A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: Readings Acts 17.22-31; 1 Peter 3.13-end; John 14.15-21
‘I will not leave you orphaned’ says the Lord.
Today is the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide and we continue to proclaim: ‘Alleluia Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia’.
The season of Eastertide is given to us to sustain our appreciation of the resurrection.
For Christians the resurrection is the epicentre and source of abundant life; the resurrection of Christ makes possible our conviction that death has no more power to come between human experience and the knowledge of God.
Eastertide is a week of weeks, seven days times seven – seven being the number of completion in the Bible - with a crowning day to make fifty. These fifty days of Eastertide hang on the twin poles of the Resurrection – Easter - and the Descent of the Holy Spirit – Pentecost.
That gives us fifty days of intentional reflection on what it means to be, in St Augustine’s phrase, ‘An Easter People with Alleluia as our song’; It also gives us fifty days to ponder what it means to say that we believe ‘in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life’ and contemplate how the Spirit forms, leads and guides us as the Church, the People of God.
And forty days into Eastertide comes the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which we observe this coming Thursday.
This is the time we recall Jesus’ bodily ascension into the heavens (Acts 1.1-11), when the followers of Jesus have to learn what it means to share his life when he is not physically present with us.
The joy of the resurrection meant that the disciples could still connect with Jesus present in their midst. The deprivation of his death, when they thought they had been abandoned and turned into spiritual orphans, was reversed in the resurrection when they continued to encounter Jesus, albeit in a new way.
Because of his ascension Jesus Christ is longer subject to place and time: that opens up access to God our Father, in Christ’s name, for people of all times and all places.
Jesus’ ascension is not going to be about deprivation but about discovering a deeper union with God, in Jesus’ Name, bound in by the Holy Spirit.
The Ascension gives us a vision of abundance in the church that flows out of the abundance of the Spirit and union with Christ, and not out of the narrow, human centred vision of scarcity that denies the life of God, and blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.
And this is what the gospel reading today prepares the disciples for, and trains us in too; preparing them for the rupture of their relationship with Jesus.
All through the gospel Jesus is quite clear that he will not be with them forever, that the time will come when, in his name, they will have to take responsibility for their discipleship, but they will be able to do so because the Holy Spirit will equip and lead them.
This is why the sacrament of the Eucharist matters so much to us.
Jesus is no longer present in human form, but in the sacraments the intensity of his presence is manifest in the things that we can grasp and touch and hold: bread and wine in the Eucharist, water in baptism, oil in anointing, another human body in marriage. The sacraments are the breaking through of the grace of God, in which we are reminded of the depth of the relationship we share with God in Christ. And the elements of the sacraments – bread, wine, water, oil, bodies – are given that capacity by the work of the Holy Spirit: ‘send down your Spirit upon the gifts to make them holy’.
So John’s gospel prepares us for the time when the Word made Flesh, who has chosen to dwell in our midst as one of us, is no longer with us. And the sacraments are given to us to connect us in the deepest possible way to God’s grace in the Holy Spirit.
This union with God is Christianity’s purpose, goal and end. Jesus’ discourses about being the Bread of Life (John 6) or about being the True Vine (John 15) or about his priesthood (John 16, 17) is all about abiding, dwelling, living, finding a home, in God. After all, God has found a dwelling place with us, in Christ: ‘and the Word was Made flesh and dwelt, lived, found a home, abided with us’ (John 1.14).
For God’s ancient, and first chosen, people the Jews, the relationship with God is established and maintained by living Torah, the way of faithfulness to the Covenant.
For Muslims, the relationship with God is established primarily in submission to God’s will.
For Christians the relationship with God is union and incorporation into the life of God: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them’ (John 6.56).
This is not a subjective feelings-based exercise – although it can feel wonderful to feel alive with God – it is an objective reality. Living the way of faith, hope and love in the Church, and feeding on Christ in word and sacrament, is our incorporation into the life of God.
That all begs the question of what we have been learning in this time of deprivation and being cut off during lockdown. What is it that has been most sustaining for us? What are we truly looking for in our hearts? What will a time of deprivation and disruption teach us about deeper union with Christ?
These are huge questions of course, so perhaps we might make this gospel passage into prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
you promise that if we love you
and keep your word
our heavenly Father come and abide with us.
Make your home with us
that we may truly be at home
in you and with you.
And may the Holy Spirit come down upon us
so that we are not left alone
but drawn into your nearer presence,
now and always.