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21st May 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
18 May 2017

Readings

Acts 17:22-31

Our Reading from Acts is Paul’s speech at the Areopagus.  

William Barclay highlights some of the main points of Paul’s sermon beginning with Paul stressing that, in contrast to images in precious metal and stone, God is not made but the maker.  People like to worship what they have made but the true God has guided history. Furthermore humanity has an instinctive longing for God and as Christians we believe the way to meet with God is Jesus Christ.  The proof of the pre-eminence of Christ is the resurrection.[1]

John 14: 15-21

Today’s reading is the part of Jesus’ farewell discourse that promises the disciples will not be left on their own when Jesus has gone because God will send ‘The Spirit of Truth’ or the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, . 

We are also informed that the Paraclete is not a separate presence to Jesus but the same presence. 

Furthermore this presence is not about Jesus’ presence being experienced by a few selected mystics or ascetical elite but a promise that Christ will be encountered by all Christians.[2]

Sermon

One of the strangest experiences of my time as a teenager was finding myself the inaugural club captain of the Levin Baptist Harriers. 

It was strange because I was one of the few teenagers in my circle of friends who didn’t attend church or belong to a church youth group.   In a small town with one high school I also saw the small group of Baptist young people as reasonably weird. 

Many years later I did a University of Otago paper on youth ministry for study leave and was able to write an essay on the process by which the Levin Baptist Church tried to save some of us from the jaws of hell.  The process they used ticked all the boxes that my academic exercise highlighted. 

Firstly I was an orphan at that time and therefore vulnerable to friendship evangelism.  My primary sport was middle distance running which, at that time, was only catered for in the summer.  Therefore when a friend and I saw an advertisement for people wishing to start a harrier club we risked a trip to the Baptist Church and went to the meeting. 

As a determined atheist they said enough at the meeting to put me off any further involvement but then the organiser phoned me and asked if I would be club captain.  Subsequently I was regularly invited to dinner and was not only introduced to a girl friend but even lent a vehicle to take her to the pictures. 

Nevertheless my cynical analytical mind saw the club as a group of enthusiastic evangelists whose wellbeing was certainly enhanced by regular exercise and a group of keen runners determined not to become Baptists.   

If one event bests described my discomfort it would be a trip to the Baptist Harriers National Championships.  Once the race started the rain began to pelt down in earnest, my glasses seriously needed windscreen wipers.  I just ran with absolutely no idea where I was on the course or where I was in the race. 

When I attended a school reunion a few years ago I discovered that the club is now simply the Levin Harrier Club without any hidden agenda and I am remembered as the inaugural club captain, which is all good. 

However when I wrote up the process for the youth ministry paper the Anglican Priest who marked the paper noted in the margin that some sow and others reap.  Undoubtedly he was right; the Levin Baptist Church was part of the long process that moved me from secular humanism to red reverend.  Furthermore the Baptist ministers and ex-ministers I am now friends with have moved a lot further towards my end of the theological spectrum than those I met as a teenager.  

The other memory I have of running was winter training with the Levin Amateur Athletic and Cycling Club.  Rather than the all consuming downpour it was an overcast day with occasional misty rain.  Without being conscious of Paul’s advice that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize (1st Corinthians 9:24) I found myself ahead of everyone else.  We were running on a back country road that flowed over rural landscape formed by past sand-drifts.  The soft rain was refreshing, everyone else was hidden by the undulating road and my pace was of my choosing.  My body felt totally alive.  It was a spiritual experience.

Identifying our spiritual experiences and putting them into an intellectual framework is what our Gospel reading is all about.  John’s Gospel was written about a hundred years after Jesus’ death and the writer was endeavouring to pass on the spiritual experience of those first disciples.  Jesus was executed but those first disciples experienced his presence after his death. But those they shared the experience with did not experience Jesus’ presence in the same way. 

Later followers of Jesus were not in the same race or even the same training run as those first disciples.  How could they live as Jesus did without Jesus’ help?  How were their feelings of exhilaration connected to the excitement those first disciples felt?  More importantly when they are alone endlessly running in the pouring rain with no idea where they are how will the Risen Christ bring direction to their lives? 

In this section of what is regarded as Jesus’ farewell discourse Jesus suggests that it is the Spirit that will guide them. 

