Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 | Revelations 21:10-14, 22-23 | John 14:23-29
Grant, almighty God, that we may celebrate with heartfelt devotion these days of joy, which we keep in honor of the risen Lord and that what we live in remembrance we may always hold to in what we do. 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.
This Sunday is one of the Sundays of Easter. Next Sunday we will celebrate the ascension of Christ back to his Father and then Pentecost, the birth of the church, the birth of the coming of the Spirit that awakens our hearts to fathom and understand and grasp the mystery of God living in us and with us. Then we’re back to a couple of other feasts and then ordinary time. So what I want to try to do in my words today is to summarize something that I believe is truly essential about everything that Jesus has brought into the world, particularly how he’s impacted our image of what religion is.
When we look at the first reading, it’s fascinating, because one of the shadows of religion is control, controlling people, not awakening them to a life that they potentially, when seeing it, will want to follow it, not awakening them necessarily to this incredible mystery of God’s Spirit dwelling within us, mingling with our humanity, but it sometimes comes back to simply telling us what to do, controlling our life. And so this new thing, this Christianity is out there, and it’s so exciting, and people are feeling that it’s about being changed, not about being told what to do. And a group of converts, Jews that were converted to this new way of life, felt that it was not fair that those who were converting as Gentiles didn’t have to go through all the things that the law required of them, and they were saying, “Well, they should be circumcised. They should follow the rules, the laws.” And what they wouldn’t grasp, couldn’t grasp, no, salvation is a gift. It’s a gift. It’s won for us by someone. It’s not earned, and I thought it so fascinating, when I listened to the reaction of the people to this group of people who come and say, “No, you have to be circumcised. You have to follow our rules.” What they heard and was perhaps actually expressed — it was expressed in this passage. “Unless you do this, you can’t be saved.” Does that sound familiar? Unless you join our church, you can’t be saved. That’s what I learned as a Catholic. That idea was shattered in the Vatican Council. It was so dramatic that I think most people just sort of didn’t hear it. It’s not saying that all religions are the same. It’s saying that any religion that holds the truth, that teaches the truth is valuable, and it’s a source of salvation. The truth is what saves people, not a particular domination. The more the denomination reflects the truth of the gospel, the more true it is to what Christianity is.
So we have this image that is there in the very beginning. Why would we think it’s not going to be there all the time? That’s the shadow of religion controlling people, telling them, “Unless you do what we say, you are not going to find favor with God. We are in charge of that relationship.” But the interesting thing is there’s something in human nature that knows the truth, even though it hasn’t been fully understood and explained by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so when we’re told something, we don’t know exactly why it’s wrong, but it doesn’t feel right. It upsets us, and we’re kind of afraid. And that’s what’s so interesting about this first reading. It’s reminding us that, in religion, there is a shadow of people in authority deciding what we must do in order to receive the favor of God, and when we are told we can’t receive the favor of God and it doesn’t seem to make any sense to our own sense of who God is, then yeah, there’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. So we see in that first reading a description of something that we need to be conscious of and aware of and careful not to fall into its trap.
Now, the second reading gives John’s incredible mind — he just had these visions, and if you’re like me, a visual person, they’re so rich. I can just see what he was seeing and then hear the meaning behind it. What he’s saying is he sees this new religion, this new — we call it Christianity, as opposed to a narrow view, a controlling institution, which I’ll call religion, but then he looks, and what he sees is a new city. Where’s it come from? It comes from heaven. What is heaven? Heaven is the place of the truth. So coming from heaven is this image of the way we are called to live in a relationship with God and each other, and it’s magnificent. It’s beautiful. It’s like a stone, jasper. I had to look up what jasper’s qualities are. It’s a stone, and it’s really interesting. It’s not something — you can’t see through it, but it’s filled with all different colors. But it’s been attributed with the power of helping somebody be really grounded in the earth and in reality, very strong stone, and here’s this image of the reality of God’s relationship with us. The earth is the real, kind of grounded, not inflated sort of thing we can do with our imaginations, but it’s the truth. And it’s transparent, or it’s translucent. It’s filled with light. No need for sun, no need for moon. Whatever it is, this is a place of enlightenment, and what it’s founded on is so interesting. The number 12 comes up often. As we know, it’s one of those perfect numbers, a very interesting, important number. Two 12-hour sections make up a day time-wise, 12 months out of a year, 12 zodiac signs or whatever. I don't know if it’s 12 zodiac signs or 12 Chinese signs, but whatever. Twelve is amazing. So what we see is this city, is a community circled by a wall, and the wall is founded on these 12 apostles. Interesting. That means the apostles are people who had a direct experience with God’s presence in Jesus, and so it’s like this city is founded on this incredibly important thing called the experience of knowing God in a way of experiencing his presence. And then it’s a building that has this energy in it, and it flows out. It flows out in every direction, north, east, south, west to whom? To these portals that are guided and protected by angels, which is the 12 tribes of Israel, which is, in a way, the church, everyone, every human being, and the overwhelming that that’s so beautiful in this image is that there’s no temple — no temple, no little place inside of a big building that is run by human beings who determine who is able to come in and who is able to receive. It’s that shadow of religion. “We own it, and we will ask you to do what you have to do in order to get whatever you need from this God. But we have him. We have him. He’s ours.”
