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)

the greatest power

a sermon, based on Matthew 28.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Easter Day: The Sunday of the Resurrection, April 16, 2017

Easter is about power. The greatest power in this world and the next. Power, to quote my namesake apostle, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[1] Power in the words of the song, “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”[2] Power over death. The power of love.

I behold this power in this morning’s gospel, perhaps paradoxically, not in God, who, save for “an angel of the Lord”, is absent. Nor in that angelic messenger who descends “like lightening with clothing white as snow.” Nor even in the risen Jesus who suddenly appears with words of comfort.

Where do I see it?

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb.”

There is power!

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Mary and Mary loved Jesus to the end. They believed in him and his impossible dream of the coming kingdom of God. They didn’t run away like the other disciples, the men. They stood by Jesus throughout his agonizing final hours. They hoped, fought against that unbeatable foe, death. They watched him die. They bore with savagely broken hearts their unbearable sorrow. Theirs was a love that endured all things.

Then, loving Jesus beyond the end, Mary and Mary went to the tomb. The entrance sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers with little sympathy, verily, hostility for them. Theirs was a love that runs where the brave dare not go. Love that never leaves. Love that ever lives. Love that never dies. Love that raises the dead! For in their living love, Mary and Mary were the first to hear the Easter message, “He is risen!” and the first to see the risen Jesus.

Today, I pray we see that Mary and Mary could see Jesus because they, in their bearing-believing-hoping-enduring-all-things-love, mirrored and matched, embraced and embodied the love of a God who risks everything, even life itself, for our sake.

Today, I pray we, trusting that God’s love is already embodied in us by virtue of our creation –  whoever we are from wherever we come with whatever we believe – will see in the risen Jesus who we are by virtue of his salvation and, thus, that we are to be as he is, living incarnations of unconditional and universal love and justice in this world.

When we see, believe, know that, then not only can we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” but also we are risen, indeed! Alleluia!

 

Illustration: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the women peering into the tomb, which is empty save for the presence of “an angel of the Lord” clad in white, who tells them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here,  for he has been raised”, bidding that they, “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28.5, 6). (Although Matthew mentions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, Tissot depicts three women. I believe his biblical reference is Matthew 27.56, speaking of the women who had followed Jesus and witnessed his death: Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.) Also, the soldiers Pontius Pilate had dispatched to keep watch at the tomb (see Matthew 27.62-66) are depicted having reacted to the appearance of the angel, as Matthew recounts, For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men (28.4).

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.7

[2] From The Impossible Dream from The Man from La Mancha; words by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh (1972)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 40 and final, Holy Saturday, April 15, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

On Holy Saturday: O Jesus, on this day, dead, Your Body lay in the tomb.[1] I pray You, by Your Spirit, fortify my faith, granting unto me peace with my death, whene’er and howe’er it is to come; and, as God, Your God, my God, raised You from the dead, also give unto me the sureness of trust of my rising to Life with You in Your eternal Presence of Love. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

Footnote:

[1] See John 19.38-42: Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus…asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 36, Tuesday in Holy Week, April 11, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On a day’s reflection on the restlessness of yesterday’s early morn: O Lord, I feel afresh my frailty. I, whether joined with others or alone, do not have the wealth of strength or sense or substance to serve all of my sisters and brothers, whether near or far, in great and grave need. Yet I remember the words of Your Son, my Savior Jesus, “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”[1]

O Lord, through Your Spirit, alway pour Your Love into my heart[2] that I have kindness for those who suffer and that I may be kind, doing whatever I can with whatever resources I have at whatever occasion arises for whomever is in need.

By Your same Spirit, O Lord, lead me and guide me to believe and to trust in You that You, with whatever I offer, great or small, all of which You first have given to me, will bring good fruit.[3] Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Mark 14.7. To view and interpret this saying in its context (see Mark 14.1-9), this was Jesus’ response to those who were angry at what they considered the waste of costly ointment with which a woman had anointed him. They had professed a desire to have sold it and the money given to the poor. Jesus prophetically perceived that he had been anointed for his burial following his soon coming crucifixion and death. In his recognition and acceptance of his destiny (see the full verse [my emphasis]: “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me”), he graciously received the gift of the woman’s kindness.

Here, as I employ and pray this Jesus-saying, I recall that over generations some have interpreted this verse to suggest that as the poor always are present nothing need be done to help them insofar as poverty is an insuperable condition of life in this world. I, rather, believe that the ever-presence of sisters and brothers who are poor and the systems and institutions of avarice that create and maintain economic imbalances constitute a constant call to render sacrificial service to, for, and with those in need. To put this another way and succinctly, the “whenever” to show kindness is always!

[2] See Romans 5.1-5 (my emphases): Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Concerning “sufferings”, the Apostle Paul most likely refers, specifically, to the trials he endured in his life’s vocation of spreading the gospel and, generally, to the tribulations common to any human life. Regarding the latter, I include the sympathy one can have for another undergoing suffering.

[3] Here, I think of the spiritual and material principle that undergirds the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the primacy (or rather its lack, for only God is supreme!) of those who seek to do God’s will and work: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.6-7).

I also am put in mind of John the evangelist’s version of the feeding of the 5000 (6.1-14), particularly verses 5-11 (my emphasis), which bears a detail the other evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not: When (Jesus) looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

In the face of manifold need, I often feel (indeed, I am!) like that boy; my provisions and resources of self and substance being woefully meager. Yet, by my faith in God, I trust that God, Who has given me whatever I have to offer, will use whatever I have to offer.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 27, Friday, March 31, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On following Jesus and bearing my cross:[1] O Jesus, You call me to follow You daily and daily to take up my cross;[2] as Yours, one of suffering self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. O Jesus, though I delight that, by Your merit, You esteem me worthy to walk in Your Way, Your Truth, Your Life, You know that I fear and, for the sake of my self-preservation, would flee any hardship. By Your Spirit, continue to fill my heart with Your Love[3] that, in its perfection, casts out all my fear on this and any day and unto the day of my judgment.[4] Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Previous posts of a-Lenten-prayer-a-day concerning following Jesus: day 11, Monday, March 13, 2017, On following Jesus & repentance; day 12, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, On following Jesus; day 13, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, On following, not worshiping Jesus

[2] See Matthew 16.24, Mark 8.34, and Luke 9.23 (Luke’s version of this Jesus-saying adds the word “daily”): Jesus said, “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me.”

[3] Here, I refer to Romans 5.5, where the Apostle Paul alludes to an aspect of the ministry of the Holy Spirit: …God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

[4] Here, I have in mind 1 John 4.16b-18a (my emphasis): God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 25, Wednesday, March 29, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On audacious joy: O Gracious God, in Your Love, You created me in Your Image…

O Jesus, You came to show, to be in Your flesh the imago Dei of unconditional Love and Justice…

O Spirit of God, You abide within me that I, through Your sanctification, might “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”[1]

Whene’er I contemplate the words, “the knowledge of the Son of God”, I shudder in the audacious joy that I, by the Trifold Grace of You, O Blessed Trinity, am to know more about You, O Jesus, and to know more about what You, O Jesus, know about You, O God!

All to which, in joyous humility, I only can say: amen, amen, amen.

Footnote:

[1] Ephesians 4.13a

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 24, Tuesday, March 28, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On words and prayer: O Lord, daily and day-long, I employ audible speech and written text to journey across the landscape that separates me from others; and they, too, with me that we might meet and communicate. So, also, in prayer, I set out to trek the terrain betwixt this earth and Your heaven, betwixt me and You with words spoken and scripted, as are these. (Yea, even when I seek You in the hushéd appeal of my heart, my call, my cry takes shape in human language.) Yet, surely, I need such not to address You Who dwells in the sheerest silence of the immenseness of eternity, You Who are the Silence of Everlasting Mystery. Yea, then, O Lord, in Your Love, teach me to speak in the tongues of angels.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] My reference to 1 Corinthians 13.1a (my emphasis): If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels