we (yes, we!) are apostles

a sermon, based on John 20.19-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017

Pentecost. The word means “fiftieth”. For Christians,[1] the fiftieth day after Easter Day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his disciples,[2] those he called to follow him to learn from him so to become apostles sent out by him to preach and teach his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

Today, as we reflect on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, rather than focus on the stirring, spellbinding scene in Acts with its sudden, violent heaven-sent wind, tongues of fire, disciples filled with the Spirit proclaiming in manifold languages God’s deeds of power,[3] I bid we take the proverbial “road less traveled” and look at John’s gospel.

It is the evening of the first Easter Day.[4] The disciples, grieving the death of Jesus and fearing for their lives, are in hiding. The resurrected Jesus appears…

The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

He proclaims peace; not freedom from tribulation (for this is the peace of One who was crucified; thus, if nothing else, bearing bloody witness that life in this world is not free from trial!), but rather that greatest comfort of eternal union with him.

He entrusts them with his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Knowing they need power to fulfill that mission, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Then he defines their mission, and, by extension, ours: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

What? Who among us, including the first disciples, as human and honestly confessing our subjection to the temptation of the abuse of authority, would want to wield that kind of power over anyone (or anyone over us!)? Not I? As a priest, when I pronounce the absolution of sin, thank goodness, it is neither on my merit, which there is little, nor in my name, which is wholly lacking, that I proclaim it, but alway only by the grace and mercy of God! Now, I will concede that sometimes I have difficulty forgiving those who hurt me. And I do not believe I’m alone! So, it seems that we humans, at some visceral level, like the notion of releasing and retaining the sins of others!

Nevertheless, God forbid, I don’t think Jesus aims to appoint us as judges of humanity. Rather, we are to do something else in relation to sin.

(In over forty years as a daily Bible student, what I am about to share never has occurred to me, thus, as it hath come to me, for whatever reasons beyond my knowing, I consider it a Spirit-given revelation!)

By “sin”, I do not mean our human, innate moral frailty and failure of virtue leading us into temptation. Nor our acts of commission and omission in disobedience to God’s commandments. Yes, these are definitions of sin, yet, in John’s gospel, the chiefest sin is unbelief; not believing in God as revealed in Jesus.[5]

Therefore, for a disciple of Jesus to retain the sins of any is to refuse to be an apostle, to refuse to share with others the good news of Jesus. To forgive the sins of any is to strive to liberate others from their unbelief by witnessing to the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore, this Day of Pentecost, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples and to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us is, in the words of the hymn, to “claim the high calling angels cannot share – to young and old the Gospel gladness bear!”[6]

Jesus breathes on us, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” commissioning us as apostles sent out to share with others, through the words of our lips and the deeds of our lives, his good news of God’s unconditional, redeeming love.

 

Illustration: The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (upper room) (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the resurrected Christ appearing to his followers in the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper exposing his glowing wounds as the disciples, in the foreground, and the servants, in the background, look on in wonder.

Footnotes:

[1] Pentecost first was and is a Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot; referred to as the Festival of Weeks (Exodus 34.22 and Deuteronomy 16.10), the Festival of Harvest (Exodus 23.16), and the Day of First Fruits (Numbers 28.26). As Shavuot is the fiftieth day after the Day of Passover (the annual celebration of the emancipation of the Hebrew captives from bondage in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land, and, according to Jewish tradition, commemorating God’s giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai as a sign of new, liberated life), Hellenistic Jews called it Pentecost. This historical Jewish antecedent of Passover-Pentecost enlightens Christian understanding. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is the signification of resurrected life in Jesus freed from captivity to sin and death so to journey to the Promised Land of eternal life.

[2] See John 14.15-17, 25

[3] See the Book of Acts 2.1-21

[4] The New Testament witness of the coming of the Holy Spirit gives evidence of more than one tradition, for, according to the Book of Acts, the event is located on the Day of Pentecost and, via the Gospel of John, on Easter Day evening. To explain the latter, for John the evangelist, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14.15-17, 26) is tied to his glorification (his crucifixion, death, and resurrection).

[5] I arrive at this view given my interpretation of Jesus’ prayerful definition of eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17.3). In a recent sermon, Easter People (May 28, 2017), I said, in part: “Our knowing is more than our intellectual assent to the idea of God, more than our cognitive awareness of something, Someone greater than we, more than our understanding of the ways and workings of God. To know God and Jesus is to be in relationship with God as Jesus makes God known to us.” Believing this to be true, I define “sin” (that spiritual and existential state of separation or estrangement from God), from a Johannine point of view, as an active non-knowing of (an active not being in relationship with) God.

I think, too, of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9.1-41), especially his scathing critique of those who, though beholding his saving work, were what I term “the sighted blind”, for they refused to believe that was the Messiah: Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (John 9.39-41).

