Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 21 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 17:22-31; Ps 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; Jn 14:15-21
The Gospel passage today follows on from last week’s reading, about which Mother Andrea spoke, in which Jesus, in the upper room on the night in which he will be arrested, tells the disciples that he is the way, and the truth, and the life—that the way of self-offering love, which he is about to walk to the end, is the way they are called to walk, the truth in which they are called to live, his crucified and risen life the life with which they are to be filled. He continues, now, to try to explain to them, insofar as he can, what will happen after he is no longer with them, or rather, no longer with them in the way that they had experienced until now, no longer the immediate, physical, individual human presence. For he will not be absent, they will not be alone, not orphaned. Love will remain. But love will be different, and will be known very differently.
And we will know that love, first and most of all, by living it out in our own lives. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Jesus uses the plural here—but in fact, in John’s Gospel, he only ever delivers one commandment. Love one another. I think we can assume that the second part of the “great commandment” is implied, that we are also enjoined to love God—but the only real expressed command in John, and in all the Johannine writings, is to love one another. All other commandments flow from that. Perhaps even, in a sense, the commandment to love God with all our hearts and souls and strength, for, as the first letter of John points out, we can only actively love God, in this life, by loving the neighbour or the stranger beside whom God has placed us.
And it is in the active love, this loving action, that we open ourselves to God; that we become open, available, to the Spirit of Truth, the “advocate” in this translation, the “comforter” in the old prayer book. If we love, if we strive to live in love, we become available to that Spirit, we become able to abide in that Spirit, to become more and more a part of God’s very life. We participate in God’s constantly ongoing coming into the world by allowing ourselves to be instruments of that coming.
It is the Holy Spirit active in us, manifesting God’s life through human lives, as human persons try to live out the commandment of faithful love, which allows for God’s work to continue, which allows for our faith to be more than a static, formal state of intellectual assent. Faith is never a static state—it is an entry into a constantly moving interrelationship of love, one which is worked out in doubt and struggle and darkness sometimes, worked out in our human world in politics and protest and the small choices of our daily lives.
The Holy Spirit works in the church as we develop our understandings of how to read scripture, how to function as a community, how to respond to the needs of the world around us—leading us, to take a few recent examples, to appreciate more deeply our calling to act as good stewards of our threatened ecosystem, or to see and repent for the terrible damage we have done as an institution through the residential school system or in our treatment of gay and lesbian and trans people. The Holy Spirit pushes our boundaries of vision and love, calling us into ever wider fields of possibility.
And the Holy Spirit works outside the church as well, in other faiths, in art and science and philosophy, in all the wild creative endeavours of humanity, and undoubtedly in the non-human world as well, though we understand that even less clearly. This is something the church has sometimes been reluctant to see, wanting to hold exclusive possession of God’s creating breath to ourselves. But it’s something Paul recognizes, at least to some degree, in the fascinating scene portrayed in our first reading, as he speaks to the Athenians gathered on the hill of the Areopagus.
It is the first time, at least in the narrative presented in Acts, that a Christian apostle has spoken to a large crowd of Gentiles. On the one hand, Paul is described as distressed to find the city full of what he perceives as idols, depictions of the Greek pantheon of gods which would have been very strange and troubling indeed for a devout Jew. But, on the other hand, he makes a point of speaking to them in the language of their own philosophies, of looking for common ground between their beliefs and the new faith he is presenting to them. He does not—and again this is a first—situate his preaching in the history of the people of Israel, but speaks in philosophical concepts, quotes a Greek poet, addresses the inchoate human longing for meaning. And there is a powerful, an enduringly powerful, resonance in that picture with which he begins, the altar to “the unknown God.” That unknown God has skipped the traces again, has left the boundaries of Israel’s story only, is living and moving everywhere among us, as we live and move within God.
I would not say that this is a model example of intercultural dialogue. Paul’s certainty that “what you ignorantly worship, this I proclaim,” is perhaps a daring and imaginative claim coming from an apostle of a very new and very fragile faith; it sounds less impressive these days, coming from a church which has been standing on the hill shouting at everyone for some centuries, mostly from a position of power which has allowed us to impose our beliefs on others in damaging and destructive ways. If we are to seek common ground with the fierce idealists and longing searchers of our own day, we have to do so from a position of greater humility—not abandoning our own beliefs, but allowing them to be interrogated, tested, letting other ways of knowing drive us into greater honesty and deeper thought.
Nor can we rest in the certainty that we do know, entirely or finally, what God is or intends. God will always remain in part unknown, never fully grasped by our small minds. We all begin, and in some ways end, at the altar of the unknown God, at the place where we admit our own incapacity to understand fully, our own weakness and limit. If we believe that we have learned something incomparably true about that unknown God in the person of Jesus Christ, in his life and death and resurrection, then it is a truth which must itself humble us, a truth which tells us how little we really do understand, that we are probably as unable to recognize love walking among us on earth as were the Pharisees, and that the astonishing humility of God is the foolishness before which all our wisdom falls down.
There’s a wonderful medieval work called The Cloud of Unknowing, written by someone whose name is unknown to us and who was deeply influenced by an even earlier anonymous mystic who wrote under the name of that Dionysus who heard Paul at the Areopagus—the odd indirect echoes of this story spreading through our history. And one of his most central points, one of the most important sentences in The Cloud is the statement that, “God may well be loved, but not thought. By love may God be gotten and holden; but by thought never.” And with this we circle back to the Gospel, for Jesus has clarified for us just what “love” in this context means. It is the keep the commandments, and that most especially to keep that one commandment which contains all commandments—to love in action, to live in love, to carry out God’s love in this world. And so we will find the unknown God within our lives, and within our souls, standing by us, and leading us into greater love and greater truth. Guiding us, with all our foolish wisdom, into life.