Saturday, May 18, 2013

Down and Up

John 14:8-17  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

            For as long as the world lasts, we’ll probably continue thinking on some level that up is good and down is bad; that God lives somewhere in the sky; that heaven is where God lives and thus must be somewhere up, up, and away; and that if anything like Jesus or the Holy Spirit comes from heaven to earth it must involve a coming down.  In other words, it is virtually impossible for us completely to free ourselves from thinking spatially about these things. 

            What to do?

            I have long been on a program to call all that into question, enough so that people can begin thinking differently about it, a program which I continue to think is worth the effort.  But I have to admit that there is, after all, some value in the up-and-down kind of thinking, as limiting as it is.  One might even say that there is built into the human experience a predisposition to thinking that up is better than down because in all human cultures that seems to be the way we imagine spatial values, with few exceptions.  So when we come to Ascension Day, which we celebrated ten days ago, we imagine that Jesus after his resurrection went “up” although we know perfectly well that heaven, being everywhere precisely because God is everywhere, is no more up than down.  And when we come to today, Pentecost, our prayers and hymns say things like, “the Holy Spirit came down on this day from heaven, lighting upon the disciples,” and “Come down, O love divine.”  We know the limits of that language if we have been hanging around the world longer than about five years, though we still use it. 

            So, without exactly throwing in the towel, I invite you to move in the direction of seeing that there is some usefulness in thinking about life and death, God and humanity, heaven and earth, time and eternity in up-and-down terms.  Before it is over with, I think you’ll be able to see that we wind up in an amazing place where the adverbs “up” and “down” blend together and disappear.

            Let’s start with the motion of baptism, since that is the centerpiece of our Pentecost celebration.  You have heard me tell you before my mantra about baptism:  when you forget everything else about baptism remember that it is “down under and back up again.”  If you remember that, you will not likely forget that baptism is a way of ritually acting out and applying Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Down under the water is like “down into the grave.”  It is a symbolic burial.  And “back up again” is the movement of the resurrection.  Remember that the best kept secret in Christianity is that the resurrection does not happen after you die.  It happens in your baptism.  When we come out of the water and back up again, we are indeed united with the Risen Lord, and we thereafter are living in the resurrection.  It has no end, to be sure.  But its effective beginning, certainly symbolically, is in baptism.

            When you think about it, all of life is a matter of going down under and coming back up again.  Peter Senge and some colleagues describe that process in a very interesting book called Presence, one of the most deeply theological books I know, although it says nothing formulaic about God.  [Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers,  Presence:  An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society (New York:  Random House/Doubleday/Currency, 2005).]  They speak of the “U,” which captures the motion of traveling downward and coming back up again. The three parts of the U are sensing (observing, becoming one with the world), presencing (retreating, reflecting, allowing inner knowing to emerge), and realizing (acting swiftly with a natural flow).  Traveling the U, going down and coming back up, involves letting go of our pre-established ways of thinking, going down into deep reflection, and coming up having let go of our own will, ready not to impose that will on a situation.  We could put this in a dozen, perhaps a hundred, different ways and it would amount to the same thing:  letting go and being open.  I suggest that that is exactly what our mythical language of “dying and rising” is getting at.  Each day, each moment, we have the opportunity to hear the call to let go, to rest in silence for a time, and to rise again, living in openness from a place quite different from our ego with its habit of controlling and imposing its will on situations. 

            Pentecost has everything to do with going down and coming up.  But it is not perhaps what you think.  It surely is not what the traditional language implies.  Pentecost is not a matter of the Holy Spirit “coming down” except in the sense that coming down can mean the great joining the small, as when an adult bends or kneels down to look a child in the eye or to hear what the child is saying or to share a moment of supreme importance with the little one.  Pentecost is an infusion.  It is a filling.  It is a breathing of life and energy into an otherwise dispirited, innervated, confused and paralyzed community.  Like all the other events in the story of salvation, Pentecost is not a one-time event, but a reality that makes itself felt time and time again.  When we feel—justifiably—that we are little more than a sack of dry bones, here comes Pentecostal wind, breathing new life into us.  When you appear to be a fallow field, just waiting to become fruitful and productive but somehow unable to do that on your own, the fire of Pentecost can rush through you like sparks through stubble, consuming all that holds you back and igniting your energy to do what you have believed was impossible.  So if you want to locate Pentecost on the U, somewhere on the journey between going down under and coming back up again, it is right there at the bottom, exploding, giving you the kick that lifts you into new life.

            But Pentecost is really even more than that.  I mentioned that last week we were celebrating the ascension of Christ.  The ascension is not a commemoration of Jesus’ flying up into the sky and out of sight, but rather that the entirety of human nature, which he himself embodied, he took with him into the very life of God.  Do you get that?  Your human nature and mine becomes a part of the godhead, the life of the Trinity, the essence of God.  No longer can we talk about God and humanity as being distinctly separate.  We get a taste of that in the gospel for today.  “Show us the Father and we shall be satisfied,” says Philip.  Jesus replies that when we have seen him we have seen the Father, because he and the Father are one.  That is powerful language!  It means that if we are united with Jesus, then we are united with God.  There is no getting around it.  Your life, your decisions, your struggles, your heartaches, your aspirations, your energies, your laughter, your work, your prayer is the ground on which you meet God.  God is in your body, God is in your mind, God is in your imagination, your dreams.  You will discover the Most High God in the most lowly depths of your own experience.  There is no place you can go where God is not.  And that is the miracle and meaning of Pentecost.  It really is quite simple.  It is about God’s Spirit being in you and your spirit, your nature, being inextricably bound to the reality of God.

            That is why Baptism is down under and back up again.  It is about traveling the U down into the grave and all the dark places and finding there the power which raises you up.  It is about journeying with Christ through the sicknesses in which you find strength, through the failures in which you learn to cope, through the times when you doubt your own worth and yet come to the indescribable peace of accepting yourself as simply human.  Baptism keeps going on and on because there is literally no end at the end of the U.  The more we travel the U, the more we see that we haven’t finished one trip before another begins.  The deaths and resurrections begin flowing together.  “Up” and “down” glide together and become indistinguishable, because the worst things can be blessings and the best things can turn out to push us to our knees.  Past, present, future all mix together in a timelessness which we mostly know through the moments that send shivers of excitement through us, or the sights and sounds that move us to tears, or from the occasional minutes when we find ourselves still in the presence of God while praying or meditating.  All of it is Pentecost.  All of it is resurrection.  All of it is taking to heart that nothing about us is or ever can be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

            Thomas Diaz and his little brother Felix are going to be baptized now.  Thomas I think is most excited by the knowledge that he is going to get a candle when he has been baptized in water and sealed by the Spirit.  The candle will burn and go out, but the fire of the Spirit never will.  It is the energy that will raise him up from every fall and the light that will shine through him and before him in every dark place he will ever go.  And that is your gift too.  Down and up, up and down:  God is in motion, and the motion of God is always God attempting, so to say, to nestle in your heart.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

Sunday, May 05, 2013

At Last

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

            Some Christians positively love the book of Revelation.  Some hate it.  Most of the people who are attracted to topics like the end of the world, Armageddon, the disappearance of earth as we know it, obscure symbols and predictions of the future tend to embrace Revelation because it is full of that kind of thing.  Others are like a wonderful Swiss woman I had in a Bible study group some years ago.  “Why is this book even in the Bible?” she asked.  “This is crazy talk.  It should not even be allowed in the Bible.”  Although she might have been a bit blunt, she actually hit upon the chief reason why Revelation is the last book in the Bible.  It is actually not last because it deals with the last things and the last events, although that probably has something to do with its placement; but it is last because it almost did not make the cut.  There was that much disagreement about its nature and its contents.   Indeed the arguments about Revelation did not stop, nor have they ever.  Martin Luther, for example, writing in the 1522 edition of the German Bible, gave his reasons for assigning the book to at best a subordinate place within the New Testament:

