Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Easter 2020

St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Regina, Fifth Sunday after Easter, May 17, 2020. Canon Claude Schroeder

Well, it’s a been a most unusual Easter season, where in the midst of a global pandemic, for the last six Sundays the Church has been celebrating the joy of the Resurrection, the appearances of the Risen Lord to his first disciples, and His being among us still. This Thursday, being the 40th day after Easter, we will celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, which begins a 10 day period of prayerful waiting and anticipation of the celebration of Pentecost, and the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise in the sending of the Holy Spirit. 

So liturgically we are approaching a bit of a turning point, and this is reflected in our Scripture readings for today. 

In our reading from Acts today St. Paul has arrived in Athens where he addresses the social, political, cultural, and intellectual elites of the city in his famous sermon at the Areopagus, in which he carefully lays the theological groundwork for the proclamation of the Resurrection of the Lord.

This groundwork consists of the following points:

  1. “The God who made heaven and earth does not live in shrines made by human hands, and is not served by human hands since He gives life and breath to all his creatures.” (Acts 17.24) So Paul begins with the doctrine of creation.
  2. “From one ancestor God made all the nations of the earth and allotted them times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” (Acts 17. 26) Here Paul continues with a doctrine of Providence. God is not absent or uninvolved in the life of any nation, and His providential care for them is not dependent on their acknowledgment of Him.
  3. God’s intention is that people should search for God and perhaps grope for Him and find Him, for He is not far from anyone, as the Greek poets have written, “We too are his offspring.” (Acts 17, 27- 28) .  Here Paul outlines a doctrine of God’s immanence, which God’s indwelling of His creation.  “He is everywhere present and fills all things.” 
  4. Since human beings are God’s children, we should not imagine God is to be equated with anything fabricated by the art and imagination of mortals. (Acts 17.29) Now Paul introduces his doctrine of sin, the root of which is idolatry, the elevation of things the level of the Creator, whether it is whether it is power, money, career, sex, sports, music, art, family to name but a few contemporary idols.
  5. God has overlooked human ignorance in times past, but now commands all people everywhere to repent, to turn to Him, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed, and of this He has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17. 30-31) Here Paul finally outlines a doctrine of salvation and redemption through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Such was the simple, straightforward, and thoroughly Scriptural argument which Paul presented on the Areopagus that day. We can’t imagine a more symbolic platform for Paul to preach the Gospel to Greek society. The Areopagus, which still stands today, is a huge outcropping of white rock, within sight of the Acropolis in Athens, which formed natural public square and for centuries had served as a council chamber for the city elders, and later a high court for the prosecution of capital offenses and investigating corruption. It was, I suspect, the suspicion that St. Paul was corrupting Greek society with his preaching that led to his court appearance that day.  

And what was the result of Paul’s evangelistic efforts? 

Rather mixed, I would say.   Reading on in Acts 17, we discover that when some heard of the resurrection of the dead, they laughed Paul ‘out of court’ as it were. For the Greeks, the body was a pain, something that got in the way of a truly spiritual existence, something to be gotten out of and left behind when you died, a prison from which to be set free. For the classically educated Greek, Resurrection was not an outcome anyone would wish for.  But Jesus rose in the body, wounds and all! 

Others, however, reserved judgement. 

And yet some others joined Paul and became believers. One, a man named Dionysius, and another, a woman named Damaris. (Acts 17.34)

To borrow an analogy from baseball, with some who heard him, Paul clearly “struck out.” With others, he got “to first base”, but no further.  But with others still, “he hit a home run.” They repented, believed, were baptized, and became Christians. 

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Our ongoing task as Christians is to bear witness to and proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the hope and the joy and the peace that is ours as members of His Risen Body. 

Should we be discouraged when this Gospel falls on deaf ears and hard hearts? Disappointed.  Certainly. But discouraged? No, and we must never lose hope.

It doesn’t matter how solid your biblical theology is, and how refined your oratorical skills are, in  order for a person to hear and receive Jesus Christ requires a miracle, an exercise of the power of God, in the same way that Jesus’ Resurrection required a miracle. Bringing people to faith is God’s business and God’s work. The best thing we can do is pray for people to become Christians. As in the case of creation, where God’s Word and Spirit brought life into being, so it is case of the “new creation” that is the repentant, believing, baptized Christian. God’s Holy Word, God’s Holy Spirit, and as well as God’s Holy Sacraments, working together, are powerful in their effect, such that St. Peter could declare: ” baptism now saves you- not as removal of dirt  from the body, but as an appeal for a good conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 3.21)

We believe that through His Holy Word, Spirit, and Sacrament, God has brought us to new birth in the family of His Church. Today let us give thanks to God for all those who shared the Gospel with us. Let us give thanks to God for all who prayed for us and with us, and thank Him for the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon us. And let us not neglect to give thanks to God for those who brought us to Baptism, and for the grace and mercy given us in baptism in the washing away of all our sins.

