A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid
“Whatever is born of God conquers the world,” writes the author of the letters attributed to John. And as we heard from the same lips last week, “God is love.” Ipso facto, love conquers the world. And yet so often we are still sighing for the lack of love, and dying of its frustration. We are still waiting for the glorious victory of the kingdom of God, a battle song to proclaim its mission accomplished …
As most of you know, back in the earliest centuries of the church, the Roman empire, the one that had the power to order crucifixions, that washed its hands of God when it put Jesus to death, the one whose lord was Caesar – that Roman empire continued to flourish and grow, finding in its victories its vindication, while the Christian religion, young and yet vigorous, was by turns persecuted and ignored.
That is, until Constantine, who became known eventually as Constantine the Great. Legend has it that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began with a dream, by which he was inspired to go into battle under the Chi-Ro, a symbol of Christ, using the first two letters of that title in the Greek, set against the sun. [i]
Constantine was a sun-worshipper, but he saw no conflict between his devotions to that celestial body and the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And he postponed his baptism into the Christian faith until his deathbed, not because he doubted the power of the Risen Christ to bring him victory; still, it seems, he thought that he might hedge his bets, and keep his freedom to kill, rather than to pray for his enemies; to pursue by all means the goals of the same empire that had used the cross with which he was now anointed to kill Christ.[ii]
Oh, how often do we want it both ways? We want to be faithful, to honour our covenant with Christ, our baptismal vows, our promise to follow the way not of Constantine, not of the empire, but of the cross; and yet we want to enlist God as our foot soldier, our secret weapon, to ensure our own victory, to conquer the world on our behalf.
Constantine’s prevarication is like the prayer of Saint Augustine, before he was sainted: O God, “make me chaste and continent, but not yet.”[iii] We know the kind of love to which we are called, but we would like to run riot a little longer before we are completely conquered by it.
There is a danger in our Easter hymns – because we are still in the season of Easter, and we are still singing them – of reducing Christ’s victory to one event. We sing of his victory over death, his triumph over the tomb, and we are right to do so. It is marvellous. It changed everything. The earthquake that rolled the rock away from the entrance to the cave where his body was laid continues to send its aftershocks through our lives, through our conscience, through our imaginations, shaking up hope wherever it is heard and felt.
Still, causing the soldiers standing guard to faint with fright was not the only victory that Jesus celebrated if we read the gospels again. We talked last week about how Jesus demonstrated love, gave us the example of how to love one another; and these were victories themselves. He fought demons, and he won. He fought illness, and gave life the victory. He won over critics, sometimes, and converted crooks into honest men. He rescued the impetuous joy of children from the hard hearts of those who knew better, and he fed the crowd on the hillside, conquering their hunger with God’s providence.
Small victories, born of God, have a profound effect on the people who encounter them. Small victories born of God, born of love, grow up to conquer the world. A word of comfort, of apology, of forgiveness; the sharing of a morsel of bread can become the seed for a movement that reconciles people to themselves, to one another, to Christ.
Small victories, like pulling off another community meal, or another summer music camp, or another prayer vigil. Small victories, like sharing the prayers that comfort and heal the hurting soul and give hope to the body. Small victories like hearing our own hearts confess the bets we are hedging, and hearing God’s word of absolute embrace, Christ’s ready forgiveness, the Spirit’s whisper of encouragement. These are the movements born of God that will conquer the world.
We wonder, always, if it is enough. We hear about the violence in our neighbourhoods, gunfire shooting children in their beds, drive-by death, statistical sin. We know how wrongheaded our own friends and relatives can be, those on the dark side, foot soldiers of the empire, or lawless rebels. We want to add our armies to the fight, to raise our voices, to run riot – which is fine, as long as we are sure that the flag we follow is the cross of Christ, serving the kingdom of God, and not some other standard that we, ever creative, dreamed up like Constantine.
I was reminded this past week at clergy conference of Bishop Curry’s words after the outrage at Charlottesville last summer.
I know too well that talk … of the kingdom of God in our midst, can be dismissed as nice but naive, idealistic yet unrealistic. I know that.
But I also know this. The way of Beloved Community is our only hope. In this most recent unveiling of hatred, bigotry, and cruelty, … we have seen the alternative to God’s Beloved Community. And that alternative is simply unthinkable….
We who follow Jesus have made a choice to walk a different way: the way of disciplined, intentional, passionate, compassionate, mobilized, organized love intent on creating God’s Beloved Community on earth.[iv]
Disciplined, intentional, passionate, compassionate, mobilized, organized: a force to be reckoned with?
We who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, God’s victory over sin and death, God’s conquest of our hearts – we do not have the luxury of Constantine to postpone our decision to follow the cross instead of a device we dreamt up. We are already enlisted in God’s kingdom, the beloved community.
Our victories, the fruits of our labour, our conscription, our service are those moments born of God when we see love in action: healing, reconciling, feeding, renewing, resurrecting. No matter the noise or smoke of the battle that frighten and distract us, discourage us from our cause, draw us away from the cross, from trusting the way of Christ; no matter, it is love that will conquer all in the end. Because whatever is born of God conquers the world; and God is love. And we, reborn out of the waters of baptism; we are beloved. And beloved, love is a force to be reckoned with.
[i] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin Books, 1967; revd edn, 1993), 126-127
[iii] The Confessions of Saint Augustine (Book VIII, chapter 7), trans. Rex Warner (Signet Classic, 2001), 164