Sermon preached March 18, 2012
Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Retired Archbishop Robert Runcie used to tell of an incident that occurred while he was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Evidently, he once boarded a train in England and discovered that all the other passengers in the carriage were patients at a mental institution who were being taken on an excursion. A hospital attendant was counting the patients to be sure that they were all present. “One, two, three, four, five...” When he came to Runcie, he said, “And who are you?” “I am the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Robert Runcie replied. The attendant smiled, pointed to him, and continued pleasantly, “... six, seven, eight…”
I recall an episode of the television show M*A*S*H (Season 4, Quo Vadis Captain Chandler, November 1975) in which a wounded soldier is brought into the hospital claiming he is Jesus Christ. There is a haunting quality about the soldier, yet what do the doctors do? They call in the psychiatrist Sidney Freedman. Turns out the man is bomber pilot named Captain Chandler who is now unable to continue drop bombs.
To think of yourself as Jesus or God or even the Archbishop of Canterbury can get you classified as unbalanced – one brick shy of a load, one French fry short of a Happy Meal. Place a marker on that thought for a few moments.
This Lent our theme is “journey to and journey through” and today I want to talk about that aspect of our journey of faith which is the journey to God. At the heart of the Christian message, at the heart of the Christian gospel is the good news that God desires a relationship with us. “For God so loved the world.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us.” Both the reading from the Gospel of John and from Ephesians paint a picture of a God who desires to be in relationship with us, a God of overflowing love who is always reaching out to draw us near. The journey of Christian faith is the journey to God.
Yet we also believe that God is already here. God is already present. God is ever-present. So where’s the “journey”? If God is already here, we don’t have to go anywhere to find God, to locate God. Is the journey of faith simply walking in place?
The journey of faith, which is the journey to God is really a journey with God inside our own lives. God is doing something in us. God is creating new life in us. God is working in us to shine light into the world. God is working in us to create goodness. God is working eternal life in us – and I think eternal life in the Bible is something more than just life after death – it is a quality of life before death, too.
Let me put this even more radically. I think the journey of faith, the journey to God is a journey with the creative power of God’s love in our lives and that God’s creative power is at work making us like God. God is forming Jesus in us. God is forming God in us. In the devotional book I am using for Lent this year, Joan Chittister writes, “The One who has been within reach all our lives has begun to come to life quietly, but clearly, within us” (The Breath of the Soul, 57).
Think about that – our journey to God is the journey of having God come to life within us! ‘Course it’s not safe, but it’s good.
But we need to be careful here. If our understanding of God is of a capricious power, of one who never gains from the experiences of others, than to make claims about God being born in us leads to trouble. Caesar in the time of Jesus claimed to be son of God, and ruled ruthlessly, conflating the peace of Rome with the peace of God. History is littered with stories of megalomaniacs who confuse their murderous whims with the will of God. That’s not what the spiritual journey is about in the Christian journey of faith.
The heart of God is a heart of love – for God so loved the world. The heart of God is a heart of compassion and kindness – but God, who is rich in mercy. What God is seeking to create in us are hearts with God-like love, hearts with God-like kindness, hearts with God-like compassion. John Wesley, the primary person to whom United Methodists trace their stream of Christian faith, understood God’s saving action as “our renewal in the image of God” (Charles Wood, CFO paper on United Methodist Ecclesiology, referring to Wesley’s sermon “God’s Approbation of His Work”). He understood our journey to God as a journey to love – recall his definition of Christian perfection: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions. (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection” January, 1767)
This is what living our faith is about – becoming more transparent to the love of God that God creates inside of us - - - being more like plastic wrap than like cardboard. The journey to God is a journey to love – growing in love, growing into Jesus, growing into God.
Two quotes and a story.
The Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote in his book Man Is Not Alone: If man is not more than human he is less than human (211). I think what Heschel is trying to say is that there is something in us of the divine, that we are “contemporaries with God” (211). We have the capacity to see our lives on a small screen, to define our loves narrowly, or we can continue the journey to God, opening our hearts and souls to greater love, kindness and compassion. If we fail to do that, we end up being something less than human.
Walter Wink is a New Testament scholar and theologian. In his book The Human Being, Wink writes, Jesus incarnated God in his own person in order to show all of us how to incarnate God. And to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human (30). To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human. That’s where our journey to God is headed, to making God more real in our lives and in the world, to becoming more like God.
Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph and said, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said, “why not become all flame?” (Kathleen Norris, Dakota, 123; Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, 50)
I believe that it is as I grow into God, as I embody Jesus, I become my best me, become more fully human. It is then that I am better able to release gifts of love to the world. I believe that it is as we, as a community, grow into God, embody Jesus that we become the best church we can be. It is then that we are better able to release our gifts of love to the world. The world needs our gifts – the fire of God’s love for warmth, light, energy and to burn away hatred, prejudice, fearfulness, paralyzing anxiety. When we tend the flame of God within we can send sparks of faith, hope and love into the world.
For God so loved - God, who is rich in mercy. Out of love God is working in our lives and in our life together – to make us more loving, to make us more like God. That’s our journey to God. Why not become all flame? Amen.