June 10 (The Town of Granby’s 250th birthday): “History and Future”

A brief word with communion so that folks could get where they needed to be for the big celebration. I want to send out special thanks to Mike Simpson, Dennis Doucette, Audrey Walker, and many others (including Bob Mason who had to fill in) who pitched in so that our church could participate in this event. (Liam: that bell sounded great!) 

Deuteronomy 32:8-20; 35-39 ; Acts 3:18-26

Today marks a celebration of 250 years since the founding of the town of Granby, preceded 6 years by the founding of our congregation in 1762. It’s astounding to me to be in a place with such deep roots and long history. The housing development I grew up in dated to the 1960s. Compared to that, it’s not so easy here to forget about the many generations who went before us, and who made our living here possible. And we will spend the rest of the day celebrating those generations and our bond with them.

But on a day like today you can’t help wondering: what will history say about me? What will be our contribution to this history? Will we be able to match the marvels of the crowded pews of the 1950s and 60s, or the global charity of the 19th century? (Led by the Woman’s Board of Missions, which was the precursor to Women of the Church). Will we be able even to keep up the maintenance on this building that a rag-tag group in the 1820s raised and furnished with hand-tools (and receiving partial payment, as I read, in whiskey)? History is a summons to fidelity to our predecessors.

But as a church, our fidelity is finally to God, not to our past. And God calls us into the future; Jesus put it with almost callous bluntness when he said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” It is because our fidelity is to God that we are called to be faithful only to the good and true of the past, but we are freed from everything else.

When I went back to the 1968 Bicentennial book about our history, I discovered that a lot of division and disagreement went into the founding of this church. Religious disagreements led to a group leaving Connecticut to found Hadley. When it came time for the “Second Parish of South Hadley,” as we were originally called, to build a larger church, it took 15 years to agree on a location. A group on the west side of town tried to snooker the easterners by negotiating a contract with builders on the sly; when the bill came due, the town refused to honor this illegal contract. (Our building seems to be a frequent source of conflict, doesn’t it? Nice to know that some things don’t change much.) In the early days, despite that parable about taking the lowliest seat, pews were sold to the most prominent families or to the highest bidder, (can you believe people used to pay to sit up near the front?). And then we are told tersely that in the western church “there was a pew for negroes,” as they put it in 1968 (and I really wanted to hear more about that).

History, even in a relatively friendly book about the bicentennial, records our all-too-human chicanery and conniving. And because we know that all have sinned, we should welcome this. We don’t have to proudly defend our past. When the Bible writes its history, as we saw in the Deuteronomy Song of Moses, it goes out of its way both to praise God and confess the faults of the people, who grew fat on God’s generosity and then turned to foreign gods. Only when their power was gone was God able to show compassion. Our reading in Acts took it from there: Only then, did God send the messiah to them, as Moses had predicted. And thus the people were re-rooted and began a new history as “the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors,” so that we could rightly follow God’s ways.

History can help keep us honest to our continuing worldliness and sin. But it is also true that history, like we as a church sometimes, focuses too much on the material, not enough on the spiritual. There’s a lot about the buildings in here. History can’t see the compassion of God. And so it has a hard time recording the fruits of that compassion in us, in all the amazing but sometimes small acts of love, of passionate worship and devotion, of selfless giving inspired by God in this place. Isn’t that what you want history to record? Isn’t that what the church should mean to our town? If our ancestors had been single-mindedly devoted and fruitful in the works born of God’s compassion, history would have had to stand up and take notice. If we hadn’t just assigned a pew for negroes but confessed aloud together that in God’s house all enjoy full human dignity, history would have had to talk about how this church taught this town a much needed lesson in God’s righteousness.

We have been freed from history so that we can make history as God’s New Creation. We are not simply the descendants of our forebears, with all their impressive achievements and very ordinary faults. We are “descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave” them. We receive God’s covenant through our ancestors, but what they preserved for us was the prophets. And the prophets tell us that God above all calls us into the future.

And that is true in this meal. We may think of it as a historical commemoration, depending on how we understand Jesus’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me.” But this meal is a promise of Christ’s continuing presence in our midst. We partake of his body and blood and so become, in all our faults, Christ’s living body today, the very union of God and humanity. Not by magic; there’s no secret ingredient in the bread. (Well, actually it’s lye.) But this rite works because communion with God is the future into which God calls us. “As often as you eat this bread, and share this cup, you proclaim Christ’s death until he comes again.” We don’t just remember Jesus in the past, but anticipate his new coming. “Christ has died (history); Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Let us celebrate 250 years of history today with our fellow townsfolk. But let us here and now confess our past humbly before God, and then eat and drink to the future.

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May 27: “Trinitarian Groan”

Genesis 1:1-5 ; Romans 8:18-27

Ah, the Trinity! (“Groan!”) Get it? That’s my title. The Trinitarian groan. In our minds it’s this dogma that some angry bishop somewhere wants to force us to subscribe to, even though it makes no sense and has nothing to do with me.

Honestly I think that the time is right to get over our groaning and embrace the Trinity. Today, before looking at the Spirit in our readings for today, I first want to show you that the church’s teaching of the Trinity is not abstract and pointless speculation about God’s eternal being; it is about the shape of God in our lives, right here and now. Without the Trinity, we can say God is present here and now, true; God is with us indeed. But the Trinity gives us a better way to say God is with us, with more accuracy and insight and wisdom. And thus the Trinity can give us confidence, which we could use more of.

Here we go: God has been set before the whole world as the Word, as Christ Jesus, the same always and forevermore, and we honor God’s presence in God’s Son in this sanctuary, by reading Scriptures and practicing sacraments and by setting this cross before us; in these ways we are just like all churches everywhere. But God is present here in this congregation in a second and distinct way, since we are a unique constellation of individuals bound in fellowship and love into a singular community; this is God’s Spirit within us. No other church does things just like we do; we are unique, but we are also flawed in how we perform God’s Word. (That was the ending last week’s sermon about the disciples in Acts that I didn’t get to: if we start with repentance and honesty, we’ll have to admit that we are not full of the Holy Spirit as were those first disciples. But we have the Word of God in our bones, in the very stuff of our body as a church. All we need to do is live into who we are, becoming ever fuller of the Holy Spirit; as we do we bring human community to perfection and history to its goal.)

