St John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland, WA
Long ago things seemed simple. Not long after the tomb was found empty, after Mary met her beloved friend in the garden, after the disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, after Jesus fed Peter and the rest breakfast on the beach, it all seemed very simple. If God could overcome death, if God could shrug off the the very worst the most powerful empire in the world could do, then that was it. It was done. The good guys had won, God had ushered in a new age. Soon there would be no hunger, no homelessness, no fear, no suffering. Death would bow his head to the great Midwife and retire.
But then the days stretched into weeks, and the weeks into months, and the months into years. The little group that had started so full of jubilation hunkered down, helping one another keep the faith and remember the amazing things that they had experienced. But things weren’t simple anymore. Before long those who followed the way of the rabbi from Galilee had spread as far as Rome itself, they thrived in little pockets all over the Mediterranean, from the Holy City of Jerusalem into Africa and Europe. They dedicated themselves, in their own small way, to living life in the way that Jesus had promised was possible. And the way they lived made the Romans, that empire of military and economic might, just as uncomfortable as Jesus had.
And so the Empire did what empires do, it sought to crush the resistance that was throwing a wrench into the machine of conquest and wealth production. In the midst of torture, and execution, the church went into hiding waiting and hoping for release. And a faithful man, we know him as John but his true name has been lost to antiquity, sought in the midst of suffering and fear to keep the light of hope burning in the hearts of his brothers and sisters. And so he wrote them a letter, a vision, of a better world. Of a simpler world, the world they had dreamed of. He cloaked the truth of their suffering and oppression and their hope in the imagery of myth and legend, he hid the villains of Emperor and army in imagery from ancient Jewish and Greek myth because doing otherwise would have put those to whom he wrote in even more danger.
Greek Oracles foretold the future, it was their sacred duty given to them from their gods. But we aren’t Greek, and John was no Oracle. Jewish prophets reveal the present in all it’s sinful ugliness; and they reveal the possible present of God’s dream for the world; this is their sacred duty. John’s words laid bare to his hearers a world of madness, a world where greed and hatred rule and where hope has died. It was a world they knew from the inside, that they fought every day. If he had done only that we wouldn’t remember him or his writings at all. But he went on to remind his readers that wasn’t the whole story, he went on to reveal the glory of God’s kingdom, the very one Jesus preached and embodied while he lived, the very one that the young church had nursed so carefully for all those years. He revealed the dream of God, he encouraged them in the face of all that stood against them to keep dreaming and building with God. He reminded them that all the forces of darkness and evil that assailed them had already been defeated, though those forces didn’t know it yet.
John’s two worlds are as true today as they were two thousand years ago, in each new generation the characters changed but the archetypes stayed the same. And the promise of God remained just as constant.
On the one hand there is the world our human failings have built, a world of fear. A world where we must arm ourselves against the fear of the other, who arm themselves against the fear of us. A world where those who can scrambled desperately for more and more and more, trampling on the heads of those with less and less and less. A world where greed means success. A world where those with more exploit those with less, where the words heard most oft are a dismissive “am I my brother’s keeper?” On the one hand a world where death and fear rule, and where those who threaten to upend the machines of industry and military power are ground with relentless violence into dust. It’s a dark and hopeless world, one anyone might yearn to escape.
But John, like the prophets before him, does not just shine a bright light on the ugliness of a broken and violent world. He reveals something else, hope, because there is another world in the midst of the one we know. The world Jesus made real for those who encountered him, the world Jesus told his disciples to make real for those who encountered them. It is a world turned on it’s head, a world where people are valued for who they are, not what they can do or produce for the powerful. A world where justice and mercy walk together, where redemption is the goal. A world where the economy bows to the needs of all, and where those with much share what they have. It is a broad and wide world, filled as we hear today with the wild diversity that God has made, with people of all nations lifting their voices together in praise of God.
It is a world built on the reminder that the empires of power and wealth have done the worst that they could do, and failed. And in their insanity they will try the same thing over, and over, and over again. And God will continue to have the last laugh, to leave the tomb empty, the rise up dancing. Today the world is still filled with the powerful who are terribly afraid of the Kingdom of God, for it will strip them of their power and privilege. Today the world is still filled with those who cling to the world of violence and disparity out of fear. But the world is also filled with children of God, children who share John’s vision of a world remade in God’s image, of a world free of violence, greed, hatred, fear. This is God’s dream, for us and for all.
God will not stop dreaming, God will not stop dancing, God will not stop popping up out of the empty tomb laughing in the face of the very worst the empire can do. This is the good news of the Kingdom of God, this is the promise today to all who suffer. God wins.