Saturday, June 29, 2024

Seeking a Better Country: Reflections on Canada Day


 BAS Canada Day Propers
30 June 2024

 

Church of the Epiphany

Surrey BC

 

Seeking a Better Country

            When I first came to Canada, I did my best to learn about its history, its cultures and its institutions.  One of the institutions that immediately caught my attention was the Order of Canada.  It caught my attention because of its motto:  Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam.  It means ‘They desire a better country.’  But I wonder how many members, companions and officers of the Order of Canada know the source of the motto.  It comes from chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, a chapter that describes the faithfulness of patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets who lived before the birth of Jesus, a faithfulness fuelled by hope rather than goaded by fear.

 

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.  They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.   But as it is, they desire a better homeland, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11.13-16)

 

            I know that there are members of our congregation who came to Canada seeking a better homeland.  I have been an immigrant twice in my life – from England to the United States and then from the United States to Canada.  I came for a professional opportunity thinking to return to the United States.  I have ended up spending more than half my life here and as a Canadian citizen.  I, and perhaps many others, am seeking what I hope to find.  But I know that I have not yet found that place where God’s promises have been complete fulfilled.  

 

Political at all times

            During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu express his surprise that some people insisted that religion and politics do not mix.  He is supposed to have said this:  “When people say that religion and politics do not mix, I wonder which Bible they are reading.”  He was right.  Being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth means that we are always political.  

 

            We are political because we are concerned about the ‘public good of all people’.  It’s important to remember that when the first Christians were asked to describe what their communities were, they chose the Greek word ekklēsia.  An ekklēsia in the ancient Greco-Roman world was an assembly of the citizens of a city to debate and to determine the policies that would guide their city or state.  In ancient Greek the city or state was called the polis, the word from which we get the English word politics.

 

            The earliest Christian communities understood they were nots club or a fraternal societies.  They were and we are a gathering of people whom God has called together (i) to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength and (ii) to love our neighbour as ourselves.  The importance of our love of neighbour finds voice throughout the whole of the apostolic writings we call the New Testament.  The writer of the 1stLetter of John states quite simply, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4.20)

 

            We are political but we strive to avoid a partisanship that does not listen.  There will always be different points of view among any group of people about how we best serve the common good of the whole community.  Unfortunately there is a psychological reality that humans must struggle to overcome.  We tend to hear only what we want to hear.  We tend to hear only what conforms to our existing set of norms and expectations.  In other words, we find it hard to listen to other people, especially other people who may have a different point of view than we have.  But if we are to be faithfully political, we must listen to one another.  Only by listening to one another, by asking open-ended questions that seek understanding, can we move towards that better country we all hope to reach.

 

            We are political because we occupy a visible place in the communities we serve.  We have what is sometimes called ‘social capital’.  We provide many of our neighbours with space to gather to attend to their needs – day care providers, twelve-step groups, non-profit community groups, refugees, food banks, thrift stores and more.  We provide for the hungry and advocacy for the voiceless.  When some years ago, the City of Richmond wanted to withhold the discretionary property tax exemption from the churches and other religious organizations, the churches came together and demonstrated that the City would lose more in far more in social capital than it would gain in property tax dollars.  The Council changed its mind.

 

Paving the Way 

            On this Canada Day weekend our Parish is on its way towards what we hope is a future where we continue to play our part in God’s great work of re-creating right relationships between all peoples, to bear witness to Christ’s compassion for each of us and to be open to the Spirit leading us in paths as yet unseen.  We are here to listen to God and to one another to discern how we might best serve the common good of all.

