I Peter 2: 4-10
For several years, each September, I had the delight of meeting a group of Harvard first-year students enrolled in an introductory Humanities course. Somewhere between reading Plato, the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Augustine, their professor shepherded them over to the monastery for a field trip. Another Brother and I greeted them in our antechapel and we’d begin with an exercise: I opened the gates of the choir grille and invited them to wander wherever they liked for fifteen minutes in silence. I encouraged them to look, listen, smell, and touch – to let their senses lead the way. After being assailed with words and information in their first few weeks of college, they welcomed this task, letting fingertips play across the rough-hewn stones of our chapel walls or lying down on the cool marble floor. When we sat down to speak about their experience, their faces often radiated calm. One young woman exclaimed, “The stones seem almost alive! I could almost hear them speaking.” I asked, “What did you almost hear them say?” She thought for a moment, and said: “Be still – you can rest here.”
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”[i]The author of the First Letter of Peter takes up the image of a cornerstone and interprets it afresh in relation to Jesus, our Rock and our Refuge. The cornerstone – often inscribed with a date and ritually blessed – is the first stone to be laid in a foundation. It is the stone which orients the building geographically and orients the builders in their labor. The reference is to Isaiah’s chapter 28, where we read: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’[ii]The stability of a tested cornerstone will bear the weight of countless others. As they take their places, they participate in its fundamental strength. Jesus, the Head of the Corner, speaks to us as the stones of our chapel spoke to that young woman: “Be still: you can rest here.” He invites us, in the words of Mary Oliver, “to take our place in the family of things.”[iii]
Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
I finished a novel the other day. It was a really good one. And now that it’s over I’m left a bit forlorn. I would have loved this one to be a big multi-book series that could get turned into 8 or 9 movies. But it’s not. And it’s over now. As we’ve been working our way through this final chapter of John I’ve had the same kind of feelings I have at the end of a book or a great film. This longing for more, one more scene, one more chapter.
I think I must have been around 19 years old when I first heard someone talk about this passage at the end of John and it has stuck with me for 20 years. “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The good news of Jesus continues to be written on your hearts, in your lives among those you share life with. You are the gospel of Christ. And not in some gauzy, divine essence hidden in the deepest cavern of your soul. The good news of Jesus is present and active in the tangible ways that you have been met by love. In the ways that you have been rescued from sin and shame. In the ways that love has defied the pattern of this world and transformed you by the renewing of your mind in Christ. And it does keep going.
I can’t say that this feels like some glittering moment of grace. Right now, I feel more like one of those bumbling disciples, just not quite getting it, struggling to make sense of where I am. And it’s painful and confusing. But I keep showing up. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.
The situation is dire. Jesus’ life is coming to an end. In the verses immediately following this Gospel lesson, we learn of Judas’ betrayal, then Peter’s betrayal, then Jesus’ interrogations by Caiaphas, the high priest, and by Pilate, the Roman Prefect. And then comes Jesus’ crucifixion which Jesus fully anticipates and will readily submit. Which is his prayer. Jesus here is praying for protection – not his protection but our protection – and Jesus prays, “I speak these things… so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Joy in the context of suffering.
Joy goes without saying when all is well: the exhilaration of life and company of laughter, the wonder of life that is so palpable, the burdens of life lifted and whisked away like clouds. Joy – this melding of delight and gratitude, freedom and hope – goes without saying when the burdens of life are lifted, when the flow of life turns into a beautiful harmony or a consoling fragrance, when – to use the language of the psalmist – “when we have wings like a dove.”[i] Joy goes without saying when all is well and we experience the sheer freedom and bliss of being alive. But the weather, and the weather of the heart, changes. And that is where joy is such a paradox.
Jesus is speaking about joy in the context of suffering, that his joy may be ours, in our suffering. Saint Paul writes continually about joy: joy in the context of suffering, or in the aftermath of suffering, or in the anticipation of suffering. It is the same in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the First Letter of Peter: how the crucible of suffering becomes the wellspring of joy.[ii]
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
Ephesians 2: 11-22
‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are members of God’s household.’ This is the Good News that Paul is proclaiming in his letter to the Ephesians: it’s the good news of the Gospel: that we who were once strangers have now come to live in God’s home. And this has all happened through the gift of Christ’s dying for us on the Cross. The Cross, for Paul, is the most wonderful expression of God’s generous love for us, and the most radical expression of God’s extraordinary hospitality.
A few months ago, I was living in Colombia. And whoever it was I stayed with showed me extraordinary hospitality. The first thing they invariably said to me by way of welcome was that wonderful Spanish phrase, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home’. And Paul is telling us in this letter that God’s generosity is so overflowing, that he longs for each one of us, whoever we are, whether we feel like a stranger, or unworthy, God longs for us to ‘come home’, to come and live with God forever. You could say that the whole Gospel is about God inviting and welcoming each one of us with these gracious words, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home.’ Jesus came to offer us that very invitation. In John’s Gospel chapter 14, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘In my father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come and take you there, so that where I am you may be also.’ ‘Mi casa es su casa!’ God’s extraordinary hospitality. And look who he invites! All sorts; tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, like you and me. ‘Let them all come in. There’s room for everyone in my house’.
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.
John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
II Thessalonians 3:1-5
I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel music lately. I do it because gospel music makes me happy, and offers glimpses of hope in a world that at times seems overshadowed by darkness. One of the songs I’ve come to find solace in goes like this:
Life is easy when you’re up on the mountain;
you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never known.
But things change when you’re down in the valley;
don’t lose faith, for you’re never alone.
For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley;
when things go wrong, he’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times;
the God of the day is still God in the night.[i]
The song acknowledges that life has its ups and downs, its mountains and valleys, and that it’s easy to talk of faith “when life’s at its best.” But when we’re “down in the valley of trials and temptations, that’s where [our] faith is really put to the test” (quotations from the 2nd stanza). Doubtless we know this to be true from our own experience.
St Paul knew it. He had been on the mountaintops with God, borne into the heavens by the Spirit; but he also knew what it was to descend into the valley, to encounter resistance, persecution and evil. It’s moving to see him, a great giant of the faith, beseeching the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him. It is a mark of his humility, I think, and a valuable sign for us. We need one another. We need one another’s prayers. Paul is well aware of his own weakness and of the enormous challenges that are part of his calling, and he is humble enough to implore his fellow Christians to pray for him.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told in great detail where the Apostle Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, a very detailed itinerary during just one season of his life. Why? The Apostle Paul has been traveling with Silas in Syria and Cilicia. They went on to Derbe, then met up with Timothy in Lystra, then to Phrygia, then Galatia. (Why? Because they could not go to Asia.) Then opposite Mysia, they attempted to enter Bithynia, (but were forbidden) so they went down to Troas… and then, because Paul had a dream, they set off to Macedonia… and on and on it goes. Why? Why are we given this endless travelogue? Three reasons.
The most obvious reason is the very reason we do this. If there’s someone we know and love who has been away from us traveling, we want to know all about it. “Where did you go?” “What did you see?” “Who did you meet?” “What impressed you the most?” We want to get current with people we love who have been away from us.
A second reason is that Saint Paul’s readers were an oppressed and persecuted minority. They needed the encouragement that their faith in Jesus was catching fire. If you are suffering, and there’s no immediate remedy for your suffering, the next best thing is to know you are not alone. So the story, this travelogue, is told for the sake of others’ encouragement.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help: