This week's lectionary reading for All Saints Day took us to 1 John 3:1-3. This is the written version of the sermon I delivered on that text. There will be a video. Maybe.
Sermon from 1 John 3:1-3
I’ve been present to many deaths. I’ve always found it a profoundly earthy, human experience. While many have, I’ve never witnessed a mystical event at death. Despite this grounded view, I still sense that in the moments that surround dying the boundaries between past, present, and future, between life and death and hope, seem paper thin. Witnesses to the death also bear witness to the life. They grieve their present loss. And many times, speak of hope for reunification. This heaving, unsettling change forces us to confront the interweaving of realities we often keep separate.
This weekend we celebrated All Saints, day a trio of days – All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day – to commemorate those who died, and celebrate their influence on us in our present faith. As a nurse who cared for the dying – in a society that largely ignores death, and has no social language for grieving and shared grief – I appreciate a time devoted to focusing on more than just the physical, present realm. We honor the saints who brought us to our present, grieve the loss of ones who impacted our lives, and look forward to meeting with them.
One poet I read refers to these holy days as a thin space, where barriers and boundaries between present, past, and future become less perceptible. I call it a thinning of the veil. Apostle Paul refers to it as seeing through a glass darkly. We get a sense of the connectedness of our past, present, and future, but the connection is mysterious, and the future only hinted at.
It feels like John also talks about this thinning of the veil of time and reality. In fact, John wrote this book in order to combat the kind of hyper-compartmentalized thinking that caused people to claim Jesus was simply a spirit (a heresy called Docetism). John calls up a much richer view and loops in and out of the present, past, and future.
A closer look at the passage:
3:1 God’s love is lavished on us (NIV). That word lavished sounds like a sloppy, slathering kind of love -- not a metered unit of love per recipient. This past, present, and future love establishes our identity as Children of God. Though we’ve found this identity, we haven’t found home – the world doesn’t recognize us yet.
3:2 We’re promised a mystery. Even the disciple Jesus loved dearly didn’t dare specify what happens on the other side of the veil. He just knows we’ll arrive at the completion of this transformation to Christ-likeness we’ve been working on all along.
3:3 This gives us present hope. And, this hope causes us to participate in our purification.
This idea of a thinning of the veil captured me from the first reading. We create a false dichotomy that prioritizes and separates this world or the next. Ever heard the phrase, she’s so heavenly minded she’s no earthly good? Some entirely lose the value of this gift of creation, its potential, its hope for redemption; and live only with a construct of heaven in mind. I used to live this way. This life was only about getting to the next. But lately, my problem has been different, and possibly less creative. I get so wrapped up in this time/space/reality, in the physical realm, the here and now, I have no use or time for some mysterious future.
John thins the veil between these realities and asks us to hold in tension a past predicated on God’s love, a current identity as God’s children, and a mysterious future transformation to God’s likeness. He implies that holding this tension brings the believer to desire and participate in purification.
We are faced with a paradox. We are already and we are not yet. We are God’s children. We have yet another transformation to come. We constantly live in this thin space of tension. I find it a very hopeful, if difficult place to hold.
“As Christians caught between realities, we need to accept that in this state there will be creativity and new ways of being. We need to remain open to this reality and allow it to move within our lives and transform our beings.” (Grace Ji-Sun Kim)
I love the focus on creativity and new ways of being. Tension often does produce creation, and in this case, the very tension works toward our transformation into Christlikeness.
We live multiple experiences of Already/Not Yet – day-to-day situations that heighten our awareness of the thin veil between our reality and our future. Think of the immigrant who left one land for another, but hasn’t yet arrived at home. They live in between identities and societies and modes of living. Sometimes out of this great risk and tension creation emerges – good food, beautiful art, new relationships.
In times of great transition, like marriage, divorce, or parenthood, we face already/not yet. When I became pregnant I was immediately a mother, but had no idea what being a parent meant. This identity is always becoming and evolving and transforming me. Out of that great risk and tension a new life emerges and a new family is grown.
Times of great risk, that cause us to want to run to our false dichotomies, and reinforce the barriers between realities, have the most potential for creation and new life.
Here’s why I think this imagery of the thinning veil moves me so. Without it, I wouldn’t have come back to faith. The rational world I immersed myself in left me dry. It didn’t feel like I was living the whole human experience. And, according to Christian teaching, I wasn’t. In Christian teaching, this paradox IS our truth.
We are pure, and in need of purification.
We are God’s children, but on a journey to take on God’s likeness.
We are unique individuals, but part of a corpus, a body of other individuals, a whole and a part.
We are living constantly in a physical realm and a spiritual realm, between life and death.
We are chosen, and we choose.
We live, to die, to live again.
Our God came to be like us, so we could become like our God.
Here’s the crux of it. In this tension, we are becoming more like Jesus, and somehow, becoming most our true selves.
The work of living in the thinning veil is part of the transformation into Christlikeness. When we focused on the greatest commandments, to love God, and love others, I prayed we would be transformed to love as Jesus did. Living in the tension is that work. We begin to sense, as he did, Spirit moving on earth. We see Kingdom come and to come. We trust God more, and find open, liberating faith. We see the broken world as he did, headed toward redemption.
As we transform, we desire to participate in purification. We burrow into the community of faith. We pray. We study God’s word.
The Spirit uses these spiritual disciplines to purify us. We cannot purify ourselves. In holy community we are made holy – Wesley says “No religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness.” In prayer we face a great mystery. My rational world kept me from engaging in this paradox of prayer, but as my faith has grown, I can’t help but prophesy, and preach, and pray and share. Prayer focuses my attention on the Jesus I want to be like. When we study God’s word, we can begin to see all scripture through the interpretive lens of Jesus.
Our identity is an affirmation of the love God lavishes on us. John enthusiastically exclaims that God named us God’s children, just as in the gospels God proclaimed Jesus, “my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Think of the power Jesus expressed as God’s son. We are similarly empowered to join with Jesus in seeking justice, in creating, in sacrificially loving, in building relationships that transform our community and our world. As we are transformed, our world is transformed. This place that does not recognize is, that is not our home, is being redeemed through us.
When you participate in Communion, the veil is thin between your person and Christ’s person. Between you the individual, and us the present body of Christ. Between all of us, and the saints who came before us.
This week, when you love someone who votes on the other side of the ballot – I mean the kind of messy, sloppy, set you at the table, give you pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin beer and make you family kind of love God lavishes on us -- the veil is thin.
When you hold your sick baby, and your heart seems to ache with the flow of compassion and tenderness you never knew you were capable of, you are being Jesus.
When you grieve the loss of someone who died, leaving a gaping hole in your world, the veil is thin.
When you give sacrificially to your church, or a needy person, or a friend in pain, or forgive someone who hurt you, you actively transform your world.
When you listen intently to someone at work, you are holy.
When you create art that reveals the beauty of our reality, you cooperate in the holy spirit’s purification of you.
The reality is that the veil is always, and was always thin. Every space is a holy space. Every moment a holy moment. Living in the awareness of that – not out of a sense of obligation to be perfect every second, but rather aware the Spirit of God is constantly working that out – causes us to be more invested in living the love of Christ. As we do, we become ever more like him.
In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.