Eastertide – May 8, 2016
Dunbar Presbyterian Church – Dunbar, NE
First United Presbyterian Church – Tecumseh, NE
Scriptural References: Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26
A link to the recording is available here.
Earlier this week my husband and I were out enjoying a rare date night when we came across advertisers for popcorn, lemonade, and henna application at a local yoga studio. We’d just finished eating so the food and drink didn’t appeal to me as much as the henna application opportunity. I’ve always been intrigued by henna. Henna artwork is beautiful, intricate, and it always seemed, to me, a deeply spiritual practice for other faith traditions. When presented the opportunity for a small henna design of my choice, I quickly jumped at the chance. Scanning the display-board for potential designs, my eyes landed on the one in the middle – the infinity symbol with a word of choice written into the lines. I chose the one on display exactly as it was shown. I’m now the proud wearer of henna artwork representing the infinite power of love. And you know what, the significance of the artwork I subconsciously chose didn’t hit me until I began to wear the ink on my arm. I paid close attention to the paste, checking closely to make sure I’d not accidentally smeared it during the hours of dry-time. The more frequently I looked at my arm to check the paste, the more I paid attention to the message.
We begin at the end today. We have reached the end of scripture in Revelation and also the very end of the book itself. Typically, one hopes for an ending to be soft, easy, and pleasing, however that’s not what we receive in the benediction to Revelation. As one scholar Christopher Rowland notes, “readers are faced with a challenge, a crisis, from beginning to end, even after they put the book down. Divine assurance of ultimate salvation is not part of the book of Revelation.”[i] What is included here conversely is instructions: as you wait, you are to concentrate on the tasks at hand and be about the work of cleansing the world, and here’s how you’ll go about it. Rowland continues, “Prophecy, witness, and the life of Christ are bound together in Revelation, reminding readers that here is a price to pay for such commitments and activities.” The benediction is a call to ministry. In part, we witness a conversation between Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the bride. Christ announces his return followed by a bidding to “come” from the bride and Spirit. This text tells us we cannot be passive listeners, rather we are active participants “asked to be prepared to enter into the community,” says Paul Johnson. “It is a reminder that being a Christian assumes an active disposition and an attitude of grace-filled practice within the community of faith. Revelation tells us that Christ is coming, and John’s text today tells us that Christ is leaving. Coming or going, we’ve been equipped as Christ’s disciples and we are commanded to live into the life of ministry to which we are called in our communities. We know that God left us with a task – to continue Christ’s ministry in all the world – and we know that Christ will return. If we bid Christ “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” we must ourselves be worthy of Christ’s greeting. And we must also extend Christ’s greeting to all of creation.
A podcast I follow, Sermon Brainwave, boldly claimed that the central theme of the Gospel of John is love. One of the commentators was challenged by another, but while fleshing out this idea together, they came to realize that it’s quite plausible for the central theme to be love, as long as we recognize that it’s not a romantic love or even a gentle love. The love exhibited in John’s gospel is, in my option, a challenging and transformative and overwhelming love. This love is divine love: self-sacrificial, creative, redemptive, restorative, identity-giving, community-building, status-quo-challenging, and self-limiting of God. The love in John’s gospel is not just the love that gave up a son’s life for our salvation, but a love that came down in order to reach us. God’s first act of love in John’s gospel is becoming human: “In the beginning was the Word… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:1,14). The self-limiting love did, then, become self-sacrificial in the form of death on a cross (3:16), but that love also went so much farther, as well. God’s unfathomable love in Jesus Christ went to Samaria (John 4) to offer living water to a woman at the well. This woman is an adulteress and yet the Lord restores her to life in the community. Jesus Christ’s love reclaims her identity and offers her restoration. The love in John’s gospel is love that goes into the world, and says, “come” with unrestraint while demonstrating the vulnerability that exists with love.
I asked the henna artist to tell me a bit more about henna’s significance as she applied. It turns out that for her, the significance is the art and beauty. Curious, I researched further where I learned that henna is regarded as having barakah, blessings, and is applied at wedding festivals to offer luck and joy to the bride and groom. “In Islam, barakah is a kind of continuity of spiritual presence and revelation that begins with God and flows through that and those closest to God. Barakah can be found within physical objects, places, and people, as chosen by God. This force begins by flowing directly from God into creation that is worthy of barakah. These creations endowed with barakah can then transmit the flow of barakah to the other creations of God through physical proximity or through the adherence to spiritual practices. God is the sole source of barakah and has the power to grant and withhold barakah.”[ii] Jesus’s prayer in John 17 is a barakah of sorts. This prayer is an offering of blessing to Jesus’ disciples and a reminder that the presence of God flows through the Son and into the world. Barakah, a continuation of the spiritual presence of God, through prayer: “…the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’”
John 17 is the farewell discourse. Today’s verses, while situated in the midst of the crucifixion story, are verses of resurrection that impeccably close out our celebration of the Easter season. Jesus is praying for his disciples, with his disciples, and it’s the first time he’s not excused himself from their presence to pray. Right now, Christ wants his disciples to hear the words he’s offering to God on their behalf. Considered the “High Priestly Prayer,” these are the last words that Jesus Christ says before he and his disciples depart for the Kidron valley, where he would be arrested. The last six verses of chapter 17, the six verses of our gospel lesson today, are the last verses of the priestly prayer of Christ and he wanted his disciples to hear every. single. word. he was asking God about them: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Through his prayer, Jesus Christ promises the disciples inseparable unity. We, as the risen Christ’s Easter people, are living into the fullness of this promise.
