Year C Easter 4: heaven on earth and pie in the sky

Since his ministry began, Jesus has gone from the playful – turning the water meant for ritual ablutions into the finest wine – through the profound, the revolutionary, the revelationary.

He has broken down the barriers erected by generations, drinking water at the well with the Samaritan woman. If you want to understand the dynamics at play in that little exchange, think of the Israeli army going into a Palestinian shanty town and borrow your characters from that fraught scene. Choose who you will have play Jesus.

He has broken bread and fed thousands on the hillside. He has turned away death from a child, and turned back the clock on a man’s long injury, 38 years swept away in a moment by the pool of Bethesda. He gave a man the first sight of his life, insisting that it was not original sin, not his own nor his parents’ that made him blind, but that it was God’s will now – meaning Jesus’ will in the moment that he met this man and loved him – that he should be made whole, new, that he should be astonished by the sight of love’s face looking upon him. He has walked on water.

And after all this, there are still those who will ask him, “How much longer will you keep us in suspense? Are you the Messiah?”

By the way, when John writes, “the Jews,” you understand that he doesn’t mean the whole Jewish people by any means. This is a particular group of Beltway elites who think they know the fix for God’s creation and want Jesus to endorse their plan. But Jesus doesn’t do partisan politics; he has his own way of going about things, and there is room for everyone to participate in his programme of redemption.

But still, they want to know what else Jesus will do for them, how he will change their lives. They want to know, even so, where is the miracle for them. Where is the rout of the Romans? Where is the end to earthquakes? They are greedy for even more miracles. They are eager to see heaven on earth, which is understandable.

At the Festival of Faith & Writing, from which I returned last night, I listened to Kelly Brown Douglas, Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral. Kelly Brown Douglas is the author of the book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, which our Diocesan Council is committed to reading and studying as a body as a way into further conversations about racial reconciliation and understanding within our church.

In a difficult part of a moderated conversation about forgiveness, Kelly talked about the faith that can stand even in the face of death, of violence and even in the bondage of oppression; a deep and abiding faith in the justice of God, that the justice of God will prevail, in God’s own time; that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, that there will be a time in which death is no more, nor hunger nor crying nor pain; a faith that is sustained against all evidence that surrounds the faithful one.

This is a similar hope to the one out of which the Book of Revelation is written. The hope and expectation of this strange and visionary book is that the powers and principalities that wreak havoc in this world will be wrestled into submission by God, and that all things will be made new, all things will be made right, all things will be made just and good, as it was in the beginning.

For John, the writer, and for the churches to which he writes, there is tribulation, and there is pain. There is oppression that they cannot by themselves escape. They must instead remain faithful to the faithfulness of God, trusting in the justice of God to make things right, even when everything is going wrong. It is the faith of those who hear the voice of Jesus calling, from however far away.

But the voice of Jesus does not only call us to lie down in green pastures. At the same festival, the poet Christian Wiman spoke about heaven. I wish I could use his exact words, but he said to the effect that we make too often the mistake of imagining an afterlife by projecting ourselves wholesale into it, seeing ourselves beside still waters, eating and drinking at the table set before us without a care in the world, as though there is nothing about us that needs to be changed. Scoured, was the word he used.

We rest in the knowledge of the love of God and the faith that we are changed in Jesus; and we know that we have made promises ourselves to use our own will, our agency, our hearts and passions to further God’s communion right here on earth. That means that we are not passive recipients of grace, waiting for heaven to come to us, but active responders to grace, called to work out the love of God.

The love of God is active, not passive. It calls us to repentance, leaves time and space for us to scour our souls and mend our ways, to respond to the miracles of Jesus not by demanding more, but by working out the grace we have already received by sharing it with others, scouring our own souls to make room for greater love, the love of God and the true and self-giving love of our neighbours.

Our hope is in the heavens, but our work is here in our own lives, in the moment given us to live, and to love, to wield grace and to learn repentance.

And that is a gift. It is a gift that we sometimes fail to recognize – “How much longer will you keep us in suspense, o God? Tell us plainly.” But God has given us a chance to do something better than projecting ourselves wholesale into heaven, as though nothing needs to change. Jesus has invited us to turn water into wine, to turn back the clock, make restitution for injury. He has invited us to contribute to a world in which death and pain do not wield such power, neither cancer and crying, nor the scourge of racism or the plague of gun violence. The chance to scour our lives of sin in order to make more room for the love of God and the great, self-giving love of neighbour – that is a gift. It is the gift of time, of mortality, of lives lived in the here and now, paying attention to the details of the systems within which we swim, and repenting, changing them, instead of projecting ourselves into heaven as though nothing needs to change.

The people who want Jesus to do more, to demonstrate more aggressively, more completely his Messiahship have missed the gift of participation, of the chance to work with God on the ground, literally during Jesus’ Incarnation, the chance of a lifetime.

“I have shown you who I am,” he says in so many words, “Believe me or not, follow me or not, but my way leads to a life with God that you cannot even hardly imagine. And once you have tasted grace, there is no going back.”

Go on, says Jesus. Turn water into wine, wine into blood, bread into body, cure cancer, raise the dead, comfort the mourners and scour your souls of oppression.

And when all else fails, then rest in the promise that none who come to me shall be taken from me, and the promises of God will come to pass, and you will rest in green pastures, and the Lamb will be your shepherd, and will guide you to the springs of the water of life, and you shall dwell in the fields of God forever.

Amen.

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