The Glory of God

Just ten days after the attacks in Boston, one of the victims gave a chilling testimony to the media about what happened in the moments after the bombs exploded.

She and others standing at the bar overlooking the street were blown off their feet and against the wall. Then, she remembered the smoke and screams which reminded her of 9-11. In an unwavering voice she spoke of how her foot suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she couldn’t put any weight on it.

Everyone started running for the back door of the bar. She called out for someone to help her, because she couldn’t move. She recalled how frightened she felt because no one seemed to be listening to her pleas for help. And then, everything went dark.

Reflecting on the trauma we watched on TV last week, my wife and I have talked about what we might have done if we found ourselves on that sidewalk in Boston watching the race when the bombs went off. Had we not been physically damaged by the shrapnel what would we have done? Started running away, focused on escaping the mayhem? Would we have been primarily motivated by self-preservation?

Or, would we have looked around us? Would we pay attention to where the greatest need was, and offer help? Would we have run against the crowd?

I must confess, I didn’t imagine I would be so altruistic and ready to help. I must confess, I would likely be one of those people running headlong to that back door focused on nothing else but getting out.

And for us Christians who have received Christ’s commandment “that we love one another,” we may be embarrassed, as I have been, at how poorly we put this command into practice.

In the Gospel passage today (John 13:31-35), we hear Jesus’ commandment to love. And what I find remarkable is that Jesus gives this commandment precisely at a time when everything but love was swirling about him. It was the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was a marked man. A target was on his back. And while Jesus was eating the Passover Meal with his disciples, Judas had just slipped out from the group to carry out his dastardly deed to betray Jesus.

And right after Jesus speaks the commandment to love, Peter falsely predicted that he would always be faithful and committed to Jesus – we know later that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

So Jesus command to love is spoken right in the very midst of betrayal and violence. Not an easy situation in which to be preaching or practising love.

But it is precisely at these times when it matters the most. Jesus calls us to do this not in some abstract, ideal, fantasy world when it’s easy to love, but rather in the real world of violence and broken-ness. And that’s not easy.

This is one reason why we need to gather for worship from week to week –

We need to hear over and over again God’s good news in the midst of all around us that is un-loving.

We need to hear once more the story of the resurrection, the affirmation that life and God’s love is more powerful than death and sin.

We need to hear once more God’s undying love for us all, so that we can be strengthened to practice love toward others, when it counts the most.

I find it significant that we read the word “glory” some five times in this short Gospel text. Odd – even counter-intuitive – you would think, that “glory” is associated with the pretext of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this emphasis on the glory of God is to underscore that love is not just some Valentine’s Day, romantic, warm fuzzy feeling shared between people in a comfortable, safe place.

Love, on the other hand, is in the Christian faith, self-giving. It is something realized, and practiced, for others – especially when the going gets tough.

As difficult as it is, coming to that place of self-giving love often, in the testimony of people’s lives, happens right in the valley of the shadow of death: amidst loss, stress, disappointment, suffering and pain. The transformation people experience towards a renewed sense of God’s love in Christ Jesus occurs usually at their lowest point in life.

For a long time, the accumulation of personal wealth was the single most important goal for Millard Fuller. During the 1960s, making a pile of money was his singular goal from which he never wavered. Amassing a personal fortune, Fuller was the ultimate “success” story.

But he paid a high price for this. Fuller admitted later how it affected his personal integrity, his health, and his marriage. When his wife Linda left him and informed him that his Lincoln, the large house, the cottage on the lake, two speed boats and a maid did not make up for his absence from his family, he realized what he had sacrificed for money.

It was at that moment when a transformation occurred in his life – when he began focussing less on himself and more on others, more on living out God’s great love for himself, and for others.

In 1976, Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity, one of the most transforming forces around the world today, drawing on local volunteers to build houses for those who have need.

From someone who was once only focussed on himself, Fuller was transformed to someone focussed on others, living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. “I love God and I love people,” Fuller says now, “this is the focus of my life, and that is why I am doing it.”

I like the story of two young boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy were about.

“So, do you know what the pastor does at the end of the service when he does this?” And he made the sign of the cross.

“Yeah, sure,” the other boy chimed in, “it means some go this way out and the others go that way out!”

The boy was right. The cross sends us out and scatters us out into the world with Christ’s command to love, where we would least expect to do so. The really important thing for any church is not how many people the church can seat, but how many it sends out to love in real, practical ways. A self-giving love, in moments of human hardship, is the glory of God.

