Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

On this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruits, yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. Against such there is no law.” This passage may sound familiar and yet a little different. This version of Galatians 5:22-23 is from the Latin Vulgate, a Latin translation that was created mostly by Jerome in the late fourth century which became the official Latin Bible for the Catholic Church and some of the modern translations used this as their basis. The difference between this one and the verses with which we are familiar is that this has twelve fruit rather than nine.

Some will be bothered by the difference in texts, but numbers here don’t matter. Augustine wrote about this passage, “The Apostle had no intention of teaching us how many [either works of the flesh, or fruits of the Spirit] there are; but to show how the former should be avoided, and the latter sought after.” I am not sure why Jerome would have added the three, which are longanimity (which means patience in affliction, different from the first patience which means bearing with the imperfections of others), modesty (which means humility), and chastity (which means indulging in physical desires only when appropriate) but they are certainly fruit that we could use these days.

There are so many images in today’s passage from Revelation. It is a visual image of heaven given to us in words. We can’t even imagine the reality of this place and won’t be able to do so until we are in the midst of it all. If we take the numbers literally, the City of God, the New Jerusalem, is so big that it would cover about half of the United States. We want to relate this image to our human experience, to try to imagine a city that looks like a perfect cube measure 1400 square miles along the width, height and depth. It doesn’t make sense to our human minds. Cities aren’t perfect cubes and they are not that big. However, John was describing the indescribable with words to which his readers could relate. The vision he saw was immense, magnificent and greater than anything in this world.

How big is the Tree of Life? It is often depicted as being twelve different trees because it bears different types of fruit and is found on both sides of the river; but what if it is just one tree? It must have been enormous to provide fruit for all those whose names are written in the book of life. What does it mean when John says the tree “bearing twelve kinds of fruits, yielding its fruit every month”? Is that one fruit a month, or does the tree bear all twelve every month? We can’t imagine this because we know that trees have cycles and only produce fruit in due time. We automatically think of fruit like apples, oranges and peaches, but wouldn’t it make sense that the Tree of Life might bear fruit in keeping with faith? Twelve is the number of completion. What if the fruit produced here are the fruit of the Spirit? After all, this fruit is for the healing of the nations, and what would heal the world better than charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity? What an awesome world this would be if these were the fruits on which we were living! After all, they say you are what you eat.

When we read this passage from John, we try to imagine what he is describing, but our imaginations are simply incapable of seeing it as it will be. It is like we are looking at a picture of a redwood tree. Anyone who has been to the Redwood forests of northern California understand how pictures can be deceiving. We have all seen pictures of these giants, but the photos do nothing to tell the real story. You have to stand in one of the groves and see one of these magnificent trees to truly comprehend their sheer size and majesty. Even if you see a picture of a person standing near the trees, or a picture of a car driving through one of the trees, those people and cars seem more like toys than the trees like giants. The same is true of what we will see in heaven some day. We will be delightfully surprised to see the City of God, to dwell in the presence of God and the Lamb, to drink from the River of Life and to eat of the Tree. And though it will be immense, it will be personal and intimate and perfect.

Last week we looked at the context of the Revelation texts we’ve been hearing through the Easter season. For the past few weeks, our scriptures have also focused on some of the more incredible aspects of the early days of the Church. Some of their experiences are somewhat hard for us to believe, not because we doubt God is capable of doing these things but because we have not personally experienced anything so extraordinary. They not only saw Jesus heal and raise the dead, but they themselves were given the power of God to do likewise. They not only spoke God’s words in a way that others could understand, but they did it for people who did not even speak their language. They had visions and felt the power of God as He led them to people and places to do His work.

How did they know? How did they know it was real? I have had experiences that I was certain came from God, but when they were over I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be some natural explanation. This is especially true when things did not go as I expected them to go. Take, for example, those times when we have heard that “still, small voice” that seemed to be leading us to make a specific decision. Do we follow that voice or do we ignore it? We’ve heard too many stories of people who have claimed to have heard a voice telling them to do something out of the ordinary like kill their children. We know that God would not command such a thing, though He did do so with Abraham. What about those who say that God has told them to run for political office? We are more likely to believe someone who said God is sending them as a missionary to Africa, but even then we are cynical.

