“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
About five seconds into preparing for this week’s sermon, I immediately started thinking and couldn’t stop thinking about Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that’s not because of the movie’s theological precision or amazingly realistic special effects but because (spoiler alert!) when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant they all end up melted or zapped by the overwhelming (and fairly creepy) brilliance and splendor of God’s glory. Of his holiness.
When we close our eyes and listen to our OT lesson this morning, as we watch Isaiah look around the heavenly throne room, that same sense of ominous power arises. Smoke billows around us. The hem of God’s robe sparkles in the flicker of candlelight. And the seraphim — these fiery, flying angelic beings — sing with so much conviction that their voices shake the foundations of the temple — and we can’t help but be shaken, too.
We cover our eyes instinctually and take a step back. We know to our core that we aren’t supposed to be there. We’ve wandered into something too big for us, something dangerous, something otherworldly and beyond our understanding. And when Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I have seen the King, the LORD of hosts,” a part of us feels the same way.
But why? Why does he say that? Why does Isaiah, upon seeing the beauty and splendor of God cry out in fear for his life? And why do we feel the same? How can we be so uncomfortable, so afraid in the presence of God, when we know that he has made us and that our hearts are restless until they rest in him?
Isaiah knew that to see God revealed in his might is a death sentence — because that which is sinful cannot survive that which is perfectly holy. The stain of our sin, the selfishness of our hearts, separates us from encountering God, enjoying God as he is. And so, like a blade of grass that scorches under the bright light of the sun, we wither before the holiness of God. “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”
Can we face God and live? No. God’s holiness must and will consume us. And yet such is his grace.
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”
God’s holiness is a consuming fire; but just as fire kills, it also makes way for new life.
When Nicodemus encounters the presence of God in the face of Jesus, he, too, learns that those who would enter God’s kingdom must die. Jesus says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The life you live now, Jesus tells him, must die and must be born anew for you to come into the kingdom. And Nicodemus doesn’t understand — who would? “How can these things be?” he asks. And Jesus responds, “This is the way: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The light of the glory of God, the living coal of his mercy and judgment, has entered the world; and he will show us our sin, show us what God’s holiness cannot abide. But God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, to call it guilty and leave it at that. He sent his Son into the world so that all might be saved through him. That all who hear the Spirit’s call might be baptized not only into Christ’s death, but into Christ’s life.
When we enter the waters of baptism, we encounter God’s judgment, his fiery love that will settle for nothing less than a renewed relationship between him and us. But we also encounter his mercy, we encounter the holiness that undoes and then renews, that kills and then revitalizes. When the name of the Triune God is spoken over us at the fount, we are washed, dressed in white, and brought into the very presence and fellowship of God, where we can join with one voice in the angelic chorus: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” AMEN.
Pentecost is one of the great Baptismal days in the Episcopal Church, and in fact it’s one of the great days, period.
The story from Acts of how God poured out his Spirit upon the Blessed Virgin and the disciples is so colorful and exciting. Tongues as of fire! A violent wind! Men and women bursting into the streets with the joy of the Lord! The sudden change of what had looked like a local Jewish renewal movement into a multiethnic, multilingual, multisensory, multieverything, movement with a message for the whole universe. It’s such a gripping moment.
But if we want to understand what that gripping moment has to do with Baptism, and why Episcopalians try to schedule Baptisms on Pentecost, it might be helpful to turn to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John today. In this section of John, Jesus is giving his farewell teaching to the disciples before he is arrested, and one of the things he wants to bring home to them is the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate as Jesus calls him here.
Though it’s in the past for us, when Jesus spoke those words he was telling the disciples about something still in the future for them, and he put it different ways: The Spirit will be in them, the Father will send the Spirit, the Spirit will come. However you phrase it, it was a promise of something that had not happened yet, a mode of connection with God that before Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension was not yet available, but that God was planning to make available on Pentecost.
