This one went a different direction than originally planned. That’s why the title is not really on the mark.
Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5 John 14:23-31
This current sermon series began with Easter’s affirmation of the new life enacted eternally in the risen Christ Jesus. Because his death was not the last word about Jesus, the church continues Jesus’ vision of the New Jerusalem, so beautifully depicted in our reading from Revelation. Without intending it to be so, I have made this sermon series into a kind of extended second inaugural sermon. That’s fitting. It’s been seven full months since I first stood here and asked you whether you experienced genuine power in your worship. I began with worship because I think it should be the foundation of everything the church is and does. And because I like bucking trends: the byword these days among church leaders is “Mission First!” But I think we first have to learn how to be, before we are ready to go and do. And so I began preaching about the rich mysteries of the faith as I have come to understand them, in part. I wanted to assure you that the faith we have inherited, although many of us have lost confidence in it, is really quite sound. It was an abstract way to begin, true. But I couldn’t really talk about you then, or about us, because I didn’t know you. Now, after seven months, I’m getting to know you, enough to be able to sketch some possibilities for how we can live this new life in Christ together. And that is what this juncture of the Christian year is all about. Holy Week and Easter remind us and assure us that something permanent and eternally valid happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. “It is finished,” said Jesus from the cross. We cannot and need not be God in person as Jesus was; we cannot reconcile the cosmos to God by our little actions here in Granby. And yet Jesus gives his new life to us and takes our lives up into his own continuing, risen life.
That’s one of the great “and yets” of Christian faith. We are created good and yet fallen; fallen and yet forgiven; forgiven and yet transformed. The kingdom of God is here and yet is still to come. “And yet” are two little words that carry in them the profound logic of Christian faith. And in our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus is going away and yet “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit…will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” It’s a bit of a paradox: Jesus is not going to be with us any longer, but the Holy Spirit will be with us, and in a way, therefore, Jesus will continue to be with us, perhaps even in a better way. Jesus announces this paradox like some great Zen teacher: “You heard me say, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’” So when he goes away, we will receive the Spirit in his name, sent by the Father, by God the unbounded origin of all, and after all, Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I.” So we should not be afraid, just because Jesus is no longer with us in the flesh. God’s Spirit will simply remind us of all the words Jesus spoke, and yet the Spirit will teach us everything. Our continuing Christian life, that is, will be in fidelity to Jesus message in the flesh, but will also be new. And as we approach Pentecost in just two weeks, when we see ourselves as the church of God’s living Spirit, we are trying to discern how to live in fidelity to this perfect life of Jesus, yet in the new way that is appropriate for our time and place. We are shifting our focus from 2000 years ago to today.
I’ve challenged you who could be more involved to do so, for thus you will more and more participate in this new resurrected life of Christ. You who are involved I challenged to encourage and receive others, and to be involved according to the Spirit of God, not according to your own desires and egos. And last week we talked about what kind of ways we could be a powerful force for good in our community and world. I think those responses are still coming in, so I will report back on that soon. In these last two weeks, I want to talk about how we can form ourselves into a cohesive, faithful, spiritual, and effective community of God to be able to accomplish these great tasks.
There’s so much talk out there about how to revitalize a church; there are programs and initiatives that make big promises. I’ll talk next week about some concrete things we can do, and I’ve been asking you for ideas. But listen first to the description of the New Jerusalem, for ultimately this is what we are called to be: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The city does not need external, merely created light to conduct its business, for God’s glory is its light. God’s glory provides the illumination, the clarity, the purpose, the goal. And its lamp is the Lamb: God’s glory is shaped and conveyed by the example of Christ, by the one who gives all to God and receives all from God.
I tell you this: our biggest problem is not that we are not friendly enough, or that we don’t have enough participation, or that athletics scheduling is taking our youth away, or that personality conflicts and personal agendas are getting in the way, or that we’re too cheap, or that I am not as organized as I should be and my sermons are sometimes hard to follow. These are legitimate contenders for genuine problems. But I think our biggest problem is that the Glory of God is not our light. I know that sounds like just the kind of annoying thing that a preacher would say. But it’s true. We too easily forget, and I think we have indeed forgotten, that God’s glory is the sole unifying principle for everything we do here. This is not your fault. It is an endemic problem across mainline churches. There are far too many churches, including perhaps ours, for which God is a peripheral matter. Let that sink in. Churches for which God is a peripheral matter. What does that look like? Well, if God has become peripheral, then other things rush in to fill up the empty space: church activities become about maintaining our own traditions and festivals; worship becomes about our favorite hymns and personal tastes in what we like; our fellowship becomes about securing our friendships and avoiding those we don’t like; our governance becomes about winning or losing. These things aren’t all bad; they are human. But they are hollow. A church without God as its light is a dark and empty church. Without God as its light, the activities the church does will lose their meaning and inevitably cease; the worship will grow cold and devolve into demanding our favorite hits; the fellowship will die out or fly apart. And the world no longer needs us to be a quaint and old-timey place for people to connect. We have the web, we have bars and coffee shops, we have shopping malls and secular festivals to keep us occupied. What the world needs is a New Jerusalem whose light is God’s glory; “The nations will walk by its light.” As it is, the nations are not exactly waltzing along in peace and harmony. They need us to be the open-gated city of God’s light./
