Being God’s Glory, Easter 7 (C) – 2016  

[RCL] Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21; John 17:20-26; Psalm 97

Imagine thousands of people dressed in white clothes for the Feast of the Epiphany singing, praying, and waiting with anticipation outside a church near the Red Sea in Ethiopia. The faithful sway side-to-side singing praises to God in thanksgiving for Jesus Christ. There are shouts of jubilation when the bishop exits the cathedral holding a replica stone tablet of the Ten Commandments taken from the cathedral’s altar. Those gathered exhibit ecstatic exuberance because the bishop carries the Ten Commandments stone tablet that consecrates the cathedral into the crowd of people, and in doing so consecrates and makes the people holy. It is a symbol of God’s presence and glory dwelling with the people.

Raymond Brown in his book, The Gospel According to John, reminds us that the ark is an important biblical symbol. Those sealed inside Noah’s Ark survived the flood. The Hebrew people journeyed to the Promised Land following the Ark of the Covenant, holding the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets. Early Christian writers referred to Jesus as the Tabernacle or Ark of God since Jesus embodied God’s glory.[1]

Jesus prays to God in John 17:22, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The recognition of God’s glory occurs early in scripture. For the Hebrew people, God’s glory was the visible manifestation of God’s acts of power.[2] The people saw the invisible God in God’s visible actions: parting of the Red Sea; crumbling the walls of Jericho; building Solomon’s Temple.[3] Jesus is the embodiment of divine glory. God becomes visible in Jesus Christ and his followers see his acts of power. The disciples witness God’s chief act of power in resurrecting Jesus from the dead.

Today is the Sunday after Ascension Thursday and the last Sunday before Pentecost. Jesus leaves the disciples to return to God on Ascension Day. The disciples wait for Jesus to send the promised Holy Spirit who is the manifestation of God’s glory. Waiting for the Holy Spirit gives Jesus’ followers the opportunity to reflect on “seeing his glory.” Jesus prays in John 17:24 that his followers see his glory. To see Jesus’ glory, his acts of power, goes beyond observing his ministry. “To see” in this sense means to contemplate on, to look deeper.[4] Perhaps the disciples asked themselves if others would see in them the same glory the disciples saw in Jesus.

Do people in the world look at the Church, the Ark of Salvation, and see the glory or the deeds of power God gives us? Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry was dynamic, expressive of love and expressed in love.[5] The Holy Spirit brings the indwelling of that love to those who follow Jesus. God calls us to share Christ’s love with the world. 

A visible example of God’s love is a Diocese of North Carolina ministry, A Moveable Feast: Food for the Body; Food for the Soul. This ministry happens in and around a 28-foot mobile “food truck” covered in neon dry erase marker graffiti. The food truck contains a prayer chapel and a small kitchen for heating chili or warming beverages. Guests use markers to write prayers and blessings on the inside walls and on the food truck’s exterior. A Moveable Feast drifts and zooms around the diocese as a ministry to young adult communities sometimes ignored by traditional campus ministries—community college students, young adults in rural areas, and those transitioning directly from high school to the workforce. The food truck is not a permanent fixture. Staff members and volunteers work to engage young adults, helping build relationships with local Episcopal churches to help minister to and support young adults through their experience of the food truck. When the food truck leaves, the Episcopal presence remains. This truck offers food for the soul. [6]

The Moveable Feast is an example of modern day disciples embracing the glory and the works of power, Jesus gives his followers. Connecting young adults with churches models Jesus by engaging the world to make a difference. Holy food for holy people is a part of our Eucharistic prayer, with the clergy presenting the consecrated bread and wine to the congregation before the invitation to receive communion. Can we as followers of Jesus Christ be God’s visible glory in the world through our words and actions? The Body and Blood of Christ transform us. God’s glory dwells with us. Be a holy presence in the world. Jesus did not ascend to leave us alone. The Holy Spirit will come and guide us.

Download the sermon for Easter 7C.

Written by The Reverend Jemonde Taylor

The Reverend Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, NC. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being co-chair of the Nominating Committee for the XII Bishop Diocesan. He also served as a member of Diocesan Council. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.


[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 29 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), 779.

[2] Ibid. , 503.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. , 502.

[5] Ibid. , 776.

[6] “Caitlyn Darnell and A Movable Feast Win Special UTO 125th Anniversary Grant.” The Episcopal Diocese of NC. July 2015. Web. 25 April 2016.

Hope for the Future, Ascension Day (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93

It’s a tragic thing to witness someone who does not have hope or dreams for the future. Part of our human nature is to envision a better tomorrow and strive for new accomplishments and realities. When this part of our nature dies, the whole person eventually gives up and dies. Many times our deepest desires are birthed in our most primal need for family, love, acceptance, and self-realization. When dreams and hopes are not fulfilled as we envisioned, we may face a crisis of faith as we struggle to make sense of the harsh reality of life. Jesus’ disciples lived in a time of repressed hopes and dreams that were squelched by foreign powers and internal competing political and religious factions. Their religious leaders did little to help keep hope alive, but rather burdened the people with endless rules and regulations that were impossible to fulfill.

Israel existed as a vassal state under the control of other nations for much of its long and checkered history. First it was the Assyrians and Babylonians, and then the Persians followed by the Macedonians, and finally the Romans. After centuries of rebellion and armed struggle to gain their freedom, the people of Israel held on tightly to the hope of reestablishing the Davidic line on the throne in Jerusalem. When Jesus appeared on the scene, the disciples were well steeped in this nationalistic dream. Just before Jesus ascended into Heaven the disciples asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It is apparent that they were still looking at the events that transpired over the previous three years through earthly eyes. They were holding tightly onto the hope that Israel would be delivered from Roman hegemony and Jesus would become their king despite his assertion that his kingdom was not of this world. It is difficult to let go of dreams we’ve held on to for so long, especially dreams that give us the strength to endure hardships and injustice.