 

            The coming eighteen months will test us.  On the world’s stage there are elections in many countries where some of us have ties.  Our own country faces a federal election at some point between now and the end of next year.  Our province will hold an election this fall.  But perhaps the most important challenge will be our work together to search for a new Rector and to discern what how best to use the property and buildings entrusted to our stewardship.  Like those who bear the insignia of the Order of Canada, we who bear the sign of the cross are seeking a better country, a place where we and all God’s children shall be free and the whole earth lives to sing the glory of God.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

We Walk by Faith: Reflections for the 4th Sunday of Pentecost (RCL Proper 11B)


Church of the Epiphany

Surrey BC

16 June 2024

 

            When I was in seminary, I was taught that sermons, in principle, should not focus on a single verse in a reading from the Scriptures but on the entire reading itself.  When the preacher focuses on only one verse, they run the risk of losing sight of the whole idea the writer is trying to express.  Just as location is one of the most important things to consider in real estate, the whole picture, the context, is one of the most important parts of preaching.

 

            But today I am going to take that risk.  I think that I am doing it in a way that is faithful to the intent of Paul in his second letter to the wild and woolly bunch of Christians who were in Corinth in those days.  This verse speaks to us and to all the parishes around us who are seeking to discern what the future holds for us and who are trying to identify how we navigate our way towards that future.

 

            Here’s the verse:  “ . . . for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5.7).  This one verse inspired a hymn found in our hymn book that was written by Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, in the late nineteenth century.

 

We walk by faith, and not by sight;

no gracious words we hear

from him who spoke as none e’er spoke;

but we believe him near.

 

We may not touch his hands and side, 

nor follow where he trod;

but in his promise we rejoice

and cry, “My Lord and God!”


Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;

and may our faith abound,

to call on you when you are near,

and seek where you are found:

 

that, when our life of faith is done,

in realms of clearer light

we may behold you as you are,

with full and endless sight.[1]

 

            In English the word ‘faith’ can be used in at least two ways.  In the first way ‘faith’ means a set of religious beliefs and practices.  We speak of the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith or the Hindu faith or the Sikh faith, for example.  When we use the word in this way, to walk by faith means to carry these beliefs and practices in our pockets as a guidebook to our daily lives.

 

            It’s a good thing to have beliefs and practices to guide us.  As Christians we believe that all that is, seen and unseen, is the work of a loving Creator.  We believe that in Jesus of Nazareth we meet this loving Creator and learn how to live into God’s likeness.  We believe that the Holy Spirit continues to sustain us, to guide us and to warn us.  We continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers in order to be nurtured and shaped into a more Christ-like life.

 

            But sometimes, when we face particular challenges, we find our beliefs do not give us clear guidance.  The practices that have been so important to us may not seem as helpful to us in these moments.  We may begin to doubt our beliefs and to find less meaning in our practices.

 

            It’s perhaps at this point in our lives, whether as individuals or families or communities that the other meaning of faith comes to our aid.  In this sense ‘faith’ is our trust or confidence in someone or something.  It is more often an intuition or a feeling or an insight than a set of beliefs we can recite or a set of practices that we undertake.

 

            This kind of faith understand that to be a person of faith is to be someone who does, from time to time, have doubts.  Having doubts does not mean we have lost our faith.  Doubts are signs that our faith is seeking to understand what is going on at this moment in our lives.[2]  Our history is full of saints and teachers who have often had questions and doubts about God and God’s purposes.  It is a sign of a truly active faith to ask questions and to seek out the wisdom and experience of others.  

 

            Have you ever gotten up in the night in the dark to go to the bathroom or to get a drink?  Have you ever wondered how you returned to bed without stumbling over things?  It turns out that there are two small matching parts of our brain just behind our ears called the hippocampi (meaning ‘seahorse-shaped’).  They help take short-term memories and turn them into long-term memories.  They are particularly associated with our spatial memories.  They allow us to walk without sight.  They are the parts of the brain that help blind people navigate their homes – so long as someone doesn’t re-arrange things without consulting the blind person!

 

            I believe our trust and confidence in God comes from our spiritual hippocampi, our memories and experiences of God’s presence and action in our lives.  There is a practice called ‘the healing of memories’ that some counsellors and spiritual directors use.  In this practice a person is invited to remember a troubled time and to seek to find where God was in those moments.  God’s presence may have been only a kind word from a stranger or a friend calling unexpectedly.  But remembering this in the past can heal the present.

