Sermon Seeds: Witness of Love/Never Abandoned

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year A

Lectionary citations
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 14:15-21
Additional reflection on Acts 17:22-31

More reflection materials are available on our Facebook page at Sermon Seeds.

Weekly Theme:
Witness of Love/Never Abandoned

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

In his farewell address, as Jesus summarizes his teachings one last time, he also reassures his bewildered disciples that they will not be left on their own, to fend for themselves, to rely on their own resources and their own wits. Undoubtedly this was a good thing; they couldn’t have managed any better than we could on our own! He will not leave them orphans, Jesus tells them, without a loving Father/Mother God to care for them. According to Richard Burridge, the word “orphan” can also refer to the disciple of a departed teacher (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). But Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful sermon, “Good News for Orphans” (in Gospel Medicine), uses the parent/child image to describe the feeling of security that children long for when they’re left alone. They want to be reassured that someone greater, stronger, smarter is not only present but in charge. And they want to be reassured that this someone loves them.

As usual, we get the sense that the disciples are as lost as we would have been, back there, on that side of both Easter and Pentecost. John, by the time he writes his Gospel, does know about both the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit (remembering that John’s “Pentecost” actually occurs later on the same day as the Resurrection). He tells the story of Jesus saying good-bye to his followers, now that his “hour has come,” before he goes to his death. The longer he goes on (and it is a very long farewell speech), the more anxious and perplexed they are. As Taylor puts it, “The way he tells it, he is heading off to a family reunion with his father that no one else is invited to, and he is leaving them in charge while he is gone.” And even with Easter, and Pentecost, and centuries of faith between them and us, Taylor says, “from where we sit it has been so long that some of us wonder if we have not been orphaned after all” (Gospel Medicine).

It reminds me of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt, how terrified they must have been, after leaving everything behind for this Teacher, and then finding themselves outside “the mainstream” because of that decision. They couldn’t just slip easily back into their lives; things would never be the same. And yet it wasn’t clear to them exactly how things were going to be. It was beyond the power of their imaginations. Again, even with Easter and Pentecost, our imaginations, too, often fall far short of the dream of God, and Jesus’ words about love and obedience may seem like just that: words in a lovely speech long ago.

But they aren’t just pretty words. Jesus backs up his claims with a promise to send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to be with these disciples, and with all of us today, two thousand years later. Burridge says that “the word ‘Paraclete’ means ‘someone called alongside’ to help or assist,” and this helper is our “advocate…Counselor and Intercessor…Comforter.” But he draws on the original meaning of the word “to comfort,” which is to give strength or courage. We can turn to this Paraclete, then, as a source of what we need as disciples of Jesus, in ministry to a hurting world (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

We don’t often speak of the Holy Spirit in many of our churches today. It’s easier to “access” a Father God, or Jesus, “the man of Nazareth” (and “our crucified and risen Savior” – see the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith) than it is to imagine and relate to a Spirit who has defied our attempts to shape or describe “Him” or “Her” (many consider the Spirit to be a feminine presence). The Spirit remains a deep and often inaccessible Mystery, one that is nevertheless at the heart of our faith, a Mystery that never abandons us, just as Jesus promised.

Dianne Bergant explores the role of the Spirit in our lives as S/He “strengthens us, comforts us, guides us, and inspires us. It is the Spirit who enables us to interpret the signs of the times in ways very different from the ways of the world. It is the Spirit who works through us for the transformation of the world.” Because of the gift of the Spirit, she writes, we can live as people of hope and trust: “We may be considered foolish by those who live without this hope, but it is the foolishness of the Spirit of God” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year A).

In two weeks, Pentecost Sunday will provide ample opportunity to reflect further on this Holy Spirit, but for now, we return to that hushed conversation between the departing Teacher and his anxious students. They are the future of the church, such as they are, and Jesus speaks to them not as individuals, each with his or her own private relationship with him, but as the church, the community of faith that is not timebound or limited to one little group of disciples, but includes all those generations, John’s community and ours as well, who are listening in on the conversation.