The disciples were members of a subjugated people, living under Roman law, and members of a despised race. It’s understandable that they held on tightly to the hope of a better life, one where they could reach their fullest potential and be able to live their lives as a free people. What they failed to see, however, was that Christ promised this very thing, but not in the manner in which they had dreamed. They were not yet able to let go of their national dream and open themselves to receiving the greater blessing that God had in store for them.

They were not able to envision the impact they would have on the Roman Empire and the world at large. Their view of life was still shaped by their limited vision that was focused on statehood and local politics. Little did they know that in just a few decades Rome would completely destroy Jerusalem, their temple, and their way of life. But out of the smoldering embers would rise a Church, one that transcended ethnic and political barriers, one in which Christ predicted that even the Gates of Hell could not prevail.

Like the disciples, we too seek a life where we can achieve our fullest potential and feel as if we have a purpose for living and make a difference, that our existence has some deeper meaning than just getting by until we finally die. For many of us, we have a deep desire to be needed and wanted by others. We may long to make an impact on those around us and be remembered as someone whose life was not lived in vain. Our view of life is often shaped by our own limited vision we have of life and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We may define ourselves by what others say or do to us.

Sometimes we live our lives as a subjugated people, ones who are enslaved by our fears, doubts, feelings of inferiority, and our seemingly unmet need to love and be loved. We hold tightly onto things and people that we believe will bring us wholeness and happiness. The tighter we hold, however, the emptier we feel.

Eventually we give in and negotiate a truce with that which makes us miserable, much like the leaders of Israel did with the Romans. Or, we get angry and rebel against what is taking away life’s joy and impeding our goals and we find ourselves constantly at war with others and ourselves. This was the plight of the zealots of Jesus’ day. Either way, we miss the point of Jesus’ purpose, just as the disciples did when he spoke to them prior to his ascension.

Sometimes when we lose the object of our affection we see that which is greater and more meaningful. It’s a painful process, but one in which we can gain great insight, blessing, and peace. We are asked to let go of those things we hold dear to our heart and love deeply, as well as those things that hold us captive and slowly extinguish our hopes and dreams, and ascend with Christ to that place where we are glorified with him. Christ’s ascension is a reminder of the Kingdom of God within our hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting us as we spread the light of Jesus’ truth throughout the world. Jesus completed His earthly mission of bringing salvation to all people and was physically lifted up from this world into Heaven. The meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection is given in the Ascension. Having completed His mission in this world as the Savior, He returned to the God in heaven and raised earth to heaven with him!

Jesus glorified humanity when He returned to God and reunited us with God. Jesus took on our human nature and then deified this human nature by taking his body to heaven and giving it a place of honor at the right hand of God. With Christ, human nature also ascends and consummates the union of God and human. He took with him all of humanity’s weaknesses and frailties – our fear, insecurity, feeling of rejection, hurts, anger, disappointments, despair, doubt, pettiness, resentment, bitterness – and transformed us into his image. Christ’s redemptive ministry was not complete until he returned to God in bodily form. By doing so, he made a way for all of humanity to experience God’s healing both in spirit and body.

The angel asked the disciples why they were looking into the sky where Jesus had just ascended. We often find ourselves doing the same thing even today. We look heavenward for answers, but the answers we look for are found right here. They are in front of us and in our hearts where God dwells. The answers are found in the people whom God brings into our lives, and they are revealed in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was completed when he ascended into Heaven. There he intercedes for us in bodily form as we go about his business here on Earth. We have been redeemed, not only in our spirits but also in the flesh through Christ’s ascension.

Paul writes that the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. Mortal flesh has been glorified in Christ, and along with that our dreams and hopes have also been sanctified. Go and live life to its fullest, don’t lose hope, keep on dreaming, live righteously and fight for righteous causes, and love lavishly. Amen.

Download the sermon for Ascension Day C.

Written by The Reverend Deacon Timothy G. Warren

The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren is the founder and pastor of St. Francis, an emergent outreach ministry in California’s High Desert Region, and founder/president of Lifeskills Development, a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults.

 

Look to the Lord, Easter 6 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9; Psalm 67

There is something perplexing and difficult at the heart of the Christian faith. This perplexing something is the central value of the Kingdom of God; the primary, identifying characteristic of the Christian Church at its best and the clearest picture we have of our relationship with Jesus and his relationship with us.

At the same time, this perplexing and difficult something at the heart of our faith is both the best description we have been given of who God is and the clearest command our Lord gives to us. It’s a quality or a type of relationship, and it’s proclaimed as the greatest, strongest, and most persistent gift we are given.

It’s what the Gospel today talks about. The English word is “love” and that’s really a shame. The early church was smarter than we are. The early church knew that this difficult and perplexing quality of relationship was a new thing, its own thing, revealed by Jesus and in Jesus. So, when the early church talked about this new thing, it pretty much invented a new word. The church took a seldom used, vague and antiquated Greek term and used it to describe what it was talking about. The Greek word, we all know, is Agape.

The advantage of doing this was that every time the Church used this word, people would know exactly what was being talked about—they would know that what was meant was the command of Christ, the life of God, the goal of the Christian and the greatest power in creation. It meant that, and nothing else. There was really no other meaning for Agape. This was real handy; it avoided confusion. Also, by doing this, nobody thought they knew what the word meant until they learned it from the Lord and through the Church.