How did the apostles know? In today’s story from Acts, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. Paul understood this as a vision from God and he left immediately to go on a trip that eventually led to Philippi. How did he know that this was a vision? What made him follow? Did he have other visions that he ignored? Would he have followed the vision if it had been a woman who had called him to come? It is impossible for us to answer these questions based on the record we have been given, but it is helpful to realize that the apostles most likely suffered from the same kind of questions that we ask today. For every story of a healing, there must have been a dozen people who weren’t healed. For every conversion there must have been hundreds that never came to faith. It is enough to make the most faithful, faith-filled people question and doubt.

While we might wish that God would speak more clearly to our generation, I think we should look at it from a different perspective. Instead of longing for a time that is gone, we should go forth in faith doing exactly what God has already told us to do which is to live as people manifesting the fruit of the Spirit and sharing the light of Christ with the world. We don’t want to take any risks, so we want absolute assurance that we are doing what God intends. Yet, when we do step out in faith, we are disappointed that things do not turn out as we expect. We think God is sending us to convert someone, but when they reject the faith we wonder if we heard correctly. We think God is sending us to heal someone who is ailing, but when they do not get well, we think we have failed.

That’s what happens when it is all about “we.” We forget that we do not know the mind of God. We do not have a complete picture of His plan.

What was on Paul’s mind when he ended up in Philippi and still had not found the man who’d appeared in His vision? Paul was in a city that was populated by mostly Gentiles. As a matter of fact, it was a retirement spot for Roman legionnaires. It could not have been a comfortable place for Paul, despite his citizenship and his knowledge that the Gospel was meant for the whole world. At least in other cities there was a vital Jewish community where Paul could find friends community and aid. Philippi did not even have a synagogue. How would he find the Jews to share the Gospel with them?

Paul went to the river. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship. He went there on the Sabbath because he expected to find other believers. It is not surprising that they might like meeting by the river, there is something very peaceful about worshipping where there is flowing water. The sound is calming, but it is also an image that reminds the people of God’s presence among them. Moving water was considered living water, and rightly so. It is not surprising that God’s Spirit would be likened to a river because it is clean, clear and fresh. It is constantly changing and yet always the same. When he arrived at the place of prayer he met a woman. She was a woman of wealth, a business woman who sold purple cloth who was a believer in the one true God.

Paul went to Philippi not really knowing what to expect. Paul did not let that concern him. He looked for opportunities, knowing that God was in charge and that He would do His work. Paul did not look for a specific man in the city, he simply trusted that God would guide and direct him in the way he should go. He went about doing the work ordained for him: preaching the Gospel to whomever had ears to hear. Paul preached to whomever would listen, believing that God would make the seeds take root and grow. Paul believed the vision, but even more importantly Paul obeyed what Jesus commanded. He loved Jesus and kept His word.

At the end of his Gospel, John writes, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.” The four Gospels don’t tell us everything. We see only a few days out of three years, a few cities out of an entire region. Almost certainly Jesus did more than can be said in just under 65,000 words, but the four Gospels certain tell us an excellent cross-section of His work. They told the same stories in different ways. They showed similar miracles from different point of views. There is just enough repetition to show consistency but enough difference to know that they have not copied their witnesses from one another. God gave us the most comprehensive record possible without causing a world full of books to be written.

Today’s healing story is unique. In nearly all of the stories, Jesus addressed the healed person with the statement, “Your faith has made you well,” but in the story from John 5, faith is never mentioned. The man does not seem to believe in Jesus; he didn’t even know how he was healed. He didn’t ask to be made well, he just wanted help into the water. He is blind both physically and spiritually. He doesn’t even answer Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be healed?” He simply whines that no one will help him get wet. Jesus healed this man anyway. Even after the healing the blind man did not know Jesus.

Though Jesus eventually identified Himself to the man, this story shows us that the healing was not dependent on any human effort. The Word of God in and through Jesus made him well. There was no human desire or faith. There were no human works. God’s Word healed the blind man without fanfare or flourish. We are called to minister in the same way to bring healing to those who don’t know Jesus and to do so without fanfare or flourish. We need only speak the Word of God into their lives and disappear into the crowds.

Will the healing always come? Perhaps not, if it is not God’s will. However, it is never our place to question the will of God or the faith of the person who needs healing. God knows the hearts and He knows His plan. The blind man may never have believed in Jesus, we don’t know. He eventually learns that it was Jesus who made him well, but that’s all we hear. This story leads to questions about Jesus and his commitment to the Law. It also shows us another way Jesus healed, another way He accomplished His work. Before we say God can’t do something because we aren’t cooperative, let’s remember that nothing is impossible with God.