 

            My friends, we walk by faith, not by sight.  We walk by our beliefs.  We walk by our practices.  But in the difficult times, in the uncertain times, in the challenging times, we walk by those deeply-embedded memories that sustain and embolden us.  They enable us to walk in whatever darkness we find ourselves as surely as we walk in the night-time darkness of our homes.  God has built into our souls the spiritual equivalent of those two small seahorse-shaped structures in our physical brains.  For us, the dark night of the soul is not an experience of the absence of God but of our deeper search for God.

 

            Recently on Facebook a friend of mine posted a piece of spiritual advice.  I think that it has something to say to us here at Epiphany as we search for a new rector and as we discern how best to serve our neighbourhood through our property.

 

Faith doesn’t always take you out of the problem,

Faith takes you through the problem.

Faith doesn’t always take away the pain,

Faith gives you the ability to handle the pain.

Faith doesn’t always take you out of the storm,

Faith calms you in the midst of the storm.

 

            My friends, we walk by faith, not be sight.  But that is not bad news.  It is good news.  It is the promise of God’s creating, redeeming and renewing love in all times and in all seasons, in the light of day and in the dark of night, and in times of clear paths and in times of untrodden paths.

 



[1] Henry Alford, ‘We Walk by Faith, and Not by Sight’ in Common Praise #244.

 

[2] Anselm of Canterbury speaks of ‘faith seeking understanding’.

 

Friday, June 7, 2024

Be Careful What You Wish For: Reflections on 1 Samuel 8.4-11, 16-20


RCL Proper 10B

9 June 2024

 

Church of the Epiphany

Surrey BC

 

            For more than forty years I have made use of and been guided by the Myers-Briggs Personality Types.  It’s a tool that can help a person understand themselves, how they work, how they engage the world and how they relate to other people.  It’s a helpful tool because it can also help a person understand how they respond to stress and conflict.

            When I am ‘in the grip’ of stress and conflict, I react in a number of ways.  I become negative and pessimistic about everything.  I alternate between being helpful and not being helpful.  Instead of taking responsibility for my actions and decisions, I blame other people or circumstances.  I become inefficient and unproductive and can even shut down for long periods of time.

            Because I know these things, I also know how to get ‘out of the grip’.  I take some time away.  I set smaller goals and accomplish them.  I seek help in setting priorities and ask others to work with me.

            What is true of me as an individual is also true of communities.  When communities are ‘in the grip’, they also behave in ways that are less than helpful.  They may even act in ways that are potentially self-destructive.

            When the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they were a people who were guided by the Law God gave to them on Mount Sinai and by the wisdom God’s Spirit gave to the judges and prophets like Joshua, Deborah and Samuel.  But over the centuries things began to fall apart.  People being people, they often disobeyed the Law and ignored the advice and counsel of the judges and prophets.  And, as so often happens, not every judge or prophet was of the same calibre as the judges and prophets from ‘the good old days’.  Political and military catastrophes caused public confidence in their traditions and leadership to evaporate.

            Instead of a healthy re-boot of the tradition of the Law and a renewal of the leadership of the judges and prophets, the people now wanted a king.  They wanted to be like every nation around them.  So, in response to their desire we heard voiced in the first reading, God agreed and gave them a king – Saul.

            ‘But be very careful what you wish for’, Samuel said to them.  There will be some good kings like David and Solomon, but there will also be some really bad ones like Ahab.  The country will also eventually split into two distinct kingdoms, Israel in the north, Judah in the south.

            Perhaps their corporate mistake was failing to ask some basic questions of themselves as a community.

·      Who are we?

·      What are our strengths?

·      What are our ‘growing edges’?

·      What are our hopes?

·      What are our fears?

Instead they reached out for someone else’s solution that fit someone else’s social, cultural and political situation – not the social, cultural and political situation of the people of Israel.

            What was true for the people of Israel three thousand years ago is true for us as Anglican Christians in the twenty-first century.  We are ‘in the grip’ of social and cultural stress.  We could, like the Israelites of Samuel’s time, reach out for someone else’s solution to someone else’s challenges, or we could examine ourselves carefully.

·      Who are we now?

