Sermon for April 15, 2018: This sermon developed from the images of Leawood, KS, Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass windows. The images of those who continued God’s work after Jesus’ resurrection. Today, the image of Saint Teresa of Avila was the inspiration for this sermon.
How many Christians harbor a seed of uncertainty about the resurrection? Until we walk the same path that all must walk, there is no concrete evidence our logical minds crave to answer that lingering question.
In the lectionary’s scripture for this week there is a reading from I John 3:1-7. This letter was written by John the Apostle, whose brother was James and father was Zebedee. Based on writing styles and historical research, the same person is believed to have written the gospel of John.
Scholars believe the first letter of John was written as a circularletter to be shared among churches. The purpose was to reassure the early Christians and counter false teachings. The letter provides three descriptors of God: God is light; God is love; and God is life:
I John 1:5-7 God is Light
5 This is the message we heard from Jesus[a] and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. 6 So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. 7 But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.
I John 3:1-3 God is Love
See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. 2 Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. 3 And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure.
I John 5:11-12 God is Life
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.
Today’s world is consumed with logical thinking and the need for proof; Christianity is targeted as an outdated concept. Christianity cannot be boiled down to a code that computers can dissect and recreate with accuracy. Christianity is simple but complex. It is faith in what is known, but what is also not known.
As the weeks, years, decades, centuries distanced people from the events of that first Easter Sunday, The Church developed, evolved, and continued to share the story Jesus taught the Apostles and the earliest disciples.
The gospel written by the Apostle John differs from the other three and is sometimes identified as the mysticalgospel. Why? This gospel focuses on the fact that Jesus was God more than focusing on his physical human qualities. God is light, love, and life. The Word.
John 1:1-5, 9-14
1In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He existed in the beginning with God.
3 God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
4 The Word gave life to everything that was created,[a]
and his life brought light to everyone.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.[b]
9 The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
The Church had the task of continuing God’s work as delivered through Jesus Christ. And The Church continues. At first there was just the one denomination, as we would call it today, but the reality is that even in the earliest days, believers formed different cells focusing on different perspectives.
Some fled into distant countries to live together in isolated communities. Others blended into community churches located in homes. Differences developed based on national cultures, strange practices, eventually creating orders who taught and trained others to continue the work of the Apostles.
Leaders developed into Popes, and The Church that evolved into the most organized arm of Christianity became known as the Catholic Church. An organized religion developed and The Church grew. The evolutionary process has seen various movements for reformation and Teresa of Avila, who later was beatified as a saint, led one.
[Insert video introducing St. Teresa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn4v6atYpq8&t=0s&list=PLFlOzfWR7LMU3h-0LlX_QPiZWi_Lx_rFm&index=5]
Teresa of Avila lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisitions and is known as a mystic. Admittedly this is an uncomfortable facet of Christianity that does not match the 21stcentury mindset. Therefore, I turned to the Harper Collins’ Bible Dictionary:
Mystic: one who has a direct experience of the divine presence, an intimate and transforming communion or union with God. . . . Traces of mysticism are sometimes identified in the Pauline Letters, especially where Paul speaks of union with Christ.
With that definition as a foundation, the writings of John the Apostle can be understood as being mystical, too. The words from his writings and the quotes from St. Teresa are similar.
As John wrote in his first letter, God is light. An article from biographyonline.com explains that after a severe illness during which St. Teresa experienced a vision.
In one of her visions she saw an angel pierce her heart with a spear with a golden tip and the pain, instead of being debilitating, became a movement into ecstasy for the mystic. As she herself wrote, “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.” This event became symbolic of her life, that she was chosen in a special way to share in the pain of Jesus Christ. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at https://www.coraevans.com/blog/article/the-incredible-life-of-st.-teresa-of-avila)
Afterwards, Teresa shared her vision, and some clergy argued the vision was the work of the devil. She lost her confidence in her own visions and raptures, sometimes called ecstasies.
The article, though, continues to explain more:
However, in the course of time, she became absorbed in deep contemplation in which she felt an ever-growing sense of oneness with God. At times she felt overwhelmed with divine love. The experiences were so transforming, she at times felt the illumining grace of God would wash her soul away. She was so filled with divine contemplation it is said at times her body would spontaneously levitate. Teresa, however, was not keen on these public displays of ‘miracles’. When she felt it happening she would ask other nuns to sit on her to prevent her floating away.
