April 23rd, 2016
“Theologians. They don’t know nothing. About my soul…” That’s the opening line of a song called, “Theologians,” by one of my favorite bands, Wilco. Now that’s a pretty bold thing to say, that theologians don’t know nothing, and it’s one that I don’t believe but love to say. Theologians don’t know nothing. About my soul. No, they don’t know. But there is truth in that line, too—Theologians don’t know nothing, and the best theologians start from that place, and are very willing to end up back there. In between they pass through revelation, God’s own self-revealing, but the Alpha and Omega, in some ways, remain mysterious. Even Jesus, today, says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” In other words, what I am about to do, you cannot do; what I am about to experience you cannot experience. This is the good shepherd, who lays his life down for the sheep, the man for others, the savior of the world. No one can do that but Jesus; no one can heal the world but the Creator, the Word that was spoken. Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul. We could also say that God, in his essence, is unknowable. God is dazzling darkness, as one of the ancient church fathers said. And still we reach out to know and touch God anyway. Or, as Prince said, perhaps taking on the voice of Jesus, too, “I am not you’re lover/I’m not your friend/I am something that you’ll never comprehend/No need to worry/No need to cry/I’m your Messiah/And you’re the reason why/‘Cuz/I would die 4 U.”
So what should we do? Having tasted God, how do we continue to live in grace? Jesus, as soon as he tells his disciples that he is leaving, says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” It is as if, knowing and seeing what the light has illuminated in the darkened room, we will know what still remains dark by examining what we can see in the room. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Peter found a challenge to this, as he himself came to the unknown. He had been having dreams, in which God continually asked him to eat things he didn’t want to eat. Things that as a Jew, Peter knew were unclean and foul, things that God did not want his followers to consume. And yet God continually set the animals before him and said, “Get up Peter, kill, and eat.” And finally, Peter did—and he saw that God had given the Holy Spirit to the unclean nations as well as to people like him—nothing could prevent him from baptizing Gentiles into the family of God. The light had shown in the darkness of the Gentiles, and it turns out, that in God’s mind, them are us—and if they are us, and if we are all disciples, what is to prevent us from loving one another? Well, only fear and ourselves.
Tonight is the season premier of Game of Thrones, and some have said that George R. R. Martin has been writing 2016—the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, and others, the wild twists in the election, the strange rising of the id of some of racist america, and the pure desperation of it all. We’re not even a quarter way through the year. But this is just another way of saying that the hunger and thirst of our nation are on display. We hunger for stability and security; we thirst for equality and freedom. After Bernie lost on Tuesday, my Facebook feed filled with frustration and satisfaction, and there were questions about the game—but Hillary supporters were glad, and felt our state had made either a wise choice or a safe bet, and Bernie supporters were sad, because they saw the continued grip of the wealthy and connected on the electoral process and on the imaginations of the voters. And, of course, there was Trump. I have wondered why the deaths David Bowie and Prince have made people so sad: surely the ones with the most grief are those who knew them and loved them for who they really were, rather than those of us who knew them by their personas and their music. But I know that art is one way that we love one another, that we speak to one another through it in order to tell true stories. Major Tom and Purple Rain, at some level, spoke truth to us, even if they were the songs of a searching secularism, an effort to breathe life into the embers of the holy. We somehow know, even as we politic and debate, that all of us should be one people, as Peter discovered the day after his dreaming, but we find continually objections to our question, “What is to prevent us from being whole?”
Jesus command to us is still leads us to signs of incompleteness: Jesus loved us completely, even past death, where we cannot go. Jesus loved us into the mystery of God, which we feel and sense, but cannot know. And when Jesus commands us to love one another as he loved us, we know that we can’t do it. I cannot love like Jesus. I am too selfish, too scared. I have a history, and it’s not all good. I am little republics, each of us, like the republic we live in, full of factions and possessors of histories with very dark stories, at war within ourselves, our fears clashing and gnawing away at each other.
In Revelation, we hear the promise that God will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. It is the promise that our thirst and our hunger will find satisfaction. But before this promise there is something else, and it’s something most people miss about Revelation: God is coming to dwell with his people. Christ commands us to love one another not because we can do it, but because love is coming to dwell with us—God is coming to be among us and satisfy all our hungers and thirsts. They will know we are Christians by our love, the song goes, but we love because God first loved us—and loves us at the last, when God will dwell with us intimately.
Revelation is not about us going up to heaven, it’s about God coming down to dwell with us, recreating us. There is this magnificent line that says, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and we tend to think of this as tears of sadness. But according to the commentators, these tears are actually tears of joy, the tears that come from a loving surprise, the tears you shed when some asks you to marry you, or when someone comes out of a coma. They are tears of joy. They are the tears that come when we finally know what we cannot know, and the mystery of God is revealed.
I have seen tears like that at communion, when people who have long been apart from the fellowship of this table, or have never experienced this love have finally come to receive this gift of grace. Holy Communion is a mystery—it is the touch of God from the other side of mystery. We say that this is Christ’s body and blood on the table, and we say that because Christ is truly present in, with, and under the bread and the wine. Truly present although hidden in bread and wine, but truly present in a way that is even more real than the bread and wine itself.
You can let your tears flow here at this Eucharist, because that longing that you can’t deny or wish away finds it’s harbor here. This table is the place where the other side of the mystery comes to be with you, to strengthen you in spirit and in faith, to open your eyes and heart to beautiful reality of God even in the midst of this sinful and broken world. This is the feast of the lamb once slain, who has freed and united us. At the moment we stand at this table, the light of God flashes and lights up every darkened corner, and the surprise that we find in our souls is the surprise that God really is there, abiding with us in his love, that we are loved even if we are not worthy, and that we are made more than we ever thought possible by that love.
I believe the Eucharist is the most countercultural thing the church does. Here you will find Democrats and Republicans, people of every gender, race, sexual orientation. Here you will find love the breaks down the walls between us, the hatred we have, and allows us to call one another brother and sister. It is not love that we dream up, but love that God gives to us. God gives it to us as a river of living water, as body and blood. Augustine said, Look at the bread. Be what you see; receive what you are. God is coming right now to dwell with you. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack