The Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Dr. Gregory Jones

Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35
Psalm 148


It is a profound honor and joy to welcome Dean Greg Jones, from Duke Divinity School, as our preacher this morning. Greg is one of the most influential theologians in the United States. He’s also a gifted administrator and leader of institutions. And it is a profound joy and privilege to have him here to break the bread of the word with us today. Will you join me in welcoming him?

You may be seated. It is a great joy to be here with you at this wonderful congregation and this gorgeous sanctuary. It’s been great to get – to spend time with Bill Danaher, a good friend of longstanding and to be able to share in the conference yesterday, and to be here with you in worship today. Would you pray with me?

Gracious God, descend your Holy Spirit on us gathered here. Speak through me, if necessary, in spite of me and always beyond me that Your word might be heard by Your people this day. In Jesus’s name, we pray. Amen.

The novelist Julian Barnes, British novelist wrote a memoir a couple of years ago. It had an ironic title. The title is Nothing to Be Frightened Of. The title is ironic because he was writing it as he turned 70, and he’s actually quite terrified. Because he realizes that he’s about to move in to a steady decline and then death, and he’s decided that he isn’t going to leave that much of a legacy of his life and that all he’s going to be is ashes and bones. And so he’s trying to convince himself that there’s nothing to be frightened of even as he’s terrified.

The opening line of his memoir, though, is quite poignant. It goes like this, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” I think that opening line captures the challenge of much of the western world, particularly the Anglo-American world. We live in a time when it’s become all too easy to give up unbelief in God, and yet to still have that yearning, that hope, that somewhere, somehow we might rediscover Him, though we might rediscover the power of God in life-giving ways.

Now that’s not only a problem somewhere out there among the elites, and novelists and other literati. It also exists in congregations. I was asked to go do an adult forum at a large congregation that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty. They wanted me to talk about theological perspectives on the beginnings and endings of life. And so, I thought if we’re going to do that over several weeks, we ought to at least be sure what we’re talking about when we say theological.

So I walked in and in this very large, well-educated congregation, I said, I just landed yesterday from Mars. And I keep hearing people use this term “God,” and I just wonder what do you mean by “God”? So, it was a long silence. And then somebody raised his hand. And he said, “Well, God’s a force that’s created things.” I said, “Okay. Let’s work with that. How would you want to modify that?” Finally he said, “Well, God’s a force that’s created some things.” Didn’t want God to be too totalitarian. I said, “Okay, how would you modify that? Everybody comfortable with that?” And they all just seemed quite comfortable. And so I said, “Okay. Let us pray.” And because we were in a church, everybody bowed their heads. And I said, “Oh, force that’s created some things.”

Pretty quickly, I saw eyes being opened and raised, and heads looking at me like, “What was that?” And I realized how much work we had to do before we got to the beginnings and endings of life. We had to spend more time talking about God. Because we’ve now managed to so reduce our understanding of God that when we come across this extraordinary passage in the Book of Revelation in Chapter 21:1 and following, we’re astonished by that vision and yet we’re so ill-equipped to know how to live in to it. God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” The entire story from the beginning of creation to the vision of the new creation. And God says, “See, I am making not some things new. I’m making all things new.”

What Julian Barnes is yearning for, He’s a God who we can trust and believe in, who shapes a vision of the future that has profound hope and trust that draws us to live toward that witness of God’s glorious reign of generosity and justice, and joy and forgiveness, and peace and reconciliation. And when we glimpse that vision, and we see it embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and then we begin to see the way it all holds together in the Book of Acts, and the outpouring of the spirit, and the transformation of life that happens, we begin to glimpse just how extraordinary Christian life can be.

We can trust in the future not because of who we are but because of whose we are. It’s not because of us, but because of God. We’re not called to optimism for that is too easily flipped over into pessimism. Winston Churchill said, “If a person’s not an optimist at the age of 16, he doesn’t have a heart. If he’s not a cynic and pessimist by the age of 40, he doesn’t have a head.”

In the world in which we live, a lot of our young people are already premature cynics. And yet the Christian vision of hope is one that holds optimism and pessimism together because we recognize how broken our world is and how broken our own lives are apart from God in Christ, and yet by the power of God’s forgiveness we also have a profound hope in the future that we can trust that God will make all things new. But we have to get out of a transactional view. Voltaire put it this way, at the end of the 18th century, he said, “The world is admirably arranged. I like to sin and God likes to forgive.” That’s when we turn Christian life into a transaction.

But rather what God calls us to is to this vision of the Alpha and the Omega, where God is making all things new, how by the power of the Holy Spirit conforming us to Christ in whom Colossians 1 and John 1 tells us the creation came to be. But how do we begin to live into that vision? How do we rediscover the power of that gospel? I want to suggest it’s through three movements of what I’m going to call holy friends.

The gospel reading for this morning is from the Gospel of John; an injunction to love one another. And the love that’s there is about this intimate set of relationships between Jesus and the disciples, and calling the disciples to have it for one another. And I believe in holy friendships, we can cultivate those sorts of dispositions.

There are three key phrases to what I call “holy friends.” The first is holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love. Part of the reason we can’t glimpse the power of God and the vision of God who is making all things new is because we’re so bound up with the brokenness that shrinks our imagination, that shrivels our ability to see things clearly. And so, we need people around us. It’s one thing to have people around us who will challenge sins we already have come to hate. That’s no problem. It’s kind of like piling on in football. Isn’t that terrible? Oh, it’s terrible. We’re all agreed.

But if you challenge a sin I’ve come to love, now you’re messing with me. And part of the problem is, see, if it’s a sin I’ve come to love, I’m really good at re-describing it so it sounds good. “I’m not a workaholic. I do the Lord’s work.” Doesn’t that sound much nicer? Until my wife, one of my holy friends will say, “Well, you know in the Book of Exodus, when they were building the temple they still observed the Sabbath.” Oh, well there’s that.

You see, we redescribe things to try to make it sound better but we need people who know the games we play, the redescriptions we engage in, who will challenge the sins we’ve come to love because that’s how we’re going to begin to lean in to God and see things work clearly. But if that’s all people do, we may need them around but we’re not going to really want them around.

Holy friends also affirm gifts that we’re afraid to claim. It’s one thing if you affirm a gift that somebody’s already proud of, if somebody’s a great chef and they fix a glorious dinner and you say to them, “That was a spectacular dinner.” They’re like, “Thanks. That’s not news.” If you got a glorious singing voice, and you sing something beautifully, it’s not news. It’s disorienting, though, when somebody says, “I see God working in your life in this way,” and you’re like, “Oh, no, no, no. I don’t do that.”

A friend of mine had a – a member of his parish who was the CFO of one of America’s largest companies. So guess what he’d done doing in the church for 157 straight years, chairing the finance committee. And then some people came to him and said, “We want you to teach first grade Sunday School.” And he said, “No, no, no. I’m a finance guy. I chair the finance.” They said, “We’ve noticed how gifted you are with young children. And if our church is going to grow, we need to invest in young children.” He was like, “Get away from me. I do finance.” 

And they kept challenging and encouraging him to affirm that gift he was afraid to claim. And finally, he said, “I’ll give it a try.” And the whole church watched as he came to life with these children and the way the children became so devoted to him. He was able to affirm a gift he was afraid to claim. And all of a sudden, he began to glimpse God in powerful new ways. You see, I’m learning sin is about discovering the power of forgiveness, and then affirming gifts is about leaning into the new life in Christ that God calls us to.

So holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love. They affirm the gifts we’re afraid to claim. And then the third thing they do is they help us dream dreams we, otherwise, wouldn’t have dreamed. There’s a great passage at the end of Ephesians 3, it begins with this prayer that’s an extraordinary prayer that we might comprehend with all the saints, what is the height and the depth, and the length and breadth of Christ. This is about the transformation of the cosmos, a vision of that new creation, the Alpha and the Omega, the height, the depth, the length, the breadth. And then in verses 20 and 21, it says, “To the one, who by the power that work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine.” To Him be the glory. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I was raised in an elementary school with a grammar teacher who was one of those old school grammarians. And I learned from Mrs. Wadell in the fifth grade that there are some things you just don’t do. You don’t split infinitives. Why? I don’t know. But to this day, I think if you split too many infinitives, the world will stop and come to an end.

She also said there are two words you don’t modify. You don’t want to modify the word unique. It’s something either is unique or it’s not. You can’t have very unique, specially unique. And she said, “You can’t modify the word all.” You either have it all or you don’t. So imagine my surprise to discover in the scripture a passage where the word ‘all’ is not modified once, but twice, three times. If the passage said that God is able to accomplish all we could ask or imagine, I’d be happy. 

But it says ‘more than all we could ask or imagine.’ Far more than all we could ask or imagine. And then it’s like depending on your musical preferences, you’re either at symphony hall, or you’re maybe in preservation hall with Miles Davis’s Quintet, but you get to that point where the leader of the music says, “Watch this.” Boom, and it just explodes to a whole new level, abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine. That’s what God can do by the power at work within you, and within me and when we have holy friends who are challenging us, affirming us, and helping us dream dreams. Amazing things begin to occur, abundantly far more.