And what will this Spirit do? Apparently he’s going to prove the world wrong about all sorts of important things – maybe we can talk about those the next time this lectionary Sunday comes up – but what concerns us today is that the Spirit’s also going to point, inexorably, to Jesus Christ. Three quotes from the passage:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” says Jesus. Without the activity of the Holy Spirit, we cannot bear all the truth God has revealed in Christ; the full Christian revelation is too splendid for our finite intellects. Once we receive the Spirit, we have an inner companion who can unfold Jesus to us.
“The Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,” says Jesus. The Spirit is not a solo actor, but the intimate conduit, the faithful transmission, of the Gospel and the Biblical message and the experienced power of God to us. He relays with absolute fidelity what the God who became incarnate in Jesus is doing and saying.
“The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” says Jesus. The Spirit will take all the glories and insights, all the justice and holiness, all the mercy, all the beauty, all the brilliance that belong to Jesus and pass them on to us. In fact, it’s true for the whole Trinity. The Spirit opens onto the life of the Trinity, the Spirit is the one who sweeps us up into that eternal exchange of Love, the one who makes it all real to us. If, by the way, the Christian proclamation of God doesn’t feel real to you, or the doctrine doesn’t seem to apply, or you just don’t get it, pray for the Holy Spirit to work in you. That’s his job.
So I said this all had to do with Baptism and I haven’t mentioned Baptism, so let me mention it. We had two readings: The discourse we heard in John is a teaching about what the Spirit will do, when he comes on Pentecost, in and for people following Jesus. The story that we heard in Acts, the exciting one with the fire and the street scene, is the narrative of that coming on Pentecost, the first time in history the Spirit came in the way Jesus had promised. And it just so happens that the same people in that John reading were also present historically in Jerusalem at Pentecost, the first time in history the Spirit came. Jesus promised it in John, and 50-so days later it happened to them in Acts.
But that doesn’t do us much good. We weren’t there for the discourse in John, we weren’t there that first day the Spirit was given in Acts. How do we get in on this promise? Well, we get in on it by Baptism. From God’s point of view, the moment we are baptized, every single thing that Jesus has for us and did for us, every single thing that the Spirit is deputized to unfold to us, is ours. The door to intimacy with the Trinity is thrown open. We are claimed and marked as Christ’s own forever, sealed with the Holy Spirit.
In a few minutes, after the washing of water and the action of the Spirit, I will mark the Cross of Christ on Pepper Crofts’ forehead, and that Cross will never come off. It’s indelible. From this moment forth, the Spirit will be taking what is Jesus’ and declaring it to her. The Spirit will be bringing her in to the benefits of the Cross and Resurrection. The Spirit will be saying to her all the many things Jesus wants her to know, but she cannot bear yet.
And if you are baptized the same is true for you: It’s indelible. And the Spirit is trying to take what is Jesus’ and declare it to you. The Spirit is trying to bring you in to the benefits of the Cross and Resurrection. The Spirit is trying to teach you all the many things Jesus wants you to know, but you cannot bear yet. And I’ll tell you this: Whether today is the day of your Baptism, or your Baptism was 8 or 18 or 80 years ago, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit there’s always more. There’s always more.
Today is the seventh and final Sunday of Easter. This past Thursday we celebrated Ascension with a glorious sung evening prayer and next week will be Pentecost. Like the original disciples we now are in a period of waiting, waiting for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit as we say good-bye to the most beautiful Eastertide. Good-byes and waiting are necessary parts of life, though not always our favorite things to do.
This morning’s gospel comes at the end of Jesus’ long good-bye to his closest companions, which actually covers several chapters of John. These recall the conversation that took place on the night before Jesus’ arrest and death.
Throughout these chapters Jesus has reminded his disciples what he had done during his time on earth with them and he explains what it has meant. He tells them what is ahead of him and of them. He tries to prepare them for the future, even though they do not seem to understand. He then explains what he expects from them as they will be the ones to carry on his ministry on earth. And he reassures them that they will not be left alone to carry out this work.
It is a lot to take in and yet very important for them to hear and later to reflect about. Jesus then ends this long good-bye to those whom he loved the most, with a prayer. And this is today’s gospel passage.
Just as he has throughout his life with his disciples, on this last night, Jesus continues his teaching and his modeling for them. His prayer on behalf of his followers then and now, is a demonstration of how to pray for others, how to do intercessory prayer. This quiet, trusting prayer shows the level of deep intimacy between Jesus and his father. And we modern day disciples are drawn into that closeness and into that relationship and assured that our trust is well-placed, even thousands of years later,
As I reflect on this lesson I have thought about how our intercessory prayers match with Jesus’ prayer this morning.
In her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom”, Rachel Naomi Remen tells of a patient of hers who is told by his oncologist that there was nothing more that could be done for him. The physician then said, “I think you’d better start praying.”
Are our intercessory prayers a kind of last resort, something to do when there are no more effective treatments available? Is God a final referral, and prayer the last ditch effort to get what we want to happen? Do we wait as long as possible before we ask for God’s help?
Remen counteracts this idea by talking about prayer in this way. “When we pray, we stop trying to control life and remember that we belong to life. It is an opportunity to experience humility and recognize grace.” We stop trying to control life when we pray. Our prayers express that God is in charge and that what we ask for ourselves and for others is that God assist us in carrying out His will.
Thanks to a faithful group of daily office readers and those in the St. Luke’s guild, even during this time of the pandemic Emmanuel has continued to pray regularly for those on the parish prayer list. This list includes the names of those for whom we pray in a corporate way. Most often, only a very few here know what the person needs or perhaps even who the person is, but God knows and that is what is important. We say the person’s name to assist in lifting them into God’s presence.
Of course in our private prayers we may be more specific in our requests, asking for healing or a resolution to a loved one’s problems. Or sometimes, rather than using words, we may visualize the person being held by Jesus for a moment or two.
Remember Jesus’ example as he prayed on behalf of his followers as he tells them goodbye. Jesus asks God to protect those he loves, the people that God gave to him to be close to while he was on earth. He asks God to guard them and protect them from the evil one.
He asks that God sanctify his followers; that they be made holy, set apart for God’s purpose in the world. Jesus prays that his disciples find unity with each other, that they form a community, and are made one, just as he and his father are one. And Jesus prays that through this unity that his disciples find joy.
Protection, discernment, unity, joy, these are all things that Jesus prayed for his disciples both then and now.
And when you think about it, this is what others ask us to pray for them. And what we ask others to pray for us. Protection, “Hold us close God; keep us safe”. Discernment, “How can I know that what I do is in accordance with God’s will; Show me your way, Lord.” Unity, “Help us to love each other, God, as we each love you. Keep us together, and help us to forgive to make that unity possible.” Joy, “May we see your hand at work in the world around us, Lord. Help us to know and to be grateful for all you have given us.”
Jesus’ good-bye prayer in this morning’s gospel is the teaching example of intercessory prayer. When we pray to God on behalf of others may we do it not as a last resort, but regularly and often. And may we follow Jesus’ example in asking for God’s protection, discernment, unity and joy for those for whom we pray. We do not tell God what to do; rather we ask for his assistance and loving presence as we seek to carry out his will.
This prayer in today’s gospel is an example for us, but even more it is a source of comfort for us even today. While Jesus prayed these words long ago it is his prayer for us now. In his last night on earth Jesus prayed for protection for all who would carry out his work in the future. That includes us. In these last few days of Easter tide may our alleluias be great. While we, like those disciples, wait to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out Jesus’ work, may we use the time to renew our prayers on behalf of others, following Jesus’ example.
“Jesus prayed for his disciples; Jesus prays for us.”
Take a microphone to the streets of Champaign-Urbana and ask people to tell you what God is like. You can bet that "love" or “loving” will be mentioned more than any other word. And Love is all over the Bible, too, as we see in this week’s readings. Last week, 1 John even told us that God is love. Now that sounds like a simple statement, but it isn’t. Ask people to explain it, and you’ll discover that they don’t agree.
