5th Sunday of Easter
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Acts 9:26-31 | 1 Joh3:18-24 | John 15:1-8
Almighty, everliving God, constantly accomplish the paschal mystery within us that those you were pleased to make new in holy baptism may, under your protective care, bear much fruit and come to the joys of eternal life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
WE have an Old Testament, and we have a New Testament. We live in the time of the New Testament, and one can’t really understand the New Testament unless they also understand the Old Testament. At the risk of oversimplifying two very complex ideas, I want to see if I can focus on something you can grasp and take you through these readings so together we can discover the wisdom that is hidden within them.
The Old Testament was based in justice and the law. The intention of God in the Old Testament was to reveal to us, his people, who he was. We see in the Old Testament a tremendous amount of honest self-disclosure on the part of God to his people. He revealed himself in stages so that at the beginning he seemed almost just like any other god, but the more the Israelites worked with God, they began to see a change in him, which was really not God changing but God opening their minds to something they couldn’t possibly have comprehended if he did that too quickly. He had to take them where they were and lead them to a new place, a promised place, the Promised Land. The theme of the Old Testament is out of slavery, into freedom. So there had to be something in the Old Testament that they were being invited to be free of, and what it is, is the law, which seems so strange, because the law was everything in the Old Testament. They carried the Ten Commandments, the law, as they traveled from place to place and set up their tent where they would worship. The only way, I think, we should really understand these Ten Commandments is to realize that they were the first time that human beings heard something from God that explained to them who they really are, what their nature is so that they, following these rules, could sense and be given a jump start into being who God intended them to be. Human beings dependent on a power beyond themselves, loving, forgiving, helping, guiding one another to a place of peace. The problem with those Ten Commandments is, when God gave them, he said, “Don’t add anything to these. Don’t exclude any of them.” But they went ahead, and in the name of really forming a community that had a certain integrity and a certain peace, they came up with all these rules and laws that had to do with living in the world in community. But they overdid it, and they had 613 laws, and many of them had to do with how they treated each other, how they saw themselves, and how they saw God.
So what was needed is something new, something different from that, because it seemed that the more the law became the dominant feature, the heart of the work of the law seemed to be lost. Instead of it being something that awakened us to who we truly are, it became a burden, a kind of yoke, an imprisonment. It robbed us of the dignity and the greatness that is ours. It treated us, in a sense, like children, always telling us what we needed to do. It’s still a problem in religion. Religion’s greatest fault, to always come back to the old way, is when they start demanding that you do everything that they tell you to do without questioning, and you see in the authority of this institution, whatever religion you belong to, as the person of authority in your life. It’s dangerous, because there is only one true authority, one source of what we call the truth, and it’s God. But in the Old Testament, God was distant from his people, so they had to have rules and laws that explained to the people what God wanted. Something radically different happened in the New Testament. It’s no longer a God that is distant, a God that only works through certain people who then tell us what God said. No, with Jesus came the most extraordinary, blasphemous thing anyone could ever think of — and that is the image of a God who said, “I want to come and dwell within you. I want to be a part of you, and I want you to receive me. Allow me to remain, and if I remain in you, there is going to be some radical transformations within you.” So we should expect that the people of the Old Testament versus the people of the New Testament — and I’m oversimplifying — have a great advantage because of what they’ve been told they can do to find the truth, to know what is the most loving thing to do.
So the first reading is talking about, in the Acts of the Apostles, the phenomena that happened after the death of Jesus, and that is that there were preachers who went around preaching. Almost all of them ended up being murdered, because it was too intolerable to the institutions that were running people’s lives for them to listen to this freedom that Christianity was preaching. It was very threatening to their system, but something happened. The Christians began to grow in number, even though it was a forbidden religion and even though there were people that preached — but they eventually were destroyed, so it was risky to preach. So what you had to do is find another way to convince people there is something interesting about this religion that is attractive, beautiful, and when one sees the fruits of it, they’re intrigued and want to become a part of it. So that first reading ends with, “And they grew in numbers.” It was slow, but they really did.
Even though that religion was repressed, it grew in numbers because, I think, of two things. Number one, these people were different, these believers. They had one very interesting quality that they had not been used to because of, really, the system they lived in, and that was compassion and empathy for those that were sick or outcasts. Under the law of the Old Testament, anyone who was sick or an outcast or had done something wrong and their life had gone wrong, they were just the victims of either their own sins or the sins of their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents, and they were being punished by God, because there was no — for a lot of the Jews, they didn’t think much about an afterlife. So if you had to go through some kind of purgation, it was here in this world. So rabbis and officials were always forbidden to go and help the poor or the sick, particularly the sick, the lepers or things like that, because they would be contaminated by them, and they would be unfit to worship in the temple of the purity of God. What an amazing thought, that God would be so pure that he wouldn’t want to help those that he loved so intensely, the human race. So people began to realize this, and it was so attractive to people. They saw, “Oh, my God. This is really wonderful.” The thing is, I think the most important thing about that is not that people said, “Oh, look at these people helping others.” It was they had this amazing joy in their life because they were helping someone. It seems strange and seems a little naïve that somebody would not believe that, when you do something for your brother or sister, there is great, great satisfaction and joy in that. But if you were forbidden to do it by the law, you could see where that had not developed.