Once again: you are not to blame for this problem. In our era, it is hard to have genuine faith and total confidence in God, so that we can let all the other distracting lamps and flash bulbs go dark for a while and let the lamp of the Lamb shine above all else. Here’s a test to prove the difficulty: can you say to yourself, not just, ‘I believe there is a God,’ or ‘there’s me and you and all this stuff, and that’s not everything, there’s also a God out there somewhere.’ That’s a dim light, but not much to run a church on. You can do a little better by looking to Jesus as your lamp; it helps to say I believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior, our Lord and Savior. But those words can ring hollow for many too. Try this for a test: not just “God’s out there,” and Jesus is nice too; try “I believe God is more real than me, and you, and all this stuff around us.” Try, “I believe only God is real; and me and all the rest of this stuff might as well be nothing, except that God chose it as the darkness in which to shed God’s light.” Now that’s hard. That’s mystical faith; you got to be a mystic to really grasp that God alone is real. But that may be what it takes for a church in our difficult days to have a bright lamp of glory. And I’m not there. God often seems distant and peripheral to me, while the flash and power of our world clamors so eagerly to be recognized as all there is. But if the moment is right, if my heart is soft, if my mind is sharp and well-focused, I get these mystical glimpses, and like a flash of lightening in a dark storm, I see just for an instant the true lay of the land. And then, just for a few seconds, the clap of shudder and awe reverberates through me. And I made it this far, which is not very far, not because I am a spiritual natural, or some kind of religious prodigy. But because I looked very diligently for the best possible interpretation of the lamp of the Lamb as a portal to the Glory of God; and I taught myself to see how pale and garish and wan are all the other lights that we try to use to illuminate our darkness. This took me years of hard labor, all because faith in our day is difficult, and there are many cheap substitutes for real faith to be avoided. But my work has paid off; and even if the results still look rather meager, the currency I’m being paid in is very grand. And I’ve been trying to share it with you. The faith that has been given to us is very rich indeed, a brilliant light; and the sickly lights that beckon to us from outside our faith—even the marvelous sun and moon of our natural world—and not worthy of our human dignity. They work ok to allow us to pass through life. But not in the church. A church whose light is not the glory of God and whose lamp is not the Lamb will soon go permanently dark. Don’t despair, and think that pale light and dimly burning wicks are all we can hope for. God still has more than enough light to shine the way for the church. I have seen it.
How do we cultivate this light of God’s glory? How do we learn to turn down and shut out all the other light pollution around us so we can begin to recognize the lamp of the Lamb? I’ll talk next week about more concrete ways that we can shape ourselves into a spiritually more powerful, illumined body, and to expose the inadequacies of the other lights that would try to outshine God. But I want to emphasize something else in our reading from Revelation that goes along with what we’ve seen so far: “People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
There are some murky phrases there, but what I take from it is this: the City of God is a place for the best of what is honorable and capable of glorifying God. It is not a place for things unclean. It is a place for what is holy. Or in language more familiar to us, for what is excellent.
Do you believe this church deserves what is excellent? What is holy? What is worthy of God’s glory? I failed to make a sermon response for this week, but I want you to ask yourself these questions. Ask yourself about whether you grasp the holiness of the church as you are coming forward in a few minutes to receive Holy Communion. I’m not sure that’s how we see it. It often seems to me that we see church as a place fit for what is cheap and easy. Not all the time. Some of you give your best to the church. You know you have to, because we have such a limited budget. When the fire inspector so dictated, Dave and Bob built a beautiful railing for the balcony stairs. We didn’t have money in the budget for that. The Women of the Church make wonderful food for funerals especially, like the food we had yesterday at Darcy Henry’s service. They put their love and excellence into it. But other times I think we say to ourselves, “It’s just for church. Let’s buy something cheap!” “Let’s cut corners!” Or, “Let’s find the easiest way!” You rightly don’t want to waste the church’s money, but are you forgetting that the church is the place of God’s glory? Are you begrudging to the church the excellence you would expect for yourself or your family?
I know we don’t do this out of a lack of love for the church, for which I see evidence every day. It’s a matter of attitude. We’ve forgotten that the church is to be a holy place. That what we do for the church, we do for God. The standards we expect for ourselves as private citizens should be more than matched when it comes to what we do for ourselves as citizens of the City of God, the New Jerusalem. First Peter declares of you, as far as you are the church: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Perhaps in humility you say to yourself, ‘We don’t need to be lavish for ourselves.” But as God’s people, you deserve what is holy and best. When it comes to the music and matters that surround us in worship; or the food that nourishes us as we fellowship; or the standards of justice we follow when it comes to how we treat our employees; or the practices we follow when it comes to sustainable and environmental use of resources: we should strive after the very best moral and esthetic standards for our church. We must also exercise the soundest responsibility with regards to our financial management, which I believe we do, thanks to our Trustees; we have not always been so vigilant in the past. So no, we can’t see right now how it is fiscally possible to reach all those high standards. But we should not so easily settle for Holiness on the Cheap. We should be beating our breasts, confessing our failures to meet an even higher standard of excellence in labor practices, beauty, and moral uprightness than we meet for our homes or businesses.
When I make something for the church, I use at least the same quality of ingredients that I use at home, where I am committed to food that was raised in a just and sustainable way. I mixed the juice today using organic juices, and made the bread with organic flour, because I don’t want the juice we drink in an act that is to unite us with Christ and one another to be tainted by pesticides and unjust labor practices. “Nothing unclean will enter it.” And no, I didn’t submit my receipts, because when it comes to paperwork I am too lazy. But on some things I don’t compromise.
I don’t report all that to boast, but to change our culture. I’m not encouraging us to exalt ourselves by displaying extravagance on behalf of the church. What matters is our spiritual attitude toward what the church really is. If we start to, quietly, really respect our church as the City of God, as the Holy abode of God’s Light and Glory, even if merely by being troubled that we can’t yet afford to do the things that we really should be doing, people will notice that. We will notice it. And then we will be ready to be the church God is calling us to be.