Yesterday was the 5th Sunday of Easter. The BCP lectionary readings came from John 14, Acts 8 and 1 John 3.
With major kudos to a whole lot of people whose ideas inspired this sermon (for instance, go here, here and here), what follows is the text of the sermon that I preached yesterday (my first venture into lectionary preaching):
I start this morning with the passage that we just heard, from the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John. In the midst of what is often called his “Farewell Address,” Jesus attends to the loneliness and powerlessness that his disciples already feel (even though he hasn’t even left yet!). In doing so he promises them the Holy Spirit, the “Paraklete.”
What is meant by this? No one English term – three of the most popular include “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Counselor” – fully captures what is meant by the term παράκλητος. A lot has been written on this question. Suffice it to say that what is meant here is some combination of all three of these concepts. As one commentator notes, there is a “convergence of three themes: a witness that vindicates and judges; a helper and aid; a counselor and teacher.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [NICNT], rev. ed., Eerdmans, 1995, pg. 591, n. 104)
O.K. But more important for our purposes is this: these definitions suggest something that other NT texts suggest, namely that the Holy Spirit will empower those who receive it to do the work of God. The apostles fearlessly preached the Good News in the Temple, made decisions for the expansion of the Church’s mission (Acts 15), and performed miracles (Acts 3 and 4) – all by the power of the Holy Spirit that was in them. The HS wasn’t just there to protect them while they huddled together trying to maintain what they had or merely to guard certain teachings or doctrines. It empowered them to go forth on a divine mission to share the Gospel with all kinds of people.
We see a fantastic example of that empowerment in Acts 8.26-40. As the HS works, amazing things happen. Let’s look at the story. Notice what Luke says about this man:
§ Ethiopian (stereotyped as beautiful in the ancient world), a court official (Jewish attitudes toward these kind of people – those of Herod or the Romans), a Gentile
§ eunuch – this makes him unfit to enter the Temple (“no one was allowed to talk to him, have a meal with him or even touch him”)
§ he’s extremely wealthy – owns a chariot and a scroll
§ he had gone to Jerusalem to worship
Let’s look at Philip. The HS guides him to love a man and to guide a man whom he has never met and who is questionable on many counts. Philip, a deacon (Acts 6.5), had done a lot of outré things, but nothing quite like this. “He was all about kindness and social justice. He fed widows. He served the poor. He preached in Samaria, which took guts, I can tell you. But I think preaching to a eunuch basically rocked his world. It challenged everything he had been taught. I don’t think Philip knew how to preach to a eunuch and still be a Christian. Maybe he didn’t even know how to be kind to him.” So how did he do it? Through God’s Holy Spirit.
In other words, the HS empowers him to do the work of the Kingdom in what would otherwise be a very awkward situation. He took Philip’s fears away. He is practically bossing Philip around! It is this HS-empowered love and guidance with brings the eunuch to ask that famous question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” NOTHING! Not Philip’s lack of confidence in evangelism, not his discomfort around this person, nothing. Because the Spirit is present.
Let’s turn now to 1 John 3. I can add nothing further to this wonderful passage than to say that we should love as Philip, through the HS, loved. Not a syrupy, greeting-card kind of love. Rather, the love whereby we follow the example of our suffering Savior who laid down his life for us. A love that is fearless and relentless. To borrow John’s words, we should love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” As with Philip, the HS loves and guides, counsels and teaches, us as we in turn love, guide, counsel and teach others. It empowers us – however you believe that that works – to do amazing things in the Kingdom of God.
I close with some very old words about the Holy Spirit which, I think, nicely summarize the point we are trying to make. In a prayer that survives in the writings of Basil of Caesarea (4th c. AD), we read the following words:
Father, you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy. To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.
And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all. (BCP 1979, pg. 374)
I can only echo what Basil himself says: let us no longer live for ourselves, let us instead die to ourselves for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
This was a learning experience, and I needed all the help I could get. The task wasn't made any easier by the fact that the essential subject matter was the work of the Holy Spirit — a topic that most of you (my loyal readers!) will recognize as one that scares most CofC people to death.
Anyway, here are the results. Comments welcome. Hopefully I've cited everything that needs to be cited…