Sunday 29th May, 2011 Sixth Sunday of Easter
Jesus said ‘Those who love Me will keep My word, and My Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ John 114:23
O God, You have promised for those who love You joys beyond our understanding: pour into our hearts such love for You that, loving You above all else, we may obtain Your promises that exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who is alive and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
First Lesson Acts 17: 22 – 31
Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, He who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor He made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and He allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him--though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'
Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."
Psalm 66: 7 – 19
O bless our God, you peoples: and cause His praises to resound
Who has held our souls in life: Who has not suffered our feet to slip.
For You have proved us, O God: You have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net: You laid sharp torment on our loins.
You let our enemies ride over our heads, we went through fire and water: but You brought us into a place of liberty.
I will come into Your house with burnt-offerings: and I will pay You my vows
The vows that opened my lips: that my mouth uttered when I was in trouble.
I will offer You burnt-offerings of fattened beasts, with the sweet smoke of rams: I will sacrifice a bull and the flesh of goats
Come then and hear, all you that fear God: and I will tell you what He has done for me
I called to Him with my mouth: and His praise was on my tongue
If I had cherished wickedness in my heart: the Lord would not have heard me
But God heard me: He has heeded the voice of my prayer
Praise be to God: Who has not turned back my prayer or His steadfast love from me.
Epistle 1 Peter 3: 8 – 22
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called-- that you might inherit a blessing. For "Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
GOSPEL John 14: 15 – 21
Jesus said "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. 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. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in 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."
© New Revised Standard Version of the Bible Copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the
Churches of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. All rights reserved
NOTES ON THE READINGS
Dear old St. Paul has always been quite something of a mentor for me, especially when it comes to his preaching of the Gospel. One factor that has always stood out for me is the manner in which he always met his audience where they were, not where he wished them to be. And it has to be said that Greeks would have constituted no easy audience. It seems that their approach was to delight in debate and argument, but to be put off totally by any expectation of reaching a serious conclusion. It seems to be rather like our modern philosophers and debaters – politicians too - who enjoy the debate but seem loath to reach a conclusion from which they must decide a course of action.
It may well be in this instance, Paul chose the path of the ‘God of the gaps,’ but it seems more likely that the gap he really touched with that in the hearts of the people there on the Areopagus. Notice that as soon as Paul reached a conclusion to be acted from, there was the general retreat sounded, ‘’we must listen to you again.’ That was the great ‘put off.’ So don’t be put off yourself, but realize that, as Camus is reputed to have said some time ago, ‘not to decide is to decide.’
It is very difficult, as a rule, to determine quite when various psalms were written, but I take a punt that this one emanated from around the time of the Exile in Babylon. Mind you, there were many periods of stress for Israel both before and long after the Exile. However here is a psalm of confidence in God Who provides the oomph to keep going in the face of trials and tribulations. And so we can make such experiences our own as well.
As Peter himself would have said, there really can be no argument against those that do good, though human nature will still call the bluff on this one if there is pressure enough. However the dictum remains, for the very reason of upholding truth and goodness, and more particularly because this is the path that Jesus Himself has to tread even at the cost of His own life.
If that passage about Jesus preaching to those ‘in prison,’ bemuses or beguiles you, it is really more a matter – I suspect - of the Apostle trying to express the conviction that the effects of the atonement are as effective before the period of time 2,000 years ago, as it will be for the period of time after. It is a sort of statement that has baffled commentators for many a long year.
And the spirit and sense of love persists through this rather lovely and piquant passage. In other words, wherever and whenever the Gospel is preached and spread, the focus must always be on love. That does not make it weak, for love still tends to be misunderstood somewhat. Love cares, and so should we – difficulty though that may be sometimes.
NOTES FOR A SERMON
This may not be the easiest of paths to follow, but I ask you to stick with it if you can. From the readings today it is quite clear that the great item for exploration is love, but like a lot of things it is easier said than done.
Before we start exploring love, may I divert to something that has bugged me for quite some time. A silly illustration points the way I am heading, and underlines my issues somewhat. As it is close to tea-time at our house, we may well be watching ‘Deal or No Deal’ as the meal cooks. Quite a lot of the sort of stuff said by contestants and master of ceremonies gets my goat sometimes. ‘Good work!’ Ian will cackle, when it is not work at all, unless you call it guesswork, and that is an oxymoron is it not? Or ‘what do you think you have?’ is a guess, is it not, and has nothing to do with the business of thought. The real reason for all this is ‘what do you feel you have?’ would have about as much connection with reality as a dream or a wish. What you feel will have connection with the reality only by sheer chance. And yet that same Ian goes on to wonder if the person has faith that a certain number is in their box! Faith? What baloney!
So what really worries me is the apparent capacity of so many people these days to live on or bounce off their emotions, which is a rather short step from reality into cloud cuckoo land. If you think I am being silly, then switch off now. However, I do recall spending many happy hours with a great friend of ours who lived almost totally off her emotions, which led her into the most damaging decisions and outcomes over and over again. It was years before she was prepared to use her grey matter more, which has brought her out of mists into far more satisfying areas of life. And, if you will pardon me, it took a lot of loving that person – and not all of that love was perceived as such even by her. (She may tell you some stories one day!)
When most people talk about love, they expect something soft and gentle, undisturbing and comforting, and that may not always be the case by any means. I recall another parishioner – who has since died – whose self-pity after the loss of her husband made life excruciatingly difficult for her family. After putting up with it for quite some time, as she had been an only child and had manoeuvred her husband into complying with her every whim, but in the end I had to suggest very strongly that it was about time she grew up and stopped draining the very lifeblood from her children. I indicated why I spoke thus, and said I would let her think about it all and come back after a while. When I returned, she expressed surprise. ‘I thought you hated me!’ she remarked. So it was a matter of explaining that if that supposition was true, I would never have bothered to raise the issue at all. I could have simply passed her by. It was only then that she began to see that love is not a pandering, but a sharing of the load and caring no matter what. And it is often no easy path. And it has nothing to do with feelings or emotions.
When it was first explained to me, I was profoundly enlightened. When I was studying Greek for our New Testament studies, some of the poverty of the English language was pointed out to the class. English has but one word, really, for love; Greek has three at least. And they are quite specific.
First there is eros and it takes little imagination to see where this takes us. Eros is love from an ‘erotic’ point of view, quite important and necessary, for without it you would not be reading this nor I writing it. So don’t knock it; except in its abuse. I love you for what you do to me.
Second there is philadelphia - name of that American city or the one near the Aegean Sae long ago. Love of brother, family, country or clan. Necessary again, for without loyalty such as this, very little in life and relationships can happen. I love you because of who you are.
And then there is agape - - a word which Paul resurrected from then ancient Greek which he used to convey the nature of God’s love. (It was the name given to the Eucharist in the early days; and it is a name which has been distorted out of shape, if newspaper reports are true, when a sect named themselves after this, yet displays remarkably unloving directions and abuses. The reality of this love runs something like I love you in spite of who you are ….. indicative of the nature of God’s love for people. And not even God could operate at that depth from mere human emotions. This is determinative stuff; I choose to love, regardless of any other factor, because it is My nature. And that makes it totally dependable.
So much of the Christian’s response to the Gospel should stem not from emotions but from determination. It is a matter of will, not the crossing of fingers or the taking a punt. It is not warm fuzzy stuff, nor is it comfort –zone material.
As that rather odd AFL character used to say in his adverts, ‘You know it makes sense.’