So we could write a story of God at work in us, and it would be a true story about God—do you remember that the love between us is God? But we probably wouldn’t want to make our story required reading in every church. Our story depends on the story of Jesus in relation to the ancient story of Israel. And God works in us to the extent that we imitate Jesus and the disciples and first churches of the New Testament. So that biblical story, that Word of God, provides a permanent and universal access to who God is, a story valid for all of humanity.

All right then: So far we have the Word or story revealing God, and when it comes upon us, the Spirit or effect of that story on us, which we experience as a power that makes us God’s people here and now. But God is also inexhaustible and invisible and mysterious, the source of all. God is expressed in all that is but remains forever beyond, forever inexpressible. And so we acknowledge God the Father or Mother, the mysterious fount of all being, who is utterly beyond us, but to whom the Word or Jesus story has given us real access; indeed, such a dependable and sure access that we can address this mystery as if we are its dearly beloved children; and as we do so we feel the power and life of God taking shape among us, the Spirit.

So there you have it. God the Word or Christ is here (but also wherever Christ is preached) in the pattern of being a people that we have received from scripture and our sacramental tradition. God the Spirit is here (and everywhere else, but always differently) in doing and living this Christ-shaped life in our own, unique way. And God the Source or Mother or Father is, well, not exactly here, although through our living by the Christ-pattern we orient ourselves to God the Source. But we don’t drag the Father down to us, nor was the Father incarnate in Jesus; but in our most sacred moments of worship, we rise above and beyond ourselves to unite with God in eternity.

Isn’t that helpful? It allows us to affirm that God is really with us in our unique way of being a church; but God is also present as the Christ pattern that we share with all churches. And through the way of Christ and by the power of the Spirit, we really participate in God’s eternal life, even while God remains above and beyond us.

And this goes along perfectly with what I have been saying about the truth these past two weeks. We really have the truth in the shape of life that we strive to embody, a shape that comes from Jesus. We have this truth, yet we embody it in a flawed and partial way; the truth of Jesus is both our guide and our judge. But even while we can place full confidence in the Christ pattern we follow, no understanding of the truth can claim to be final and to exhaust the truth of God the invisible source. Truth has a Trinitarian shape. Truth disclosed; truth practiced; Mystery ever beyond. It’s so profoundly beautiful. Some will want to mess it all up by saying: it’s just Spirit, just us doing our own thing. Others will say, there’s only the infallible word of God, only one way to the Father. Still others will say, there’s only mystery, and no one can ever know anything. In a way, these folks are all right; but they are wrong because they break up what the wisdom of the church realized must be affirmed all together, even though it may sound like it doesn’t make sense: God is all of this.

I want us to really appreciate and take confidence in the great gift we have in our Christian way of knowing God as Trinity. Having the right confidence by faith means not being over confident. We don’t have all truth about reality, rather we are humbled by what we do not know. Nor do we even understand God completely. But while God remains mysterious, we have through Christ a sure framework to live out a life in God, to practice God’s truth. And the keystone in that framework of truth, in that arch that shelters us, is the Trinity.

We first celebrated the Trinity after Epiphany, when the mystery of God becomes disclosed in Jesus. But the main occasion is of course today, the Sunday following Pentecost. Today we celebrate the Trinity from the vantage point of the Holy Spirit who continues the life and work of the risen Christ.

Our readings today lead us into the mystery that the Holy Spirit has two sides. We can picture that if we recall that Spirit is the same word (in the two biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew) for breath. And breath always has two phases: a breathing out, and a breathing in. (Can we do that?) When God creates in Genesis, the Spirit (or Wind from God) is there, sweeping over the waters. Then God speaks forth creation, breathing out the Spirit in the shape of the Word: “Let there by light.” And when Christ appears to his disciples in the Gospel of John, he sends them forth into the world, and breathes out on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In decisive acts, God (as the Word) breathes out and shapes and empowers us to be God’s creatures and even agents of salvation.

But we creatures are vulnerable and frail. Psalm 104 celebrates God’s creation of all the kinds of creatures, saying, “When you send forth your spirit, they are created” but “when you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” We easily become dismayed and go our own way. And we also suffer at the hands of others who have gone astray. We disciples of Jesus can easily loose faith in the Spirit we cannot see, especially when we suffer from persecution for our faith.

In chapter 8 of Romans, Paul first reminds the church of Rome that the “Spirit of God dwells in you.” “If Christ is in you all (you the church),” then “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.” So it is that we also are children of God. “When we cry, [as did Jesus], ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” joint heirs with with Christ. Freed by Christ from slavery, we become, together, agents of God’s redemption, in our prayers breathing out the words of Jesus, who himself breathed out God’s Word.

But God also breathes in; God draws the hurt and wayward world back in the direction of its divine source. In doing so, the Spirit receives all the hurt and sin of this vulnerable and fallible creation. Paul writes as someone who has known much suffering, many beatings and imprisonments, just because he was faithfully breathing forth that Spirit of Christ. Now, Paul may have believed that Christ would return soon and the world would end. Maybe that’s what he meant when he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” I don’t know what he would think of my suggestion last week, that the coming of the Holy Spirit is the second coming of Christ. But what’s clear is that Paul knew real suffering and didn’t sugarcoat it. We don’t today know this kind of persecution for our faith, although my friend Peter had to be taken to the hospital last week when he was arrested roughly at a non-violent protest. But the rest of us can at least identify with the groaning of creation that Paul describes: “the creation was subjected to futility,” and longs to be freed from its “bondage to decay.” We can’t claim to be persecuted; but we do know futility, and bondage to decay. Yeah, that gets at it, doesn’t it? I often feel like we as a church don’t have enemies per se, but we sure are subject to futility—it seems pointless sometimes, like it’s going nowhere—and we, like the mainline church across the board, are in decay.

Well, it’s not just us, Paul is saying. It’s all of creation. Like the Psalmist said, everything lives and dies, individual plants and animals, but also human institutions and movements, church programs and traditions, they all live and die. And their lives just as easily seem futile, subject to decay, as they seems a glorious moment of God’s Spirit. Paul is recalling here that, although we have been freed by Christ and live by the Word of Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, we are still vulnerable creatures in solidarity with the vulnerability of all of creation: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (In the Greek it’s singular, “Our body,” maybe meaning our church.)

