Sunday, 22 October 2006

Sermon: Every time the world ends

I just preached this sermon this morning at Richmond Church of the Brethren.

Revelation 21:1-422:1-5
John 21:1-25

In the book of Revelation, the poet/narrator is guided around by an angel to see the sights and visions of what the world will look like at the end of times. Whether we are comfortable with these images or not, I think we can all find some hope in what Revelation tells us of the days after God has finally vanquished the spiritual forces of Death, and there is peace in heaven and, more importantly, on earth.

The old heaven and earth, we are told, pass away. But that is not the end of the story. There is now a new heaven and a new earth. The narrator sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” This new city, this new world that comes from God is established here on earth. And what happens in this new world? Let’s listen to the poet:
[God] will dwell with [mortals];
they will be [God’s] peoples,
and God…will be with them;
[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying will be no more…
The description continues: There will be “the river of the water of life…[and] the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…[The people] will see [God’s] face, and [God’s] name will be on their foreheads.” What a sight! What a vision! And we have to wait for this? How long, O Lord? How long?! 

Unfortunately, for those of us who thirst for the City of God right now, Jesus seems to be little help. He says: “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42)… and, “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (verse 44). But, at the same time, Jesus went around proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”, suggesting that we may not have to wait as long as we thought. 

I am not convinced that the New Jerusalem is only what The End may look like, but also what it looks like every single time our ways of seeing, and believing, and loving, and living in this world comes to an abrupt end, and God comes in to transform our lives. In this sense, the world ends over and over again. 

There have been times when something unexpected happens in our life and we are left without our bearings, frightened and dismayed. An example that springs immediately to my mind is September 11, 2001. Before that day we Americans thought we were untouchable, that no one would want to or be able to breach our security and take our lives in such a brutal and horrendous way. At least I thought this, until that fateful day when nearly three thousand people died in a total of four explosions in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania. Hope was quickly abandoned by so many. But then slowly, quietly it was restored. As the story is told on one website: “Father Mychcal Judge, Chaplin [of the New York Fire Department], rushed into the World Trade Center with firefighters. As he administered last rites to a fatally injured firefighter, he was struck by falling debris. ‘Father Mike’ died instantly from the injuries he received”. When the twin towers crumbled to the ground, God was there through this chaplain, and through so many other people. One helped carry a handicapped woman down the stairs inside the tower. Nameless others helped others find their lost relatives, or opened their homes to strangers, or drove to New York to provide assistance through the Red Cross and church agencies, or donated blood right where they were. While the politicians in Washington were speaking and voting for war, anonymous thousands were touching the lives of victims. 

Whenever we read in the New Testament of the end of the world, Jesus is the one who returns. In order for Jesus to return from heaven, he must first ascend to heaven after his death and resurrection, at least in Matthew, Mark and Acts. And all throughout the gospel of John, Jesus predicts that he will return in glory to the heavenly realm. For example, "I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me” (7:33), or “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” (14:28), and “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (14:2). When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ, he warns her, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” But Jesus never does what he says. Instead, he hangs around, paying haunting visits to the disciples. That evening he pops up into the middle of a locked room to greet them with the blessing, “Peace be with you.” The following week, he appears in the same way to give faith to doubting Thomas. We are told that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,” but then the appearances seem to come to an end, leaving the disciples still waiting around. 

Possibly bored or anxious, or both, Peter gets up one day and tells his friends, “I’m going fishing.” This seems strange. Wasn’t he supposed to go out and proclaim the good news of salvation to the world? Wasn’t he supposed baptize more into the faith of Christ as messiah? Well, that was true when Jesus was alive, when his followers may have expected him to save Israel with armies of angels, and fire from heaven. But that was a different time, a different life, a different world, one that had now come to an end. What will all the predictions look like now? Will Jesus come and take them to his heavenly dwelling? Jesus came just a few days before, but he was more like a ghost, popping in and out of rooms, scaring his disciples half to death, telling them not to hold onto him, not to become attached. What a disappointment. The disciples gave up their lives for their teacher and Lord, and built up a vision in their mind of what would happen. But now, in the words of Revelation, their old “heaven and earth had passed away.” Their world ended, so the disciples join Peter in returning to their old profession.

