Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15 Ps 67 Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 John 14:23-29
The Sunday morning Bible study spent several weeks over the last two months looking at the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. One of the features of those three chapters is a series of sayings of Jesus that follow the pattern: “You have heard that is was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not…’ But I say to you….” So, for example, “You have heard that it was said… ‘You shall not murder’;…. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;….” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus is taking the familiar ten commandments and revealing a deeper spiritual understanding of them. And in so doing he is taking aim at the hypocrisy of those who prided themselves on their apparent religious virtue—they had never killed anybody or committed adultery—but in their hearts they had hated and lusted, and Jesus was not letting them off the hook.
Last Sunday, the story of Peter’s remarkable vision during his siesta at Joppa was one of the appointed readings: a vast canvas full of non-kosher animals appears to come down from heaven, accompanied by a voice instructing Peter to “kill and eat.” Peter’s response is to refuse this dietary violation. But the voice from heaven says, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This sequence happens three times before the canvas is taken back up to heaven, and when Peter awakes, he manages to connect the dots and concludes that God’s Spirit was telling him that henceforth, the message of Jesus was to be shared with both Jews and Gentiles alike, without distinction.
These are a couple examples of what can be called progressive or continuing revelation. Today’s reading from Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John mentions the Holy Spirit, whom the [Creator] will send in Jesus’ name, and who will teach the disciples everything, and remind them of all that Jesus had said to them. A couple chapters later, Jesus will tell them, “‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth;….” It is almost as if Jesus was imagining a day when, after the biblical canon was closed, that is, once the early church finally decided which books and letters would be in and which would not, there would be some of his followers who would insist that God’s revelation was complete. For those folks, continuing revelation is a threat, because it means that the process of God’s self-disclosure modelled in the Bible did not end with the book of Revelation.
The monotheistic community whose oral traditions became the Hebrew Scriptures recorded an evolving understanding of God and what God expected of them. The experience of God at the time of the Exodus is far different than the experience of God following the Babylonian Exile. And the God whom Jesus wants his followers to know is different than the God described by the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
In English, the word ‘revelation’ comes from the Latin verb that means ‘to unveil or uncover’. We also use the word ‘apocalypse,’ from the Greek word meaning ‘to cause something to be fully known, reveal, disclose,’ although often ‘apocalypse’ becomes associated with end-times and final judgment. Richard Niebuhr, in his book, The Meaning of Revelation, wrote:
Revelation means for us that part of our inner history which illuminates the rest of it and which itself is intelligible. Sometimes when we read a difficult book, seeking to follow a complicated argument, we come across a luminous sentence from which we can go forward and backward and so attain some understanding of the whole. Revelation is like that.
We all have had Aha! moments when the scales fall from our eyes and we see clearly for the first time. Perhaps we have had a life experience that made us aware what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. One of my former bishops recalibrated his theological position on gays and lesbians after his only child came out to him. Many generations of people who lived with dyslexia had to endure teachers who misjudged their intelligence because they did not understand the nature of the disability. Progressive revelation comes in many packages. In some ways it is like reading a detective novel. You collect clues as you work through the narrative, and eventually you reach a eureka moment.
As I mentioned earlier, not everyone is comfortable with the notion of continuing revelation when it comes to matters of faith. I have been drafting a letter to the Anglican Journal as an advocate for changing the Marriage Canon. I pose the question: “When does perpetuating a tradition or teaching of the church become a sin?” One historical example should suffice: In the Bible and for hundreds of years, slavery was accepted as part of the world’s economic reality. For about 40 years, William Wilberforce introduced private member’s bills in Parliament to abolish slavery. It wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that the British changed the law. What had once been both legal and acceptable in Christendom, was now illegal and immoral—a sin. Some day, the Anglican Church of Canada will reach the tipping point. Our sacred story tells us in the book of Genesis that, after God concluded that it was not good for Adam to be alone, God allowed Adam to decide who is a suitable companion for marriage. Wouldn’t it be something if the church did the same?
Progressive revelation also applies to our communal life. God calls to us from the future, not from our past, so discerning what we should be doing now to prepare for what is over the horizon will require us to look at the clues the Author of the universe has given us, and use the faith, intelligence and resources with which we have been blessed to create the future to which we are being called.