Sunday, April 6, 2008

Caring for those Perishables

Caring for those Perishables

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

I Peter 1:17-25
Third Sunday of Easter: April 6, 2008

We don’t have to be green grocers to know about perishables. Anyone with very much experience in life knows that life itself — for all the strengths we see in living things — is a fragile thing, perishable and, ultimately, perishing. Maybe you remember the old Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Once Calvin asked his mother to sniff a milk carton to see if the milk was spoiled. He didn’t want to sniff it himself because he thought the expiration date on the carton had to do with those who used it after the date, not with the milk itself, and he didn’t want to take any chances. Isn’t Calvin on to something true there? Aren’t we all more or less aware that every human being, every living thing comes to this world with an expiration date of sorts? Some insects can be expected to live twenty-four hours; barring accident or unforeseen illness, people can expect to live somewhere near the biblical expiration date of “threescore and ten.”1 It doesn’t take a wizard to figure out that life is a perishable thing.

We also don’t have to have a Phd in theology to believe God is beyond this perishing world, that God is eternal, is the Creator who made all the world we see around us, and so, is not subject to its laws concerning decline and death. Any god who was not much more than just a larger version of a human being would not be much of a god. It would be more like the gods of the Greek pantheon, petty little deities with expiration dates of their own which caused them to perish once the people of the Mediterranean world turned themselves over to Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedism. No, we would have to agree that any God worthy of our wonder and especially any God worthy of our worship must be a God who is not subject to the decay and death that the created order experiences. God could no more be part of his creation than a painter can decide to climb into the world of one of his paintings or a novelist can begin making her home in the story line of her latest book.

Once at a Bible study, I asked everyone to think about their own definition of the word “holy.” I Peter makes a good deal of use of that word, so it must be important. But for the life of me, I don’t think I hear that word anywhere but in church. It rolls off our tongues pretty easily because we have ghettoized it into a religious word. We could sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” with a yawn, because we have forgotten what it means to call something holy. But if God is really the Creator, and so is responsible for all the world we see around us and a good deal we don’t see, and if one of the best words we can think to describe God is to call God “holy,” then maybe we ought to know what holy means. Do you know the first word someone suggested as a definition for the word “holy”? Separation. Absolutely. God is separate from the creation, outside of it. It’s a difficult concept on which to focus our minds. But clearly, if living things of earth are perishable, expiring, dying, as we know them to be, and we affirm that God is imperishable, eternal, immortal, then God is separate, different, differentiated from us. The Bible goes so far as to say in several places that God is so distinct from the created world that the unshielded presence of God is even dangerous to creatures.

Moses in Exodus, Isaiah before the throne of God in Isaiah 6, the disciples in the boat on the sea which Jesus calmed, all knew that they were in the presence of God and all had the presence of mind to know that God is different, and dangerous, HOLY, and they had the presence of mind to feel what any sensible person would feel: they were afraid because God is holy.

Here is what we know to be true about our own humanity and the holiness of God: we are perishable, but God is everlasting. We are not holy. God is.

If we left the matter there, there wouldn’t be much good news in it, just statements of blunt dogma. We could think of ourselves as the existentialists did, as tragic, doomed creatures living lives void of any lasting meaning, adrift on a dying planet in an accidental solar system, while God remained an observer from a distant heaven.

But the witness of the Bible attests to something that we might not ever have dared to hope if left to our own hopes alone. The Bible, from one end to the other, witnesses to God’s unremitting desire to call the people of the earth into the holiness which characterizes God’s own being. In calling the Hebrews from Egypt to freedom, in calling Israel from faithless practical agnosticism to a faith that was alive, in sparing not even the very Messiah — Jesus — but sending him to die for us, in these ways God has called people to be made holy by actions not their own.

On CBS radio, Charles Osgood once told the story of two elderly pianists who found themselves in a nursing home, survivors of strokes. One was paralyzed on the left side, the other on the right. Both despaired over the loss of their music, and had no hope of ever playing again. But an alert member of the nursing home staff sat them down together at a piano and encouraged them to play solo pieces together, one with her good left hand, the other with her good right hand. As they began playing together, over time, a beautiful friendship developed.

This is a human illustration of the way God has made his people holy. Were it not for the member of the nursing home staff, both women would likely have lived out their days without the joy of making music. Yet someone set apart, someone separate, no piano player himself, worked their musical redemption. This is just the way God has acted to redeem his people and make us holy. God steps into our hopelessness and grants to us what we had no hope of receiving.

I Peter uses the poetry of Isaiah to make the point plain. “All flesh” — that is, all living things but especially all people — “is like grass...” If you no longer maintain a lawn mower or never cared to, you may have had a more direct experience of the living nature of grass than you would like. But even in the desert we cannot fail to know the truth of Isaiah’s words by the time Autumn arrives. The grass in our yards and parks which thrives so in the Spring will be parched by August, and in no need of mowing by November. Some early Spring flowers are already fading. That is what we are like, though we may last a few more seasons. But then, here is a piece of good news. Amid all this fading and falling and withering, something is eternal, and it is the word of God.

What is more, that word has become our very own word in Christ, and not by any doing of our own. The worship of the church is an essential for us because it is here that we learn the holiness of God, and God’s desire to make his word our own word.

People come to me and say they want to know how to experience the presence of Christ, and I want to say to them — and sometimes do — that the answer of most of scripture is not about how but about where to experience the presence of Christ. Where do I go to know that Christ is alive? The Bible says I go to the sanctuary, to the community, I place myself in the midst of the worshiping people of God. It is in our worship together that we are to know the presence of Christ, as he promised when he said that he would be with us “where two or three are gathered in my name.”2

So Peter also says, “You have been born anew (and here he uses the Greek for actual birth, not the “born from above” of John 3), not of perishable but of imperishable seed.” How? “Through the living and enduring word of God.” If our faith makes us new, what kind of newness is it? Like the newness of life Lazarus found when Jesus brought him to life from the grave, only to die again one day, or is it some kind of newness that really is new? Like a sort of life that has at its core something imperishable?

Two more bits of good news here: God’s Word is living — John’s gospel goes to great lengths to declare that Jesus and the Word are one and the same, a living Word — and this word endures.

So God’s word is described by Peter as living. Fine. But all things that move and have being are living, and they are, like our own fragile lives, doomed one day to die. But the other adjective further describes the word of God: enduring. That is something that cannot be said about any other living thing we know of, not in any ultimate sense. No living thing endures, not finally. But the living word of God endures. How long? The prophet Isaiah answered that centuries before Peter: “the word of the Lord endures forever.” Moreover, that is the very word Peter says was announced to us. It is unlike the perishable nature of the living things we see. This living thing endures, lasts, does not fade, wither, fall like the grass and the flower. Eternity and humanity touch in the space of these few verses, and we learn that our faith in Christ has brought us the very life of God, eternal, enduring, and very, very much alive.

So, finally, what difference does all this make — holiness, perishable and imperishable, living and enduring, being born anew? Finally, the difference this makes in this world is that we have the only reason worth having, as Peter says, to “love one another deeply from the heart.” Make a brief recollection with me of Charles Manson or Jim Jones or Idi Amin, or Al Qaeda for a different view of what it means to be born anew to a different sort of word, a different sort of messiah, where self-proclaimed saviors force-march their disciples into the death house.

Two contrasting ideas of what it means to be holy, to be born anew of imperishable seed are starkly contrasted: the one is based on fear, on loveless separation from the world that the Bible declares God loves. The other declares salvation by a true Messiah who dies to save others. Jesus is the Messiah because now and always he beckons but does not coerce, gives new birth so life may be lived with a new view, not fiery death so that disciples may turn their backs on life and living.

In Christ is our imperishable hope. Having been granted eternity, what prevents us from loving one another and God’s good world without reservation? That’s now the eternal business of our imperishable faith. May God empower us to be his eternal church.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1. Psalm 90:10.
2. Matthew 18:20.