After a long night of catching no fish, the disciples decide to bring their boat in to shore. But just as they are pulling their empty nets back in, they see a stranger on the shore. It is Jesus, but they have forgotten to look for him, and cannot recognize him. The man asks the obvious question, “You have no fish, do you?” Then, he gives them more than a suggestion, it’s professional advice: “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” Surprisingly, they listen to this stranger, perhaps saying to themselves, “We’ll show him how barren this sea is, then he’ll leave us alone.” But the fishermen are proved wrong, right there on the spot, as the net fills with fish so abundantly that they cannot haul it in. At that spectacular moment, at the tail end of their mundane work shift, their vision is altered as they recognize the true identity of the strange man on the beach. As the story tells us: “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” No longer sitting, distraught in the rocking boat of uncertain times ahead, Peter now swims amidst the currents of the sea that he once, if only briefly, walked upon. Maybe Peter could have run across the surface of the sea, but he was too much in a hurry for that. He would rather be carried ashore by pushing against the currents beneath the surface. Life as he knew it, with long days of waiting for his friend and Lord to return, was over. You might even say his old world was then replaced with the new one, the proverbial City of God, so radical was his change when he saw Christ so close to him. Peter was so surprised, he put on clothes, symbolic of a change of attitude toward life. Previously naked, he had been vulnerable to the elements that could have taken his life in the dangerous profession of fishing. But now, clothed with what comes when we recognize Christ among us, Peter races onto solid ground, where he is greeted by Jesus. 

After their breakfast, Jesus questions Peter of the disciple’s love for him. Perhaps Jesus has to be sure that even after he suffered and died, his followers still believe in, still love him. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter replies, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Even through his pain and confusion of why Jesus keeps asking, Peter does not change his answer, he still loves him. And Jesus’ reply? “Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.” I think Jesus is saying, “Although,” or even, “because your world has ended, you must keep on doing my work, that is, you must love. Even when you will be carried away to the end of you life, never stop loving, for that is what it means for the City of God to come.” 

The final scene of the gospel of John can seem a bit odd at first reading, but I invite you to see it in a different way, with the topic of their conversation informing the message of this passage. After questioning Peter three times, Jesus gives the ultimate command, the same command, and opportunity, that he gave Father Mychal Judge, and gives us, every time our world ends: Jesus said, “Follow me.” I picture in my mind as I read, Peter, recognizing the opportunity but not fully comprehending it, standing up and walking along the shore of the sea with his friend and Lord. Peter looks behind him and sees ‘the disciple whom Jesus loves’ following them as well. He asks Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus gives a response that may seem unclear, but I think ties this to the view of the world ending over and over: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” We are told that stories grew about this disciple that he would never die. But that is not as important as what is really happening between Jesus and Peter on the beach. They are, I think, walking around the sea, talking about the next time the world will end. I imagine Peter turning to Jesus and questioning him, “And when will that be?” I don’t know what Jesus says, but I think he has already come again, in this case to the disciples as they were fishing, and continues to come again, and again, and again. That Jesus never ascends to heaven in the gospel of John may hint, I think, that the ascension we all expect really looks like this picture of Jesus, walking here on earth with his followers. 

The last time the world ended, Charles Roberts attacked a group of Amish schoolchildren so brutally that it left several little girls and himself dead, the girls shot execution style before he turned the gun on himself. This was an end to the world of Charles, his family, and the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. And, like September 11, God was there, this time through the victims themselves. Soon after the shooting, members of the Amish community visited Charles’s widow and father, expressing forgiveness and regret over what took place that morning. When donations began flooding in to cover the expenses for the Amish funerals and health care, they insisted that the Roberts family receive part of the gifts as well. When Charles was buried, approximately half of the mourners present at the service were Amish. There is no doubt that this outpouring of Christlike love brought the City of God directly to the Roberts family. 

Like the end of John’s gospel, Christ is still here. He always will be with the suffering, the excluded, the victims, calling to us all from the shore to come and eat bread and fish together, to be the church for each other, and even, as the Amish show, to those outside the church. And when we do, he will be there to charge us to care for each other, following him; and to walk with us along the shore, speaking of the next time the world will end. Amen.

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