Mysticism is not common in today’s faith discussions, but St. Teresa is accredited with part of The Church’s reformation. Being included in the Church of Resurrection’s stained glass window (Leawood, KS) connects her to the evolution of The Church. She is accredited with starting a new order that focused on the values of poverty and simplicity:
She guided the nuns not just through strict disciplines, but also through the power of love, and common sense. Her way was not the way of rigid asceticism and self-denial. Although she underwent many tribulations herself, to others, she stressed the importance of experiencing God’s Love.
God is love. The gospel of John along with his letters emphasizes that God is love. St. Teresa’s writings include quotes that echo John’s teachings:
- “It is love alone that gives worth to all things.”
- “The surest way to determine whether one possesses the love of God is to see whether he or she loves his or her neighbor. These two loves are never separated. Rest assured, the more you progress in love of neighbor the more your love of God will increase.”
- “We may speak of love and humility as the true flowers of spiritual growth; and they give off a wonderful scent, which benefits all those who come near.”
St. Teresa’s work clearly emphasized that God as love includes being a servant. A few quotes from her sound very familiar to John Wesley’s most notable quote:
Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at Wikiquotes.com )
St. Teresa used these words:
- “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
- “If we practice love of neighbor with great perfection, we will have done everything.”
St. Teresa knew God as love. She also knew God as life.
“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life. . . . If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.”
In her visions, she experienced God’s love. By the union with God through Jesus Christ, she saw God as life. The metaphor that a nun is married to The Church simply means they are as devoted to the church as spouses are devoted, singularly, to each other. As a nun, St. Teresa’s life was devoted to God; God was her life on earth as well as after death. In the biography, a fellow sister/nun describes St. Teresa’s death:
“She remained in this position in prayer full of deep peace and great repose. Occasionally she gave some outward sign of surprise or amazement. But everything proceeded in great repose. It seemed as if she were hearing a voice which she answered. Her facial expression was so wondrously changed that it looked like a celestial body to us. Thus immersed in prayer, happy and smiling, she went out of this world into eternal life.”
This final picture helps us to understand the mystical aspect of Christianity. The Church cannot fully explain the complexity of God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the figures who have carried the story forward along human history’s timeline, provide glimpses.
Even St. Teresa explains her mystical faith in God:
“They deceive themselves who believe that union with God consists in ecstasies or raptures, and in the enjoyment of Him. For it consists in nothing except the surrender and subjection of our will – with our thoughts, words and actions – to the will of God.”
As Methodists who know the words and works of John Wesley, St. Teresa’s words and work, we see that God is, God was, and God always will be light, love, and life—eternal life. To fully accept God in our lives, we, too, must be mystic at least to some degree. There is no other way to know the reality than to rely on The Word—through reading scripture, through prayer, and through loving one another in any way that we can.
St. Teresa prayer life has also been the subject of study. She said, “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but desire to please God in everything.”
Now, please join in prayer:
Dear loving, life-giving Father,
As we wake to the sunlight of the morning,
As we lie down to rest in the moonlight,
Fill our souls with light, love and life
Taught us by your son Jesus Christ
And guides us as the Holy Spirit.
May we hear The Word within our minds
So that we, too, may live as your children
Following and reflecting your light others,
Loving one another as we want to be loved,
And confidently believing you are life
Now and forever, amen.
Here we sit in the Midwest in our protestant church. The story of The Church is filled with saints who carried the Word forward, beyond the geographical home of Jesus Christ.
Here we live in the 21stcentury in a culture far removed from ancient thought, yet the saints kept Jesus’ work alive.
Therefore, when we learn that someone in our contemporary world experiences God in a mystical way, the story can empower us even more. For some, the following story sounds familiar, for some it will provide encouragement. This is the Easter story now, in our own world [Accessed on April 12, 2018 at http://www.carmelites.net/news/resurrection-in-a-kansas-backyard/:
Resurrection in a Kansas Backyard
APRIL 1, 2018 | GREGORY HOUCK, O.CARM.
