Love is the Spirit
Love is the Spirit
May 21, 2017
Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11
[S]uddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven…?”
Two men in white robes, dazzling white, brilliant white. We assume these are special messengers, white clothes and all that. We do not know it from the words used, for they are called men, but we gather they are something else entirely because of the moment in which they appeared.
As Jesus rose from sight to heaven, these mysterious men in white asked the apostles why they were standing there. As it is not every day you see someone you loved, someone you had thought to have died, suddenly leave you by rising into the sky. The men in white do not seem like the most sympathetic witnesses, but we gather that they were there with a purpose, there to speak to these troubled men. And what did they say?
This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.
The description of Jesus’ eventual return is taken to heart by many. When I recently was in Israel, my guide who was a Coptic Christian described how the return would come about. Jesus would return to the Mount of Olives, or Olivet as mentioned this morning. He would descend in the same way he had he had risen. And then he would walk over to Jerusalem. He would walk to the Temple Mount. As he described it, Jesus would walk above the valley as if across a bridge. That is not in the Bible, as if walking were not sufficiently grand enough of an entrance after descending from heaven. Traditions vary.
Traditions vary when we might expect similarity and then strangely they are similar when we expect stark differences. For example, in Islam, at the time of Judgment Day, Jesus will return. Jesus, mind you. Jesus will return and defeat the al-Masih ad-Dajjal, which means the false messiah or the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ who will be opposed by Jesus and the al-Masih, a good leader, one worthy of being called a Messiah.
The term Messiah, by the way, has been used multiple times in the Bible. It means an anointed leader, one who will come to save the people in times of great difficulty. For example, Cyrus the Great, the King of Persia, is called a Messiah for allowing the Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Babylonians 2,500 years ago. And once Jesus and this modern messiah have emerged victorious, the world will enter into an extended period of peace. Peace at last.
This Sunday, I would like to consider the Sixth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Unlike the prior principles I have discussed, this one seems more circumspect, more couched in its phrasing. The principle is not an affirmation or covenant for world peace, but rather of a goal. The goal of world community, that is where to start. Creating a semblance of world community, perhaps along the lines of the United Nations. The goal of community with various sub-goals built in, goals for peace, liberty, and justice for all. A lofty set of objectives to be sure, so lofty that they had to be framed in this manner even within the vision of the denomination.
However, even as limited in this manner, I wonder. I wonder whether these noble and high-minded goals are even possible. Achieving any one of these goals would usher in a new era in human history. But as a set, I am concerned that they are actually mutually exclusive, three possible roads that might be traveled, each heading in a different direction. Put another way, I wonder if seeking peace, liberty, and justice in the world is like asking for your steak to be cooked rare, medium, and well done.
What is peace? The lack of war? Perhaps more than that. The lack of violence? Perhaps less than that. Over the centuries, peace has often been ascribed to period of time in a specific area. The Pax Romana was a period of two hundred years of relative stability beginning during the reign of Augustus Caesar and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius. It was a time of limited war, limited imperial expansion, and limited violence in the greater Mediterranean area and much of Europe. Sort of peace.
The Pax Britannia was a century of similar stability spread over the far flung geography of the 19th century British Empire. The British also maintained a great degree of control over most of the major ocean trade routes due to their superior naval power.
Some have suggested there has been of late a Pax Americana. The United States has maintained through its power and influence stability in North America and throughout the Western Hemisphere. This term is primarily used to describe the latter half of the 20th century, though some would apply it more broadly while others would question the notion entirely.
Again, it depends a lot upon what is meant by peace. Is peace stability? Is it the lack of war? Is it no violence of any kind? Lacking a functional definition, I looked up the criteria for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. You would be eligible for this award for having “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
In this sense, peace is not a state of being but a point of progress. Working for fraternity between nations sounds like world community from the Sixth Principle. The abolition of standing armies remains to be seen, though twenty countries are considered to function without armed forces, countries like Costa Rica, Iceland, and the Vatican. This could be debated. Costa Rica has no army, but some heavily armed groups of police. Iceland is a member of NATO. And the Vatican has the Swiss Guard, who though small in number are by definition veterans of the Swiss national army. It all depends on how you look at it, much like the idea of peace.
