It may be tempting today, looking around at the multitude of different denominations and churches, with all their varied practices and beliefs to wistfully look back at the first century of Christianity as simpler times, when we were all at least a bit more unified. It’s in this sort of spirit that we have a yearly week of prayer for Christian unity helping to remind us of our common heritage as followers of Christ, although not all Christians observe the occasion. Of course, there will likely be differences among us for as long as there is an “us,” and there have been differences and divisions among Christians from the beginning, with the very idea of what it meant to be a Christian often not well agreed upon.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans in the middle of the first century there probably weren’t anyone even calling themselves “Christians.” Paul himself never uses the term “Christian,” instead he using general terms like “brothers and sisters,” “assembly,” “church,” “congregation” or “saints”. The church in Rome, like many of the churches Paul had contact with, would have been a community composed of people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds, including both Gentile and Jew.
“A life without eternity is unworthy of the name of life. Only eternal life is true.” Those are words from Saint Augustine, his way of articulating the importance of eternal life on our journey along the path of Jesus. We don’t see eternal life, mentioned as such, very often in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but John also must have thought it was crucial since in his gospel it appears over a dozen times. For example, sometimes we’re told that that whoever believes in the son of God has eternal life. Other times we’re given a contrast between the perishable things of this world and the imperishable peace and joy found in the eternal life of Christ.
So, why does John seem to have so much to say about eternal life compared to the other gospels? Well, some say John uses the term “eternal life” as a way of referencing God’s Kingdom, definitely a central theme of the gospels, and I think this holds some truth.
John 18:1 – 19:42
Our efforts cultivating the fruit of the earth were modest at best, because growing up in Brooklyn meant not have having much gardening space. In our backyard, we had a few small rectangles of soil in which to plant our hopes for fresh vegetables and herbs. We experimented with everything from eggplants to pumpkins, but what I remember most is the tomato plants tended by my father and grandfather, taller than me at the time and filled with beautiful ripe tomatoes. That such a prodigious crop could come from so tiny a handful of seeds never ceased to amaze me. And after we had planted the seeds for next season, I waited with a mixture of hope and awe for what seemed like a miracle, new tomato plants rising from the ground in which the seeds were buried.
Nowadays, many of us who live in cities don’t consider anything about our food very miraculous, and we probably aren’t familiar with placing all our faith in a seed. But the lives of our ancestors, certainly in Jesus’ time, were intimately woven with nature’s cycles of death and new life. The fruit of each plant gives its life for the rich potential of its seeds, and each seed itself must die so to bring forth new growth.
There is within us all a very sacred place, a gift of stillness, light, and love central to our being. We could call it our heart or soul or the indwelling of Christ. It’s at once a point of utter nothingness, while also giving birth to all things in heaven and on earth. It’s a place capable of holding with infinite gentleness both incredible beauty and terrible pain. Against all reason, it’s the place God chooses to call home, and so it’s our home, too. It’s the place where Christ is born, and from where we share Christ’s love and compassion in the world. It’s God’s eternal Kingdom within us, our common inheritance as children of Light.
Very often, though, it seems so difficult to even visit this place, let alone claim our inheritance. We live our lives as if in a dream, where we’re separate from God and from all there is, and often we don’t even realize we’re dreaming. But then something happens, we start feeling restless, a part us senses our perpetual slumber, and we desire something more: to awaken to God’s Loving Presence, and dwell in that sacred place. And our Beloved God is encouraging us all the time, tirelessly offering this generous gift. Unfortunately, we tend to slumber deeply, but there is a way of being more receptive to this gift, and it’s truly very, very simple.
I remember, or maybe I was told, how one day Little Nick clung to his mother’s leg for dear life. It was the first day of kindergarten, and I suppose I was wondering something like “What kind of madness is this? Am I supposed to leave the warmth and safety of Mom for a strange and scary world?” I don’t want to go.
Later, waking up one morning, and feeling a new love pressed close under the cozy blankets, I begin to think of certain responsibilities. “Do I really need to go to work today? Can’t I just stay here in bed, wonderfully entangled with my beloved under the covers. The world seems so cold and cruel by comparison.” I don’t want to go.
While growing up, I was fascinated by questions like “What does it mean to be a human being? What makes us who we are? Why are we the way are?” I would read a lot of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and probably a few more “ologies” I can’t remember at the moment. And it was all very interesting, if ultimately not quite as enlightening as I had hoped. And I remember often encountering one particular sort of statement about human beings that would always give me pause, a doubtful, skeptical kind of pause. It was the kind of statement that would compare humans, usually very favorably, to other forms of life on our planet.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, in a place not very far away, there lived a perfectly ordinary man with one curious habit. Whenever he would greet people, instead of saying “hello,” or “how are you?” he would instead wish them a “Merry Christmas!” It didn’t matter the season, winter, spring, summer, or fall. It didn’t matter if it was the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or if it happened to be your birthday. No matter the day or occasion, and for no occasion at all, he would always wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.” I imagine this seemed odd and perhaps confusing to people, especially at other times of the liturgical year like Advent, Lent, or Easter.
I remember very well one particularly horrible Thursday in 2009, it might have even been my worst Thursday ever. I had laid myself down on a couch in the student lounge, barely moving for long stretches of time, eyes staring blankly at nothing in particular, overcome by a very painful depression. Kind-hearted souls would wander by, sitting beside me, offering words of support and encouragement, but I hardly ever glanced at them, let alone responded. It was like being trapped in a deep pit filled only with darkness, suffocated by loneliness, and paralyzed by some unnamable anguish. It felt as though there was not even a sliver of hope, no hope at all for any kind of reprieve, restoration, or healing.
But when it comes to the gospel of Christ, healing and stories of healing seem to go hand in hand with the good news of God’s Kingdom. Wherever Jesus went to spread the gospel, healing seems close at hand. Depending on how they’re counted we can find 30 to 40 healing stories in the gospels. Saint Luke the Evangelist, whom we celebrate today, includes the most which makes sense since Luke is thought to have been a physician, and the healing of body, mind, and spirit would have been crucial elements of his life and writing. He also might have felt a special bond to Jesus since Jesus referred to himself as a physician, ministering and being present for those who were unwell, those needing to be made whole, those suffering and wounded.
I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, or at least I’m pretty sure the plan was for me to be raised Roman Catholic. When I was still very young I turned away from the church, because parts of my early experience served to alienate me from all things religious or spiritual. But, one thing I do remember enjoying as a child was all the great stories.
Even the gospels considered on their own are filled will wonderful stories about the life and ministry of Jesus, and we know that Jesus himself used stories and parables as one of his primary ways of sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom. Maybe that’s because Jesus grew up formed by the rich tapestry of story and poetry in Hebrew scripture, and maybe it’s because these kinds of stories can offer us so many levels of meaning through which God speaks to us. Today, for example, we heard the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, stories about the joy of finding something lost, some small part of the whole that needs to be recovered and embraced. We’ll begin by looking at the inner meaning, the message leading us to our heart of hearts.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, rest, solitude, and recreation.
Jesus embodied stillness and solitude, and he cultivated a kind of hermitage of his own heart, an oasis in a desert where his Father in heaven lived in the mystery of infinite love and compassion. To nourish this place, Jesus often retreated somewhere alone to pray or meditate, and in the reading today Jesus offers a similar experience of solitude to his disciples, inviting them into a deserted place. The Greek word translated as “deserted place” can also be translated as the wilderness or the desert. The root of the word means “lonely” and in fact the New Jerusalem Bible translation has Jesus inviting his disciples into a “lonely place.” The question is, why would anyone want to go to a lonely place?