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Sunday, May 17, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.” Do many of you know that hymn? I did not grow up singing this hymn, but I imagine some of you might have. Singing it or not, though, I did grow up living that hymn. Like the Fourth Church children who participate in virtual Children’s Chapel these days with Pastor Matt and Briana, as well as our youth group kids who meet weekly on Zoom with Pastor Rocky and Katie, I, too, grew up hearing the old, old story of Jesus and his love-shaped, mercy-shaped life.
If you grew up as a part of a church, then my guess is that you, too, have lived that hymn. You, too, have heard the old, old story of Jesus and his love told again and again, albeit in different ways and through different mediums, depending on the decade, for one of the very important responsibilities for a church, a faith tradition, is to preserve communal memory and keep the tradition.
This responsibility is one reason why today, on this third Sunday of May, we always celebrate the Sunday on which we dedicated our new Michigan Avenue sanctuary to the glory of God—now 106 years ago. We do this annually so as not to forget the stories of how we began to be who we are where we are, for who we have been as church in our past certainly informs who we will be as church in the future. How we have seen God form us, shape us, and call us in our past is a primary lens through which we can see how God is forming us, shaping us, and calling us now.
Church historian and feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther underlines that point when she states that no matter what, in every season of its life the church always has two primary tasks, two things it must always do. As we have already noted, the first one of those tasks is to tell the old story of the love of Jesus to our children and to our children’s children. The church is to be a keeper of memory and tradition.
Indeed, the entire biblical witness, from the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, was written down, edited, and collated together as a library of sorts with the purpose of being our book of memories. It was put together the way it was out of the conviction that, through the power of the Spirit, disciples from every part of God’s creation might be able to see through its stories the myriad of ways God is active in the world today by reminding us of the myriad of ways God has been active in the world throughout our history. Our God-breathed scripture aids us in passing on the old, old story of Jesus and his love from one generation to the next.
We see that in our Gospel reading for today. This Sunday we pick up where we left off last Sunday. To recap: Jesus had gathered with his disciples for the last time before his betrayal and crucifixion. He was leading them through a family meeting of sorts. He had just finished washing their feet and had moved on to tell them, his friends, what was about to happen to him, to them. Though they tried hard to understand—“Show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” Philip pleaded—they could not understand, not yet.
But Jesus did not give up. Rather, he spoke with them about how they could remember him, how they would be able to pass on his story from generation to generation. He indicated they would be empowered to do that by following his commandment, his word, which in John’s Gospel is one primary thing: Do love. “Since you love me,” Jesus declares, “keep my commandments.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Be love. Do love. Live lives that are Jesus-shaped, love-shaped, mercy-shaped. For as we do that, we are actively passing on Jesus’ story to our children and to our children’s children, from one generation to another. We are actively living as keepers of the memory and of the tradition, fulfilling one of the primary tasks of who we are to be as church. That is one thing Jesus is trying to tell them.
Yet as we continue to listen to Jesus’ words during that long family meeting on that very conflicted night, we also hear something else. Jesus adds a new layer of meaning, another more complicated nuance, to all that he was saying. He wants to make sure his disciples realize that remembering Jesus is not only about memory. It is not only about what happened in the past. No, remembering Jesus is also about being aware of his continuing presence (Barbara Lundblad, 1 May 2005 sermon for Day 1, www.day1.org). “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said, “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will not see me, but you will see me; because I live you also will live.”
If Thomas and Philip were confused before, we can only imagine how their minds were stretched to the brink with these new statements, for Jesus is telling them that though he is leaving them in one way—in the way they had come to know and expect—he is arriving to be with them in a new way, as a new presence, as a Living Word. A Living Word who will make a home in and among his disciples until the day when all is finally made well. He is telling them that the old, old story of Jesus and his love is not about to be finished, not by a long shot. It will just be a different chapter.
Now, let’s pause the family meeting for a moment, because my guess is that Thomas and Philip are not the only ones confused. We might be too. Jesus’ declaration that he is not just going to be a memory but that he is also going to be a continuing presence, a Living Word, also stretches our temporal, limited categories of being. If someone is leaving, how is he arriving? If someone is gone, how is she present? It is confusing. But I want to invite you to try and suspend our temporal and limited categories for just a moment, so we might hear the powerful promise embedded in his words.
In this part of the family meeting, Jesus is promising his disciples that just as God’s Spirit swept over the waters of chaos at the time of creation, just as God’s Spirit filled lifeless clay to create a people, so is that same Spirit actively breathing God’s presence into our midst, right now; actively breathing God’s presence into this gathered virtual community, strangers and friends, making us Christ’s body. Even when we cannot see each other and cannot physically be together, Jesus promises us through these ancient words that the Spirit is connecting us across space and time, right now.