The victim of the Boston attacks who recently spoke to the media was told some days after her foot was amputated how she was rescued from the mayhem of that smoke-filled bar. She was told of how a couple of people risked their own lives to drag her to safety. Those two people resisted the temptation to run en masse with everyone else. They had the presence of mind to look around to see if anyone needed help. Amidst the chaos, they were able to express the love that Jesus was talking about, whether they knew it or not.

Glory be to God!

Where is God?

Where do we look for God when tragedy strikes? When bombs go off in public squares killing and maiming innocent lives? Where is God?

The Psalmist expresses what, in the Bible, is a consistent divine message whenever we find ourselves “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4):

Through the Psalmist God says, “Fear no evil …” How is that possible? Is this some trite expression oozing from the lips of a feel-good religionist?

The Psalmist does not deny the reality of evil nor its capacity to wreak mayhem. Yet, despite the real threat of evil, the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance: No Fear.

But why are we not to be afraid? On what grounds are we not to fear? Is it because the police are already on the scene? Is it because enhanced surveillance methods will allow law enforcement officials to identify the perpetrators more quickly and effectively? Is it because our military has new tools to exact vengeance so that the ‘bad guys’ will never hurt anyone again? Is this why we should not fear?

Our reaction to terror over the last twelve years hasn’t really gotten rid of this fear, has it? A hard-hitting, “shock-and-awe” response was widely thought to be the tonic for getting us over our fear and punishing our enemies. Has it worked?

I suspect we are still very, very fearful. The events in Boston over the last six days have proven it to me. And yet, God’s message comes again: “Do not fear …” Why?

“…. for You are with me.” It’s the core claim of biblical faith that there is but one God and that all trust belongs to that God. We are in a relationship of grace with God. We aren’t alone, even in that valley.

Perhaps we need to confess that when trouble comes we compulsively try to find solace in every place but the proper one. We tend to look for God in places that do not, in the end, communicate the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We tend, do we not, to look for God in places of our own doing — efforts and demonstrations of power and influence: Our successes; Our praise-worthy accomplishments; Our ‘winning’ at the game of life? Are these the places where Jesus will find us with his transforming love?

In the Gospel text, Jesus is walking under the Portico of Solomon in the temple at Jerusalem. This was the sheltered walkway — a natural place for someone to find refuge on a cold, blustery, winter’s day. But to leave it there would be to miss the significance of where Jesus was found:

This portico lined the perimeter of the temple. Jesus was walking around the outer edge of the temple during the Dedication. The Dedication was the annual festival celebrating the political triumph of the Maccabean revolt that restored Jewish control of the temple following its desecration by Antiochus IV in 167 B.C.E. So, being at the temple itself was a big deal on this very holy day.

And where one stood in the temple was significant. The Holy of Holies was at the centre of the temple, where only the High Priest entered once a year. The farther “out” from the centre, the less important you were. Conversely, the closer to the centre of the temple building you were allowed to go, the higher status you held in the religious world of the day.

Jesus was not where we might initially think he should be; that is, closer to the Holy of Holies. Instead, he was in that part of the temple where the common people were allowed to enter.

Where does God choose to be revealed? In places we would not normally look for God. Jesus was born in a manger, not in a palace. Jesus died on a cross, a criminal of the state, not on a comfortable bed surrounded by adoring loved ones and the best medical attention. How could God be like that?

Yet, this is Jesus — the God we worship and confess as our Lord and Saviour. If we are looking for positive change in our lives, if we seek personal transformation, if we yearn for a new beginning and resurrection in our lives — then we cannot jump from Palm Sunday (Hosanna!) to Easter (Alleluia!) and bypass Good Friday (The Cross!).

Success doesn’t come without embracing failure. New life doesn’t come without losing something precious. Receiving doesn’t happen without giving.

Some of us with children have expressed concern about all the horrific images they  may see on TV news reports over the past week from Boston. The vivid and terrible images of devastation on a sidewalk could be traumatic, for anyone, to watch over and over again. What can we say to our children who could be adversely affected and overcome by fear, by watching this?

“Do not be afraid”, for focus your attention on those who are helping. Look at the first-responders as they risk their own lives in a chaotic, uncertain and dangerous environment providing care, love and compassion to the victims. “… for You are with me.”

Where is God? God is revealed in places where we would least expect. And in those moments of human frailty and weakness — not by denying our wounds and pretending we can by our efforts alone be perfect and invincible — God is with us. Jesus’ wounded hands will hold us. God will not abandon us in our greatest sorrow and vulnerability. In those places — on the ‘perimeter’, on the edge, of our lives — God will bring us to the fullness of life.

Thanks to Timothy F. Simpson, “The 23rd Psalm in an Age of Terror: A Pastoral Response to Boston”, posted on 16 April 2013.