God Promises: presence and Kingdom life
(Testify, week 9)
We have spent more than half the summer exploring the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ. The reason we spent all the time on it is because many of us have some specific Christian beliefs, but few of us can tell a coherent Christian story. We can’t string those individual beliefs together in a way that makes sense, gives us confidence and hope, and attracts other people. And that’s really important. Like we said last week, if American society is going to hear a different version of Christianity than the one that has been predominant for the last 40 years, we are going to have to get louder. Not ruder, but clearer and more confident. One of the people who helped to write this statement said it best. He said, “A belief that is unspoken is incomplete. But a belief that is well spoken become a power for life and action.” We want to be confident and clear and loving, and I believe this statement can help us do that. It is written as a testimony, an affirmation about what God has done and is doing. Each one of us has a testimony. Each one of us can tell a story of how we have seen divine activity in our lives, even though we all see and feel and experience that differently. My hope for us is that by exploring this testimony, we are inspired, equipped and empowered to speak clearly, confidently and lovingly of our own testimony.
This morning we are going to pray the statement together before we celebrate Communion, but I want to take a few minutes this morning to talk about how it ends. The final section is a benediction that goes: blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God. But right before that is a section about what God promises us. Last week we affirmed that God promises us forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace and courage in the struggle for justice and peace. This week we affirm that God also promises us the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing and eternal life in that Kingdom which has no end.
If you search the Bible on your own, you may find a lot of other things that you think God promises us. And you may have experienced God promising things to you personally. That’s totally legitimate. The promises affirmed in the statement of faith are ones that we can find over and over in many stories in the Bible, that hold true for all people in all times and places and situations.
So: God promises to all who trust in the gospel the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing. God promises to all who trust in the gospel the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing. Now, what we wish this said was “God promises to all who trust in the gospel no trial but always rejoicing.” And in fact, we often act like this is what God does promise us. Through our own wishful thinking, through our cherry-picking scriptures we like, and through our allowing our culture to dictate our theology, many of us have developed the assumption that it’s God’s job to make only good things happen for us and the people we like. We assume this because obviously nobody wants to suffer. We assume this because there are some verses in the Bible that sound like good things happen to good people. And we assume this because in our culture being powerful means being able to force your will in the world. So we expect that a God who is all good and all powerful would keep bad things from happening to good people. Thus, understandably we feel betrayed when bad things happen to us, because we are good people.
Here’s the problem: There are also verses in the Bible that describe the seemingly unfair mystery of bad things happening to good people. (Please remember that Jesus himself was crucified.) There are verses in the Bible that say we aren’t capable of fully understanding what God is up to behind the scenes. And while we have stories in the Bible and in our own lives where God seems to have miraculously stepped in to change things, that’s obviously not the norm. So what do we do with that?
I know this can feel like some deep theological wading for a Sunday morning, but I think it’s important because most of us don’t know what to do when we experience true suffering. So here’s what I think. I think that the world as we know it is breaking down. Remember our Christian worldview allows for this: sin means something is wrong here. The goodness that we know the world was designed for is not what we actually see. So suffering should not surprise us. We should not be surprised when there are natural disasters and wars, when our loved ones get sick and die, when justice and peace are absent, and when we feel aimless. This is the world. The world that God so loves, the world that— we trust— God is in the slow and mysterious process of restoring, the world we are called to be in but not be of. But this is the world. Because of sin, this is just how things are.
And while Jesus has conquered sin and death and reconciled all of creation to our Creator, reconciliation doesn’t happen by force. God being all powerful does not mean that God forces God’s will. If God is all loving, then we should not expect God to force. If we can know anything for sure about love, it is that love does not force. The power of love is not a power of force; it’s a power of persuasion and a power of presence. The power of love is that love will never stop trying to convince you, love will never stop trying to win you, love will never leave you or forsake you. This, my beloved, is what God promises us. God promises to all who trust in the gospel the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing. God does not promise to force God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. No, it is our job to do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. And if we don’t do it, we shouldn’t blame God for not forcing it. But we can trust that God will always love us even when we don’t do God’s will, and that God will never stop trying to persuade us to do God’s will. Whether we are suffering or celebrating, the God Who Is Love is fully and completely present with us. That’s the promise.
Except we can’t always feel that, can we? We don’t always feel our “hearts strangely warmed,” as Methodist founder John Wesley liked to say. This is why we need the capital C Church. The vast majority of the time, the way that God is present with us in trial and rejoicing is through one another. When we celebrate at each other’s weddings and graduations and births, the Holy Spirit is present through us. When we grieve at each other’s hospital beds and gravesides and dark nights of the soul, the Holy Spirit is present through us. We are the body of Christ, we are the living temple of the Holy Spirit, and although God can and does meet us in the secret places of our own hearts, God also can and most often does meet us in one another. God promises to all who trust in the gospel the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing.
And God promises to all who trust in the gospel eternal life in that Kingdom which has no end. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t think this is just about heaven. I’m not saying it’s NOT about heaven because what happens after death remains mysterious. But I’m saying it’s about more than heaven. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is at hand and the Kingdom of God is among us, which seems to indicate that the Kingdom is connected not just to the afterlife but to this life. The Kingdom of God is life as God intends it, life restored, life made whole, life flourishing, life free from the bondage of sin and death, life not limited by our fear of scarcity. The Kingdom of God is life as Jesus lived it. Because of Christ, the Kingdom is real and here, and obviously also not fully in effect. The Kingdom of God is both already and not yet. It is our great privilege and responsibility to live now as though the Kingdom is already a reality in our lives even though we know it is not a reality for everyone … yet.
The statement of faith doesn’t say what exactly is eternal life or where the Kingdom is located. But it does say two important things. The first is that we participate in the Kingdom through trust and the second is that the Kingdom will not end. I have no hard and fast reproducible scientific evidence for you that the Kingdom is a reality. The wonderful Jewish teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There are no proofs for the existence of God. There are only witnesses.” I can’t prove to you that God is real, that God is love or that the Kingdom is already and not yet. I can only testify that God has been real to me and that I have been loved. And I trust that love will continue. I trust that the Kingdom of God will never end. I trust that no matter how bad things seem to get, there is a deeper goodness that will outlast the bad. I trust that racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental destruction, religious hypocrisy, greed, and violence are ultimately weaker than love, that the love of Christ sacrificially lived out in us will ultimately be victorious. I trust that God will love stronger and wait longer than anyone or anything else in all of existence. I trust in the promises of God: forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that Kingdom which has no end.
But trust doesn’t mean much if there’s no action along with it. Humans need something tangible to connect to the intangible. We need a ritual to go with the concept. We need a way to demonstrate our trust. This morning we are going to do that through the celebration of Communion. Perhaps you remember what I said a few weeks ago: this is not a moment of private devotion; this is an act of corporate worship. We celebrate with our heads up and not down. This is a moment of connection to one another and to the capital C church: the faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. In this moment, we enact our trust that a blue-collar worker from a backwoods Palestinian town really was the form of God on earth, that his revolutionary love for his enemies is the only thing that will really change the world, and that through this ritual we receive the power to love our enemies and join God’s revolution. That’s what we’re doing here this morning. In the holy mystery of this moment, the real presence of Christ meets us, feeds us, and refreshes us. And so we join with our ancestors in trustfully declaring that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, tongues, and races — all people in all types of human bodies — come from the four corners of the earth and are met by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.