April 24, 2016
Easter 5 Year C
Donna G. Joy
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
Each of our readings this morning speaks of God creating something new in the midst of despair. I suspect each of us knows the experience of despair. Every time we turn on the news or read a newspaper we find stories that speak of desperation, fear, anger, and hatred. We find it in our politics and in our public discourse. Certainly, our election this past week included some painful dynamics that were expressed, both before and after votes were cast and outcomes were announced. And its probably better that I not get started on the sense of desperation, fear, anger, and hatred that is evident within the context of the election with our neighbours to the south. Members of my cohort in St. Louis were teasing me last week about the possibility of everyone moving up to Winnipeg to live with me. We also find these dynamics in our churches and in our homes. In the Anglican church at the moment we are experiencing desperation, fear, anger, and even hatred as the topic of rewriting the marriage canon to include the LGBT community gains momentum. These dynamics and emotions happen all the time, in every context known to humankind. And, of course, we all know that this happens in the private moments of individual lives.
Too many times I have been called in to minister to families when a loved one has died by suicide. At times like this family members and friends are left with the heart wrenching questions around why they hadn’t anticipated such an event, and somehow stopped it from happening. And often, as they explore these questions, they do find traces of evidence that their son, or daughter, or husband, or wife had been quietly living through the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual state often referred to as the ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ from which they can find no escape... where the only imaginable response is to take this life where hope has been lost.
Of course, currently it is impossible to think or speak of death by suicide without our hearts and prayers going out to those living in northern communities where this has reached epidemic proportions. As I hear people living in the midst of this crisis it seems that they are describing a ‘Dark Night of the Soul;’ one that the whole community is experiencing.
The phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” comes from a poem written by Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century poet and mystic. In it he describes the journey of a soul and the perceived unknowable presence of God as “the Dark Night of the Soul.” People who see no option other than suicide often indicate a sense of feeling lost, desperate, and afraid; a deep, empty sense that God is absent. It is a sense of utter hopelessness with no light at the end of the tunnel.
But for Saint John of the Cross - the dark night was not about God being absent. We often need to experience the dark night in order to truly see the light of the new day. The poem, in fact, was about the joy we find when we discover the presence, and union with, God, in the midst of the journeys through those dark and terrifying times. We cannot discover, or rediscover, that which was never perceived to be lost. We may not feel it, but God is there. Always.
Have you ever had what John of the Cross would describe as a “dark night of the soul?” Have you ever felt so low that you were not sure you could ever claw your way back to fullness of life and faith? Have you ever thought that you’ve hit rock bottom? Have you ever felt as though your life choices have left you with no sense of hope.
Many of us have had these kinds of moments - maybe related addictions; fractured relationships; the health of someone we care about; job and/or financial security. Maybe your dark night was a lack of self-confidence or insecurity about your future. Or maybe your deep hole was when you tried something that failed to turn out as you had hoped. Whatever brought you to that dark moment - the question is “What was it that brought you back?” That is, if you are back. Maybe that returning remains a work in progress...
Each of our readings this morning speaks of God’s place in that journey through the ‘Dark night of the Soul.’ Each of these readings speak of a God who, whether we can recognize it or not, is creating something new in the midst of it.
As I unpack this, I’ll begin with our Gospel which can only make sense when seen within its wider context, which is John’s account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. A context that can only be seen as a ‘Dark night of the Soul.’ Taking a brief look at the text (the verses) prior to those we have heard this morning, we recognize that Jesus is aware that his time on earth is quickly coming to an end and he is offering a summary of all the teaching he’s offered throughout his ministry. He washes his disciple’s dirty feet, making the point that as he has served them, they will be called to serve others; and, as his followers, we are all called to serve others.
The clincher here, though, is linked to Judas’ role in the unfolding of this story. Again, taking a look at this story prior to this morning’s reading, we are reminded that Jesus knows who is about to betray him, and clearly he is deeply troubled. This piece of the story is so important, specifically because of the way Jesus responds. How does he respond to his awareness of Judas’ imminent betrayal? Well, he announces it to his disciples, and then proceeds to feed the one who is about to betray him... “So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot.” Having been fed by the very one he is about to betray, Judas then leaves to do this terrible deed, and the narrator adds, “and it was night.” Indeed, this is a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ if ever there was one. Where might there be any sense of hope in the midst of this grave situation?
It is at this dark moment where our reading this morning begins, “When he (Judas) had gone out, Jesus said...” Does Jesus do what so many of us may have done? Does he point out the extreme devastation of what Judas is about to do? Does he send out his disciples to stop Judas from doing this terrible thing? No... No... No... Instead, Jesus focuses on his mission and preparing his remaining 11 disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God, which is how John’s Gospel refers to Jesus’ elevation on a cross... In other words: through Jesus’ suffering, and the devastation of all those who love him, new life-new possibilities-new hope will be found. Union with God will be found through this journey of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’
Then Jesus tells those who are still with him that he will only be with them a little bit longer, and where he is going they cannot come. Just when things have reached an all time low, now they discover that they’re about to get worse: Their beloved Jesus is about to leave them.
