Sunday, March 15, 2015

What Does it Take?

What Does it Take?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 15, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 4: 46-54
1 Kings 19: 11-15
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

46 Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. 47 When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. 51 As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” 53 The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. 54 Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee. [1]

So it seems like at this point the Gospel of John has now gotten going after the prologue, and a slow start, without much action. Now it seems that Jesus is going from place to place and having encounter after encounter with person after person. It seems that some of them believe and some of them don't, and each story is unique. Person after person comes to Jesus, says something to him, some insight that they think they have about who Jesus is and what he is doing. Jesus then sets the record straight, either pushing them further in what and who they think Jesus is, or completely and directly challenging the notion, condemning the shortsightedness and the confidence of the person coming to him. First you have John the Baptist, not the light, but he who came before the light, calling Jesus the lamb of God, then Nicodemus, saying, hey Jesus we can tell you are one of us, a teacher sent from God, to the Samaritan woman we talked about last week, who comes to believe in Jesus eventually. She was unnamed, and the encounter we study this morning is also with an unnamed person, this time a man. We got information about her, the Samaritan woman from last week, she was Samaritan, hated race, 5 husbands, living with a 6th man who isn't her husband, if Nicodemus should have seen it but didn't, we said last week, that she should have missed it, but she doesn't, she comes to believe, and through her so does many in her village. Now Jesus returns to Cana, where it all began with the turning of water into wine, (I think it tells us that so we know that Jesus has a reputation there, they are in the know, they know that this man does magical things), and so now we get another nameless person, but he is far from a Samaritan Woman, it says that he is a Royal Official.
How do you read that? What comes to your mind when you think Royal Official? Especially since he is unnamed. . .  Royal how? Roman, Jew? Is he royal himself, or someone who works in an official position inside the government, which at the time was royal? It makes a difference because the royalty at the time in Judea is puppet government stuff, person put on the throne by the Roman Authorities. . . another sellout? So soon after the Samaritan, just a different empire to sell out to? Are we to be distrustful of him, are we supposed to see him as "privileged," a privileged class person in a society of very, very poor? You would think he would be the kind of guy who can get things done, a person of means, a person of power, a person who can just say the word and people act, but here he is desperate, because this passage introduces a real world truth. Money doesn't solve all your problems, neither does power. There are some things in this world that our systems of esteem and status just have no effect on. . . and death is one of them. The passage does not say why the boy is at "the point of death" just that he is there. He may be diseased, he may have cancer, he may have been this way for awhile, he might have just had an accident where he fell out of the royal litter and was trampled by a crowd, he could have been harmed by someone, a burglar, a kind of ancient mugging by a highway man, he may have fallen out of a window, my favorite english word: defenestration, we just do not know. And it doesn't matter. Jesus doesn't need the back story he just heals him, and not by laying hands on, or rubbing mud on him, nothing of the sort, he just says "Go, your son will live." Period. . . and it was so. . . If it had said, "and we saw that it was good" it would have been just as if Jesus had said "Let there be light." Important, of course. . . Jesus is not hiding who he is, neither is John the Evangelist, remember we started with "In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God." Some            times we like a moment, an action, a ritual to let us know it is working. We like our medicine to taste bad, our gain to have some pain, otherwise we may doubt its effectiveness, does Selson Blue really work better on dandruff than Head and Shoulders, the ad says it does, because "the tingle means it's working" but the tingle really has nothing to do with it the medicine, the tingle just comes from the menthol and the tea tree oil they put in it, but we buy it because it fits into our natural inclination. If we can't suffer a little bit, or earn it, or make it happen, often we miss it. . . did this Royal Official miss it? It says no, he believed enough to go home at first, just to see, and then when he gets there and realizes that all the stars align and the times were the same and he could not explain away it all as some kind of glorious coincidence, he just couldn't talk himself out of it, so he believed. . . but it seems to me like he was doubting all along. . . why? just because Jesus seems to see his doubt. Jesus says to him, "unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." Jesus knows that this man is coming to him in desperation, like he is just doing everything he can do to try to save his kid. Remember he's a government official, a man of power, a man of action, a man who gets things done, a man focused on the ends, and so whatever means are necessary just to get the job done. And now he is in a situation where all his power has been stripped away because money can't save his kid, neither can him having the ear of the king, nothing in his arsenal will work, nothing in his bag of tricks has been effective, nothing within his plans have done anything, and so in desperation he comes to the man who turned the water into wine saying, please save my son, and then in such a sweet moment, changes the term of endearment, not my son, but my little boy. . . "Sir, come down before my little boy dies." I've seen this desperation first hand, a couple weeks ago when I was called to go "pray over my niece." My sister in law was looking for anything she could do, any piece of control she could grasp, she was going to walk down every avenue, just in case something might work, she was going to do whatever it takes. There is something so human in that, so very touching because it is us, and this nameless royal official, becomes for us every one who has ever loved someone enough to do anything to save them, especially a parent and a child. (God and Jesus seem to know that, too, they get that, understand that, but still, the cross, and still, for God so loved the world. . . knowing human love, knowing the deepness of connection, having that in perfect example, puts it aside, not to save his own son, but to save this man's and yours and mine, our children and us, not because of anything we have done, but because of love).
What does it take for us to believe that in all of its power, potential, realness and world changing actuality? What does it take for us to believe that and  have it completely shift our world into a new one, shift isn't strong enough, it's more of a realigning, like a shift, but one that includes an explosion, and violence, and world destroying change, but we don't have a word for it. . . . so instead we use Salvation and Grace. . . but often even those words fall short. The theology word for it is conversion, full and total conversion, that born again, born from above stuff, that is so fresh in our minds from a few weeks ago. . . no we don't go back into the womb, that's too literal, but we wake up in another world, one where the fears, doubts, insecurities, worries, and clueless lost misdirection of the old world is gone and  replaced by our will being aligned with God's. . . grafted to the vine, near the cross, harmony and love. This is the shift, the violent, world destroying, explosive, realigning, born from above, stuff that is conversion. What does this conversion take?
Some of the great writers and thinkers from Christian History, Experience, and Literature have tried to tackle this very topic, trying to capture their own experience, their own version. In the bulletin I put a brief passage from St. Augustine's "Confessions" at the moment of his change. His confessions are his spiritual biography depicting all the twists and turns, that led him towards Christ, and they included all sorts of missteps, including other religious beliefs, being lost in sin, until this moment, and he puts the impetus for the conversion within the work and will of God. . . listen to his words:
Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