·      Who do we wish to become?

·      What are our strengths and values?

·      What are our ‘growing edges’?

The good news is that we do not travel this road alone.  God walks with us wearing many guises and offering wisdom through our shared knowledge and experiences.  Our life will not be free of problems, but God will preserve us and give us grace to endure and overcome them.  We travel with our sisters and brothers in other congregations.  We share a life of worship and service with them.  We are part of a wider community whose resources join our own in building the future we hope to see.  We do not need a king; we have someone who has called us his friends and who is our way, our truth and our life.

Let us pray.

O God,

you have called to your servants

to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,

by paths as yet untrodden,

through perils unknown.

Give us faith to go out with good courage,

not knowing where we go,

but only that your hand is leading us

and your love supporting us;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Weaving the Tapestry of the World: Reflections on the Feast of the Trinity


RCL Trinity B

26 May 2024

 

Church of the Epiphany

Surrey BC

 

            In the summer of 1980 I left Nashotah House, my theological college near Milwaukee, to drive to my parish internship at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a six-hour drive.  Now in those days we relied upon letters and long-distance telephone calls to keep in touch with one another.  Long-distance telephone calls weren’t cheap, so most of us depended upon sending letters.  A letter from Fort Wayne to Nashotah usually took three days.

 

            So, as I drove my car out of the college grounds, the postal truck arrived to deliver the mail.  Among the letters was one from the Rector of Trinity asking me to preach that Sunday, Trinity Sunday as it happened to be that year.  I blissfully drove to Fort Wayne and arrived on the Friday afternoon.  I was unaware of the invitation and the Rector made no mention of it.

 

            As we were lining up in the narthex for the Sunday eucharist, he turned to me and said, ‘I am really looking forward to your sermon.’  Before I could say anything, the opening hymn began, and we were off down the aisle.  As we were processing, I checked the bulletin.  Sure enough, there in the bulletin I read, “We welcome our Seminary Intern Richard Leggett who will be our preacher this Sunday.”

 

            I listened very carefully to the readings as I sat in the sanctuary.  As I was listening, I gave thanks to God that I had been a member of my high school’s speech team with a speciality in extemporaneous speech.  When the moment came, I entered the pulpit and offered what was probably the shortest sermon ever preached on the Trinity in that parish.

 

            Because of that experience, I have always had a special interest in how we Christians talk about God, the One-in-Three, the Three-in-One, the holy and undivided Trinity.  I made a promise to myself that I would never be caught off-guard again if I were put on the spot to talk about this mystery of our faith.

 

            At the heart of the mystery of our faith in God and our experience of God is that God is not an idea to be debated.  God is a mystery to be explored.  By mystery I do not mean that God is something we can solve like some crime drama.  The mystery of God is, as C. S. Lewis once said, ‘like an onion which, as you peel away the layers, gets bigger not smaller’.  To believe in God as Christians speak about God is to enter into a life-long personal relationship with the One through whom all that exists came into being and in whom we live and move and have our being.

 

            We sometimes forget the difference between the words ‘individual’ and ‘personal’.  An ‘individual’ is a quantity.  A ‘person’ is a someone who lives in relationship with others.  It is our personhood that reveals the you and I have been made in God’s image.  Our relationships with other persons creates an interlocking web of connections that the Anglican poet John Donne described in one of his most famous poems.

 

No man is an island,

Entire of itself;

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

As well as if a promontory were:

As well as if a manor of thy friend's

Or of thine own were.

Any man's death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

 

            Each one of us has such a web of relationships.  I, for example, am a son, a brother, a spouse, a father, an uncle, a friend, a priest and probably several more relationships that I cannot recall now.  No one of those relationships define who I am.  The whole of who I am is more than the sum of those relationships.  No one ‘knows’ me fully nor, for that matter, do we know anyone else fully.  I never cease to be amazed at how people I have known and loved for decades can surprise me with a new revelation.  And I never cease to be amazed at how I can surprise myself when I discover something new about myself as a result of all these relationships in which I participate.