In the coming chapters Jesus will talk about the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach, and advise, and comfort them. But for now, he focuses on the need for his disciples to live in community, to love one another as he has loved them. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you...”
See what’s happening here? In the midst of this ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ Jesus is creating something new. He is solidifying the creation of this new community, offering them their primary mandate, so that the love they share may shed light into the whole of God’s world.
This piece of this reading is further developed in both our Psalm this morning and our reading from the Book of Revelation where we hear those beautiful, comforting, reassuring words, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth...” These words, by the way, were written at a time when the first century church was in the depths of despair with persecution and struggles probably way beyond our imagination... and yet, in the midst of this there is a message of hope... in the midst of this, God (through Jesus) is creating something new. In order to understand the profundity of this passage, we first need to confront what has become known as popular apocalyptic thinking, which speaks of “rapture’ or a future snatching up of Christians from the earth... No. No. No. This was never the intention of this message. On the contrary, instead, God is “raptured” down to earth to take up residence among us! To live with us. To be with us! (To be born in a stable; die on a cross; rise to new life, leaving the gift and power of the Holy Spirit....) Revelation declares God’s commitment to the earth as the location where God will find union with us, particularly in times of despair.
This is precisely what our Psalm this morning is anticipating, where the psalmist begins with praising the heavenly realm (all that is beyond this earthly realm: sun and moon, shining stars... all that is found in the deepest seas... etc. etc. etc. Praising the God who has commanded their existence and brought them into being...) But then, in keeping with this message in the Book of Revelation, the psalmist concludes this sweeping litany of praise with a message of hope. God has given life to (raised up) a “horn for his people.” The word “horn” is a symbol of power and leadership. And here’s the clincher... Jesus is the horn that God has raised to provide life and hope for God’s people. He has said in this morning’s Gospel reading, he is God’s glory; God is glorified in him.
This psalm moves steadily through praising all that is in the highest heavens and moves down through all else, until it concludes with the most important truth, which is, Jesus is the one who leaves heaven to embrace the pain of creation. He leaves the heavenly realm, and descends so that he may be with us here, and now. Here, among the dregs of humanity (in the company of the likes of Judas who betrays him and Peter who denies him), Jesus fulfills God’s plan. Through him God is reunited with us. This psalm, along with Revelation’s vision of New Jerusalem, where death and tears are no more, has given form and voice to the dreams of God’s people through the ages; it has promised and continues to promise life and healing, reconciliation and justice.
So yes, Jesus in John’s Gospel is creating something new; in the midst of the darkest of times, Jesus is creating something new. He is the living, breathing presence, the fulfillment of God’s promise to exist not simply out there, but here... in the very midst of the messiness of life that sometimes spirals into the ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’ This love that Jesus embodies, and freely gives, is the very light that shines into the darkness of life.
So, as we gather, and carry with us whatever our pain may be, we are reminded that through Jesus’ death on the cross he has chosen to be present with us, to feed and nurture us, and love us. As we share in this Eucharistic meal, Jesus is both the host who feeds us, and the food that nourishes us; offering to transform our despair into hope.
Finally, it must also be said, this gift carries with it a profound responsibility. “Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” Through our baptism, and fed by this meal, we may become the light that shines into the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ for each other, so that we may be that light in and for the world.The gift of Jesus’ intimate love for each of us as individuals only becomes complete when that gift is shared with others.
Kathleen Norris says, “God wills to restore this world to a beauty that we can scarcely imagine. It is a city, not a solitude, an important distinction in the narcissistic din of North American culture.” In other words, even though we are called to discover this great and glorious love in the midst of life’s challenges, at the end of the day, its not all about any one of us. It is about sharing that give of love with others: becoming people of faith who forgive as we have been forgiven; love as we have been loved; and express that love through constant acts of selfless generosity.
The dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the renewal of America were shaped and articulated in light of the The Book of Revelation’s New Jerusalem vision:
“It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about (a new heaven and a new earth...) the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis...”
(And, I would add, the new Winnipeg, where children and all those who are vulnerable are safe, and where racism no longer exists; the new northern communities where teenage suicides are no longer an epidemic, where everyone has fresh water to drink...)
When reflecting on the life, vision, and courage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to remember that he was both deeply rooted in the teachings and mandate of the Christian faith, and – at the same time - profoundly political. It is impossible to separate the two. So, as Christians, in addition to reaching out to a broken world as individuals, and as church... one of many ways that we can be channels through which a New world may come into being... a new Winnipeg... new northern communities... one of the many ways in which we can help balance the scales of equality and justice is to vote for politicians who are committed to making such important things a priority.
My hope and prayer is that each of us who knows what it is to suffer with desperation, fear, anger, and hatred will discover the gift of Jesus’ love shining in the midst of it; that those suffering from depression, possibly contemplating suicide, along with those who love them will discover the gift of Jesus’ love shining in the midst of those ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’... My hope and prayer is that all those who discover this gift of love will then, in turn, love others – in specific and concrete ways - as Jesus has loved us.