Henri Nouwen was a much-lauded Dutch Roman Catholic priest. A brilliant man, he held doctorates in both psychology and theology, and rose through various academic posts to become Professor of Pastoral Theology at the prestigious Yale University. He later taught at Harvard, so effectively he taught at the American equivalents to our Oxford and Cambridge. He also had the common touch, and wrote popular books about the spiritual life that sold in quantities that delighted his publishers. We studied one of them, The Return Of The Prodigal Son, in an ecumenical Lent course here in Knaphill.
But for all his acclaim, Nouwen was uncomfortable. It wasn’t until he joined the staff at L’Arche, an international community for people with developmental disabilities, that he felt he was living a truly authentic Christian life.
In looking for a model of how to live the spiritual life in a secular world, he settled upon the Last Supper, and wrote about it in a wonderful book called Life Of The Beloved. What he said there so struck me when I read it that I want to use his framework as we consider our covenant with God again this year. The covenant meal – Holy Communion – provides a structure for the covenant life.
Essentially, what Nouwen is saying is this: what Jesus does with the bread, he does with us. Hear again verse 22:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’
Note the four actions Jesus does with the bread: took, gave thanks, broke, and gave. Jesus does the same with us, says Nouwen: he takes us, gives thanks for us, breaks us, and gives us.
If that seems a bit far-fetched, then bear with me for the sermon, but also listen to these reflections on the passage before us from Tom Wright:
This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words could ever do, what his action , and passion, the next day really meant; and, more than explaining it, it will enable Jesus’ followers, from that day to this, to make it their own, to draw life and strength from it. If we want to understand, and be nourished by, what happened on Calvary, this meal is the place to start.
So, on the day when we once again ‘make this covenant our own’, let us do so by making the covenant meal our own.
First of all, Jesus takes the bread and he also takes us. In our communion service, we represent this simply by unveiling the elements, removing the white cloth. Other traditions process the bread and wine to the table. I don’t do that, and I won’t bore you with the reasons now, but note that we simply take the bread.
And Jesus takes us, too. He takes the initiative to choose and call us. Yes, we made a choice to follow him, but it only came because before we ever thought of him he thought of us, and in his love reached out to us.
We start, then, from a perspective not only of having been chosen by Jesus but in that choosing being taken and held in his hands. Whatever happens from here, we are not alone but in his hands. The covenant life starts in a safe place. As we come to renew our covenant today, we are coming to the One who promises never to leave or forsake us.
So we start from that point of security. Like the child held by the parent, we are safe. Like the friend giving us a hug, we are reassured. Like the beloved held by the lover, we know we are loved. This is the beginning of the covenant. On Covenant Sunday, I am always thinking about those who are nervous about making promises to God which amount to an abandonment to his will and wonder what that would mean. But I come back to the fact that we begin in this place: Jesus takes us. Covenant starts in a good place, not a scary one.
The second action of Jesus is that he gives thanks for the bread – and he gives thanks to the Father for us, too. Again, we might feel uncomfortable, but stay with me to think about this.
One of my nephews used to get so impatient about when a meal was due to arrive that by the time the plate was put in front of him, he was famished. Not wanting to wait a second longer than necessary to eat, he would sometimes abbreviate grace to three words: ‘Father God, Amen.”
Our custom of saying ‘Grace’ derives from the Jewish custom of giving thanks to God for food, and for all sorts of aspects of the material creation. Here, for example, is a traditional prayer said after a meal:
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who, in His goodness, provides sustenance for the entire world with grace, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives food to all flesh, for His kindness is everlasting. Through His great goodness to us continuously we do not lack [food], and may we never lack food, for the sake of His great Name. For He, benevolent G-d, provides nourishment and sustenance for all, does good to all, and prepares food for all His creatures whom He has created, as it is said: You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Blessed are You, L-rd, who provides food for all.
The thanksgiving for the unleavened bread at Passover (and I am assuming Jesus was celebrating a form of Passover with his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’) begins in similar vein. The sense is maintained that created things are good, they are a gift from God, and have a divinely ordained purpose in the world. Therefore God is praised for his good gifts.
And in Covenant, God is praised for his good gift of you. God has made each of us in the church as a gift to one another and a gift to the world. For this reason, Jesus praises the Father for us. It is not that he praises us, but he praises God for us.
