7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 16: 16-34. Two stories of deliverance from bondage. A girl is set free from demonic possession and Paul himself is set free from human bondage in a jail. It is the “name of Jesus” that is the active agent in the girl’s case and more ambiguously an earthquake in Paul’s case. Both the girl and the jailor would have been slaves in Philippi whilst Paul is a “slave of God”. Freedom is understood by Paul not as licence to do whatever you like. He understands humans as always being slaves to something, either sin, another human being, society or God.
Revelation 22: 12-14,16-17,20-end. When all is said and done, apocalyptic literature like revelation is not about predictions of times and events but about the certainty that the God who existed before creation will also exist after it comes to an end. The power of God who raised Jesus from the dead is the guarantor that whoever is suffering now will one day be vindicated. The dualism of works like Revelation serves to bolster the suffering and oppressed Christian communities at the time it was written whereas modern Christians would be much more generous in deciding who was included and who was excluded.
John 17: 20-end. A piece of Mystical writing so deep as to make the church slink away in shame at its triviality and misdirected energy. Though this piece does carry implications for how we direct ourselves, John did not have ecclesiastical institutional unity in mind when he wrote this. This is about salvation being the mystical incorporation of human beings into the Godhead and operates at a far deeper level than church unity.
Standing symbolically at least between the Ascension of Jesus – His return to the Father - that we celebrated on Thursday, and Pentecost when we mark the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct the church next Sunday, we are given three pieces of scripture that tell of the deep mystical nature of the Christian faith.
The themes are eternal salvation, freedom, and mystical union between a believer and God – themes so big that I feel myself wilting when attempting to address them.
But let us concentrate on freedom because that is the most pressing and perhaps the most misunderstood subject especially in relation to God’s grace.
The passage from Acts has two stories whose spiritual message is that God’s motivation and purpose is to free us from bondage. A girl is set free from spiritual oppression in the first story and Paul is released from physical imprisonment in the second story.
The girl we are told was a slave, and it would have been understood that the jailor who was eventually converted and baptised would have also been a slave. Paul was imprisoned, so everyone in the story is enslaved in some way. The power of God frees them all though only in the case of the demon possessed girl is “the name of Jesus” specifically invoked. The fortuitous earthquake frees Paul and seeing that event and Paul’s example of faith frees the jailor.
As I have said before, it is the result that matters rather than the medium that achieves the result. The deeper message is that God’s Grace frees us from our mental chains which requires physical freedom as well.
But what does freedom mean? Is it the freedom to do whatever we like, good or bad, simply because we can? This was a live question in the early church which Paul was required to address which he does in Romans 6.
Some people thought that because the law had been abolished and replaced by Grace, you could do whatever you liked because no law could be broken.
Paul explains why that is not what Christian freedom means in terms of slavery. We wouldn’t do that today, but these are things that would have been readily understood in Paul’s time. Paul’s point of view is that human beings will always be a slave to something. “Something” always directs the way we feel and act. In a sense pure freedom, you could say is an illusion. What Paul says is let that something that directs our thoughts and actions be God. A slave of God is how Paul describes the Christian, or a slave to righteousness as he also puts it in Romans.
The advantage of being a slave of God, as Paul puts it is that the free gift is “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23)
Which brings me to the other two offerings; Revelation offers a glimpse of the eternal glory of God who lies outside time and will offer to anyone who wishes the water of life as a gift. The water of life is God’s Spirit and on reflection, being a slave to the beginning and the end of all things, the one ultimate reality, is no hardship at all for all things rest in God’s hands.
The gospel story in John 17 brings all that mysterious glory and presence of God into the present for every believer.
In becoming a Christian, we have personal unity with God. The Glory of God the Father, and the human intimacy of Jesus Christ are both present when the active and life giving Spirit of God lives in our hearts.
This is a mystery in the truest sense. That there is always more to be revealed and understood and experienced than we can possibly comprehend at any one time.
The enormity of the claim made in John’s gospel articulated by Jesus is so deep that as I wrote during the week, as to make the church slink away in shame at its triviality and misdirected energy.
But we don’t have the spiritual energy or imagination to operate at those spiritual heights for long. But our faith tells us that this is the reality that undergirds all life no matter what pressing prosaic concerns may tell us.
Seeing and living this reality more and more is what we call discipleship or following in the way of Jesus.
Incorporating this reality into our lives we become attuned to the witness of Julian of Norwich when she wrote in “Revelations of Divine Love” of the overwhelming benevolence of God and that ultimately “all will be well and all manner of things will be well”. As I have quoted recently, This is the music of the future and faith is the courage to dance to it today.