 

            When Christians speak of God as a Trinity of Persons, what we are trying to describe is a God who also lives in a network of relationships.  The influential early church theologian, Augustine of Hippo, spoke of God as the Love, the Beloved and the Love.  We know God as the Lover who made room for others in the act of creation.  We know God as the Beloved who reveals God the Lover in our time and space.  We know God as the Love that binds the God the Lover and God the Beloved in such unity that to speak of One is to speak of Three, to speak of the Three is to speak of the One.

 

            We show ourselves to be faithful witnesses to the triune God when we nurture our relationships with friends and families.  We show ourselves to be faithful witnesses to the triune God when we reach beyond ourselves to establish relationships with the ‘other’, whomever that ‘other’ might be.  We show ourselves to be faithful witnesses to the triune God when we tend the relationships that help us take care of our neighbourhoods.

 

            Our confession of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as Lover, Beloved and Love, is desperately relevant to our world today.  You perhaps have heard the saying that a tree farm is not a forest.  A true forest exists through the inter-dependence of each and every species.  This inter-dependence creates an eco-system that is robust and resilient.  In contrast an entire tree farm can be destroyed by the intrusion of a single virus or destructive insect.  

 

            We dare to believe that diversity is not a threat to unity but absolutely necessary for genuine unity.  Unity depends upon the network of relationships in which the gifts and distinctiveness of each and every participant contribute to the weaving of the tapestry of creation in all its varied beauty.

 

Let us pray.

 

 

God of delight,

your Wisdom sings your Word

at the crossroads where humanity and divinity meet.

Invite us into your joyful being

where you know and are known 

in each beginning, 

in all sustenance, 

in every redemption,

so that we may manifest your unity

in the diverse ministries you entrust to us,

truly reflecting your triune majesty,

in faith that acts,

in the hope that does not disappoint,

and in the love that endures.  Amen.

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Courage to Get Up and Do What Needs to Be Done: Reflections on Pentecost


Image found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/pentecost-jen-norton.html?product=wood-print


RCL Pentecost B

19 May 2024

 

Church of the Epiphany

Surrey BC

 

            Paula and I spent the first three years of our marriage in South Bend, Indiana.  I was studying for my doctorate at the University of Notre Dame and Paula worked at other jobs to bring in some necessary income.

 

            Almost every Saturday night we would listen to three programs on National Public Radio.  The first was ‘Roots and Wings’, a program of contemporary folk music.  The second was ‘Thistle and Shamrock’, a program of traditional and contemporary music and songs from the Celtic lands, hosted by the late Fiona Ritchie, a stalwart of the Celtic music revival.

 

            But our favourite was the third program, ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, hosted by the American humourist Garrison Keillor.  For an hour and a half we joined Garrison and his guests along with the residents of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota.  There was music and story and humour and a reminder of a neighbourliness and simplicity that most of us yearn to experience.

 

            One of the fictional sponsors of the program were the makers of Powdermilk Biscuits made ‘ . . . from whole wheat raised in the rich bottomlands of the Lake Woebegon river valley by Norwegian bachelor farmers’. [1]  We were assured that powdermilk biscuits were good for you, but most importantly they gave ‘shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done’. [2]  Over the years I have often reached out for a powdermilk biscuit so that I could get up and do what needs to be done!

 

            Two thousand years ago a community of Jewish women and men were keeping a very low profile in Jerusalem, the capital of Roman-occupied Judea.  Over the last fifty days they had been seeking to understand what it meant to be witnesses to the resurrection of their rabbi, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.  Although some of their friends, neighbours and family members had received the news of Jesus rising from the dead with joy, the political and religious leadership saw the followers of Jesus as threats to peace, order and good government.

 

            But on this day there came such a powerful sign from God that remaining out of sight was no longer an option.  People from all the known world heard the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that there was now a new way of living in the world.  This new way, the way of Jesus, challenged all the values of Roman imperial status quo.

 

            On that day the first Christian received the most important gift of the Holy Spirit – courage.  Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is the decision to face one’s fears and to free oneself from bondage to those fears.  Courage takes its power from hope, a confident belief that God is at work in us, through us and for us to achieve God’s purposes – despite any evidence to the contrary.