What does this inseparable unity look like? What does that depth of love, the love of God who formed us in creation and chose not to destroy us not once, but twice, look like? It’s demonstrated by God first – through restoring the Samaritan woman to her community, through visiting the tax collector’s home, through dining for his last meal with the person who’d betray him and the person who’d deny him, and through instructing Noah to build an ark for his family and two of every species in creation. Inseparable unity looks like a God who goes out into the world to show us that love is sometimes painful, and that love makes us vulnerable, and that love leaves us open to attack. Inseparable unity looks like doing whatever it takes – Christ preached on the Sabbath, for example – to bring everyone on the fringes back into their right place in community. Inseparable unity means restoring identity.
In a few minutes we’ll say together what we believe as Children of God using some different language – being mindful that it is Mother’s Day, but also reminding ourselves that we believe in a God who stands in community and unity and solidarity and empathy with persons who we might consider the other. We’ll affirm our faith in a God who can restore hurting individuals. We’ll vocalize our love – our God-like love – for who’ve had to make hard decisions with which every fiber of our being may disagree, like adoption or abortion or abuse, but we’ll do so because we recognize that God’s very first act of love was to come to us and restore us to life and community. We will affirm our faith today in a God who’s love in all the time unfathomable to us, and yet so very near and comforting to us, too. And we’ll affirm our call to be the bearers, the barakahs of that love in our Creator’s world.
Our texts from Revelation and John declare to us a love that means welcome and hospitality. In Revelation we read, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come.” In John we hear Christ saying, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” We experience an offering and a request in these passages, both intended to bless someone other than the one making the offering or the request – intended to bless an “other.” A reflection on Revelation’s offering says, “Everyone who is thirsty is told to come. No qualifications or prerequisites are given, outside of the request…No limitations are posted regarding who is allowed to enjoy the drink of salvation…It creates a marvelous cinematic image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, classes, and so forth drawing out water that is freely given as a gift.”[iii] Everyone who wants some can come. Likewise, Christ petitions God not just for those who currently believe, but also for those who would in the future come to believe through the belief, life, and faithful witness of those present. What Christ is doing is not easy, as he is praying for, essentially, non-believers with the same love he has for his closest disciples. Heading to his death, Christ unfailingly demonstrates hospitality. A welcome, an openness, a desire for companionship and unity that comes from the heart of a God rich and ripe with love.
Love is never-ending, even when I am less than lovable.
Love is unstoppable, even when I refuse to pass it on.
I know that the henna stain will fade over the next few weeks, but I sincerely hope that the mental impression won’t wither, too. I catch myself frequently stealing a glance at my forearm, staring at the four letters of the word love surrounded by the infinity symbol.Love is never-ending, even when I am less than lovable. Love is unstoppable, even when I refuse to pass it on. I’m particularly challenged by the contrast of this text with our headlines lately. Individuals are barred by government law in North Carolina from using particular bathrooms. Skin types are pulled from airplanes because they look differently, thus suspicious, and because their languages differ from ours. Politicians and their respective parties spew hate-filled words at one another and those who think like their opponents. Children are stolen from their homelands in Ethiopia and South Sudan for sex trafficking. We are human, which means we are…hurting, we are broken, we are sinful. But we are invited, we are bid, “come” and commanded, “do.” The responsibility has prayerfully been handed over to us to continue to share God’s love in the world. Our ministry call is to pass on the invitation to everyone who hears, whether they be happy, anxious, joyful, timid, abused, hurting, sad, depressed, broken, and so on. Theologian Caroline Lewis says, “Love is primarily experienced and seen in relationship and in community.”[iv] We see that firsthand from God, and we are reminded of it through Christ’s prayer for us. In anticipation of Christ’s return and in faithfulness to God’s ministry call on our lives, my prayer is that we won’t shy away from the opportunities we’re given to live vulnerably in the bold, hospitable, radical love of our Creator. Come, Lord Jesus!
Let us pray:
Holy One, our sole source of barakah, infinitely fill us with your continuous spiritual presence, and embolden us to share the power of your unbounded love. Amen and Amen.
[i] Christopher Rowland, “Theological Perspective on Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year 2, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 537.
[iii] Paul Johnson, “Pastoral Perspective on Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21” in Feasting on the Word, Year 2, Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 536.
[iv] Caroline Lewis from the Sermon Brainwave podcast, SB482: Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2016.