A Sermon for the
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
Transitions are always frightening. Even if they are expected, they still worry us and confuse us, because they open the possibility that something unexpected could happen. We realize that we are no longer in safe and “known” territory. Anything could happen. We quickly come to realize that we are no longer in control. We have to let go of the past and be willing to move into a new future. That can be quite troublesome.
If the transition is unexpected—or, even worse, —unwanted, it can be terrifying! We may find ourselves asking, “Why did this happen?” “How did I wind up here?” “What am I going to do now.” In such a case, we may come to realize that we need to ask others for help. And that can be a hard thing to do—especially if we are accustomed to being independent. In the end, though, we may have no choice.
Occasionally, though, transitions can be wonderful. Rather than leading us into something we do not want, do not like, and would do anything we could to avoid, a transition can—at the best—lead us into something that we realize is perfect for us. They can lead us into something which we could not have even imagined but which is exactly what we needed. It is that kind of a transition which I want to explore with you today.
The problem with looking at the fifty days following the Resurrection of Our Lord in the Christian Scriptures is that we know the end of the story. As a result, we can too quickly jump to the end and fail to appreciate what it took to get there.
As a group, the closest disciples of Jesus found themselves in a state of shock at the Passion and Crucifixion. Despite the fact that Jesus had warned them (in fact repeatedly) that things were not going to turn out the way that they hoped, they just did not understand—or were not able to believe what he was saying. Perhaps they hoped that he was wrong. Or, perhaps it was just inconceivable that someone they loved so deeply would have such horrible things happen. Confused and frightened, they ran away and abandoned their friend.
It is interesting to me that they, at least, had the sense to come together as a group—and so they were found in that upper room where they had celebrated the Passover—that amazing Last Supper—together. I suspect that their conversations were sad ones. They must have been overcome by guilt and shame. They were terrified. After all, they had abandoned everything to become disciples. Somehow it had all gone horribly wrong. What if the authorities came looking for them next? It is so often the case in such a setting that in fear and insecurity people lash out at each other and sometimes say things which they later regret.
The knowledge of the Resurrection does not seem to have changed things for them to any great degree. While they rejoiced to see the Risen Lord, they remain in hiding. They appear to have revisited the safe places that they knew in Galilee—the “safe” and “known” places where they lived and worked before they knew Jesus—those places where they had travelled with him. But, eventually, they found their way back to Jerusalem.
Once again, Jesus invited them to a time of transition. He warned them that he would be going away—and this time for good. He comforted them with the promise that he would send them help—a “Comforter,” a “Paraclete,” an “Advocate.” It does not appear that this made any sense to them. As before, they were unable to take this message in—or to believe it. Surely Jesus was mistaken! They were so traumatized by the events of Holy Week that they could not imagine life without the Lord.
But then, the unexpected happened. Jesus was true to his word and left them. He ascended to His Father and they were forced into another transition—and this, perhaps the most difficult. Huddled and afraid in that upper Room with the doors locked for fear that any number of enemies would find them and do them harm, they had no other choice but to pray. In those nine days—the first novena—they prayed that the promises of Jesus—incredible as they seem—would come true for them.
On that fiftieth day after the Resurrection—on that day of Pentecost in which they remembered and celebrated God giving the Law on Mount Sinai—fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt—the unexpected happened! Jesus’ promise that he would send them help and comfort was fulfilled. The Holy Spirit descended upon them in a most dramatic way. Flames of fire appeared (reminding them of the God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush), they experienced God’s presence in a mighty wind (reminding them of creation when the “breath of God” breathed upon the waters—and of God’s paradoxical self-revelation to Elijah in the cave, when he was fleeing for his life from Ahab and Jezebel) and then they realized that a new reality had emerged. In the gift of speaking in other languages, they realized that the curse of Babel had been removed and reversed. God found a way to make “one blood and one race of all humanity.” The divisions which had previously seemed insurmountable had now been healed.
The transformation in the disciples—the Apostles—was shocking. They unlocked the door and ran out in the street. They began to preach the Good News of Jesus—for the first time—to anyone and everyone. They were no longer afraid of the Roman authorities, they were no longer afraid of the High Priest or Sanhedrin. Debilitating fear was now a foreign concept to them. That is not to say that they would never be afraid again, I imagine that they were. What they learned, though, is that the promise of Jesus that “perfect love casts out fear” was true! What they learned was to trust. The became convinced that God loved them: totally, absolutely, and unconditionally. God chose them to bless them and to lead them into what was best for them.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us the story of what happened after Pentecost. There were constant and unexpected surprises—but happy ones, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” Wow—this “Good News,” this “Gospel,” was for everyone.
In reflecting on the unfolding of God’s plan, the Apostles finally understood Jesus’ teaching about the nature of love. They realized that he had simplified those “ten words” given on Mount Sinai— “thou shall” and “thou shall not”—to one word. Love! He had taken those ten commandments and synthesized them into a new commandment—Love! Remember that the word “commandment” mitzvah is not only a concept but also an action.
Jesus invites his followers to be people who love. We are to love God, we are to love each other. We are to show that love in service to anyone in need. We are to live lives of transition in which there is room for God’s plan to unfold and flower.
The Gospel According to Saint John makes this perfectly clear to us. We are truly and most fully God’s children—and God’s Church—when we love. Jesus is clear: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” When we love, we will experience the power of the Spirit in our lives and in our community. We will experience the hopeful victory offered by the Resurrection.
A final thought, this coming Thursday, we will remember the Ascension of Our Lord. In the nine days which follow— and which lead us into Pentecost,— we are invited to join in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit fall upon us again—individually, and collectively— so that we too will be fearless disciples and that through our love and service, God will transform the face of the world.