Sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter (25 May 2014) by the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
Acts 17: 22-31 John 14: 15-21
Today’s gospel lesson prepares us for the events of this coming Thursday, prepares us for the aftermath of this coming Thursday, and prepares us for the events of Sunday a fortnight from today.
Ascension Day, this Thursday, and the Day of Pentecost, a fortnight today, complete the Easter cycle and conclude the events of salvation which the resurrection of Christ, Christ’s ascension to the Father, and the coming of the Holy Spirit signify.
Today’s scriptural passages have something to say to us about God’s abiding presence with the people of his creation and about the relationship which exists between God and his people – even aside from stone altars or even great cathedral churches. We are reassured about what God has in mind for us whether we are party to the appearance of the risen Christ, in the way the disciples were, or party to the indwelling Holy Spirit, in the way that we are.
We must have faith to believe that the presence of God and our relationship with God are the same for us as they were for the people of the Old Testament and for the disciples. After all, we understand that God is the same yesterday, today and for ever.
However, it’s one thing to be told that or to know that we are supposed to believe that; it may be quite another thing to feel it and to experience it. We may need something more specific in order to help us realise it.
And the specific characteristic that jumps out at me from this morning’s gospel lesson is obedience. It’s there at the end of the passage: "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.”
It’s almost like a deal — if one dare put it that way. Keep my commandments and you will know God’s presence in your life and know God’s love in your life. If only it were as simple as that!
The difficulty for us is threefold: we’re not very good at keeping God’s commandments; we interpret them differently according to our church traditions and theologies; and we use them as a rod to beat other people with. As a result, God’s commandments have become muddied and obscured by our own failures to match up to them.
The Ten Commandments may be distinguished along two lines: duty to God (the first four) and duty to neighbour (the second six); and Jesus himself summarises them along those very lines when he instructs us to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
But: while we might distinguish the commandments along these two lines, we cannot separate them. And there’s the rub. Many of us have no problem loving God: we come to church, we sing the hymns, we say our prayers. But many of us have big problems loving our neighbours: partly because we think we do love our neighbours (here’s a long list of all my family and friends whom I love – box ticked) and partly because we don’t love our neighbours (here’s a long list of all the people who get on my nerves – sorry: can’t help it). So we miss the point and we fail the test.
And, if we don’t get the neighbour bit right, we don’t get the God bit right. The second six commandments are just as God-given as the first four.
So, if there is a problem over the keeping of God’s commandments, does it mean that is God not quite as present as we’d like God to be and is our relationship with God not quite as fulsome as we’d like it to be? Remember the deal — as I dared to call it: ‘if’ we keep God’s commandments, the Spirit will dwell in us for ever. And, if we don’t keep God’s commandments……?
Now part of me wants to pull the white rabbit out of the hat at this point and offer some sort of theology about how God knows that we’re only human and we can’t get it right all of the time and that God will bridge the gap when we fail to get love of God and love of neighbour right, and various other platitudes.
But I wonder whether we need to be hard on ourselves as we approach Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost? But, as I’m a generous soul at heart, I have some thoughts that might help us while we’re being hard on ourselves.
I think there’s a problem with the word ‘love’. I know it’s critical to our understanding of the Gospel and of salvation and of redemption but I’ve always been conscious that we use the word so loosely and freely that we don’t really understand it profoundly enough. God didn’t love the world (such that he gave his only Son to save us from our sins) in the same way that I love chocolate — and yet I have an awful feeling that’s pretty much how we use the word when we use it in a Christian context
Here are two extreme scenarios which might help clarify a more profound meaning of the word love:
When I’m unsuspectingly grabbed by meaningful Christians and made to stand in a circle holding hands with a rather empty grin on my face, love of neighbour becomes toe-curlingly impossible. When one of the charities of which I’m a member asks me to get angry about the victims of social injustice, love of neighbour becomes a God-given duty.
(Which means, I suppose, that voting for UKIP shows just how sinful sinfulness is.)
Yes, those are two extremes but it’s the latter example which better informs what duty to neighbour and love of neighbour mean. God knows that, by and large, we love our family and friends and God knows that there will always be people who get on our nerves. That’s not the point.
So, as we await Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, let’s do some soul-searching about what it means to keep God’s commandments. Being nice to the person next to us is the least of it: we need to get angry that most people aren’t very nice most of the time. Duty to God and duty to neighbour is a robust and dynamic business but, given what’s at stake, would you expect it to be anything less?