Then attempt to factor in the second goal, a world community with liberty for all. Liberty, the freedom to do one thing or another, the freedom to speak or to gather or to move about. The freedom to believe and the freedom not to believe – not to believe one way versus another. When I think about the various periods of peace, the historical paxes, I wonder how these might jibe with liberty.
Think about Pax Britannia. This was a time of stability, provided you did what the British wanted. It was not, for example, a time known for religious tolerance. In 1856, there was the Great Indian Rebellion. The event that precipitated the violence was a rumor that the ammunition cartridges given to the Indian soldiers had been prepared with animal fat, alternatively tallow or lard. Hindus consider cows sacred, not to be killed for any reason, while Muslims consider pigs profane, not to be touched for any reason. Depending upon whether you were a Hindu or a Muslim, the consumption of beef fat or pig fat was an issue worth fighting over. There were more reasons than this particular pretext: widespread cultural and religious disputes, harsh taxes, uneven application of the law, etc.
And, by the way, you took over our country. Actually, you took over the country that we took over from someone else – the Muslim Mughal Empire was the prior occupation force lording over the warring principalities of generally Hindu India.
The Great Indian Rebellion was bloody and vicious. And it was crushed. One of the reasons there is a place called New Delhi was that “Old” Delhi was laid waste. The death toll from the conflict was hard to determined, ranging somewhere between 800,000 and 10 million people. As a point of comparison, the death toll of the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, was around 850,000 soldiers on both sides. Pax Britannia requires a substantial asterisk next to it.
Pax Romana was similar. The Romans seized and occupied large areas of land with diverse people in them. Peace took the form of stability, not freedom in any modern sense. That being said, there was no freedom in a modern sense anywhere in the ancient world, so it may be an unworkable comparison. Liberty is a relatively recent concept historically and it has always been marked by an evolving series of limitations, an entire parade of asterisks. Some had liberty, others did not. The right to vote in the United States began solely with the landed gentry. Then it spread to white males, then theoretically all males in the 19th century, though the voting expectations of African Americans did not come to any meaning state of liberty until the 1960s.
In the 19th century, voting was a dangerous activity. There were roving gangs of men who would seek out voters. There was a practice called cooping, where men were seized and made to vote for candidates against their will or after some hefty persuasion. Persuasion was often a whiskey bottle or a billy club, or both. African Americans were made to vote certain ways or, as time went on, made to stop voting altogether. The law can say many things, but if it cannot guaranty those pronouncements, the law falls silent and liberty is lost.
The goal of world community seems to be a work in progress, but is it any more aspirational than fair voting seems to have been in the 19th century? You can pass a law, you can even amend the Constitution. But for there to be liberty in truth rather than in theory, there needs to be assurances of safety. There needs to be peace.
In the same way, there needs to be justice. When I go to vote, I want to be safe along the way, of course. And then when the votes are counted, I want it to matter. I want it to be counted. I want the election to be fair. I want the system to be fair because that is how the system should be. And when it is not fair, or does not seem to be operating fairly, I want there to be a way to make it come out right.
Peace, liberty, and justice actually work together in this sense, at least in theory. So why then, getting back to the Sixth Principle, is the principle described as a goal? How can a principle be conditional? Because there is no world community. There is no arena of shared purpose, belief, or even geography, so no sense of community. And peace, liberty, and justice can only work together in a community. They do not work together in an empire, as with the British or the Romans. Stability crowds out peace, liberty is conditioned upon obedience. Justice often follows the interests of those in charge rather than any principles set forth for all.
Think about what Jesus said. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. Not asking on behalf of the world – was Jesus choosing sides? Was Jesus playing favorites?
