“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Don’t you just hate angels with attitude?! Angels are like email—they may be an efficient way to send a message but subtle they are not and tender is beyond them.
Because there has to be something both tender and subtle about what we ponder today. It is subtle. Only Luke really notices it. And he raises it up and makes it this hinge on which his message turns. Volume One ends with it. Volume Two opens with it. Today, just to render the subtlety as confusing as possible, we begin with the end and end with the beginning. And there’s something right about that too. We are in-between. We are waiting. We know we have to go back to the city and wait there —literally sit still. But not quite yet. We are still standing here looking up at the sky.
And there’s the tender part. What kind of witnesses would we be if we could leave so easily the one who has left us?
My mother has a friend. Once upon a time when they were young couples, newly wed, they were a foursome. Alma and Jim and Jean and John. I’ve seen the seaside photographs of cotton-candy and sand castles, of windblown hairdos and held hands. Later, of little ones in pushchairs, wide-eyed, with them parent-proud. But somewhere along the line I understand there was a falling out or at least a falling apart. Distance, silence, little hurts not made up, that kind of thing. And communication cut down to Christmas cards and anniversaries. Yet somewhere along the line that changed again as four became once more two. My father dead and Jean’s husband lost to another woman. And Alma and Jean became again fast friends, united this time not so much by the open future as by memory—by memory and compassion for each other’s loss. But—and I’ve heard them—what they wonder from time to time, in a kind of oneupmanship of grief, is whether it is worse to be widowed or divorced—worse to have the once-beloved taken away or have him leave of his own accord.
“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Which is the greater grief: when we lost Jesus through death or when he left of his own accord? What kind of witnesses would we be if we could leave so easily the one who has left us?
Well what kind of witnesses are we? Just exactly what are we witnesses of? What have we seen and what can we tell? How much does Jesus matter to us? How has he changed our world? If the only gospel was to be ours how would it read?
“Stay in the city,” he says, “until you are clothed with power from on high.” For this is about power, this waiting, this witness, the power from on high but also the low-down and dirty power of this world. Who has it. How it works. And how Jesus has destroyed it—even though we do not often see the results.
… Maybe I’m just bearing the grudge of his going a little too heavily but Jesus is a big disappointment to me. His death was a disaster. And though his resurrection kind of makes up for it, it doesn’t put any damn thing right. The rich still oppress the poor, religions still think it is a holy thing to kill for God, bureaucracies still crush the soul, the work of our hands still wounds the world. What the hell has changed with his coming and going? Aren’t the principalities and powers, the dominions and thrones, aren’t they all still in place, brooding over this bent world with their dark wings?
But don’t you think that Jesus asked himself the same things? At home there in Nazareth. “What good have all the prophets been?” I hear him wonder, hear him accuse, “All the history of this chosen people and here we are strangers in our own land, the rich still fatten themselves off the poor, religion still crushes the soul, and the fields blow dry as dust.” But, as Luke tells it, Jesus ups and leaves the life he loves, following his questions to the Jordan where he is drenched first in water and then in Holy Spirit. And there, as he waits, words are whispered in his heart, “you are the child I love.” The rest we know. So began Volume One. But here we are at the beginning of Volume Two. Asking the same questions and waiting the same way. Waiting for that same spirit. Waiting for that same whispered words in our hearts.
Luke needs two books to tell his story. Two books with parallel plot, of oh so very human beings full of questions and soaked with spirit. Witnesses to the words whispered in their hearts. Jesus’ journey comes to an end in Jerusalem. But, picking up where he left off, another journey begins there, in Jerusalem, and spreads out through Judea and Samaria, out to the ends of the earth. Peter and John, Mary and Magdalene, Paul and Barnabas, Lydia who traded in dye, Julia the deacon, Felicity and Perpetua martyrs, Francis and Clare, Ignatius, Francis de Sales, San Lorenzo, and all the martyrs—the witnesses—of Vietnam, of Japan, of El Salvador, even of Oakland.
“Come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful and we will renew the face of the earth.”