The Spirit of God does not only breathe out power to us to be God’s church, the continuing presence of Christ’s kingdom on earth, although that is our greatest joy. The Spirit of God also breathes in all of our unfulfilled holy hopes and desires, all of our frustrations—oh yes Lord—our sense of futility; our weakness of faith and sense of incompleteness as Christians; and not only for ourselves (because that would be whining, not groaning), but we express our solidarity with all of creation, with nature in the struggle for life and death, but also the injustice when human selfishness tips the scales of that struggle toward death; and our own subjection and that of humans everywhere to the decay of cancer and Alzheimer’s and the rest, but even more so the injustice of suffering that only exists because someone followed a word of falsehood rather than the Word of truth. Like the burnt offerings of ancient Israel that made a smoke pleasing to the Lord, so we groan in solidarity with all creation, and God breathes in our sorrows through the Spirit: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words.” Our reading translated this by the familiar phrase, “with sighs too deep for words,” but it’s the same Greek word translated before as “groan inwardly” and “groaning creation.” We in our prayers give expression to this universal groaning, because we don’t have the words. We don’t see any meaning for all this, any way that Christ’s life and death and rising could help us make sense of all this futility and frustration and decay and injustice. The Spirit is there in our weakness, our vulnerability, and carries that groaning back to the heart of God. And God “knows what is the mind of the Spirit;” God recognizes this groan of pain and failure born of the Spirit, even though it’s very different from the confident faith we can enjoy by the Word of Christ.

And thus it is that, by the Spirit, the Trinity enables us to turn all of our lives over to God in prayer, both the faith and good deeds we do together in Christ, and the suffering and unfulfilled longing we feel in our own bodies and in solidarity with all of creation. Thus it is that we offer to God both our joys and our concerns in prayer, and in prayer there lives and breathes the triune God. All Glory and honor to the Spirit, who makes us sharers in the triumph and suffering of the Son, through whom we direct all groaning toward hope in the Source of all life, meaning, and beauty in creation. Amen.

Pentecost (5/20): “Resurrection in Motion”

Betty gave us a scare in worship! She had told me she was upset about forgetting to wear red, but really…. 

Haha. We are deeply grateful that she seems to be fine. And having to move church outside and then back to the fellowship hall gave everything a pleasant, spontaneous air, I thought–appropriate for Pentecost. But I didn’t quite finish the sermon. So for those who wanted to see how it ended…

 

1 Corinthians 12:4-11 (Call to Worship)

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21

We brought our Easter series to a close with the gift of the truth. Among many other gifts, the risen Christ has left us with his Word of truth. This truth that we received and continue to receive is well-grounded in the story of Jesus, yet also fluid and flexible and continually new in the Spirit. And that’s exactly the shape of truth that our world needs today. We seem to be torn between rigid, black-and-white truth (according to the stereotype of conservatives) and a loss of faith in any truth beyond our personal opinion (the stereotype of liberals). It’s no wonder that we can have difficulty having good conversations, when our very idea of truth is in shambles.

Truth might be a mess in our world, but it’s not all the world’s fault. Christianity must shoulder much blame for this state of affairs. From long ago the church put itself in God’s place, claiming God’s gift of truth as our own possession and the basis for our absolute authority. We must take responsibility for our culture’s resulting cynicism and loss of belief in the truth, so that for many there is no longer anything beyond my own opinion to which I am responsible. Another word for “taking responsibility” is “repenting.” That is the first step in Jesus’ formula for seeking the truth: repent and believe in the good news. The unique shape of Christian truth that we must reclaim begins with repenting: admitting that I am wrong, I am seeking my way, I do not have all the answers. It’s just the opposite of defensively asserting, I’m entitled to my opinion. We confess our own emptiness, and we can do that only because we believe that God alone is all fullness, and in Christ Jesus risen from the dead we have caught sight of that fullness.

But today we move on to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, I will resist my almost unquenchable desire to get into the theory of the Holy Spirit. I’d love to deal with questions like, what is the Spirit, and how does it differ from Jesus, the Son or the Word. I could talk about the Trinity every week. But I won’t; because next week is Trinity Sunday. I can afford to be a little patient.

And today is not a day for theory, for being in our heads, because the Spirit is about action, about doing, about power. If you have the Spirit, you don’t sit around contemplating it, asking lots of abstruse and refined questions about it in a self-reflective mode. When the disciples received the Spirit, they ran out and started proclaiming; and then they started living a new form of community, so that at the end of Acts 2 we see them freely sharing their goods with each other. The Spirit makes you reach out beyond your own boundaries, makes you get together with new folk and create community and be in it. The Spirit won’t let you retire to your room to write and think. (Which, I admit repentantly, is often where I’d rather be.)

So I suppose we could stop there, toss out the rest of the sermon, and just start doing the Spirit. We could rush out those doors together and start proclaiming and healing and loving. I hope we will do that, soon enough. But unfortunately we still have much to learn and think about when it comes to just the Spirit. Because, I think, there are some misguided ideas about the Spirit out there that are holding us back. We’ve done the same thing to the Spirit that we’ve done to truth: we’ve made it individual. We’ve made it subjective. We think of God’s spirit working only in my life, and perhaps in yours, ‘but that’s none of my business.’ Now don’t get me wrong, God’s Spirit is deeply personal, as we saw last week that the truth of Christ is very personal. You aren’t in the Spirit if only your head is involved, or only your heart—it’s got to be all of you. But there is no private Holy Spirit that is all your own, just as there is no private truth. Consider how we use the word “spirit” in a secular way. School spirit, team spirit, the spirit of a nation. Spirit is what makes a collection of people into a powerful unity. And isn’t that the great question of our day? What is going to unite our town of Granby in its next 250 years? What is going to unite our sorely divided nation? What unites the nations of the world—the spirit of democracy, the spirit of capitalism—or will we all just go our own way?

The question of where and how to find spirit, to find unity amid our freedom, is perhaps the most pressing question of our day. And I want to show you today that we Christians, we the Church of Christ Congregational in Granby, have the answer to this most pressing question. The true answer to this question is right here at hand; it lies in the bones that make us up as a church: this Bible, these sacraments, this building, these leaders and people, this music, this liturgy, this pastor, God willing, and above all this rich Christian language we speak, a language of sin and Christ and redemption, that binds all these bones together like ligaments. I believe the truth is in these bones. The truth is in this Body, this stuff of which our community is composed.

But it can still all be a pile of dead bones. We often feel dry and spent, like our time is past, and even that we have been left for dead. But God can make these bones live. Indeed, we are God’s people; we are Israel. God’s Spirit will make us stand up straight and strong again, as God raised the dead body of Jesus. But notice in Ezekiel that God’s Spirit does this only at the instigation of the prophet’s speaking. God yokes his Spirit to the Word, and it is above all through our sharing and attending to the Word that we will live again. We will all stand alive, together as one; for God’s Spirit doesn’t just change individual lives, it makes a people live as one. We have the true way of life here, at our disposal; and the world needs the truth that we have. We just need to speak it to life, and God’s spirit will empower us to live it.