The little band of John’s community would also be an embattled and uncertain little church, in need of reassurance and promises and yet, in need of a challenge, too. Maybe, though, we all need to know exactly what the expectations are. We want to measure up, fulfill our obligations, make the grade, do what’s right, please God (and maybe others, too). So what does Jesus tell his disciples to do? He tells them to keep his commandments, and we all know what those are. What mattered to Jesus was love, and it’s no surprise that “love” is in the very same sentence with “obey my commandments.”

The scholars seem to wrestle with Jesus’ command, or better, his observation that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It almost sounds as if all our talk of grace is meaningless in the face of a requirement like that. Does it really all come down to this – that we need to obey the rules (to love) and earn our way to heaven? We might respond, first, that the commandments that mattered to Jesus were those two about loving God and loving our neighbor. And, we might add, he expanded our understanding of those commandments to include things like forgiveness, praying for our enemies, caring about the poor and the marginalized, and ordering our lives well, including our use of money – the thing we mostly don’t want to talk about in church; none of this is easy!

Second, perhaps Jesus isn’t making a conditional statement but instead is putting forth an obvious fact: when you love someone, really, really love someone, doing what is good and right comes so much more naturally and easily. Parents can be a good illustration of this: it may be a challenge at times to be a parent, but the love one feels for one’s children makes it a “no-brainer” to do what’s good for them even when it’s not easy. It’s obvious that if you love your children, you’re going to take good care of them. (Think of the story of King Solomon and the two mothers in 1 Kings 3. It was obvious who really loved her child, and therefore who the mother was.) Perhaps Jesus’ statement is in that same spirit.

In any case, he’s speaking to a group and not to an individual, and preparing them for what is to come. Things are going to change, and change fast, and, Gail R. O’Day says, that will affect how the disciples will carry out Jesus’ command, even how they will show their love for him after he’s gone, not “by clinging to a cherished memory of him nor by retreating into their private experience of him,” but “doing his works (vv. 12-14) and by keeping his commandments (vv. 15-24).” When the disciples walk the talk and “live what Jesus has taught them and demonstrated in his own life, then they will find themselves once again in his love” (John, New Interpreter’s Bible).

We might reflect then on the “public” love of the Incarnation, the promises and challenges given to a community that continues in us today, and the presence of God through the Holy Spirit with us, right now, right here, in our life together as the church. Charles Cousar says, “The relationship between disciples and Teacher is not to degenerate into sentimentality or into a wistful nostalgia once he has gone, about ‘how wonderful things were when Jesus was with us.'” No, instead, “Love expresses itself in obedience, in keeping Jesus’ words” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

What would this obedience look like in our faith journeys today: would anyone be able to pick us out of a crowd as followers of Jesus, because of our love? This is more than individual acts and momentary flights of spirituality – it’s an “extraordinary” way of life, Bergant writes, that follows the way of Jesus (remember, early Christianity was called “The Way”). If we live and love as Jesus did, “we will live with clear consciences, with gentleness and reverence. The love that comes to us through the Spirit will overflow into the lives of others. We will be agents of God’s love in the world….Our lives will be evidence of the presence of the Spirit in our midst.” This may not harmonize always with the values of a world that is materialistic, competitive, and often full of empty promises, but then, she writes, there is a “breach between the world and the things of God….The world is captive to materialism, open only to what is tangible. It cannot see the Spirit…” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year A). I just love that phrase, “agents of God’s love in the world.” It’s so active and inspiring for everyday life.

So we are not left alone; we are not orphans; we are “Easter people.” And Richard Burridge writes that “A church full of ‘Easter people’ will be a place where grieving or searching souls can be comforted, encouraged, and strengthened” because they sense God’s presence and God’s Spirit in our midst, inspiring and sustaining the life we share together, nourished for ministry in the world God loves (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). If we want to know whether we are loving Jesus, perhaps we can hold up our life together in the light of this claim.

