At the beginning of today’s liturgy, we started with a hymn about some of the reasons why Jesus came down the first time. At the end of today’s liturgy, we’re going to sing a hymn about why Jesus will come the second time. These two comings of the Christ are the proverbial bookends for Christians living right now. We have one foot in this world and one foot in the next. Trying to do this balancing act while all of Creation moves toward the Last Day.
It’s a hard thing to live in this in-between space because it means that very few things are stable, very few things are simple, very few things are certain, and we like stability, simplicity, and certainty. They make us feel safe. They make us feel like we know what’s going to happen next. This is comforting and we much prefer it to having to constantly be re-evaluating what we thought was right and good. Unfortunately, certainty is not a state to which God often calls us.
I once heard a lecture by Dr. Walter Brueggemann, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, in which he was trying to address how we might deal with the fact that God appears to have many incongruous ways of being in our scriptures. Reconciling all of these different ways that God is God is not an easy task because often the way God works and acts does not make sense to us. Dr. Brueggemann was also explaining why the simplistic—and false, heretical—idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible and God of the New Testament are different gods is not an acceptable one. The basic thesis of the lecture was: God calls us to be people of faith. Trust God and trust God enough to give God room to be God. This may mean we encounter a God that does not entirely make sense to us and makes us feel uncomfortable. This means that we have to trust God even though God’s ways of being are not always ways clear or sensible to us.
In this relationship, certainty is the opposite of faith. This means that absolute certainty—knowing what God wants, how we ought to do it, how it’s going to play out, and having that pattern be the same every single time—is not a state to which we are called. God does make promises and we can trust that God will keep those promises. How those promises are lived out and acted upon in the world is up to God and may not meet the assumptions we have made, which brings us back to the importance and necessity of faith.
For a wonderful discussion about the difference between faith and certainty, have a look at Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). From the book jacket:
Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
Kate’s certainty around the connection between “good” living and blessing is challenged as she realizes that no amount of positive thinking is going to chase away her cancer. How can a life filled with blessing suddenly be cursed in a fashion reminiscent of Job’s trials? Kate’s journey into a life centred on faith, rather than certainty, is one worth all of us reflecting on.
Simple sets of rules such as “If you live correctly, you will be blessed,” are easy to apprehend and apply. We humans like simple tasks with what we think are certain outcomes. But if we believe that Christ came and everything changed and that Christ will come again to complete that change, then there can’t be one set of rules. If we believe that all of Creation around us is moving toward that Last Day, that everything is changing, then there can’t be one set of rules forever. The rules are part of everything and so, they too must be changing. If our context changes, how can our response to our context not also change?
In scripture, Jesus very seldom gives hard and fast rules. What Jesus often talks about are good principles. Love each other. This is a good principle. What love looks like in any given situation may not always be the same. We have Peter’s vision of the sheet covered with animals coming down from heaven and Peter having an argument with God about whether or not he might eat them. God has to repeat this exercise three times before Peter begins to understand the rules he thought he knew and thought were permanent are changing.
We read in Paul’s letters over and over again the apostle’s advice to communities on how to live good Christian lives. Advice about how to show forth the love of God in the world. Paul’s suggestions about how best to do this are different depending on the community he is writing to. A different context demands a different response. Paul’s advice also changes over time. Paul sees the world changing around him and changes his response. In his early writing, Paul is convinced that the return of Christ will happen within his lifetime and so he advises people not to pursue marriage or other long-term commitments because they will be for naught. Throughout his life, Paul realizes that the return of Christ may take longer than he expected and begins to plan with a longer timeline in view. (This is not unique to Paul; many early Christians believed that the Last Day would arrive within their lives.)
Jesus says to the disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus’s love is consistent, but the way that his love shows up is not. Jesus often displays love to the disciples by helping them learn. This learning is sometimes a hard and painful process for the disciples as their ignorance and forgetfulness and selfishness are put on display and corrected again and again by their friend and teacher. This is quite different from when people approach Jesus seeking healing and they receive miracles. The message here is that God has been glorified in their healing; they ought to rise, go into the world, and share the good news of what God’s love can do. Jesus interacts with the Pharisees in a way that is frequently confrontational—prompted by the Pharisees—but still shows them love, but differently than with either the disciples or the sick. Jesus meets the Pharisees on their terms and explains to them the new thing that God is doing in the world. The woman at the well also experiences Jesus’s love. On this occasion it is a simple conversation; a display of interest and care to a person who has been so derided and ostracized by her community that she has nothing left to lose. Out of this simple act, the love and wisdom of Christ flow as the water of life.
We, in church, in our private lives of devotion, read scripture all of the time. Over the course of your life, it is quite possible to read everything in the Bible many times. If it were like most other books, you might wonder why you were re-reading it so many times. (I know some are, but I am not a re-reader of books.) The reason that we read scripture so often, both alone and in gatherings like this one, is because we believe that God speaks to us through holy scripture in a particular, revelatory way. If Creation around us is changing, then we need to return to these avenues of revelation and listen again and again to see what God is saying to us today, not clinging to what we thought God was saying 400 years in the past. Certainly, some of God’s revelation is consistent and certain, such as God’s promise of love for us, but God’s call to us and how we are to participate in this movement toward the Last Day shifts and moves. We need to hear afresh what God is saying to us in the new place where we find ourselves today.
God’s judgement is not about whether you followed “the rules”, whether you passed the theology exam, whether you learned enough Greek, or whether you lived up to some version of “moral purity”. God’s judgement is about whether or not you exhibited love in the world in the way that Christ loves you. We know that we can’t do the work of the Body of Christ without Christ. Everyone one of us, when we let the Body of Christ down because we sin, we don’t do the thing at that moment that would best show the love of Christ in the world for the world, we stop. We examine. We reflect. We return to God whose judgement of our sin is love. We are renewed, restored, and sent out to make right our mistakes and to try again.
We know that the way we are called to love one another is always changing because the world is always changing. What seemed the best way to show love to people decades ago, we may realize today is not—and possibly was not then—a good way to love people. We are called to respond to that realization. Not by doubling down on “the way we’ve always done this” or some version of “I was just following the rules,” but by listening for God’s voice. As Creation moves around us, God calls and guides us toward that Last Day on a good and holy path. On that day, all will be made clear. We will understand as God understands and we will know God’s loving judgement.
In the meantime, between now and that Last Day, the critical question is before us: What does Christ’s love look like in our now, in our city, in our parish, in our moment? God reveals this to us if we lay aside our certainty long enough to listen and follow in faith.