Written on the Heart
By Bruce G. Epperly
Legend has it that before the voyages of Columbus and other European sailors, the far western edges of maps had the words “ne plus ultra,” there is no more, written upon them. Following their journeys to the Americas, these maps were appended to read “plus ultra,” there is more. Even though these European adventurers had little knowledge of the riches and beauty of the land, and the unique gifts of the indigenous peoples of the frontier, they knew “there was more” to be found in the continent that stretched before them. Perhaps, a few thousand years earlier, intrepid adventurers from Asia crossed the Bering Strait with the same guiding vision, “there is more.”
At the edges of Lent, with holy week on the horizon, we know that “there is more.” We know that as life-changing and life-threatening as death, economic collapse, and global uncertainty are for us and those we love, “there is more” – there is a horizon that beckons us to gaze beyond the wilderness of Lent and the chaos of Holy Week to the unexpected adventures of resurrection life.
While we cannot deny or go around these personal and corporate challenges, and must go through times of personal and national upheaval, the promise of “something more” invites us to be God’s partners in an open-ended, holy adventure.
The biblical tradition places our personal and communal lives in light of the big picture of God’s lively hopes and movements in the world. Jeremiah describes unexpected hope amid national catastrophe – the political and economic order has collapsed, the nation is in disarray, but God has a surprising vision for the nation: “the days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….I will place my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”
In the most difficult of times, a new adventure beckons a broken nation forward and shows them a vision of novel and unexpected possibilities…and it is a new adventure not only for the broken nation but for the God who loves them. God has heard their call and God will respond. God will do something new to awaken them from the living death of political and economic chaos. In the spirit of Psalm 51, God will create within the people “a new heart” and “a new and right spirit.” God will “restore to [the people] the joy of [God’s] salvation.” In the most difficult of times, God offers us new hope, creative visions, and a second wind for the journey.
In the gospel reading, a group of seekers comes to the disciples asking to “see Jesus.” In many ways, their request is repeated everyday both in the church and in a culture in which less than 20% young adults, including those nearby at Swarthmore College, have any experience of Christian life, except what they’ve seen on television. While these young adults – and the majority of persons in our culture – are alienated from institutional religion; still, many claim to be spiritual and deep down they want to “see Jesus,” that is, in a world of rapid change with few moral or intellectual moorings, they are looking for a sense of meaning and are seeking a reality to which they can give their heart. And, their search is calling us to seek Jesus as well – to discover the lively, life-transforming movements of God that have been hidden from us by “church as usual.”
In the wake of the recent economic collapse, we know that wealth and security cannot provide adequate meaning or give us security when we face life’s crises. We – and countless seekers on campus, at Starbucks, and in the neighborhood – want to “see Jesus.” We want something that will change our lives and enable us to face life’s challenges with courage and grace. If we are to respond authentically to the seekers’ quest, we must respond to the seeker within each of us – and we must be willing to change as persons and as a church!
Today’s readings speak of a lively, active, visionary God, within whom “we live and move and have our being.” God is doing a new thing – not as a distant king, a hanging judge, or a cosmic moralist, but as a voice from within, written on our hearts, and as personal as our next breath. And, this God calls us to change, renewal, and adventure.
I know I’m not alone when I confess that I no longer believe in the God of my childhood. Listen to your life: Has your vision of God changed over the years? Have certain gods died, and other gods been resurrected in the course of your life? Have you outgrown certain images of God, church, and humankind? If you listen to your life, you may discover that “there is more” to God than you had previously imagined. Indeed, you may discover that the Jesus you seek is also quite different than you imagined.
Frankly, when someone says “I don’t believe in God,” I don’t challenge him (or her) or try to convince them of the error of their ways. If we enough time for an extended conversation, I often ask, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in” and most of the time, after they share their story, I respond, “I don’t believe in that god either.” Perhaps, Jesus didn’t believe in that God as well! For Jesus knew “there is more” to God than the legalisms and tightly structured theologies we construct.
In fact, it is clear that one of the reasons Jesus fell out of favor with the Jewish and Roman leaders alike was that he presented an alternative image of god from exclusive, dominating, and punitive gods of the organized religion of the Temple or the unilateral power of the Roman Empire.
When the Greeks asked to “see” Jesus, they were looking for a different faith and a different god. They were looking for something to believe in and a life-changing experience of the holy. And this is what Jesus the teacher, healer, and spiritual adventurer gives us today. In the journey from cross to resurrection, and in the story of a god who creates a new heart from within us, we have the image of god who can transform our lives and who welcomes the seeker and outsider, and who welcomes us as well.
The God of Jesus rules by love, not power.
The God of Jesus welcomes outcasts, rather than banishes them.
The God of Jesus embraces children, rather than neglects them.
The God of Jesus, touches the unclean, heals the sick, and embraces the broken, rather than judging them.
The God of Jesus shows up in unpredictable places, and not just in the Temple among the righteous ones.
The God of Jesus faces death, feels suffering, and finds a new pathway for Jesus and ourselves.
Yes, to follow Jesus is to risk losing your religion, and to risk questioning everything you thought you knew about God and everything that provided security in your childhood faith. But, in this risk, a new god will emerge; the living god of cross, resurrection, and transformation. Indeed, in our multi-billion galaxy, multi-billion year old universe, we can be bold in our images, knowing that God is always more than we can imagine, “plus ultra,” there is more….in grandeur but also in intimacy.
Today, we need a new heart, a new vision, and new energy for transformation – we need to see Jesus – we need to embark on an adventure that will change our lives, change our church, and change our world. Today, God is writing new possibilities for our lives and our church, right in our hearts and minds. Let us open our hearts to the exciting frontiers that beckon each one of us and this congregation forward. For, “there is more” to be discovered on God’s holy adventure!
I have omitted the majority of today’s Psalm 51 insofar as it presents an images of a vindictive god (“let the bones which you have crushed rejoice,” v. 8b) as well as an early vision of “original sin” (“I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” v. 5). While process theology does not deny the realities of guilt and responsibility inherent in the traditional doctrine of sin, it assumes a social and relational understanding of sin and affirms the “original wholeness” (Thomas Merton) rather than “original sin” of humankind.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements. Now retired, he served as co-pastor ofDisciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA, an open and affirmative, progressive and emerging congregation.
Epperly’s Holy Adventure is an excellent text for congregational small group study and renewal as well as personal reflection.