Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 17 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
The Gospel passage today follows on from last week’s reading, in which Jesus, in the upper room on the night in which he will be arrested, tells the disciples 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. For they will not be alone, we will not be alone, not orphaned or abandoned. Love will remain. But love will be different, and will be known very differently.
It is what we struggle to understand now, what it means that we are still accompanied, and held, and loved, in a time which is all uncertainty and much loss, hard edges and loneliness—how we can know this love even now. And what we are told is that we know it, 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, over and over again … love one another. All other commandments flow from that. Perhaps even the commandment to love God with all our hearts and souls and strength, because, as the first letter of John points out, we can only actively love God, in this life, by loving the ones, the neighbours or strangers beside whom God has placed us. Loving from a distance, from behind a mask, loving in times of confusion, loving when we cannot agree on what it means to love, walking the anxious streets among visible suffering and people whose choices we do not understand. “Go love without the help of anything on earth,” said William Blake, and sometimes it is that way.
But it is in active love, loving action, of whatever sort it may be, 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 relationship, one which is worked out in doubt and struggle and darkness sometimes, worked out in our human world in politics and protest, in the daily labour of farmers and teachers, unpaid caregivers and computer programmers, artists and activists and data entry clerks, in all the small choices of our daily lives. In the land of small things, we may be kind to one difficult person, we may forgive one thing, this may be the work of our whole lives.
The Holy Spirit comes in this—to us as church, and 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 the church is are to seek common ground with the longing searchers of our own day, it must to do so from a position of much greater humility.
Nor can we rest in the certainty that we do know, entirely or finally, what God is or intends. Maybe that is one of the—not necessarily welcome, but essential—lessons we may take from these days. God will always remain in part unknown, never fully grasped by our small minds. We all begin, and finally 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. It is just as hard as it sounds, and just as unpredictable as God. 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.