And this is what happens at Pentecost, according to Acts. Notice first that the disciples were “all together in one place,” apparently sitting. They weren’t each wondering alone by himself or herself, contemplating or whatever. The Spirit doesn’t come to them individually. Neither did Jesus teach them individually; Jesus didn’t have private therapy sessions with each disciple; he taught them together, forging them into a people.

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard that sound in my ear when something intense is going on, when I’m in a dramatic atmosphere where something is happening or about to happen. (Truthfully it was the first time I made out with a girl.) It must be caused by blood coursing through the ear canal, or something. And I don’t know if that’s what the disciples heard. But regardless, let’s pause on that “violent wind.” Now in Greek and Hebrew, the word for Spirit can also mean breath, or sometimes wind. So this wind they heard is definitely the divine spirit. And it is violent-sounding. Acts is conveying to us something of the raw power that comes with divine presence, like the awesome, even terrible presence of God upon Mt. Sinai, making the whole mountain shake and burn. We think of the Spirit as gentle and quiet but she is also mighty and terrible.

Now, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit works on all, on the whole gathering. It doesn’t just pick out some of them to speak for everyone, although Peter later does that. It fills us and unites all of us in the same power. But we don’t completely lose our individuality. You can tell the false spirit of community whenever individuals lose their voice to the collective; the worst examples being fascist collectives where everyone becomes embodied in the single Führer like Hitler. Instead: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Each spoke in other languages, “as the Spirit gave them ability.”

We see the same emphasis on individual gifts in our call to worship, in which Paul describes how the Spirit “allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses,” “for the common good.” The Spirit works collectively but in a way that preserves individual dignity and agency. It fills and takes over a place where people gather, and then works from the outside in, from the collective to the individual. The Word, incidentally, works the same way but from the opposite direction. It works from the individual’s ear and mind and heart and leads us to declare our membership in the group. (Sorry, that’s the Trinity. Next week!)

Back to Acts: Peter then quotes the prophet Joel to show the same quality of God’s Spirit at work. God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh, and then sons and daughters prophesy, young and old have visions, slaves and free people receive the Spirit and speak God’s word. This is radical; women and slaves were the last people expected to prophesy. The Spirit is the great equalizer, bringing power and dignity to those who have been excluded. And so it’s no surprise that at the end of Acts 2 we find the disciples sharing all their possessions and giving to whoever had need.

This is the way community should be—perfected community. Each is respected as an agent with equal dignity. There are a variety of gifts; we don’t all do the same thing. But the variety of gifts will be respected, and the needs of all will be attended to. This is the answer to the question we asked earlier, the question all of human history has been trying to figure out: where and how do we find spirit? Where and how do we find unity amid our freedom? Acts is showing us what real community looks like. It is a shared and equal collective, but one that preserves the role of the individual.

Now we get that last part. Our culture harps on about the freedom and dignity of the individual; we are free to do as we please (if we have the means). But to what end? There doesn’t always seem to be a point to freedom beyond choosing for its own sake. I don’t find choosing among 12 brands of toothpaste deeply fulfilling. Real community respects the freedom of the individual, while directing us beyond ourselves and our freedom and toward God.

And real community unites the people in the room while also reaching out to others from different walks of life. The Spirit empowers us to go out and invite others, speaking their language. This wouldn’t work if we went out proclaiming ourselves—what a fine and upstanding group of folks we are, and wouldn’t you like to be with people as cool as us. That wouldn’t work even if we could say it in multiple languages. The truth we have is not ours, nor is it about us. No, the disciples went out proclaiming God; they declared “about God’s deeds of power.” And people were drawn to them from all walks of life. So then: they found their unity in God; they sought fellowship with all who would join them; and they respected the role of each individual in the group. What we see in Acts is the perfection of human community; individuals coming together exactly as God intended.

And I guess that’s why Peter quotes the weird, apocalyptic stuff from Joel too. Weren’t you wondering what the “blood, fire, and smoky mist” were all about? What is this business about the “sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” This is the weird sounding but actually stock language of apocalyptic, the Bible’s symbolic description of the final coming of God. Peter is using Joel’s fancy, apocalyptic language to say that what is happening with the Spirit and the disciples is history reaching its goal. The Holy Spirit coming in fullness upon the disciples of Jesus is the fulfillment of history, of what creation was put here for, of what human destiny is all about. The Coming of the Holy Spirit is the Day of the Lord, now opening to all nations. God, through the perfect communion of the disciples, is reaching out to all nations to include them in one repentance and one grace. Could it be that this coming of the Spirit on the disciples, history reaching its fulfillment, is indeed the Second Coming that Jesus himself predicted? That seems to be what Peter is saying. Maybe we can dispense with all the predictions of the Second Coming of Jesus, which have always been wrong, and confess that whenever we are in the Holy Spirit as a community, history is over.

Are you ready to be the community living the end of history? Others, and perhaps we ourselves, will have a hard time believing that is what we are. We look like old fashioned, low tech, 250 year-old news. (But we have wi-fi in the sanctuary now, thanks Dave!) Well, dazzling signs have always impressed the world, whether it’s blood-red moons or the latest technological wonder. All of that is beside the point. God’s plan for history is about all of us being united by a common commitment to God’s deeds of power, and all of us being individually respected for our gifts within that unity.

The Church of Christ Congregational is not right now that Acts community in its fullness and power. If we are to speak truthfully, and thus beginning with repentance, then we must admit that we are not full of the Holy Spirit as was the Acts community. But that perfect community is within our reach. It is in our bones. Let us pray, one and all, for that animating power of God’s Spirit to make us into the united, living presence of Christ this day.

Seventh in Easter (May 13): “Set Apart for Truth

This sermon is actually pretty close to the subject of my book (Calvin’s Salvation in Writing). We continued this topic in the Adult (Re-)confirmation class following church. I think what we discovered is that there is a both-and thinking required that is at bottom very trinitarian. So it is true that the truth of the Gospel is not finalized and absolute, and must be personally lived. But that doesn’t make it merely subjective (only in me) or only one truth among many. In a paradoxical (trinitarian) way, the truth of Jesus Christ is final truth just because it includes its own non-finality. Deep discussion!