So I want to talk this week about what our own community, followers of Jesus, means by God’s love, and point out three misunderstandings about it. Now of course if you orient your life around something else than Jesus, they could be perfectly reasonable ideas. All of these are misunderstandings from the Christian point of view, which is of course what we’re all here to situate ourselves in.
One common misunderstanding, if I may put it this way, is in essence the assumption that the Bible’s statement “God is Love” can be reversed. That when we talk about God being love, we basically mean more or less the same thing as “Love is God.” Love is the highest reality. And you hear this implied when people say things like "I think in the end, all religions boil down to loving your neighbor."
But actually there is a great difference between claiming God is love, or claiming Love is God. Peter Kreeft explains it this way. "When we say A is B, we begin with a subject our hearer already knows," and add some new knowledge about it. "Mother is sick means: you know mother, well, let me tell you something new about her: she's sick. God is love means let me tell you something new about the God you know"...this infinite, majestic Lord of the universe, who is all powerful, all knowing, all holy.... let me tell you something more about that God – his deepest nature is Love.
"But Love is God means: let me tell you something about the human love you already know; [whatever that word love stands for in your mind,] that is the ultimate reality. That is as far as anything can ever go. Seek no further for God [than the idea of love you already have]." The Biblical teaching that "God is love" is radical and intellectually profound. The cultural teaching that "love is God" is a platitude and for Christians, a complete non-starter.
Another misunderstanding is that divine love is a sort of generic benevolence. Again, from the Christian point of view, God’s love is anything but. The love of God that Christians talk about is specific and personal and has a definite shape about which he has told us a great deal. Jesus says today for example, that abiding in his love includes keeping his commandments.
For us, what God’s love is like is revealed in Jesus. We see that character as Jesus eats with outcasts and as he denounces false teaching about God. We see it as he heals people as a sign of the complete restoration God will one day bring, and as he confronts sin and exploitation as a sign of the same thing. We see it as he humbly washes the disciples’ feet, and as he holds them to a higher standard of behavior than the Old Testament did. The love God reveals to us in Christ says no to some things and says yes to others. That love both challenges and pursues us.
Which leads me to an additional comment on the "generic" misunderstanding. God's love is also not generic in terms of how it is given. God does not love humanity in bulk, as an undifferentiated mass. He loves you as you. He loves the secret beauties about you that no one else knows. There is nothing generic about this. It is specificity to the end and if we want to know what the specifics are, we look at Jesus.
The third common misunderstanding is that when we say God is loving, that somehow cancels out his justice and his holiness. People in cultures like ours that have a residue of Christianity but where very few people actually know the teachings of Christianity often think this. They've picked up that God is loving and forgiving, and they assume that’s all he is.
There’s this naïve storybook image that you know, somebody will reach the gates of heaven, and God will sort of ineffectually beam at them and say, "Well, you made a lot of mistakes, and you don’t really deserve it, but aw, heck, come on in anyway." (If you push someone on this, they will often say it doesn't happen for so-called really bad people -- Hitler is the most common example -- but that surely God will turn a blind eye for all the nice folks like us.)
Behind this image is a confused view of love that says, "If you love me, you’ll accept anything I do." Sure, love accepts people, but it does not accept actions that hurt people. Love cares about right and wrong. How loving would a God be who didn't care whether or not a parent abused their child, or didn’t care whether or not a shooter took the lives of innocent people? The idea that God ought to ignore evil asks God to contradict his own nature. To deny his own holiness and justice. Even more, it makes light of God’s own self-sacrifice on the Cross; God chose to put himself through that agony because his love says such a strong No to evil, that that No ends up as a Yes to redemption. It’s because God’s love says No to evil that it says Yes to coming in person to heal the damage evil has done, to set the world to rights.
