6 Easter, Year C, RCL
26 May 2019
You may be familiar with a BBC television program called Doctor Who. Doctor Who is a time lord, more or less exiled from his (and her) original home planet, who can travel to any place and any time in the universe, with the help of what looks like an ordinary blue British police telephone box called the TARDIS. Now, if you’ve watched this program you know the defining feature of the TARDIS, which is that it’s bigger on the inside. You go into what ought to be a cramped little booth, and once through the door you find yourself in a miraculously spacious and complex ship that can travel through space and time at the Doctor’s lightest command. Half the fun of that, of course, is seeing this ordinary police booth suddenly appear standing on an alien landscape, or in a prehistoric field, or flying through the air in a modern city. It makes you see both the blue box and its space-time location differently. And it’s that kind of juxtaposition, that kind of double-take paradox, that our readings deal with today.
In our place and time, one of the great challenges in celebrating the season of Easter is the fact that by the time we get to the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the whole culture has already moved on, and we ourselves don’t really have the capacity to sustain that sense of inbreaking wonder at the Resurrection. By the time the first week of Easter is over, a lot of us are going, well, now what?
Jesus’ disciples went through a similar reaction, that first-ever Easter season, as our readings the past few weeks have shown. Now what? Do we go back to our fishing careers? Do we hang out in Jerusalem for the rest of our lives? What next?
In fact it isn’t until the disciples experience Pentecost that the world breaks wide open for them. The Holy Spirit descends, and they are no longer just disciples, followers of Jesus, but apostles — the sent-out ones. Their message is no longer a garbled gabble of incoherent amazement but a clear mission. The arena they are operating in is no longer a small patch of Palestine but the whole world.
This is what Jesus promised them, on his last night. The disciples were worried, anxious, jumpy; and Jesus wasn’t doing anything to reassure them that he and they were going to escape being crushed by this gathering political threat. They wanted to hear that the powers of domination were going to pass over them like the destroying angel and leave them alone. Or that Jesus would rebuke them, like he had rebuked death itself to raise Lazarus, and they would back down. Jesus, they thought, could and would make them resign their power and let the people breathe free.
Instead, Jesus was talking about saying goodbye. “Peace,” he was saying, which was the greeting for both hello and goodbye in their language and culture. “Goodbye,” he was saying, and, “if you loved me you’d be glad for me, because once I go through that cramped, painful door of death, I’ll be in a space that’s bigger on the inside. Don’t be afraid.”
But they were afraid. To go into death was to go into a non-place, to be a non-self, to be ended while the whole ugly uncaring world goes on. It was all very well for Jesus to say that he and his Father would come to them and make their home with them. What did that matter, if Jesus’ whole life was about to shrivel to the point of a pin and go out?
It wasn’t till later that any of what Jesus was saying made sense. But as he promised, the Holy Spirit came alongside them and opened up the world to them. They took the message and began to spread out.
Paul, who called himself the last and least of the apostles, “the one untimely born,” joined the mission and began making journeys, and in today’s reading, he has a dream in which a Macedonian urgently beckons him to come and share the Word. In our time, the land then known as Macedonia has been trodden by many, many Christians, and some of the oldest churches in the world are there. But at this point, Macedonia is unknown territory for apostles of the Word. Paul and his companions set out to change that.
They come to Philippi, a Roman city, and have a number of adventures there. But one of the first things they do is go looking for an informal place of worship. They find one by the river, and start talking to a businesswoman named Lydia. The Word catches fire in her heart. She rounds up her whole household and they are baptized. She says, “If you can trust that I’m your comrade now, come and stay at my house.” And the first house church in Macedonia strikes a light. As Jesus promised to make his home with those who keep his word, Lydia opens her home to those carrying the light of Christ. The unknown territory becomes a home place.
The apostles begin to realize fully that the whole world means the whole world, not just people willing to align with their own ethnicity but all peoples. As the psalmist wrote, “Let the peoples (plural) praise you; let all the peoples praise you. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge all the peoples with equity and guide all the nations on earth.”
The Word of God is bigger on the inside.
In our reading from Revelation, one of these apostles has come close to the end of his mortal life. He is seeing visions and dreaming dreams, and in this vision he is standing on a high place and sees the bright city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven, no longer a place on Earth but a place that encompasses Earth. There is no temple because it’s all temple; there is no light because it’s all light. It’s an open city. It has no shut gates, no closed borders. All bright souls stream into it and add to its glory. The river of the water of life flows right through the middle of it: that grieving stream that poured from Jesus’ broken body when the centurion’s spear stabbed it is now a pure, sparkling, inexhaustibly abundant flow. Its stream feeds the healing tree, and nothing has power to pollute it — not cruelty, not lying, not destruction, not the urge to degrade people or presume the right to punish them. The whole world fits into this Jerusalem, and the uglinesses and horrors that are so visible to the normal eye, just brush off like dust.
What can a vision like that say to us today? Generations upon generations of Christians have walked all over the world. Some have even walked in space. We twenty-first-century humans see that we are afloat on a tiny island of life in the universe — an island that too many of us seem willing to pollute and destroy to spite the people we hate. We are insignificant, and worse than insignificant, we are ugly. We would be no credit to the heavenly Jerusalem. What does an old vision, barely hearable through so many mouthings over the centuries, have to say to us?
I think that we who follow the Lord of Love should keep close to us his word of peace. “My own peace I give you,” he says. “I do not give as the world gives.” This peace is no casual hello and goodbye. There is no quid pro quo, no pecking order, no social nicety. It’s a peace that is a true courtesy from equal soul to equal soul. A peace between true comrades in the midst of what looks like business as usual. A connection, a spark inviting the downdraft of the Holy Spirit. It’s a breath of freedom that seems so tiny, so easy to extinguish, so easy to ignore.
But it’s bigger on the inside.
Let us pray today’s Collect again.
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.