May 27th, 2001
A new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem—maybe even a new Oakland too! And John, the dreamer, means new. The old order—all the things we know, all the things we hate, all the things we love too—has passed away: “Behold,” says the Voice from the throne, “I make all things new!” New! Not just gussied up a bit. Not just re-upholstered. Not “previously owned.” Brand, spanking new!
Isn’t that a dream we want to share? Because the present—for all it’s joys, for all it’s loves—sometimes just feels old, feels like last year’s gift, feels like it’s been worn too long.
If you feel that, if you’re a dreamer too, John has quite a dream for you. Of a new heaven and a new earth. Of a future full of hope. A world drenched with newness, the feeling like clean, crisp sheets to your aching limbs. Like the smell of a new car. Like the eyes of a new-born. Because, says the Voice, God has chosen, at last, a dwelling-place among us. Taken a house in the new and holy city. God is our new neighbour. No longer a stranger.
What would it be like if God really did pitch in with us? John knows! For a start, no more tears. No more dying, no more crying, no more pain, no more mourning, no more false starts, no more loose ends, no more regrets, no more hurting, no more bleeding, no more broken bodies, no more aching hearts. All because God is living with her people and making all things new.
And do you know what is also gone from this new city along with pain and death and tears? It’s a few verses on from our text so we don’t hear it today … but the New Jerusalem has no Temple. No synagogue, no church, no mosque, no ashram. None. Our brave new world doesn’t need a Temple because God is present in person. No more distance and no more religion. You don’t need religion when God is living cheek by jowl with his people. The whole city is a temple. So no more sacred space. And no more secular, either. No more death and no more taxes.
You can’t accuse our John of stinting on imagination. And if there’s anything he’s left out you can add it yourself. Anything you personally would like to see come to an end? Anything you think the world would be better off without? Just add it to the vision of the new world. Let it be the world of our wildest dreams. Let it be all we’ve ever hoped for. Don’t hold back—paint the canvas of the imagination with every new thing you need, the world needs, the poor and hungry need. Hey, forget need and think hope, think desire, think big. Dream dreams.
I let myself get a little carried away with that yesterday. I imagined the world of my wildest dreams and, as I did, I realised, with a shock, I can’t imagine living in it. Well could you? I mean, really? I mean what do you do in such a world from day to day? Do you still get up in the morning and go to work? Do you still sit down to eat? Do you still get to watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
And God living right next door sounds good but what kind of neighbour would God make? Something tells me all that glory shining over the fence could keep a guy up at nights.
And what do you do in the morning when you bump into God, stumbling, bleary-eyed, out the front door to pick up the paper? “Hi God!”?
I disappoint myself! I can’t imagine a new heaven and a new earth and new Jerusalem where I would be at home. God knows what I’ll do in heaven! But, you know, I’m not happy with the alternative either, at least as we heard it in the first reading. “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is from Paul and Barnabas, rushing like crazed commuters across the face of the old earth. Hard work, many hardships, endless travels, constant persecution, continual quarrels—is this the alternative vision to John’s or is it the same one. The problem with both is the deep divide between hardship and glory, between absence and presence. Suffer now and be rewarded later. John is full of the reward and Paul full of the hardship but they both make the same bargain.
OK, I’ve built up the dilemma so now for the resolution!? Uh uh! Jesus, in the Gospel today, does show a different way, a different bargain. But I’m not sure I like the price.
Here we are at the last supper. Jesus is having his own vision of glory. He himself glorified. God glorified in him. God glorifying herself. And God glorifying Jesus. It’s like he can’t hold all that glory in ordinary words and they tumble and fall after each other. But it isn’t a future, new-world, no-more-tears kind of glory. “Now,” says Jesus, “now is the hour of glory.” Here and now—as night has fallen and Judas has just left the table to sell him for silver. How can Jesus get so excited exactly when he is being betrayed? Is he nuts? This is the moment when everything begins to go wrong for him and, right there, he sees glory in it.
You see the price of this different bargain? The glory and the hardship are all mixed up in his vision and called love. “Love each other as I have loved you.” And he means now. This morning. And he knows love has a price. And he knows love has its glory. And he knows love takes practice. Earth is the right place for love. This is the way his kingdom comes—one little act of love at a time.
May 14th, 2001