Even so, some people find this hard to accept. They feel worthless and insignificant, small and wracked by sin. How can Jesus praise God for me, they ask?
He can, because of God’s work in you. And God has some special purpose for you. He has given you gifts and talents, he has placed you in certain families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and leisure, and for that Jesus is thankful. However much the holiness of God cannot abide sin, there is no picture here of an angry God, only of the Son of God who is pleased that you are God’s good gift. So rejoice that you are seen this way.
Jesus’ third action is to break the bread, and also break us. Here we may feel we are getting closer to the challenging, if not severe, side of the Covenant that intimidates some church members into not attending this service each year.
At one level, though, this isn’t a fearful picture. For the one bread to be distributed, it has to be broken. And for the one church to be sent on the mission of God, she has to be dispersed to different places. Some of this is just a natural expression of what happens at the end of worship when we are dismissed to serve Christ in the world. It’s like the church building which had a slogan over the exit door: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. We go from here to our separate localities as Christ’s witnesses. We are the church gathered and we are also the church dispersed.
But in another way, being broken by Jesus is part of that submission to whatever he needs to do in our lives. I am not talking about something so extreme as military training, where the civilian is destroyed in order for the soldier to emerge, although we should take seriously the call to a disciplined life as Christians.
And in this respect, Jesus uses the circumstances of life that he allows us to face, or even perhaps brings into our lives, to shape us into better people. However, those life situations are not always pleasant. They may be little different from what people who do not share our faith also encounter, but in our case, Christ allows brokenness to be a tool that leads us to pursue a life that is more like his.
So even in the joy of a marriage, we come face to face with just how self-centred we are. In the loss of something important, we confront the call to decide exactly where our faith and trust lie.
This week I read an extraordinary testimony by the Australian preacher Christine Caine. An energetic pastor, evangelist, and campaigner against human trafficking, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and other conditions in her body. I would love to read you the whole testimony, but it’s long, and I can only focus on a couple of brief parts. Firstly, here are just a few of the words she said to her surgeon after her diagnosis:
Leslie, it’s okay. Cancer is not terminal. Life is terminal. I will live every second of every day that God has ordained for me to live on this earth, and then I will go home. … We are on a battlefield, not a playground; it’s time to go to war. You tell me what to do medically, and I will fight this spiritually, and whatever happens, Jesus will have the final victory.
And then I note how she said,
I wanted to be delivered FROM this situation, but ten weeks later, I discovered God wanted me to walk THROUGH this.
Why walk through this? Because it brought her into contact with other cancer patients. Lonely, fearful people. Those who had lost their hair, were marked with radiation lines, bruised by needles, or unable to walk without assistance. A father wheeling his son in for treatment. In her broken condition, she could minister. As she says,
I wondered why so many people wanted a platform ministry when there was ministry waiting in hospital waiting rooms all over the world.
How many are waiting for us to go to them while we wait for them to come to us?
Waiting rooms are waiting for us.
What are you waiting for?
And this leads me into the fourth and final action of Jesus: he gives the bread, and he gives us, too. That’s where we’ve been heading from the beginning. Just as the bread is destined to be given, so are we. Chosen and cherished by God in his taking of us and Christ’s thanksgiving for us, the breaking that then ensues in the knowledge that we are so loved is in order for us to be distributed into the world.
Just as ancient Israel had to learn that her special covenant with God was not a matter of élite status but in order to bless the world, so the same is true of our ‘new covenant’. It does grant remarkable status to us as children of God, but the purpose is not to luxuriate in that, but to become God’s gift to the world, calling others to meet this astonishing God who calls them too into the covenant community.
And so this theme comes at a good time, with our Life On The Frontline series beginning this Wednesday with a midweek meeting at 8:00 pm and continuing next Sunday with the first sermon in the series. Here is the chance to identify the people and places to which God has given us so that we might be his ambassadors.
If we are serious about renewing our covenant with God this year, we shall be serious about the fact that Jesus gives us to others in his name.
So if you are aware that Christ has taken hold of you and you are safe with him; if you realise that Jesus thanks his Father for the gifts and opportunities he has given you; if you realise that the brokenness in your life has been allowed for a kingdom reason; and if you acknowledge that Jesus is giving you to the world …
… then why not take part in Life On The Frontline. And be ready as part of working out your covenant vows to seek openings to be Christ’s witness in word and deed.
