The Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
5 May 2013
A Sermon Preached by The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner, Curate
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, which trace the development of faith in God and God’s redemption, begin rather abruptly with the affirmation that God created the world and the surrounding universe; and that opening episode goes on to say that having created humankind in His image and the earthly ecosystem for the blessing and provision of humankind, he looked it all over and declared it “Good.” What we see only briefly of human life in the Garden of Eden establishes the unique shape of the life that was meant to be: life in the presence of God and in the peace of God. Both of these ideals are shattered by human sin, and the twists and turns of the story from the early chapters of Genesis right through the Old Testament depict in a variety of ways God’s relentless efforts to reinstate those ideals and reclaim his people. He comes to Abraham and his sons, to Moses and Joshua and, again and again, promises that they can carry out the mission he gives them because, he says, “I am with you.” Such a god was unheard of among the peoples surrounding Israel. As the biblical story unfolds, creation comes to be a sort of barometer for measuring the health of the Hebrew people’s relationship with their Creator and Deliverer God. For a people oppressed by a succession of cruel Egyptian tyrants who upon deliverance find themselves consigned to a generation of wandering in a harsh wilderness, the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, is the epitome of blessing. But in times of disobedience, that land expels the people, becomes a hostile force, and the powers of nature turn against the covenant people who by their behavior deny or disregard the presence of God. Yet God’s patient promise to bring the people back is often couched in descriptions of the land’s healing, its re-creation into that bountiful land of blessing: the recalling of the people to His presence and the restoration of Shalom—the presence of God, the Shalom of God. Human existence in God’s protective care.
Isaiah, who wrote at a time when the northern kingdom of Israel, in a strange alliance with Syria, had laid siege to Judah, imagined God’s Shalom in this way:
(Isa 2.2-4) It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths . . . . For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And God shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into sickles: and nation shall not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn to war anymore.”
And who would be the champion of Shalom? “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (in Hebrew, shar shalom). His government shall be great, and of his shalom there is no end.” (Isa 9.6-7) God’s Shalom would be complete: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa 11.6)
Our Old and New Testament lessons, and today’s Gospel, offer three perspectives on creation, three views of the world. The prophetic text from Joel promises a battered Israel that the land of promise will again bear much fruit. The hope is very much a “this-worldly” hope. Here God’s blessing in creation is described in terms of natural science: green pastures, trees filled with fruit, sufficient rain in its seasons to ensure grand harvests, olive oil and wine aplenty, and no plague of locusts to fear. Above all, and giving ultimate meaning to these creation-blessings, would be the knowledge that: “God is in the midst of Israel.” God’s presence determining God’s Shalom.
The view from Revelation is a supernatural “view-from-heaven” given to the church. Here the text describes the holy city of the New Jerusalem, a figure for the ransomed people of God, at the center of the renewed earth. Now the waters that flow clean and fresh are the source of eternal life; the abundance of fruit from the twelve kinds of trees produces the healing of the nations—all of which reimagines the paradise of Eden. And again, giving full meaning to this glimpse of eternal existence is the revelation that it is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb who, at the center of the city, together are the temple and the source of a light that surpasses the sun and the moon. God’s presence and the Lamb’s generating God’s Shalom.
The view of creation, of the world, the cosmos, from John’s Gospel sits rather uncertainly between these two visions of God’s presence and Shalom. First, for John and the community that gathered around him, who together produced the Fourth Gospel near the end of the first century, the cosmos is not a neutral description of the world or the universe or God’s creation such as we find in Joel. For John, cosmos is the human world, something more like the modern concept of culture, defined by values and ideologies and behavior, all of which are collectively and consciously in opposition to God. The cosmos is not an environment made up of running streams, bountiful orchards, green hills dotted with sheep, in which the wind blows favorably, and the rains fall at the right time to ensure the seasonal harvests. John’s cosmos is a gloomy environment of people and forces all either passively or actively antagonistic to the will of God. John thinks in terms of stark contrasts: light and darkness, love and hatred, knowledge and ignorance, us and them. And one might think the only way to respond to this reality is, like Jesus, to go back to the Father. But here is where John differs from later Gnostic and escapist or separationist tendencies. It is precisely this fallen cosmos that is the object of God’s saving love—God so loved the world, the cosmos—and it is precisely into this dark cosmos that God sent his Son to navigate the cosmos and mark the way to eternal life.
In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus anticipating his death and his return to the Father, and he is cautiously laying out for his disciples, one shock at a time, the reality they will face. There is a crucial unasked question hanging in the air, one that the disciples are reluctant or afraid to ask—a question that applies equally to us who share the disciples’ uncertain cosmos-space—“But what will become of us?” Within this larger Farewell Sermon, which runs for three chapters, this unasked question is framed by two rather unnerving statements which give point to our short Gospel reading. On the one hand, Jesus has just said: “I will not leave you as orphans.” Then, further on, in earshot of the disciples he speaks words to the Father in prayer that must have chilled their bones: “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one.” What will become of us? Left in the cosmos with a mission that is only slowly becoming clear, the disciples will be transformed themselves into bearers of God’s presence and God’s Shalom.
Jesus says to the disciples, summing up promises already made, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” And then, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” It is the story of John’s Gospel that in Jesus, God Incarnate had been present with the disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem, from baptism to the cross and beyond. Now, as their real work begins after Jesus departs, in the Holy Spirit, about to be given, the Father and the Son will be present with and in the disciples.
And to this promise is added the Shalom of the Messiah: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you….” Indeed, not as the world gives, for this is the long-awaited Prince of Peace—the shar shalom, God incarnate.
What had fallen to the disciples, what would soon become their mission-reality, with Jesus seated in glory at the right hand of the Father, was to become Christ’s witnesses to God’s presence and God’s Shalom, vehicles through whom the Holy Spirit would manifest the reality of God’s redemption in a fallen world, in the cosmos. While we may prefer to cheer up John’s rather negative outlook on the cosmos—though we should perhaps ask how far that is wise—it now falls to us, to Christ’s church, to be God’s presence in the world, those who do Shalom, those through whom God’s kingdom project proceeds. Our awareness and thankfulness of God’s good creation are reminders of God’s presence and his promise of a final and full Shalom. As we walk together out into his creation, as we praise him and thank him for creation’s blessings, let us also renew our resolve to be bearers of his presence and performers of his peace.
© 2013 The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner