Love Transforms the World - John 13:31-55 & Revelation 21:1-6
This Easter season we’ve been reading from the book of Revelation as our first lesson, and if you attended adult forum last week you learned that the book is not a timeline for the end of the world, as much as it is a letter to persecuted churches full of symbols and hidden meaning that early Christians would’ve understood but their persecutors would not. It offers hope in the face of persecution and martyrdom. And ultimately it offers a beautiful vision of the world’s future.
John’s vision of the world’s future is the same vision of the Hebrew prophets. It describes an image of a world at peace and harmony, a world at one with God. Revelation follows the teaching of the Hebrew prophets who taught about the peaceable kingdom and a new heaven and a new earth. Who, in the midst of the terror all around them, prophesied of a world to come, a beautiful world of shalom where God would be all in all. It’s a wonderful promise that no matter how bad the world looks right now, God is transforming it into a new creation. The Bible is clear that this is the world’s destiny. A world where heaven and earth are united. A world of peace and harmony, a world of shalom.
And John’s vision in Revelation presents a description of this same promise about the world’s future. A world where crying and weeping and pain will be no more. A world where God dwells with human beings, where humans live in union with God and with one another. And in the verses that follow our reading this morning we hear about the river of the water of life which flows through the city of God, and the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations. It’s a wonderful image that concludes the story of the whole Bible.
Most of the Bible, however, is a story full of sin and suffering, war and persecution, violence and oppression. And at the center of it is Jesus’ own brutal death by crucifixion. How can we reconcile this wonderful message about a better world with the reality of the cross, and the reality of all the crosses still so present in our world today? I mean it’s nice to know that the world will be transformed someday, but that’s a long way off. What does it mean for us now?
To answer that let’s look at Jesus’ teaching about this same vision. Jesus understood well the vision of the Hebrew Prophets for a new heaven and new earth, a peaceable kingdom where swords would be beat into plowshares and the wolf lay down with the lamb. Jesus’ favorite term for this vision was the Kingdom of God. You’ve heard me say before that for Jesus the Kingdom of God wasn’t something that happened after death. It was a reality for this world. It was Jesus’ teaching about God’s transformative power in this earthly realm. Jesus certainly taught an afterlife, for that he used terms like paradise, eternal life, or heaven. But his main focus was the Kingdom of God, the unity of heaven and earth. This vision of the Kingdom followed the tradition of the Hebrew Prophets and God’s vision of shalom.
But what made Jesus’ teaching different was that he came proclaiming that this world had already arrived. That it was here, now. Present within you and among you. Heaven and earth were already united in him, and he brought this gift to us too. The Kingdom of God was a future reality for the whole world, and a present reality for Jesus and those who followed him, a reality which he told them to shine everywhere like a bright city on a hill.
Christian theologians talk about the paradox of the Kingdom being both “already and not yet.” Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” and he also said “The Kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21) also translated “within you” or “among you”. This Kingdom of God that was at the center of Jesus’ teaching is both a future world where heaven and earth are united, and it also present now whenever and wherever heaven and earth are united. And the church’s calling is to be a manifestation of this union of heaven and earth here and now. When we worship together, when we study together, when we serve those in need together, whenever we are the Body of Christ in the world together, we manifest the Kingdom here and now.
So what does this mean in the midst of such a suffering world? How is it that we can bring the Spirit into this world now? For that we turn to what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading. In John 13 Jesus speaks of love and gives his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he loved us. The context here is that it is the night before Jesus died, just after the Last Supper. And this passage is sandwiched between Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal right before and predicting Peter’s denial right after. So we see Jesus’ response to betrayal and to denial is love. His response to the pain and suffering he’s about to endure is love. His response to sin and death that seemingly will overtake him is love. In the midst of betrayal and denial, suffering and pain, sin and death, Jesus offers love and teaches his disciples to do the same. Love is Jesus’ response to the tragedy that’s about to unfold. Love is his response to the tragedy of all suffering that’s been our world’s story for far too long. Yet, in the face of pain and suffering, sin and death, Jesus responds with love and commands us to love in the face of it as well.
So really, the answer to how we live into this reality of the Kingdom that’s already but not yet, the answer to how we manifest this way of being is simple: we love like Jesus. It’s so simple to understand, yet incredibly difficult to put into practice. Love in the face of evil. Love in the face of suffering. Love in the midst of all the pain and sorrow of this world. By the cross, Jesus teaches us to respond to evil with love, and that brothers and sisters is how the Kingdom is manifest in the world.
It takes courage to love in this way. It requires a great deal of strength. As MLK said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
In the midst of the suffering of life, it is love that transforms the world. Love brings healing. Love brings forgiveness. Love brings the oneness of heaven and earth. Love even makes the cross, that ancient symbol of torture and death, into the greatest expression of divine love. Truly it is love that transforms the world. And it is in having a powerful experience of this love ourselves that we become inspired to share it everywhere. We just can’t help but spread love all around too.
In my dissertation research I interviewed people who had spiritually significant experiences with entheogens. One person, who said he was an atheist before his experience told me:
Whatever that is, the divine, it is some force out there that you can connect with…I think a lot of people experience that on psychedelics, that it's all about love. At the end of the day it’s love. Love is the driving force of this universe. That's the theme I always come across. At the end it's love, and love is going to help us get through whatever we go through in life.
That’s a direct quote from my dissertation interviews, said by a person who used to be an atheist. When people have such a dramatic experience of divine love, it changes them. It changes their perspective and the way they live their lives. Psychedelics aren’t the only way to bring about a mystical experience of divine love, but they certainly seem to provide one way of encountering it.
When we’ve come face-to-face with such a reality, we can’t help but be transformed by it. When we’ve encountered the mystical realms of God’s love, we can’t help but want to tell others about this amazing love that transformed us and is transforming the world. An experience of such love transforms and inspires us to be vehicles that bring that love to the world.
And even when we’re confronted with experiences of great pain and suffering, like Jesus on the cross, we strive to respond with love. Our lives become a journey of seeking to embody love in everything we do. And we live into that already present and not yet fully formed vision that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. That union of heaven and earth that is our world’s destiny.
It may sound too simple to say love is the answer. It may seem to not take the reality of evil and suffering seriously enough. But Jesus’ new commandment to love is how he responded to the terror of crucifixion. Love didn’t save him from suffering; it actually drove him to it. And we are called to follow the direction of love to do the same. To discover divine love through our own experiences of this God who is love, and to let love be the driving force of our lives, as it is the driving force of the universe.
So in the midst of the tragic story of humanity, we love. When it feels hopeless watching the news about the war in Ukraine, we respond with love and do whatever love directs us to. When we feel lost in our own lives and at odds with friends or family, we respond with love and do whatever love directs us to. When we lament all the hunger and homelessness around the world and in our own country, we respond with love and do whatever love directs us to. And when we do whatever love directs us to—we use our intelligence and privilege and political and economic resources, to work for justice and peace. To manifest love in the world. When we let love reign in our hearts, we transform the world.
In the end, love is what brings the Kingdom. The unity of heaven and earth. Both in the world’s future new creation, and in the present moment when we let love rule in us. Thanks be to God for the gift of this love. And for the tremendous blessing it is to be alive in that love and let love reign in us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 5/15/22