Sunday, May 29, 2011

Not Left Orphaned

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
May 29, 2011

Year A: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Not Left Orphaned

I wouldn’t say that I’m a news junkie, but it’s true that I read the newspaper everyday and most days I check a couple of news websites to keep up with what’s going on.

Part of it is just habit, I guess. And part of it is that I think it’s important to be informed, though the truth is there’s not much I can do about all of the mostly horrible stuff that’s reported in the news.

And keeping up with the news can be dangerous for our souls. Last week a friend asked me how it affects me to every day read stories about natural and man-made disasters that create so much pain for so many here in our own community, across our country and around the world.

Of course, there’s nothing new about living in a world filled with natural and man-made disasters.

In today’s lesson from the Gospel of John, we glimpsed an unfolding man-made disaster: Jesus was about to be arrested and killed in an especially brutal and humiliating way.

As I mentioned last Sunday, one of the unique features of the Gospel of John is what’s called the “Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ lengthy good-bye to his disciples during the Last Supper.

Try to imagine the scene.

The disciples – everyday working people, as thickheaded as all of us – felt a power in Jesus like they had never experienced before. From Jesus they heard teaching like they had never heard before. And through Jesus they saw signs like they had never seen before.

And while lots of people encountered Jesus, only a handful of people seem to have given away their lives to follow him. They may not have always understood Jesus, but they loved him enough to walk away from family and friends to be his disciples.

But, throughout Jesus’ ministry there was always this disturbing background buzz. It was a disturbing background buzz caused by conflict – conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment.

But it was also a disturbing background buzz caused by Jesus’ own predictions of his arrest and death.

I’m sure, like all of us, the disciples were good at denial and tried to tune out this disturbing background buzz – to ignore it, to hum over it, to pretend it wasn’t there.

But, now at the Last Supper, that disturbing background buzz has moved front and center. The disciples can no longer deny it or avoid it.

Last week we heard Jesus tell his friends that he was going ahead of them to prepare a place where they would all be reunited.

We heard Jesus boldly tell his disciples that since he and the Father are one, when they had seen Jesus they had in fact seen God.

We heard Jesus tell his disciples that he was going to the Father, which will give him the power to advocate for us, to see to it that our prayers are answered.

That’s all very good news. But, I suspect the disciples were still struggling to accept that in a very real – and horrible – way Jesus was leaving them.

Even if they believed everything Jesus was telling them – a big if – it still must have been scary for them to imagine what life was going to be like without Jesus – their leader, their friend, their teacher, their Savior.

Which brings us to today’s section of the Farewell Discourse.

Jesus has told the disciples that he will be advocating for them in heaven. But, now he also promises that God will send another advocate to be with them forever. This advocate – the Paraclete – a word that is also translated as comforter, counselor, friend or helper – is the Spirit of truth – and is also in some sense the spirit of Jesus himself.

Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not leave your orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Over the centuries artists have struggled to depict the Holy Spirit. Most of us are familiar with the tongues of fire and of course the dove, but neither image really does justice to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

It’s hard to describe the Holy Spirit. But if we keep our eyes and ears open we can feel the power and presence of the Holy Spirit all around us – we can know that we have not been left orphaned.

It’s thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit that the Apostle Paul – a Pharisee who had one of the most dramatic conversion experiences of all time – had the courage to give away his life in service to Jesus.

Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul left behind everything that was familiar and spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean world, telling people about Jesus.

In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, we find Paul in Athens, of all places. In the First Century, Rome was the center of imperial power but Athens was still the hub of classical civilization.

Thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, here’s Paul sounding very much like a Greek philosopher telling the learned and wise Athenians that he has discovered the “unknown god” – the Lord of heaven and earth - that they have been searching for all along.

It’s thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit that we have the Scriptures, including the Gospel of John that we’ve been reading these past few weeks.

Think about it for a second. Most scholars agree that this gospel was written near the end of the First Century – 70 or so years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.

Over those many decades the Holy Spirit was at work keeping the presence of Jesus alive among the first disciples and then among the next generations who had never seen Jesus in the flesh.

Near the end of the First Century the writer or writers of this gospel knew from their own experience that Jesus kept his promise to send the Holy Spirit. The stories of Jesus were still alive. People were still giving away their lives to follow Jesus. And in a world filled with much despair and suffering the Good News was spreading beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

And, today in a world still filled with much despair and suffering if we keep our eyes and ears open we can feel the power and presence of the Holy Spirit all around us. We can know that we have not been left orphaned.

As you know there are a lot of poor and homeless people in Gainesville. In part because of its location, at the chapel we get a fair number of people who come by looking for help.

Frankly, the frequent appeals can get old fast, but there are a couple of regulars that I’ve gotten to know a little bit and try to help in very small ways – including a woman who comes by every couple of days asking for a few dollars. On Friday I realized that I hadn’t seen her all week.

I mentioned to someone at the chapel that I was worried about her and asked her to say a prayer for her.

No kidding – five minutes later she walks in the same as always. But the two of us at the chapel were so stunned at the timing that we greeted her with spontaneous joy and relief. She was shocked and taken aback – but for a moment we all felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work in a world filled with suffering and despair.

And even sometimes when you follow the news you can find the Holy Spirit at work and know that we have not been left orphaned.

I was deeply moved by the visit a couple of weeks ago of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.

Considering all the horrible history and still-unfinished business between Britain and Ireland, I’m sure many people – maybe even the Queen herself – never thought such a visit would ever be possible.

The security arrangements were extraordinary. When the Queen arrived, decked out in green, at first she looked a little worried about what kind of welcome she’d receive.

Along with the Irish president she laid a wreath and bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance, where Ireland honors those who gave their lives in the fight for independence from Britain.

In her well-received speech at the state dinner the Queen spoke about, “the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”

The visit was a huge success. By the end, the security was eased a bit, the Queen was receiving standing ovations, smiling broadly, and breaking from her schedule to greet friendly Irish onlookers eager to meet her.

Of course, there is still plenty of suffering and despair in Ireland, in Gainesville and around the world. Yet, when we keep our eyes and ears open we can feel the power and presence of the Holy Spirit all around us.

When we pay attention, like Paul and the first disciples we know that Jesus has kept his promise. We know that we have not been left orphaned.

Thanks be to God.