Mona Smart - Guest Speaker
We have just heard lectionary readings from Psalms, Acts, and Revelation, ending with John and Jesus’ teaching “to love one another” – a teaching Jesus would surely have known from Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18. Biblical scholars universally agree, the teachings “to love one another” and also “to love God” are the heart of the Old and New Testaments.
The passage from John immediately follows the story of Judas’ departure from the Last Supper to commit his final act of betrayal. Foreseeing what lies ahead, Jesus tries to prepare his disciples by leaving them with the most powerful and meaningful of his teachings: “I have loved you in order that you also love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus clearly implies his followers are to set the example of what a genuinely loving community is like by continuing to love each other even in the midst of the terror and suffering they will soon endure. Such an expectation is extremely high and Jesus gives no details about how it is to be done. Evidently, his followers, which include us, are simply expected to love for no reason, without any expectation or condition, and even in the midst of great personal pain. Contemporary psychology affirms such expansive love is difficult to practice especially in the face of chaos and fear. Just how hard it can be I learned from one of those disrupting experiences life can throw at you.
It began one morning when I received a telephone call from the police telling me my parents had been in a car accident and were in the hospital. No other details were given. I was simply to make my way to the hospital as soon as I could.
When I got there, I was shocked by what I found. Both of my parents were in the emergency room in critical condition, having sustained a number of very serious injuries. I was told several physicians needed to speak with me about upcoming treatment and surgeries. I was also told the police were waiting to speak with me since criminal charges might be laid against the other party.
In these early moments, I felt deeply frightened and overwhelmed, and I absolutely knew I needed a little time alone to think and to pray. So, in a momentary pause in the chaos, I headed for a large park located just behind the hospital. After finding the right building exit – no easy feat – I found the park paths and set out on my walk. Being a cold, wintry day in late November, no one was around. For several emotionally painful minutes, I walked vigorously and prayed hard – for strength, for courage, for help. Finally, after several minutes of fast walking and intense praying, I began to feel a little less frightened and to regain some inner composure. It was at this point I found myself in a little clearing where I stopped and stood quietly. I also noticed the clouds had now completely covered the sky, turning it to an amazing shade of soft, pearlescent-grey. There wasn’t a breath of wind in the air, all was blessedly silent.
Just then it began to snow; huge, fluffy flakes came fluttering down, and in a matter of minutes everything was covered with a blanket of white. As I stood there in solitude, contemplating the beauty and taking in the quiet, I had, in that moment, a powerfully intense experience of knowing that God was with me. From then on, I knew I would be able to hear God’s voice and to let God guide me forward as I worked through the many months of decisions and issues surrounding my parents’ accident and to face with love and courage whatever the situation brought.
Whenever I hear this morning’s passage from Acts, I find myself empathizing with Peter as he grapples with his own challenging situation. The question Peter is wrestling with is whether those who do not follow Jewish customs, that is the Gentiles, essentially all of us, are part of God’s plan. Peter learns the answer from no less an impeccable source than the Holy Spirit and it is an answer with profound consequences: God’s forgiving, inclusive love is intended for everyone regardless of religious custom and practice, and for all time. From his own inner experience of the Holy Spirit, Peter receives profound confirmation of Jesus’ core teaching: God’s love is universal and universally given.
To be awakened by the Holy Spirit is a gift we have all been given but which takes courage to accept, and to be open to God’s healing and reconciling Spirit as a key element of the gift. It is one of the many gifts from God for which we give thanks, as we did in our singing of Psalm 148, a remarkable hymn of gratitude and praise. In it, the psalmist calls on the entire cosmos – heavenly beings, human beings, the sun, moon, and shining stars, fire, hail, snow, wild animals, even the creeping things – everyone and everything – all, are called to give thanks and to praise God for the generous gift of life and the wonder of creation.
Psalm 148 is only one of the many hymns of praise and thanks in the book of Psalms. The people of ancient Israel considered genuine, heartfelt praise to God to be a powerful spiritual practice. Contemporary theologians who work in the field of psychology have studied what praise as a spiritual practice actually does for us. When we joyfully participate in the act of praising God, we are taken out of ourselves and our own petty concerns that we might participate in the giving of a wonderful gift, not only to God, but to ourselves and to each other. When we wholeheartedly praise God, we are called to consider our own unique combination of gifts and opportunities God has given us. We are also called to remain mindful of those around us – contemporary psychologists indicate the practice of giving genuine praise to others requires us to be alert to those who may need encouragement, a positive affirmation.
When we sing praises together we are called to consider not only our uniqueness as individuals but also our uniqueness as a community of faith – a uniqueness we have begun to discern through our own vision process. Scholars who study church organizations have found when we joyfully praise together we become more fully who we are as a community and as individuals.
From the story of Acts and Peter’s gift of discerning God’s voice, a gift given to us all and for which we gave joyful thanks in Psalm 148, we turn to quite another extraordinary discernment of God’s voice and vision in the book of Revelation. Most biblical scholars believe Revelation was written following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The text does reflect the shock and trauma of so devastating an experience. Nevertheless, as we heard in this morning’s reading, the author of Revelation joyfully praises God and with amazing confidence. The psalmist simply knows God will in God’s own time and through God’s power and wisdom recreate “a new heaven and a new earth where every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more.”
With this passage from Revelation, we return to the centre of the Easter mystery – the story of God’s self-giving love to all humanity and the vanquishing of darkness and death through Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. To reconcile the theology of resurrection with the science of death is a challenge for contemporary Christians, but as Karen Armstrong and other scholars have observed, we who have chosen to put our trust in God will not be given easy answers – to live a life of genuine faith is to continually seek, to search, to quest. Various respected contemporary scientists who profess Christianity say they reconcile the paradox of death and resurrection by simply affirming, from a scientific/rational viewpoint, that death is the most natural of processes in the natural order but, equally, to affirm from a theological/spiritual viewpoint that death is not God’s final intent. Many, if not most of the great wisdom-spiritual teachers from the medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen and the priest and scholar Meister Eckhart, down to our own time and the remarkable Anglican writer, Evelyn Underhill, and United Church scholar and minister, Northrop Frye – all affirm that love is stronger than death, that the resurrecting power of God’s love is ultimately God’s final intent.
In my own life, I have finally begun to see in my sixth decade – I am not a quick learner – that perhaps love is all there is. I certainly would not have been able to deal with the trauma of my parents’ accident without a sense of God’s love and the love of family and friends, but also love from unexpected sources – the hospital volunteer who regularly read to my father, the staff member who brought flowers for my mother’s room, the many nurses who went well beyond the call of duty to care for my parents. And although the healing process was long, my parents made a good recovery.
In all my strivings over the past sixty-plus years to attain this, do that, go here, achieve this – the end results, whatever they may have been, seem not to have been the key point. Rather, these strivings and aims now seem to have been more like stepping stones toward learning other more nuanced and complex subtleties like humility, loving-kindness, courage, and compassion. My own experience attests to the truth of what the gospel of John says that for us as human beings to love freely, maturely and expansively, without condition or expectation, even to the point of loving our enemies, absolutely depends on God’s presence and God’s help. Over the years, I have discovered, as a man named Peter did in an ancient story, that walking with the Holy Spirit is a challenging but an equally joyful experience, and often a surprising one – but always with love, as Jesus insists, at the centre of it.