|"Mystical Union," by Wayne Forte|
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Yes it is still Easter – Easter Day came so late this year that it may feel like Pentecost will come on the Fourth of July.
But I assure you, we are coming to the end of Easter; only one more Sunday after today remains in the sequence of the seven Sundays that are Eastertide, and there is still so much more to tell of the story.
So today the architects of our lectionary crowd us with lessons densely packed with layers of theological meaning, and they are giving it to us by the truckload.
We get Saint Paul standing at the gates of the Acropolis teaching the Athenians to not worship idols made by human hands, but to search for the divine “not far from each one of us.”
Next, we get this curious letter from Peter talking of how Jesus has gone to make a “proclamation to the spirits in prison.”
Finally, the gospel of John gives us this flashback dialogue at the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples wherein Jesus tells them he is about to leave them but will come back in a different way.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” he says.
“This is the Spirit of Truth…You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” And he goes on, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.”
What does this avalanche of words mean?
I must admit to you that I have bounced around inside these lessons all week wondering where to come out in speaking to you this morning. I have felt a little like Jacob wrestling with God at the riverbank, pleading for understanding, and waiting for it to come.
Yesterday it occurred to me that it comes down to two tiny words – “is” and “in.”
Two tiny words, no bigger than a hazelnut. Today’s gospel lesson comes down to two tiny words – “is” and “in.”
Two tiny words packed with enough meaning to fill the universe.
In these lessons, we get this promise that the Risen Christ of Easter is here in us. The lessons state this as a present reality and as a reality to come.
It is and will be.
We are entering the realm of the mystical, a realm that sometimes feels, well, uncomfortable.
Sometimes the Church talks of the Christ dwelling in us as some kind of supernatural being taking up residence in a vacant corner of our bodies. It can sound like science fiction or wishful thinking.
So what do we mean by this? How do we know Christ is in us?
We have some teachers who can help us, and many of them are from long ago.
We are blessed to be living in a time when we are reaching back to re-discover the authentic experiences of the holy by our ancestors, and they have much to teach us about experiences of the holy within us.
One of the most endearing chroniclers of this experience was Julian of Norwich who lived in England in the 14th century.
She fell ill, and as she hovered near death, the “Spirit of Truth” came to her.
Julian found the infinite in something tiny: A hazelnut, and it opened wide the universe for her.
This is what she wrote: “And in this the Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand.
“I thought because of its littleness, it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and it always will because God loves it.”
Julian writes that the thread holding the universe together is God’s love, and that thread is in each of us, connecting us to each other and to all of creation.
And that bring us to another meaning to the word “in.” The Christ of Easter is dwelling not just within us personally but is here with us as a community.
The Spirit of Truth dwells among us as a gathering of people.
There is a common thread to all of the stories of Jesus in the four gospels. Everything he does he does in a group. Healing, teaching, sharing a meal – always in a group.
And Jesus gathers people together at the home of Matthew the tax collector for a meal, and the 5,000 to share the loaves and fishes, and for a “sermon on the Mount.”
Unlike some of the Hebrew prophets, for example Elijah, Jesus does not have a single disciple. He has twelve.
And he has us.
The greatest mark of Christ dwelling among us is not a majestic mountain or a great cathedral. It is in this gathered community itself.
He is here among us, in the love we show for each other when we are in the most pain need, and in the love we bring beyond our walls to others who are in pain and need – it is in those places where we can catch a glimpse of the Christ who is in us.
And so I bring you back to the curious letter from Peter about Jesus making a “proclamation to the spirits in prison.” His letter connects to this.
The Church has long interpreted that phrase as a description of Jesus descending to the dead to free sinners and take them to heaven – going into hell itself to open the gates and rob the devil, the idea of “the harrowing of hell.”
You can take that literally or figuratively.
Peter’s letter is foundational to the words of the Apostle’s Creed, and so I thought, just to expand our horizons a little, we would recite the Apostles’ Creed today rather the Nicene Creed that we usually do.
Listen to the poetry of the Apostle’s creed, for small words can bring us beyond theological abstractions. Heaven and hell are not just concepts of another dimension; they are concepts presently real in this world.
Heaven and hell exist everyday on this earth, and sometimes side-by-side on battlefields and in hospital rooms; in refugee camps and prison camps; and in the devastation wrought by tornadoes in Missouri, a tsunami in Japan or an earthquake in Haiti.
We do well this Memorial Day weekend to especially remember those who died in battles for our country. For many of them, heaven and hell was only a trench or a roadside bomb away.
The Spirit of Truth is especially in those places. The Spirit of Truth wants us to see not just sweetness and light, but also the hard places, the painful places, because that is where God dwells, too, and where we are sometimes called to go as people of faith.
This way of the Risen Christ is not always easy. The journey inward will lead us outward, and from tiny moments and small words can come infinitely big horizons and large challenges. But hear again the words of the One who is in us still:
“Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.
“And I will love them.”