All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
I do not think Jesus was walling off the rest of humanity, but it might seem that way if you just quoted from this one place in the Bible. Sadly, that is often what happens, so the meaning becomes lost and even distorted.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
How can we find God within our midst? Where two or three are gathered together, as the saying goes, but what does that mean? What are we creating through such a gathering? We are creating a community. Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name, for Jesus purposes, by and through Jesus’ life, lessons, and meaning. That is how we find God, by building a community of people dedicated to God.
So how do you find God when you are not within a community of people dedicated to God? I will not say that you cannot find God, but I will offer my opinion that it is much, much harder. And that is not because God lives in this building. God does not make a cameo appearance when we begin worship only to sneak out during coffee hour. God comes into our lives through the creation of community, the care and concern that we have for one another. That is the window through which we come to see God, to experience the divine presence of love. That is possible elsewhere, of course, but it does not always work that way.
We get distracted. We become enmeshed in other ways of living far short of what God calls us to do and to be. Religious community is not generally about learning something new. It is about being reminded of who we strive to be. Again and again.
In this sense, world community is a tall order. There are so many differences, large and small, so many cultures, familiar and alien. Building world community requires understanding those differences rather than seeking to eliminate any difference. Otherwise, you are talking about an empire. You are seeking stability, obedience, and privilege.
What about the Pax Americana? For much of our recent history, the United States had a sense of stability trending toward peace, a tendency toward liberty if not always the fully formed practice, and even an arc of history bending its way toward justice. We even spoke of spreading American democracy around the world for a time. Is that still the goal? Is it possible? Is it even worth considering?
I must confess that I have my doubts. Not doubts in America as an ideal, but grievous doubts as to America currently as a loving community. At some point along the way to this moment in our country, we have become deeply estranged from one another. We have always been separated to some degree across political lines, but somehow now we have become shattered. Broken away into groups of people who cannot speak civilly to one another. Political rhetoric is heated and political violence may not be far behind. I am deeply worried for our nation.
Think back to the idea of community. People gathered together for common purposes and with shared goals. In a religious community, those purposes and goals revolved around central principles. In this church, we turn to the teachings of Jesus, the lessons from the Bible from across the centuries. If those are the reasons for which we gather in this local community, do we then try to live out our days following those teachings and lessons? Or do we follow them selectively, meaning inside this building and this community? Is peace a goal here, but not out there? Is liberty important within our borders, but not around the world? Is justice a virtue for us, but not so much when it requires us to change for them?
Jesus called out to God and asked that his people be protected. I honestly do not believe that he intended to shut out the rest of the world. Jesus wants us, each of us who listens, each of us who cares, each of us who might gather in twos and threes under the authority of his name – Jesus wants us to make the circle bigger. Bigger and bigger. Not bigger by converting those who think differently from us. Not by taking their liberty away and imposing a simmering resentment that masquerades as peace.
Jesus calls upon us to love one another. To welcome them into us by opening our hearts and minds and arms to those we come across in this life, the neighbors and the strangers, the high and the low, the friend and the enemy.
The challenge of community is to realize that there should be no wall around it. No bright line declaring inside and out. Community is an understanding of shared purpose and common goals. Peace comes into community through understanding, not domination. Liberty arises in a community when responsibility to and for that community is embraced. And justice blossoms in a community that accepts fairness as one of its highest values.
Peace, liberty, and justice happen in community in the very same sense that the love of God happens in a congregation. When two or three are gathered together in “my” name, the name of Jesus, the name of love, the name of our highest purposes and the holiest of holies. In the same sacred sense, the goal of world community is worthy even if it remains elusive. The goal of national community deserves the same concern as world peace, for without it the state of our smaller communities is at risk. And the way for us as followers of Jesus to respond to those levels of worry is to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus, for we are his and he is ours.
There is an old doxology that I know, one that comes out of the Unitarian tradition. I memorized it while I was serving as an intern. It is how we began every service. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law; this is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
Imagine if those lovely sentiments were to grow, to move beyond the walls of any one building or denomination or nation. Love is the spirit of this community, this nation, this world and service is its law; this is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
That is the goal, though far off. That is the hope, though hope may seem hard to find. And that is what Jesus asked us to do. Again and again and again. Amen.