A New Commandment and A New Heaven

Sunday 24th April 2016
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Revelation 21.1-6
John 13.31-35

Christ is risen!

My chief complaint against scientists who say that our whole mental apparatus is just a bunch of synapses subject to electro-chemical signals is not that the work in the laboratory has fallen short but that this form of analysis reduces complexity to the wrong focus; what counts is not so much how the brain's chemicals work but why, whatever they signal, the results never come out the same way twice in the same person or in different people. It's obvious to people who are not scientists that although each of us knows ourselves to be an individual, we also know that we change through time; and we also know that however similar to other people we are, we are not identical; not even zygotic, identical twins, are identical; even if they share DNA characteristics to the nth degree, there is always something in their environment, in their cultural ecology, the sum total of their experience, which sets them apart. So, for example, one identical twin may burn her hand as a child while the other might have fallen into a pond; thus, their respective fear of fire and water will be different.

And so, no matter how far the synapse argument goes, it doesn't actually help us very much to understand why people are violent or passive, introvert or extrovert, optimistic or pessimistic. We know there is a debate to be had between the influence of nature, our inherited genes, and nurture, how we have grown up; and we know that there is a line to be drawn somewhere between criminality and illness but, again, we don't know where it is.

Then there is the issue of our reaction to culture: I have been lucky in my life to cry much less often in desolation than I have in exultation: I have never yet been to a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony without crying during the final chorus and so the idea in our Reading from Revelation is richly nuanced for me: the idea that God will wipe away all tears from my eyes is so impossibly beautiful that it makes me cry.

Equally impossibly beautiful, with much more emphasis on the "impossibly" is the New Commandment in the gospel of John that we should love one another as Jesus loves us, impossible because it is not possible to compare the two kinds of love, even if we use the same word for both of them.

Looked at this way, our two ideas add up to the requirement to obey an impossible commandment in order to achieve an impossible blessedness.

But the genius of the Incarnation is that we are not left, like the Chosen People, to struggle with an impossibly abstract God who created us out of love. Jesus is our example in human life whose perfection is beyond us but whose example informs our kingdom building; freed from the entanglements of voices in the sky turned into a legal code, we have a life; we have teaching; and we have an abiding sense of God's solidarity with us in the flesh of Jesus, in our striving and in our suffering. On this basis, then, the New Commandment is not impossible, although we will never, if we are honest, under-estimate our difficulty in complying with it.

As for the heavenly promise, we are too apt to shrug, saying something like: "Well, I don't know what's going to happen when I die" which, from a human point of view, is entirely correct, but the narrowness of the perception is precisely the same as that which limits human behaviour to electro-chemical reactions. Of course we do not know in human terms what it will be like to be face to face with God but not knowing is quite different from not accepting. I don't have a clue what electro-chemical firings make me cry when I hear the last chorus of Mahler's Second Symphony but I'm not actually bothered; what matters is not how I cry but that I cry. And what matters about the end purpose for which we were created is the reality of the encounter.

Looked at this way, moving on from our previous simplification, there is this much more reassuring proposition: if we try to love one another as Jesus loves us, then God will keep his promise, made concrete in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, that we will live with God, face-to-face, as was the initial intention of creation.

Too often, the Christian reflex is to discount the victory of Christ over death, to explain away the magnificent exposition of Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians and to align our analysis of the Good News of Jesus with the kind of news we are addicted to on television. Countless commercial enterprises to sell us good news, and even balanced news, have gone bust; we have a morbid interest in incompleteness and failure; in the shortcomings of others even more than in the shortcomings of ourselves. We don't quite believe in the promises set out graphically in the Resurrection and at Pentecost. They are, to use a vulgar phrase, too good to be true, whereas our own shortcomings are all too obvious.

But the promise was made in God's full knowledge of our imperfection. The human capacity to kill God in Jesus didn't - to use a metaphor advisedly - cause any surprise up in heaven. God, outside time, 'knows' everything that 'will' happen inside time.

We are, therefore, to rejoice, if we can only bring ourselves to do it. We were made to love, we were made to worship, we were made to be with God; our imperfection does not define us any more than an imperfection in a work of art defines it. To be human is to be imperfect and in recognising this we must not discount our condition, consoling ourselves that there is always somebody more imperfect than us. We must repent our wrong choices which arise out of necessary imperfection, but we should never doubt our mission to love one another, and we should never doubt our ultimate joy. If we keep our nerve, we can be sure that God will keep His promise.

Christ is Risen!