The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. - 1 Peter 4:7-11
Several years ago, I had the occasion to be traveling in a major American city. I was out and about, exploring the terrain and found myself in a public park. People were coming and going - lots of hustle and bustle. At a major intersection of this park, but off to the side of the path, an older man sat on a bar stool. Through half-shut eyes, he watched the world rush by, but he did not move with it. He sat solemn and serious, with his shoulders slightly slumped. Beside him he leaned against a sign that was about half as tall as he was. On this sign were printed in large letters the message: "The End is Near!!" I don't know what intrigued me more - the fact that someone like that actually existed. (I thought the amateur prophet with the "End is Near" sandwich board was to be found only in movies or comic strips. But no, there he was in the flesh - letting his poster board do all the talking for him.) Or the fact that no one seemed to be taking any notice of him whatsoever.
"The End Is Near" so said the man in the park, and so says the beginning of the passage that we shall examine. It is a statement that gets our attention. Mainly because it raises more questions than it answers. The "End" of what? How near is near? And more importantly: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Should we be happy or should we be worried?
And for us, what does this have to do with community, which is after all the theme of this year’s Lasker Music Festival? The End is Near - what does it mean for us - the community of faith?
Before we suggest an answer to that question, let's address the notion of community. This theme has been suggested as worthy of consideration, and after a fair bit of consideration on my part, I do believe now that community may be one of the definitive realities of the Christian faith. The Christian faith is a communal faith – one that it is meant to be lived in the plural. There is very little place for singular nouns in the Christian faith.
The model prayer given to us by our Lord Jesus begins: “Our Father….” Our confessions of faith typically begin with: “We believe….” Jesus presented the central component of his teaching in the metaphor of the “Kingdom of God.” Even our notion of the one God, is framed in the plural – the Trinity, and our most central ritual is called Communion.
And so we have the answer to that perennial riddle, posed by wayward husbands and backsliding deacons: Can I not worship just as well all alone out on the lake on Sunday morning? Yes, you can, but not as a Christian. That, of course, is hyperbole, but what I am about to suggest is not.
Everything that is wrong about Christianity can be traced back to this essential focus on community. That's the problem with Christianity - all those people. As we sometimes joke in higher education, it would be a perfectly acceptable profession, if it weren’t for all those students. In the same way, Christianity would be a perfectly acceptable religion, if it weren’t for all those Christians. Not these Christians, of course. Not the ones gathered here, not us. But those people – those Christians who just ruin it for everyone.
From people who insist on referring to the book of “Revelations” rather than the book of “Revelation” to know- it-all religion professors, who give people grief for saying Revelations rather than Revelation. They just ruin it all for the rest of us.
But it is the nature of those people, and these people, and this person (myself), which helps us understand why Christianity is essentially a communal faith. Christianity is a communal faith, because Christianity is a redemptive faith. Or maybe Christianity is a redemptive faith because Christianity is a communal faith. Regardless of the order, the two go hand in hand. Why? Because redemption, although it is ultimately an act of God, is mediated by humans to humans. The incarnation itself is the best example of this redemptive partnership between the human and divine.
As our text says: “Above all maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins….” Love covers a multitude of sins. What does this mean? One of the most intriguing answers to this question comes from a sermon preached by Soren Kierkegaard. In this sermon, Kierkegaard used the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery as an example of what it means for love to “cover a multitude of sin.” To Kierkegaard, the scribes and Pharisees, who brought the woman before Jesus and accused her of her sins, were prime examples of the opposite of love covering a multitude of sin. They were examples of sin discovering a multitude of sins.
Kierkegaard then asks: Why did Jesus kneel down? Why did he write upon the ground? “Did he sit there like a judge who listens attentively to the story of the accusers, who listening, bows down and jots down the principal points so that he may not forget them, and may judge strictly….? Or did not he who wrote with his finger on the ground, rather write it down in order to erase it and forget it? There stood the sinner, surrounded perhaps by those even more guilty, who loudly accused her, but love bowed down and did not hear the accusation, which passed over his head into the air; He wrote with his finger in order to blot out what he himself knew; for sin discovers a multitude of sins, but love covers the multitude of sins.”
Kierkegaard gives an interesting image for understanding the meaning of “Love covers a multitude of sins.” We see the finger of Jesus slowly creating a shallow, curvy furrow in the soil. Perhaps he did catalog the woman’s sins. Perhaps he listed the sins of the accusers. Regardless, the climax of the story is when Jesus looked up and instructed the woman: Go and sin no more. Metaphorically, if not actually, Jesus swept his hand across the writing on the ground, covering it over. In the process, the woman is redeemed – a life that is broken and seemingly hopeless is repaired and set on the path to righteousness.
So when two or more of us are gathered together, we create a community. Christ promises to be in the midst of this community. And if we imagine Christ in our midst, sitting here on the second pew for instance, how then could our thoughts stray far from the redemptive work of God, which Christ mediates to us? And how could we forget that we too have been called to share in this work? As 1 Peter 4:10 implores: “Like good stewards of the grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received….”
What I find intriguing about the Lasker Music Festival is that it brings people together who are interested in having a sustained conversation about what it means to be “good stewards of the grace of God,” especially as that stewardship relates to the gifts of musical ability.
And while I think this is a conversation that all Christians should be having at all times, I think it is especially important that musicians and other artists engage in this dialogue. Music has a way of touching us, of reaching us, of motivating us, which, in my opinion, is unparalleled in its force. So those who are gifted musically have been entrusted by God with a great and powerful gift. They have great potential as agents for God’s redemptive work. They have the capacity to be that point of contact at which love covers a multitude of sins.
Imagine yourself in far away country among people with different traditions and different worldviews. You are prepared to condemn their worship as empty and dead and their place of worship as little more than a dusty museum. But then the sound of the choir begins to rise and the music lifts you – pierces you in the heart, the hair on the back of your neck stands. Your face turns upward and follows the sound as it floats upward. In the hazy heights of the nave, you can imagine a portal into heaven, and you realize that you are having a moment of intense worship. Love covering a multitude of sins.
Or imagine reaching across to people of a different race – great social and economic valleys separate you from them – centuries of inequality hover like a thick cloud. But then the person next to you hands you an open hymnal – already turned to the right page. Love covering a multitude of sin.
Or imagine being a young person, not taken to church, not exposed to the gospel message - stuck in a family unresponsive to such things. But an older fellow from the local church comes by and picks you and your siblings up and takes you to church. On the way, as he drives his pick-up truck, he sings about the love of God – men in your family don’t sing and if they did, it would not be about love or about God. Love covering a multitude of sin.
Back to the “End is Near.” What do we make of this statement? Many times we look at statements like this in cosmic, apocalyptic terms. “The End of the World is Near.” And often that perspective fills us either with dread or self-righteousness. But I think we can just as easily see this as a statement of hope – a statement that affirms that people, societies, cultures, and institutions, can be redeemed. The End of the way things are, is near. In a universal, cosmic sense Christians await the fulfillment of this promise, but in a communal and interpersonal sense, we live in the reality of this everyday. And so for most of us, the end is always near – the end of self-centeredness, the end of mean-spiritedness, the end of blind ambition, the end of pride – the end is near – in fact, the end may be within the next fifteen minutes. And it may be that our brothers and sisters who have been gifted by God with artistic talent will be the ones who mediate the redemptive grace of God to us – those of us in the community.