            About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own ideas, and would bind no man to my opinion and judgment:  I say what I feel.  I miss more than one thing in this book, and this makes me hold it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.  First and foremost, the Apostles do not deal with visions, but prophecy in clear, plain words, as do Peter and Paul and Christ in the gospel. …I can in nothing detect that it was provided by the Holy Spirit.  [quoted by Christopher C. Rowland, “Revelation—Introduction,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1998), 536-7]

He goes on to say that the author of Revelation toots his own horn a bit too loudly when he threatens anyone who takes away anything from his book, yet says that they are blessed who keep what is written in it.”  Luther says, “…yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it.  It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.”  Luther says in the end that he can’t get his spirit to fit into the book principally because Christ is not taught or known in it, and yet to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle above all else is bound to do.  He says that he’ll stick to the books that give him “Christ clearly and purely.” [ibid.]

            Well, that ought to be enough ammunition to mount a pretty successful attack on a sermon preached from the book of Revelation.  But I want to do just that today.  While I agree with Luther and my Swiss friend, I must say that there are a few things about Revelation that redeem it for me.  One is that some of the imagery—not all of it to be sure—is incredibly rich and beautiful.  Another is that it blasts all to smithereens the nice little rational categories in which we sometimes think we can trap God.  Instead it paints a picture of an untamable, free God, opening up a future that makes the strongest, most formidable human empires look like the silly little efforts they are in comparison to God’s future.   Luther himself later softened his review of Revelation and pointed out that “we see that, through and above all plagues and beasts and bad angels, Christ is with his saints, and wins the victory at last.”

            Yet the main redeeming value in the Book of Revelation is that, obscure as it is—ironic, isn’t it, that a book called “Revelation” can veil more than it reveals—it at least ends by proclaiming the ultimate fulfillment of the dynamic that gets the Bible going in the first place:  and that is the desire of God to be God, for all of us humans to be God’s people, and for God to dwell with and be one with us.  Did you ever get far enough in the Bible to discover that place where in the Creation story Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?  Their eyes are suddenly opened, they realize that they are naked, and suddenly they are ashamed.  They make little aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves.  Then, rather pathetically, they hide when they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening.  It is a charming story in a way:  a God scarcely bigger than a human, walking around making a bit of noise, carrying on a conversation with two earthlings who only did what any of us would do any day of the week.  From that point on, the story winds its way through flood, slavery and liberation, through exile and return, through wars and oppression and failed rebellion until it comes to Jesus.  Then all the twists and turns flatten out in daylight so bright that people can see in Jesus the God Most High who has made a dwelling in a human being walking among other human beings.  No longer do frightened humans try to hide from God; through Jesus they are attracted, drawn to God. 
            This is where the plot thickens.  Imagine a tree with several prominent branches, each of which has its own smaller branches.  The experience of Jesus, living, crucified, and risen, is the trunk of the tree.  Two major branches sprout from that experience.  Call one “personal” and one “communal.”  Then two other branches develop, higher up.  One is “this world” and one is “life hereafter.”  Up nearer the top are two more branches.  One is “prophecy” and the other is “apocalypse.”  Both of these branches have to do with the relationship of the present and the future.  Prophecy generally sees that human beings have something to do with the future and can actually influence it, though God is definitely in charge of it.  “Apocalypse” tends to see that the future is way out of the hands of human beings, entirely shaped by God with people involved in it only in relation to how they do or do not play by God’s book in the present.  Each of these branches sprouts other branches, twigs, and leaves.  From a distance, they all blend in, so much so that an onlooker might think that any branch is pretty much like every other.  Yet when we get up close, we can see that every branch is distinct, so much so that it almost seems that they belong on very different trees.  Which branch is good?  Which branch is right?  Which branch does more justice to the trunk?

