I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the following: if there’s one constant thing in life, it’s change. That’s an oxymoron, of course, but there’s also much truth in it. Everybody and everything is changing. We are getting older. Our children and grandchildren grow up. The places we remember from our childhood are not the same today. Research and technology advance. And, and, and.
In my very first newsletter here at St. Matthew’s, I talked about changes, and how God is calling us into new things. I was quite surprised when someone, who receives this newsletter, but lives some distance away, responded to that article by sending a fiery letter that God never changes, and that we, as people of God and the church, are called to stick to doctrine and tradition and not change. Let’s put it this way: this person and I have had an interesting exchange about this.
And I am not even really disagreeing with that person. If there is one constant thing in my life, besides change, it’s God. God was there in the beginning, God has been my faithful companion through my life so far, and I am confident that God will be there in the end.
The promise of God’s constant and faithful presence is given to all of us in our baptism – as it will be given to J today. And the baptismal verse you, K and M, chose for J from Psalm 139, reflects this: Von allen Seiten umgibst du mich und hӓltst deine Hand über mich – You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. This is something no one can take from us. This cannot be changed. Ever.
However, we have quite a few stories in the Bible that talk about change and new things. Take the lesson from Acts, for example. In this story, the Apostle Paul is called to cross over from Asia Minor, where he has spread the good news about Jesus Christ for some time, onto the European continent. Come over to Macedonia and help us! God is calling Paul to do a new and maybe even uncomfortable thing: he has to cross the choppy and potentially dangerous waters of the Aegean Sea – and ongoing horrible news about refugees drowning in these waters today demonstrate, how dangerous it can be to cross these waters – and Paul doesn’t know what awaits him beyond that. Europe is uncharted territory, new territory, but Paul is willing to go – because he trusts, that God hems him in, behind and before, and lays his hand upon him, he trusts, that God is present.
Without Paul’s willingness to take this risk, and the mission on the European continent, we may not be here today – think about it!
But this kind of adventure and uncertainty is daunting. I think everyone who has come here from somewhere else – and that’s most of us, right? – knows something about leaving the place that is familiar, the place that is home, and starting over somewhere completely different. It’s not easy.
We may adjust to the changes, we may assimilate to our new environment – but still, we get homesick at times, we long for the things we are familiar with, we crave good German bread or Austrian pastries or real Swiss cheese, or whatever that special comfort food is you remember from the place you call home – we crave to see the places we come from, like our ‘Elternhaus’, our parents’ home, we long to connect with the culture, the music, the traditions we grew up with, we like to connect with family and old friends. There is safety and comfort in what we know – and what is familiar to us. And sometimes it just feels good and is good to go back – to be grounded.
At the same time, we move forward, in all aspects of our lives, and we don’t really have a say in that – it just happens, and we go along. That includes who and what we are as church. Yes, we have our cherished traditions, history and memories, but can’t stay in the past or go back to a time when things were better, the church fuller, the people younger and healthier and more committed. That’s past and gone. We need to be exploring new possibilities as we are grounded in our past.
Of course there is some tension in this. We live in this tension between the things that we turn back to, again and again, the things that enrich us and comfort us – and the call to move forward and adapt to the pace of the world around us. And that shouldn’t make us, people of the Lutheran tradition, feel uneasy, because we are a faith tradition of tensions, and those tensions define who we are in our life with God: servant and free, sinner and saint, now and not yet. It is in these tensions that things happen – and that we find a fluid identity – anchored and rooted in God, yet called onto new ways.
To go back to the discussion I’ve been having with that one person, the discussion about how God is unchanged, so we should be unchanged as church: yes, but. We constantly live between past, present, and future. And it is this tension that makes things happen. And we want things to change, don’t we? This world is far from perfect, we still long for God’s kingdom of justice and peace to come, we don’t live in the new and wonderful Jerusalem yet; as church, as people of faith, we have to do something here and now to keep the hope of the coming of this kingdom alive, through our words and actions. And this looks different today than in long gone days of the past. We need to change, because the world is ever changing.
And this is nothing new. Many words of our Holy Scriptures describe the tension of looking back and going forward at the same time. How often does God admonish the people to remember – to remember where they come from, and what God has done for them along the way. You shall not oppress the foreigner in your land, for remember how you were a foreigner in Egypt yourself, and a wandering Syrian was your ancestor, for example. However, God doesn’t want people to remember for the sake of going back, but in order to transform the present and to live according to God’s will here and now.
Have you ever noticed, that there are ‘Trees of Life’ as bookends of our Bible? There was the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, next to the tree of knowledge, and God basically kicked man and woman out of the garden so that they might not eat from the tree of life also and have eternal life and be like God. Paradise is lost.
In God’s New Jerusalem, we find not one, but apparently two trees of life, on each side of the river of life, easily accessible to anyone, and their leaves are for the healing of the nations. There is life abundant for all. Paradise is not simply restored, but there is a new creation. Things are ever changing; the familiar becomes something new.
In today’s gospel lesson, which is part of this long farewell speech Jesus gives to his disciples, Jesus says, I am going away, and I am coming to you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Things are ever changing. The familiar becomes something new.
And even the Resurrection of Christ, which we celebrate during this season and on any Sunday, talks about things changed; resurrection, after all, is not resuscitation, Jesus is not simply brought back to the living, but is raised to a new life, a life which is not bound to a certain age and locality, but transcends time and space. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The familiar becomes something new.
We live and work in the creative tension of past, present, and future.
Resurrection is not resuscitation. Our Resurrection faith is not a faith that is merely dependent on happenings and traditions of the past, but a faith that is alive and kicking today – drawing from the rich traditions of our faith and letting the familiar become something new. Wherever God’s Spirit is at work, there is transformation and new life, rooted in the old and familiar, growing into the eternal and surprising. We are Resurrection people, grounded in God and ever challenged and changed by this loving and gracious God who embraces us from age to age, who hems us in, behind and before, and lays his hand upon us. Amen
This post is also available in: German