Through the text of this long-ago family meeting, Jesus promises us that in the power of the Spirit, the crucified and risen Jesus is with us, among us, in us, here and now, where you are at this exact moment. According to this God-breathed text, Jesus is not only a fond memory or an old story to tell. Rather, through the power of the Spirit, the presence of Jesus is alive and on the loose.
This means that if we can trust what Jesus says, and we claim in faith that we can, then right now, whether you are sitting at your kitchen table, propped up on a couch, or stretched out on the floor, wherever you are, God’s Spirit is hovering in and among you. Right now, God’s Spirit is reconnecting us to God our Creator and Redeemer. Right now, God’s Spirit is sweeping over us and is waiting for us to breathe it in, to feel its power, and to do love in the world in ways that would be impossible without that living, active presence of God.
Our faith, Jesus says in this part of the family meeting, our trusting in him, is not just about a memory, an old hymn that reminds us of the old story about something that happened to other people a long time ago. Our Christian faith is about the living, active, continuing presence of a God who remains, abides, makes a home, in our very midst, at all times and in all places, shattering our categories or what can or cannot be possible.
And Jesus’ category-shattering proclamation takes us to what Reuther states is the second primary task of the church, the other crucial activity we must do as church no matter what our situation. Yes, we are to pass on the old, old story of Jesus and his love, actively living that out by doing love based on tradition and on memory (first task), but as we do so, we are also to steadfastly remain open to the winds of the Spirit and to learning about all the other ways God is at work that we have yet to learn (second task).
We hear that challenge, that promise, when Jesus declares, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” With those words, Jesus is telling them and telling us, “You don’t know everything yet. You have much more to learn. In each generation you will have new questions and new perplexities.” Is the earth flat or round? How can we reconcile claims of science and claims of faith? Should women who feel called by God be ordained to preach (Lundblad)? Who are we as a church when a global pandemic keeps us from physically gathering together? What are to be our priorities as the church in this new day?
As my friend Barbara Lundblad once preached, Jesus knew there were some questions the sacred writings didn’t address. Jesus also acknowledged in that family meeting that there were things he had never talked about. “The Spirit will be your tutor,” he said, “guiding you into all the truth” (Lundblad). The Jesus-shaped, love-shaped, mercy-shaped truth.
This promise of God’s continual Christ presence through the Spirit is what stands behind the Presbyterian slogan “The church Reformed [meaning our theological heritage], always willing to be reformed [active verb] by the Spirit.” One thing that slogan signals is that not only are we, as church, to pass on the old, old story of Jesus and his love to our children and to our children’s children, but we are also to tell them that God’s Spirit is still present and active in our very midst and will undoubtedly open up for them new ways of being Christ’s body that we, in this generation, cannot imagine today.
We are to tell our children and our children’s children that God’s Spirit is still at work in our world, doing God’s will of reconciliation and healing, bringing the church into deeper and sometimes new understandings of faithfulness and discipleship. We are called to pass on the invigorating promise of Jesus that our tradition is a living tradition, our faith is a living faith. When Jesus ascended to the Father, that did not signal the closing chapter of his story. When the canon of the Bible was closed by the church councils, that did not signal the ending of God’s actions in our world. God is still busy being God.
We are still surrounded and held in God’s wild and free Spirit that may indeed lead us into places of ministry and mission that we had no idea we could go. If this were not true, there is no way the church would be able to survive this season of COVID-19, this time in which we are not able to open our buildings and “do church” the way we have always done it. And yet, guess what? These promises are true for the life of the church, and these promises are true in your own life also. God’s wild and free Spirit may indeed lead you into creative and deeper ways of being faithful in your own life that are difficult for you to imagine right now.
The truth of these promises of God is why even when I, as your pastor, grow anxious about our ability as church to make the kind of adaptive changes that are necessary not just to survive in this new day but also to find ways of thriving in this new day; even when I battle feeling like all we have are questions with no answers anywhere on the horizon; even in the midst of those trying times, my testimony to you is that I still possess this unexpected inner peace that can only be a gift of the Spirit, a peace who tells me we are going to figure this out. You are going to figure this out. God is not done with us yet as people or as a people.
No matter what comes, we are all going to keep being a part of Christ’s living body in this world, doing all we can to do love and to live Jesus-shaped, love-shaped, mercy-shaped lives. For as the saying goes, we may not know exactly what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. Amen? And that One is the living, active, calling, and challenging God we know in Jesus.
So yes, we must remember all that has gone before—God’s faithfulness in our past, celebrating days like today, our Dedication Sunday. But we must remember it not simply so we can fall into some kind of romantic nostalgia for the days of yore. No, we must remember it so that we can also train ourselves to be on the lookout for God’s continuing faithfulness in this present day and in the future that is on the way, because in our family meeting, according to John, Jesus tells us that God’s Spirit is going to keep guiding, keep teaching, keep reminding, and keep pushing us down paths we did not even know we needed to travel. For God is the only One who knows exactly how and when the old, old story will end. And my Lord, how that truth can set us free! Amen.