Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 19 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
“In the fullness of time, reconcile all things in Christ and make them new.” Every week in the eucharistic prayer we stand in the midst of this vision, this yearning and urgent hope, for universal redemption, reconciliation, renewal. And this week and the next, the readings we are given show us ways of trying to imagine that horizon of possibility, and how we might find traces of it even here, even now.
The climax of the revelation of John of Patmos is a stunning piece of poetic imagination, not least because, in a tired bad world of empire, John envisions a “new heaven and a new earth” which is both something entirely different from what we are living, and at the same time our very own heaven and earth, restored to their own truth. The holy city which he imagines comes down, comes here, comes to fulfill this world, this city, not to replace it or to escape from it. The home of God will be among mortals, down on the earth, in the meat world, the dirt world, our very broken world. And there will be food for the hungry, and comfort for the broken-hearted, and water for all who thirsty – not the good, not the deserving, not the rich or the strong – we receive the water simply by virtue of our thirst.
If it seems ungraspable in our hard time, this vision, we need to remember that the text comes from a time no better. John wrote his book as another empire was drawing towards it end, and most of his text is a terrible, terrifying evocation of what the fall of an empire really looks like, and what the human cost inevitably is. Babylon is burning, and the sea is poisoned, and the merchants are weeping over their lost market value as people die. But in this beautiful final chapter, John dares to believe that if we can hold together as community through the worst, there will be something beyond the burning, something fragile but redeemed, capable of renewal. A beloved community of healing and life.
Most of this we cannot control. There are mechanisms of power and evil, the implacable movement of death; there is also, we believe, the great arc of God’s grace, bending heaven and earth slowly, beyond our understanding, in the direction of life. The reconciliation of all things is not an event we can even imagine within historical time as we experience it. And yet, here within our historical time, we do have choices. We can choose, as John of Patmos urges, to endure, to hold on, to struggle against compromises with empire, to stay loyal to life and truth.
And the means of doing that is that simple, implacable, terrible commandment – love one another. No qualifications, no exceptions, no get-out clause. It’s three words in English, in Greek only two. It does not get much more basic, and it does not get much harder. It is not really particularly new in substance – it is all over the Hebrew scriptures, in a variety of expressions – but it is stripped down here to its essence.
Consider the context in which these words are spoken. Jesus and the disciples all know that there is a conspiracy to kill him among the religious and political leadership, and Jesus himself seems certain that he will not live through the next day. He has shared a meal with them, and then he has knelt before them and washed their feet, that intimate astonishing gesture, the work of slaves and women. He has given bread and wine to the one who will betray him to the authorities, and told him, “Do what you are going to do, and do it quickly.” And the betrayer has gone out into the night. Only after all these things does Jesus deliver this commandment. It is at this hardest point, most of all, that we must love. Love the faithless and the fearful, the killers and the collaborators. In the worst of all nights, at the sharpest edge, love them.
Now, loving people does not necessarily mean loving everything they do, or letting them to do any damage they want in the world. Jesus spent a good part of his life trying to make people change their behaviour, though not in the way which some Christians might have you believe. Instructions which feature prominently include selling all your possessions and giving the money to the poor, not judging women for what you imagine about their sex lives, maintaining honesty and faithfulness in relationship, and placing human need above arbitrary laws and standards. The gospel specifically states that Jesus loved the rich young man who came to him for advice, but the advice he gave was demanding, and apparently too much for that rich man to accept. Nothing about loving each other implies that the super-rich should be allowed to continue exploiting the rest of the world’s population, or that hatred based on faith or ethnicity, or indeed any other thing, should be allowed to flourish unchecked. We are required to stand against these things, scripture tells us this over and over, and active resistance to injustice is a part of love. Love can be fierce and uncompromising.
Yet though Judas may choose to go out into the night, for as long as he remains the Word Incarnate will feed him, will bend to wash his feet.
It is not easy. Peter’s dream—a striking and important example of how the church can change, how the borders of “clean” and “unclean” can be erased, and an outcast group brought in—did not exactly make his life simpler. The conviction which he gradually developed, that God was working among the Gentiles too, led to conflict with his own community as well as greater conflict with the Roman authorities; he had to struggle against his own desire to exclude the strange and unfamiliar, against the religious community to which he belonged and which he would not leave, and against all the forces of empire already ranged against him—as queer Christians and their allies still struggle now.
And it is not easy to hold in tension the imperative of resistance and the imperative of care, to fight the forces of hatred and power with all of our selves, to hold up the standard of justice, and yet to be willing to wash the feet of Judas. We will not get it right, we will fail in all directions, and we must accept that in ourselves without letting it be an excuse.
And as the empire falls, and lashes out in its fall, as it burns and we are caught in the burning, still we hold on. We do what is given to us to do in this meantime, in this bad time. We hold threads and fragments of community. We plant our small gardens; we build our small spaces of trust and care, among ourselves, with our neighbours, with the strange and the different and those we have called unclean, knowing there is risk, knowing there is need. We live in the tension between the demands of acceptance and the demands of justice, between this moment in time and the vision beyond history. We live in the space between alpha and omega, where all language is contained. We pray, we work, we wait. We build the place which can receive the new heaven and the new earth, the holy city, here in the midst of the city of our struggling lives.