Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: John 17:1-11
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
This is eternal life.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to hear your call to be in relationship, to be in eternity with you through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev C. David McKirachan writes, “On so many levels, my father has been my model for ministry and, come to think of it, for living. But truth be told, he spent more time at work than he did at home, though he came home almost every evening for dinner. He worked in the yard, sat at the head of the table, protected by awe and assumed importance of his authority, retired to the wing chair in the living room, smoked his pipe beside the fire and read, listening to the Victrola scratch out Bach or Beethoven. As a result I had to get to know my father over years of following him around, watching and listening.
I learned to follow him outside while he worked. He taught me to chop wood, paint the house, trim bushes, move dirt for Mother’s flowers and vegetables, and I listened to him talk about stars and history and myths and explorers and writers and artists and philosophers from Socrates to Kant to Marx. I understood some of it but mostly I loved to be with him and share his world.
I think he was a lonely man. He rarely spoke of himself or his own past or his own thoughts and dreams. He lived in a world of grand ideas and concepts and was excited by the giants who had come before. He loved the Bible and would get excited about how Paul used one Greek word as a hinge to swing an idea, as he spoke to people about the mysteries of faith. I wondered sometimes why he never played or hung out with his friends. I realized when he read and studied and thought, when he wrote and preached and taught, he was hanging out with his friends, Paul, and John and Matthew and Luke. He loved stories.
I think the only thing he feared was my mother leaving him. I felt sorry for my father, even with all his glorious mind and indefatigable willingness to confront the demons of the day. Toward the end he told me that he wished he had done his ministry more like mine. He referred to it as ‘the get close to people model.” He looked at me shaking his head. “I just didn’t know how.” I remember taking his hand and looking him in the eye, as he had taught me, “You taught me how to be a witness to the Risen Christ and to see the power and grace imbedded in great and beautiful ideas.” So we sat there holding hands for a while on the bench overlooking the beach at the end of Sixteenth Street in Surf City. We stood up together and he hugged me. It was over quickly, but it left me amazed and happy for him, and me.”
I would imagine that most of us can relate to some of what the Rev. C. David McKirachan has shared, perhaps not with the particulars he lists, but certainly with getting to know or maybe not know our fathers or our mothers. We, too, have gotten to know our parents in the midst of day to day living. Getting to know them has had its ups and downs; some of which may be generational.
When I was growing up, for example, it was quite rare that parents came to one’s ball games. I started playing football after the second grade. The games were usually on Saturdays. Back then, however, dads worked at least half a day on Saturday the very time when games were played. If anyone came to our games, well, it was often the mothers. Like McKirachan’s dad, my father was not comfortable with “the get close to people model.” This is not to say that he was uncomfortable around people, quite the contrary. Being a salesman all his life he could chat up and converse with the best of them. He had no fear of approaching someone he did not know like a Hollywood celebrity on an airplane, but when it came to getting close, well that was a different matter.
Being close to someone means sharing feelings and that was something with which my dad was seemingly uncomfortable. That, too, might have been generational, but I am not sure that fully explains it. No, I suspect his emotional inaccessibility had more to do with WWII—a PTSD, if you will. He told me on several occasions how during the war he happened to be sitting next to his sergeant. My dad said to him, “Just think so and so was here just yesterday” (meaning so and so had been killed in battle). His sergeant quickly snapped, “Buddy, if you are going to think that way you are never going to make it.” He was referring to surviving the war, of course.
Somehow I think my dad hid behind this emotional defense for all of his life. Emily and I had flown down from Pittsburgh after our sister-in-law unexpectedly died. As we walked into my brother’s crowded house, I spotted my dad standing there. Looking at his face, he might just as well have not been there at all. He had slipped away to that WWII state of mind defense where the pain of loss and death could not touch him.
Undoubtedly, each of us can recall some poignant moments in our relationships not only with our fathers or mothers, but others as well—moments that in part or whole define that individual, as kind, indifferent, mean, loving, abusive, or absent. As we remember our relationships with those significant others, feelings of sadness, joy, love, resentment, or regret may arise. Such is the nature of relationships. Where, who would be without them? In many ways relationships define our lives. Even if, for whatever the reason, a relationship comes to an end, that person, that relationship, is forever etched in our hearts and minds. This brings us to a point to be explored in our gospel reading this morning.
For some reason we have been programmed to believe that heaven, eternity is a beatific place in the sky—a never ending summer, a never ending tailgate party, where life is full and joyful. There is some truth to those possibilities. We read in the Book of Revelation: “(God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Likewise earlier in John 14:2 Jesus Himself tells us that: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
A house certainly is a place where people live, but even more it is a place where people are in relationship with one another. In that respect, it should come as no surprise that we hear Jesus say in this morning’s gospel: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In other words, heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship, a relationship wherein we get to know God and Jesus. This is not a head-knowledge, though that is not to be precluded. This is a heart-knowledge, similar to the relationship we might have with a parent, spouse, child, or friend.
