By Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, SSJD
Acts 16.16-34 Psalm 97 Revelation 22 John 17.20-26
Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself feeling more and more dismayed, angry, anxious, and helpless at the world we live in, and from time to time I find myself humming that catchy song from the late 1950s made popular by the Kingston Trio:
“They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don’t like anybody very much!
But we can be tranquil, and thankful, and proud,
For humanity’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away.
They’re rioting in Africa, there’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us, will be done by our fellow man.” (Tom Lehrer)
Those were the days when people were reading Camus and Sartre and American novels like Franny and Zooey and having their own existential crises. Kierkegaard helped us through it with his existential Christian theology. But just then alarm bells went off in the major news media about how the Christian churches were declining. The cold war raged. It was fashionable to be a cynic, and so Tom Lehrer’s song resonated with millions of people. Interestingly when I went online this past week to find a YouTube recording, I found lots of comments from people who had done the same thing I did – the song came back to them, they went online, listened to it, and said “yep – nothing has changed.”
The dissonance between the words of this song and the happy-clappy tune and harmony underline with heavy irony how easy it is to become complacent. We could substitute more contemporary words:
They’re killing kids in Texas and the governor doesn’t care.
In Canada they’re finding children’s graves, the result of terror in the schools.
The Russians hate Ukrainians, they only want the power.
We’re all afraid of world war, but we don’t know how to stop.
The earth is dying quickly, and we don’t seem to care.
Pandemics keep reproducing, and now there’s monkeypox too.
The anti-vaxers, anti-maskers, anti-earthers yell.
Holy abuse haunts the churches, and we wonder why we’re getting small.
Has God just disappeared? Then why on earth are we here?
These are tough times to be preparing for ordination. Clergy, like sisters, take vows that commit us to share the love of God with everyone we can. But we can’t do it through logic or academic analysis or apologetics – and for all the good the churches do, the evidence seems to point to the evil. We can only share God’s love as we are drawn into the community of God’s love, of the Trinity. There is no easy way to release our fear and sense of powerlessness, but the passages we have read this morning certainly do move us in that direction.
The book of Acts presents us with a story that was beloved in the early Christian community. Paul and Silas have been sent to preach the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles in Macedonia. They unintentionally threaten the authorities (just as Jesus did) by healing a possessed false prophet, and they are thrown into prison – into the deepest, most secure part of the prison with their feet in stocks and no possible escape. The earthquake is a miracle which releases them as well as the other prisoners.
But even more important is the inner freedom which this story is about. Paul and Silas could have run out of the prison. But instead they stayed where they were, and they kept the jailer from committing suicide by first assuring them that they are not going to run away, then by telling him the story of Jesus. He and his whole household were baptized. He was saved from certain death by suicide or his employer, and they all gained the inner freedom that life in Jesus Christ brings.
How many do you know who have had to risk or sacrifice their freedom, or their lives, or something else they valued highly for the sake of letting something else be born? I can think of many examples – not as dramatic as Paul and Silas or Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman or many other heroes and martyrs. But parents sometimes have to sacrifice their dreams and hopes for their children in order to let the children be free to grow as they desire. Partners and friends also give up their desires for the good of their relationship. Each person who joins a monastic community like ours must give up a certain degree of personal choice and freedom for the good of the community. In every civil society people have to sacrifice certain freedoms for the greater good – most of our laws are based on certain restrictions of freedom in order to build civil human community. Paul and Silas’s refusal to run away led to the baptism of the jailer and his family rather than to death.
This sense of a “common weal” – a society that cared about the good of all – was strong in the early church, where baptism was a family and community event. An entire household was baptized – a sign that the early church was focussed on community, and on the importance of sharing the faith. The freedom offered by accepting the love of Jesus was freedom for all – for the gentiles as well as the Jewish nation from which Jesus came. For women and men. And for people of all races and nations.
We see this same principle in the gospel today, part of the Jesus’ final prayer to the Father on behalf of his disciples: “As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” He is praying for our adoption into the circle of his relationship with the Father, into community not only with Jesus and the Father, but with each other as well.
And he also prays: “I ask not only on behalf of these” (that is on behalf of those who were present at the time he was praying), “but also on behalf of those who will believe in you through their word, that they may all be one.” He is praying for those who will hear the word through the disciples – all the generations that will follow Jesus, so that they – we – may attain freedom too – release from bondage, from the prisons of our own self-concern and self-focus, into a strong community in which we care for one another and serve one another and hold the Christ-light for each other in times of fear and hopelessness.
Some scholars believe that this section of John’s gospel was part of a baptismal manual for the early church. There is some evidence that it is not as early as the rest of John’s gospel, that it was inserted a couple of decades later to give theological grounding to the understanding that baptism incorporates a child or adult into the body of Christ. As they become part of a human community – the church, they are also gathered into the spiritual communion of the Son and the Father. “As you Father are in me, and I in you, so may they be one in us.” In the same way there is an outer and an inner dimension to the story of Paul and Silas in prison. They are released physically but the greater freedom is the inner freedom that allows them to stay in the prison and witness to the love of God. Outer and inner, inner and outer – we always live simultaneously in these two dimensions. And only as we navigate them and integrate them can we share God’s saving love with others.
A few days ago I listened to an interview with David Frum, a popular writer for The Atlantic. The interviewer was talking with him about the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, and asked whether he thought this might lead to greater momentum to stricter (or any) gun laws. He responded that that was unlikely to happen given the nature of American politics, and said that only a change in the cultural and moral culture would help. He – he held out hopeful examples of other modern cultural shifts – like attitude toward drunk driving, or the shift from treating domestic abuse as a private matter to a public social issue. It’s the inner and outer balance again. Our hope as people of faith is that our own incorporation into the community of the Trinity and the spiritual freedom we gain will send out waves of love and longing for peace.
In John’s vision of the ultimate consummation, at the end of the book of Revelation, our longing for God and our sense of physical reality and human community are joined. In that marriage we find the power to share God’s Word. God’s Hope, God’s Love:
“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
As we read these words, we approach the end of the Easter season, and we await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, just as you who are ordinands await the anointing of the Spirit at your ordination. As you look forward to that seminal moment in your lives, and as we all look forward to this great festival of the Christian church, let each of us listen to the invitation extended in the reading from Revelation. We are invited to drink the water of life. We are invited into fellowship with Jesus and the Father. And we are invited into the deep freedom of life in Christ. Only then can we share the Word of God, the love of God, with those to whom God sends us, with those who are most cynical, most abused, most in need.
May the Pentecostal Spirit of God rest upon each of you who will be ordained, and may that Spirit give us all, in this disillusioned, hurting, and frightened world, tongues of fire to share the ancient but ever-new way of love.