The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Readings for this week are:
Click here to access these readings.
What does it mean for God to make his home among mortals? This is something that St. John writes in our reading from Revelation that we just heard: where the loud voice says from the throne: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” And John wasn’t the one who came up with this idea; all of the Bible, really, is trying to help people understand that God is with us. And God is with us not in some small, secondary, or ancillary way, like a relative who stays (or overstays) through the holidays, or a friend who’s there in the good times but, really, when the going gets tough, is nowhere to be found. No, the Bible tells us that God is with us. That’s why Jesus, whose name means “to deliver” or “to rescue”, is also called Emmanuel, which means, quite simply, “God is with us.” God is with us, God dwells with us, God lives with us; but what does it mean for God to make his home among us? What does it look like in our lives, and what does it feel like in our hearts?
Well, to be quite honest, I think often we think of God living with us like a boy getting a new dog. Gwendolyn has this book called Charley’s First Night. It’s a really wonderful book about Henry Korn getting a little puppy called Charley for his birthday. It’s all written from Henry’s point of view, and it’s all about Henry showing Charley around his home. And for Henry, everything (from the place where the vacuum is kept beneath the stairs to the moonlight through the kitchen window) everything becomes new and magnificent. Everything speaks of Henry and Charley’s new love for one another. And this is all summed up at the start of the book, where Henry says, “I carried him in my old baby blanket, which was soft and midnight blue, and we were new together and I was very, very careful not to slip in the snow and I thought about his name. I was the one who thought up his name. Charley. Charley Korn. My name is Henry. Henry Korn.”
Now, I mention this story not just because I really like children’s books, but because Henry’s love for his new dog Charley, and the way that they were “new together”, it’s really one of the ways we experience God. And this is especially true when we’re young, or when we’ve been brought by the Spirit into a new closeness with God. Think, yourself, of times of particular joy for you, recently or in the past. Maybe when your kids or grandkids were born, or at the beginning of spring when all the flowers started blooming. Doesn’t it feel that same way, that you and those things you loved, and God as well, all felt new together? I think of the first day of my road trip from Georgia up here to Oregon with Helene. We were delirious with joy, and each mile seemed new. But I also think of the disciples in the Book of Acts on the day of Pentecost, when the tongues of flame settled above their heads, and they spoke in all the languages of the world and proclaimed the Good News, the Gospel, of Jesus Christ raised from the dead. Everything is new in these moments, even Henry Korn’s old baby blanket, which became soft and midnight blue. And they were new together.
But over time, newness wears off. Things become normal again. Not even the saints live their full lives in the pure ecstasy of the newness of rebirth in the Spirit. After a while, we go back to the work-a-day world, and not because God leaves us, but because we are called to bring God back into that work-a-day world. We Christians are messengers, ambassadors, guides, who have seen the true light and wish to help others see it, experience it, and live it, too. The Joy of God is not for us alone, but for us to give to others.
But when this happens, when we come down from the summits of our experiences with God and go out into the world to do God’s work again, when this happens, God living with us might seem less like Henry and Charley and much more like Henry’s parents and Charley. Dogs are fun for kids, sure, but parents end up doing all the work. Dogs need to be walked, fed, potty trained, and brought to the vet when they’re sick. I remember, as a kid, wondering why my own parents got frustrated with my dogs; weren’t dogs all fun and joy and beauty and wonder?
There are times for us Christians when God, or at the very least Christianity, can become something of a chore. For God works deep into our lives, deep into the fabric, the warp and woof of our lives. It’s great when God lifts our hearts to sing in the joy of the new spring of our souls, but, man, when God asks us to lay all things open before him, or to let parts of us (and, worst of all, parts of us that we might really like) die, when God says to love our enemies, to open our hearts even if it hurts, to love even if it means something like death on a cross – well, God begins to look much less like a puppy or a bright, sunny day and more like a hard-nosed boss who won’t stop nagging for more productivity. As C.S. Lewis writes, we often want, not God the Father, but God the kindly Grandfather, who dotes on his grandkids and sits back to let them do what they want.
Last week, I preached on the idea that the Bible isn’t a set of laws or rules that we need to follow, but that it is a book that we need to give our heart to and to love. We enter into the world and the story of the Bible, and love it as a story, and doing so is what changes our lives and helps us grow closer to God in Christ. And it’s the same with the Christian life. If the Christian life were just a set of things to do, just a list of good deeds and best practices, then it wouldn’t mean much. Because people, because the world, because life, isn’t just about best practices; life is about living, it’s about living to God and with God and in God. The Good News of Jesus Christ isn’t the discovery of some new way to live, as if we uncovered some political system where true peace is possible, or some law code that explains and enacts justice perfectly. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all things, whatever they are, have the potential of rebirth baked into them. That everything, from working in our garden to our old baby blankets to us broken, wayward humans, have the love of God deep down within them. And not only that, but the Spirit of God himself is with us, to lift us through death and resurrection to a life fully renewed in love and hope.
When God makes his home among us, then , it’s much less like getting a new puppy. Or, well, perhaps it is, though it is God who brings us home, wrapped in his old blanket, which is soft and midnight blue. It is God who brings us around the house to show us the light and the joy and the goodness in all the things. It is God who is very, very careful not to slip in the snow, who shows us around the house saying, “This is home, my beloved”, and he says it again and again so that we know that we’re home. And it is God who reminds us that part of our work is to go out into the cold, wet, rainy world and bring in others, so that we can bring them inside and show them that it is not just our home, but everyone’s home. It is God’s home.