Easter 5 • 14 May 2017

Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Rev. Chris Udy

Michael Leunig has a prayer
that reads like this:

Let us live in such a way
that when we die
our love will survive
and continue to grow. Amen.

Australian author, Helen Garner,
once wrote about her encounter with death,
and specifically about her experience
of watching an autopsy.
She wrote first about the mechanics of it,
the procedures and the techniques of the mortuary.
Then she talked to the workers,
the pathologists and technicians
who test and check and handle 12-15 bodies each day,
from babies to burn victims - and then,
at the end of her article,
she talked about her own response
to what she’d seen.

Helen Garner finished her description with these words:
"There is nothing so utterly dead as a dead body.
The spirit that once made it a person has fled.
But until I went to the mortuary
I never had even the faintest inkling
of what a living body is —
what vitality hovers in its breath,
what a precious,
mysterious and awesome spark it carries,
and how insecurely lodged that spirit is
within the body's fragile structures."

In the time between Easter Day and Pentecost,
these 40 days
between our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus
and our celebration
of the coming of the Holy Spirit,
the readings set down in the Lectionary
focus on what it means
to believe in life beyond death.

During this time
we look at the experience of the early Christians —
the people who saw and spoke to Jesus
after he was killed —
and we think about
what kind of evidence our faith is built on.
We ask ourselves whether our faith is reasonable —
whether it fits with the information we have
about that event in history.

Then we look at how the Church began,
and we think about how a handful of women
and 11 broken men
could be transformed in a few days
from shattered followers,
cringing in terror behind locked doors,
to the confident and courageous leaders
of a movement that has lasted
more than 2000 years.
We think about the response of the people
who lived closest to the resurrection,
and we ask ourselves
whether our faith is like theirs —
whether our hope and our witness
is consistent with theirs.

That means we also look
at what resurrection means
for life before dying —
how our faith changes the way we live now —
and that's what our readings for today are about -
and they fit beautifully
with a celebration of Mother’s day.

Helen Garner wrote
that until she understood what death was,
she didn't have the faintest inkling of what life is.
Until she saw a body without life,
she never appreciated what “the spark,
the vitality, the spirit that moves us” might be.
The life that fills our bodies
is an unmeasurable thing.
It isn't light, or heat,
or even simply energy.
We can't generate it,
we can't store it,
and we have no sure way
of saying what it does.

It begins in mystery:
No-one’s quite clear when a new life begins.
Some would argue
that it’s passed in living elements
from mother and father
and it’s there in a continuous stream
of meaning and information
that stretches long before conception.
Others believe we’re not really alive
until we’re fully conscious of being alive -
and that comes long after birth.

Even the moment of dying
is a secret hidden from us.
It isn't just when the heart stops
or when the activity of the brain is still —
although both those measurable things
have been used to determine a time of death.
No single, identifiable thing
we can finally point to
can tell us the difference
between a body with life —
and one without.

Life is a mystery to us.
All we can do to describe it
is talk about the effects of its presence
in movement and growth
and warmth and communication,
and the best instrument
for discovering and describing life
is life itself.
Somehow the life inside us
recognises life in the world around us —
and values living things more highly
than things that don't have life.

So life is measured by relationships
and we describe life
with words that describe relationships.
We talk about responses,
and reactions,
and we watch cycles of birth and growth,
maturity and death in living things.
Biologists and environmentalists
talk about the amazing complexity of relationships
between all living things,
and about the damage we do
when we abuse life in any form.
At some level it makes sense
to see that every life has purpose,
every life has meaning,
and from plankton to persons,
everything works together
as the life of the universe itself unfolds.

So it also makes sense
when the Bible tells us over and over again,
that the highest expression of life,
the best description of life,
the most powerful force in life,
comes when relationships are at their very best —
that's when we’re formed and grow and live in love -
and that’s a pretty good theme for Mothers Day.

The reading we heard from John's Gospel
comes at the point where Jesus
is giving his disciples their final instructions.
Judas has just left the room
and gone out into the night to betray Jesus,
and Jesus tells them 3 new and significant things.

First, he says
"Now the Son of Man is glorified
and God is glorified in him."
Those of us who have well-churched ears
are used to language like this in the Bible,
and we don't always pick up
the strangeness of what's being said —
but this really is very strange.

Jesus is pointing to his death.
He has been betrayed by his friend,
and now he is expecting to die.
But instead of seeing his death as the end of his life,
as the point where his life is broken and defeated,
he describes it as his highest, most glorious moment —
and more than that —
as God's highest, most glorious moment.

For many listeners,
that idea doesn't make sense.
They see death as the opposite of life,
as the negation of life.
They see death as life denied, or life defeated —
anything but life fulfilled or glorified.

But for Jesus,
his death is the moment of glory —
because his death is an act of love.
His life’s purpose
is to say and to show
that there is no limit or boundary
to the saving love of God -
and in his death Jesus pushes through
the final limits and boundaries of human life,
still and always affirming the saving love of God.
His death is an act of sacrificial love,
so it leads - in a continuous stream,
not to the denial of life or the destruction of life,
but to life without limit - eternal life.

Second, Jesus says "My children,
I will be with you only a little longer.
You will look for me,
and just as I told the Jews,
so I tell you now: Where I am going,
you cannot come."

Life responds to life,
and Jesus understands the way human hearts work,
so even while his death leads to eternal life,
Jesus also speaks
about the reality of dying
as a separation from those he leaves behind.
He tells his friends
that he will be with them only a little time longer,
and that once he has gone,
they can't be with him.

Christian faith doesn't deny the reality of death —
our hope doesn't change the loneliness of living on
when someone we love has died.
The idea that Christians don't grieve,
or that grief is inappropriate when we trust in God
is a misunderstanding of Christian hope.
When relationships are broken,
for whatever reason,
we feel the loss of something valuable and good,
and we have to change our lives
to live on in a world
where the person we loved is gone.

Third, Jesus says
"A new command I give you:
Love one another.
As I have loved you,
so you must love one another.
In this way all people will know
that you are my disciples,
if you love one another."

Jesus told his friends
that the distinguishing feature of his life,
the thing that marked his life as different from others,
was the quality and depth of his love.
He said that love like his
would be the mark of his people,
and when people saw
how the disciples lived in their relationships,
and how they celebrated their faith
they would recognise and experience
the risen presence and spirit of their teacher.

And so the disciples - over generations -
found ways to remember and celebrate
the love Jesus lived with -
and our patterns and cycles of worship and celebration
have developed to remind us
what love of Jesus is like.

So at Christmas we celebrate love that’s incarnate -
physically present and real -
love that invests time and effort
in being with other people,
as God invests time and effort
in being present with us in Jesus.
Easter celebrates love that takes risks -
love that’s sacrificial and willing to face pain -
but is also unbreakable, undefeatable -
rising again even after death.
And around and between
each Christmas and Easter celebration
we look at other aspects of love -
including the love we give and receive in families.
We build our lives
and our families and our community
on the love we see in Jesus,
just as we build our year around Christmas and Easter,
and week by week, and day by day
we focus on the detail of his love -
seeing the kinds of decisions he made,
the way he accepted people,
and the value he gave
to people everyone else devalued.

It’s significant that
the one commandment Jesus felt it necessary
to give his disciples
has nothing to do with what we should believe,
or with how we should worship,
or with how we should organise ourselves to be Church.
For Jesus the only thing worth commanding
is love -
love expressed in the way we speak to
and care for and value each other.
Jesus’ commandment impels us
to work on the only dimension of life
that doesn’t end with death,
the one dimension of life
that has eternal significance -
and isn't exhausted and restricted
by this world’s limits and boundaries -
and that’s the dimension of relationship,
where life responds to life
and finds its highest expression
in sacrificial love.

Life is much more than struggle for survival.
It begins before conception
and it continues beyond death,
and it finds its best and highest expression
in practical, personal, sacrificial love -
the kind of love we celebrate on Mothers’ Day.
And if our Easter faith means anything,
it also means
that when our spirits leave our bodies,
the only attachments that carry on -
the only things they take with them,
are the relationships
built with the stuff that life is made of -
relationships built on the kind of love Jesus lived by.

This time between Easter and Pentecost
is important for us
as a time to think through what we believe,
and how our faith influences our lives.
Jesus commands us to love,
not only because that's the way the world is healed;
not only because it’s the key to life eternal,
but because it’s the best way to live each day
and to find the meaning and purpose of life.

May God help us,
as we live the resurrection life,
to discover its power and its truth,
and may we live in such a way,
that when we die,
our love will survive,
and continue to grow.