All Saints Sunday
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Rev. 21; Is. 26
LEARNING TO FLY
Do you ever dream of flying? And I don’t mean in an airplane. I mean more like Superman. There you are in the middle of a dream, you simply jump up in the air, and you find yourself able to suddenly soar above the houses and trees and get the bird’s-eye view. I have those dreams every now and then, and they’re my favorite! When I first jump up in the air, I actually get the physical sensations of riding up an elevator. I can remember those sensations when I wake up. And the feeling of being able to soar above the rooftops is wonderful! I love it!
But my dreams have never quite been like those of John the Seer, the writer of the book of Revelation. Talk about dreams of flying! John, in his Christ-inspired visions, flies all over the place, from earth to heaven, and to earth again. Flying all around with angels, he sees amazing sights, both horrifying but then also heartening. In this morning’s lesson, John’s apocalyptic vision climaxes with a flight up to a great, high mountain, from which vantage point he is able to witness the spectacular sight of God’s holy city coming down out of heaven. Included in that vision is the sight of Paradise with its river of life. It recalls the story of Genesis with the tree of life and its abundant fruit–but with one great exception: there is no longer anything accursed there. There is no tree by whose fruit we might be cursed, as there was for Adam and Eve. Wow! What a sight, huh?! That must have been a fantastic dream to wake up from–flying all around with angels, seeing such exhilarating sights… It was just a dream, wasn’t it?
Believe it or not, I’d like for us to consider this morning that it wasn’t just a dream. John’s Revelation was more than a dream. Oh, I’m not trying to say that these events were literally true. No, but I would like to say that John’s apocalypse is a symbolic vision of the way things are revealed to be in Jesus Christ…and a vision of what they are becoming in him. Because of Christ, God’s holy city is coming down from heaven, giving us a new place, a new home, in which to live. Where, in this crazy, mixed up world, is this new home? On this All Saints Sunday and Consecration Sunday, would it be too much for me to suggest that the most likely place for us to experience this new home is right here, among Jesus’ disciples at Martin Luther Church? John was writing this revelation of his in a letter to seven churches in Asia. Do you suppose he meant for them to catch a glimpse of themselves as God’s new home coming down from heaven? And would it be outrageous for me to say that we could also learn to fly in catching this glimpse? Not literally, of course–but spiritually, let’s say. Because–that feeling of flight?–I think we call it freedom. So I’m going to go for broke this morning and suggest to you two pretty fantastic things: (1) that you can begin to learn how to fly like St. John, that is, to learn to truly be free; and (2) that you can glimpse God’s holy city in yourselves–all right here at Martin Luther! Do you think I can do all that in ten minutes or less?
Where do we begin? When learning how to fly, the first thing we need to know is: what is holding us down? In the case of literally flying, it’s the force of gravity, of course. When it comes to spiritual flying, to true freedom, there’s another force that keeps us down. Traditionally, we call this force “original sin.” It is, in some ways, a natural force like gravity. But we need to be careful about how we think of its naturalness. We’ve sometimes come to think of original sin as something that resides inside you and me, as something each of us is born with. That idea is especially hard with little Karl John and Samuel Peter, whose births we celebrate this week, isn’t it? How are they born with sin?
Well, my answer is: I don’t think they are. The way we put it in our baptism liturgy is that Karl and Samuel are born into sin. They are born into a sinful world where the forces of sin still have their way with us. Again, I think the image of gravity can be helpful. Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is not something that resides in each object. This apple–as one like it supposedly fell from the tree and hit Newton in the head–is not created with a force that necessarily makes it fall. No, Newton discovered that gravity is a force that acts on the relationshipbetween objects. This apple, while on the earth, will always fall because it is in close relationship with that much larger object, the earth. In outer space, it doesn’t fall anymore. It’s weightless.
What does this all have to do with our learning to fly and to see the holy city coming down out of heaven? Well, St. John saw that the fruit of the tree of life will not curse us anymore. It will no longer make us fall. How so? Think of that story in Genesis 3, in which the fruit does make the man and the woman fall. Eve sees that it is desirable. “Desire” might very well be a good name for original sin. Eve desired the fruit of that tree, even though God told her not to. Ultimately, what she and her husband came to desire was to be like God.
