Sunday, May 28, 2017

That They May Be One

Acts 1:6-11; John 17:1-11
May 27/28, 2017
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

[Prior to reading John 17:1-11. “It is Jesus’ prayer that we will be one. To do that, we need a whole new way of seeing the world and seeing one another. I pray that we will have that before we leave this room today.”]

I was listening to a fascinating interview once while driving down the freeway into Des Moines. Of all things, it was Terri Gross – whose show “Fresh Air” is celebrating its 30th year of broadcasting this month – interviewing a baker. It was a man who bakes bread for a living. Bread baking is a bit of a lost art in our time, when it is so easy and convenient simply to grab a loaf along with everything else at the market. And while some of you may still, occasionally or regularly, bake your own bread, most of us have simply given up on the process because it can be so time-consuming and can actually turn out pretty badly if we don’t do it well. So, this interview was fascinating because here is someone who bakes bread each day, walking through the process and identifying not simply the recipes or the steps, but the whole nature of what is happening to the ingredients as they are mixed together into one common ball of dough.

And, it’s a little bit horrifying. There’s the carbohydrate starch, whose granules are being attacked by the enzymes in the flour. There’s the yeast, which is a live, single-celled fungus that is dormant until it comes into contact with warm water. Once reactivated, yeast begins feeding on the sugars in flour, and releases bubbly carbon dioxide that makes bread rise. In the same process the dough produces alcohol, which is why it smells like beer, and that alcohol is turned into gas during the baking that makes the dough rise even more into a loaf. And meanwhile there are two proteins that get bonded together making a stretchy, gummy gluten, which is why all of these little bubbling explosions don’t simply release out into the world and keeps all of this activity inside of the dough except for those occasional crater or two that pops through the surface. And we dignify this whole process and call it “fermentation,” but we know that underneath that doughy surface that that final, beautiful crusty finish – there’s like this miniature nuclear war taking place right there in our kitchen!

And, it can go badly. Left to their own devices, all of these chemical interactions in the dough are actually aiming toward destruction. What we call “putrefaction” is the same process of fungi feeding off proteins and decomposing them into a million little pieces, releasing putrid-smelling oxidized gasses. And that’s when the baker said something that was so profound I literally took the next exit in order to park somewhere and write it down. He said, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.”

That is probably the best, brief description I have ever heard of what it means to live in time: That fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.

We experience that fine line all the time. Think of the difference between ‘growing up’ and ‘growing old.’ It’s the same process, only at one point it leads to muscular development and at another point it leads to muscular degeneration. The various ways that we speak of “aging” are nice ways of saying, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” Think of the difference between a “classic” piece of furniture and a piece of junk. What we call “antiquing” is a dignified way of saying “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” Think of those so very groovy those psychedelic-covered new “Living Bibles” from back in the 70’s when people in orange turtlenecks and bell-bottomed pants thought they were the neatest thing in Christianity since the cross necklace. And just imagine all of the churches across the nation now hiding them somewhere because nobody wants them any more than we want to use the word “groovy” and you can’t simply throw away a Bible. What we often call “church closets” is a way of saying, “There’s a fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” To live in time means that those very same things that seemed once to be bubbling up with new life become the same process degenerating into decay. And it happens to everything that we know – whether we are talking about matter or ideas – so much that we simply accept it as how life is. “Time” is our way of naming that line between fermentation and putrefaction.

Into this normalized expected way of life comes a radical Christian doctrine that defies everything that we know. It’s called “eternal life.” I know. The phrase “eternal life” sounds like a bit of a letdown after I called it a “radical doctrine that defies everything we know,” but that’s partly because we seem to have this phrase all wrong. Let me offer how it is that I think we often hear this phrase and then let me offer another way of hearing it, which I believe capture its real power, particularly as Jesus uses it in his prayer that we have read together.

I think when we hear the phrase “eternal life” we often have in mind the “Energizer Bunny” version of time. Time that just keeps going and going. It’s as if we see time as a solid horizontal line. There’s History over there, but our line begins when we were born ‘here’; we had this tragic experience ‘here’; we finally achieved this goal ‘here’; we had this wonderful blessing ‘here’; face a challenge “here”; went through a change “here”; and finally we die ‘here.’ Aft that, the solid, horizontal line become a broken line where we guess that, either immediately or after the great resurrection day we will continue to live on and on as time keeps going and going and going. And, frankly, the farther out it gets the harder it is to imagine because we’re so accustomed to time as that journey from fermentation to putrefaction. And, to be honest, I think our deepest apprehension may be boredom. Even though the idea of being in the full presence of God and being overwhelmed with glory and alive with praise and worship is beautiful, even that sort of beatific moment seems like it might get a little old after about thirty-seven million years. But, that is, I think how we most often hear the phrase, “eternal life.”
But, what if the phrase “eternal life” pointed not to life in time that just keeps going and going, but life apart from time itself. What if synchronicity – things happening at the same time – and sequence – things happening one after the other; and past, present, and future; and tomorrow, today, and yesterday; and now and then and back then; and all of the other ways that we have grown accustomed to knowing time itself were transcended into what the theologian Paul Tillich famously called “the eternal now.” What if the end is the beginning and the middle and everything in between. What if all of the regrets from yesteryear that cause us pain right now and those fears of tomorrow that cause us anxiety right now were all melded into one single, ongoing way of being called “blessed.” The phrase “eternal life” is not a way of resigning ourselves to this march of time, just for a lot longer than any of us can imagine. It points to something greater than time itself, loosed from the bondage of time, transcending even that process from fermentation to putrefaction. Chris and I had a glimpse of this when one of our children was a maddening, stubborn, and mule-headed two-year-old. And one day, just as I was battling against the desire to throttle him, I looked at her and said, “This is the same personality that will one day allow him to stand up to his friends and say ‘no’ to drugs.”

Or, think of it this way. We tend to think of that timeline as flat. What if eternal life does not intend to length of the line, but the depth of that line at every moment. Every single moment that we experience is not just a step between the last and the next, but is a moment that is filled with eternal meaning, filled with eternal purpose, filled with God’s own presence. It would mean that, even now, even in the most apparently mundane moment of life, even in the storm or the dark or the confusion or the boredom, even then each moment is filled with eternal significance. Because in that moment, God is in you, you are in God, God’s purpose is being worked out in your life, you are a carrier of God’s own spirit.


Before Jesus prayed to God that his followers may be one, he thanked God that God had given him the authority to grant eternal life to his disciples. And he said, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So I want you to look hard around this room. Every person you see here is living in eternal life. I invite you to look hard at the persons whom you love, with whom you are close. Look them in the eye and don’t stop until see it! Don’t stop until you see the eternal written all over them. And the next time you look into a mirror, you look hard at that persons looking back at you and don’t stop until you see it – that person is filled with eternal life. And it doesn’t matter if you are having a bad day or are in a dark place – remember, Jesus is praying for a bunch of losers in this prayer! It is true because God is faithful, not because we are strong. And when you’ve been able to look into the eyes of someone you love and see the eternal there; when you’ve been able to look into the eyes of the one in the mirror and see the eternal there; then you’ll be able to go out and see the eternal in everyone – the casual friend, the stranger, even the enemy. When we see the eternal in each moment, eternal life in each person, then we can be one, as Jesus and God are one. And that is Jesus’ prayer for you today. Amen.

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