What is wholeness? What does it look like? The answer to that depends on your eschatology! (On what you think happens at the end of time) It depends on what you think God’s ultimate purpose is and what he is planning to do with his creation.
This is a sermon I preached at the end of the Easter season at a Wholeness and Healing Service. It was helped by a couple of chapters from What are we waiting for? (edited by Stephen Holmes and Russell Rook), which is a very good and readable book on eschatology!
Wholeness; Readings: John 16:17-28, 1 Peter 4:1-11
It’s the cry that is dreaded by parents everywhere. A cry that you know will come sooner or later. A cry that tells you you’re in trouble now. The cry “Are we nearly there yet?” Particularly when it’s said in sight of the starting point. Then you know it’s going to be a long journey! Are we nearly there yet?
Both these passages are about the end of the journey. We’re reaching the end of the season of Easter. On Thursday we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus to be with God in heaven. And next week we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to help us on our journey.
But, on Thursday and today we can think about the journey that we’re on. The promise of Jesus that we celebrate at Easter is that our journey can be towards God. The promise of Jesus that we remind ourselves of during the season of Easter is that God is journeying with us. And the Ascension and the passages that we heard today can help us think about where that journey is going to end up.
One common view of the ascension is that Jesus finally escaped from earth, and gives us the hope that we can escape too. In other words, we’re just passing through. And that means that if we’re going to escape from here, if we’re going to leave, then things that happen here in the physical world, in the world of flesh and blood can seem less important, less worth worrying about. So, that’s a dangerous answer. Because, in reality, it’s the other way around. In the Ascension, Jesus takes earth, in his incarnated physical body, to the heart of heaven. God’s kingdom has been brought to earth, as it is in heaven.
So, because we believe that Jesus Christ has risen to heaven, into God’s space, so that he can be present to the whole earth simultaneously and so that he can be its rightful Lord, we believe that the church has a responsibility, not to usurp the proper and God-given functions of governments and authorities, but to support them in prayer and to remind them of what they are there for – and to point out when they’re getting it wrong. God has established authorities in the world, as part of the goodness of creation, because without them the bullies and the malevolent would always get away with it. But the problem of evil includes the problem that the people who are supposed to be keeping evil in check may themselves become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
That’s why the passages that we heard this morning encourage us to look forward to the end of the journey, to encourage us to keep on going, to remind us that what we see isn’t all there is, to encourage us to think what difference being citizens of heaven makes in the here and now.
Peter tells us that we’ve spent enough time in the past doing what the pagans choose to do. We’ve spent enough time wasting our lives and damaging them and now we await for Jesus’ return. Are we nearly there yet? No idea! Which reminds me of the poster “Look busy, Jesus is coming”. Or, as my dad likes to say, being early is getting in 2 minutes before the boss. None of which is probably a very helpful answer. So, let’s try again. Are we nearly there yet? Yes! And no.
The no first. The list of sins that Peter gives is frankly rather too familiar to be comfortable. 2,000 years later and we’re still making the same mistakes, still damaging ourselves and others in the same sort of ways as we ever did.
The shocking treatment of women. Teenagers raped and hung in India, yet another honour killing in Pakistan, Meriam Ibhrahim sentenced to death in Sudan for being a Christian and forced to give birth whilst in chains. Praise God, it looks like the international pressure is working and she may be released. But, she hasn’t been yet. And when, hopefully, she is, I doubt that will end her problems. And it certainly won’t see an end to the many problems in Sudan and other countries, like the Central African Republic where people using the labels of ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ use this as an excuse to kill one another. To say nothing of the ongoing conflicts and crises in Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and many other places. The ongoing difficulties that we face.
Are we nearly there yet? No.
And yet the hope that both these passages gives us, the hope that the season of Easter and the celebration of the Ascension gives us is that the answer is also yes.
“The end of all things is near” Peter tells us. To which the obvious answer is, ‘well that was 2,000 years ago’! But, again, this is about how we understand what the future is. If we’re expecting to escape, then we’d best look busy and wait. But, if the future is transforming the present, then the end of all things is within our grasp. What we do on the journey brings the destination into view.
We travel in hope. God’s future reaches back to change our present.
Peter challenges us to think about how we spend our time. He challenges us to spend our time, with God’s help, in the power of God’s Spirit, to bring wholeness and healing to our lives and the lives of those around us. Pray. Love one another. Deeply. Love those people who sit around you in the pews. Love those people who sit in the opposite corner of the church to you. Or in the church down the road. Or who never sit in a church. Love one another.
Offer hospitality to one another. Not too bad. Without grumbling. That’s a bit harder, isn’t it?
Use whatever gift we have received. Use our gifts to God’s glory, and with the strength that God gives. Note that Peter assumes that everyone has gifts. God loves each one of us. God has given each one of us gifts. What are they? How are you using yours in God’s strength and to God’s glory? That doesn’t necessarily mean in the church, but it is a challenge to think about what we can do to show God’s love, to reveal God’s glory in whatever it is that we can do best at the moment. What we can do, what God calls us to do changes. That God gives us gifts to use doesn’t.
This is all part of bringing that wholeness to earth, bringing heaven to earth, that God longs for. And so seeking wholeness, asking for wholeness, is what God wants us to ask for, what God wants us to seek, and is what God wants us, in his strength, to show in our lives.
It’s also the role of our leaders, political and otherwise to bring wholeness. We know that often they can do the opposite. But let’s pray for all of them, of whatever party, that they will indeed bring wholeness and healing into situations.
Because healing is another signpost on our journey, one part of the answer yes to the question “are we nearly there yet?” That is physical healing, yes. It’s also the healing of emotions and relationships. And this can be miraculous and it can be slow and hard work. But God’s Spirit is at work in all these sorts of healing.
And our lives can also be signposts, showing God’s glory, bringing about a bit more wholeness,
Suffering, unfortunately, is part of what happens on the journey. Both Peter and Jesus make that clear in these passages, and in both of their lives. The pain of giving birth can be considerable, but leads to joy. We’ve seen that very clearly this week with Meriam. The suffering that she is enduring in Sudan, and the suffering of giving birth in such terrible conditions may, just may, bring about wider change. And it has certainly been a powerful witness of God-given courage and strength.
We are not passing through this world onto the next. No, the journey that we have is much more exciting. It’s about the journey of this world fully becoming the place that God always intended it to be, the place where heaven and earth interlock, where God will be with his people, where wholeness will be ours, where our tears will be wiped away and where we will fully know the healing of God’s love. Are we nearly there yet? Yes. And no. But God is with us on our journey. And at the end our joy will be complete. Amen.