Monday, March 3, 2014
Many years ago I spent a couple of days camping at a park on the shores of Lake Ontario just east of where the Niagara River meets it. It was peaceful and quiet there, especially at night. I remember sitting on the beach one evening and looking out over the lake as the sun went down. Eventually it became dark and there were no lights anywhere across the landscape, save one. Across the lake, just on the line of the horizon, I could see the illuminated skyline of downtown Toronto. The CNN Tower, which stands at over 1,800 feet tall, was clearly visible, but from where I was sitting looked to be only about a quarter of an inch in height. I remember being amazed that I could see the city across the lake. Easily it was thirty miles away or more. I also remember that try as I might to look at anything else, I could not take my eyes off that lone light in the darkness.
In today’s Epistle reading we heard the words of St. Peter:
“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
His image of a lamp shining in a dark place is what triggered my memory of that evening spent gazing across the lake. The lone lamp in the darkness, the single flame of a candle in an unlit room, the faint light of a distant city in the night – each draws and holds our attention as nothing else can.
It is a wonderfully evocative image, isn’t it. But did you catch what the image stands for in Peter’s letter? This is what he uses the metaphor to represent:
“Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
For Peter, what he heard God proclaim about Jesus served to confirm everything the prophets of old had written and said about the Messiah to come. Jesus is that person. God’s voice confirms that Jesus, the Beloved Son, is the lamp shining in the darkness. He commands our attention as a lone light in the nighttime.
The season of Epiphany ends this week with the beginning of Lent. As its name suggests, this is been of time of revealing, discovery, and ‘ah-ha’ moments. What has been revealed is God’s true nature as made known in the person, words, and work of Jesus.
This year’s lectionary readings for Epiphany have been drawn from Matthew’s Gospel. Other years the readings come from Mark, Luke, and John. During those times we have readings where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, commands a raging storm to calm, and effects a human healing. These epiphanies reveal that, like God, Jesus is not limited to the constraints of the natural world. It strikes me that this year’s readings offered not one single account of the ‘miraculous’; not one single display of Jesus’ divine power.
The readings we heard fell into two basic groups. The first few weeks in Epiphany we heard about Jesus’ baptism and his initial experiences with his eventual disciples. Do you remember how John the Baptist had to keep pointing out Jesus so that those who had been with him in the wilderness near the Jordon River might investigate the Messiah for themselves? This first phase of readings culminated when Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James, and John to put down their nets and to follow him in order to fish for people.
The second cluster of readings was drawn from a portion of Matthew’s Gospel known as The Sermon on the Mount. We heard the Beatitudes (“Blessed are you…”) and a whole host of teachings – many of them very challenging. Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies, to turn a cheek to those who strike us, and not to lust, even in our hearts. Last Sunday Jesus concluded these teachings with this interesting command: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now that is a tall order, isn’t it!
So, in this year’s Epiphany season Jesus has revealed God to the world through two primary actions: creating a community and then discipling that community. Let me say a word about each.
Creating a community. We understand God’s very nature to be communal. Isn’t that what the Holy Trinity is all about? Three Persons/One Being may be confusing to understand, but put simply it is a community. God exists in a community of relational harmony that embodies perfect love through mutuality and respect. The community of God desires not to hoard this love but rather to extend it. God brings forth all of creation and especially the human family to share in God’s communal life. We live into this life by being in relationship with God and by being in relationship with one another through “ever-widening circles of fellowship” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book). The Church exists to incarnate God’s open invitation to join in community. We do this, in part, as we live into our baptismal promises to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves”, and as we “strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.”
God’s invitation of community knows no bounds or boundaries. The gates of the Kingdom are always open and there is always an empty seat at the table in order to have space for the next guest to arrive. God exists in community and seeks to extend that community throughout creation. This is exactly what we saw Jesus doing on those early Sundays after the Epiphany.
The lessons then shifted to reveal Jesus as discipling the gathering and growing community. We heard a series of teachings. Some are difficult to accept. Almost all are difficult to keep. And it culminated with Jesus saying that our righteous must exceed that of the Pharisees. We must be perfect as God is perfect.
I suspect that when most people hear this they think of God’s perfection as being like a measuring stick. Those religious leaders Jesus dismissed may have thought that way. They may have thought of themselves as being the standard and measure; conveying overtly a message to that masses that you people are not as good as we are. But Jesus says they are not the measure and, in fact, they fall far short of the standard. God as Community is our goal. Well, on one hand I suppose people were delighted to see Jesus cast aside the notion of hypocritical religious leaders as being role models. But how worrisome is it that Jesus now sets the bar for discipleship at an impossibly high mark – God’s perfection?
Do you remember going to an amusement park as a small child and having to stand next to one of those character displays that says you must be so tall to go one this ride? Well, if you were not tall enough at the time you had a reasonable hope of growing so that next year or the year after you could. If God’s perfection is that kind of measurement, then we can be assured we will never come close.
But what if we think of God’s perfection not as the measure of discipleship, but as its destination. Imagine me sitting on the shores of Lake Ontario gazing at the faint light of that city so far away. Imagine I decide to get in a boat and start rowing my way toward the city. With each stroke I get a little closer. Over time the city appears bigger and brighter than before. Discipleship is not about meeting a particularly impossible standard. It is about a journey toward a holy destination. It is, according to Peter, about paying attention to Jesus the way you would pay attention to a lamp shining in a dark place. Discipleship is not about being good enough or pure enough, because we are neither. It is about where you are going and how you are growing and what you are always in the process of becoming.
As we move from the season of Epiphany to the season of Lent we will be given the opportunity to consider where we are on this journey, to ponder again our commitment to the destination, to consider where we have drifted off course, and to renew our attention to the one who is like a lamp shining in a dark place.