God’s love is holy love. His love is married to his holiness. His mercy is married to his justice. It’s this seamless reality. And through Jesus he offers you and me, and the entire created universe, a way to satisfy both, which has got to be the most loving thing anybody has ever done for anybody.
We could say so much more about God's love, but that's enough for one day. I just want you to hear this call from the Gospel again: Abide in my love, says Jesus. Abide in my love. This is a love that doesn't peter out at what we already know, but that builds on our understanding of the God who spent the entire Old Testament getting across his holiness and his justice so we could understand the radical claim that this God, this God is love. This is a love that is specific and personal and deliberate, not vague and generic. This is a love that is both holy and just, and merciful and kind. It’s a love that loves you.
There’s a lot of stereotypes about twins out there, but one of the most common and perhaps the most accurate is that there is always a time when the twins will butt heads. For me and my sister, that was our senior year of high school. It was a rough season for several reasons, but the one thing that really got to me, the one thing that I couldn’t let go was that my twin always, always, always slept through her alarms, which would mean that we would be late to school. It infuriated me; but rather than mapping out a quicker way to school or helping my sister figure out how to wake up in the morning, I would actually drive to school more slowly and then park in the back of the very last parking lot just to spite her. Because why not. After school, we’d get home, still mad about the morning, and we would inevitably hear, “Why can’t you just get along?” And my answer, being the mature 18-year-old I was, was always some variation on, “I don’t know. Why does she have to be so frustrating?”
Human relationships are hard — and that’s not just because we get annoyed by different things or that we come from different backgrounds and speak different languages. It’s because there is something wrong with our hearts.
In our epistle lesson today, St. John urges us to love one another. “Beloved, let us love one another,” he says, because 1) love is from God and 2) God is love and 3) if we love each other, God abides in us.
The repetition can at first strike us as tiresome. We got the message the first time. You want us to love one another. There’s nothing that special or that hard about it. But when we stop and think about our own high school tantrums or more recent experiences at holiday dinners or on our favorite social media platform, I think we would all agree that love and everything about it is much easier said than done.
Why is it so hard to love other people? Why do we constantly fail to love one another?
The answer to those questions lies back at the beginning. When God created humankind, things looked pretty great. Man looked at woman and woman looked at man, and there was recognition of mutual humanity, of worth and value, of beauty. There was, in short, love, the giving of oneself for another’s sake with no designs on what you might get in return. But the effortless goodness of those first moments ended quickly, and what was left was afterwards has forever haunted us.
The world changed in an instant and try as we might to get back to paradise, we could never find the way. Not that we didn’t try. History is littered with attempts at fixing what we broke; but none of them ever worked because we were always too tired, too angry, too concerned with our own survival to realize that we were the problem. On that day in the garden, our mother and father chose themselves over God, and every single human heart since then has followed their lead.
Except for one.
His story is the greatest love story ever told: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us,” writes St. John. “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Before time began, when there was nothing but God, he knew that his creation would fall, knew that we would think we were gods, we would decide to do as we pleased with the world and each other. And God knew that we would hate our creator because of it. He knew this, and still decided we were worth saving.
In this is love, not that we loved God — because our self-obsessed hearts never could — but that he loved us and sent his Son to bring us back home.
I think this year more than any time in our lives, we have a much more accurate understanding of how limited we are. We feel how hard it is to love other people when we’re anxious about catching a deadly disease, when we’re exhausted from keeping the kids quiet during Zoom meetings, when we’re angry over another mindless shooting rampage.
We may be good people. We may have the best intentions, but we still need to be reminded, encouraged, exhorted to love one another — because we forget or we’re too tired or we decide that those people don’t deserve it anyway. In short, because we’re human and we need God’s grace if there is to be any light in our world.
Love is from God, and our capacity to love comes from him. Our world may be fractured, we may at times feel nothing like tenderness or compassion toward it, but that doesn’t mean that love is in short supply. It is in fact a never-ending fountain because God is love. In him is no failing, no exhaustion, no spite, no deceit. He alone can heal our hearts so that we may truly love one another. AMEN.