All week long my colleagues and I joked on Facebook about the pending “end of the world” - which since we are still here, did not happen yesterday. Apparently some mathematical configuration found in the Bible defined May 21, 2011 as the day of the rapture – the return of Christ – potentially leaving the world in upheaval and chaos as “some are taken up to God” and some are left behind.
Charles Hardy, in his book, The Empty Raincoat, has some thoughts on the idea of chaos. He writes:
“Management and control are breaking down everywhere. The new world order looks very likely to end in disorder. We can't make things happen the way we want them to at home, at work, or in government, certainly not in the world as a whole. There are, it is now clear, limits to management....
Scientist call this sort of time the edge of chaos, the time of turbulence and creativity out of which a new order may jell. The first living cell emerged some four million years ago, from a primordial soup of simple molecules and amino acids. Nobody knows why or how. Ever since then the universe has had an inexorable tendency to run down, to degenerate into disorder and decay. Yet it has also managed to produce from that disorder an incredible array of living creatures. Plants, and bacteria, as well as stars and planets. New life is forever springing from the decay and disorder of the old.
At the Santa Fe Institute, where a group of scientists are studying these phenomena, they call it 'complexity theory.' They believe that their ideas have as much relevance to oil prices, race relations, and the stock market as they do to particle physics...(that) the edge of chaos (is) the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive and alive....” (The Empty Raincoat, Arrow Books, 1995, pg. 16).
In a way, this describes our Christian understanding of life: that from chaos came life. We hear it in Genesis, and it's the resurrection story too.
Granted, today's reading from Acts gives us a particular snapshot of the chaos, of the struggles of the Christian life. Stephen, who is known as the first Deacon of the church, has run into trouble. Some people have rejected his leadership and the punishment is death. Stephen, as he faces the end of his life, offers us a mystical glimpse of his faith, and his confidence in the love of God. He asks for forgiveness for those who judge him and expresses trust in the life to come. His confidence in the love of God is intended to remind us to invest our selves in this life, this world, acting as agents of God's presence, God's compassion, even when we face challenges, struggles, fears, and chaos. Stephan’s faith believes that out of chaos comes new life.
The stories we hear from Acts of the Apostles are of the challenges of the early church being birthed into life from the tragedy of two events: the crucifixion of Jesus, and the chaos of the Roman-Jewish war that destroyed the temple in the year 72. Those who formed the early church were Jews who worshiped, as they always had, in their home synagogues, creating two branches of Judaism that co-existed for some forty years. That is, until the temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered. The temple was the heart of Jewish faith – the temple was where God lived, where people came to be in the presence of God. The tension of that chaotic time - the death of Jesus and the destruction of the temple - separated the followers of Jesus from those who followed the teachers of Moses. Judaism took on a new life, formed in smaller groups around a single teacher, and the rabbinic tradition was born. The story we hear in Acts reflects the movement of those who rejected the rabbinic movement and followed the teachings of Jesus, giving birth to Christianity. Out of chaos comes new life.
Our Psalm this morning points us in this same direction. It's a beautiful Psalm. One that Jesus clearly knew from his Jewish upbringing. In the Gospel of Luke, the final words of Jesus on the cross are from this Psalm: “Into your hand I commit my Spirit.”
The Psalmist reminds us that in the midst of chaos and confusion and tragedy, God is ever present. God walks with us, God carries us, God abides with us, God never leaves us. But more than that, the resurrection reminds us that God always scoops into the chaos and brings forth new life. But God doesn't do this alone.
In the Gospel reading Jesus expresses a profound mystical understanding of the presence of God, a presence found in this life and in the life to come. Without spelling this out in concrete detail of date and time and place, Jesus speaks with assurance of the comprehensive love of God, now and in the future. As Christians we understand this abiding love of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For us, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The opening passages of John's Gospel remind us that Jesus is a particular expression of God's-self. The Word, as an expression of God manifests as Jesus. The prologue to the Gospel of John suggest that the Word is more than a person made flesh, the Word has been part of God's expression into the world since before creation. The Word spoke into the chaos and brought forth order, new life, land and water, sun, moon and stars, and every living creature. The Word expresses God's self into all creation, into the life of Jesus, and continues to express God's love into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some believe that the Word expresses God's self into other faith traditions, into Judaism and Islam, and maybe others, as well. Who knows? The Word of God, God's self expression, is mystical and beyond our ability to know fully. As Christians we know God in the Trinity; specifically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Understanding God and the purpose of our lives through Jesus, through baptism, and through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, shapes and forms who we Christians are as human beings. However, this reading from the Gospel of John is less about our faith and more about how we make meaning of our faith. This reading calls us to not only model our lives on Jesus, but to do even greater things – love even more abundantly, give even more generously, live even more expansively, than Jesus. That is a high calling!
Thankfully the reading reminds us that the power, the ability to do even greater things than Jesus did during his life, does not come from our own ability. Rather, this ability comes from our relationship with God, and is always a God-infused gift of opportunity and ability. Out of the chaos God brings forth new life. Through the incarnation, when the Word became flesh, we learn that God sometimes chooses to do God's work through human life. In the resurrection we learn that God sometimes chooses to renew creation through human life. And, so, likewise God sometimes chooses to use us, to enable us to be partners in co-creating the well-being of the world. We are called to be the hands and heart of Christ, called to respond to the broken places of this world with love and compassion, to heal and to help, generously.
Out of chaos, comes new life.