Having been a pastor for a number of years now, I’ve come to think that there are two maxims which are pretty much true of all of us: first, we tend to reveal more about ourselves in what we say than we ever intend or realize; and second, we all change more over time than we expect to.
I want today to concentrate on the second of these two maxims—that we change more over time than we expect—because the lessons are all about change. Big change: the kind of change that turned the world upside down for those who experienced it.
The theme of change is vividly highlighted for us by our reading from the book of Revelation, which describes John the Divine’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth—a vision that is cast in the form of the idealized city of Jerusalem. This is not the Jerusalem of history, torn by strife and divided against itself, but the heavenly Jerusalem that has been changed into a city in divine peace, where God dwells among mortals while “making all things new.” It is a vision of a city transformed, rebuilt, reconstituted.
This theme of change was given a more concrete expression in the first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles which relates the development of faith among the earliest Christians. This particular passage tells us about one of the most pivotal moments in all of Christian history, when Peter explains to his fellow apostles how God has led him to realize that their community of discipleship should rightly be expanded beyond its Jewish origins, to include the Gentiles as well. This realization, he says, came to him in a dream which he had three times in succession, in which he was commanded to kill and eat the flesh of animals that any good Jew would consider unclean. His first natural reaction was to object, but each time he was assured by a heavenly voice that what had been profane, has now been made clean by God—a radical reversal which Peter reads as indicating that the former exclusion of Gentiles from the faith should now be reversed as well.
By way of confirmation of this interpretation, Peter goes to a Gentile house where he encounters the Holy Spirit coming upon its residents, just as it had upon Jesus’ own disciples. So interpreting this as an act of inclusion, Peter concludes that it is not for him to object or interfere, but to accept this new opening as God’s will. As he says rather disarmingly, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” So we see that Peter’s whole worldview has been changed, and with it, the face of Christian faith itself has changed. Going forward, it will no longer simply be a movement within Judaism, but an ever-widening circle of faith that even Peter himself will participate in by taking his faith with him on his missionary journey to Rome—something he could never have imagined even in his wildest dreams until it happened. But like I said, we all change more than we ever expect.
So that point is all well and good, but I don’t suppose it really gets us very far, does it? Simply to say that we change, as we move through life, is perhaps a bit too much of a truism. So we might want to ask something more, like how do we change, and why?
The gospel reading I think has something to say about those questions that might help take us further. Here, we are returned in John’s gospel to where we were on Maundy Thursday, present at Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples where he gives the command—the mandatum from which Maundy Thursday takes its name—that we love one another. “Just as I have loved you,” Jesus says, “you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Now, the inclusion of this text with the other two in this set, seems to suggest that there is something about love which is itself identified with the kind of change about which the other two lessons speak. Perhaps it is this: if we are to love someone else as Jesus commands, then that means that we are to make room in our own lives, for someone else to exist fully as themselves within it. To love someone is to allow another person’s individuality and place in the world to impinge on our own, so that we feel some sense of responsibility and obligation to them. Think of what it means as a parent to love a child, or as a spouse to love a partner: in either case, that person’s own well-being and flourishing becomes our deepest desire, such that we readily give sacrificially what we can of our own resources and abilities to help make that flourishing possible.
But by creating space in our own life, for the presence of another, we also open ourselves to be influenced by—and yes, changed—by that person. Parents, for example, know what it is like to be drawn by their children into experiences and ways of looking at things that they would never have imagined for themselves. Or spouses find their horizons stretched in new directions by life with their partner. I’m sure my Baptist parents would never have imagined their son as an Episcopal priest; and I would never have paid architecture much attention but for my wife’s profession as an architectural historian. But the love of parent or spouse makes room for that kind of transforming expansion of oneself in the presence of the other. In short, to love is to open ourselves to be changed, to be stretched, to be challenged, to be enriched by the one whom we love.
So seen in that light, what might it mean to say that we also love God?
Well, at the very least it must mean that we are prepared to open ourselves up to be constantly challenged about our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, to learn to see it as God sees it. Religion, of course, is usually associated in the popular imagination with stability and resistance to change—and indeed many of its institutional forms are quite ossified and static. But if it is true that the experience of love changes who we are, then the internal dynamic of placing the love of God at the center of religious life necessarily leads to the kind of change that is implied by words like transformation, conversion, renewal, and reformation. And these words therefore are more authentically descriptive of the true nature of the spiritual life.
Now, if that’s true, then the reassurance that we seek in religious faith is not derived from its stability, but rather from its promise of change. We have hope not because we count on God to hold things steady as they are, but precisely because as the one whom we love with our whole heart, and mind, and soul, we anticipate that God is at work changing the interior nature of who we are. And at least to me, that is good news indeed, for would any of us want to remain just as we are the rest of our lives, without any growth in understanding, or increased generosity, or deeper wonder, or larger commitment?
We are all, as it were, works in progress. Just as the forces of wind and water have sculpted the magnificent landscapes of the desert southwest, so too the spiritual life in which we are engaged in this community of faith is similarly at work forming each of us into something wonderful and magnificent that we have yet to become. We come here to be changed by our faith, not merely reassured by it, and in that there is much to anticipate and to celebrate. As we sang in our gospel hymn today:
O Father, Son, and Spirit, send us increase from above;
enlarge, expand all living souls to comprehend your love;
and make us all go on to know with nobler powers conferred,
the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.
(“We limit not the truth of God,” Hymnal 1982, #629)
© Joseph Britton, 2016