Greatest Commandments 2.0

“Greatest Commandments 2.0”

May 24, 2020

Rev. Boone Clayton

Denbigh United Presbyterian Church

Acts 1:6-14

As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son— 14 all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

12 Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. 13 Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory—indeed, the Spirit of God—rests on you.

Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world. 10 After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be power forever and always. Amen.

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Anyone who seeks to read the Bible faithfully, allowing God to speak to them through the scriptures and the power of God’s Holy Spirit, knows how important it is not to impose themselves onto the text as they interpret it. We guard against this in many ways, but the pandemic has brought new meaning to so many parts of scripture. This passage we just heard from 1 Peter 4 & 5 was written into the context of the early church and early Christians, but so far, in the last two and a half months, I’m not sure if I’ve seen one more appropriate for pandemic. Here are a few examples of what stands out:

  • “Don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you.”
    • From the more mundane tests like a trip to the store to the serious trials of sick family members and loved ones, we are tested daily in a multitude of ways these days.
  • “Humble yourselves under God’s power.”
    • We rightly look to our earthly powers for guidance and leadership on what is best, but this is a welcome reminder of the greater power in our lives.
  • “Throw all your anxiety onto him.”
    • There’s certainly plenty of anxiety going around these days. Again, God is the greater power that we can lean on.
  • Resist evil, and “do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.”
    • It is hard to think of any scripture that speaks so directly to our situation in the world right now. People everywhere are enduring the same suffering. That knowledge seems to make our situation a bit more tolerable and gravely more important than it otherwise might be if each of our individual actions affected no one but ourselves. Of course, the idea that what we do in life doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves is always a fallacy, but the coronavirus pandemic has made that reality palpably clear. I would imagine – and hope – that we are forever changed in that regard.

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I often think back on those days surrounding the ides of March, when awareness of the pandemic was getting ramped up in America; when the whispers and rumors and strange video footage of foreign lands started to get closer and closer to home; when the threat was first in Wuhan, then all of China, then a few cruise ships, then Italy, and we in the U.S. were said to be next; when the economy was still humming along nicely for most of us; when one of my favorite sports events of the year – March Madness and the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments – were cancelled along with everything else; when we had our regularly scheduled (and in-person) stated Session meeting on Thursday, March 12. Three days earlier, Deborah and I had only begun discussing how to be as careful and safe as possible in the coming weeks of worship and meetings. If memory serves, she added the discussion of COVID-19 to the agenda just the day before, and I remember thinking that was appropriate so we could say we’d done our due diligence and cover all the bases, never dreaming of what would end up taking place. But things were moving so fast back then, and every day brought new changes and revelations and research and data from around the globe and around the country.

Before I knew it, we were adjourning a meeting wherein we had spent the majority of the time discussing the virus and the wisest course of action for the church to take moving forward, and all in-person activities were cancelled for two weeks (that of course became two more weeks which then became staying closed for as long as the Commonwealth of Virginia recommended, if not longer).

The point of all this navel-gazing and reminiscing about how much has changed in just two and a half months is just that: so much is changing on a weekly and even daily basis. It was undoubtedly the right decision then and it continues to be the right decision now, but it is hard. This [way of doing church] is still strange, and we still do not like it anymore now than we did then; it is still strange, but it is still no less necessary now than it was then. And because it is necessary, there is a certain joy that comes with making the best of it.

When we all started sheltering in place, and washing our hands for two Happy Birthdays whenever we could, and working from home, and parenting from home, and shopping less, and social distancing there was a certain novelty to the experience at first. I don’t think I’m alone in that. It wasn’t our favorite, but the whole thing had a side to it that was exciting because we were all doing our small parts for the good of our neighbors, our communities, our society, and all humankind.

I don’t know when exactly that excitement wore off, but it did and I remember feeling like I was trapped in a sort of strange prison where the coronavirus is the warden and the two small children I live with are the guards who are in charge too much the time. To some extent, and based on all of our own individual circumstances at this point in life, I think this difficulty applies to all of us. Enrollment in online therapy has increased dramatically, a trend which sociologists say will only continue; crime outside the home in the community is down, but domestic crimes are significantly up; we are all struggling with too much or too little: food, sleep, TV, Netflix…too much time with the kids, not getting any time with the grandkids. But the common denominator, of course, for introverts and extroverts alike, is too little human interaction outside of our own immediate circle.

