what we have seen of the holy city of God in the person of Jesus Christ; and we long for that glorious moment when the promise will be fulfilled and our God will make all things new.
Of course, understanding, that our longing encompasses more than just our sighs; it involves the whole of our lives.
Our gospel reading this morning comes at a moment just prior to the events of the crucifixion. Essentially, these are words of farewell: Jesus knew that this would be his last opportunity to speak with his disciples, and so at this point he gives them a special word: “I give you a new commandment,” he tells them, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.”
In one respect, there was nothing new about that that teaching. After all, the law and the prophets taught about love toward others, and Jesus himself had already said the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s neighbor. But this time, it was different; this time, Jesus was speaking of love with a deeper dimension: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus was challenging his disciples to love in a way that’s not mitigated by law, or merely in keeping with what’s required but rather to care for each other with a love that is self-sacrificial, to give of themselves wholly in love; which was precisely the kind of love that Jesus was giving; the kind of love that he was about to demonstrate on the cross.
“In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” (The Message) In a way more so than any of the others, this was the commandment that would bind his disciples together as a community of faith. And it continues to be the commandment that shapes our very purpose as the church of Jesus Christ; it is what gives us the hope that we can transcend even our own human propensity to fall into the old habits of divisiveness and in fact build one another up! Love one another: with this new commandment, Jesus calls us to a new way of life. In Christ, we are bound together in a new unity; his death and resurrection draws all of us together as one community founded on his blood and built on the very example of his love.
And the thing is, if Christ is indeed our glimpse of the reality of God’s promised kingdom – a foretaste of God’s new creation – then as we love one another after the manner of Christ, then we are living the reality of that promise. Our longing for the vision to come becomes pro-active; we live as though it has already come to be; in the midst of the old, you see, we are living in the new! It’s what the theologian Robert Macafee Brown was talking about when he described the Christian community as “People of Coming Attractions.” We are the people who confidently and joyously live our lives now in the way that it’s going to be!
To be sure, this is a high ideal; both personally and for us as the church? I mean, the very idea of modeling ourselves and our lives after the manner of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem!” To live life in such a way that casts away judgment, worry and concern in favor of the same comfort, healing and wholeness that Jesus shared and embodied among the people; to love one another – and that means all the “one anothers,” not just those with whom we’re comfortable – as Jesus Christ loved us; to embrace all of creation as brand new, and worthy of every bit of care that God has bestowed upon it! Think of it; think of us actually living as though God were dwelling among us!
That’s not as flip an assertion at it may sound – for indeed, sometimes in this “now but not yet” world, so often we govern ourselves as though God were little more than an absentee landlord; in that we we put God at a distance from the reality of our lives as persons and as a people. Theologically, we confess otherwise; but that’s not how we live.
I was struck that in the original Greek, that passage that refers to God dwelling with humanity actually translates as God tenting with humanity, which means that God and God’s people will share the same tent and the same ground. Historically, that hearkens back to the nomadic tradition of Israel and of a wandering people making camp in a promised land. But for me, when I hear the word “tenting,” I think of camping trips I’ve made with family or friends, when all of us dwelt huddled together in one tent! Trust me, friends, when you are sharing the same tent and the same ground with a bunch of people – and it’s cold, and it’s raining, and the tent’s starting to leak – your relationship suddenly becomes very close! You know your tentmates, and your tentmates know you; and so your behavior adjusts accordingly!
Well, when we live in that knowledge that God is “tenting” with us in every aspect of our lives, our behavior is bound to change! It becomes a relationship so close that it spills over into every aspect of our lives as persons, as a people, and yes, as the church. It affects how we deal with each other; our relationship with God changes every other relationship in our lives. And it moves this whole business of “loving one another” from theory to practice; to care for others not out of obligation, nor some misguided sense of what’s fair, deserved or – God help us – whatever happens to be politically and socially correct this week. Tenting with God, you see, means loving as Christ loves us, and as God’s kingdom demands!
I know… it’s not easy for us to live that way; but then, it never has been. I think that’s why Jesus called his disciples “little children,” because when it comes to love, we are all just like children who are yearning for so much more but always just seem to fall short of the mark. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep on yearning, and trying… because here’s the thing: sometimes, by God’s grace and leading, we get it right; and eventually, as we keep working at it, we’ll know love – true love – in all its fullness.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up, in the morning when the day is new?” Wouldn’t it be nice if “peace on earth” was the reality for our lives together? Wouldn’t it be nice for justice and love to prevail in all things, with the hungry being fed with good things? Wouldn’t it be nice for mourning and crying and pain to be gone forever? Wouldn’t it be nice? Oh, yes, it would; and the day will come when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled for a new heaven and new earth. Not yet, but someday, soon and very soon… but in the meantime, let us truly live unto that promise; loving one another and living out the reality of a new creation that is even now fashioned by the one who is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
And truly, for all these promises fulfilled, let our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry