Monday, May 25, 2009

All You Need is Love: A Sermon on the Sunday After Ascension

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

We have come to the seventh Sunday after Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension. Jesus has been raised into heaven. Even though we’re still shouting alleluias, even though we’re still saying “Christ is risen!” it all takes on a different quality on the Sunday after the Ascension. For now it’s really over. He is risen indeed. He came back to us and then, as he said he would, he returned to his father. Jesus in the body is gone, like the landlord who departs from the vineyard and goes on a long journey, leaving us to be his voice in the world, calling us to use the talents he left with us.

Today’s Gospel is a haunting piece. It’s a text of departure, Jesus’ last words to his disciples. The hour is very near. Jesus has done the work God called him to do, and now it’s time to see whether we understood what he was about, whether we heard and saw truly what Jesus came to teach. We’re left in this world to do the work of God. Salvation is not a done deal. The evil one is real. He’s going to make an appearance very soon down in the Kidron Valley: scary evil, the kind that makes people betray their best friends: Jesus will be arrested, Peter will draw his sword, the disciples will scatter. It is haunting, knowing that this is going to happen, as Jesus says, “I guarded them.…I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

As long as we are in the world, Jesus says, we must deal with evil. We cannot make it go away. Even Jesus’ death and resurrection did not make it go away. No matter how hard we try, we cannot make it go away any more than we can make the morning fog go away. I can’t fight the morning fog, or design vast programs to rid the world of fog. On foggy mornings, I put on a coat and go forth.

Jesus did not come to change the world, he came to show us how to live in it. Over time, if we practiced life as Jesus taught it, the world would change, but not all at once. Also, as the world changed, so would our understanding of what Jesus came to teach. Such is the nature of spiritual practice. It is change, but slow change. Jesus left before it was apparent he had done much of anything. He didn’t form a political party or write a set of doctrines – all that would come later, as the people left behind tried to figure out what it all meant – Jesus came simply to show us the way through human illusion so that we might see the truth and be strengthened by it. Jesus only showed us how to live in the world as it really is. Jesus came to offer a coat to a people unable to find their way in the world’s foggy morning. In this image of fog is the blindness, the deafness of people in the world, the deafness and blindness of what passes for human genius. I cannot see what I cannot see. I cannot see what I need most to see. I need help. I need a community and a practice. I need a guide to help me take the steps that need to be taken. I need Jesus. And now Jesus is ascended to the father and it is up to us to continue his work of love and healing.

Today, many Christians equate salvation with getting into heaven after you die, which can sound a lot like getting into a good college as a reward for getting good grades in high school. Because we don’t know what to do with the reality of evil in the world, with the fact that sin and death haven’t gone away, over the years, this version of salvation has been promoted: be good and you’ll get to heaven, with not much thought about what Jesus means to life on earth. Which is to say that the “world” that Jesus is saving us from is not the same as the earth. Earth is God’s. World is man’s. But since individuals are easier to manage than communities, over the past five hundred years, this image of personal salvation has replaced others. Salvation is now the supreme achievement of a life measured by individual achievement. The Reformation theologian John Calvin viewed earthly success as the outward and visible sign of my being chosen by God. The Reformation itself didn’t like the compromises of community and so replaced impure people with what they thought was pure Scripture, which soon became a private act of reading and a provoker of arguments. Slowly, over the passage of centuries, community life gave way to individual life, because the locus of the divine wasn’t in community, it was in a book, and upon me and my salvation. The mega churches understand this: they can, from the outside, resemble one stop personal salvation service stations, complete with rock bands, couples counseling, espresso bar, gym and summer cruise vacations with the Pastor. “That they may be one as we are one” can be transformed into building up the Christian team, getting people on the right side, so that they can then go out and whomp the Muslim team, or even their own opponents in the Church, on the great playing field of life. Sometimes, of course, the mega churches find God, too, and are transformed.

It serves to remind us that any successful organization stands a long way from that night in Jerusalem when Jesus was dragged away to be killed, shattering his own organization, shattering every answer that his disciples thought they had.

All this came home to me when I again watched the film “Jesus Camp” with my 8th grade religion class. If you haven’t seen the film, it revolves around youth pastor Becky Fisher who runs a really slick Evangelical meeting: children speak in tongues, weep, wash away their sins with bottled water, preach and cover their mouths with red tape as a protest against abortion. I could say a lot about it – my students certainly did – but for today, I’ll share just this one moment, because it was pivotal to my own articulation of the faith I proclaim. Near the end of the film, a liberal Christian talk show host named Mike asks Becky, “Doesn’t it bother you that you are indoctrinating those children?”

“No, Mike,” she says. “It doesn’t bother me. The Muslims are indoctrinating their children, so why shouldn’t we?”

That, of course, represents every liberal’s worst fear: a Children’s Crusade on behalf of the Republican Party.

But that was not what hit me. What hit me was the Becky Fisher herself considered building the church as an act of indoctrination. Nowhere in the whole film does she touch on Jesus’ most important word, a word which we hear in today’s Gospel, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Jesus is not a doctrine. I cannot indoctrinate you with him. He is the truth. I can only tell my truth and wait to hear yours.

That Jesus goes to the cross suggests that we don’t find God in our moments of radiant success, but when everything that we are is shattered by apparent failure. I say apparent, because the older I get, the less sure I am that there’s really any such thing as failure. I think failure is the world’s word, used to scare me into submission to it. What the world call failure may just be God’s way of helping me let go of what the world tells me I should want and listening to what God wants.

Which brings me to my final observation. Today’s teaching is all about letting go. Spoken at the threshold of the cross, it says that letting go is never easy – it may be the hardest thing I will ever do. It may very well look like failure. But what looks to me like failure may only be the breaking open of my heart. It may only be my illusions shattering. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted by illusions. So also, was he tempted at the end. Judas is necessary, not because Jesus had to be betrayed, but because Judas succumbed to the temptations that Jesus refused. Judas’ story shows us the terrible unhappiness that comes when I place my own ideas of what is right above all else. Jesus’ story shows us what happens when you let your heart be broken.

Being about love, Jesus is not a “he.” Jesus is “we.” Jesus and God are one. Jesus is “we.” Jesus ascends so that instead of holding on to him, I might become him, one with God, one with you. God loves each and every one of us. The path to God is not to assert myself over and above others; it is to realize that those I call others are really inseparable from myself. If I am in conflict with them, I am also, at some level, in conflict with God. All the fights and divisions in the church today are God’s way of telling us that it is time to grow up.

How do we know how we’re doing? There’s really only one test. We know that we’re doing God’s work the more we love other people, the more we love creation, the more we love the animals, the trees, the birds, the insects, even that person across the hall who’s driving me crazy. God’s work is the work of love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Evil remains real, and love, only love is strong enough to stand up to it.

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