Essential to the gift of Easter is the affirmation that God reigns over all. The promise of the Kingdom of God is at the core of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, and through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he makes it a reality for us all. But what does that Kingdom mean for us today, and how can we interpret it? Last week, on Wednesday in Holy Week, our parishioner, Gordon Avery preached a homily that considering those very questions. With his permission, I am sharing his thoughts as we live into the Easter Season and this Great Fifty Days of the new life that now is ours.
The Kingdom of God
(A homily based on John 13: 21-32)
First the punch line: the Kingdom of God is near, is among us, is part of this world—the real world, as it is. It is a holy thing, it is part of God’s intention, it involves us as children of God, opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, maturing and growing, accepting forgiveness and grace, and becoming the hands and feet of God in everyday life.
The story in the scripture today is intensely bitter-sweet. Jesus and the disciples are alone in an upper room, the door is shut, and they are sharing a Passover meal and memories of their three years of intensive ministry together. Jesus takes a basin and towel and washes the feet of each disciple in turn, while teaching them about the loving service they should give to one another. He breaks and blesses the bread, and institutes the ritual of the Eucharist.
Yet they also know that Jesus’ ministry is coming to a premature end. He has been heard, but also misunderstood. Violent confrontation is about to occur. The possibility exists that their mission will fail. Jesus is troubled with doubts and fears. He will spend the night in Gethsemane praying and pleading, wrestling with despair and uncertainty. And the betrayals. Judas is one of the twelve disciples whom Jesus personally chose and with whom he has lived and worked for three years. Yet all the disciples betray him. By cock’s crow, Peter will have sworn he has never known Jesus. All the disciples melt away after the crucifixion and seemingly are unable to go on. Is this betrayal unique to the disciples? Look at the heroes of the Bible: Jacob was a liar and a thief, David was an adulterer and murderer—need I go on? It could be said that all of humankind is defective and imperfect. Did God, the Creator, mess up?
My father was once Dean of the Medical School at Boston University. A young Assistant Professor flunked virtually all of his medical students one semester. My father called him in and said, “Either you taught them nothing, or you gave an inappropriate examination. Go fix it.” Did God not know how his creation would turn out? Was the Garden of Eden really what it was all about? What about the Kingdom of God?
In meditating on this question, I had four visions. The first was: the Kingdom of God was the Garden of Eden. It was in the past. It did not last. If it had, we would all be naked, eating fruit, and with no particular purpose, tasks, or challenges. There would be no Bible: there would be no story to tell. To me, this vision is unsatisfying.
In the second vision, the Kingdom of God comes with the apocalypse. The trumpets sound, the graves are opened, the wicked are punished and the good are embraced, the lion lies down with the lamb, the child plays over the hole of the asp, there are no longer any tears on God’s Holy Mountain. Thousands of years of pain and struggle, an untold additional number of years of the same, it all gets worse before it gets better, and then suddenly everything is perfect forever after. To me this reads like a strange book, with no real plot and the last chapter tacked on arbitrarily.
The third vision is that the Kingdom of God is here already, but not on this earth. The mansion with many rooms, streets of gold, angels with harps and wings, is above the clouds. St. Peter is the gatekeeper at the Pearly Gates. One can only enter by being dead and being chosen. We see this vision in popular culture and every day in the funny papers. However, our sense of divine geography is a bit distorted by frequently flying above the clouds and through the clouds, and not seeing the many mansions.
The fourth vision sees the Kingdom of God as among us and within us. God is working his purpose out through us, his children. The image of us as God’s children is crucial here. Children learn, children make mistakes and suffer; children make choices and must take responsibility for them. Children move towards their potential as adults through sometimes excruciating pathways. There are abundant clues in the Gospels that suggest this understanding. Jesus addresses God as “Father,” he invites us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” He suggests we become as little children, whom he manifestly loves. In his letters, Paul talks about discipline which, in love, we give our children, so that they can grow. He says we should accept God’s discipline, so that we also may grow. He said, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, but now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.” Even of Jesus, it is written, “And he grew in wisdom and strength, and in favor with God and with man.”
I read a book by Leslie Weatherhead called Why Do Men Suffer. He spoke of a father who bought his son roller skates. The father knew that his son could fall and hurt himself; even break his arm or swerve into the street and be hit by a car. But he coveted for his child the joy and freedom of skating, the opportunity to share in skating with his young friends, the gathering strength of being able to pick himself up and go on, after falling, the responsibility of watching out for pedestrians and staying out of the street. These gifts were offered by a loving parent. Yet inherent in the gift was the possibility of hurt. There was a gift of freedom, consciously made. The freedom was necessary for the growth.
As I was considering these things, I remembered a song of the Weavers from the 1960s called Kisses Sweeter than Wine. In the song, a couple recalls their courtship, marriage, their children and grandchildren, and the last verse goes like this: And now we are old, and ready to go; we get to thinking about things a long time ago. We had a lot of kids, trouble and pain; but, O Lord, we’d do it again! Oh, oh, kisses sweeter than wine. Oh, oh, kisses sweeter than wine.
I also remembered, from the book of Genesis, that after God’s work of creation, he looked at all that he had done and said it was good, it was very, very good.
Gordon B Avery, Parishioner
April 20, 2011
As usual you are right on. Good theology, good homily!