Friday, May 26, 2017

The Abyss of Love: Thoughts on John 17.1-11 (RCL Easter 7A)

The Abyss of Love
Thoughts on John 17.1-11

RCL Easter 7A
28 May 2017

Saint Faith's Anglican Church

                  17.1 When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come.  Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you.  2 You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him.  3 This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.  4 I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.  5 Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.
                  6 “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  7 Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you.  8 This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

                  9 “[I am] praying for them.  [I am] not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours.  10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them.  11 [I am] no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as [I am] coming to you.  Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one."  (John 17.1-11 in Common English Bible)

            In the mid-nineteenth century a rising theologian at King's College London published a collection of essays that led to his dismissal from the College.  What drew the ire of some influential members of the Church of England was the careful distinction he made between the words 'everlasting' and 'eternal'.

            This theologian's name was Frederick Denison Maurice and he was a thorough disciple of John the evangelist.  Maurice pointed out that 'everlasting' is a quantitative adjective meaning 'without end' or 'unending duration'.  'Eternal', on the other hand, is a qualitative adjective meaning 'beyond time' or 'timeless'.

            'Everlasting' is the adjective you and I use when we are involved in an unpleasant experience of some sort or another.  We cannot see any end and we may even fall into a degree of despair.  'Eternal', on the other hand, is the adjective we use when we find ourselves experiencing something joyful, something that speaks to our very soul.  We may even say, 'Time just flew by.'

            In Maurice's mind too many of his contemporaries were threatening people 'everlasting punishment' if they failed to live up to various moral standards of behaviour, such as deference to one's social superiors.  Maurice believed that they should be encouraging people with the promises of God's 'eternal love', so that they could become who they really as God intended them to be.  He wrote

            "I ask no one to pronounce, for I dare not pronounce myself, what are the real possibilities of resistance in a human being to the loving will of God.  There are times when they seem to me --- thinking of myself more than others --- almost infinite.  But I know that there is something which must be infinite.  I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death:  I dare not lose faith in that love.  I sink into death, eternal death, if I do.  I must feel that this love is encompassing the universe.  More about it I cannot know.  But God knows.  I leave myself and all to Him."  Theological Essays, 4th ed. (1881), 405-406

            This past week a young man walked into a public space and detonated a bomb which killed more than twenty people, most of whom were as young as the bomber himself.  At the end of the week ten armed men stopped a bus in the Egyptian desert, boarded it and gunned down a number of Christians who were on their way to a monastery in the desert.  While we await the conclusion of the investigation in Manchester and the actions of the Egyptian government, there is one thing that can be said.  This young man in Manchester and the attackers in Egypt had fallen into an abyss of eternal death created by a false and cruel imitation of genuine Islam, a faith that teaches submission to God, Allah, who is compassionate, who is merciful and who is forgiving.

            The abyss of love in which Maurice trusted and the abyss of death into which those I have mentioned fell are not future states of being.  These are abysses that are before us in our everyday lives.  They are choices we face at many points in our workplaces, our homes and our neighbourhoods.  The eternal life that Jesus speaks of in today's gospel is " . . . a life shaped by the knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus" (The New Interpreter's Study Bible).  It is a quality of life revealed in how the disciples of Jesus live their lives in a world often obsessed with paths that lead only to the abyss of eternal death:  racism, religious persecution, terrorism and the de-humanization of those considered to be 'different' or 'heretical' or 'infidels'.

            We know that we live in a society where there are voices that advocate paths other than the one we now walk with Jesus of Nazareth.  But these voices are out of tune with the song of love God has put into our hearts as followers of Christ.  These are times when the disciples of Christ need to raise our voices and sing our song in harmony with our sisters and brothers of every nation and race, of every time and place.

            We need to sing confidently to draw our neighbours and others from the edges of the abyss of death to which some folk seem drawn as a moth is drawn to an open flame.  We sing our song each time we do justice in an unjust world, each time we show kindness in an unkind world, each time we walk humbly with God in an often arrogant and selfish consumer-oriented world.

            There is an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death.  This love is encompassing the universe despite the resistance of some souls to its embrace.  To that love let us pledge our faith and in that love let us live --- not just in the future but right now, right here.

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