Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 14, 2023

Posted by on Sun, May 14, 2023 in Easter, Sermons

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 14, 2023

Jesus has already told them what is coming. Mary has anointed his feet. They have shared a final supper together. He’s washed their feet, foretold the betrayal, and Judas has left. He’s given them ‘a New Commandment’, foretold Peter’s denial, and tried once again to help them understand where he’s going. And as we heard last Sunday, Jesus promised he would draw them to himself and that that would know his Way. It has been a heavy and dynamic strange few days for the disciples, and this day all the more. This is Jesus giving words of love and direction and comfort as they live out this final ‘goodbye’ as we say in English—an apt expression arising from “God be with you!”

We have goodbyes all the time — usually casually or ending in ‘See you Sunday’. The more important goodbyes call for more preparation; as we see a loved one take a trip we’ll worry about, watch children and grandchildren graduate or send them off into new adventures, as we say goodbye to dear friends moving away—no longer to sit next to us in pew or choir, no more to weed or break bread alongside of us. Perhaps we tuck a surprise in a suitcase or offer a parting gift to remember each other by. It’s especially significant with one who’s dying, and we often recall stories of shared life, and even if they cannot hear us we pray with them, hold their hand, offer mutual comfort. These all have in common what is happening in this gospel lesson between Jesus and those closest to him; know my love, and I will be with you in spirit. Like us Jesus is leaving them and prepares them by emphasizing their shared love, and, that such love means they (and we) live his commandments. He also promises they are not being cut adrift in his death, God will send them the ‘Advocate’ (in Greek ‘Paraclete’), also called Holy Comforter, Helper, Counselor, the Spirit of truth Jesus says, to be with them forever.

There are a couple of translation peculiarities in this passage. The first is less substantive so we’ll look at it first. The Paraclete or Advocate or Helper Jesus says God is sending is not identified with any gender, even though by tradition bibles say, ‘him’ or ‘he’ in reference to the Paraclete. The Greek word αὐτός (ow-tos’) is either he/him, she/her, it, they/them, or even the same or self. (Biblical Greek’s personal pronouns were way ahead of us, and people rarely know it!)

The second translation stumble is the word Paraclete itself (which is translated Advocate here), yet no one English word can quite replace it to my thinking. Para means alongside, alongside intimately. Klētos means to call for, to call in to aid. This is a change in John’s way of speaking of the Holy Spirit. Until now, and in the other three gospels, the Spirit is always pneuma, meaning wind, breathe, Spirit or spirit. The pneuma descended at Jesus’ baptism, in telling Nicodemus he must be born of water and pneumatos, in telling the Samaritan woman the God is pneuma, and telling the disciples that it is the pneuma that gives life, and so on. Here John (and only John) uses Paraclete, and the emphasis changes to emphasize the help that the Paraclete will bring them. This change is significant because of his impending departure; even though the Paraclete is coming to help us here, Jesus will also be that help in heaven.

Jesus is integrating what they may so far have perceived as separate; the love of God, the love which they are commanded to live out, and the Spirit’s helping presence which surpasses all goodbyes. “I will not leave you orphaned” he assures them. Surely the disciples took some comfort in this, and more so John’s early church audience who were living with persecution and some fear of abandonment themselves.

Notice that Jesus describes the Spirit as another Advocate? This is to say, Jesus was the first; the One who came to us in the Incarnation, the flesh, so that we might know God’s relational sacrificial love for us, and know it includes keeping his commandments. We often talk of being Christ’s hands and heart in the world, and as such we obey him. When we comfort and encourage one another, are present even if we cannot understand, cannot fix, explain, or chase the crisis away, or perhaps in saying goodbye to each other, with tears or laughter, silence or awe— we are part of the living Spirit, the Comforter’s comfort, in each other’s lives. 

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Which are “That you love one another, as I have loved you… By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Jesus ties love to obedience here, which may have worked then but is not an easy thing for us to embrace. (Good for our dogs, but we ourselves shy from it.) Here’s what enlightens us though; to obey his commandments is a sign of our love, and, he tells us, a defining mark of those who are his disciples.

The love that Jesus commands is not about affectionate feelings, (which cannot be commanded). He calls for agape love—loving others through action. There is no list of rules to check off to see if you’re doing it right, no certificate we can post on the wall (virtual or otherwise). We have to live it, to listen and consider what is the way to embody Jesus’ love for the sake of another. The act of following Jesus’ commandments oblige us to allow him to reshape our lives. 

Turning to the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Paul’s speaking to the people in Athens. Paul was disturbed to find a ‘city full of idols’ and spends his time debating, which it a delightful pastime for him and them. Athenians especially prided themselves on their intellect and were known for inquiring of new ideas. They deem Paul worthy of holding his own because and invite him to the Areopagus to speak. 

He begins by using of Greek philosophy to tailor his message to this particular group, so they can hear it in familiar terms. He comes alongside to speak of their altar “To an unknown god” and uses it as a way into help them see what he sees. Likely that altar was the Athenians’ attempt to avoid leaving any god out lest that god be offended and bring on retaliation, and as Paul shifts it from that of the unknown god to the God he knows, the God which they are all children of. He waits until the end though to tie his points together and speak of “this man” appointed by God and raised from the dead. 

We don’t know how many heard him or how many were persuaded to look at things anew and have their minds changed. Even so I see this as Paul’s best teaching moment and example. He makes God in Christ known in their own ways and context. For him this is loving Christ and living in obedience to his commandments. I see many of you do this too—though less overt and wordy. Rather in your own faithful ways, overtly or not.  As we travel alongside of others in this agape love, we too become Paracletes. Brother Br. Luke Ditewig, SSJE writes of our daily need for the power of Jesus’ resurrection “in order to face tomorrow.” Offering this to another may not engage right away, yet still we plant it. “Resurrection comes small, like seeds and leaven. One little word of encouragement, one affirmation, perhaps evoking one smile or laugh. One little gift can change us.”

Each time a set of readings comes along I ask anew, ‘what do I know about God from this text?’  ‘What do I believe?’ I’ll tell you what spoke to me, and I ask you to share with me or another what you found. 

I believe God finds a way – bringing us as willing and well-made tools in the hand.

I know our participation in such agape love grows it anew ourselves, and teaches it. 

I believe obedience to Jesus is not so bad. Hard at times, but not bad. To consider a guide other than ourselves or the usual secular ones, is a grace-filled gift of the Spirit. Finally, I know we are never far from the help of the Spirit. Ever. Jesus said so.

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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