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Easter Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year in the Catholic Church, but for priests like myself it can sometimes be an occasion for sleepiness and maybe some crankiness. We’re cranky because the night before, the Easter Vigil, is a very large celebration in which the liturgy itself and the festivities afterward can go on for hours until early in the morning. Getting up the next morning for 7:30am mass can be pretty difficult.
This past Easter Sunday, I was helping out at a Carmelite parish in Kansas. It was a beautiful day; but that didn’t quite cut through the sleepiness. The aisles were choked, every pew taken, and I’m wrapping up one mass and preparing for the next when a man approaches me and asks me to give Last Rites to his dying father. Though this the last thing I want to hear at this moment, I tell him I can be there that afternoon, after the last mass.
Afterward, as I am plugging his address into the GPS in my car, I seriously consider blowing it off. I really need a cup of coffee and maybe something to eat. I need some time to rest. ‘I could show up tomorrow morning, no damage done’ I think to myself. But there was something quietly urgent about the man’s request, so I head over.
When I pull into the driveway, a crowd of people that could only be family is standing on the front lawn of the house. I think they must be waiting for the ambulance; I’m sure that because I hesitated, I am too late. But I find out pretty quickly that the family isn’t waiting for the doctor – they are waiting for me.
“Dad asked us to carry him out to the backyard to enjoy this weather,” the man explains. “We were afraid that if we stayed out back we wouldn’t hear the doorbell ring.” The family members– the dying man’s wife, two daughters, two sons, and a handful of college-age grandchildren – are pleasant enough, and as I am following them out to the backyard, I feel a bit calmer.
Out back, the dying man is propped up on a lawn chair. After relaxing in the sun and visiting for a while, I bring out the anointing oil, as well as Communion, in case anybody wants to receive. The Catholics in the group have skipped mass, afraid they’d lose their father while at church, and they are relieved at not having to forgo Communion today. I perform the Last Rites ceremony, and then I talk briefly about the Easter Gospel from this morning’s mass. I talk about the Doubting Thomas story, and about how Thomas’s newfound faith in Jesus is its own resurrection.
After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?.’”
After distributing communion, the dying man asks to speak with me privately. Assuming he wants his confession heard, the family gets up and retreats into the house, and we are alone. After a moment of quiet the dying man looks at me and says, “Today is the best day of my life.” I have to admit that given that he’s near death and had to be carried outside I wonder ‘if this is the best day of his life, what were the other days like?’
“I’ve worked hard all my life,” he explains. “I’ve always had one or two jobs to keep food on the table. My kids – I think they knew I loved them, but I never told them that.” He pauses for a moment. He’s looking away from me. “I think they loved me, but they never told me that. We never said these things out loud – we just were a family.” He turns to me again. “But suddenly these last two days, being with them all the time, I know how much they love me. And I never really knew that before.”
As he speaks, I can feel my attention to his words sharpening. “I married my wife because she was the prettiest woman I ever saw – but I never really knew that her heart was so much more beautiful than that.” My Doubting Thomas sermon is starting to feel a little silly in comparison.
He stares out into the grass. “And I finally realized what I’d been missing my whole life. Today, after a few days with family constantly at my side, I finally got it. The whole point of life is to love. The reason we are alive is to love – and that makes this the best day of my life.”
I begin to understand that this man has just given me a gift – and that clarity like this is contagious. Love itself is a resurrection. The family returns and we sit around chatting for a while, and suddenly I am not so hungry, not so desperate for a cup of coffee. This man is approaching death, I realize, with joy; and that is a gift to his family too. They are not grieving so much as delighting in watching him exit with grace.
The next morning the phone rings in the rectory at an oddly early hour. It’s a representative from the nearby funeral home: “We’d like to schedule a funeral this week.”
“I know” I say to the voice over the phone. After hanging up, I’m sitting alone in silence for a few moments when I realize that tears are falling down my face. As a priest, I’m often called to be present when people die but, in truth, I’m generally not much of a crier. It dawns on me that my tears are not in sadness for the death of a man I barely knew. Instead, they are for the grace and privilege I felt at being witness to a resurrection on Easter Sunday afternoon in a backyard in Kansas.