Harrowing Of Hell
May 15, 2022

God is Doing a New Thing

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher


There’s a line in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the four children have just entered Narnia and are talking to the beavers. And Mr. Beaver says, “Aslan is on the move.” Aslan, of course, is the Christ character, and the children are brought to Narnia to be part of his redemptive plan.

The words themselves are so powerful that each of the children reacts in a way that reveals their character. Peter, the eldest, the leader, feels bold, Edmond, who betrays Aslan, feels dubious, Susan, who tries hard to be the rational one, is intrigued. And Lucy? Lucy is the mystic of the group, and she falls instantly and overwhelmingly in love.

I’m thinking about that line, “Aslan is on the move” because in each of our readings for today, God is on the move, doing something new. In the lesson from Acts, Peter’s vision calls him to turn from what he has believed and practiced his entire life—observing Jewish dietary restrictions—and be open to God doing something new, namely opening the way of salvation to the gentiles.

Can we appreciate what a radical move that was? It wasn’t that keeping kosher was complicated and fussy and God finally decided to lighten up. The Law was the foundation of Jewish identity; it was what made them different, made them a people, set apart for God, holy. And Peter, like Jesus, remained a Jew his entire life; neither of them ever repudiated the faith in which they’d been born and raised.

So why would God ask Peter to take a leap into the dark and welcome pagan gentiles, most of whom were not particularly eager to welcome Jews?

Because God was doing something new. God was expanding the Kingdom, making it inclusive in the way God had always intended. When Abraham was first called, God tells him that he will be the father of many nations. And after Abraham obeys God in that little matter concerning the sacrifice of his son Isaac, God tells him: “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 22:18)

Expansiveness and inclusion were the plan from the beginning—though the Jews were chosen to lead the way. We’re not hearing the lesson from Revelation this morning—though you’ll find it in your bulletin—but there we see the plan come to full fruition. John’s vision is of “a new heaven and a new earth,” and of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The One on the throne (that would be Jesus) sings about how God is now going to dwell with humans, and there will be no tears and no death. “See,” he says, “I am making all things new.”

It’s important to notice here how God is doing a new thing, but it’s fully in continuity with the old thing. The holy city that takes its place in the new earth is not “New Alexandria,” or “New Rome.” It’s “New Jerusalem.” God’s covenant with Israel hasn’t become irrelevant and been replaced by the New Covenant. It’s not like God is trading in Israel like an old car, and bringing in the Christians because we have that new car smell.

There have, sadly, been Christians who have thought that, but they were wrong. No: God loves paradox, and the lovely paradox here is that God is doing a new thing, but that “new thing” is entirely in continuity with the thing God was doing all along. You could say that God is doing the old thing, but extending it to include new people.

In the gospel reading, we’re given the key to how God makes new things happen. Just before his arrest, Jesus tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” It’s love—love is the power that makes things new. Makes sense, right, because “God is love” (1 John 4:16), so whenever we love—another person, another creature, anything in creation—God is there: working, restoring, reconciling, making all things new.

Sounds great, right? But sometimes new is not welcome; it’s just frustrating. Especially when it’s anything to do with technology. Like microwaves. We all know where the buttons are on our own microwave. But confronted with someone else’s? We just stand there, looking like we’ve never seen one before. And I want to wave my PhD at it, like “I’m not stupid!” but they don’t care. Technology, new ideas, new ways of doing things? We don’t always welcome things that are new to us.

Anyway, Jesus knew that his plan to “make all things new” was not always going to be welcome. Elsewhere, he used that wonderful image of putting new wine into old wineskins to get this idea across. The old leather skins would get brittle, and new wine that’s still fermenting expands. Pretty soon you don’t have wineskin or wine.

What Jesus is saying here is that when God is doing something new, if we try to understand it using the old schemas and categories, we’re going to misunderstand it, we’re going to miss what God is up to.

When Jesus gives the “new commandment” to love one another, Judas has just left. Judas is absolutely missing the new thing Jesus is doing, because he’s so fixated on his expectations of what the Messiah will be like, and how he’ll launch a rebellion and liberate them all from the Romans, that when Jesus doesn’t move in that direction, Judas tries to force his hand: bring Jesus to the brink, and he’ll have to act.

Actually, we don’t know what Judas’ motivation was for betraying Jesus, but that always seems to be it in the movies. So that’s pretty reliable. The point is, Judas is looking at it all through the wrong lens, so his picture is all distorted and he gets it disastrously, fatally, wrong.

