There was a psychologist named Viktor Frankl who survived three years in Auschwitz and Dachau during World War II. After the war he wrote one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, called Man’s Search for Meaning. In this book he describes how the conditions of the concentration camps affected prisoners, and he said that he had seen over and over again that those prisoners who had found something to live for had a greater chance for survival, whereas those who had given up hope often succumbed to the brutal conditions of the camp and died. He described one fellow inmate who had dreamed he had been assured that liberation from the camp, and the end of his suffering, would occur on March 30, 1945, and this gave him great hope. But on March 29, when it seemed obvious that no liberation was in sight, the man grew greatly despondent. On March 30 he became suddenly very ill, and he lost consciousness on March 31, and died shortly thereafter. Frankl believed that the crushing disappointment of the loss of hope made the man’s immune system weak, and he immediately succumbed to the typhus that was rampant through the camp. Frankl also spoke of the inexplicable increase in deaths in the camps between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which he and other camp doctors attributed to the disappointment of the hope of being reunited with families by Christmastime. Viktor Frankl came to believe that the most important thing in life was a sense of meaning. He attributed a saying to Nietzsche, which is that “one who has a `why’ to live for can endure almost any `how.’”
Thank God, there are few in history who have lived through such brutal conditions, but we all do need a sense of meaning and purpose. Purpose involves both our origins—where we come from, who we most deeply are—and also our destination, a sense of hope and future. Having a grounded sense of both origin and destination makes things possible in the present that might not otherwise be possible. In a way it’s sort of like the difference between zooming in, and zooming out. Zooming in to only the surface conditions of the person or situation or transaction right in front of you, it’s easy to get stuck. Zooming out provides a border around the current situation that lets us have context. It lets us remember where we’ve come from and where we are going. What our purpose is.
We in the church know what our purpose is. Jesus describes it in today’s gospel reading. He tells his disciples that he has a new commandment for them—that they should love one another as Jesus had loved them. He even says that this love for one another is THE way that others will know we are his disciples. What is interesting is that the commandment to love one another was not new. It came from Leviticus chapter 19 and had been with the people of Israel since they came out of Egypt. But in Jesus there was this sense that the ancient teachings of their tradition had come alive and were being embodied and utterly refreshed, as if the ink were not yet dry on the page. Perhaps the difference was that Jesus didn’t just talk about God and the commandments. He experienced utter union with God and gave others that experience as well. He embodied the presence of God and showed us what loving looked like.
Today the lectionary included a reading from Revelation that we didn’t have in the bulletin, so I want to read parts of it to you. It says this:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples, and God’s own self will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new”… Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
Listen to this again. “The One seated on the throne says, `I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I am making everything new.’” Alpha and Omega are the first and last words of the Greek alphabet, the beginning and the end, our origin and our destination also. Let’s think about what this means. If our origin is in God, and our destination is in God, and that destination includes a vision of God dwelling among us, wiping our tears from our eyes, then what today will be impossible for us? Conversely, if our origin is defective, and we fear the future or have lost hope, are we not defeated before we even begin?
Many of us at St. John’s are reading a book by John Philip Newell called Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul. Staff have already read it. The Thursday night book group is reading it. The vestry is reading it. Spirit group is reading it. You might as well get it and read it too.
This book discusses a thread of Celtic teachers in the Christian church, stretching throughout time, who have taught us about the sacredness of the earth, these bodies, and our very souls, that offer a stark contrast to some of the teachings of the church that have caused harm. Newell talks about the difference between a theology of original sin and a theology of original sacredness, original blessing. What if we understood Jesus’ divinity, not as absolutely unique and exceptional, but as showing us our ultimate origin and destination, as revealing the deepest truth of who we all most deepy are? If we believe we are totally depraved, and that our ultimate destination in God is not assured, what does that mean about how we see each other and how we live today? If we believe we come from God and that all things ultimately resolve and unite with God, how does that change the way we operate today?
Don’t get me wrong. We all make many mistakes, some of them truly awful. Auschwitz was a blasphemy against all that is good in this world. The racially motivated shooting in Buffalo this week was terrible. You and I often make mistakes, some of them with serious consequences. It will not do to be naïve about the human capacity for evil, or about our need for healing, forgiveness, and transformation. But there is a world of difference between believing we are essentially depraved and believing we are made in goodness. If we are made in goodness, then I can look for the goodness in you even when you are not at your best, and you can do the same for me. We can zoom out to see that all of us are greater than the worst thing we have ever done. We can “seek and serve Christ in one another,” as our baptismal covenants commit us to doing.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and scientist who died in the 1950s, whom Newell discusses in the book so many of us are reading. Teilhard believed God was shimmering within every created thing.
He believed that God existed not just as positive energy, but as an actual presence that could love and be loved, within the universe itself and within all things. He taught about something he called the Omega Point—remember that word Omega, the “end,” the last letter of the Greek alphabet?—in which all things resolve into union with God at the very end of time, outside time. Newell says this about him:
Teilhard prophesied that the day will come when, after harnessing all the energies of earth, sea and sky, humanity will finally learn how to harness its greatest energy, love. On that day, he said, we will have “discovered fire” for the second time.
At the St. John’s vestry retreat last weekend, your vestry was discussing the “why” of St. John’s. At the deepest place, we know our why is always to follow Jesus’ Way of Love. The vestry all agreed that what that looks like right now can be described in Wendy’s fraction anthem. If you didn’t know, this beautiful song we sing right before we receive communion was written by our own Wendy Smith, and it says, “Come, come to this meal, this feast of love, this feast of healing, this feast of forgiving…. God will heal, forgive, transform us.” Zooming out, we see love. We come from love. We are drawn together here by love, and healed by love. We are sent from here to love the world. Love is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and end, the “why” that makes possible almost any “how.”
Think about where you come from. No matter what your human origins may appear to be, you were born from the love of God. What do you believe your ultimate destination and purpose are? No matter what success or failure you have experienced in your life, what if you along with all humanity are meant to experience and express utter union with God as Jesus does, and that you can best express this by loving your neighbor as yourself?
The next time you are faced with a situation or person that makes you feel stuck, angry, disgusted, or whatever, consider zooming way out, seeing where we all come from and where we are all going. Given this, we can make space for one another within our own being. We can find it within us to forgive and be forgiven. To perceive God shimmering within all things, to love and be loved by God. This is our why. If we discover and harness this power of love, the power of God’s own being, we will discover fire for the second time, and everything becomes possible. Amen.
 John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul pp. 182-183, discussing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Toward the Future.