Based on Revelation 21:22 – 22:5, Acts 16:9-15, John 14:23-29
What is the state of your heart in these days? Not just your physiologic heart, but your spiritual heart as well? We find ourselves in a time of transition in The United Methodist Church – transitional times are always uncomfortable and they come with a lot of pain. Those of us who have been paying attention to the goings on within and without the Denomination have noted how partisan the rhetoric has become as people stake out the boundaries of their beliefs. What I have witnessed in this concrete boundary setting is a hardening of the spiritual heart as well, which has led to demonizing and marginalizing the “other”. I have seen a lack of insight into the decisions that have been made since 1972 and the intended and unintended consequences of them. I have witnessed a rise in hubris, idolatry and moral superiority on all sides of the issue, and a genuine lack of appreciation for mystery and our broken, sinful ways that require our “convicted humility”, repentance and forgiveness. My pastoral heart aches over the wounds inflicted on all my brothers and sisters – and over my complicity in inflicting pain whether by omission or commission.
Some of you have shared with me your own heartaches over these matters and the desire for it all to come to an end and for us as a movement to get back to the work of kingdom building. Others have spoken to me of their absolute confidence in the stance that they have taken and their willingness to see this conflict through no matter what the cost. The good news is that our scriptures for today point us to a way to look deeply into the state of our hearts. They call us to see what God is promising and to rededicate ourselves to working toward that preferred future. They call us to understand that what God requires of us is to have hearts that are peaceful and welcoming – ones that are neither troubled nor afraid. Let us go now to God to ask for hearts that may be open and welcoming to all…
We are at the end of the Book of Revelation. John of Patmos sees that in the new Jerusalem there is no night because the light of God shines at all times. There is no need for a temple because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb walk freely with humans – human can look on God’s face and not die. There is the river of the water of life which is bounded by the tree of life producing a different fruit each of the twelve months of the year. The leaves of the tree provide healing for the nations. Surely this is a place where, as the vision states, nothing is accursed or unclean and all are able to interact openly and freely. The fulfillment of all that God has promised throughout the biblical canon.
Paul, Timothy and Silas set sail for Macedonia due to a vision that Paul receives of a man in that country pleading for help. They stayed in the city of Philippi for “some days” and on the Sabbath they sought out a place by the river to pray. They spoke to a group of women who had gathered at the river and one particular woman was quite moved by what they taught. Lydia, a wealthy merchant in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, found her heart opened by the good news according to the Christ and immediately had herself and her whole household baptized. After that, she welcomed the three to stay with her for the remainder of their time in Macedonia.
Jesus has been teaching about the way to get to his Father and about the Holy Spirit. Jesus says at the beginning and the end of Chapter 14, “…Do not let your hearts be troubled…” He says to not let our hearts be afraid. He knows that when our hearts are fearful that they are closed – hardened if you will. In order to love Him with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must have hearts that are peaceful, open and welcoming.
In these days our hearts are often in conflict and in fact are troubled and afraid. The “Commission on a Way Forward” which worked for 18 months to craft legislation that was voted on at the called General Conference in February had this to say about the state of our Church. They coined the term “convicted humility” as a prerequisite for the repentance we need for us to find a way forward from the troubled and fearful state of our hearts. I will quote from their writings: “…We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions regarding same-sex relations and operate out of sincerely held beliefs. They are convinced of the moral views they espouse and seek to be faithful to what they see as the truth God calls the church to uphold. It remains the case that their views on this matter are distinctly different, and in some cases cannot be reconciled…Therefore, we seek to advocate a stance we have called convicted humility. This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction. It also involves humble repentance for all the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together….”
Jesus knew about us, because He knew that we had been made in a competitive way – seeking to win a fight rather than become unified in Him across all differences. To be painfully clear here, Jesus preached unity not uniformity. Because God created us with free will to choose who we were to associate with and how that relationship would be lived out, we are always at risk for choosing to hate rather than love, to punish rather than forgive, to exclude rather than include. This is what Jesus teaches about in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew Chapters 5 through 7. Almost all of that teaching directly deals with the state of our hearts and whether our hearts are open or hardened, welcoming or troubled, afraid or at peace. The reading from the Gospel of John today picks up on these teachings and amplifies them. “…Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me….” These things Jesus says because He knows the nature of our emotions – especially the Disciples hearts after they see him tortured and killed; the Crucifixion still troubles the hearts of all those who profess the Christ as Savior and Lord. Jesus knew that it would be easy for the Disciples to have hearts that would be fearful and hardened – that they would forget everything He had taught them in light of the reality of the Crucifixion and ongoing Roman oppression and persecutions. He knew that they would resist expanding “The Way” beyond Jewish boundaries because of their lack of understanding of the full vision of Jesus.
This is why He spent the time to tell them that though He would no longer be with them, the Advocate, the “Spirit of truth”, would be sent to them in order for them to live in the way that Jesus taught. Turning the other cheek, seeking right relationship over conquest, being peaceful and gentle in a world that was warring, oppressive, divisive and punitive. This is the power of the Holy Spirit to move us to a state of convicted humility. John Wesley called this the work of prevenient grace – that love of God that prepares us to welcome into our hearts and lives the truth of all that Jesus and the Disciples after Him had to share. This is what happened to Lydia as her heart opened and her very being recognized the truth and the freedom that was being offered by the gospel. I daresay that this is what happened to each of us as we came under the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
God loves us so much that God sent God’s-self to us both as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit. When we open ourselves to welcome God into our hearts and lives, then we see the possibility that the vision that John of Patmos had could come true. We begin to see that our ways of having hearts that are troubled and conflicted always leads to more trouble and conflict; leads to a smaller and smaller worldview of “us vs. them”, of winners and losers, of included and excluded. Whereas, having hearts that reflect the humility of the Christ seek an ever-expanding worldview of relationship, possibility and hope, where stranger is friend and where there are no “others” only undiscovered brothers and sisters. When we welcome, truly welcome the image of God in others with open hearts, then our hearts are neither troubled nor afraid. We treat each other with the convicted humility that realizes that our views may in fact be incorrect and that we might need to repent and ask forgiveness for our thoughts, words and actions. A welcoming heart is one that understands our constant need for God’s grace and has the courage to seek ever deepening relationships over winning a fight. How is it with your heart these days – and how do you want it to be? Amen.