As the reality of long-term isolation started to set in somewhere around late April, I found myself remembering some of the prominent, isolating Christians of long ago that I had read and studied…long ago. These were monks, nuns, and others called anchorites that separated themselves from the rest of society to live together or alone. One of the most memorable of these was an anchorite woman named Julian of Norwich. She voluntarily lived most of her life in a large cell of a room attached to a church in Norwich, which is northeast of London, close to the eastern coast of England. She wrote a well-known book called “Revelations of Divine Love” which, as it happens, was the first book written in English by a woman. Julian was about six years old when the Black Plague came to Norwich in 1348, and so she was no stranger to the 14th century version of the type of thing we are experiencing and living through right now. Her words echo today’s passage from 1 Peter when she wrote: “Christ did not say, ‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’”

I wonder if we don’t have something significant in common at this point in our stories with the disciples in Acts 1 from today’s reading. They have been on a long journey with Jesus with many ups and downs and they have just witnessed Jesus be lifted up into the sky and taken out of their sight by a cloud. What a massive high – no pun intended – and a big low, back-to-back: Jesus is victorious over death and taken up to heaven with God, and yet everyone left behind is left to once again try to figure out life without him.

What do they do? Verses 13 and 14 say that when they returned to Jerusalem, they all went to the upstairs room where they were staying – some 20 people – and they prayed. Jesus leaves and they all do some self-imposed quarantining and just pray. Before he left, Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come upon them and they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, but they do not pretend they’re immediately ready to do that, first they pray.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t normally have the best prayer practices. I pray regularly, but not enough; and I’ve never been consistently good at sitting still in the quiet of my own thoughts and immersing myself in prayer to God or meditation or anything else. But I have found joy in praying in a variety of ways in life, perhaps in pursuit of my own version of the “praying without ceasing” that the Bible talks about, and all in all the pandemic has been really good for prayer.

Going back to Julian of Norwich’s 14th century England, an anonymous manual written for anchorites like Julian reminded them of something that I find incredibly valuable to us today: it told people who had chosen to be isolated and alone by choice that they were enclosed not just for their own benefit, but for the sake of others too. “Gather into your heart all those who are ill…and feel compassion.” By self-isolating, the anchorite “holds all fellow believers up with their prayers.”

Prayer can take form in many ways, but today I want to tell you about something happening in the church that needs the attention of all of our prayers. In March, in what might have been the last meeting of church members in the church building before all in-person activities were cancelled, Pastor Deborah and I gathered a small group together to form what would be called the DUPC COVID-19 Task Force. This group has as its chief purpose to monitor the local and national state of the coronavirus pandemic and assess the impact on our church and all activities that take place here. As we have now entered into Phase I of Virginia’s reintegration plan, with Phase II coming in the not-too-distant future, we want our church to be doing everything possible to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our community. The task force meets regularly and makes reports to the Session, our church’s primary governing body, with recommendations as necessary. Pastor Deborah and I would like to ask each of you to pray for both the task force and our Session, and we are going so far as to declare this coming Wednesday, May 27 a Day of Prayer. We hope to share the fruits of this process with you all in the coming days and weeks, but above all we hope and trust that the church can be in prayer together about the work ahead of us.

This is hard on all of us, I know. It is hard because so much of this feels so unnatural. It is not an earth-shattering statement to point out that humans are made to live in community with one another. But I want to share two quotes with you that I think encapsulate why it is so hard, and yet why it is so important. The first is from a book that came out just last year called The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker. In a sort of prescient way, the novel is about a pandemic that sweeps across the world and how one town navigates the crisis. Writing about how community spread and exposure takes place so easily in what used to be our normal, everyday activities, Walker writes, “This is how the sickness travels best: through all the same channels as do fondness and friendship and love.” How painful it can be to give up so many of the things we do to foster fondness, friendship, and love…

To take it a step further, a Presbyterian pastor in Decatur, Georgia recently wrote in a perspective piece for the Washington Post: “Presence is not just at the heart of Communion; it is at the heart of our faith. We show up for others. ‘I am with you’ is the message Jesus embodied in life, death and beyond. But therein lies the tension during this coronavirus pandemic: To obey the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor, we must stay away from both the church and others.” This is the strange logic of the age in which we live: so many of the ways in which we previously sought to give and share and love, to walk with and accompany, to cry with and laugh with and eat and drink with – so much of those ways of loving God and loving neighbor are off the table right now. It is hard, but we must find new ways to live into those greatest commandments – we are finding new ways and we will never stop seeking that out. Let us do so in the knowledge that our fellow believers and our entire world are enduring the same suffering, and that the God of all grace, the one who called us all in Christ Jesus, will restore, empower, and strengthen us. It is well with our soul, come what may.