Easter V – Andrew Philip, Chaplain – 19th May 2019

This far out from Easter Sunday, you could easily be forgiven for forgetting that we’re still in the Easter season. The surplus chocolate eggs have been sold off cheap and the chicks and bunnies have vanished from the shop displays. We might still be saying our Easter ‘alleluias’, but the world around us has gone back to business as usual.

That world of business as usual — which means power struggles and injustices, fear and violence — that is the world in which today’s Gospel is set. Our text from John plunges us back into the drama of Maundy Thursday, just after Judas has left to betray Jesus and just before Jesus predicts Peter’s denial.

This world of betrayal and denial, power and fear, is the context in which Jesus gives us the commandment to love one another as he has loved us.

That is, to love one another through a life of service, to love one another so thoroughly that we are willing to lay down our lives. Jesus, in calling us to love this way, challenges us to create a different world.

Our reading from Revelation offers us a vision of that different world. This is a universe renewed; resurrected; redeemed from the grasp of fear and power; released from injustice; a world in which not only sorrow and pain but death itself has been abolished. This is truly a world transformed, truly an Easter vision and it proclaims:

  • that resurrection doesn’t just happen to Jesus alone;
  • that resurrection is not even the preserve of the chosen few;
  • but that resurrection is for all creation.

For, as Colossians says, through Christ

‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’ (1:20).

And as the voice of God says in our reading from Revelation,

‘See, I am making all things new’ (21:5).

It’s a beautiful picture and a wonderful thought, isn’t it? It wasn’t written by some spiritual guru sitting in comfort, removed from the realities of suffering. The book of Revelation tells us that it was written while St John was in exile on Patmos as a result of persecution by the Roman Empire, so he knew what it was to suffer as a result of standing up against the power struggles and injustices of this world. He knew what standing up against the Empire could do to you.

In that context of fear and oppression, violence and injustice, John’s basic message is that God wins. Love wins, for God is love. Against the destructive force of the Roman Empire and its all-conquering military machine, John pits the renewing power of the Creator God.

As in Genesis, God’s creative power overcomes chaos, represented by the sea, which is no more. But, unlike in Genesis, where God was only a daily visitor to the garden, the divine presence dwells with humanity. Apparently, when Revelation says ‘the home of God is among mortals’ and ‘He will dwell with them’, the root word for home and dwell is the same as the one for lived in John 1:14: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ God dwells with mortals in the incarnation of the Word and dwells among us still through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It’s worth staying with that thought for a wee bit because it points us to the significance of the reading. Many are the Christians who have tried to turn rich metaphors in the book of Revelation into an events guide for the end of the world. While it is legitimate to read the book of Revelation as being about the end times, John is certainly speaking about the present — his present and ours.

Because, as I just mentioned, God dwells with mortals now. The new Jerusalem is the gathering of the redeemed — that’s us, the church. In us, God is making all things new already. God is already wiping the tears from humanity’s eyes. This new creation is not complete and, yes, the church too frequently behaves like it’s part of the unredeemed world of power and injustice, too frequently reacts out of fear rather than love, but the new creation is no less real for that.

So how does God make all things new? How does God wipe the tears from our eyes? The answer to that brings us back to the climax of our Gospel reading:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

Love isn’t just a smile on a Sunday and a warm handshake at the Peace. Love is being willing to wash others’ feet — to serve them — even the ones who will betray and deny you. Love is being willing to go to the Cross, to sacrifice all you have not only for your friend but for your enemy. As the reading we heard from Acts this morning reminds us, there are no boundaries to this love.

It is our hands, reaching out in love, that God uses to wipe away the tears and to fashion a new world.

Those of you who have read the materials for this year’s Christian Aid week will know that the work Christian Aid is doing with pregnant women, new mothers and babies in Sierra Leone is very much about wiping tears away from eyes and building a new world. As a bereaved parent myself, I relate to the grief that Tenneh Bawoh speaks of when she tells how her first child died:

‘I will never forget that day,’ Tenneh recalls. ‘I felt sick like I’ve never been sick before. I loved my baby so much.’

But, with a partner organisation in Sierra Leone, Christian Aid has been able to provide a nurse whose care has ensured that Tenneh’s second was safely delivered and is fit and healthy.

Every Christian Aid envelope pushed through a door, and every pound placed in one of those envelopes this week, is a contribution to wiping away the tears of Tenneh and many like her throughout the world.

We can also look closer to home: after the service today, we are all invited to gather and consider how we, as a congregation, will help to meet the needs of the homeless people on our streets. This, too, is about wiping away tears. It is about loving as Christ has loved us. It is about becoming God’s hands fashioning the new world.

I will finish with some words from the writer Rachel Held Evans, who died around a fortnight ago:

‘Just as God comes to us through water and wine, God comes to us through touch, through the holy acts of holy hands. […] The hands that pass the peace can pass a meal to the man on the street. The hands that come together to receive Christ in the bread will extend to receive Christ in the immigrant, the refugee, the lonely, or the sick. Hands plant, and uproot, and cook, and caress. They repair, and rewire, and change diapers, and dress wounds. Hands tickle giggling children and wipe away tears.’ (Searching for Sunday, p98)

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