Monday, 3 May 2010

Easter 5: New Worlds

Easter 5 10

Acts 11.1-8, Rev 21.1-6, John 13.31-35

Earlier this week, the physicist Stephen Hawking was quoted as saying that the search for aliens in outer space worried him a bit. Maybe it wasn’t wise to try to attract attention. "We only have to look at ourselves” , he said,” to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians."
Perhaps he was being a bit cynical and overly cautious, but he’s got a point. When those early explorers found what was to them the new world of the Americas it didn’t take them long to start exploiting its riches and oppressing its people. They might have found a new world, but they brought all the faults and failings of the old world to it. It’s not an edifying story but it’s one which reminds us that though new worlds can seem attractive, living in them is not always as simple as it seems.

There are new worlds in all our readings today, in one way or another.

John, in the book of Revelation sees “a new heaven and a new earth.”

This is John‘s new world – a place where God wipes every tear away, and death is no more, and it is just around the corner. If ever there was someone who needed a new world to look forward to it was surely John. He was in exile on the island of Patmos, just off the coast of what is now Turkey. He was the leader of a collection of Christian communities on the mainland, but the Roman emperor Domitian had initiated a wave of persecution against the Christians and John had been caught up in it. Patmos was a dry, dusty island –no wonder John sees springs bubbling up in his visions. But the physical hardships he endured weren’t the worst thing. It was the separation from those he cared about, and those who cared about him which hurt the most.

His book begins with letters to the seven churches he had left behind, seven groups of people who were like family to him. They were ordinary people, but they were living in extraordinary and dangerous times, facing death on a daily basis. Sometimes they rose to the challenges; sometimes it is clear from what John writes that they didn’t. According to him, the church in Thyatira was riven with internal disputes. The church in Sardis was half-asleep, not taking seriously the threats facing it. The church in Laodicea was lukewarm, complacent. The churches in Smyrna and Pergamum were struggling to find the courage they needed to stick to their faith. For many of the, as for him, time was short and they knew it. The end of the world really was nigh – or at least the end of their individual worlds in this bloodbath of martyrdom they were going through.

But John’s tells them that these disasters that threaten them aren’t the end; far from it, they are a sign of a new beginning, a new world, a new age in which Rome won’t have the last word, and God’s rule will be clear to see – the kingdom of God in all its fullness.

That’s John’s vision, John’s new world. In the book of Acts it is Peter who is seeing things. His vision is very different, but in its way it is also about a new world. This one isn’t in the future though – however near that future is - it is already here and now if Peter can only open his eyes to see it. And it’s not a kingdom that will be come through cosmic battles, but through the nitty-gritty of everyday life being transformed by God’s presence within it.

Peter is praying on the flat roof of the house in Joppa where he is staying. As he does so, he falls into a trance, and something like a sheet is lowered down from the sky towards him. In it, he sees all sorts of animals, animals which the Jewish law says are unclean, which are forbidden as food – pigs, shellfish, reptiles. Peter doesn’t need to look up the list to check whether they are kosher. He’s been brought up not to eat them, and even thinking of it makes him feel ill, just as many English people might feel if presented with a plate of dog or cat or witchetty grubs…

It isn’t just the food that disgusts Peter. His revulsion extends to those who are prepared to eat these things, the Gentiles. They are as unclean to him as the food they eat, and to associate with them will make Peter unclean too.

As he struggles with this visceral distaste, he hears the voice of God, “Get up Peter, kill and eat!” “I can’t “says Peter. “Why not?” says God. “Because you have forbidden it”. “So, I can unforbid it too, can’t I?” answers God. “I am God, after all”. I paraphrase slightly, but that is the sense of it. Three times God asks him to eat these animals, then the vision vanishes, and Peter is left to puzzle out what it means. While he’s thinking, visitors arrive from Caesarea. They ask him to go with them to the house of a Gentile. Peter hesitates – but suddenly the vision he has had makes sense. If God says something is clean, how can he call it unclean? If that is true of food, it is true of those who eat it too. And the rest is history; Peter goes, and the message of God begins to spread through the Gentile world, which is just as well for us, because if it hadn’t, we’d probably never have heard it.

This isn’t a grand story or a dramatic story. It is a story of one man conquering his fears and prejudices, changing his deeply held beliefs. It is a new world to him, a world in which Gentiles are included, in which the old barriers are swept away and it is just as strange to him as the Americas were to Columbus. It may not seem like much to us, but for Peter, and for the Christian movement, this moment changes everything.

So, two stories about new worlds in the books of Acts and Revelation. But they set me thinking about the new worlds that we encounter, and how we cope with them. I don’t mean geographical ones but spiritual and emotional new worlds. You don’t have to be Columbus to discover those, they are all around us. In a sense every step into the future is a step into a new world.

Sometimes these new worlds are as welcome as John’s vision of the golden throne and the water of life; I think of the couples who have stood at these chancel steps to enter the new world of marriage. Sometimes we’d do anything to avoid them; those who are bereaved hoped never to set eyes on the new world they face.
New worlds can arrive in an instant. A diagnosis of serious illness, or the news of a sudden death can make us feel that everything has changed in the blink of an eye.
But new worlds can creep up on us gradually too – we look around and realise that the scenery is unfamiliar, that somehow things have moved on while we weren’t looking. What happened to the world we knew? Society has changed, and we don’t know what to make of it any more.
This week, whoever wins the General Election, we’ll find ourselves in a new political world, one which even the pundits seem to be having trouble predicting.

It can all be very unsettling, and we can easily react just as destructively to change as those early American explorers did. It is natural to fear what we don’t know. Often we will try to reduce the strangeness of a new situation, by behaving as is we can carry on with business as usual, or by beating a hasty retreat. Marriages fail because the individuals in them still want to behave as single people, footloose and fancy free – they retreat from the commitment they’ve made before they have had a chance to discover the blessings it brings. People become stuck at the point of bereavement, unable to grieve and move on because they are terrified of the world which lies ahead. The gap left in their lives can’t be filled, but life may yet have joys to offer. We cling to old prejudices and refuse even to consider new ideas because the old ones are comforting and familiar – better the devil you know.

In the Gospel, though, Jesus tells us that even if the whole world changes there is one thing that remains the same, and if we hold onto that, we have all we need. “Where I am going, you cannot come”, he tells his followers as he faces the new world of death and resurrection, and they face a new world where he won’t be present in the sense that he has been up till now. But he goes on "Love one another as I have loved you." If they love one another he seems confident that they will be able to build communities that will be brave enough not only to face the obviously terriifying prospect of violent death, but also to change and grow, to see themselves differently, to see others differently. That can be just as terrifying as death in its way. Jesus’ words are true for us too. . I have seen people who do cope with the uncharted territory of bereavement, and couples who do adjust to the new commitments of marriage. I have seen people keep going through unimaginable pressures and worries. Nearly always they say that it is love that gives them the courage they need. God’s love and the love of others. Love tells them that they matter, and that it is worth keeping going.

I don’t know what new worlds you will face. I don’t know what new worlds I will face either. But I trust Jesus’ words here because they make sense to me. If we sink our roots deep into the love of God, if we work to strengthen the bonds of love we have with others, no land will be too strange for us to feel at home in.

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