 

            Along with the gift of courage, Pentecost brought the awareness that God has given to us the gifts of time, talents and treasures to undertake ‘ . . . more than we can ask or imagine’.  A fisherman by the name of Peter discovered that he could address a crowd with words of conviction.  A tentmaker by the name of Paul discovered that God was as interested in non-Jews as God was interested in Jews.  A woman by the name of Mary Magdalene discovered that her love for her teacher could empower her to share her encounter with Jesus in the garden even though, in the eyes of many, she was an unreliable witness because she was a woman.

 

            What was true on this day two thousand years ago is also true today.  Just as the first Christians in Jerusalem were uncertain about their future, fearful that everything might just tumble down on them, so too do we wonder what the future holds for us.  Some of us may be tempted to close the doors and windows – both physically and spiritually – hoping to keep our fears at bay.  But we cannot keep God out.

 

            Just as Jesus appeared to his apostles despite locked doors, so does Christ come into our midst and breathes new life into us.  Just as the Spirit burst into the open room and set the hearts of the disciples on fire, so does the Spirit blow into this gathered community to invite us to imagine a new chapter in the story of our witness to God’s love and faithfulness in this time and in this place.

 

            Today our prayer is the prayer that Harry Emerson Fosdick composed in 1930 for the dedication of Riverside Church in New York City.  Even though he was living in the midst of the Great Depression, as millions of people were unemployed and thousands of people displaced by drought in the American Midwest, Fosdick could write these words:

 

God of grace and God of glory,

on your people pour your power;

now fulfil your church’s story;

bring its bud to glorious flower.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

for the facing of this hour,

for the facing of this hour. [3]

 

            Here in this place we have experienced the grace and the glory of God.  Here in this place we have experienced the love and compassion of God.  Here in this place we have experienced moments when we caught a glimpse of what God intends for us and for all people.

 

            So, let us, shy people of God, welcome the Spirit blowing around us and in us today.  Let us embrace the Spirit’s gift of courage so that we can get up and do what needs to be done.  We have what it takes to do it and God is depending upon us.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Tending the Garden: Towards a Trinitarian Theology of Land



On Saturday, 11 May 2024, I had the privilege of offering my thoughts about a theology of tending the land to the participants in the Diocese of New Westminster's Mission Conference held at Saint Mark's Ocean Park.

If you want to read the presentation I gave, then click HERE for a PDF file.

If you want to hear the presentation with the ex tempore additions, then click HERE for an audio file.

I pray that my words might stimulate your thinking.


Richard +

 

 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Quality not Quantity: Reflections on Eternal Life

 

RCL Easter 7B

12 May 2024

 

Church of the Epiphany

Surrey BC

 

            When I was in seminary, I made some extra money by babysitting the children of my faculty adviser once a week when he and his wife drove into Milwaukee for their symphony choir rehearsals.  Despite my best efforts to cover my tracks, Professor Dunkley soon realized that I would explore his library after the children were in bed.

 

            One day after morning chapel he presented me with a copy of Caught in the Web of Words, the story of Andrew Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Professor Dunkley recognized in me something of himself:  someone who loves words and values precision in language.  While I would never consider myself a creative writer, I know that I am a pretty good editor and, in a pinch, I can pull together some decent prose or craft some appropriate liturgical texts.

 

            Words are important to all of us.  What we say has the power to heal or to hurt, the potential to clarify or to obscure, the possibility to be precise or to be unhelpfully ambiguous.  We also know when we should keep silent or when we should say little because we know that we cannot say everything that needs to be said.

 

            For example, how we talk with one another when there has been a misunderstanding or a difficulty or a conflict matters.  We could say to the other person, ‘Why did you say that?  Why did you do that?’  ‘Why’ questions often trigger anxiety or defensiveness, emotions guaranteed not to contribute to resolution.  However, we could say to the other person, ‘Please help me understand how you came to say that?  How you came to do that?’  ‘How’ questions tend to indicate to the other person that we are trying to understand what they are thinking or feeling.

