Sixth Sunday of Easter
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
Let’s talk about visions. All of our lessons this morning have examples of visions and actions related to what has been seen or presented. John’s visions in the Book of Revelation are grand and elaborately detailed. Did this John of Patmos ever have a vision of his own exile? A fascinating article in the online publication Patheos states: “Presumably, like many ancient Israelite prophets, John receives his visions while in a trance or some state of altered consciousness. What John saw and wrote has become the most influential — and controversial — vision in the history of Christianity. As Elaine Pagels observes in her book on Revelation, John’s apocalypse has served as source material for John Milton, Julia Ward Howe, Michelangelo, and Tim LaHaye.” (Patheos: John Turner “The Visions of John of Patmos”)
John’s vision of Christ led future generations to understand their Savior as — among many other New Testament images — the coming king, the lamb who was slain who becomes Satan’s vanquisher and who establishes a reign on earth. (Patheos) Without John’s vision, how would our vision have developed? Would we even have certain branches of the Protestant church? The river of the water of life, bright as crystal”, “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit”. – these are other images in today’s reading that are rich with interpretation and history.
In our next reading, Paul had a vision and ended up in action, traveling to Macedonia. He had it in the night. One of the main differences I’ve found in studying for this morning is that dreams usually happen at night and visions happen during the daytime, while the person is awake. In Paul’s case, he shares the vision with his companions and together they decide to go to Macedonia immediately. He also seems to be able to “go with the flow”, freely, encountering and handling events he may not have expected based on his vision, in such a way as to learn, preach, and trust.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus presents a vision of the peace that will be shown to us through the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. He comforts us with this vision before it happens.
What about us? Don’t we have visions or ideas that we feel are from God? We human beings are visually oriented. Unlike many species we are the rare exception among living creatures in that we can see and dream in colors. We tend to think of things in visual ways, and often with “our mind’s eye.” Even when we think about large concepts we tend to do so in visual ways. For example, how do you visualize God?
One of the realities of being so visually oriented, is that many times what we imagine doesn’t always look like what we expected it to. This can be either good or bad, I must admit, I’ve seen folks, including myself, get annoyed, when things don’t go the way we expect. Many people have a “vision” of what they think the Christian life will be like and sometimes what we expected from God doesn’t always match the vision we had. So, the trick is to be flexible and discover the wonder of God doing things in our lives that perhaps we least expect. “Expect the unexpected”!
Reflections and even group discernment on our visions focus not just on messages about our personal relationships with God but on the nagging, yet inspiring call of God to be active in the community of faith. The move isn't inward toward self-absorption but outward, toward the wider world of God's grace and actions in the life that we share. Where is the Spirit calling us? What visions call us beyond the boundaries into ministry where we had not considered it before? Who are our modern day prophets?
When you answered the call of God, you were excited and energized about the possibility of service. You couldn't wait to get where you were going or do what you needed to do. But it was so unlike what you expected. I’ve had that happen to me, and I always ask God, "Are you sure this is what I am supposed to be doing?" phrased more like “REALLY, GOD?!, SERIOUSLY?”
So, Paul’s situation didn’t match up exactly like the vision he had. What’s a prophet to do? Don’t give up so easily. He slightly adjusted his sight and still found a great fulfillment. He accepted the reality he was presented with. The group stayed and worked and several women opened their hearts to the Gospel! He discovered the great hospitality of Lydia. If he had rejected the circumstances, there might never have been a Church planted in Philippi, which became one of the strongest and healthiest churches in the New Testament!
Too many times we miss God’s best because things do not always match our concept of “vision” in ministry! Challenge yourself to not simply see what is around you with your eyes, to possess a deeper sight to know what is right and true and needful for the good of all.
Back to today’s Gospel…In the vision Jesus gives us of the Holy Spirit, we know it is a spirit of peace, one which is not of this world. We are charged to “not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” It seems as if he already knows we will be afraid and troubled, that we will doubt. Does our vision of the Holy Spirit match up to what Jesus intended for us? Are we still afraid and uneasy? Does peace look like what his vision of peace is? Do we even know peace? Luckily, we are told that the Holy Spirit will teach and remind us of everyone Jesus said to us.
Annnnnd just how are we reminded of God will come and make his home with us, in our hearts and in our minds? The reading, thought, and study of scripture. The act of prayer. Prayer, in my opinion, is a privilege….one in which we become closer to God. Guess what?! God actually exists and this is one way we can have a relationship with him. Presence…doing things or being in places that allow us to feel the Holy Spirit’s presence. Sometimes, it is simply to “be still and know” that God is God. Other times, we see Christ in others and / or their actions. For me sacred spaces hold a special way to feel God’s presence.
In sacred spaces, we are able to let down our hair, to release our guard, to truly feel, and to be very vulnerable and open. It is in THESE times that we truly allow the Holy Spirit in. Often, in these places, we allow ourselves to visualize, to daydream, perhaps even to have a vision.
These church doors are not simply opened for only those of deep faith. Our pews aren’t simply for people convinced they’re on the “right path”, however defined that is. Our church is a haven for the human experience, one filled with visions…..of glory AND of doubt. Sometimes, we think of faith and doubt as opposite ends to a line, along which we are constantly moving, to and from the different poles. MY vision paints more of a sphere, unique to each person and where there is room for a sacred atmosphere of doubt within the context of faith.
So, in a matter of speaking, I’m proposing that doubt can be a type of sacred space. A place where we experience, evaluate, and sometimes share our visions – of ministry, of God’s calling to us in our individual and collective experiences.
Can we minister to each other in such a way that we are able to rejoice in the heights of each others’ faith, while sitting with one another times of doubting? Is our mind’s understanding of a faith journey as a straight line? A line towards or away from some finite conclusion? Can we envision faith experience as a sacred sphere which is capable of having answers and ideas, but where we continuously learn and wonder? Are we prepared to be a space that honors the balance of faith and doubt that we all possess? Is that “visionary”?
Vision is the bridge between the present and the future. The experience of understanding God seems to rest with our acceptance that there are indeed things we cannot know. This balance of certainty and uncertainty is and always has been the faith experience, and it is all sacred.
This uncertainty creates a sense of community with others who share uncertainty. John’s Gospel seems to present both a sense of community and a goal of mission, centered around Jesus’ charge to love one another. It is this love that will bind the community together as followers of Jesus. But Jesus understands they cannot do this on their own. The group will need the Holy Spirit to gain an understanding of what Jesus meant when he spoke of loving one another and of peace.
What is the church is becoming? Visualizing the future, what the church will become in the face of modern pressures and doubts? Jesus’ encouragement was that even though he will be absent, we are still bound together in relation to God through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community. Are we able to see similar bonds as we move forward along our own faith journeys? Do we offer, as people and as a church, sacred spaces - able to expect the unexpected and adjust when our realities turn out differently than what we had expected?
In the mystic words of St. Augustine:
So what are we to say about God?
If you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn’t God.
If you have been able to comprehend it,
you have comprehended something else instead of God.
If you think you have been able to comprehend,
your thoughts have deceived you.
So God isn’t this, if this is what you have understood;
and if God is this then you haven’t understood it.
So what is it you want to say,
seeing you haven’t been able to understand it?
* God is with us, even in times of doubt – especially in times of doubt.
I leave you today with T.S. Elliot’s words “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” As you travel the winding pathways of your faith experiences, personally and in community, I hope you all will expect the unexpected. I hope you experience the beauty of holy surprise, the vulnerability of sacred doubt, the presence in sacred spaces, and the power of vision, as you discover and rediscover yourselves in God’s great story. Amen.