Most people do not know this because usually the only part that gets any press is the first part the Inferno, but Dante's Divine Comedy is his epic poem that depicts his personal conversion. He like Augustine arises one morning and is drawn to the light, but the light makes him realize that he is very much lost in a wood of error, and he is unable to conquer sin on his own enough to just go climb the hill to the light. So Love and Reason work together and he comes to recognize sin and its rewards in Hell, he learns of the rewards of sacrifice enough to renounce those sins in Purgatory, and then finally is his will cleansed enough for him to accept and experience actual divine Love in Heaven, perfecting his conversion.
            Just so was I on seeing this new vision
          I wanted to see how our image fuses
          Into the circle and finds its place in it,

          Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
140      Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
          Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

          Here powers failed my high imagination:
          But by now my desire and will were turned,
          Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

145      By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Another is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where his character, Christian, finds a book that tells him he is living in a city of destruction, a man named evangelist comes to him, shows him the gate by which he can begin his journey to the city of salvation, but Christian fears he cannot make it on account of the heavy burden he is bearing on his back. He goes through the gate, where Christ removes the burden, and then travails through the world symbolically facing all the challenges of the Christian life.
Yes conversion is a major aspect of the Christian life. What does it take for us? What did it take for you? When did it happened? Or has it yet? It seems that all of our answers are different, and rightly so. . . though uniformity would make things easier, Christ is not relegated to one thing, though many have tried to sell it that way. . . but like Selson Blue, it doesn't have to tingle to be working, and in this case belief is a response to grace not the cause of it. Jesus heals the boy, and then the family comes to believe. . . even our desperation, even our trying to cover all our bases, though they do not control God, they don't get in the way either, unless we let them. Just like this father, the nameless royal official does not start talking away the miracle, explaining it away into the rationalizations of this world, instead he lets it despite himself bring him to faith, bring him to conversion. Ours may not happen like his, or Augustine's, or Dante's or Bunyan's, there may be no burning bush, or blinding light on the road if we happen to be travelling towards Demascus. . . God instead works in many ways to call you to conversion, call you to Christ. Be open, be aware, look for Christ, but don't be afraid when Christ sneaks up on you in a place you didn't expect to find him, in a way you never thought, in the opposite place from where you were looking. . . for the answer to the question, what does it take. . . is simply this. . . it takes Christ, and Christ alone.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 4:46-54). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.