We haven’t been that smart. We took that precise and specific Greek word “Agape”, and we ended up translating it as one of the most vague, most misused and abused words in the English language. We call it “love”, a word with a jillion meanings. So, most of the time when we hear the word “love” used in the Bible we think we know what it means. But we almost certainly don’t. Instead, we’re probably confusing agape with one of those jillion other things that the word “love” means in English.

So we hear Jesus saying, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” and we actually think we understand what Jesus is talking about. After all, we love our new car; and we love chocolate; and we love our spouses and our kids; we love to go fishing; Romeo loved Juliet; and – judging from bumper stickers – we love every conceivable breed of dog and cat – and many cities. Or at least we “heart” them, which I guess means love. And none of that has any real connection to what John is talking about when he says that God is Love, or with what Jesus is commanding us to do when he commands us to love him or one another. When we love in any of those other ways we are not keeping the Lord’s commandment, we are not imitating the nature of God.

The word is a problem. The King James Version of the Bible generally used “charity” instead, which has some advantages – at least it’s not erotic and it’s clearly voluntary. No one comes home from a long weekend and says, “I’m so happy, I just fell in charity with Elbert.” But, for better or worse, “charity” got taken over by other non-profits and really doesn’t work these days. We’re stuck with “love,” but I wish we weren’t.

All of this is to say that when we hear the word “love” used by and about Jesus Christ, God, and the Christian community, we cannot automatically assume we know what it means. Certainly, when we talk to non-Christians about love, we can safely assume that they do not know what it means. Ordinary English usage seldom gives us even a hint of what the Bible is talking about. Yet this peculiar difficult and perplexing thing is both the purpose of our lives and the way to that purpose.

Listen: There is only one way to learn what the Christian faith is talking about when it talks about love. There is only one way to discover which of all the different experiences we have are really experiences of love in this sense. There is only one way to know what we are commanded to do when we are commanded by our Lord to love God and one another. Only one.

We can learn of love – Christian love, agape – only from Jesus Christ. Period. It’s only from knowing him: from knowing what he said and what he did, who he was and who he is, that we can know what love is. Until we realize this we will always miss the point. The call to love is a call to Jesus: to know him, to live his life, and to walk his path. The Bible, theologians, living examples, saints and other greats of the faith, these can help, but only if we know Jesus first. You see, the truth of the matter is that there is no single, precise, definition of Christian love, of agape. There is, instead, a person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lives it and who shows us what it is and who gives it to us that we may show and give that same love to the world.

Last week we heard Jesus say, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So says the Lord to the Church. What does this love mean, what does it look like? To discover this, we have to look to Jesus. And when we do that, the first thing we see is that it has nothing to do with how we feel inside; it’s about how we choose to act; it’s about what we do. So, we know that, in part, love looks like turning one cheek when the other has been hurt; it looks like going two miles when one mile is unfairly asked; it looks like offering prayers in response to insults.

We know that it looks like a father welcoming home a son who was lost; like paying a full day’s wage to a worker who showed up an hour before quitting time—and it looks like rejoicing in each of these. It looks like losing your life in the hope of finding it; and it looks like obedience to a God who will tell us neither the specifics of our task nor the consequences of our faithfulness.

It looks like all of that, and much, much more. But really, finally, and at its clearest, it looks like this. It looks like a cross—it looks like the cross. This is what we Christians really mean when we talk about love. And if we ever mean anything else, then we most certainly mean something less—and we are unfaithful to our Lord, and we mock his commandment. This cross (without the pretty symbols) is what it means for God to love us; this is what it means for us to love one another. You won’t find this on bumper stickers, in cheap novels, or in plain brown envelopes. But it can be found.

That’s really the central thing I have to say about love. We must constantly be reminded of this, lest we confuse our Lord with either Pollyanna or Hugh Hefner, and thus reduce our faith to another cheap route to self-delusion or to empty self-gratification.

So, to find out what John means when he says that God is love, or to discover what it looks like to love one another as Jesus has loved us, we do not look deep within our selves, we do not look around us, or at our families, or at our society or at the natural world. Instead, we look to the Lord, and to his life—to all of his life. There we will find, in all its depth and simplicity, what we Christians really mean when we talk about love. And there we will find life.

Download the sermon for Easter 6C.

Written by The Reverend James Liggett

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

By This Everyone Will Know That You Are My Disciples, Easter 5 (C) -2016

[RCL] Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise the Lord from the earth! Let us praise the name of the Lord, for God’s name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. Amen.

Today’s readings situate the early church within the Jewish culture of first century Judea. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles depicts Jesus’ early followers as observant Jews and the beginnings of the Church as rooted within Judaism struggling to define what this new way of life means for them.

The writer of the Revelation to John is also situated within the Jewish tradition and in these writings; we have an example of Christian visionary literature built on the foundations of Jewish apocalypses. A revelation or apocalypse is generally a first-person narrative in which the writer relates one or more visions about the future and/or the heavenly world. The image of the divine throne and the precise layout of the heavenly city contain echoes of Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 40 – 42, while the new heaven and a new earth and the absence of weeping and crying are echoes of Isaiah 65. Indeed even the reference to the holy city Jerusalem supports an essentially Jewish frame of reference. The text as a whole is a glorious act of worship, telling a story of God’s enduring presence in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The vision ends on a note of hope and faith.

