Our summer-long series on the Apostles’ Creed comes to a close this morning with the last lines of this beloved confession. When it came time to dole out who would be preaching what verses, I was a bit shaken by this closing line. It seemed to be the vaguest of them all, a bit of theological wordsmithing at the end of a clear, concise prayer. Whose life is everlasting? Ours? Christ’s? Our communal life together? And what was everlasting? Was this about heaven? About eternity?
While I affirm the belief that our lives as Christians continue after death and in the promise of eternal life , I doubted that this was all the Creed meant then or means today. Or maybe it does and I’m reading too much into it. Regardless, I cannot help but think that the life everlasting is something bigger than ourselves and what happens at the end of our life. The life everlasting as I know it and have seen it to be true comes not from us but from the life of Christ who is definitively everlasting. The life everlasting is possible because of Christ’s everlasting presence. So there we begin.
The words we heard this morning from the Gospel According to John occur right before Christ is headed to his trial and eventual death. Parting words for his beloved. And in pure Gospel of John fashion, the words Christ chooses are philosophical and enigmatic, albeit beautiful. He says: "Where I am, you may be also." Words of comfort. Words meant to remind the disciples that this is all far bigger than them and has been so since the beginning. "Do not your hearts be troubled!" "I go to prepare a place for you." Jesus’ lengthy monologue is so heartfelt I can’t believe that anyone would interrupt him. But of course, the disciples question him. Philip and Judas (not Iscariot the text is careful to note) are confused – how can Jesus be with us if we cannot see him? Jesus responds again and again with phrases like, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you" and "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." You in me, and I in you.
To know Christ’s presence so deeply takes a sense of humility, a sense of dependence on the holy. To know that you are not alone, that Christ, even in the darkest hour of his own life, promises not to leave you orphaned takes courage. It takes deep breaths in chaos. It takes strength to expel all doubt. I imagine it looks like this…
Decatur, Georgia, Tuesday, August 20, 2013. The two of them in there for an hour: Antoinette, the school clerk at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy and Michael, the man who came in with a gun and an intention to shoot. Thanks be to God the story ends as it does. In a moving interview with Antoinette,1 you hear her say that she that when he came in, she simply began speaking to Michael. She told him her story, asked him his. When he told her he had nothing to live for, she reassured him that he did. When she convinced him to turn himself in, she told him that she loved him and that it would be ok. A man with a gun and an armload of ammunition. Angry and feeling alone. A woman with a voice and a prayer filled with confidence. Assured and feeling not alone. You in me, and I in you.
What strikes me about Antoinette and Michael’s shared experience is the difference in their sense of being, of existence. Michael repeatedly told Antoinette that he was going to die and that it was over for him. Antoinette began to reach out to him in response, telling her story of how she was the mother of a child with multiple disabilities and was experiencing a recent separation from her husband of 33 years. She told him she’s still at it, still moving on and that he had the chance to live, too. As Antoinette spoke to him, Michael began to calm down and open up. He told her he wasn’t taking his medicine and that he was sorry. He told her he’d been at the school before to perform with a band. It became a conversation between friends, between two people who no longer felt orphaned. Once alone, now found, now assured that someone was hearing him, Michael turned himself in to the police and the school was safe. Antoinette humbly claims it was all God and that she was just praying the entire time. All God, indeed.
It is so rare to be at the brink of destruction, of death, of drowning in a sea of despair, that people feel assured and calm. Chaos is usually the order of the moment – frantic tossing and turning, shouting and grasping for answers. And yet, Antoinette harnessed what she knew to be true words from her Savior: I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.
Such was true for a woman who lived hundreds of years before Antoinette. Her name was Julian and she was a British anchoress – someone who removed themselves from secular life to pray intensely. At about age 30, Julian became deathly ill and subsequently, had a series of visions of our Lord. She wrote them down and called them "showings." Let me say that again – she was so sick that she might die and she has visions of God. She then musters enough energy to write them down so that others might know her deep and abiding love. Incredibly faithful.
Julian of Norwich’s writings reveal to us an unfaltering assurance – the holy is near and will not be moved. Poetic praise after praise for the God who is with her through it all, Julian knows that Christ is there, and she is not alone. Taking Christ’s words to his disciples to heart, she reflects by writing, "The place which Jesus takes in our soul he will nevermore vacate, for in us is his home of homes, and it is the greatest delight for him to dwell there."2 Nevermore vacate. Christ does not leave, does not take a vacation, does not depart so that we might fend for ourselves. Christ does not leave us orphaned…ever.
And yet, here we are, right? On the brink of utter destruction: our President calling for Congress to make a decision about a military strike in Syria; 50 years after the March on Washington and seemingly always two steps back from where we need to be; our denomination divided once again; children in Durham still homeless and hungry as they start another school year; loved ones still sick, still without a cure, still dying; our own hearts atrophying in the fear of what comes next.
And yet, we are not alone. The life everlasting will not let us go in the midst of whatever may come. While Christ prepared for his physical departure from earth he says to the disciples – to us, "In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; 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."
It is all that simple and all that hard. May you believe this Good News to be true and that in Christ, you are not alone. Christ has made a home within you. He dwells there and will nevermore vacate. His presence is everlasting to everlasting. It is longer than the darkest night and brighter than the newest morning. It is far more permanent than the scars you keep hidden and stronger than any love you’ve ever known. It is the life, the life ever here, ever true, everlasting. It cannot be taken away nor vanquished by doubt. Christ will never leave you orphaned and never has.
Why not end a creed on such Good News as that? Amen.
1. "The Level-Headed School Clerk Who Talked the Ga. School Gunman Into Surrendering," Josh Voorhees, 8-21-13, slate.com.
2. Julian of Norwich, Showings. p 164.