In the history of Christian art, there’s a really powerful symbol for the resurrection. It’s the peacock feather. Because you’re looking at peacock, you go, “That’s a pretty bird.” Then it says, “Watch this.” Where did that come from? The power of the transformation. Well, God’s work in Christ, the power of forgiveness is not just to give a transaction as a result of sin. It’s to transform us, but help us unlearn the sins we’ve come to love, to affirm the gifts we’re afraid to claim, and then to dream dreams of what God is doing in the world, and in your life and my life to see that kind of transformation happen.

When we live that way, we discover the power of John’s gospel and the injunction to love one another. Recently, David Brooks in the New York Times had a column where he was lamenting the polarization and the fracturing of left and right. And he said – moderate is a term I don’t like much. He said, “Moderates need a big idea.” And I thought well I’m eager to read what he says, and the next paragraph begins, “Love one another.” I thought that’s not such a new idea.

But in our world of brokenness and fragmentation and people getting increasingly estranged from one another, that sort of love that Jesus enjoins in the  gospel, the love which we celebrate as we come to Communion, the love that is manifested in God’s work in Jesus Christ, the love which is at the beginning and at the end is transformational.

Let me put it a different way. There’s a woman who’s one of my heroines. Her name is Maggy Barankitse. She lived for most of her life in Burundi, in a rural part that’s very remote. She’s undertaken transformational witness in the wake of a civil war where at first she was made to watch as 70 members of her family and friends were beheaded by the militia. And she said, “We’re going to rebuild.” And so she created Maison Shalom, the house of peace, that’s now educated over about 20 years, more than 30,000 orphans to help them get started on life.

She employed about 400 of them in her work. She said, “Love made me an inventor. Not a hallmark kind of love, but a love that unlearns sin and affirmed gifts, and dreamed dreams, and it was unbelievably transformational. And then a few years ago, the President of Burundi who had in 2010 praised her as the mother of the country put a hit on her life because she’d become too powerful. So she escaped out of the trunk of a car and ended up in Rwanda where she just promptly started a new set of enterprises.

I saw Maggy a couple of years ago. I’ve known her for a number of years. And when I saw her, I knew she’d been exiled out of her native Burundi. And I said, “Maggy – when I saw her, I walked up to her in my best pastoral voice and my best pastoral expression, turning my head slightly to the side, and I said, “Maggy, how are you?”

Her eyes brightened. She gave me a big bear hug and she said, “Greg, you can’t stop God’s love.” I thought to myself, “Oh, yes, you can. I do it with some regularity.” And then she said, “I’m fine. Have you ever heard of the story of Joseph?” And I thought, “Well, yeah.” And she said, “What others intend for evil, God works for good. We have to keep dreaming and bearing witness to God’s love.” And I thought “I believe help thou my unbelief.” You see, Maggy has holy friends who helped her unlearn the dangers of haunted memories. They’ve helped her learn, as a woman in a patriarchal culture, how to undertake leadership that’s transformational and offers hope and new life to lots of people, and the dreams she continues to dream even in the wake of brokenness are extraordinarily bearing witness to the God who is making all things new.

We gave Maggy an Honorary Doctorate a few years ago at Duke and I was her sponsor. So I got to spend four glorious and difficult days with her. The glory was because she’s such a wonderful person. The difficulty was because I’ve kept feeling like a miserable little wretch compared to her holiness. So I was trying to get some tips from her about how I might live a better life. I knew that every afternoon when she was building Maison Shalom, she’d pray for an hour from 5:00 to 6:00. 

And I said, “Maggy, what do you do during that hour you’re praying with God?” She said, “I mostly just listen to God.” And I thought, “Dadgumit.” I was looking for some techniques because if I try to just listen, I usually just fall asleep. But that’s because she’s closer to God than I am, and so she could tell that I was a little disappointed by her response. So she said, “Well, Greg, there is one prayer I pray every morning.” And she said, “Would you like that?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “I don’t know how it’d sound in English.” And I said, “Well, your English is better than my Kirundi, her tribal language, her French, her second language.” I said, “Could you try it in English?” And we’re driving along and she said, “Let me think about it.”

And then she said, “I think it would go something like this. Lord, let Your miracles break forth every day, and let me not be an obstacle in any way.” I said, “Maggy, [inaudible 19:03] become my little prayer every morning every since because Maggy has that dream that’s shaped by the vision of Revelation. Have that in Christ. Lord let Your miracles break forth every day.” And then she said, “Let me not be an obstacle in any way.” 

And friends, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the course of my life, and I’ve begun to realize that Maggy’s at the very bottom of the list of anybody who could be an obstacle. And that is because of that prayer and her life of holy friendships. We don’t need to just miss God. We need to live in to God and let love make us inventors, bearing witness to the Alpha and the Omega. Let us pray every day that miracles might break forth and that we might not be obstacles. May it be so. Amen.