In today’s gospel, Jesus announces his impending death to his disciples and offers comfort and instructions for how they should behave when he is gone. John the Evangelist takes pains throughout his gospel to distinguish the Jewish followers of Jesus from “the Jews,” those who have not accepted Jesus as the Son of God and path to salvation. “You will look for me,” Jesus says to the disciples, possibly to tell them of new ways in which they will find him after his departure. New ways such as what Peter discovered when he went to the Gentile household of Cornelius. Jesus emphasizes how his followers are to behave when he is gone in the famous words of John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

These instructions form the basis of pastoral care and service in Christian life and community, from the time of the earliest Christians forward. Jesuit professor Bruce Morrill, in his book Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death, writes:

“What distinguished the followers of Jesus and successive generations of Christians was their outreach to the poor and sick, the practical love they demonstrated in openly forming fellowship groups (local churches) that actively reached out in service to the poor, the hungry, and the sick.”

An element of early Christian practice that impressed pagan observers was their shunning of social boundaries in caring for the sick and needy in times of trouble.

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In fact, according to Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity and an authority on the sociology of religion, poor Christians in the ancient world were healthier and happier than their poor pagan neighbors. Christians cared for one another. They took up collections to support their elders and orphaned children. They offered each other simple nursing care in epidemics. They offered strong community in chaotic times. Stark writes in Christian History Magazine:

“To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity and hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate fellowship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.”

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Can we say the same today, of our churches, in our cities? Are we taking care of one another? Offering charity and hope? Providing fellowship to newcomers, strangers, orphans and widows?

The beautiful language of the King James version of today’s passage from Revelation contains the words: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.” How can the promises of Revelation be applied in a pastoral context? How can we aid and comfort one another? Certainly, we can’t take away all sorrows, old age, chronic pain, death. We are unlikely to alter the path of armies or the destruction of natural disasters. Can we bring a note of hope and faith in the midst of pain, chaos, despair? Can we reach out to victims of destruction and exile?

Certainly what we can do is reach out to our neighbors, remembering that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles as well as the circumcised. We can love another. We can assure one another that we are all integral parts of a living community, a community both within and without our church walls. By worshipping together, praising God as our Jewish and early Christian forebears did, we join in community and are strengthened in faith as we are soaked in trust and love for one another. In liturgical worship, gathered in Christ’s name, we form the basis for worshipping God in ethical service. These manifestations of God’s glory are distinct yet vitally related works of the same Holy Spirit. Our liturgical worship is both an end and a means. Our communities can stand as a witness to our neighbors of our spiritual commitment and joyful determination to love and serve. We are sent out by the Holy Spirit to love one another, to pastor to one another, to reach out to those whom we may serve, in ways great and small.

As the body of Christ here and now, we are called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Go in Peace. Remember the Poor.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 5C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh. 

The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Today many churches will celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, especially those parishes and congregations that have “Good Shepherd” in their titles. “The Good Shepherd” is a title that Jesus used for himself in a famous section of the Gospel of John in which he declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The passage is so meaningful for the Christian understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth is that parts of it are appointed for this Sunday in all three years of the Church’s lectionary.

The background and implications of Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd make it particularly consequential. Throughout the Old Testament—but with special pointedness in the prophetic books—the kings and other rulers of Israel and Judah are called shepherds. This designation makes sense because kings and rulers were entrusted with looking out for the welfare of God’s people. They were responsible for defending them from attack, for administering justice, for taking care of the poor and needy, and for making provisions for the worship of the Lord.

As the Hebrew prophets make clear, however, the rulers of Israel and Judah failed on every count. They “fed themselves and not the flock,” and they had “scattered the sheep of the Lord’s flock”. They proclaimed the hope that the Lord would intervene on behalf of the people, God would be their true Shepherd. God spoke to Ezekiel promising:

“I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

Throughout the Psalms the Lord is presented as the Shepherd of Israel and the one who guides the people like a flock. The best-known example of the Bible’s shepherd-imagery for God is the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23. Many Christians know its words by heart:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.”

In rich symbolism, the psalm movingly depicts God as the true king of Israel and shepherd of God’s people. God gives them everything they need, and nothing is missing from God’s generous provisions. Sustenance, refreshment, beauty, and safety are all to be found among the Lord’s gifts for God’s people. The Lord’s strength defends them from their oppressors and saves them from dangers the way a shepherd protects their sheep from wolves, bears, and lions:

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

God’s people rejoice, surrounded by the abundance of God’s love forever:

“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This understanding of God as the Shepherd of Israel forms the backdrop for Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.

Jesus begins what is known as the Good Shepherd discourse by describing the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd: God knows them by name, and they recognize God’s voice. The relationship is direct and personal. God is not some far-off deity who is uninterested in God’s people. God loves them and calls them by name.

Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus contrasts the Lord’s care for people with the failure of the Jewish leaders who came before him. He exposes them as false shepherds. Instead of caring for the flock of God they were thieves and robbers from whom the sheep needed protection. Jesus insists that the false shepherds only came “to kill, to rob, and to destroy” but that he came to save the sheep and to give them “abundant life”. Jesus teaches that as Israel’s true Shepherd, the long-awaited Messiah, he knows us, loves us, and provides for us with the same knowledge, love, and care that God, Israel’s Lord, offers to God’s people. He even promises us the gift of eternal life.

By laying claim to the role of the Good Shepherd, Jesus is claiming for himself a position reserved for God alone as becomes evident from the section of the Gospel we hear in today’s readings. The crowd demands that Jesus answer them clearly whether or not he is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus further angers them by telling them that they really ought to have discovered that for themselves when they had heard him teaching and when he had done might signs before their eyes, but they had not listened or seen because they were not God’s sheep. He appears to rile them even more by pressing the question further. He declares, “The Father and I are one.” It was a remarkable statement, and it provoked a dramatic response—the crowd took stones in order to kill Jesus!