 Wright, N. T. (2004-03-01). Mark for Everyone (p. 194). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
The pastor of a Christian Science church was talking to a member of his congregation. ‘And how is your husband today?’
‘I’m afraid he’s very ill.’
‘No, no,’ corrected the pastor, you really shouldn’t say that – you should say that he’s under the impression that he’s very ill.’
The woman nodded meekly. ‘Yes, pastor, I’ll remember next time.’
A few weeks later, the pastor saw her again.
‘And how is your husband at the moment?’
‘Well, pastor,’ she replied, ‘he’s under the impression that he’s dead.’
It isn’t long in life before a bright beginning is touched by suffering. A child is born, and discovers pain. Even Prince George will find that out. A wedding and honeymoon is followed by the reality of each partner’s frailties. Someone is converted to Christ, but then learns it isn’t a rose garden.
Meanwhile, we have people who want to play pretend about suffering. They want to act as if it doesn’t exist, or they demand it be magically removed from existence in an instant. Maybe they even try to get round it in a religious way by saying that the body doesn’t matter, it is only a shell for the real person. That isn’t a view you can take while still believing in the New Testament, with its strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body.
The first thing our Psalm of Ascent this week does is be frank about the reality of suffering.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Verses 1-2)
The Scriptures do not get into philosophical discussions about the existence of suffering and belief in a good and powerful God. They simply enter the story of suffering, and describe that narrative. Our Psalmist here is in deep suffering – he cries ‘out of the depths’. While there are great accounts of deliverance from suffering in the Bible – the Exodus, the healing miracles, and so on – we are not presented with faith as a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Faith enters human suffering.
And so, before anything else, simplistic and obvious as it might sound to some of us, we need to embrace the reality of suffering and stop playing games. Henri Nouwen wrote,
Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
Are there areas where any of us is pretending? Are there times when – much as we believe that God heals – he is in truth going to take us the long route to wholeness? We like to believe that if God works a miracle it will be a great testimony, and it certainly can be. However, are there times when we say that, but what we really want is a short cut out of our personal difficulties rather than the testimony? Could it be that God will also bring glory to his name when he takes us on what seem to be detours rather than the direct route?
For me, that was true in one particular instance. In my first year at theological college, I suffered a collapsed lung. My lung had previously collapsed three times a few years earlier, and I had only avoided surgery then when the consultant was inconveniently on holiday. But on the weekend when it happened to me at college, the father of a student friend was visiting. My friend’s Dad was known for having a healing ministry. Surely he would pray for me and I would be healed. But he had left to go home a few minutes before I got back from A and E. This time, I had to have the operation. It meant a week and a half in hospital, a month’s convalescence at home, and three months before I was back to anything like full strength. But God used that experience so that when I visit people in hospital, I have a way of identifying with them and a reason to bring them a word of hope.
That leads to the second piece of frankness in the Psalm: we hear about the reality of God. The Lord is addressed throughout the Psalm. The Psalmist cries out to him (verses 1-2); he acknowledges and relies on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness (verses 3-4); and the Lord is the reason to wait and hope (verses 5-8).
God is there. God is present. God is even in the depths. The Old Testament describes a God who hears his people’s suffering, even if he does not always act on it as quickly as his people would desire him to do. But the cry of suffering reaches him, and he liberates his enslaved people from Israel. He brings them back from exile in Babylon.
Not only that, the same Old Testament begins to describe God as being involved in his people’s suffering, even functioning as some kind of representative or substitute. I really don’t think you can avoid reading passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that way.
What the Old Testament doesn’t have, but which we have, is the filling out of that belief in Jesus, who came as a servant, lived among the poor and suffered death on a Cross.
Ours, then, is the God of the depths – even the depths of Hades. In Christ God stands with us in suffering and he stands for us in suffering. And in doing so, he shows supremely the divine answer to the Psalmist’s cry for mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The merciful God is the One who enters the depths of human suffering, who drinks the cup to its dregs.
As Eugene Peterson puts it,
God makes a difference. God acts positively toward his people. God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily in fits and starts. He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.
He goes on to say,
And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering, for we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering and lost. God woos the rebellious and confused. … Because of the forgiveness we have a place to stand. We stand in confident awe before God, not in terrorized despair.