John 17:6-19; Acts 1:1-11

1 John for Call to Worship

For almost five months now, we’ve been focused on the story of Jesus, from his birth, through his calling and teaching the disciples, to his conflict with authorities, and concluding in his execution and the surprise of his resurrection—the experienced truth that death could not contain this child of God. By now we should realize that the story of Jesus is not just another historical story. We can read about Abraham Lincoln and admire some things, at least, and perhaps draw some lessons from Lincoln for our own day. But the story of Jesus is about God reclaiming our own humanity—now, then, and ever more. This Gospel story about Jesus is the truth of our lives, the most essential reality about the meaning of life with God.

Permit a brief digression. I hear people say that the job of the preacher is to make the Bible relevant to our lives, and that is indeed one way I try to preach. But it is also true that when we properly hear the Gospel about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are hearing what is always true for all humanity, a truth that is nowhere else made so visible and clear. And in that respect, the question to ask is not, how is the Bible relevant to my life? It’s: how is my life relevant to the Gospel? If you really believe in the Gospel, then you will believe that its truth is more real and more “relevant” than whatever you and I happen to be going through in 2018 Western Massachusetts. Maybe the key is not reinterpreting the Gospel to make it relevant to us; maybe we need to reinterpret ourselves. End of digression.

The Gospel story is the truth of our lives. But what is this truth of the Gospel? Beware of easy formulas. If the message of the Bible could be boiled down to a simple formula or slogan, we could dispense with this very long, often confusing book. I think we have to stick with it; and without worshipping the Bible or thinking it inerrant and perfect, I am a proudly biblical preacher. And I believe that when the time is right and we are ready and I’m doing my job well and above all, the Holy Spirit takes over, God’s message becomes clear. I’ve been breaking down what was a surprising and unfathomable event, the great big splash of the resurrection, into a series of hopefully clear ripples that reach us, even from 2000 years away.

Here it is, one last time: The resurrection is first the forgiveness of sin that restores our right enjoyment of creation. God created the world, as a reality distinct from God’s own being, to be a place of becoming and fulfillment in its own proper sphere. Whatever else we become through our special calling to faith in Christ, we remain God’s good creation, and God wants us to justly enjoy the fruits of creation. But maybe we feel unworthy of this, because people have put us down, or we are burdened with shame and regret, or trapped in an unjust path of trying to steal creation rather than sharing it, or oppressed by a sense of duty and obligation that we can never fulfill. Or all of these at once. The resurrection declares to us that we are forgiven, that God does not demand repayment for wrongs nor demand perfection of us. God loves one and all, and there is plenty of room within that love for us to justly and fairly share in the goodness of creation.

The second ripple is the mutual love that we enjoy as a church. This love we share is the same love Jesus shared with God, and with his disciples. John’s Gospel describes this divine and human love most beautifully and wonderfully, as for instance two verses after our lectionary reading for today: “As you, father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” When we share love with one another, we are in God, and God is in us. The love among us is one dimension of the continuing, risen life of Christ. We are reminded by celebrating Christ’s Ascension this week that the singularity of who Christ was, is eternally risen and preserved in God; but his earthly presence is now in us, in the church primarily, and that means above all in our love. Jesus anticipates this meaning of ascension already in our reading from today: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, and I am coming to you.”

And we come today to a final ripple. (Though there are more; ripples always keep coming.) Jesus departs from us in his bodily presence but he leaves us with his truth. Jesus lives on in us because his truth remains in us. In this respect, what makes us Christians is the truth that we know. This theme is interwoven in our reading today: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. .. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you, for the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” And finally, Jesus prays to God: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Faith is knowledge of truth.

What does this mean, “Sanctify them in the truth?” Things sanctified are set apart for God (hence my title). They are dedicated to divine use, to God’s purposes. They are holy. We may be in the habit of thinking of holy things as pure and clean and perfect. Not so: something is holy because it is used for God’s purpose. The bread and wine are holy during use of communion, but they are not permanently changed into Christ’s body and blood, I think. (I’ve several times seen a priest finish off a large quantity of wine rather than pouring out what they understood to be the blood of Jesus in a sink. Great. Now you’ve got a drunk priest, slurring his way through the benediction.)

According to Jesus, we are being set apart, made holy, sanctified for the purpose of bringing God’s truth to the world. That presumes that the world, the kosmos in Greek, does not know God’s truth. This is a big theme from the beginning of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness.” John emphasizes more than the rest of the Bible that the world is in darkness, and only we have the light. Some Christians really love that. I don’t, and it’s not the only view we find in the Bible. But today we must seriously consider that Jesus set us apart to be bearers of God’s truth to the world.

And I think this scares some of us to death. We love coming to church, we love fellowship, we love doing good deeds and acts of charity, but we do not want to think of ourselves as possessing the truth. We are quite content with the right to my own opinion, and with your right to yours. The idea that there are not just opinions out there, but a truth that either you have, or you are dwelling in darkness and falsehood, makes some of us very uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Before anyone starting talking about fake news and a post-truth world, we were already quite content with personal opinion, rather than truth with a capital T. Why is that? What forces at work in our culture seduced us into flattening out truth into mere opinon? And it is easy to dismiss scholarly experts and good journalists by saying they are just as biased as everyone else; one opinion is worth the same as another. It even sounds democratic. Until you sit down and have a conversation with someone who really knows her stuff. That’s happened to me many times. And then I realize, I don’t know what I’m talking about. And that’s ok—that’s what learning is for. Then you are ready to learn. Opinions are not for holding on to; they are for being improved upon. But if you insist there’s no truth, only opinion, you are never going to be ready to learn. Jesus is our expert on God, our teacher, our master, our Lord. He speaks for God; he spoke as one who had authority, as the Bible puts it. Because we believe in him, we need to believe in truth. To believe in God is to believe in truth. / So a guy dies and goes up to the pearly gates, and St. Peter lets him into the holy court of the Lord Almighty, surrounded by the heavenly host, the angels praising God’s name without ceasing, and God says to him, “My son, you’ve lived a life of falsehood.” And the guy says, “Well, that’s your opinion.” It doesn’t work, right? We have to believe in truth. But some of us are very uncomfortable with that.

Some of us aren’t nearly uncomfortable enough with it. But when those of us who are uncomfortable look at how the church has so arrogantly used its supposed possession of the truth, and continues to do so: belittling other very rich and complicated religions without even taking time to try to understand them; dismissing the claims of science; assuming that the Bible is the only source we need for questions of ethics and public policy—when we see this, we are utterly ashamed of the Christian faith and its pretensions to alone bear the truth, to carry the light, even while Christians go about doing heinous and inhumane things, serenely confident in their God-given truth: ‘Only by the name of Jesus can anyone be saved.’ Some Christians seem to think possessing the truth is as simple as possessing a name, as easy as saying J-E-S-U-S. The Bible knows better: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” We are right to be wary of Christian arrogance about possessing the truth.

So what does it mean to be sanctified in the truth? How do we maintain fidelity to Christ’s gift of truth to us, so that faith is not just my own personal opinion and private spiritual journey, but is indeed the faith, a body of truth that I share with all faithful Christians, and by which we enlighten the whole world (for Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world)? And yet how do we avoid the arrogance that we’ve seen Christians fall into, as if we alone possess the truth, as if all others must be wrong, because we have the name Jesus, and the Bible, and true doctrine, and we alone have right judgment?

This is no easy task. Each of us must work together to become God’s community of truth, and each of us has a distinctive task ahead of us. It would be easy if the truth of which Jesus spoke were just some formula that we could memorize, like Pythagorean’s theorem, and then we’d have all truth. There’s nothing like that in the Bible. Nor is there a law for us to memorize that would answer all our moral dilemmas; Paul tells us we are free from the law, but under the much more encompassing, if less precise, demand of living by the Spirit—whatever that means.

But there is a shape of truth, a way that truth properly works, within the Christian church that comes from the way Jesus revealed truth. And even this shape of truth you can’t pick up in an easy lesson, but you have to learn it patiently through guided study of Scriptures, imbibe it from others who are living it, and practice it diligently; and you have to unlearn all the misuses of truth in our world. Doing all that is necessary to be sanctified in the truth. I can only outline this shape of truth. First of all, the truth for a Christian is never his possession. It is God’s truth, and so it is always above and beyond me, and is mine only by God’s grace. We participate in God’s truth only when we confess our own foolishness, our own ignorance, our own sinful blindness. And we know that we never stop being sinful, ignorant fools. Second, God has indeed given us truth, and even a truth that comes to us through words, especially the words of Jesus and the Bible. But these words of truth are again not a formula that I can recite and wield, brandishing them like a weapon against others. These are the words of a human life, of Jesus. Truth is not a formula but a person, not a doctrine but a story, and so truth is something you must live out with the whole of your personal existence and your story. And you don’t witness that truth to another person by arguing him into submission, so that he, admitting defeat, confesses that your formula is correct. You have to understand someone else from deep within, and tend to that person with selfless compassion; but it’s not so simple as just loving and serving and being supporting that other. You may well have to penetrate his or her complex self-deceptions, and unlock many gates put up against God and perhaps against religious folk who have done harm. Paul tells us we are witnessing truly when someone from outside the faith has the secrets of her heart disclosed; and then she can worship God with you.

But how many of us are ready to do that and are capable of so witnessing our faith? How many have been thus sanctified in the truth? We acknowledge this deeply personal approach to truth because we have learned it from Jesus, but we must confess that we are hardly up to it. And even as our whole approach to truth is shaped by Jesus the Christ, we acknowledge that even in him truth is not finalized. The Bible testifies that he is to come again, and complete his truth. Notice in our Acts reading, when the disciples want to know the final truth, when Christ shall restore the kingdom in the last day, Jesus replies: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Just because we know Jesus, doesn’t mean we know everything that God in God’s mysterious authority has in store for the world. And we can only hope that Jesus will come again, for the truth we have is not really complete or sufficient. That’s essential to the shape of Christian truth—it lacks finality. And it’s not even clear, 2000 years later, what Jesus coming again means. Could it simply mean, coming again as the Holy Spirit, the one who sanctifies us for truth? Maybe we’ll find out next week.

 

Pro- or anti-modernist? The case of Ross Douthat

Reading the conservative columnist’s latest, which could be taken as a promo for his book on the subject, I marvel that an intelligent religious conservative can command as unlikely a stage as the Op-ed section of the New York Times. He is rightly disgusted by the bishop-blessed sexed-up fashion parade of Catholic-inspired garb going on at the Met. But that travesty prompts him to proclaim that the Catholic church made a wrong turn at Vatican II, and should instead offer itself as a supernaturalist alternative to modernity–one that even reclaims the Baroque extravagance being parodied at the Met.

These kinds of debates (pro/anti-modern) always make the same mistake: that there is some one, solid thing called “modernity.” And that this one thing, that is not at all one thing, could be evaluated with a simple pro- or anti-.  Still, we mainline (liberal) Protestants do well to be able to hear the (simplistic) concerns about modernity by people like Douthat. It would be foolish of us to assume that all our problems can be boiled down to one: we’re still not modern enough; we’re still too bound by tradition. But fortunately Protestants can’t hanker after the opulence and power-mongering of the Baroque Catholic church. Now if we can just get over hankering after the so-called “Christian America” that either never existed or at least can never exist again…

Sixth in Easter (5/6): “Living in Sacraments”

What a wonderful service–a mother and son baptized! This was my attempt to stay in the series theme and say something kid-friendly and under seven minutes.

Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

The Resurrection of Jesus was the biggest bombshell God ever dropped on creation. Think of a rock, much bigger than this, dropped into a pond: you instantly get the enormous splash, a booming sound, and then…ripples. What happens if you are near where the rock hits? You get splashed. What happens if you are on the other side of the pond?

The first disciples got the big splash. All this power and a flood of new meaning washed over them. Realizing that this one who was rejected and crucified was indeed the Holy One of Israel, vindicated by God, completely overturned their world. If you are not sure what to make of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, which are odd and variable in the gospels, don’t get hung up on it. Paul never saw the risen Christ in the bodily way depicted in the gospels; he had what we could only call a vision of the risen Christ. Waves upon waves of new converts also encountered this big splash of the risen Christ, just from hearing the preaching about him and feeling the power within his gathered community—like the gentiles Peter was preaching to and then baptized in our Acts reading. Their worlds were also overturned. I guess we could say that they weren’t looking when the big rock when in, but they still got hit with the splash and got drenched with the Holy Spirit.

We are on the far, other side of the pond. We have felt nothing of that impact and splash. We would probably never say that the resurrection of Jesus overturned our world. For us, it has been a message we grew up hearing, all wrapped up with the pleasant memories, candy, and egg hunts of the Easters we grew up with. The resurrection doesn’t overturn our world; like the baptism many of us had as infants, the news of the resurrection is a treasured but distant-seeming piece of the world we inherited. If we think of something overturning our world it is more likely to be the I-phone 10 or Trump’s election or the Red Sox winning the pennant. The Resurrection is old, curious, and maybe dubious news. So much the worse for us. Whether we feel it or not, the Resurrection has overturned our world. It’s not just another big splash, after all—it’s why this whole pond is here in the first place.