So we see very much these people being transformed by the teaching of Jesus, and the most radical dimension of his teaching was that God would enter into you. When Jesus is on this earth he is preaching to his disciples, and John is the one that got the message best. In this second reading, we have John talking about the mystery of the indwelling presence of God. He dwells in our hearts. It’s interesting in the ancient world, hearts were always that aspect of a human being that was their core. If you talked about your life, you pointed to your heart. “This is my life here. This is the life force, and this is who I am. I live out of this organ called my heart.” And we’ve learned through neuroscience now that the heart is the most amazing organ in our body next to our brain in terms of affecting change, and it has the power to literally resonate some kind of energy outside of itself that is healing and life-giving. No one ever dreamt that was true. It was talked about spiritually in the Old Testament and New Testament, mostly in the new, but nevertheless, when you see science coming back and saying, “Yes, the brain has its capacity to control the nervous system, the endocrine system and to process things, and the heart has the same connection to those two systems and also can even think and outthink the brain, because it can come up with something that’s a better solution than the brain.”
So John talks about your heart. Where’s your heart? Where’s your intention? God is in that place, and he is there to open your heart to the truth. And when you see the truth, you will start to love. So his big thing is — love and truth. So what is truth? It’s reality. It’s the way things are, but most especially, it’s the way God intended things to be. The glory of God is human beings being enormously fruitful and effective, filled with a sense of satisfaction and have a positive impact on the world around them. That’s what God wants from you and from me. He doesn’t want us to suffer in pain. He doesn’t want us to give up our personality and our very being so we surrender to the authority of some religious figure. No. He wants us to flourish by being an agent of his presence in the world, and so he comes and dwells within us. And Jesus claimed that, which made it very difficult for the Pharisees and scribes to deal with him. It’s one of the reasons they crucified him, but there’s also the image that, when Jesus is basically claiming that God is living in him — that would be pretty amazing and awesome itself, but the more amazing thing is he said, “No, no. He’s living in me now, but I’ve come to tell you that I’m the model of who you can become, and God is going to be dwelling in you.”
Well, what does it mean that God dwells in me? It means just that. He’s there as a presence, and we have this Trinitarian God. So we can’t talk about God living in us without talking about a Trinitarian God in us. We have God the Father in us, God the Son, and God the Spirit. If you want something that I think is interesting, just imagine what it’s like to have God the creator of all things, wisdom, strength, power — we have that inside of us. So when we think about the work of enlightenment, we have the light, the understanding, the insight, the knowledge of a God living in us who will share the amount of knowledge we need to do the ultimate work we’re called to do. He’s not going to reveal all secrets to us. We’re not made to handle all that, but we’re made to participate in it. And you have Christ inside you, who is the one who is the model. So that means you have wisdom from the Father. You have this Jesus who gives you an idea of how you should live and what you should be doing. Seeking always the truth and not testing God all the time to see whether he’s really there or not. Judging how he’s made choices that seem distant from what you would want him to choose, and things happen that you don’t want to have happen. You learn in Jesus to surrender, suffer, let it happen, give into as it’s written. That’s the most important thing Jesus tried to say to us. Just give into it. Then you have the Holy Spirit. That’s the one I think is so fascinating. If you’re like me, you have a voice inside of you that attacks you over and over again. It’s called the devil. It’s called Satan. It’s called evil, whatever it is, but it is seemingly a powerful voice that comes into your head and condemns, criticizes, judges, creates shame, fear and anger in a person. What do we call that evil? An adversary. What name did God give to his Holy Spirit living in you? The advocate. The lawyer that pleads your cause. The voice that comes in and says, “Excuse me.” Let’s say the other lawyer is Mr. Satan. “Mr. Satan, you don’t seem to understand. My client, even though you claim all these horrible things about him, I’m here to tell you of his value, his dignity, or her value, her dignity. I want to explain something to you, that what she’s probably done is, the way I see things,” says the advocate, “Is people do the wrong thing because they don’t understand. They don’t know what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing literally, but they don’t really know what they’ve chosen. Because if they were who they’re called to be, they would see through that, because you, Satan, talk them into things that make them feel that maybe they should be punished, maybe they should have a lousy life, maybe they aren’t worth being loved. And I’m here to tell them, over and over again, that they are already loved, that they’re already saved, that they’re already enlightened. All they need is to go inside and feel it and to know it, and they will know what it means that God remains in me.”
Father, we are your children, as you love to call us, your people, your followers, your disciples. It’s so hard for us to grasp the fullness of what you are saying to us when you tell us that you are dwelling within us. We’re so limited in our understanding of what unconditional love is really like because of the limitations of human nature and the fact that so many of us have lived in relationships that are very conditional. We fail to believe and trust in you. So free us from all that error and open us to the truth of who you are and who we are. Release us from the yoke of burdensome, excessive, demanding, imprisoning rules and legislation from the church leaders that don’t lead us to life. Let us find the life that you have promised us through you in us. Amen.