There is a joke about a priest who died and went to heaven. When he arrived at the pearly gates, St. Peter welcomed him and took him on a tour. His home was a humble place, a plain building furnished with everything that he could possibly need. The rest of heaven was absolutely beautiful and the priest was feeling a bit of remorse over his resentment for such a humble home. Then they arrived at a beautiful mansion. A man arrived as they watched and he was given great honor. The priest asked St. Peter, “Was that God?” St. Peter answered, “Oh no, that was a lawyer.” The priest didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but he asked St. Peter, “I spent my entire life devoted to my parishioners, and teaching the gospel, and I have very humble quarters in Heaven. I just don’t understand what that lawyer did that would merit such a beautiful mansion.” St. Peter answered, “It isn’t what he did. You see, we have thousands upon thousands of priests up here. But he’s our first lawyer.”

Earlier in John 14, Jesus said, “I am preparing a place for you” and “in my Father’s house are many rooms or dwelling places,” so we often think of heaven in terms of places to live forever. I’ve heard people talk about their dream house in heaven often based on that house that they never did have, the mansion that was always beyond their reach. While there is some discussion of rewards in the scriptures, John 14 looks at eternity from a completely different point of view.

In this passage from the final words of Jesus, God promises that He will dwell with His people. This is not about our future when we die and go to heaven, but about our present as we live in this world. It is about God coming to us, dwelling in us. Last week we heard the command that we are to love one another. It is by this love that the nations, the world, will know we belong to God. This week we hear that our love for God is evident in obeying that which Christ has told us, when we do what He commanded us to do. In other words, we love God when we love one another and He will dwell amongst us and we will manifest the fruit of His Spirit to the world.

Jesus Christ could have stayed in Jerusalem forever. He could have continued to dwell in the presence of His people, continuing to teach them and love them in His risen body. However, if He had stayed we would only be bound to one another by His limited presence. He told the disciples that they should rejoice when He told them He was going away, because when He left He would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus can’t dwell in our hearts as a man of flesh, but the Holy Spirit can. God could choose to dwell in beautifully built temples and churches or the glory of heaven, but He has chosen to dwell in our hearts, in His Church, in His people. Because of this, we can experience the peace that passes all understanding.

The Psalm for today includes a word that is used about seventy-five times in the Old Testament (once in Isaiah and three times in Habakkuk, with the rest in the Psalms.) That word is “Selah.” It is not easy to define this word, though many suggest it is simply a liturgical pause like a rest or stop in modern musical composition.

However, there are those who think this word actually suggests something much deeper than just a pause in the music, that it is also instructional to the singer and listeners. The word “Selah” is thought to mean something like “stop and listen” indicating that the words deserve some extra attention. Others take this meaning even further, suggesting that it is related to the Hebrew word that means “to measure.” With this understanding the listener and singer are given the command to do more than just listen, but to also consider or “measure” the words. In this way, the verse to which it refers should be heard and understood and applied to our lives. Faithful listening is more than hearing; it is stopping to really consider what the words mean.

In today’s Psalm , the word “Selah” is used twice. The first is following a benediction. “May God be merciful to us, bless us, and cause his face to shine on us.” Stop and listen; measure these words and those that which comes after, “That your way may be known on earth, and your salvation among all nations.” God blesses us to be a blessing and the purpose of that blessing is so that the world knows His salvation. His blessings to us are not for our own good, but for the good of the world. The second usage comes with a directive to all nations that they be glad and sing for joy, for God’s mercy and judgment is given without favoritism. The blessings are not meant for one people, but for all people. God’s grace extends far beyond our borders, beyond our walls, beyond our opinions and biases. Selah. Stop and listen. Understand that God has created and redeemed the whole world and one day the whole world will sing His praise.

This is the will and purpose of God. God knows when and how it will all come into being. For today, in the peace of Christ, we take one step at a time in faith knowing that with God the impossible is possible. There we will find peace. We have been given the most incredible promise: we will dwell with God forever in a place we can never imagine. Yet, the promise of the future is ours today. We can, even now, share God’s grace, bearing fruit that will make the world a better place.

And so we obey as best we can, knowing that God’s Spirit accompanies us on our journey. We might wish that Jesus were still dwelling among us, but the reality is that He couldn’t be everywhere at all times. The Spirit can. And so we gather together, by the river or in a cathedral, praising God and praying for His guidance. Wherever we are and whatever we do in faith, God will be with us. As we keep our eyes on Him, we’ll see and hear His voice more clearly and act with assurance and peace.

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