There appeared to be no two ways about it: Either Jesus was correct, and he was the Good Shepherd being opposed by some outsider sheep, or he was a blasphemer who deserved the harshest punishment. The crowd’s violent reaction further illustrates the importance of the question that faces every person: Who is this Jesus? Is he a blasphemer, or is he who he says he is? Is this Jesus the Christ? Is he the Good Shepherd?

In his book Mere Christianity, Anglican layman and theologian C.S. Lewis suggested that one might ask if perhaps Jesus was simply a lunatic, but that no one who listened to Jesus’ message about the care and the loving protection of God could seriously argue that Jesus was a madman. Therefore, instead of simply dismissing what Jesus says, we must take his claims seriously.

Many who first heard Jesus’ claims to be one with God demanded evidence, signs that would demonstrate the truth of what he said. They wanted proof. Jesus gave them an answer when declared, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me; but I lay it down of my own accord, and I have power to take it up again.” The proof that Jesus gives that he is the Good Shepherd is his loving self-sacrifice for the people of God and the power of his resurrection. Put another way, Good Friday and Easter Morning are the proof that Jesus of Nazareth is who he says he is.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we ought to celebrate God’s great love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ’s total gift of himself on our behalf. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep and took it up again, and it is he who has given us the abundance of eternal life. As Christians we receive this gift as we hear Jesus’ voice calling us each by name and as we trust him with our whole life in the knowledge that commended to the Savior’s keeping we shall never ripped away from God’s love. Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 4C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch

The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.  

Jesus Will Meet Us, Easter 3 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19; Psalm 30

John’s Gospel ends with four appearances that the resurrected Jesus makes to different groups of disciples: four scenes of Christ revealed alive, four assurances that death could never contain the life that Jesus lived and lives. First, on Easter Day, we heard how Mary encountered Jesus in the garden outside the tomb, and mistook him for the gardener, before God’s light flooded in and she saw him revealed as her teacher. Last Sunday, we heard of two encounters with Jesus: late on Easter Day, Jesus appears to the disciples in the house where they had been staying — only Thomas is missing and does not believe. So Jesus returns again the following week, and this time Thomas is there, and sees with his own eyes, and confesses his belief. And Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These appearances take place in Jerusalem, in the days just after Jesus’ execution. The terror of the preceding week has dissipated, but Jesus’ disciples are still filled with fear, not quite sure how to go on. They don’t know what’s coming next. John does a masterful job showing that fear transforms into joy. First Mary stands outside the tomb, weeping because Jesus is dead. And in the next moment she stands there weeping because he is alive. This whole section, John chapter 20, is imbued with a heavenly light. Think about how your memories of deep despair and deep joy seem more intense: your wedding day, or the funeral of a loved one. The picture you keep in your mind is brighter, more colorful, more deeply ingrained.

But then life goes on, and many ordinary days follow. So it is with the fourth and final appearance that John records, in chapter 21. Some time has passed — John doesn’t say how much. But the disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to their home in Galilee, back to the safety of the countryside and away from those terrible forces that Jesus confronted in the city: the chief priests and Pharisees in the temple, and of course the Roman governor and his soldiers.  Jesus’ loyal followers are home, but you get the sense that they don’t quite know what to do with themselves or what to make of those strange appearances that happened just after Jesus’ death.

Peter decides to go fishing, and several of the others decide to go out on the boat with him. They don’t have any luck, but the next morning, as they are coming back to shore, they find a man standing there who tells them to cast the net again, to the right side of the boat this time — and of course, the man is Jesus, and of course, they haul in so many fish that the net is nearly torn.  And Jesus invites them to sit down on the beach, around the fire he has made, to break bread with him once more: from the last supper to the first breakfast, if you will.

This is the last appearance of the risen Jesus that John records. But this is not Jesus’ last appearance. Look with the eyes of faith, and we begin to see Jesus in the oddest places: on the seashore, in the garden, on the street corner. Sometimes Jesus is hungry and cold and asking us for money. And other times he is inviting us to sit down for an unexpected meal. But always, always, Jesus is challenging us to live lives of kindness and compassion, of sharing and generosity, of justice-making and peace.  In a word, the abundant life that Jesus has brought us is a life of love: it comes from love and is intended to bring more love into the world.

The English language has a poverty of words for love. We have to modify love with other words if we want to try and be precise about what we’re talking about: we talk about “romantic” love, “familial” love, “brotherly” love, and so on. Greek does a better job of this, as we can see in the conversation that Jesus has with Peter after they finish breakfast.  Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers him, “Well Lord, of course, you know I love you.” But Jesus doesn’t seem satisfied with this answer, so he asks Peter again, and Peter again gives the same answer.  In fact, this exchange happens three times.

Now why would Jesus ask Peter this question three times? It turns out, in the original Greek, Jesus and Peter are using completely different words for love. What Jesus actually asks Peter is: do you agape me?  And Peter answers: yes Lord, you know that I philia you.

Agape and philia. Jesus wants agape: the kind of love that is life-transforming, wholly consuming, that means commitment beyond feelings. Agape is the self-giving love that sacrifices its own needs for the good of others. The kind of love that God has for us, in other words.  This is the love Jesus showed us on the cross, and Jesus is asking for this kind of love in return.

But all Peter can offer is philia: I have affection for you, Lord. I like you, well enough. That’s what philia is — more like, than love.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Peter though. Perhaps he was just trying to be honest about the kind of love he was capable of giving Jesus in return.  Peter saw Jesus’ brutal execution with his own eyes, so he is well aware of what can result from too much agape love. Letting go of yourself for the good of the other is not an easy calling.

A remarkable and beautiful thing happens at the end of this exchange though: the first two times Jesus asks the question, he says, “Do you agape me?” And Peter answers, “Lord, I philia you.” But the third time Jesus asks, he changes the question and uses philia instead of agape, the same word for love that Peter had been using all along.