But we do have one advantage over the first disciples who were there for the big splash. It was all just an overwhelming experience of power and meaning for them. But we receive the calm, orderly, not as exciting ripples, arriving to us one by one. We can count these ripples and appreciate each little surge of energy that rock us, if only a little, up and down.

In these seven weeks of Easter, it is like we feel one resurrection ripple each week—each week carries with it a distinct meaning of the resurrection. And so we have seen: the resurrection is a renewal of creation by the forgiveness of sins, allowing us again to responsibly and lovingly enjoy the good things of creation without guilt or anxiety. Last week we felt a second ripple: we the church benefit from the mutual, self-giving love that Jesus taught us; this love is God’s own new life living among us. And next week, the seventh and last of Easter, we will attend to a final ripple: we have the truth, Christ living among us especially in Word. This truth makes us judges of ourselves and of our world.

But in this wonderful week of baptism and first communion, let us attend to the ripple of Christ’s presence in our midst in the form of the sacraments he personally left with us. Our baptism reminds us, shows us—but more than just show—it enacts, and makes physically real with real water, the truth that our real birth, our true identity as individuals, is found in union with Christ, as children not of human parents alone but of God. The act of baptism might not do anything immediately for you; it might not seem to change you. That’s not the point, although it is the big-splash ideal (as we see in Acts, the power of the Holy Spirit is supposed to go along with baptism). But the point is that my true identity is as a child of God and member of the Body that is the worldwide, timeless church of Christ.

And communion is an amazing act that contains more meaning than we can ever put into words. Note that it demonstrates all the ripples of the resurrection. Communion is an affirmation and enjoyment of the simple goods of creation—bread and fruit—shared without anxiety before God, and shared equally among all people. And it is also a communing with each other, a real enactment of our love for one another, gathered around a shared table, just like family. But lest we become too focused on my personal peace or the love in this room which is God’s own presence, communion also demonstrates that our real existence as a community is not just a bunch of folk gathering in Granby, doing what we please; our real existence is as the one, worldwide communion in Christ, a communion crossing all cultures and languages and races and ethnicities; a communion transcending every era of history; a communion spanning even the divide between the living and the dead. We share this bread and cup with all the faithful in Christ, living and dead, foreign and domestic, because first of all we share it with the Christ who was dead and is now alive.

To crib from JFK: “Ask not what these sacraments can do for you.” Although they can and will do much for you. Rather, remember and live out through them, who you really are [to font], and who and what we really are. “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

 

 

 

Fifth in Easter (4-29): “Abiding in Love”

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

We are digging down into the multiple layers of what the resurrection means for us, and how these layers point us forward to life in the Spirit, which we celebrate at Pentecost. Last week, we dug into the first layer: we are in the first place freed for feasting, for enjoying creation. Christ’s resurrection assures us of forgiveness of sins, freeing us from anxiety about not only our past mistakes, but the infinite call of duty upon us, all the things we become aware of that we could be doing—and nothing brings that home like the enormous scope of our environmental problems. The first meaning of resurrection, then, is recognizable as freedom, the freedom to enjoy the goods made available to us, without self-deception or guilt, by the grace of creation.

But today we go another layer deeper into the good news of the Resurrection: abiding in love. And this next layer is also freedom, but calling it that might confuse us. Because especially we Americans think freedom is purely an individual thing. I am freed from all my responsibilities, all the expectations laid on me, all the roles I have to play; free to be me, to do my own thing. One of our favorite images for freedom, often seen in moves, is zooming down an open stretch of highway, all alone, no cops in sight. And that can be a genuine good of our created being.

But let’s consider the greatest joy I’ve ever known: being a parent. I entered into this freely, I suppose, although it doesn’t always work out that way—and I bet some of you know what I’m talking about. But more than a free choice, becoming a parent grew out of my love for Jessica, and that’s how it should be (again, doesn’t always work out that way). So becoming a father wasn’t at the start really about my individual freedom; I didn’t do it for me. And now that I’m a father, I’m not free to stop being one. Some fathers have tried to stop being fathers; it never works. You just become a lousy father. But the un-freedom of parenthood is bound up closely with the joy of parenthood. My life is now indelibly bound with this other life, and it always will be. I live no longer for myself; I live for another. And in his way, he lives for me, though that mutual love always comes to me like an unexpected bonus (like every time I get an “I love you, Daddy” card). / Parenthood teaches us that the very best joys of life are never had by me doing my own thing. I’ll take being a father or husband over the freedom to go skiing or skydiving or roaring down the highway (on my dinky scooter), any day. Or, putting it differently, real freedom is found only in love. Real freedom is to be freed from loneliness, and to be united with another, with someone beyond yourself. Ultimately, of course, real freedom is found in loving union with God and with all things in God.

But today we’re focusing on abiding in love with one another. We get the message loud and clear from the First Letter of John: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And later: “God is love, and those who abide [or remain] in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This is the strongest and clearest connection made in the whole Bible between the very nature of God as love and what we do as a loving community. We the church, when we are true, have the same essence as God does: love. John’s not saying just that God feels love, but God is love. God’s very being is love. God is not like some Grampa in the sky who is a big softie, spoiling us with goodies and neglecting to correct us. Our triune God’s very life is revealed to be like a loving relationship and mutual giving between the Father or Mother, the source of all, and the loving and obedient child, best displayed in Jesus the Christ, and the loving effects of that mutual giving on the circle of witnesses and followers which includes us—that’s the Spirit. These are three forms of love: the source of love from deep within and beyond all things; the perfection by which Christ displays and mirrors that love from within creation; and the inspiration and growth of love within Godly community. God is all of that; God is love.

God is in the love we share as a community. Really. When you say the word “God,” just throw out that image of the old man in the sky. Throw out the idea of the Wizard of Oz behind the scene of your life, pulling strings. Instead, look around you. God is not only here in this room. But if there’s love in this room, God is in this room. Consider what is perhaps the key sentence, one easily overlooked: “As he is [as God is], so we are in this world.” By our love for one another, we are God’s existence in the world.