            At the risk of being like many another preacher or reader of Revelation, picking and choosing which branch I like, either squeezing the book into a shape that will agree with my pet ideas or discarding it because it simply does not suit me, I want to suggest that ultimately the vision before us is one of community more than individuals, one of this world more than some other world, one about our present life more than life hereafter—a vision that sees the future of a world transformed by the pervasive presence of God and of God’s Christ.  Instead of leaving us quaking in our boots, like the books of Hal Lindsey, whose The Late Great Planet Earth, inspired by Revelation, sold over 40 million copies between 1970 and 2000, Revelation itself leaves us imagining that God is with us, not against us.  Instead of stoking fears, like the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, consumed by over 63 million people, many of whom are influencing policy in and for the United States and its institutions, Revelation actually inspires precisely the justice that the political structures of this world normally oppose.  Indeed by envisioning a city of God, Revelation challenges us as Christians to align ourselves with the God who works to renew creation and transform human community.

            Some have said that the end of Revelation is so different from the rest of it that it must have been written by another author and affixed to the original by that author or some editor.  Whatever.  The interesting thing is that after all the smoke and ruin and destruction and portents and signs and beasts and other scary stuff, in the end we meet familiar friends:  God and the Lamb, who, of course, is the Risen and Exalted Jesus.  Instead of a totally collapsed earth blasted out of existence by some nuclear Christ, we see the New Jerusalem, a city, an urban community, coming out of heaven.  And although you did not hear it in today’s snippet from Revelation, the author’s description of the New Jerusalem is stunningly beautiful, its streets paved with gold, its gates pearls, its walls adorned with dazzling jewels.  In other, more prosaic words, the urban community representing the ultimate triumph of God in human experience is indescribably wonderful, beyond anything that a mortal could dream of building, far superior to anything that Roman Emperors or Napoleons or Hitlers or Stalins or Vaticans or Washingtons or corporate America could possibly construct at their most ambitious. 

            But the most amazing thing in this whole chapter, the last but one in the whole Bible, is that there is no Temple in the New Jerusalem.  There is no need of one, for the presence of God and the Lamb—the glorified Jesus—pervades everything and everyone.  There is still a throne, which symbolizes that there is a limit to which God and humanity can be equated.  The Light of the City is not the Temple but the Lamb, Christ:  and by that light a redeemed, ordered, peaceable community of nations walks, having no need of sun by day or moon by night. 

            If you want to believe, as many have and do, that the Christian hope, expressed in such images, is about life sometime besides now and somewhere besides here, you can certainly go ahead and believe it.  But I think this last book of scripture jolts us into seeing that God’s kingdom and God’s justice cannot wait.  Liberation cannot be left to another world when the glory of God is liberating the poor and the oppressed in this world:  that is the Revelation’s meaning for the Latin American liberation theologians, mostly slapped down by the last two popes.  Imagining the beautiful and powerful is not confined to illustrating the text of the Apocalypse itself; but, as the poet and artist William Blake saw, it cuts us loose to saturate our consciousness with the apocalyptic outlook, [ibid, pp. 551ff] spurring us to challenge the domesticated God of rationalists and to take on the Church when it starts sucking up to the empires of this world and their cronies. 

            This is where our impetus for Christian social ministry comes from.  This is the ground of our passion for justice.  This is heart of our confession:  the dwelling of God shall be with humanity.  God is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z, the beginning and the end.  We are not doomed to keep remaking God in our image, imagining that God shares our prejudices and limitations.  No, as the Seer of Revelation promises, we will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on our foreheads, right where we were signed with the cross of Christ Jesus in our baptism.  For cross and resurrection and the struggle for liberation and the victory are all tied together, folks.  And just to make sure you know that in this struggle you don’t have to worry about yourself, hear once more the promise made directly to you:  the Lord God Almighty will be your light, and you shall reign for ever and ever.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013