Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, Year C
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
May 19, 2019
Some of you may know that I’m a part of CirclesRVA, which is a poverty-alleviation program that was recently formed here in the City of Richmond by a collection of downtown congregations and social service partners. Every Tuesday evening, 50+ Circles leaders, allies and their families gather for dinner, mutual support, and learning about each other’s lives, circumstances, and the characteristics of our common life in Richmond which we can be begin to change in order to alleviate poverty and break down barriers of income inequality. The first activity that we do together in the Circles model is to share something “new” and something “good.” Sometimes, people have something to share which is both new AND good. Often, though, I hear someone acknowledge a “new” thing, reserving judgement as to whether or not it will turn out to be a “good” thing. To put it into context, I was working with the youth last week and someone shared, “Something new is that I finished my SOL test. I’m not sure if that’s something good yet or not, though…” I suspect there are a few of you who might relate to that!
All joking aside, I think that most of us can relate completely. We look with anticipation toward something new, but hold our reservations because something new is also something different where the outcome is still uncertain. In fact that’s the point of CirclesRVA. It isn’t a bunch of people who have it all figured out telling others what to do. It is a coming together to understand each other; to see life through each other’s eyes and to work together to re-imagine and re-make the communities in which we live and work. It’s hard work, framed in trust and respect. The whole program is echoed in that opening exercise: it is all about the new and good we come to see in each other.
Today’s lectionary lessons also speak to us of all things new and good. In these post-resurrection weeks of Eastertide we are confronted with stories of that which has become new, and these stories also give us insight into our human reservations about how we struggle to learn that these new things are indeed good: this is true of our kindred spirit Apostle Thomas who needs to touch the nail-pierced hands of the risen Christ; it is true of the disciples casting their fishing nets again into waters that haven’t yet yielded any catch. And in today’s first lesson it is profoundly illustrated by Peter who in the early days of ministry has been given both new vision and new mission about the expansive reach of God’s intention for the Church and yet is confronted by the current community of believers about whether or not this extension of God’s belovedness to those on the margins can possibly be a good thing. It takes time and persistence for them to recognize this something “new” as something good and holy.
All of this new which we hear about in today’s lessons emerges from that that which has been: it does not suddenly appear but has been made, is being made and will continue to be made new by the active resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That which is being made new is now imbued with God’s fullness; its inherent goodness comes not from a fascination with something new and shiny, but with a deep and permeating presence of God’s creative and transforming energy which is made known to us in the resurrection. People who once were considered outcast are now the newest members of the Body of Christ; the flawed and broken earth becomes the new Jerusalem when touched and transformed by God. The potential of the new is revealed: it holds the infinite nature of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
And so it is that we reach our Gospel lesson. This “new” commandment of which Jesus speaks does not mean that there has been no prior commandment to love God, or to love one another. It is actually an ancient and great commandment: the greatest commandment of the Jewish people, Sh’ma Yisra’el, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. What is new and good about this commandment is its enlivening in the risen Christ, which allows the resurrection to be seen and known and experienced through the ways in which we show Christian love toward one another. Behold, God is making all things new in us, even in the new way in which our love for God, lived out through our love for one another, reveals resurrection.
So, back to this idea of “new and good”…
With all our emphasis on what is new, how do we grapple with our ambivalence and fear about whether this “something new” is “something good”? Because, like my group of honest youth, we too often hold out reservations about whether the new workings of God in our lives are going to turn out to be something good. But our Christian life is not an SOL test. This new life in Christ is a new life with God, with God dwelling in us and with us. Perhaps we cling onto some comfortable things about the way things have always been which we are afraid to let go and place into the hands of God. Perhaps our fear of the unknown gets in the way of the hope and belief of what is to come. But we are reassured of the Good News in Christ, that God has come to dwell with us. The Greek words of the Revelation to St. John are more literally saying, God has tabernacled with us and is making all things new. (1)
This isn’t a prophecy that suggests God will make all things new sometime, in an unknown future yet to come. This is the active presence of God in our lives and in the Church, making and remaking of all things new, and all things good. Even our tears and our sorrows are transformed. Or perhaps, as we assert together in our funeral liturgy, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (2) This becoming new, the emergence of the Good brought into being by the transforming love of God in Christ is that in which we have confidence.
Some of you may have read the poem and blessing from John O’Donohue which I posted on the morning of my ordination. It has been a guidepost on this journey and was the reminder I needed on that beautiful day of the new and good that God has been, is, and continues to work in my own life and ministry. It is a poem of new beginnings: not the shiny, sparkly uncertain kind but the deep, God-laden new beginnings in which our work in the world is revealed.
So, I want to close today with this prayer and ask you to allow it to soak into your heart. Open your heart to see that which God is making new: the creation of a widening and diverse array of the family of God; the ways in which we learn to love and serve one another; the transformation of that which is broken by pain and death into that which is alive in Christ. These are the new beginnings in which we come to know the risen Christ. And as we love each other, it is through that love that the world comes to know Christ in us. See, God is making all things new, even in our lives and community:
In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
(1) Revelation 21:3, σκηνώσει from σκηνὴ, “tabernacle” (noun and verb forms present)
(2) Book of Common Prayer, p. 499
(3) “For a New Beginning” by John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us (2008, Doubleday)