This morning’s sermon is not about the Beatles. This morning’s sermon is about the tension – the creative, dynamic tension – that exists between our interior, contemplative life and the Church’s active mission “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” I am going to say how these two dynamics – contemplative and active – are not at all incompatible, but rather are two lungs through which healthy disciples breathe.
But I am going to begin with the Beatles, two of whose titles tell us about the writings of John and Luke. “The Long and Winding Road” offers an image to help us better understand Luke. “Come Together” (“right now, over me”) gives us an image to better understand John. I’m preaching about these two authors because – as the keen-of-eye may notice – with the exception of the epistle lesson on Easter Day, every one of our scripture lessons during the Easter season comes from either the author of John or Luke. (Remember that the author of Luke is also the author of Acts.)
“Come Together” is a handy way to think of John because so much of John is oriented around a room. The whole of chapters 13 – 17, and also part of chapter 20, take place in the “upper room.” And not only is there the upper room, but in John Jesus was the “Word made flesh” who came and “tabernacled” among us, who became the “room” in whom we come together. And looking at the Johannine epistles… In contrast to Paul’s letters, which trace Paul’s extensive travels and tell the story of Christianity on the “road” in the wider empire – the Johannine epistles are primarily in-house documents concerned about correct doctrine and the importance of loving one another. John is all about the room, about “coming together” (“right now, over me.”)
Luke, on the other hand, is all about the road. For example, in Luke chapter 9 Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” and the next ten chapters up until Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem take place on the road. Luke’s most famous resurrection story is about the disciples and Jesus on the road to Emmaus. In Acts Saul encounters Jesus and is converted on the road to Damascus. Philip catechizes and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch as they are on the road to Gaza. And we see in this morning’s lesson from Acts one of Luke’s dominant themes – how the gospel begins in Jerusalem but then goes on the road and is proclaimed throughout the empire: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke is all about, “the long and winding road.”
I have a hunch that the framers of our lectionary chose passages from John and Luke for the Easter season in order to impress upon the recently-Baptized the importance of the tension between “room” and “road” for healthy Christian discipleship. What are disciples to do with the experience of the risen Christ? They are to savor their experience, to relish it, to come together in the room in the presence of his body and blood… and then to take what they have experienced on the road to share with others. The “room” of Easter gives way to the “road” of Pentecost. Both are necessary for full life in Christ.
It is easy in our work-driven culture to recognize how the “room” leads to the “road” – we are familiar with the pattern of resting in order to be replenished for work. But I want to challenge the assumption that this is a one-way street, that the room leads only to the road. Both the “room” and the “road” are necessary for a full life in Christ. After all, the next line in the Beatle’s song tells us that the long and winding road leads “to your door;” just as the “room” leads to the “road,” the “road” also leads to the “room.” Our activity in the world not only can deepen but is necessary to deepen our interior, contemplative life. That deepening happens like this: as we are “on the road” at work in the world, something will touch us that sends us back to the “room.” Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, or Saul on the Damascus road, or the Ethiopian eunuch on the wilderness road – as we were on our way something – God – met us, touched us and changed us; perhaps even broke us. And the only way forward after being so touched, the only to make sense of our encounter, the only way to be made whole again, is to go to the “room.” The “room” can be Eucharist (as it was for the disciples on the Emmaus road), or for someone unbaptized, Baptism (as it was for the eunuch on the Gaza road), or the community of believers (as it was for Saul in Damascus). Or the “room” may simply be coming home, going to our room and closing the door to come before our Father who sees in secret.
The room prepares us for the road, and… the road also sends us to the room. And even though we may have been in the “room” innumerable times before, yet the road can change the room. Because of our experience on the road, we see God in a way we hadn’t before. Because of our experience on the road, we see ourselves in a way we hadn’t before. Because of the road, the “room” has deepened for us and has become more profoundly a place of encounter with God. Then, in healthy discipleship, the room sends us back out onto the road. Healthy disciples live in this dynamic tension of “room” and “road;” each leads to a deepening life in God.
This coming Wednesday, our “Four Women Mystics” series will discuss Theresa of Avila, who lived in 16th-century Spain. Perhaps more than any other saints, Theresa lived in a dynamic of “room” and “road.” Theresa was a contemplative nun who founded the “Discalced Carmelites” – an enclosed religious order whose members rarely leave the cloister. And yet Theresa traveled about the country, met with prelates and royalty, wrote multiple books, and founded and found funding for 14 monasteries and convents.
One of Theresa’s descendants in the order was Edith Stein, who later became Sr. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. Stein was born Jewish, received her PhD and taught at university in Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s. Even though she had been a Roman Catholic for more than twenty years and a Carmelite nun for eight, the Nazis seized on her Jewish birth to arrest her and deport her to Auschwitz, where she died.
Stein traces the beginning of her conversion to a “room” vs. “road” encounter at the Frankfurt cathedral, where one day she saw a woman with a shopping basket going in to kneel for a brief prayer. “This was something totally new to me…” she wrote. “I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.” She speaks of the “room” vs. “road” tension, too, in the following about her conversion:
During the time immediately before and quite some time after my conversion I … thought that leading a religious life meant giving up all earthly things and having one’s mind fixed on divine things only. Gradually, however, I learnt that other things are expected of us in this world… I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more she has to `get beyond herself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.
I hope that, as we are out on the “long and winding road,” we will find that it leads back to His door, and that we will enter in and “come together, right now, over [Him].” Which prepares us to be sent out again. Which will in turn bring us back to the room. For it is through such coming and going – into the world, then into God – that we “get beyond ourselves,” that we are drawn ever more deeply into God, that we go into the world and carry divine life into it.