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Sermon – May 16, 2010: All One

Sermon for Sunday, May 16, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

All One

Psalm 97, Revelation 22: 12-14; John 17: 20-26

There is an open space above this sanctuary, between the ceiling above you and

the roof. It has catwalks across it and access to the chandeliers for raising and lowering them,

and that’s the path which will take you up into the tower and steeple. There’s a long, steep

stair up to that area, behind and above the wall to my right. When you take the stairs, the

street side wall is off-white plaster, and along its top are plaster moldings, at regular

intervals, painted brown. They are part of the original interior wall of the sanctuary, and its

being where it is serves as a reminder, for the older members among us, and as news, for

the newer members, that the sanctuary of the church before its remodeling in 1963

extended further back in this direction than the sanctuary does now.

There are lots of survivals into the present of things connected with a past reality

which no longer exists except as a lingering trace. Many of us have scars which mark where

we once were injured but have healed. We use expressions which refer to what once was

commonplace but which no longer obtains, like “lock, stock, and barrel” meaning a totality,

based on the type of gun used a century and a half ago. In the home in which I grew up

there was a plate fixed to the wall where a stove pipe once had entered a chimney. We

don’t take much notice of any of these things, the vestiges of old construction or the halfforgotten

origins of common sayings, because they have continued into the present in

ways which don’t draw attention to themselves.

Scripture doesn’t only influence experience, and shape history, but itself has been

influenced by experience, and has a history. We usually read devotionally. The most

important thing said by today’s psalm is that there is no other being as mighty as God, and

that God will prevail over anything which might present itself as opposed to God. From

that broad assertion we, who live in the presence both of God and of evils of all kinds, can

trust God to overcome what is wrong. Psalms are not written to be history, but to be

illuminated by God’s Spirit for the benefit of faithful hearts. That’s the reward of faithful

reading.

Psalms still have a history. Today’s psalm reveals a stage of reflecting upon God

midway between the folk-tale depiction of the God who strolled around Eden, surprised to

notice, when he bumped into them, that Adam and Eve were dressed, and the exalted and

ethereal God we meet in the New Testament. The New Testament God has been freed

by the Divine’s incarnation in Jesus Christ to have an essence beyond mortal

comprehension, and is hinted at by assertions like “God is love” or “God is Spirit and Truth.”

More to the point, for this sermon, is the fact that the New Testament God is the only God

of all of Creation, and that even if Paul credits the existence of what Paul terms “powers and

principalities”–by which Paul encompasses all spiritual realities which may also exist–there

is no other God at all. The commandment to have no other Gods before the God of the

Biblical tradition has to take on a poetic sense, and idolatry has to be understood as a

matter of misplaced faith, because by the time the New Testament is written, Judaism has

settled on monotheism as a core belief.

Today’s psalm shows us this was not always the case. The God of the devout Jew

is a great king above all gods. By the time of Isaiah the prophet the gods of foreign

peoples will be dismissed as no more than the statues representing them, and Isaiah will

ridicule the idea that people worship man-made objects. When Psalm 97 is written,

however, the way God is conceived is that there is no better God than the God of the

Jews, and the Jews’ God is, in a way probably not realized by other peoples, the chief of

all the deities that there are. Other gods as spiritual beings, however, are regarded as real,

if inferior and forbidden.

Most of us know that polytheism is a system of having lots of gods, and

monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. What we meet in Psalm 97, the

instance of our God’s being thoroughly more important, powerful, and effective than all the

other gods that there are, is called henotheism. Other gods haven’t faded away entirely,

which will happen with monotheism–they just have become inadequate rivals or

superfluous servants of the Most High God.

Jewish religion differs from other ancient faiths in that it doesn’t think of time as circular.

The logic of time beginning at a point in the past and continuing forward is implicit in what I’m

saying about how God is presented at different points in the development of our faith. We

regard it as progress that people outgrew thinking about God walking around or worrying

about heaven being invaded by a really high tower, and came to know God in more

sophisticated ways.

Jewish faith, perhaps because of its prejudices about the linear nature of time, lends

itself to attention to the past and the future. It is historical, and in its history it tries to grasp

and project its future. God becomes a God of promises, who eventually delivers on

promises, and each instance of salvation becomes a new basis for hope.

It is not surprising, given the Bible’s notion of time, that the form our Bible has come

to take is that it has a beginning and an ending. It doesn’t just have a beginning and ending

because books must start and conclude somehow. Genesis is about the origin of

everything, and Revelation is about the end of everything, and they frame between them

all the poetry, prophecy, history and theology of the Bible. The logic of the way the

Christian Bible is laid out is that however literally or figuratively you take it, Genesis

introduces the world we all live in, and however literally or figuratively you take it, Revelation

introduces the world we all have before us. God makes a moral judgment about Creation

at the start, and the final fate of everything likewise is in terms of good and evil being

assigned their destinies.

I referred to other ancient religions conceiving reality as circular. The recurrence of the

seasons and the predictable pattern of so many parts of life encouraged them to think of

repetition as paramount, and variety as incidental. Life looked like a wheel, and its rolling

from the past into the future was seen as one long progress through many little cycles, with

death not a final end, but one more part of the pattern, to be repeated again in reincarnation.

We are familiar with that model of how the divine and human interact from faiths like

Hinduism and Buddhism, and we think of those as in some sense rival religions. I don’t

mean in terms of there being many adherents of them to disagree with us, but in terms of

the whole model of reality represented by that tradition. Creation as an endless round of

repeated realities is a very different take on experience than creation as a finite progress

from one stage to another.

You may know that in these Eastern traditions a goal is to escape the cycle, and one

can do this by such a degree of spiritual enlightenment that one partakes entirely of the holy

spiritual milieu in the midst of which souls continually recycle through their destinies. That’s a

way to break out of the unending alternation of lives, and unite with the divine.

I’m aware that this kind of talk is hard to follow, and I apologize. What I want to say is

that we have a religion which instinctively expects to develop into something better, and

we know we’ve done that because monotheism is more true than its predecessors. The

way improvement comes is for God to act, and introduce new versions of chosen peoples

and promised lands, each instance encompassing greater numbers and more perfect

places–so that all the peoples of the earth, at the end, have the possibility of a blissful

home with God, whether conceived as heaven on earth or in some kind of post-Judgment

Day future.

Whether that’s how you think about it or not, that’s the logic of this religion of ours.

But we share with the eastern faiths, with traditions like Hinduism, a weariness of the

between-time. In their case it’s because life tends to return to the starting point and go

through its old patterns. In our case it’s because God’s decisive deliverance can tend to

become long ago in the past and seem far away in the future. In both cases the problem is

now. How do we live with God when we have not yet achieved our ultimate end, when

we’re still on our way, whether we think of that way as a line toward the future or a turn of the

wheel? What do we do with our spiritual hunger, and our hope to be worthy of God, in the

midst of this life which now is ours?

That’s the business of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples which we have in today’s

gospel. Jesus prays that disciples can be part of him, as he is part of God, already. It is not

a matter of escaping a trajectory or arriving at an end– it is a way of solving the problem of

being neither here nor there by becoming different wherever we are–becoming connected

intimately in the spirit to the source of our lives. Being one with Christ is a deliverance from

the tyranny of time, and since it is Christ’s prayer for us, we all may hope for moments of

knowing that it is true–that we are not left alone to drift toward some decision to be imposed

on us, but that we may breathe each moment with God living within us and giving us life

 

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