Well, one hears a lot of talk these days about “spirituality.” To describe someone as “spiritual” is to revere and venerate them. “Spiritual, but not religious.” Isn’t that what they say?

How times have changed! In the past the term “spiritual” was used exclusively in reference to the clergy! To this day Anglican Bishops sitting in the House of Lord in Westminster are referred to as “Lords Spiritual,” giving voice to the Gospel in the affairs of the nation. Nowadays ‘spiritual’ is word that applies equally to your yoga instructor as a mindfulness meditator. 

But as Gabriel Bunge has written, “However much we may talk of “spirituality” and however fond we may be of using the epithet ‘spiritual,’ the Person of the Holy Spirit is the Great Absent One in the ‘spirituality’ of the West. (Bunge 2002, 31). This is the great tragedy of so much contemporary ‘spirituality.’ It is lonely affair. There is no One there who loves me, and whom I can love in return. But what does Jesus say? “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  (John 14.18,21)

I recently came across an essay entitled, “What Robinson Crusoe’s DIY Adventure Can Teach Us About Self Isolation.”  Since I never read Daniel Defoe’s novel when I was a kid, I thought I should make up for this appalling gap in my education.  Turns out a big part of the story concerns Robinson Crusoe’s spiritual awakening! How did this happen since he was all by himself? Someone on board had packed a Bible, which Robinson Crusoe started to read. God spoke to Him directly and immediately through the words of Scripture, and then shed His Holy Spirit upon Crusoe’s heart, so that he started to pray.  

On the second anniversary of his shipwreck, Crusoe wrote in his journal,

“I spent the whole day in humble and thankful acknowledgements of the many and wonderful mercies which my solitary condition was attended with, and without which it might have been infinitely more miserable. I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover me, even that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition that I should have been in society, and in all the pleasures of the world; that he could fully make up for me the deficiencies of my solitary state and want of human society, by his presence, and the communications of his grace  to my soul, supporting, comforting, and encouraging me to depend upon his providence here, and hope for his eternal presence hereafter.”

If that isn’t a testimony to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, I don’t know what is.

Truth is, left to ourselves we are not spiritual in the slightest, but rather, as St. Paul pointed out to the Athenians, we are obsessively and incurably religious.  “I see”, said St. Paul, “how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”

The churches in our city are not the only centers of worship that have bene closed down in this pandemic. If you want to discover the truth about someone’s religious affiliation, just look at the things they give their time, attention, and money to. How much of this is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and how much is centered on the satisfaction of appetites of various kinds?

In our Gospel reading today Jesus is preparing the hearts of the disciples to for the practice of a truly Christian spirituality. He says to them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14. 15-17)

Love. Warmth of heart and feeling towards Jesus. This is at the heart of Christian spirituality. But feeling on it’s own is mere emotionalism and sentimentality, lacking content. So what is the content of Christian spirituality? It is obedience to the commandments of Jesus. This is how we know we love the Lord. We keep his commandments. But obedience without love, is slavery, from which God set us free. We need both love and obedience. In the words our Collect from last week, we are “to love what He commands, and desire what He promise, so that our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are to be found.”(BCP,  p.194)

And it is to this end that Jesus sends us, and why need to pray for the Holy Spirit:  to warm our hearts, “to kindle a flame of holy love” and to strengthen our wills. The term, “Advocate” which Jesus uses here for the Holy Spirit, comes to us from the law courts, and describes someone who is “called in” to speak for someone on trial, either as that person’s defense attorney, speaking on their behalf, guiding, helping, directing their case, or to actually interceding with the judge.   The Holy Spirit is our Advocate.

But in what sense is the Holy Spirit another Advocate? In John’s Gospel, everything that is said about the Holy Spirit is also true of Jesus. So, the Holy Spirit is ‘another’ Advocate not in the sense of being ‘different’ from Jesus, but rather in the sense of ‘another kind’ of Jesus, The Holy Spirit is the personal presence of Jesus Christ in the lives of those who, though they have not seen Him, still love Him.  Thus Jesus continues to be with us  through the ‘another Advocate’, the Holy Spirit.

We have, it seems to me, in this time of  ‘social distancing’ and ‘forced isolation’, an unparalleled opportunity, like Robison Crusoe, to deepen our ‘spirituality’, where in repentance we turn away from the false worship of idols, and turn to God with renewed yearning and longing for His Holy Spirit, and enter into that communion of love that is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, “to be a church full of Easter people, where grieving and searching souls can be comforted, encouraged, and strengthened – a community where the Risen and Ascended Christ and his heavenly Father are made known through our life together in the Spirit, and from which we are sent out with good news for all the world.” (Harn, 2001,558)

Works Cited

  • Bunge, Gabriel. 2002. Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer according to Patristic Tradition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  • Dafoe, Daniel. Robison Crusoe. 
  • Harn, Roger, ed. 2001. The Lectionary Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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