May 7, 2023
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Jazz began on Congo square in New Orleans in the early 1800’s. Africans who had been enslaved and Native people would gather on Sunday, their only day off, bringing the instruments, sounds, and rhythms of their heritage. Eventually, European marching band instruments would join the chorus, and there was Ragtime. This emerging, uniquely American style of music would include church hymns, spirituals born out of slavery, field chants, and Cuban rhythms. The blues. Swing. Bebop. Hard. Smooth. Gypsy. Modal. Latin. Hip Hop. Fusion. Rap. And today: Gloria Dei Jazz. Jazz brought together all these different sounds and individual styles, but all of it is held together by underlying story of human resilience, creativity, freedom, conviction, even resistance and hope.
When Jesus said to the disciples, “You will do greater things than me,” he probably meant jazz. Or a partita on “Rise, O Church,” where the tune from one is taken by another, who then takes it in, and after letting it interact with all that they are and all that they’ve experienced and know, give it back to the world in a new form.
In the gospel of John, the mission of Jesus is to embody the love of God, witness to its power to overcome death and fear, and then breathe it into others, saying, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” You’ve heard the tune. Play it in your own key, from your own body, from your own experience, even from your pain or from you bliss. As it merges with others, it will become an even greater sound with endless and eternal possibilities. It is in this endless interpretation and reappropriation of love that we know the “Father,” one God, Mother of us all.
So often we hear the interpretation of this passage to mean that only Christians can go to heaven. No one comes to the father but by me. It’s a failure of Christian imagination to believe that the tune can only be sung one right way. When Jesus said these words, it was to his friends on his last night with them. They didn’t know how to go on without him. “How can we know the way?” As if they had to memorize the right steps to get to the right place. Jesus says, “Don’t worry. I’m the way, the truth, and the life. Eventually, he’ll tell them that his very Spirit will be inside their being. “No one gets to the Father except through me,” just means, “I’ll get you there. Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”
Jesus sets down the tune, and we end up with his Spirit. You will do greater things. Think about that for a moment. Jesus believes that the Spirit of love will grow, expand, and take the world into eras of compassion and justice than even he couldn’t imagine.
That sounds shocking to think that we have the capacity to do greater things than Jesus. The shock betrays the small vision of Christianity that we have. It betrays our hidden moralism. Our quicksand conviction that Jesus was perfect, and we are fallen. Wearing our bracelets that say WWJD, What Would Jesus Do, reduce us to trying to figure out his way from the first century.
But think about it. Of course, we can do greater things than Jesus. In the 21st century, we have knowledge not even imagined in the first century. We have the accumulated wisdom, not just of our tradition, but from religious traditions all over the world that Jesus never even knew about. We have insights about brains and bodies, ways of doing art and creating music, of building institutions. We have science. We have non-violent social action. We have access to power and wealth never accessible to the twelve or even Caesar Augustus.
All of this, in the hands of Jesus’ Spirt, give us amazing capacity to compose a new song. Jesus knew that it was only their fear that could hold them back; their temptation to be small. The sin is leaving your instrument at home and not bringing it into the square of human life.
I read this from Annie Dillard about writing: One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
This is the way of Jesus, to lay down his life for his friends, to give it all, to give it away.
In this house, in this room are the many dwelling places of that love. Each of us an incarnation of the way, the truth, and the life, created to play along, our song the answer to every prayer.