Then we hear Jesus, in the gospel, talking to his disciples and saying, “It’s Christianity that I’m establishing for you. It’s all about me dwelling inside of you. We will dwell with you. My father will come and dwell with you.” What happens when divinity is in your humanity, your humanity is enlightened. We don’t know what the potential of humanity is. We have so many extreme cases of people in the world being able to do things that are just absolutely beyond anything we could imagine. Autistic children can do things. There’s a man, I heard — it was on the Internet or something, but I saw he went over the city of Manhattan in a helicopter, maybe a 40-minute ride or something, came back and had a 19-foot long canvas and a Sharpie pen and completely redrew all the buildings in Manhattan in perfect proportion, a human. So when we talk about God’s presence in us awakening the full potential of our humanity, we may be one-tenth of the way that we’re going to eventually be. But what it is, what I want you to feel is, when this indwelling presence is there, we are evolving more into the fullness of what humanity can be, and I would call that consciousness. And the person that we’re given, the presence in us that’s given, it’s different a little bit than the Father and the Son. It is the Spirit that awakens our imaginations to what this relationship with what the Father and the Son inside of us is really going to do. It’s amazing.
So that is an image that I’m trying to depict of what it is we believe in, we as Christians, in particular those of us who are Catholic. We believe in this beautiful, beautiful way in which God has described his relationship with us, and it’s so different than the one from the Old Testament. But one thing you have to always remember about the Old Testament, it began 6,000 years ago. That’s when Adam and Eve were created, and then 4,000 years ago, there was Abraham. I don't know. I used to think, as a child, that those people were just like us. I don’t think they were. I think they were much less evolved and definitely more violent, and when we see God of the Old Testament dealing with them — and he uses a lot of control. “Do this, or I’ll kill you. Do that, or I’ll punish you.” But isn’t that the way children have to be treated, and in a way, we were all children then? And rules and laws were important, but oh, how important it is to let go of that old image of our relationship with God and welcome the new one that isn’t based on a law but is based on presence. It’s not based in obedience but about responding to what God is giving us, and when we see what he’s giving us, it’s so much about accepting us and supporting us and not causing us any undue stress or pressure and giving us peace and giving us a kind of fearless life. What a beautiful image that we have in that, and yet so often we confuse it by the people who get in charge, and I’m one of them. It’s a shadow of being a minister. You’re in control of the place. You control whether you build something new or you don’t or whether you spend money here or spend money there, and then it just flows over into the way we tend to maybe direct people. And we say, “No, this is the only way. Do this, or you’re not a member here. Or do this, and you can’t be saved.” I’m embarrassed to say I get caught in it. We all do, but it’s all about that demon called control.
People don’t want to be controlled when they reach a certain level of evolution. They want to be believed in, and all God is asking — he says, “If you just believe, have faith in what I am, who I am, what I am to you, how much my affection and my love is there for you and how much I respect your freedom, and I want you to respond freely to everything I’m offering — I don’t want to force you into anything, but just believe in me. Have faith in me.” And that means having faith not in a set of rules and laws but in a relationship, a relationship of incredible intimacy and honesty and truth. That’s the heart of being a Christian.
Father, free us from everything that keeps us from understanding who you are, what your intention is with us, how you long for an intimate relationship with us where we’re truly transparent and honest. Help us never be afraid of surrendering to you. It’s not a loss of our freedom. It’s a surrender to what we’re made for. So bless all ministers, like me, and keep us free from that temptation to control instead of to awaken, to somehow take people’s freedom away and give them fear instead of giving them the peace and the joy that is your gift to all of us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.