Once upon a time, in the very earliest of the early days…back when things were brand new, fresh, innocent, and seemingly perfect…things were good. Things were in fact, VERY good. The earliest biblical report that we have tells us that. First, it tells us about all the new things that were being created, and then how God made humans last of all, and then said to them: “Look at what I made for you!” It’s like God made this perfect “Habitat for Humanity” and then made humans and dropped them in and it was VERY good. Everyone was gloriously happy.
I am reminded of the very first day I got my puppy. That day things were good. Things were VERY good. I had this adorable little puppy who was so small and innocent looking with his little puppy breath, and it all seemed perfect. I bought him all the things that he might need, and I was quite certain that this little guy could not possibly do anything wrong. Sure, he was a little uncontrollable, and he did seem to have trouble remembering where the restroom was, but when I looked into those little big brown eyes all I could think was: “this is VERY good! But then we settled down into the business of getting acquainted and all I can say is that we both made some mistakes. I don’t care who you are, unless you train puppies for a living, mistakes will be made. On both sides.
When I read the Old Testament I often wonder if our history with God is maybe something like that. I often wonder if perhaps mistakes have been made on both sides. In Genesis, God created everything and loved it and called it “GOOD.” And in Genesis God comes across as being very trusting and innocent – never once suspecting that the newly made humans might disobey. But they do disobey, and God is deeply wounded. So God throws them out into the unexpectedly cold and cruel world and that’s where I begin to wonder if maybe God didn’t have as much to learn about humans as humans have to learn about God. Sure, I made some mistakes with my puppy, but I would never throw him out of the house for piddling on my carpet – okay, sometimes I have been tempted – but never for very long. But God did throw the humans out, and then posted a guard at the gate to make sure they never came back. God had zero tolerance for disobedience. There were no second chances, and I can just see those first humans sitting outside the gate looking sad, confused and deeply hurt.
Mistakes were made, but God couldn’t stay away from humans for long, and I don’t know, but it seems to me that God has always yearned for reconciliation with humans – just as intensely as humans have always yearned for reconciliation with God. Eventually, God decided to settle down with one group of people who would be responsible for representing God to everyone else. God made a commitment to them and a covenant with them, and this newly defined relationship was a huge turning point in our history with God because this is where humans finally got some actual instruction on how to live in harmony with God – and with each other. This is where humans began to get an inkling that God cares deeply about every single element of creation all the way down to the tiniest insect. This is where humans discover that God is a champion for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the downcast and the outcast and that if we want to be reconciled with God then we have to become reconciled with each other. From Genesis to Isaiah to Jesus to the Book of Revelation, the good news has always been that God is working to establish “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.” And however twisted things might seem sometimes, my faith rests firmly in the God who won’t settle for a partial reconciliation and who will not rest until all things are once again “VERY good” for everyone.
This morning’s reading came from a letter written to one of the earliest churches in Ephesus, and it really stands out that even in very different times and circumstances, humanity’s greatest hope hasn’t changed much. Our greatest hope still to this day, is that somehow we will find a way to get back to the garden fully reconciled with God and with each other. The opening lines that I read to you, beautifully and passionately express our intense yearning to be gathered up and restored – for our brokenness to be mended and for things to finally put back together, as they should be so that we are all, once again, “VERY good.” This is the deepest primal hope that permeates the “Good News;” it is the light that probes the very darkest of corners, and it is the faith that brings us here to these pews today.
But if there is one thing we learned over time, it’s that we are not capable of restoring ourselves to the garden. For one thing, we live in a world that is divided by politics, religion, race, status and by a love for violence that seems to run rampant through this human family of ours. I mean, can’t you just picture Donald Trump buying the garden and then selling the rest of us admission tickets? For another thing, in my lifetime alone, we have learned a tremendous amount about how the universe works and how it doesn’t work. I remember when the smallest thing we knew about was an atom. Now it seems we have stepped off a shelf into the great unknown where words such as quark, particle and now God-Particle are bandied about along with other words like magic and wizardry. We know some things, but not much, and with each new discovery it becomes a little clearer how little we actually know. With each new discovery we wonder, will we ever be able to draw back far enough so that we can get a good look at God’s big picture?
And that’s exactly where Jesus Christ comes in to the picture. Most scholars today don’t believe that Paul wrote this particular letter even though it is written in his name, but we’ll refer to the author as Paul, because whoever wrote it managed to capture the original Paul pretty well. And Paul is very important to this conversation anyway because it was Paul’s interpretations of the Christ event that eventually led to the formulation of most of our Christian theology today. You see for Paul, it was obvious that God’s plan all along was to bring everything together in one marvelous unity in Christ. Paul believed that on the day Christ returned all of creation would be “reconciled to God” (Colossians 1:20), and it would be a brand “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul believed that through his death, Jesus “made peace” for us all, but rather than trying to understand exactly how that reconciles us with God, it seems more important to remember that the only way to overcome hatred is to absorb it with love. Love was the entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul saw Jesus’ death as an act of peace overcoming the hatreds and divisions of the human family. He believed that the peace instilled by Jesus Christ could heal the divisions of his world.
We might not know how to get ourselves back to the garden, but the question remains: do we still believe that peace can heal the divisions in our world? Do we still believe that Jesus Christ can heal the divisions of this world? Because let’s face it, we’re no nearer now to being at peace than any of our ancestors. If anything, the conflicts of our world have only increased to the point where you can’t help but wonder what one person could possibly do to change any of it. What can my puny little peaceful acts accomplish in the face of so much hatred and anger and violence? But it must be something and it must be pretty important, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many martyrs. If peaceful acts don’t matter, then why are people so eager to kill those who perform them? Just one act…one act of patience or kindness or maybe understanding…just one peaceful act can and does have a major ripple effect that usually can’t even be traced, but always somehow contributes toward the vision of a humanity living together in unity, wholeness, and peace.
I believe that God’s ultimate purpose is to bring us all back together in unity and peace, and to restore what is broken in all of us. I have to believe it; I need to believe it; I need to know that there is a world waiting where things are made right. Jesus believed it. He told the man on the cross next to him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus believed it, and he gave his life for it. Paul believed it too, and he took it a step further by charging the churches of his day, and ours, to go ahead and start demonstrating that unity now. Think about it…just one peaceful act every day…what could that lead to? And what if every one of our actions were peaceful actions?
Sometimes I wonder if perhaps our history with God is actually the greatest love story ever told – one that is alive and unfolding and growing and improving through the eons. No matter what we do, God can’t seem to stay away from us. Despite our propensity for brutal, barbaric and deeply flawed behavior, God keeps breaking into our lives and doing new things to bring us back into harmony. And humans can’t seem to stay away from God either. We don’t understand God; God’s ways are not our ways, yet there is the irresistible pull that keeps us reaching and straining toward each other. Wise people all throughout history have been saying that it is possible for us to live a different way, and maybe we’re not supposed to go back to the original garden, but to a better garden that we help co-create through our peaceful actions. Wouldn’t that be a place that is VERY good? Amen