Suffering is awful, but it is not the final word. God has seen to that in Christ. At the Cross and the Empty Tomb we find that God has the last word. God has not stayed remote and sent us a philosophical answer to our suffering. Instead, he has got his hands dirty. He has come alongside us, and also in his suffering he has accomplished what we cannot do for ourselves due to our sin. He has provided for forgiveness and so we can serve him with reverence (verse 4), or ‘stand in confident awe before [him]’, as Peterson put it.
Now this leads us on to the third and final piece of honest faith in the face of suffering that the Psalmist models for us, and that is the reality of waiting. Hear how he uses words about watching, waiting and hoping:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Verses 5-8)
In the Old Testament, the words ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are very close. There are passages where in one Bible translation the English word used may be ‘wait’ and in another English Bible it may be ‘hope’. You could say that the faithful disciple of Old Testament days waited in hope. Certainly when we face suffering we often need to wait, and our waiting will have meaning and significance if we can wait with hope. That is what we do as New Testament Christians for sure, living in some respects between the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Day.
But what do we do while we are waiting hopefully? The Psalmist suggests we apply for the job of nightwatchman:
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Verse 6)
In my home church was a gentle, devout Jamaican Christian called Clarence. He was employed as a security guard. Anyone less likely to tour a building site at night accompanied by fierce Rottweilers you would find it hard to imagine. But for most of the time, he told us, he was able to sit in the site office. Each night he would take his Bible and his Moody and Sankey hymn book, and study his faith. He may have been the most unlikely candidate for the job, and heaven knows how he got it, but he used his waiting time fruitfully and every morning, the dawn came.
So it is for us. We are on the night watch in our faith as we wait for God who is with us in our suffering to act on our behalf. What we think should not take him a trice is something he chooses for reasons only he can see to take longer about resolving. Meanwhile, in the darkness we wait.
But … we wait knowing that the dawn is coming. Hence we wait in hope. And during that waiting, it would be good if we put the time to good use, as Clarence did.
How can we use our waiting time? We too can certainly take advantage of opportunities to deepen our faith, too. We can express our trust, even if at times it is a bemused trust, in the God for whom we are waiting. We can share our hopeful waiting with others who are also struggling, so that we may encourage them. Such people can be found both inside and outside the church.
I’ll give the final word again to Eugene Peterson:
The depths have a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and hoping by which God is given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and salvation.
The late Steve Jobs famously insisted that the same design standards be applied to those parts of an Apple product that no consumer would ever see as were applied to the outer parts, which gained admiration for their style.
Something similar is true of the Christian, and certainly of those of us called to the daunting task of leadership in the church. Gordon Macdonald makes a similar point in a recent book, using a similar analogy:
David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.
In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline” (italics mine).
The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline. It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.
Macdonald’s book is appropriately called, ‘Building Below the Waterline: Shoring Up the Foundations of Leadership‘. The quote above is from the introduction (page 1). By the end of the first chapter he’s making the large claim that almost all Christian leaders agree that they need to carve out one to two hours a day for this work of nurturing the spiritual centre.
There seem to be some other books in recent years that take a similar tack. Ruth Haley Barton’s ‘Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry‘ is one. Pete Scazzero’s ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality‘ and ‘The Emotionally Healthy Church‘ are two more. In the last few decades, Eugene Peterson and Henri Nouwen have been voices callng in the wilderness, pleading with us to take this seriously, rather than concentrating on the latest techniques and plans to grow your church. Might it be that at last their cries are being heeded?
So – two questions:
1. What do you do to nurture the hidden parts of your spiritual life?
2. Are there any other authors and books you recommend on this subject?
Part Two of Julian Reindorp’s contributions to the Ministry Today conference: he shared a meditation, based on the work of the late Henri Nouwen. Imagine you are lying on the beach in your swimming gear. You are completely relaxed, and just for once not even one thought from your work in pastoral ministry is intruding into your mind.
As you lie there, you see a person walking in your direction from a distance away. It is a man. When he arrives, you realise it is Jesus. He speaks to you:
“I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for all you are doing for me.”
How do you react?
Because for some of us, those would be hard words to accept. We think we are such failures that we cannot believe Jesus would speak to us like that. Maybe the critical words of others so loom in our minds that they frame what we think Jesus might say. If they are critical, we may believe he is.
So what does our reaction say about our circumstances, or the state of our souls?
When somebody leaves a job, we normally buy them presents. When I left my office to study Theology, my friends bought me a set of mugs, given the image of students sitting around drinking.
