May 17 sermon of the Rev. Dr. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield
Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
In the Christian spiritual tradition there are three steps or dimensions that have been identified through the centuries. They are called “Ways.” That is to say they are paths we can follow, that have been trodden by many others before us. All three are represented in today’s readings. Each one has something to offer us in this time of living with the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, in the traditional order, is the Purgative Way. This is about cleaning ourselves up. More accurately, it about allowing God to clean us up. It may involve admitting to ourselves and to God habits and behaviors that do not bring us closer to God, our neighbors or ourselves. It may involve asking for and receiving forgiveness. Yet, that is only one aspect of the purgative way. A few weeks ago we heard the story of the woman visiting silversmith to see how silver is purged in the fire. In today’s psalm we heard, “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried.” This is how God purges us of the impurities in us. In effect, God has to remake us. In the First Letter of Peter we hear this comment about baptism: “Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism is an internal cleansing, getting rid of our shame and our guilt. Purgation is about removing the dross, the unnecessary, that which obscures the image of God in each of us.
In this time of living in the pandemic, we are finding that much is stripped away. We are being forced to remember that we are mortal. We think about the possibility of dying from this disease, and we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This in turn invites us to live every day to the fullest. To cherish every moment. Many of us who are remaining in our homes day after day are left with ourselves, with God, and with the most important relationships in our lives. For those of us who must leave our homes to go to work, we find that our lives have been pared down. We are left with essentials. The dross is purged away.
Second, is the Illuminative Way. This is the path of enlightenment. We learn from the Word of God. Our hearts are filled with the truth of God. We are bathed in light. We may find transforming truth in the reading of Scripture. We may find it in times of prayer and contemplation. We may be illuminated by experiences with other people, the glory of the natural world, encounters with art, literature, or science. Jesus, in the Gospel reading this morning speaks of God sending us the Advocate. “This is the Spirit of truth,” he says. In another place Jesus told his disciples at the last supper that they could not receive all truth at that time, but that the Holy Spirit, this Advocate, would lead them into all truth as time went by. This is the Spirit that has been teaching the church through the centuries that slavery has no part in the Kingdom that God is building on earth, that women are to be respected as equals of men, that all people are made in the image of God, and so on.
During this pandemic, we are being enlightened about a number of things. We are learning what is necessary what is not. We are learning what is important and what is not. Some of us have more time to read, pray, and think. We are learning that we don’t need social time as much as we need relational time. We are learning to attend to our feelings and our emotional health as the stress continues. We are learning how important community is for our health and well-being. We are learning things about ourselves and our commitments. We are learning about the value of human life. And we are learning about the value of eternal life.
Finally, there is the Unitive Way. This is the path of union with God. This is when prayer moves from conversation with God, to simply being one with God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “On that day, you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” This is the intuition and mystery that the transcendent God, who is outside of time and space and who made all that exists, is also present with us and even inside us in some way. Indeed, this idea is so universal, that Paul could quote a Greek poet of the fourth century before Christ in support of his assertion that God “is not far from each one of us. For `In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, `For we too are his offspring.’” This union with God is the ultimate goal of prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
During this pandemic the Unitive Way reminds us of our ultimate purposes and fundamental identity. We remember that we are made of star dust. Some of us have more time for our primary relationships, which are sacraments of our relationship with God. We have more time for reflection, contemplation, and prayer. We can take time to stop, breathe, and sense God’s presence. Richard Rohr quotes an unnamed source saying, “God comes to us, disguised as our life.” Since we are in God and God in us, we need not fear the virus, or the loss of anything, for all we need or even desire is found in this God who is already with us and in us.
So, this time of pandemic is an opportunity to walk the Purgative Way and lay aside what is unnecessary or unhelpful to us. We can walk the Illuminative Way and learn what is necessary and important. We can walk the Unitive Way and experience the presence of God with us and in us. These are precious gifts and roads of joy to our ultimate glory.