The format for a classical ancient biography involves a spectacular birth and a heroic death.  In the heroic death the hero’s family gathers at the bedside where the hero makes a farewell speech, technically described as a farewell discourse.  In this speech the hero gives a summary of their life, particularly their aims and objectives.  Having outlined the struggles they have overcome they name their successor or successors and commit them to carry on the hero’s cause and give a prediction of a better future.  The future will be better and the followers will be able to achieve even greater things because of the race the hero has run.  The followers begin the race where the hero passes the baton to them.  The hero has run from the start and made a considerable impact on the race so those who follow already have a good start.

The farewell discourse ends with this passing the baton to the next generation at which points the hero’s wounds or ailments overcome them and they die.

Because of the way Jesus was executed he was unable to make a death bed speech so John has used the last meal with the disciples as an alternative setting for the final discourse.

In the section we read Jesus promises his disciples another Advocate to be with them forever and this advocate will be the Spirit of Truth.  Further on from where we read John has Jesus define this Advocate in Trinitarian language. 

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  (John 14:26)   

This passage invites us to remember that the Divine Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and at this point Jesus is promising to leave the Spirit with his disciples when he has gone. In the land of John’s Gospel this happens in the locked room after Jesus’ death.  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. (John 20:22)   

In John’s Gospel Jesus was executed after he made his farewell discourse and the Risen Christ passes the baton by breathing the divine breath onto or perhaps into the disciples.  We first meet the life giving properties of the divine breath right at the beginning of the Bible where ‘the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1: 2)

An alternative translation to wind in this passage is ‘Spirit.’  That is followed up in the second creation story were we are told.  Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground ‘and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

As we work our way through the Bible, as I am sure John the gospel writer did, we see the baton of new life passed on in Ezekiel’s dream of the dry bones where Ezekiel said ‘I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (Ezekiel 37:10) 

In Luke’s Gospel the Risen Christ ascends into the heavens, presumably to send the divine spirit down on the disciples at the feast of Pentecost, but that story begins in next week’s exciting episode.

All the Gospels show the disciple’s as failing to fully understand Jesus.  The summation of that failing is Peter’s three times denial of Jesus the night he was arrested.  It is not until the divine Spirit, the creative wind from God, is breathed into them or descends upon them that they find new life and become the Apostles who are the foundations of the church.  It is when the creative Spirit baton is passed on to them that their race to turn the teaching of Jesus into one of the world’s great religions begins. 

In our reading from Acts we see that Paul has grasped that baton and is very definitely running the race.  This reading in fact is one of the examples of the baton being passed from Jewish culture into the gentile world.  Furthermore Paul, a Jew but also a Roman citizen was handed the baton on the road to Damascus rather than in the locked room or the feast of Pentecost.  Obviously some of the laps in the beginning of the churches journey were relatively short compared to the coast to coast endurance event that was to follow.

What links the two readings together is they way Paul grounds his sermon at the Areopagus in Greek culture by referring to the shrine to the unknown God.  Apart from building the idea that Christ and Christ’s mission is passed on to each of us one of John’s alternative agendas in Jesus’ farewell discourse was to give a name to our spiritual awareness, or as William Barclay refers to ‘our yearning for God’. 

The Jesus of John’s Gospel meticulously spells out the relationship between three possibilities of naming the unknown God.

One possibility is the Father or Creator, the mystery that grips us when we gaze at distant galaxies and ponder on the creator of such wonder.  Another is the Jesus of the Gospels, his teaching and the stories we have that also teach of a common humanity where even enemies are neighbours to love.  Then there is Spirit, that warm feeling that glows within us even as the misty rain chills our body and aching muscles reassures us of our reality. 

The Trinitarian theology of the churches creeds that are grounded in John’s Gospel simply give us a formula to link those three images of the unknown and unknowable God and thereby bring the God of mystery within human comprehension. 

However the mystery of the universe grips us, or the stories and teaching of Jesus inspire us, these readings call us to feel the Spirit’s presence as we can grasp the baton firmly, and run a personal best for our leg of life’s journey.  We are all Christ’s followers in the Spirit guided relay towards the ultimate prize of a truly human humanity.



[1] William Barclay The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, (Edinburgh: St Andrews Press:1976 ),p.,132.

[2] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John XII-XXI (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1966), pp.645-646. 

 

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