Barbara Brown Taylor always brings a text like this one, no matter how difficult, right back to the heart of the message, in fact, she brings it home: “‘…and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (John 14:23). Not visit. Not pass through from time to time. Not send a postcard….John only uses the word ‘home’ twice in his gospel, both times around the supper table….” Is it any wonder that our church home has a table at its center, not just architecturally but at the heart of our sacramental life together? This “permanent” home, Taylor writes, is “a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites. It is John’s idea of heaven to move in with the God who has moved in with us…” (Gospel Medicine). Does your church, and mine, does the United Church of Christ, look like “a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites”?

For Further Reflection

John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”

Jeremy Taylor, 17th century
“Since the days of Pentecost, has the whole church ever put aside every other work and waited upon Him for ten days, that the Spirit’s power might be manifested? We give too much attention to method and machinery and resources, and too little to the source of power.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.”

Daniel Goleman, 21st century
“The fundamental task of leaders, we argue, is to prime good feeling in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance–a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional.”

Albert Einstein, 20th century
“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”

Wendell Berry, 20th century
“The soul, in its loneliness, hopes only for ‘salvation.’ And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is therefore the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them.”

Mother Teresa, 20th century
“There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.”

Margaret Mead, 20th century
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

Additional reflection on Acts 17:22-31:

We could read all of these lectionary texts for the Sixth Sunday of Easter as being about the presence of God. The psalm reading covers a lot of ground, from times of testing and trial (“you let people ride over our heads”) to times of deliverance (“you have brought us out to a spacious place”). Yet the psalmist sings of “what God has done for me,” this God whose “steadfast love” abides. The reading from First Peter also addresses suffering and provides a firm assurance of God’s blessing, exhorting us to be ready to defend and explain “the hope” that sustains us and marks us as followers of Jesus. What is this hope, persistent and planted deep within, if not God’s Spirit moving us toward trust and “doing good”? The words of Jesus before his death, comforting his disciples and making promises of his presence with them no matter what: these words assure them – and us – that the Spirit of God will be with us and carry us and empower us to great things, “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

The reading from Acts, however, is a different kind of testimony than that of the psalmist, a different kind of exhortation than that of First Peter, and a different kind of promise, too. It’s put in a different form, also, and a different setting: Paul is in Athens, the center of Greek culture and thought, and he’s addressing a very different crowd than he usually does. He’s in the Areopagus, not the synagogue, and these folks don’t know – or care – about the history of the patriarchs and God’s faithfulness to the Hebrew people – and they probably wouldn’t be particularly moved by the story, either. Paul can’t rehearse the story of Moses or the Promised Land, or speak of the prophets or the exile. No, instead, he meets these people “where they are.”

The verses that precede this lectionary text help to set the stage, as Paul has not been much of a tourist here in the cultural center of the known world. Instead of appreciating art and architecture, he keeps stubbing his religious toe on one idol after another, and he is annoyed (“deeply distressed,” as a matter of fact). In the introductory verses (16-21), he seems restless and argumentative, first in the synagogue and then in the marketplace. Luke portrays Paul as relentlessly pursuing debate, “every day with those who happened to be there.” When he speaks of Jesus and the Resurrection, the Greek word for the latter might have been misunderstood as a goddess, Anastasia, and some people thought he was talking about a new god and his consort. This would have been illegal, and Paul might have gone the way of Socrates.

But, instead, the philosophers invited him to come and talk with them some more about this “new teaching” – after all, the text says, lots of people in Athens loved to spend their time “in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Paul accepts their invitation and delivers a brilliant evangelism speech that
egins by getting on their good side, complimenting them on their religious piety but offering them an answer to what appears to be an unknown – “the unknown god” that nevertheless inspires altars – the unknown that might stand for the unanswered questions, the inexpressible longing for the transcendent, the spiritual hunger that every human being experiences.

