Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Transmutation of the Dying

During the course of my ministry as an Episcopal priest, I’ve spent a lot time with the dying. I consider it a deep privilege to be with people as they walk through the final days of their life. Their stories are often the legacy of their soul. The dying fill every word of every story with a heavy weight that leave a lasting imprint on my mind, body, soul, and spirit; the transmutation of the dying.

Such are the final of words of Jesus that we have been reading in the Gospel of John chapter 13-17. The Gospel of John is set apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a very different look at who Jesus might have been and what he taught. The Gospel of John was written thirty to forty years after the other gospels. Its focus was not on telling Jesus’ life story. There isn’t a birth narrative in the Gospel of John. There aren’t any parables in this gospel. Instead, the Gospel of John was written to reveal the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings, which are often hidden in the poetic nature of John’s writing. In one line in the gospel, it even suggests that Jesus’ teachings were done in “secret.” (7:10) In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ seven mystical “I am” statements and we are told about his magical seven signs. A great deal of the wisdom literature discovered in the Nag Hammadi text, found in an Egyptian cave in 1945, were based on the Gospel of John. And the mysteries of Celtic Spirituality have drawn deeply from the Gospel of John as its primary source of understanding Jesus’ wisdom and his relationship to God.

In John 14:15-21, Jesus gives his followers a very straight-forward statement about how they are live once he is gone from the earth. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments.” The temptation here is to start listing all the commandments of Jesus that we can find in each of the four gospels. The problem with this is that each gospel was written for a different community. And most likely these small house churches only had access to the gospel written especially for them, and not the other three.

That’s why, in this little study, I want to keep our focus on the Gospel of John, on Jesus’ wisdom teachings.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us three simple commandments, or expectations, for his followers:

1) Love one another as Jesus has loved us. (John 15:12)
2) Abide in Jesus’s love, which is the same as abiding in the Spirit of God’s love. (John 14:17)
3) And wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)

First, Jesus tells us that our society will know that we are the followers of Jesus when we love one another. (John 13:34-35) Jesus’ teaching sounds so easy, just love everybody. But the reality is, we have a hard-enough time loving ourselves, and our family, much less those in our church community. It’s hard to love people we don’t know; much less love the ones with which we share deep relationships. The love Jesus is talking about is an intimate love—the kind of love that reaches us in the most vulnerable hidden places deep within our souls. And this kind of love, Jesus’ love, is transformative—it changes the very essence of the core of our being.

I remember so well when our son told us we were going to be grandparents. We were so excited and could hardly wait for the day Cole would be born. All my friends told me that having a grandchild would change my life like nothing else. I believed them, but I just didn’t have any context for what they were saying. And then Cole arrived; the holy grandchild. The next day we went to meet our grandson.

Within minutes of our arrival our daughter-in-law slipped Cole into my arms. When I peered into his eyes I knew I was looking in the eyes of God; and my heart was forever changed. In that mystical moment, I knew my life would never be the same. For the first time, I was beginning to understand what it was like to be loved by God, to feel what Jesus felt like when he told us that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) The experience of holding my grandson for the very first time opened a whole new understanding to me about what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus’ love is intimate and his love is transformative. Now when I am challenged to love those around me who are difficult to love, I am moved to see the God that I see in my grandson’s eyes, in the eyes of the person I struggle to love.

Second, Jesus teaches us to abide in his love. Jesus tells us that we can abide in the same love that he and God share. To abide means to remain permanently, to stay in the space of their love forever.

When I go hiking, I love to pick up stones. I’ve found myself attracted to the rough, jagged, and sharp edged stones. In pondering why I’m attracted to such stones, I’ve come realize that these oddly shaped stones represent how I see my soul. To abide means to place the rough stone of our soul into the river of God and leave it there until it becomes smooth, a process that will take more than a lifetime.

In our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Book of Common Prayer, 304) we are asked five questions about our commitment to the teachings of Jesus. In each case, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” What we are saying is that we are work in progress. We will do everything we can to stay permanently in the river of God, allow the rushing waters of God to transform us; smoothing out our rough edges. It’s not always easy to abide in the river of God. Sometimes the waters are rough. Sometimes the waters are freezing cold. Sometimes the waters are muddy.

But it is at those times that we know we must abide; we must keep our stone in God’s river, so that the transformation can happen. It’s the good times that we remember; but it’s the bad times that have made us what we are.

Finally, in Jesus’ wisdom teachings he asks us to follow his example by washing other people’s feet; in other words, to minister to others hidden needs. Recently, the Episcopal Church has passed a new regulation that will require all our volunteers to participate in a training course. The Church’s meaning has good intent. The only problem is that St Peter’s has so many volunteers, we not sure how to even count them all. This past week we started gathering lists and in our earliest guess, we might have more than 250 people volunteering for one or more ministries. St Peter’s people know how to “wash other people’s feet,” by being servants.

More often than not, I hear people tell me that when they serve in one of these ministries that it does more for them than the people they are serving. In washing another person’s feet, we humble ourselves in the most vulnerable way to the most vulnerable people in need. The act of serving others changes the core of our being. It’s a reciprocal act. An act that creates within us what Thomas Merton calls a “Resurrection Consciousness.” In other words, the world is turned upside down as we begin to see everything through the eyes of Jesus.

In Jesus’ final words he told us to love one another, abide in God’s love, and to wash feet. His final commandments change the way we live, move, and have our being in the world; they transmute us. Living as Jesus has taught us can be our legacy that we leave to our family and friends. Jesus’ way of living can indeed change us and our community.

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