But when a ministerial colleague left the first circuit in which I served, he reversed the custom. Before Ken left to follow his calling as a prison chaplain, he gave gifts to all the staff. I still remember that he gave me a book by Henri Nouwen, the (since deceased) Dutch Roman Catholic priest.
And today’s reading is about parting gifts. It’s about parting gifts, given by the one who was going to leave. On this Sunday after Ascension, we go back to a passage where Jesus promised what he would give his disciples when he left them. What did Jesus leave his first disciples – and, by implication, us?
The first gift is one that effectively says, I’m not really going.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Verses 23-24)
Physically I’m going, says Jesus, but the Father and I will be present in your lives. It’s rather more than what we mean when we say we will be with someone in spirit: Jesus and the Father will actually be present spiritually, in a way ordinary humans cannot be.
So Jesus is saying this isn’t a complete going away. You won’t be bereaved, I’ll just be present in a different way, in some sense a better way. Not only will Jesus be present with those he shares his earthly life, he will be present with all disciples. And further, it won’t just be Jesus who is present, but the Father, too.
Hence, all the wistful, romantic views about how wonderful it would be to have walked with Jesus along the shores of Galilee are punctured. Jesus says, this way is better. It is more blessèd for him to ascend and then come spiritually with the Father to all disciples. Let those of us who have never physically seen Jesus view ourselves as second-class Christians.
This, then, is a beautiful gift for the parting Jesus to give. He and the Father will be spiritually present with all Christians. There is no distinction between superior and inferior disciples. All are valued, and this is shown by the divine presence in all followers of Jesus.
There is, however, a challenge that goes with this first parting gift. Jesus associates this gift of divine presence with obedience to his word. To repeat the quote I just gave, Jesus says that the promise of his and the Father’s presence is to ‘Those who love me [who] will keep my word’ (verse 23), and in contrast ‘Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’ (verse 24).
What do we make of this? Is Jesus making it some kind of condition that he and the Father will only come to those who are goody-goodies? If so, it’s hardly some kind of gift. In that case, rather than a gift, their presence becomes some kind of reward or payment. You could say their presence would be more like wages for doing the right thing.
But I don’t think it is that. Jesus is setting this parting gift in the context of a relationship based on love. When people love one another, they both want to be with each other and they want to do what pleases the other party. That is what is going on here: both a close presence (‘we will come to them and make our home with them’) and a desire to please (‘Those who love me will keep my word’).
Put all that together, and what have you got? You’ve got a relationship where one party is going away, with all the potential heartache of a parting. But you have something there that cannot be paralleled in ordinary human relationships, in the way that Jesus and the Father will spiritually make themselves present in the lives of disciples. Our part is in love to ‘keep’ the words of Jesus.
That word ‘keep’ is interesting. It isn’t just about obeying, although it includes that. We keep the words of those we love. Think of a couple who are going out together, and especially if they live miles from each other, they will keep one another’s words. Letters will be kept, emails will be filed away, and especially when they are apart the correspondence will come out and someone will pore over it for nuances of their beloved’s thoughts and feelings. Only in the light of that devoted reading will they then act, because they have learned what pleases the one they love.
I’m sure I don’t have to ram home a spiritual application too hard after that. Keeping Jesus’ word means reading what he has said to us in a spirit of devotion, because we love him and he loves us. As we do so, we gain a feel for what pleases him, and we then set out to please him. All this brings him (and the Father) closer.
The second gift comes in verses 25 to 26. We’ve had Jesus and the Father, now we receive the Holy Spirit:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Let’s pick up on that word ‘Advocate’. Other translations say ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Helper’. Which one is right? All of them. And more. It’s one of those rich Greek words in the New Testament: paraklétos, and because it is so layered with meaning some people like to leave it virtually untranslated as ‘Paraclete’. If you did translate it literally, it would be something like this: ‘one called alongside’. So you can see why English versions opt for words like ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper’.
However, paraklétos had a particular application in the legal world. It referred to ‘a helper in court’. And from that you can see why some English translators choose words such as ‘Counsellor’ (think of ‘learned counsel’ in our legal parlance) or ‘Advocate’ (especially if you think of that word’s use in the Scottish legal system).