That much is clear, although still very mysterious and hard to grasp. It is simple, but we keep wanting to stick God up there in some beyond, or sometimes in me, secluded in my private heart. Even if we grasp what John is saying, we have an even harder time really living up to the love that God is, right here among us. And in an odd way, John’s letter mirrors the evasiveness of this simple truth, that God is love abiding in us, and mirrors our confusion about it. That at least is my attempt to put a positive spin on the fact that I find John’s writing baffling and a little annoying. Every sentence reads like a gnomic utterance, something a robed wise one might say from the top of a mountain. And then another, and another. And the gnomic utterances pile up and seem to jut into each other, leaving you to say, “Wha?” We’d much prefer something like: “Ten (or better, five) easy steps to being a more loving you.” Instead, each of John’s sentences starts from a different beginning; there’s nothing step-by-step about it. He says all of this: You know God by loving. You only know God because God loved us. You only know God (and thus know love) because of Christ Jesus. God only sent Jesus because God loved us. God only lives in us because of the Spirit. God only lives in us because we testify that Jesus is God’s son. Which is it?

Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe John is trying to blow our minds with all the multiple dimensions of the love we have in community. It does seem to make sense for him, because after the jumble of sentences, he comes back to the simple and lucid truth of it in verse 16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,”—in us plural, notice, not in us individually. I think John is brilliantly grasping the profound truth of the Trinity. So whether we are talking about God above, or Jesus Christ revealed in the fullness of time 2000 years ago, or the Spirit which is the power of God among us today, or even if we are talking about us as a loving community—all of this is God, and it all goes together. And if you try to remove any of the pieces, the fullness of the whole thing is lost. You don’t have the God who is love without Jesus Christ; you don’t have God’s love in Christ without the Spirit reaching out to us; but even if you know all about Jesus and the Spirit, you don’t really have or understand the God of love if your community is not practicing love.

It might not boil down to “The five easy steps,” but there is a right order to this Trinitarian display of love. It begins with a proclamation about God first loving us; indeed, John says that: “We love because God first loved us.” God loved first, God chose to be love, we might say. Second, but equal with God’s first loving, Jesus Christ revealed that love long before we were born. This is the message of Easter, when we simply proclaim what God has done.

And indeed, John even seems to say that wherever there is love, there is God. Knowing that the same Jesus who showed us love is one with the creator, we can even proclaim that God is everywhere that love is found. And this would hold for people of other religions, or of no religion. It is not false to say, anyone who loves knows God. (But to be sure, John wants to affirm that the fullness of knowing God as love is to be found in knowing Jesus.)

The order continues: from God’s love first and above us, to Christ’s love beside us but before us, to the love presently found among us. But we can’t proclaim ourselves, if we are honest. God is with us and in us but we are not God. So when it comes to us, what began as an Easter proclamation leads to a solemn charge: “We also ought to love one another.” And even warnings: “Whoever does not love, does not know God.” “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Our Easter proclamation finds its completion in a Pentecost-directed summons: We must complete the love of God in ourselves. We are called to live up to John’s assertion: “Love has been perfected in us.” When we can affirm that, we shall also be full of God’s Spirit, and we shall have no fear.

We are not yet at Pentecost. We are not yet full of the Spirit. Yet I’m not going to dwell on our shortcomings; that belongs in Lent. Easter is the time to deepen our understanding of just what the resurrection means for us. Beyond receiving back the simple joy of being alive, the resurrection also redeems us, delivers us, saves us from bondage to ourselves and frees us for love. It brings us forgiveness of sins, yes, but also fills us with the tremendous opportunity and gift of a new way of life, life of under the reign of love that we would otherwise have no knowledge of. And this life of love is a mighty summons, not to cringe in fear or guilt, but to aspire to perfection. Perfection is possible, because perfect love casts out all fear, and for the reason that we can love because God first loved us.

How perfect is the love among us will be tested. Tested especially whenever we have crises in our community. There will be eruptions of chaos; breeches in the smooth sailing. Marriages will fail. Friendships will falter. Parents will fall short. Children will go astray. People will make mistakes. We will all at one time or another be found in a potentially embarrassing or shameful situation. And our character as a community of love will be revealed not by whether we share a friendly hello in the parking lot; not by our ability to make pleasant small talk at fellowship hour—though these are something like the regular heartbeat of loving one another. But our love will be proven in the moments of trial and how each of us responds to the chaos erupting in another’s life. When that happens, the only safe and loving response is: “I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?” The safe response is to say something directly to the person or people affected, reaffirming our indelible love for one another, just when that person is wondering, will that love still be there for me now? And beyond direct words of love, we should hold silence. As soon as we say to a third party, “Did you hear what happened to…,” we are in dangerous territory. We might say that out of love, out of concern, but information also becomes currency in the market called gossip. And I catch myself thinking, “Wait ‘til so and so hears about this one.” Believe me, Ginette and I are tempted to gossip about all of you in the office. But that’s not loving. That’s just giving ourselves a rush by divulging third-person secrets.

This church has done that, like just about any other community. And each little act of it seems relatively harmless: I’m just going to tell so and so. But as a result, there are people who no longer want to entrust the chaos of their lives to us for compassion and healing. There are those who no longer believe that God’s love can reliably be found among us, pure and true. And the loss of that trust means the difference between someone finding God’s own being here in our loving midst, and finding disappointment, the same old disappointing humanity that we encounter just about everywhere.

Thanks to Christ we have this tremendous gift, the gift of establishing a community of real love and absolute trust in one another. Where else are people even trying to do that? But as First John reminds us, this gift is also a momentous responsibility. We can lose the divine presence among us, every time we speak and act falsely in a time of each other’s need. We can dispel the Spirit of God, the love of God in us, with a mere thoughtless word. There are times in the church when everything, God’s own being, is riding on the smallest word.

The life we share in Christian community is no free ride, knowing God will forgive us anyway. But neither do I mean to say that we should be paralyzed with guilty and fearful consciences; perfect love drives out fear. Life in Christian community is neither easier nor harder than ordinary life, it’s just way more intense: the goods are higher, the bads are lower, because we are living in the presence of the eternal and perfect God. Let us honor this life, not in fear but in joy, celebrating the many times that we have brought the love of God to each other with just the right word, gesture, or feeling, and anticipating that at any or maybe every moment, that opportunity will present itself to us again. And when you hear that temptation poking you, saying: “Ooh! Can’t you hardly wait to tell so and so about this?” Say “Be gone, Satan! I’m going to let love and compassion and mercy and justice rule in my heart and my word and my deed, to the glory of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us.”