Reaching Finish--October 20, 2017
"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." [1 Peter 4:7-9]
My kids love to do the mazes on the back of the kids' placemats when we go out to eat at a sit-down restaurant ("fancy restaurant," to them means, "crayons provided"). They'll play tic-tac-toe, or the dot-game, or color in the pictures, too, but I was noticing the other day as my son and daughter both were asking their mommy to help them with the maze. My daughter does mazes in a curious turn-taking sort of way, where she'll trace a path for a while, and then stop and tell someone else, "Your turn to keep going..." so that even a maze becomes a team effort. If their mommy comes to a wrong turn, she'll point it out and say, "I stopped here, because the path became a dead end. You can start over here..." and then she'll redirect the kids to pick up in the middle again.
So the other day, my daughter is doing another of these mazes tag-team style, and she looks up and says, "Mommy, I came to another dead end. Your turn." And the maternal reply was, "Oh, honey--no, you came to the finish of the maze! Good for you! This isn't a dead end--this is the finish! You did it!"
Well, that was good news for my daughter, but beyond that, it was a moment to learn an important distinction. The finish of a maze isn't a sad thing, or a loss, or something to be avoided--it is the point at which a maze's journey is complete. The "finish" of a maze, like the finish line of a race, is the intended goal toward which you were headed all along. It is not a dead end, not at all--it is, in a sense, I guess, more of a "living" end, an end which is reached as the fulfillment, the consummation, of something. It is, in a word, the point of the whole exercise. The "point" of a maze is to get to the finish, like the "point" of a jigsaw puzzle is to put the pieces all together into the finished picture of the dogs playing poker, much like the "point" of chopping and cooking and simmering raw ingredients is to create a finished (and therefore edible) meal. The "point" of a seed is to sprout, grow, blossom, and then make new seeds, which look like an ending but are really beginnings all over again. These all mark "end" points, but they are not "dead ends." They are marks of completion--they carry a sense of fullness, of having reached the point they were intended for all along.
All that important distinction is carried in the difference between calling something a "dead end" (or even just an "end") versus calling it the "finish" or the "goal." And all of that, learnable on the back of the placemat at Eat-n-Park.
The difference is critical if we are going to read these verses from what we call First Peter anywhere close to correctly. We hear those opening words, "The end of all things is near," and a shiver might go down our backs, while we tremble in fear. Oh no! The END? The end of--ALL things? That sounds horrible--that sounds scary! That sounds so... final!
Except that when First Peter uses the word that gets translated "end" here, it isn't at all a dead end. It isn't the idea of throwing something away, or destroying or punishing. The word is the Greek "telos," which means something more like "completion," or "fulfillment," like "finish line" or like "goal." It is the destination at which you have been journeying all along that you finally reach after a long trip--which is to say, it feels like home. A "telos" isn't something to be sad about, any more than you would be sad when you finish the jigsaw puzzle or the meal you have just been cooking is finally ready to eat. The telos is what it means to see all your hard work finally pay off, to see the project in the workshop finally given its last coat of stain, to see the smiles of satisfied family members eating the soup you made, to hear someone say, "You made a difference here."
And so, when First Peter says it, the feeling is not meant to be like a closeout sale from the store at the mall that is closing up shop, but more like finally arriving at what the destination has been all along. It's less like, "The end of all things is nigh--be afraid!" and more like, "Everything is heading toward completion--this is what we have been waiting for!" It does beg the question why our brains tend to assume this is something to be scared of, when the author himself doesn't seem to be freaking out. He does take his sentence seriously, and he takes the idea of getting to witness all of creation heading toward its final fulfillment and purpose as something pretty significant to get to be a part of. But he's not afraid--more like, when you know that the moment of getting to watch the century plant blossoming is getting close, you want to have your eyes peeled.
Heard in the right frame of mind, then, First Peter says something more like, "The goal of all creation is finally getting close--so pay attention and live like every day and every moment matters!" And when you see it that way, then the next sentence finally makes sense: "above all maintain constant love for one another." That's because, as we've seen earlier this week, the only thing that really lasts, the only thing that really endures, is love. Not sentimentality. Not romance. Not the socially-constructed insistence that everyone needs to be squeezed into a cookie cutter family with a husband, wife, two-point-five kids and a dog living behind a white picket fence. But real and genuine love--the conscious choice to do good to the other, regardless of what you get in return or whether you like the other at the moment, the willful practice of compassion when apathy is easier, the determined decision to give yourself away for the sake of another--this is all that ever really lasts in the universe. Because--and this is the beauty of it really--such love is really the goal of the universe in the first place. Love is the reason for our creation, and love is what we were intended for. Love is the Source, and Love is the destination of all things. Love is the finished jigsaw puzzle, and love is the picture of the dogs playing poker on it when all the pieces are assembled. Love is the why, the goal, the completion of all creation, so that, as another biblical writer put it, "God may be all in all."
And so in light of that promised future, we practice love. For one another, sure. For outsiders, yes also. For strangers--them, as well. We know that, too, because when First Peter gets to describing what this "constant love" looks like, the next thought in the train is "being hospitable," which in the Greek is something more literally like, "welcoming the stranger."
That's what we are called to be about today: the conscious, intentional, radical practice of love. We will love the people who are like us. We will love the people who are not like us. We will love the people with whom we see eye to eye. We will go out of our way to do good to people with whom we strongly disagree. We will go on the record as people led by Jesus to welcome the stranger, and we will take the time to practice compassion to the people it is easy to be kind to, as well as the people who do nothing but get under our skin. We do this, not because it is easy, but simply because the finish line, the goal, the destination of all things is nearer and nearer....
...and the goal of this creation in which we find ourselves is love.
Live today like you are walking toward that goal. Live like it's coming toward all of us.
Lord God, pull us toward your intended telos for all creation, and make us to live in your kind of all-embracing love.