Peter is hurt, perhaps because he feels embarrassed by Jesus’ lowered expectations. But in reality, he has no need for embarrassment: the point is that Jesus loves us enough to meet us where we are. If all we can offer is philia, then Jesus will meet us there, and keep walking with us. Jesus knows that the agape love with which God holds together the universe is more than enough to go around: it can make up for our deficiencies in love. And as we walk with Jesus and our hearts grow more open, God’s agape love will come pouring in, until we are so full that it begins to flow through us and out into the world.  This is the abundant life that Jesus wants for us: will we follow him into it?

Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 3C.

Written by the Reverend Jason Cox

The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

My Lord and My God, Easter 2 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150

Doubt is a complicated matter. It can indicate a critical mind, one that asks questions, and never takes things at face value. The opposite is a gullible mind: one that is the delight of unscrupulous sales persons, dangerous politicians, and many televangelists.

There’s another type of doubt, one driven by deep emotion, an emotion stimulated by loss. It’s a form of despair, a despair that clings to loss and refuses to believe that there is any future other than one described by that which is lost. Life will never be the same again. Friends assure us that we will get over our loss of a job, an ambition, our loss of a relationship or the death of a dear one but we don’t want to hear it. We can’t believe it. Saint Thomas’s doubt is of this second type.

Instead of becoming the patron saint of those who never take things at face value, Thomas might well be the hero of people who are never on time. For some reason he missed the earliest encounters with the Risen Lord. About his statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  We will get to that in a moment.

Thomas first makes an entrance in Saint Johns Gospel shortly after Lazarus rises from the dead. He tells Jesus that all the disciples will go with him to die. Later, when Jesus tells them that he is going away to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas assumes that Jesus is talking about some geographical destination and says that he doesn’t know where Jesus is going or the way there.

He must have found a safe place to hide in his grief and despair after the crucifixion because he missed the first encounters in the garden, on the road to Emmaus, and in the first of the two encounters in the upper room.

We really don’t know enough about Thomas to assess his character, let alone to accuse him of being a habitual doubter. He’s Jewish. He’s a twin but we don’t know who his twin was. He’s devoted enough to Jesus to at least contemplate dying for him. He doesn’t want to be separated from his Lord. He wants to know where Jesus is going and how to get to him. And for all that, Thomas isn’t there for Jesus when he is arrested, tried, and put to death. He runs away.

After the crucifixion, as he hides in the city, he must be a bundle of fear, grief and guilt. There are few human emotions so devastating. To then discover that his friends, equally guilty, equally grieving, had been visited by Jesus and given authority to heal the very emotions with which he suffered was more than he could absorb or manage. Filled with shame he blurts out: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas won’t believe it for himself. He certainly won’t believe it from the mouths of his friends, who have been empowered to restore relationships: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas still hangs around, even though he is convinced that nothing can ever get better for him, that he deserves nothing better. The next week Jesus appears again, says Shalom, and immediately invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Like a dam bursting, Thomas’s fear, grief, shame, and hopelessness floods out and he collapses in adoration. “My Lord and my God”.

The writer of John’s Gospel, perhaps the Beloved Disciple perhaps not, concludes the story by telling us why he selected this one from among all the incidents he could have recounted. He writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

In one way or another we all stumble into life moments when we are seized by fear, remorse, grief, and loss. Our lack of belief that things can get better isn’t atheism or agnosticism, but rather a deeply personal conviction that we are the exception, the one left out. We may even believe that the Christian community is empowered reconcile, restore and forgive and that priests and bishops are chosen agents of reconciliation. There’s a much-neglected service of reconciliation in the prayer book. Yet we still exclude ourselves as if clinging to remorse rather than the life we deserve.

I wonder whether “John” points us deeper in that direction, that “Way, Truth and Life”? Is there significance in the gap of a week between encounters, one that the first Christians would have grasped? Is this a seven-day gap between Lord’s Days? As we do, the Early Christians offered the Shalom, the Peace, before the Eucharist, during which Jesus comes among us and invites us to explore his wounds. As we touch him, he enters us and, by faith, we let loose everything that has obscured his presence. He offers new life when we couldn’t believe one possible, and we drop to our knees and murmur: “My Lord and my God”.

If legend is true, St. Thomas obtained new life and took the message of reconciliation and forgiveness as far as India. His tomb, venerated by Christians and non-Christians alike is the heart of the Mar Thoma, Lord Thomas, Church with whom we enjoy communion.

Download the sermon for Easter 2C.

Written by The Reverend Anthony Clavier

The Reverend Anthony Clavier is the Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, Illinois.

Practice Resurrection, Easter (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…things happen early in the morning. Mornings are mystical and sacred, the earth rises from its slumber to greet the coming day, but this morning did not feel mystical, this morning did not feel sacred. Mary Magdalene did not want to get out of bed but the orange glow in the east was spreading across the sky. The day’s doings were calling.

Sitting on her bed Mary said the customary prayer; “Blessed are you Lord God, Ruler of the Universe. I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” (Modeh Ani, traditional Jewish first prayer of the day.) But the words didn’t offer the usual comfort. This morning the words were just words.

The last few days seemed a blur. The Passover meal, with its prayers and rituals, family and friends gathered to recite the ancient story, seemed so long ago. Jesus’ strange words that night as he passed the bread, “Do this in remembrance of me”, now made eerie sense. She didn’t really think it would happen. But he was gone. They had come for him. Right there in the garden. The garden where they often went to pray, to talk with Jesus. The garden that held so many happy memories, so many stories. Then he was gone.

She had followed the next day, in disbelief with the other women, as he made the slow agonizing walk to his death. Mary had stood there numb and in shock as they drove the nails, as he breathed his last. She had comforted his mother. The words didn’t come. The words couldn’t come. All she could do was hold on to his mother. She followed to the garden as they laid him in the tomb. He was dead. It was finished.

But the burial rites needed to be done. Sabbath meant they couldn’t do the customary anointing. But today, early on the first day of the week while it was still dark, she had a job to do. Mary dressed as if in a dream. This was not happening. She made her way down the street to the waiting women. With a silent nod they joined in slow procession to the garden, to the tomb. How were they going to move the stone?

The stone had been rolled away! It was empty! How could this be? What have they done? They have taken him. One final insult from the people who had robbed her of her friend, her teacher, her Rabbouni. They must have taken his body to deny him the proper burial. The stone was rolled away.

With tears trailing after her, Mary ran to Simon Peter. “They have taken him!” is all she could get out. Then the flood of tears came. They have taken him. Looking into the empty tomb with the stone rolled away someone was sitting there. “Why are you weeping?” “Don’t you understand? They have taken him!” A voice from behind her: “Woman! Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” That voice. It sounded familiar, but it couldn’t be. “They have taken him! Do you know where?”

“Mary!”

“Rabbouni?!”

That voice. The familiar voice of the impossible. How can this be? This is not possible. “Destroy this temple and in three days it will be rebuilt,” echoed in her head. He’s alive! Jesus is risen! “Go Mary. Tell the others.” New tears as she ran to tell the good news. “I have seen the Lord! I have seen the Lord!”

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, things happen.

Early on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene expected to find death but instead she found new life. We have stood in Mary Magdalene’s shoes. We know only too well what it means to expect death but find new life. We know what it feels like to follow on Good Friday only to be confronted with Easter Sunday. We have stood there peering into the empty tomb with the stone rolled away experiencing the impossible. The thing is, we don’t go looking for resurrection – resurrection finds us.

Jesus’ resurrection is about God loving us so much that God is willing to go to any length to find us in all the wrong places. Because like Mary, we go looking for God in the familiar, in the places we expect to find God. But in Jesus’ resurrection God finds us when we are down and out, when we are at the end of our rope, when all hope seems lost. God rolls back the stones that bind and confine us. God stands waiting with a familiar voice to call us to new life. Call us to “Go and tell.”

Resurrection has no meaning, no purpose, no place unless like Mary Magdalene we go and tell it! Resurrection has no meaning if we cannot share the Good News of Easter to a world living in Good Friday! Resurrection has no meaning unless we are willing to live as Easter people.

Go and tell of your life transformed by the one who healed the sick and cured the lame.

Go and tell of the one who blessed the broken and welcomed the outcast.

Go and tell that “Do this in remembrance of me” is real.

Go and tell that God has work for us to do in our neighborhoods and street corners.

Go and tell that God was there, God is here and God will be there!

Go and tell that God find us and loves us into redemption through Christ Jesus our Lord.

In truth resurrection isn’t an event it is an experience. We are called to go and tell not only with our lips but also with our lives. Go and tell of the resurrection power of God’s love and hope.

Wendell Berry in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” puts it like this:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

We need to practice being witnesses to resurrection in a world clinging to Good Friday!

This Easter, may you open your whole self — heart, soul, mind, and strength — to God’s inspiring call to new life and renewed love. May you feel God luring you, prompting you, goading you, cajoling you, calling you and encouraging you — each day and in each new present moment — to practice resurrection. “We have seen the Lord!” Alleluia! Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter C.

Written by The Reverend Deon K. Johnson

The Rev. Deon Johnson has served as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton MI for the last nine years. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.

 

Moving toward Christian unity, Ascension Day (A,B,C) – 2015

May 14, 2015

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“Lord, is it time?” How many questions like that do we ask on our journey in faith?

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, while the apostles were still looking for deliverance from political domination and oppression, they asked, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It is a question many believers ask today.

Jesus’ answer is simply to say we are asking the wrong question. It is not for us to know the time, nor whether God favors Israel and will restore it to its former glory. Rather, we are to be witnesses to all that Jesus has done, including fulfilling the Law and the prophets by his suffering and death.

The Ascension makes Jesus a universal figure, drawing us all to him, and sending us to be witnesses of the Good News. There is no time to ponder; now is the time to act – together.

Recently, a small town found itself in the midst of a struggle over religion – not unusual for small towns. The struggle had to do with who were the real Christians. One group organized a Jesus parade for the day before Easter. The organizers were mostly made up of folks from the more conservative and evangelical churches. When the mainline church groups went to register, they were told they couldn’t participate because their sign that proclaimed diversity and inclusiveness in Jesus was “too controversial.” So the mainline churches stayed away.

While nobody wanted a religious war, there did seem to be a line drawn between those who interpret scripture with proof text methods and those who interpret it in context. Those on the sidelines took some pleasure in the divide.

The universal ascended Lord confronts both of these groups of Christians to come together, challenging us to move away from the things that separate us and move toward the things that unite us.

Throughout the Book of Acts the apostles face difficulties, including their own divisions over how to interpret and share the Good News. The author of Acts doesn’t gloss over these sharp differences, but in the end shows how the unity of the gospel can be found when we allow ourselves to be drawn to the ascended Jesus rather than claiming the way we know him is the only way. As Peter learns after the Resurrection, God shows no partiality.

In today’s reading from Ephesians, the Apostle Paul prays that “the Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [we] come to know him.” In a time when our loyalties are challenged and divided by legislation, politics and religion, it is good to remember that the ascended Jesus prays for us and offers us wisdom and revelation, free from our own prejudices and fears, unbound so we can witness freely to all about the Good News of the gospel.