Add to this ‘helper in court’ Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (verse 26), and you get something like this. The Holy Spirit is the helper in court who reminds us what Jesus says. You could say, then, that the Holy Spirit here is Jesus’ helper. He is an advocate for Jesus to us. He helps us hear that word we are longing to pore over in our relationship of love with Jesus. On our own we cannot hear the word of Jesus. Even if we read it in the pages of Scripture, it just doesn’t jump off the page and sink into our being. But the work of the Holy Spirit makes the difference. Not that it then always becomes easy to hear the word of Jesus, but the Spirit makes it possible and real.
If you stretch the legal language a little further, then perhaps there is a particular time when the Spirit does this for us. If there is a ‘court’ context, then perhaps this is a promise that the Holy Spirit will especially help us receive the word of Jesus when we are ‘on trial’ for our faith. Not necessary literally on trial, although that is true for so many Christians around the world, but when we are under pressure, facing difficulties or opposition, the Holy Spirit comes to us and makes the message of Jesus clear to us.
This, then, is the second parting gift from Jesus. The Holy Spirit will help us hear his word in order to dwell on it and please him, but especially in times of stress he will make the voice of Jesus clear to us.
The third and final (at least in this passage) gift is peace. Verse 27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It’s a verse I often read at Methodist funerals, and I hoe it provides comfort to people in the deepest sorrow. It’s a verse I’ve applied to my own life at times of great nervousness. This may seem trivial compared to bereavement, but when I first took my driving test I was a bag of nerves. My foot beat time on the clutch – so much for the three-point turn – and I was in such a state that I pulled in behind a bus, waited for it to move off, completely oblivious to the fact that it was at a terminus, having completed its route. The second time I took my driving test, I wanted to avoid being a nervous wreck again and I memorised this verse. I was duly calm, and performed well in the test.
Except I didn’t pass. I sustained a puncture a quarter of a mile from the end of the test route. Although I had completed all the statutory manoeuvres, the examiner refused to proceed to the Highway Code test (no written exam in those days) and gave me a ‘no result’!
So we tend to apply this verse about Jesus’ promise to give a parting gift of peace in rather personal, if not individual terms. Yet however valid that is, I have been struck this week by the thought that Jesus might originally have meant it in a different way.
Jesus doesn’t simply give this gift of peace to individuals here, but to a group – his disciples. Some of our conventional understanding of this verse will still make sense in terms of the Ascension – if they are troubled by the thought of Jesus’ departure, he will calm them. Likewise, if they are under pressure, if not in a ‘court’ situation, then the gift of peace alongside the Spirit’s work will be invaluable. But I suspect he means more.
If it is peace in the midst of a group, then is Jesus not saying that peace should characterise his disciples? Should we not be known as a community of peace? By that, I don’t mean that we never have arguments, nor that we sweep our differences under the carpet. I mean that our life together as Christian community is one of harmony, healing, well-being and justice. Is that what we are like?
The other night I went to hear Sam Norton, the vicar of Mersea Island, speak at Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society. During his talk, he showed us a photo of the Amish community in the United States, and we remembered the terrible murder committed in their midst by an outsider a couple of years ago and how they pulled together in forgiveness. That, surely, was a Christian community that had practised the gift of peace given to them by Jesus and then when the crisis hit it was more natural to them to practise it also when under strain.
In other words, if we receive the parting gift of peace from Jesus, we need to put it into practice. It is no good just waiting for the crisis. We need to turn things into regular habits. The regular practice of peace will make us what one writer calls ‘the peaceable kingdom’. And by that I don’t mean simply sharing ‘The Peace’ at Holy Communion as we shall do in a few minutes: I mean the habits of peace that involve forgiveness, reconciliation, believing the best of one another and so on.
In conclusion, Jesus gives us a word about joy at the thought of his forthcoming departure:
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (Verses 28-29)
You wouldn’t normally mark the departure of a loved one with joy for yourselves, even if you were happy for them. But if the departure of Jesus means parting gifts like these – a loving relationship with him and the Father sustained by deep love and keeping his word, the Holy Spirit bringing the word of Jesus to us even in the most testing of situations and finally a communal peace – then do we not have every reason to be joyful that Jesus departed the earth for the right hand of the Father?
Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.
All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.
And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.
Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.
So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.
Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!
And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’
Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.
Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.
What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.
Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!
As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.
But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.
Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.
The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)
You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’
Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’
So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.
What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:
‘He 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.’
To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.
So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.
But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.
In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.
However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,
And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.
If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.
But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.
Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.
 Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.