Further, I think of Jesus’ testimony to his disciples prior to his departure from them about the work of the Holy Spirit, one aspect of which is in regard to the indelible linkage between sin and unbelief: “Now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.5-11; my emphases). Note: The phrase “prove the world wrong” (John 16.8) also can be translated from the Greek “convict the world of”, which is to say that the Holy Spirit corrects the world’s viewpoint, say, of the nature and substance of sin, thus clarifying what it is, that is, unbelief.

[6] From the hymn, Come, labor on; words by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897)

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here, by the grace of God, are we

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 6.20-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 6, 2016

According to legend, John Bradford,[1] a 16th century English reformer, destined to be imprisoned in the Tower of London and burned at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor, watching a group of prisoners being led to their executions, observed, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Thereby, he gave to succeeding generations a succinct statement of righteous recognition that another’s misfortune could be one’s own if not for divine blessing, more particularly, that one’s providence is in God’s hands, and, more generally, that one’s fate is not, is never entirely in one’s control, but alway subject to circumstance and chance.

Growing up, I often heard my father, when speaking of those amidst life’s travails, quietly comment, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Later, as a student of scripture, I realized that John Bradford, my father, and countless others had paraphrased Paul’s gratitude for having been called to be an apostle after having persecuted the followers of Jesus: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”[2]

This spirit of righteous recognition is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[3]

all-saints-albrecht-durer-1511

Today, we observe All Saints’ Day;[4] “saint” being a New Testament title for a Christian.[5] Today is our annual reminder that we, throughout the year, are to “sing a song of the saints of God,”[6] commemorating those of bygone days “who from their labors rest…who…by faith before the world confessed th(e) Name (of) Jesus[7] and those who “lived not only in ages past,”[8] including us in our time who follow Jesus and those not yet born who, known only in the mind of God, will proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord in generations to come.

In Christian tradition, our heroines and heroes are those like the first apostles[9] who were martyred, though threatened with death, refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus or like Mother, now St. Teresa of Kolkata who demonstrated an especial degree of holiness of life and kindness for the living and the dying or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died for the cause of justice. Yes, they and more are worthy of honor as saints of God.

Yet we dare stand, do stand with them in saintly light because they, as we, were human. All, as we, flawed. All, as we, falling short of the glory of God.[10] All, as we, poor, impoverished in every way, except being perfect in imperfection. All, as we, Jesus calls blessed!

Let us, included among the saints, pay close attention to Jesus, who speaks to us, saying, “you that listen.” Listening to his declaration of discipleship, let us, on this All Saints’ Day, reenlist as saints, committing ourselves to do as Jesus commands: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…”

This is radical! As in the Latin radix, “root”, in a spiritual sense, meaning a return to the origin of things, going back to the way God intended from the dawn of creation. And, let’s be honest, in an existential sense, radical as in extreme, even crazy; beyond the reach of reason, surpassing any sane expectation!

Yet Jesus’ declaration is a description of who a saint is and what a saint does. Jesus’ declaration is a description of saints who pray and saints who work, here and now, in this life, in this world to fulfill the prayer, “Our Father…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even more, Jesus’ declaration is a description of God’s nature, who God is and, still more, the way God treats us! God loves us, does good to us, blesses us – with the miracle of life, health, and strength; minds to think and dream, hearts to feel and love; the majesty of creation, the earth, our island home set in the ever-expanding sea of infinite galaxies; the marvel of families and friends to share life’s joys and sorrows – even when we are enemies of God, whether in ignorance failing or knowing, yet refusing to do God’s will.

Against a world continually rife with violence, against our American political scene sullied with the vilification of parties and the demonization of persons, Jesus’ declaration of saintly living stands in razor-sharp contrast. On this All Saints’ Day, as we remember those in ages past, we, for here, by the grace of God, are we as God’s saints in our day, are called to do God’s will and thus bequeath a legacy of righteousness for those to come.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] John Bradford (1510–1555)

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.10

[3] In the parallel text of Matthew (5.3), Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (my emphasis); being those who know their inherent lack of power to secure their futures, much less save themselves from eternal death and thus who know their daily, constant need for God. Luke refuses to spiritualize our human deficiency, viewing poverty as the scarcity of resources in every dimension of human existence; spiritual, yes, but also physical, intellectual, and material.

[4] Since the 10th century of the Common Era, observed in the western Christian Church on November 1.

[5] For example, see Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2, 2 Corinthians 1.1, Ephesians 1.1, Philippians 1.1, Colossians 1.2.

[6] From the hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), The Hymnal 1982, #293.

[7] Paraphrasing words of William Walsham How (1823-1897), from the hymn, For all the saints, The Hymnal 1982, #287.

[8] Scott, verse 3

[9] See Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7. See also Acts 12.2: King Herod killed the Apostle James with a sword. According to legend, all of the apostles, save John who was exiled, died violently.

[10] Romans 3.23