Sermon for Easter 6 – High Mass Sunday 21 May 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning, Easter 6 High Mass
When I was a boy I used to walk across Hyde Park on Sunday afternoons to listen to Donald Soper at Speakers Corner. Donald Soper was a famous Methodist preacher, and a large crowd would gather round the soapbox of the Methodist West London Mission. There were hecklers, but there was a sort of pact in those days between speaker and crowd, that a good question would get a good answer, and good humour got you everywhere. Those cheerful debates would not be possible now, because fundamentalist public discourse lacks both manners and humour, so the Gospel can’t be heard in good faith, with an open mind; and we need an open mind to receive truth. The point of a public sermon or debate is to make it possible for the Gospel to be heard and then lived. I like to think that St Paul got a civilised reception on his street corner of Athens, as we heard in the Acts of the Apostles today. Men of Athens, he says, People of All Saints Margaret Street, I see you are very religious. But in each of you, in the corner of your heart, you have put up an altar: To an Unknown God; the God you tried to know, but never met; the God who disappointed you so it’s better not to know him; the God we dare not invite home for fear of what He’d find, the God who is better left Unknown. There is your altar.
I think we often try to get through life like that, worshipping this Unknown God: willing disciples, religious and devout, but not at all sure about the master we follow. And the years go by, and the great spiritual advance, the moment of truth, which we had saved up for our mature years, is inexplicably delayed. Time tends to run out, for all of us.
The God proclaimed by Paul in Athens, and proclaimed here today, made the world and all that’s in it. God gives to everyone life and breath and everything. In Him we live and move and have our being. But there’s more. This God can be known, and needs to be known for his work to continue. We know God because we know Jesus; we know Jesus because he was a human being, so we can share his experience of God, we enter into his life. Jesus is raised from the dead, so that he can share our lives today, He brings God into our lives again, the Unknown God can be known after all. To try to explain this relationship, Paul quotes a poet who said: We are indeed God’s children. So Paul allows the Gospel to be heard, the good news that God is with us. It is, he says, our one desire, our life work, to seek God and to find him.
This begins to explain what Jesus himself says in today’s Gospel, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you.” Orphan here also means a disciple left without a master. I think that is a depressing thought, being a disciple with no one to follow, it calls our whole life into question. With that doubt about Christianity can come a sudden loneliness, the thought that maybe it’s all for nothing. But, I will not leave you desolate, he says, reading our minds, I will come to you. This great promise, which many have heard and have had fulfilled in their lives, is lived out by each of us in the great feasts of the Church, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. We are in Eastertide now; Ascension Day is on Thursday this week. Pentecost is in two weeks’ time. For St John, whose Gospel we heard today, the Resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit are seen as one event. On the evening of Easter Day, Jesus came and stood among his disciples, and breathed on them with the words, Peace be with you, and Receive the Holy Spirit. His breath carried the Spirit.
His breath carries the Spirit of Truth. That is how he will live in us, as Truth. Truth is not a list of things to believe in. Truth is what really is. Truth is reality, including all the illusions and falsehoods which make life so difficult for us. Truth embraces its enemies. A good piece of advice I heard about how to approach this way of life we’ve chosen, how to be Christian, is not to see it as trying to crack a problem, nor even having an experience. All you need is an open mind, and to be prepared to receive a gift; we need the humility to receive a gift. Easier said than done. But think of ordinary life; giving a present changes the relationship between two people. If we refuse a gift, the relationship stalls.
The whole of the Easter, Ascension, Pentecost mystery, which we are now in the middle of, represents, in a ceremonial liturgical format, God not leaving us desolate, not as orphans, but giving us the gift of himself, not just words of advice on how to get through life, but his company for ever, whatever happens. He gives us His life. Jesus leaves his disciples, at the Ascension, this week; that is a sign not of our desolation, but of our joy and surprise, that we have been freed from the prison of our own ideas and our anxieties about time running out. I will not leave you desolate, He says, I will come to you …because I live, you will live also. And it is in our lives, and how we live them, that the Gospel can be heard again.