Sunday, May 26, 2019

Called to Our Side (Easter 6C)

Called to Our Side (Easter 6C)
Homily delivered at Trinity Parish, Ashland (OR)
Sunday May 26, 2019 8:00 a.m. Said, 10:00 a.m. Sung Mass
The Very Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.

God, take away our hearts of stone
 and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.

Today’s scriptures are all about, in one way or another, with us being in touch with God, and God being in touch with us.  The reading from Acts portrays a scene where the early apostles are led by the Holy Spirit to make major decisions on where to place their missionary efforts.  And they find surprises in the process: a wealthy non-Jewish woman who attends synagogue and is just right for hearing Paul’s message.  And they let her convince them, seemingly against their better judgment, to make her home their base of operations.   The Psalm, a favorite of mine that was sung when Elena and I celebrated 30 years of marriage by taking for the first time Christian vows of marriage, tells of gentiles, the “nations,” “all the ends of the earth,” also being welcomed to the hymn of thanks and praise sung to the one God by his covenant people.  The reading from the Revelation of John tells of the final state of God’s created world, a beautiful city without tears or darkness, where there is no need for temples or churches, because God dwells with its inhabitants personally.  

The Gospel reading is part of Jesus’ great farewell discourse in the Gospel of John.   Jesus says he will not leave his friends behind alone, bereft.  He will go away, but yet come back soon to them, by sending them “another, a paraclete.”  Parakletos means someone “called to stand beside” you.  It is from the verb kaleo, “to call”, and the preposition para, “along side.”  Translated verbally in Latin as Ad-vocatus, we sometimes hear it translated as “Advocate,” with the overtones of someone who stands beside us in court or a dispute to defend us.  But another way of understanding the word comes from a related abstract noun, paraklesis, which means “a standing with,” in the sense of consoling and empathizing.  This is where the King James Bible gets its translation, “Comforter.”  Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation understands it in a more comprehensive way, “The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request” (John 14:26). 

Paraklesis has a closely related word, epiclesis, that comes from the verb to call and the preposition epi, “upon.”   The epiclesis is the part of the Eucharistic prayer where we call upon God to pour out the spirit upon the congregation and the gifts of bread and wine, so that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ. 

In John, the evening of the Resurrection Jesus returns to his friends and says, “Peace,” and then breathes on them adding, “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22).  In Luke/Acts, the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Church is placed on the day of Pentecost, after the Ascension of Jesus.  But though John wrote decades after Luke, his view seems to reflect the earlier understanding of the coming of the spirit:  Paul writing just a decade after Jesus’ death, says that “the Lord” (that is, the Risen Jesus) “is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17)

The basis of Christian spiritual life is having this Advocate, this Comforter, this “Friend” beside us, the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus present for us. 

It is a much abused concept.  People say the Spirit inspired them to do this or say that, to find a parking space here, or excommunicate that person, or go to war.  Simply because people think the spirit is talking to them does not make it so. 

We often hear at ordinations or at Pentecost hymns to the Holy Spirit that refer to the “seven-fold gifts” of the Spirit.  These seven gifts of the spirit in classical Christian theology are all taken from Isaiah 11:2-3: 1) wisdom, the capacity to rightly order our loves, 2) understanding, to comprehend how to put rightly-ordered love into practice, 3) counsel, actually to know the difference between right and wrong, and choose to do what is right, 4) courage, to overcome the fears that block our way in following God and taking risks for him, 5) knowledge, to perceive with certitude the meaning of God and the universe, 6) reverence, a deep respect for and humility before the Holy, and 7) fear of the Lord, a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and majesty of our Maker. 

But Saint Paul gives a much more practical guide.  He says, “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal 5:22).   One of the reasons I can say with faithful hope that the Episcopal Church was guided by the Spirit to include women in ministry and gays and lesbians in our common, sacramental life, is that all these are present in the intuition behind this decision.  Jerry Falwell saying the Holy Spirit tells us in the Bible to reject such people, not so much. 

It is not legal or canonical guidance, as if the Spirit were a little appelate court judge sitting on one shoulder while the Devil tempts on the other.   It is more about life-affirming, loving, and joyful intuition and feeling.  Note that both in John’s account of the Last Supper and of the Risen Lord’s appearance on Easter evening, the spirit is promised or given along with the gift of peace, of a sense of wholeness, abundance, and calm. 

In today’s passage, the Holy Spirit has two functions: to “remind” us of what Jesus has already taught us and to “teach” us new things (v. 26).  This puts to rest the false dichotomy between standing with tried and true, canonical, and legal constraints, versus being bold in seeking new truth, with all the risk that entails.    

I have had moments in my life where I know I felt the Spirit: peace, clarity, loving kindness, and courage.  I felt it when I asked Elena to marry me.  I felt it when I sought confirmation in the Episcopal Church, and when I recognized God’s call to me to be a priest.  I have felt the gentle promptings from Jesus as I have counseled and consoled people, and as I have needed consolation and courage. 

We are well advised to reason and study things out, to seek counsel and advice to help us get our bearings and direction.  And it is wise to be cautious in making claims of “being guided by the Spirit,” if only to relieve God of the burden of having silly or wrong things chalked up to his account.   But we need to listen.  An active and regular prayer life as part of a rule of life, reading scripture as well as thoughtful, uplifting and even challenging books, a regular practice of contemplating beauty and serving others, and listening—all these are ways to help hear the Holy Spirit. 

I invite us all this week to look at how we’re doing in pursuing such regular practice. 

Jesus is here now, present for us.  The spirit of love and holiness is here now.  It is up to us to do what we can so that we better hear his voice. 

In the name of Christ, Amen