 

            Over the Easter season one word with several variations has been appearing again and again in the readings from the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John.  In the Greek of the New Testament the word isaiōn ‘eternity’ or aiōnios ‘eternal’.  Unfortunately sometimes these two words are translated into English as ‘everlasting’, a translation which does not capture the precision of the original Greek.  The difference really does matter at any time, but in times such as those in which we live, the difference is about words being life-giving or life-sapping.

 

            In English ‘everlasting’ means ‘time without end’.  It’s a description of the duration of time, a matter of the quantity of time.  In the ancient world the word used was chronos, measurable time.  It’s worth mentioning that in Greek mythology the god Kronos attacked, mutilated and overthrew his father and, in poetic justice, was later overthrown by his son Zeus.  Time will eat us up and eventually overthrow us in death.

 

            ‘Eternal’ is an entirely different word.  It’s not a description of the duration of time but of the quality of time.  Here’s an example I think we’ve all had.  Have you ever spent an hour or more with a good friend or a loved one and, when you look at your watch, been surprised at how long you’ve been together?  Have you ever said, ‘My goodness, where has the time gone?’  That’s an experience of ‘eternal’ time, moments when we are freed from the tyranny of the clock and can enjoy the freedom of love and friendship and meaningful activity.

 

            When John the evangelist or the writer of 1 John speak of ‘eternal’ life, they are speaking about the quality of life that a relationship with God through Christ and in the communion of the Holy Spirit offers every human being.  We sometimes talk and act as if ‘eternal’ life was something only to be experienced after our deaths, but to talk and to act so is to miss the point that is being made in these New Testament scriptures.  ‘Eternal’ life is a quality of life that can be had in the here and now, even as we await its fullness in the promised reign of God.  I think that the best description of this kind of life is found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, when he writes:

 

What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  It is Christ who died, or rather, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.  Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? 

 

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [1]

 

‘Eternal’ life is life lived in the confidence that, even at the worst moments, even in the midst of doubt, even at the door of disappointment and loss, we have not been abandoned.  God walks with us into darkness as well as into light.  God’s wisdom inspires our insights in moments of uncertainty as well as moments of clarity.  The hope we have in a world where all God’s children shall be free cannot be extinguished by the powers that try to control us with fear.

 

            Today the currents of chronos bring us into confluence of many waters.  Today is Mother’s Day, a special day for many of us, yet this year, for some of us, it will the first year when we will not be able to celebrate with our mothers in the flesh.  Today is the Sunday after the Ascension, a Sunday that reminds that God through Christ has entrusted us with continuing the mission of Christ in this world.  Given the challenges that being a disciple of Christ, especially an Anglican disciple of Christ, must encounter these days, there are moments when I feel a bit abandoned.  The disciples had just spent forty days with Jesus, no doubt bursting with enthusiasm to have him with them:  “So when they had come together, (the disciples) asked Jesus, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’  He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” [2]  And off he goes, living them – and us – holding the bag.  Today conflicts rage in many parts of our world with the deaths of thousands by violence, disease or hunger.  We cannot avoid hearing the stories, seeing the pictures and witnessing the destruction.

 

            The currents of chronos can overwhelm us if we do not hold firm to the hope that God’s promise of ‘eternal’ life offers to us in the present as well as the future.  Some years ago as I was ministering to a family who had lost a young son to a toxic drug overdose, I struggled with the question of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’  But I think that the Holy Spirit gave me a moment of insight when I realized that this was the wrong question.  The right question is ‘what do good people do when bad things happen?’

 

            Those who have ‘eternal’ life know how to answer that question.  We love as God loves even as we mourn.  We serve others as God serves us even when the world thinks us irrelevant or foolish or troublesome.  We pray and advocate for those in any need or trouble as God seeks to soften the hearts of those whose hearts have been hardened by hatred or the love of power.  For to have ‘eternal’ life is to know that nothing – nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Christ.



[1] Romans 8.31-35, 37-39 (NRSVue).

 

[2] Acts 1.6-7 (NRSVue).