[This is a (rather lengthy) sermon I preached this past Sunday on John 16:5-15 and Revelation 1:9-19.]
I just finished my second year of college, papers were submitted and exams completed. In honour of this occasion my roommates and I thought it would be good to hit the town a let loose a little. So three of us headed downtown ready for a little mischief. Now granted we were renting a house in [the small Mennonite town of] Steinbach [the fictional setting of Miriam Toews’ Complicated Kindness] so heading downtown may have limited our options a little. In any event we hit the 7-11 for some Slurpees. We pulled a stuffed racoon across the road by string when cars drove by. You know, wild and crazy college stuff. In any event as the night wore on we began to wander aimlessly around when eventually we heard some shouting. We went to get a closer look. Eventually we came across a man and woman fighting on the driveway. We were quite close at this point. Eventually the fight ended, they parted and the man got into his car to drive away. We quickly hid behind a bush on the next yard. Now as the man turned the headlights on and backed out of the driveway the car paused for a moment and in that moment lined up directly with the bush we were hiding behind. The car lights lit up the bush like a light bulb clearly revealing three figures cowering behind it. The engine was shut off and the door opened and we heard him get out with a yell. And in that same moment we turned and ran with him coming after us. Running down a back alley we eventually split up and I found myself running alone, well that is with an angry man coming up behind me. Now I need to make clear that I am not runner, a sprinter at best, but I knew I could not keep my pace up. And in those brief moments I needed to make a choice. Bear in mind I had no idea how big or small, young or old this guy was. I decided to stop. As I stopped I turned around, folded my hands behind my back to face and see my pursuer. I’ll leave it there for now.
For congregations that follow the basic rhythms of the church year there comes a point when the readings and celebrations begin to ‘catch up’ with life. We are approaching that time. Next week Ascension is observed where Jesus’ departs from the world. This is followed closely by Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit descends and the church is formed and begins her mission in earnest. The following weeks and months of the church year form this sort of dull and uninspired period called ‘Ordinary Time’. This period of the church calendar takes up half the year and ends with Advent where we start all over again. For most of us this time of year is for taking a break, going on holidays and laying low. Theologically, however, it is Pentecost that forms that launching pad for the life of the church. Ordinary Time should be that time in which the church continues to write and enact the story of God’s work on earth.
It is important to take a moment and reflect on the transition we are about to enter into. We look to see if our tradition will gain traction or to use a stronger alliteration we may be moving from Scripture to Spirit. For all of my adult life I held a high view of Scripture. I held a high view of Scripture even when I was confronted with my inadequate view of the Bible as a moral rule book. I continued to hold a high view Scripture even when I needed to face the war and bloodshed of the Old Testament or the seemingly multiple theologies contained within it that were difficult if not impossible to reconcile at points. While I saw others around me lower their view of the Bible or even reject its ongoing value I continued to find it ever deepening in texture and meaning. I continued to hold a high view of the Bible but that view fundamentally changed over time. This change crystallized in the words of Jesus found in John’s Gospel. Jesus said to a crowd, You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. Just prior to this line Jesus tells the crowd about God saying that they have never heard his voice or seen his form. The Bible continued to play a high role in my life for the precise reason that it demanded that I lower my view of it and even put it down so that I could listen and look for the presence of God in the world and within my own spirit. One of the dominant threads throughout the Bible and particularly in the Gospel is the notion of having ears to hear and eyes to see. One of the most important roles that the Bible and our Christian tradition can play is in their ability at crucial moments to point away from themselves.
In Luke’s Gospel we read about John the Baptist’s disciples who approach Jesus to find out if he is the Messiah who is to come. How does Jesus respond? He answers them saying go and tell John what you have seen and heard. What is going on here? What is happening at this basic level of human experience? What is it about hearing and seeing that is at once so implicit and yet so allusive, at least according the Bible? Theologically it seems that seeing and hearing are things needing to be re-born, or even come into existence for the first time. Are we born blind and deaf? Do we become blind and deaf?
This may seem like a minor point of interpretation but in our reading from the book of Revelation twice it says that John turned. The Jewish concept of repentance shaped by the Old Testament is linked closely to the simple Hebrew word ‘turn’. Repentance is simply turning towards God. In the book of Revelation it says that John was ‘in the spirit on the Lord’s day” when he heard a voice behind him telling him to write in a book what he sees. The reference to the Lord’s day is likely referring to the weekly routine of worship. Just what John was doing at that time is not stated. Perhaps he was reading scripture or maybe he was in prayer or singing a hymn. Either way it is important to note that the voice came from behind him. It did not come from whatever was directing or drawing his attention. John was implicitly faced with a choice. He could remain in his spiritual practice of reading, prayer or singing. These practices are of course not bad in themselves. These practices are called for in the Bible and testified to throughout Christian traditions but these practices have their place. And if practices such as reading the Bible do not remain in the appropriate role then without our conscious turning away from God we might find that God in fact has moved; that God may now be behind us. So John must decide if he will listen to this voice from behind him or remain focused on his religious practice. Then our text says “I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me,” and then as though we did not catch his use of the word ‘turn’ he adds the phrase “turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and . . . I saw one like the Son of Man.” John turned from his spiritual practice that was set and planned like our Sunday morning worship and looked and saw Jesus, the Son of Man, moving in the midst of the churches. John turned from the practice of the church to see Jesus at work among the churches.