Paul helps these spiritually hungry folks out by naming the focus of that hunger and longing, the answer to their questions, and he makes it clear that this God cannot be housed or shaped by humans – on the contrary, this God created and sustains us all, believers and unbelievers alike. And another thing – this God has let our ignorance go thus far, but now there will be no excuses, and we must all repent and prepare for a day not of whimsical judgment (like that of some Greek gods), but of righteousness and truth, embodied, he claims in his last sentence, by the one God raised from the dead, Jesus Christ. The speech was not a huge success, but the verses after the lectionary text ends indicate that at least one distinguished member of the community and an unknown woman were converted.

Here, in the weeks after Easter, we continue to wrestle with the reality of the Resurrection. How is Jesus Christ still alive in the midst of your community of faith, and how do you feel his presence, living and breathing, in your church? How does his Spirit guide the life of your congregation? In what ways is God still speaking through the life of your congregation, still proclaiming new life and good news? What difference does it make to your church, six weeks after Easter, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? Can you, and the members of your church, give an accounting of the hope that is within you? How? Or, why not? What are the stories, the memories, and the present dreams that account for this hope?

Some people say that God’s presence is felt only in intense, mystical experiences, and they spend a lot of effort in “achieving,” or at least in seeking, such “highs.” But others say that the day-in, day-out faithfulness of loving and sharing and being open, of going to church and of offering hospitality to others, of seeking justice and forgiveness, and of offering the same, is just as important an experience of God’s presence. Do you believe that God still speaks through this everyday kind of faithfulness?

Think, then, about those who come to your church, especially visitors. The Stoics and the Epicureans were the two main philosophies of the time, represented in this text. And folks were spending lots of time, as mentioned above, in telling or hearing something new. We are not unlike Paul’s audience in many ways, because the philosophies of our time swirl around us and distract us and entice us, with the powerful aid of various forms of electronic media (and other ways as well). What are we intrigued by, on talk shows, in self-help books, in discussion groups, and even in the pulpit – “new” ideas and methods and philosophies that seem to compete with the gospel that we – hopefully – preach and embody in our church life? Paul’s audience in this text could be imagined as “the un-churched,” or even the “spiritual but not religious,” those who do not speak the language of our tradition, do not know the stories of our people, do not value – yet – the heart of our faith. But they are open. Yes, perhaps they are open to every new thing, and there are many things that our culture offers, many answers, programs, and experts. But the ever-ancient, ever-new gospel endures when all the other “something new” ideas fade.

For some people in our time, then, the gospel is something new (or something different from what they think it is). What are the challenges to us in this text as we think about addressing those who do not know “the story” or do not look to the same ancestors in faith? Do we think of them as sustained by God, having “the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places they would live” determined by the same God we worship and depend on? Do we find that, in the midst of materialism and nationalism and militarism, we depend on “other gods” for our living? How much do we feel that we “grope” for God, who is near at hand, even though we think of ourselves as faithful and religious? How do we hear the words “In him we live and move and have our being” differently when we realize Paul is quoting a pagan philosopher? In church or in the marketplace, then, how do we give an accounting for the hope that is within us?

For further reflection:

Charles M. Schulz, 20th century
“Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Is life a multiple choice test or is it a true or false test?’…Then a voice comes to me out of the dark and says, ‘We hate to tell you this but life is a thousand word essay.'”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, 21st century
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

Baruch Spinoza, 17th century
“I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.”

Epictetus, 1st century
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”  

Lectionary texts

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Psalm 66:8-20

Bless our God, O peoples,
   let the sound of God’s praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
   and has not let our feet slip.

For you, O God, have tested us;
   you have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;
   you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;

we went through fire
   and through water;
yet you have brought us out
   to a spacious place.

I will come into your house
   with burnt-offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
   that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised
   when I was in trouble.

I will offer to you burnt-offerings of fatlings,
   with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
   and I will tell what God has done for me.
I cried aloud to God,
   and extolled God with my tongue.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
   God would not have listened.

But truly God has listened;
   God has given heed to the words of my prayer.

Blessed be God,
   because God has not rejected my prayer
or removed God’s steadfast love from me.

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21

[Jesus said:] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 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.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors

Lent and Easter

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.

There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.