During these great 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, there is time to reflect on the universal ascended Lord and the gospel message. It will not be the same message in every place or every context, but it will be the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

As we prepare for the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, keep in mind that we all share the Good News. How we express it depends on the time and the place.

Regard the ascended Lord as empowering. Our divisions in the Christian community disempower us. Jesus’ work is to redeem messes, personal and public. While we have a large responsibility in that work, we are never alone. The ascended Jesus prays for us, sends us the power of the Spirit, and guides us to do that work.

So ask Jesus to guide your thinking and actions in ways that bring about unity and overcome division. Ask Jesus to unburden your heart and mind of prejudice and hurtful thoughts that encourage separation among believers. Ask the ascended Lord to empower you to be a disciple, a candle of light in the darkness of division. Then wait for your orders.

The apostles depended on the risen and ascended Jesus to sustain them in very difficult circumstances. He promised them he would be with them, always. We inherit their difficulties and their promise. Most of all, we live in the light of the ascended Lord who sends us the Holy Spirit and will one day make us one.

 

— Ben Helmer is a retired priest living in Holiday Island, Ark. He has been affiliated with diverse small congregations for over 40 years.

‘Nothing but’ misses the point, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2013

May 19, 2013

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27)

The Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ first followers on Pentecost, empowering the frightened pack of disciples to become a brazen bunch of evangelists. The curse of the Tower of Babel was reversed in one amazing outburst. At Babel, people were divided. Former fishermen and other followers of Jesus became interpreters par excellence. In this Babel scene played backward, the devout Jews from Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Pamphylia and the like now hear the Good News of what God has done through Jesus each in their own native language.

The gospel is spoken not in confusing babble but with a crystal clarity that leaves the hearers cut to the quick. Before this amazing day is over, 3,000 devout Jews will be baptized as followers of Jesus, the Christ. The result of Pentecost was to take a diverse group of people and to bring them together into a common understanding of what God’s deeds of power meant to their lives.

Yet not everyone understood what was happening in their midst. The account of that day in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that some onlookers took the excitement for a drunken mob. Certainly, it feels safe to reduce the disciples’ behavior as coming from heavy drinking. It might also be comforting to relegate Pentecost to an outbreak of religious hysteria. But the Pentecost experience was not due to alcohol and is not so easily reduce to nothing more than hysteria.

This is an ongoing tendency about lots of phenomenon for which we have no ready understanding. The physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, said in his book “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity,” some people are “nothing butters” when it comes to the world we live in. Reductionists see a thing is “nothing but” its physical explanation. They need only look at the most elemental form of a thing to explain everything.

For someone with a “nothing butter” way of making sense of the world, the compositions of Bach and Beethoven are nothing but vibrations that interact with our eardrums to create the effect we call music. The Mona Lisa is nothing but flecks of paint that we experience as differing colors. Baptism is nothing but water poured over someone’s head as a part of a ritual observance, and the Pentecost experience was nothing but religious hysteria.

Yes, Bach and Beethoven’s greatest works do reach our ears as nothing but vibrations against our eardrums, for that is how the beauty of the composers’ work is transmitted. But you can’t reduce their music to mere vibrations hitting your eardrum.

Of course, the Mona Lisa is just flecks of matter we call “paint” put on matter we call “canvas” in ways that we experience as an interplay of colors. But her enigmatic smile cannot be reduced to the physical matter that forms the art. In these works of art, the notes of music and the paint on the canvas convey so much more, that reducing them to the essential physical phenomena misses the point.

So also, the Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit coming to Jesus’ disciples on that fiftieth day after the Passover, would have created some emotionalism akin to religious hysteria. Yet whatever caused some in the crowd that day to wonder whether the disciples had been drinking, was not all there was to the event.

We know that there was something more because of the immediate and the lasting impact of that day. The immediate effect was to begin sharing the Good News of Jesus with those who were far off as well as with those who were near to the Jewish faith. The centuries-long change is that the way of Jesus became a light to the gentiles. It is in this change, which began in these earliest days of Christianity, and which expanded through the ministry of both Peter and Paul to invite everyone into the Reign of God, that we see something more than an emotional event is taking place.

The Pentecost event defied any “it was nothing but” explanation. We can’t reduce Pentecost to “It was nothing but emotionalism,” or “It was nothing but mass hysteria,” or even “It was nothing but a long-ago event we can no longer explain.” The closest we can get is “Pentecost was nothing less than the presence of God.”

That day, the Jesus Movement was transformed not by human will, but by an act of the Holy Spirit. The main aspect of Christianity that was transformed in that first Pentecost was that the gospel moved beyond Israel and Judaism and became a unifying event. Pentecost showed that what unites us is God’s spirit and that is more important than what divides us.

Pentecost is a time to remember that God’s spirit is still present in a mighty way. That’s why our worship can’t be reduced to “nothing but” music, readings and a sermon. The Eucharist can never be described as “nothing but” bread and wine, any more than baptism is “nothing but” water and words. That is far too limiting.

Beyond this, we know that today we cannot limit who is in and who is out of the reach of the Reign of God any more than it could be limited to Israel.

For when we encounter nothing less than the presence of God, we come to know that we cannot limit who God is and how God acts, no matter how we might try. We who follow Jesus now are called to act on our love of God as much as those first disciples were called to share God’s love. We are to share the love of God freely, without limiting who God might love.

We are to take this Good News that God loves us, and share that gospel in our deeds as well as our words with everyone we meet, as we leave worship, going in peace to love and serve the Lord. We are empowered to do this by nothing less than the power and presence of the God we experience this day in our worship.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.