So what’s the point? New is sometimes scary. There’s a kind of cross-denominational freakout right now about the church’s declining numbers and influence. This is understandable: it’s our job to offer the faith to others, and to see it continue into the next generation. When we see our numbers falling and falling, it’s easy and reasonable to be concerned that the Body of Christ could be on its deathbed.

But we’ve been through tough times before. It’s been said that every five hundred years or so the church goes through a massive upheaval and comes out afterward profoundly changed—but the faith remains the same. These times are kind of like puberty: awkward and painful and horrible, full of frightening questions about the self and the future.

But on the other hand, when it’s done you have an adult: a magnificent new creature capable of things a child cannot do. Like reproducing itself, passing its life down to the next generation. Or like joining with God in the Divine act of creation, not just of new people but innovations in music, medicine, justice, food, friendship, all of it. Or like figuring out how to be the church in a world that’s been through a pandemic, a racial reckoning, political polarization and the rest.

But I want to bring this down from the collective level to the level of the soul’s journey into God. This is the journey we’re reminded of whenever we gather: that wherever we are on it, we have a place here at Epiphany.

Now, probably this has never happened to you, but there have been times in my life when it’s seemed like God was nowhere to be found. Maybe God had finally realized I was a hopeless case, maybe my sins had finally added up to some unacceptable total. Or maybe God had just gotten bored and moved on. I’d try to connect with Jesus, using all the things that used to work before, but…nothing.

When we go through this kind of thing, it’s so easy to assume that we’ve screwed up somehow, and God is done. God can seem distant because of external events: the pandemic, racially motivated violence, Russia’s war with Ukraine. But sometimes it just happens, and we can feel lost and maybe guilty.

To me, this is one of the saddest and most frustrating things about church life today, because there’s a rich treasure of insight about the rhythms of the spiritual life, but mostly the church hasn’t been very intentional about teaching it to us.

Of course, if the Spirit is talking to you about “that thing you know you shouldn’t be doing,” you should probably pay attention to that. But if not, and things have still gone dark on you, that could be really good news. Because it could mean that God is on the move in your soul, doing something new.

In that “rich treasure of insight” we’ve inherited is the work of the 16th c. Spanish mystic John of the Cross. John described the “dark night of the soul,” and he showed how even the soul on the move can go through times of total desolation, where everything goes dark and God is nowhere to be found. All the old devotional practices just don’t work anymore; nothing works anymore.

We can respond to this by frantically seeking new practices: “I’ll try the Jesus prayer,” “I’ll do centering prayer,” “I’ll pray the rosary.” Or we can give in to despair. John counsels a different way: just get quiet and pay attention. Show up for prayer even if nothing happens and it feels completely pointless.

Because there is a point: God is weaning us away from our reliance on good feelings, our attachment to that feeling of being close to God, rather than the reality of actually being close to God, whatever we feel—or don’t. There’s an image of this that I love: sometimes we can’t see Jesus because our face is buried in his chest. It’s not abandonment; it’s an embrace. It’s not that we can’t see him because he’s so far away, but because he’s so close.

That’s what John is telling us about the dark night: it’s not that we’ve finally screwed up so badly that God doesn’t love us anymore. No, just the opposite: God is inviting us into a spiritual renewal that will lead us to greater closeness, greater intimacy, to take part in the Divine dance of the Trinity where God is always moving. “See, I am making all things new.” We need to learn this wisdom for our own spiritual health, and the church also needs to learn it for the sake of our future.

So when we find ourselves in the wilderness, with sand in our teeth and no discernable path, the first thing to not do is panic. The second thing to not do is start blaming ourselves. And what do we do? We listen to the wisdom of Jeremiah (6:16):

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.

What are these “ancient paths”? I’d like to suggest that they’re the spiritual practices we come back to again and again here at Epiphany: prayer, worship, sabbath, pilgrimage, the liturgical calendar, fasting, tithing. These are also part of our rich inheritance, and they represent ancient wisdom for the care of the soul, the nurturing of community, and a loving response to the needs of the world.

These disciplines are older than the church itself, and have always been at the core of spiritual formation and growth. These are the ways we go deep: deep into God, deep into places where our souls find rest, and also where we discover creative and exciting forms of action and service in the world.

These ancient practices can form a bridge over the chasms that periodically open up underneath us. That’s why we’re so committed to teaching them here at Epiphany.

Darkness, wilderness, chasm—whatever the imagery, when hard times strike, God is often on the move, doing something new, something beautiful. Let’s don’t miss it by seeing it in terms of self-blame or despair. And until we come to understand the new thing and enter into it fully—which we may never do!—we follow the ancient ways of wisdom. That’s how we maintain our peace, find rest for our souls, and make space for God to move.