This should give us some sense of relief as well as hope. Our relationship with Jesus and by extension with God is more “every day” than we might imagine, less intellectual or academic than we might imagine. Getting to know Jesus is not unlike getting to know anyone else, except, except He is God and God is big, really big. His ways are likewise big and often difficult to understand; it goes without saying.
It raises the question, however, as to how much time, if any at all, we spend in relationship with Jesus. Before coming to church this morning, did we talk to God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit? Did we tell Him good morning or thank Him for another day? Did we talk to Him about our families, worries, hopes, or concerns? Even more, did we listen to Him, listen for Him? What did He say or was His presence found in solid silence? Frankly, if we are in conversation, meaning in relationship with Him, then praying, silently or aloud, should not be a challenge to us. Do you hear what I am saying? What might this sound like?
“Heavenly Father, I am really concerned about my daughter. Please be with her this day.” “Lord Jesus, I am really worried about this country. Please give discernment and wisdom to our leaders.” “Holy Spirit, I am really challenged by some of things going on in my life right now. Please come and give me that peace that passes all understanding.” We call them prayers, but they are really the language of being in relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can do that. We can be in relationship. It is a requirement of being human. Yes, some of us may be better at it than others, but God meets us where we are.
Some of the most beautiful language of being in relationship with God is found in the Old Testament, Song of Songs. It overflows with metaphor and lush imagery. It is a lover’s poem, yet the love of which it speaks is a divine one between the creature (humankind) and the creator. Listen to the first few verses, which can be found on page 611 of the pew Bible.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you. Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you” (1:1-4). Can we imagine such intimacy with the Trinity?
In the springtime of our youth, we, too, might have gushed with such amorous longing and affection. We might have known, still know, that profound closeness and intimacy of loving another and that other loving us. It is a feeling, an experience, which might indeed be called heavenly; it proceeds out of being in relationship. Amazingly, being in relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit can bring us into such heights of joy, peace, and love. Who would have thought it? Then again, doesn’t that sound a lot like the fruit of the Spirit of which St. Paul speaks in Galatians 5:22, 23? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.”
So then, heaven is not a place where we go and park ourselves for an eternity in some continuous tail-gate party. Heaven is knowing God and Jesus. In the Old Testament the word used for the most intimate of relations between a man and a woman is “to know”. There is no heaven without God the Father and God the Son.
Because heaven is a person and not a place, that means we begin to enter into heaven, into eternity, as soon as we come into relationship with God through Jesus, as soon as we begin to know them. Of course, knowing them is something beyond knowing anybody else. Knowing them is knowing the creator, the very one who made us. Knowing them is knowing the very source of life itself. Knowing them is knowing and becoming that of ourselves which is eternal. Knowing them is the delight of delights, the joy of joys, the bliss of bliss. Conversely, hell is not knowing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Knowing God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is eternal life. Being in relationship with them is eternal life, is heaven. It is pretty amazing, when you think about it. Indeed, it is in relationships that we find our greatest and most enduring sense of satisfaction and sense of self. We know this, but somehow when it comes to matters of faith, that has been lost. Perhaps, it is the scientific; “prove it to me” mindset, so pervasive in our modern world that obstructs being in relationship with God as being the defining bottom line to what is real. We, too, have become victims of empiricism—the proof requirement. You see, the question is not whether we believe in God, but whether we have a relationship with Him through Jesus and that is a different matter.
When the Bible speaks of belief, it means trust and not a conclusion based on some kind of forensic evidence. Put another way, scripturally speaking, belief means nothing if does not mean being in relationship. This means then that evangelism is really a matter of inviting others into relationship with Jesus, rather than making an airtight case before some jury of doubters and non-believers.
It was 2003 or 4, before Emily and I had moved here. I was waiting in the Buffalo, NY airport for her to return from a family visit. While waiting I observed a young man in the military as he returned from being deployed. There in the large open area of the terminal he and his father greeted one another with an embrace. (I can still see it.) It was an emotional moment that said so much. The young man was safe and glad to have returned home to the arms and love of his dad. There was no formality here, no pretense, just authentic gladness and love for one another. Though the back histories are different, I was reminded of a story, which I have abbreviated, when another father and son had also been reunited.
“Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe– the best one– and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:11-24).
Jesus’ call, God’s call to us to be in relationship is a call to eternal life, to heaven. God the Father and Son are ever willing to receive and welcome us, even if we have forgotten about them, or have yet to know them. They wait with open arms to embrace us with a love that has no problem with the “get close to you model”. Paraphrasing St. Augustine, they are closer to us than we are to ourselves—ever waiting in the airport for us, so to speak.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.