But we must be careful about how we see the nature of desire. I’ve recently discovered someone who, if Isaac Newton is the guru of the relationship between physical bodies, then we might someday consider this person to be the Isaac Newton of the relationship between human bodies, between persons. His name is René Girard. He has helped clarify for me to see that what drags us down, what keeps us from flying in our human relationships, is desire. And, like gravity, it’s not an individual thing. It’s wrong to think that desire is a force inside each of us. No, it’s a force between us. That’s a crucial difference! Our desires don’t simply arise in us. No, desires come to us by watching others. We imitate the desires of others. But then we also come into rivalry with them. This rivalry can keep building until the objects of our desires don’t even matter much any more. All that comes to really matter is the rivalry. Ultimately, it is a rivalry with God. We want to be our own gods, thinking that our desires and choices are all our own, even though they’re not.
One of the neat things about Girard is that he came to believe that the things that were becoming clear to him are the kinds of things that the bible is trying to reveal to us. So Girard helps me read the bible in whole different way. That story of Genesis 3, for instance, where did that desire for the fruit of the forbidden tree come from? Did it simply arise in the woman? No, it happened in relationship. The serpent convinced her that it was desirable, and then she convinced her husband. It all led to a rivalry with God, with thinking they could be like God. And it led to a terrible rivalry amongst themselves. Their two sons, Cain and Abel, were born into this rivalry and one eventually killed the other. Violence.
Doesn’t this describe the society we live in today? We live under an illusion that our desires are all our own, that we are free. We think that if we can only win the lottery or something, then we’ll be able to satisfy our heart’s desire. We’ll be free! Just thinking about it feels like flying, doesn’t it? But it’s all an illusion. These desires do nothing but actually drag us down. I have a favorite story these days from a video confirmation series we’re using at Emmaus. It’s about a girl named Kathy, who one day has a secret pal begin to give her gifts. She is so excited at first, reacting to these gifts. The gifts start out small. Finally, it even leads to a new house, a mansion, really. Kathy is walking around this new house all excited, eventually getting to the backyard, where all of a sudden her expression changes: “Where’s the pool? And the tennis courts? What! No tennis courts!” We think this kind of material comfort will make us free. But it simply leads to a greater rivalry that just drags us down. We think that financial security will help us to fly, but it is more like jumping out a plane without a parachute. That’s why Jesus was so hard on rich people, I think.
I have one other favorite example of our problem with desire, and it’s so appropriate this week with the births of Karl and Samuel. I’m sure Peter and Kathie will provide them with ample toys as they grow. But what happens with kids and their toys? Karl will want the toy that Samuel has; and Samuel will want Karl’s. It’s natural because we gain our desires from each other. We imitate them, and that leads to rivalry. But Karl and Samuel are also fortunate that they will be baptized into another force that redeems our lives from this rivalry and violence. They will be baptized into the Holy Spirit of the one who came not to rival us but to serve us, to serve us even to the point of death on the cross. Karl and Samuel will be baptized into the power of the one who, even though he was equal to God, did not count that as a thing to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.
You and I, we are all baptized into this spirit, so that we can know true freedom, we can learn how to fly. And we can begin to glimpse our true home, coming down from heaven, amongst those who are truly disciples of this servant King, Jesus Christ. He comes to us each week to feed us, to nourish us in this life of service to God and to one another. He calls us to opportunities in his church, in his new body, to live out this life of service. Such an invitation comes again at the end of the service today, as each of you has an opportunity to make a commitment to service in Christ’s name. Be daring as you make those commitments today. And see if you don’t dream about flying tonight! For in discipleship to Jesus Christ, we can truly learn how to fly. We can truly learn to glimpse God’s home coming down from heaven in our very acts of service in Christ’s name. Renew your commitment today! And have a good flight! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Martin Luther Lutheran,
Milwaukee, WI, November 5, 1995