Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 1, 2016
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year C
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
As we approach the great Feast of the Ascension on Thursday, followed by Pentecost just ten days later, we too may be experiencing something akin to the disciples’ feelings of confusion and dread in this morning’s Gospel. Modern psychologists would call these feelings “separation anxiety”: the fear and the anticipatory grieving over a significant and looming loss. Because Jesus’ reassuring words in this morning’s Gospel were spoken just before his Passion and Death, they may have had an even greater urgency for his disciples at that moment. Jesus, the “good shepherd” is preparing his “little flock” for the trauma about to befall them, when evil will strike the shepherd and the flock will be scattered. And like those disciples, we may be wondering: How do we survive in Jesus’ absence? What about all those promises in Psalm 23 to walk with us and to defend us, just prayed together on “Good Shepherd Sunday” two weeks ago? Where is Jesus going, and how do we get there? When will he return? Why doesn’t he just stay on and claim the “kingdom of God” in its fullness when “God will be all in all” right now? These are just some of the questions, doubts, and fears roiling both Jesus’ disciples in the first-century CE and us in the twenty-first. In short, how do we Christians live in the “already, but not yet”; how do we cope in this fraught time between the inauguration of the “kingdom of God” and its final fulfillment?
Well, for starters, it is useful to note that those first-century followers of Jesus of Nazareth were living in times at least as chaotic and dangerous as our own. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Jewish people had already been living for over a century under brutal Roman occupation and a continuous assault on their culture, their religion, their values, and their beliefs. And the response among the Jewish population to this Roman culture-war had not been unity, but deep division and a proliferation of sects with radically different interpretations of history, belief, piety, and visions of the future. There had already been several unsuccessful regional rebellions against the Romans in Judea, Samaria, and, especially, in Galilee. And just thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a full-scale Jewish war against the Romans erupted that would end in the complete destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from the holy city—God’s dwelling place on earth—for another two-thousand years. Just before the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction, Peter and Paul had been executed in Rome, along with hundreds of other Christians, by the mad and depraved emperor Nero seeking to blame his great fire in the city on the followers of Christ there. And in the wake of the sack of Jerusalem, the ancient rabbis had to flee to the tiny coastal town of Yavneh to reformulate Judaism without the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system. By the time Saint John’s Gospel was written between 90 and 100 CE, the Beloved Disciple had died, and the Johannine community had been expelled from their synagogue and exposed to Roman persecution as a non-tolerated “superstition,” according to the Romans. So, when Jesus told his disciples in this morning’s Gospel that he would leave them with a “peace” such as the world would never give them, he clearly meant to be taken at his word!
Jesus, however, had not left either his disciples then—or us now—in the wilderness of this world. There was no “cheap grace” back then, and there is none now. Following in Jesus’ “Way” is always to follow in the way of the Cross: the way of poverty, humility, service, forgiveness, and peace—the “higher Gospel of suffering love.” Christianity was and—if it is genuine Christianity—will always be profoundly counter-cultural. Cozy cultural Christianity may be very nice—even comforting—but it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ and it is not the Church. So, the Letter to the Hebrews was right to remind us that the people of God will always be “strangers and exiles on earth” who are seeking a “homeland” in “a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for God has prepared for them a city”—the very “city” described in this morning’s reading from the Book of Revelation.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, the “good news” this morning is that we DO have a companion in the Way—and that friend and companion is Jesus Christ our Lord. He has promised us that those who love him and “keep my word…my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” And we should not be surprised by this remarkable promise. Did not the father in Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son” go in search of his lost son and run to meet him at a distance with words of mercy and healing? The awareness that God is with us and that, in Jesus Christ, the mercy of God comes to us, his unworthy creatures, is breathtaking. And it is also the very foundation of our religion of the Incarnation: God in Christ “abides” with us and, through us, with God’s world. We, a “people of God,” are the “Body of Christ” in the world until he comes again. This is our comfort and our challenge at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
I suspect that Jesus knew that our Christian spiritual journey would not be easy when he promised in this morning’s Gospel to send us an “Advocate,” a “Paraklete”—a Greek word and a legal term for the “one who stands beside the defendant” at a trial. Like the followers of Jesus then and now, we too must be prepared to stand in the post-modern dock and to witness to the reality of God in a world hostile to the very idea of Divine revelation, transcendence, and the “Real Presence” of the Holy One, blessed be He. Because, let’s face it, for most people in the post-modern West—especially among the academic and cultural elites—you and I this morning are still wallowing in a primitive “superstition,” which—by the way—was precisely the word used by the Romans to characterize the Christian faith in formal charges against believers during that bygone era. So we will need a Paraklete, an Advocate, “whom the Father will send in my name, [who] will teach you everything, and [who will] remind you of all that I have said to you.” And that promised Advocate, that Paraklete, is nothing less than the Holy Spirit, the third “Person” of the Blessed Trinity and “God’s first gift to those who love God” (BCP). That same Spirit will lead us into all truth.
At Jesus’ Roman trial, the prefect Pontius Pilate asked Jesus a question that has reverberated down through the ages. When Jesus told Pilate that he had come into the world “to testify to the truth,” Pilate rightly asked, “What is the truth?” This was an apt and profound question, and we are still asking it to this very day. The world has offered many answers to that urgent and ultimate question over the centuries, and I would wager that it will still be asking the question until “the close of the ages.” In the meanwhile, we humans have been groping our way toward many partial answers to that question—some of them satisfying, many others of them manifestly and noxiously false, with terrible consequences for humankind and the survival of the planet. And yet, we Christians have always had a complete and ready answer to Pilate’s question from the mouth of Jesus himself, recorded in the same chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John from which we have read this morning: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life;” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John14:6) It is a short and direct answer, yet it is no trite or easy answer.
For more than two millennia, the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church through time and history toward the fullness of truth, and you don’t need to be a Church historian to know that it’s been a long and treacherous slog with many dead ends and detours along the way right into our very own time. If we are to comprehend the truth about and of Jesus Christ, together with its meaning for the world and for our own individual spiritual journey, we must rediscover the art of deep listening. Whether we are grappling with a truth of the Christian faith, or discerning a moral or vocational choice in the light of that faith, there is just no way around the deep listening of silent, wordless prayer. And yet, so much of our praying is talking at God rather than listening for God in Sacred Scripture, in the apostolic tradition, in the teachings of the Church, and in the silence of our prayerful heart where the Spirit, according to Saint Paul, “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
So, as we enter the Rogation Days this week in the Church’s calendar and begin our vigil for the two great feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, when we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ abiding presence among us, perhaps we might ask God in our prayer to show us the truth—God’s truth—for ourselves and for our violent and distracted world. Then, we can truly say, along with the leaders of the early Church, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us….” And after we have asked for this grace, let us keep a reverent, prayerful silence as we wait for God’s word and God’s truth to rise above the din of our own desires and false choices. After all, Jesus has promised that those who seek, find; those who ask, receive; and for those who knock, the door is opened. So, in the words of our Saviour, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” as we wait in prayerful vigil for Jesus to bring our fractured humanity right into the heart of God with his Ascension, there to make constant intercession for us as we yearn for the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, whose gifts and fruits will renew our lives and our world.