Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
15 May 2022
When I came to Vancouver I soon found myself part of a group of international students. International is a loose description. There were two Canadians among the six or seven of us. One of them having just returned from teaching English in Thailand for five years, and one being a young woman, born in India and moved to Canada when she was 18. All of us had a connection to the church. Some of us were seminarians, all of us were Christians.
Studying at the Vancouver School of Theology at the time I remember my friend Peter asking me tactfully whether VST was not a ‘rather liberal’ school. Peter was a student from New Zealand and was attending Regent College.
So here we were, both of us thousands of miles away from where we had been raised and both of us carrying forward the same stereotypes.
And yet with one difference: We were friends and did not questions each others commitments. For that I will always be thankful.
As the church has shrunk over the last three decades some of us have become less judgmental of the other and when I was taking a class at Regent College a few years ago my ears perked up when I learned in a class that was co-taught by the president of the school together with visiting faculty that he and the principal of the Vancouver School of Theology both live in Richmond and regularly go on walks together.
Going on walks together requires mutual respect, or one would not be able to keep it up for long. The same is true for worshipping together. You can’t worship together if you do not respect each other and we know that in congregations where there is strife, mutual respect dissipates and attendance declines.
When that happens, it seems to me, it is because we often don’t know what to do with our differences, and we don’t know how to handle conflict. On one hand there is such great a sense of ownership of the church that I am unable to permit dissent, for I want to protect “my church” – as if it were mine and not God’s; on the other hand Christians sometimes have the expectation that we should all get along and therefore things get swept under the rug until they begin to smell.
Someone once suggested that conversations at church are fairly shallow, you talk about the weather but not about anything serious and that this was a reflection of the depth of our commitment to each other.
I don’t think that this is entirely fair. It is not fair because we do share our lives with one another, our joys and our sorrows, and because our conversations are also shaped by respect for one another in the same way that we don’t give a box of envelopes to someone who is here for the first time. We respect boundaries.
Maybe the remark was intentionally provocative to encourage us to enter into deeper relationships.
A few years ago the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann remarked on the difficulty of preaching in a political context where certain words are buzzwords and are claimed by one side or the other, and this association has compromised these words. Think e.g. of words like justice and freedom. They are both good and important words but we can almost instantly connect these words with a certain kind of politics that makes it hard to remember that the politics of Jesus are not the same as our politics. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)
What Brueggemann observes is that the Biblical prophets were not “issues preachers.” He says that they did not discuss “abortion, or the Panama Canal, or things like that.” And then he says, “I think what they’re doing is, they’re going underneath the issues that preoccupy people to the more foundational assumptions that can only be got at in elusive language. Very much the institutional church has been preoccupied with issues.”1
And issues make for a very flat reading of the Bible and of reality. Either one is for something or against something, and so we create winners and losers but lose the finer nuances in the conversation.
On my internship I participated in a workshop on conflict resolution. We learned that you begin not with your differences but your common values and concerns, which is what the prophets did. And if you do that then you may end up realizing that you actually share the same basic values even though they have taken you down different paths and led you to different conclusions, but you can go back and say to each other, while I vehemently disagree with your conclusions, I acknowledge that you have come to them with good intentions, intentions very much like my own. And so you don’t demonize each other and because you don’t, you respect each other, and because you have respect for one another, you can actually talk to each other. This may have been what I was trying to do as a kid when I attempted to mediate between my parents.
I think this is in part what Brueggemann says about the prophets not talking about issues but going deeper than the issues.
Though this is important for how we live together in the church and in society, in a way this still does not quite go deep enough. I mean, we have talked about problems and possible solutions but thus far God has not been part of our conversation.
But God has made us part of God’s conversation and God has made us part of the life of the Trinity. The reason we worship, the reason we seek to follow Jesus, the reason we belong to the people of God is because we want to see, taste, hear, and feel God.
To be with Jesus is our deepest longing. But our deepest longing is not somehow separated from the rest of the world as if we could enjoy spiritual bliss amidst the suffering of the world, because if that were the goal then God never would have had to leave the heavenly throne to live among us. Spiritual bliss that is numb to the suffering of the world is not of God.
In our reading from Revelation we hear that the home of God is among mortals, that is among us, it is in the world.
There have been times in my life when I wanted to get away from it all because “all” drove me crazy. But God’s movement is always into the world, toward us, never away from us.
In the story of creation it wasn’t only Adam and Eve, and plants and animals in the garden, but God too was in the garden, and that was the vision God had when God created the world.
And this is the arc that moves through the story from tabernacle to temple it is all about God’s presence in the midst of the people. And when God comes among us in Jesus we see that God so longs to be with us that Jesus emptied himself just to be among us.
The vision that we are given in our reading from Revelation is the restoration of creation and the restoration of community; God himself, God Godself will be with us.
And it is the presence of God that overcomes division because God knows no partiality and so Peter can learn not only that all created things are clean but even more importantly that he can overcome boundaries and be with those who are different. In the story we are told in Acts 11 we learn that here too it is about presence. God has come to Cornelius and God has come to Peter, but they still need to come to each other, for that is the will of God.
It is God who makes their coming together possible. It is God who allows them to form a community, not simply to be people who tolerate each other but who will learn to love one another, and to share their life even beyond conversations about the weather.
I admit that in the world in which we live I long for some sort of sharing of values that go beyond the community of the church, that would allow us to respect opponents, that would allow us to listen and hear someone out before we judge them, that would allow us to have one common conversation instead of many isolated conversations. That is certainly the greater vision of our reading from Revelation.
But perhaps it is OK if that is not in our immediate future. Perhaps we can use the church as the training ground to form the kind of community in which we know that all that God has created is holy and that every person is holy, and in practising just that, perhaps we can be the blessing God intends us to be, not only receivers of God’s peace but people who carry God’s deep peace into the world.