This week I received a precious gift. It’s a gift I will remember and cherish. It’s a gift I never wanted and wish I had never received, and yet I am grateful for it. There is no more sacred task for a priest than the task, the privilege, of being permitted to be present with a family on the worst day of their life. This was the gift, and I treasure it, even though I would have given much for it not to be necessary.
I won’t go into personal details, but suffice it to say that it involved several hours at a hospital, many prayers, an emergency baptism, and a lot of tears, as well as a remarkable witness of faith by the people most deeply wounded by the tragedy. I declared, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as I anointed one who was already in the embrace of God, and I understood those words in a new and profound way.
When I resumed work on this sermon, I found myself reading today’s Scripture with new eyes, seeking out reassurance that my declarations of God’s love and abiding presence in the midst of suffering could indeed be backed up by God’s Word.
As St. Paul addresses the elite of Athens, he is dealing with an audience of intellectual, skeptical sophisticates. They take an interest in all things spiritual, but they are not committed to any given belief system. You could say they are spiritual but not religious. The streets of Athens, a multicultural center of the ancient world, are dotted with little shrines and altars to gods of all kinds and from every corner of the world, a pantheon of images made of wood, stone, and metal. And, in a kind of Pascal’s wager, there is even a shrine to “the unknown god”, to cover any possibility not otherwise considered.
Our world, like that of the Athenians, is filled with shrines to the idols of our culture. Sky-scraping banks. Shopping malls that look like temple complexes. Prestigious cars. Multiplex movie theaters. Football stadiums. Even magnificent church buildings. These are some of the false gods that we are tempted to worship. But Paul points the Athenians, and us, to another God, as he points to the unknown god’s altar. There’s a reason, he says, why you don’t have a name or an image for this God.
This is a God, he says, who isn’t confined to a statue or an altar. This is a God who abides among us, who is with us wherever we go. This God is as close to us as a breath; in this God we live and move and have our being. The Psalm backs this up, reminding us of the steadfast love of God that never fails. I needed that reminder this week.
Paul, a consummate evangelist, sees an opening for the Gospel. He meets the Athenians where they are, acknowledging their wisdom and claiming the unknown God as the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jesus Christ, known to a people who have been liberated from slavery, fed in the wilderness, and redeemed from death.
Paul is skillful in his presentation. He doesn’t attack the prior assumptions of his listeners, but he finds room for God within their context. In our current context, we are having a lot of conversations about how to bring the unchurched to church. Since we can’t force people to come, we are turning towards supporting the development of faith within the non-churched lifestyle. We are creating a digital family resource called Faith2Go, we are participating in marches and parades, we are showing up to the Harvey Milk breakfast and the Navy Pride celebration, we are offering the Eucharist in a gay bar, we are live-streaming our services.
At the Democracy Now event last Tuesday, 700 people packed the cathedral and heard my unconditional welcome. At the end of the evening someone said to me, “I didn’t know that churches like this existed.” Like Paul, we try to tailor our medium to the potential audience, but the message itself remains the same: God loves us unconditionally and is to be found in every circumstance of our lives. The ancient Athenians continued to question Paul, as our contemporaries continue to question us, restlessly searching for an answer that will satisfy our hunger. The answer is life abundant in the risen Christ.
Paul describes a God who is far greater than any image we can invent, and who sent a human being to show us the true abundance of life through resurrection, even defeating death itself. And in John’s Gospel, as Jesus prepares to go to his death, he tells his friends that even when he is gone, they will not be left alone. The Spirit is God’s presence in the world, abiding within us and giving us strength and courage to bear what otherwise would destroy us.
John puts a peculiar word in Jesus’ mouth: the Paraclete, translated in our reading as Advocate. The old translations had Comforter, as we hear in the traditional musical settings of this text. But the modern translation doesn’t use that word because it has changed its meaning over the centuries. Forget the soft, fluffy image you may have conjured up. Think instead of something like a cattle prod, a force that pushes you to do and bear more than you ever thought possible. That’s what the 16th century Anglicans meant by a Comforter.
So, in my quest to seek reassurance, I found the Gospel telling me that God’s love and mercy can be found anywhere, if we only look: in the hug of a friend; in the beauty of a piece of music or a spring day; in the words of faith somehow summoned up in the midst of heartbreak.
Even the Epistle reading today takes on additional meaning, when it’s viewed through the lens of personal tragedy, as we wonder why such things happen. Peter addresses a congregation that is under attack for its faith. He offers powerful reassurance and a reminder to stay the course, to go high when others go low. Peter assures us that suffering isn’t something we earn or deserve. Sometimes we can do everything right and still things go horribly, tragically wrong.
And yet our Easter faith will bring us through, secure in the knowledge of God’s victory over death.
Both Peter and Paul derive the courage to proclaim the Gospel from the life of Christ that lives, that abides, in them. Jesus has promised to abide with those who keep his commandment of love. When we trust that Jesus abides in us, when we live into the steadfast love described in the Psalm, we too will be strengthened to call out the idolatry of our own lives and of the culture around us, to find God in our midst, to bear what might otherwise be unbearable.
Remember the Collect we prayed a few minutes ago: “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire.” God’s love exceeds all that we can desire or imagine. This is our Easter faith.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
May 21, 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Easter