It is also important to notice John’s response. John says, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” This is a common occurrence of visions of God. This happens to Isaiah, Daniel and others. I don’t think the shock is in encountering something so otherworldly but in now hearing and seeing the world so clearly; hearing and seeing God clearly in the world. We want to shut down in the face of this clarity, it is too much. We feel unable to take in and account for what is happening. This may be why the images seem so foreign and bizarre. Rather than being abstract perhaps they are actually clarifications and intensifications of reality. Perhaps these visions were like works of Picasso that attempted to account for multiple perspectives on a single canvas creating a once a sense of chaos but also intensification.
This is what I want us to reflect on as we approach Pentecost and prepare to proclaim that the Spirit of God has been poured out on all flesh. We are leaving the set and established seasons of the church year. We are leaving a sense of predictability, orientation and comfort and are now opening ourselves to hear and see from places behind, above, beside and below our traditions and outside the Bible. When I think about why I made the decision to turn around when I was being pursued two things come to mind. First and foremost the decision was in many ways forced on me. I simply could not continue the way I was going. Second, and just as importantly, the decision came at a time when I had been thinking and reflecting a great deal about the Mennonite position of nonviolence. If I had not wrestled with that tradition I have no reason to believe that I would have responded the way I did. When I stopped to turn around I deliberately folded my hands behind my back so that, as best I knew how, I could face what was coming without violence. And what did I turn to see? I saw a man . . . angry, exhausted and in pain. In slightly more colourful language he asked me what I thought I was doing. I honestly can’t remember much of what we said but we ended up talking and not fighting. What would have happened if my primary formation was in running? I would have exhausted that resource and escaped seeing this man. What if my primary formation was in some aggressive form of combat or self-defense? I would have likely turned to see an enemy and a target. But instead I found myself turning in a posture of strength in peace and I believe this gave me the ability to see and be seen in a certain way. It would be irresponsible of me to say that this posture will always preserve us from conflict or harm, in fact it will likely bring us increasingly into conflict because these new ears and these new eyes will continue to call and shape our lives by God’s Spirit to walk as Jesus did.
I also know that my nature continues to be using most of my resources to not turn, not see and to plug my ears to the voice that is coming up behind me. I see this in myself and in the world around me. This voice comes as a threat because it takes us away from our traditions and patterns and securities. Whether in our relationships, in our churches or in our workplaces when we hear that voice behind us we employ every resource against turning. We get defensive, we attack, we retreat, we entrench, we quickly submit, we rationalize, we justify, we distract, we ignore. But what if we simply learned to listen and then turn to look into the face of the one who is speaking? I am not claiming that every such presence or voice is that of God but I am not sure we will hear God if we don’t stop and turn and look and listen.
The traditions and practices of the church and family and the Bible itself are only as faithful as we will allow them to help us see and hear the work of the Spirit in the world. The Spirit calls us to the ongoing practice of turning not necessarily because we have turned from God but because the Spirit of God moves. It is the voice of Jesus coming up to Mary as she mourns the empty tomb. It is the voice of the messenger telling the people not to look at the sky after Jesus ascended. The disciples did not actively turn away from God, God continued to move.
The turning that happened in my own story came at the end of my ability to avoid seeing. I could offer several offer stories where people come to the end of their resources and abilities before they begin to see. This is why Jesus blesses the sight of the poor because they have no resources to escape reality. The poor see all too clearly the realities of our world. So the call for the church, especially in the affluent Western world, is the call of John in the book of Revelation who was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day. He sat with the value and depth and of his tradition. Perhaps he was reading Scripture. Perhaps he was in prayer. Perhaps he was in mid-song when he heard a voice behind him. We are approaching Pentecost in which we celebrate the only resource given to the Church, the Spirit of God. Mark Pentecost as a time of transition. Allow this summer to be a time of listening. Allow this summer to be a time to experiment with acts of turning. Turn to face the voices that come from behind us. I cannot tell you what you will hear or what you will see. I cannot tell you the outcome of your encounter. I can only point to our tradition and our testimonies both in the Bible and in the church. I can only point to them as they point away from themselves in pursuit of God and the God who pursues us even from behind, the Spirit of the living God who moves among us in the world.