The following is a sermon that I preached in April of last year at Greenville First UMC, Greenville, AL. Friday's unity talks and songs made me think about it.
Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
27 April 2008
“Creator Spirit, by whose aid
the world’s foundations first were laid
come visit every humble mind;
come, pour thy joys on humankind;
from sin and sorrow set us free,
and make thy temples worship thee.
O Source of uncreated light,
the Father promise Paraclete,
Thrice-holy Fount, thrice-holy Fire,
our hearts with heavenly love inspire;
Come, and thy sacred unction bring
to sanctify us while we sing.
Plenteous of grace, come from on high,
rich in thy sevenfold energy;
Make us eternal truth receive,
and practice all that we believe;
Give us thyself that we may see
the Father and Son by thee.”
These are the words that John Dryden used to translate Veni Creator Spiritus in the seventeenth century, and I want to give you a little introduction before I address the text. First, I did much working on this whilst in the air from Fort Worth– we hadn’t quite reached cruising altitude when I pulled out my MacBook and started working. And I was very tired. Secondly, I don’t mean to steal Dric’s thunder for a few weeks from now, but our text today is about the one of whom the Church will celebrate in two weeks: The Holy Spirit. I believe that the gurus of the lectionary had precisely that in mind in putting this text late in the Easter season. Christ is preparing the disciples for their Helper, and the Church is preparing us to receive our Helper from God.
I think that it is very important to put this text in a few contexts before I elaborate on it and its application to our lives today. First, it is important to note that this is part of Christ’s farewell address in John. John’s Gospel spends a lot of time at the Table with Christ preparing his disciples for his departures. This discourse from the Savior is intended for hearing by the gathered community of believers. Second, I mention again where this text falls in our Church year. This Thursday we celebrate Ascension Day, and ten days following that the Church remembers God’s good gift of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel text, when merely read at face value can seem quite confusing, at least to me, particularly toward the end. But rather than starting there, we’ll start at the very beginning: a very good place to start. Christ tells his disciples that the way to show Christ’s love is to do what he’s told them to do. They – and we – show our love of Christ by being obedient to what the Redeemer has instructed us to do. Christ is leaving, and he knows that we cannot keep the commandments he’s given us on our own. However, he will ask God the Creator to send someone to be with Christ followers so that we might continue to do Christ’s work in the world.
When Jesus mentions “the world” in this passage, he is not intended to set up an “us versus them” mentality. He is, however, making a clear differentiation between the community of the Baptized and those not yet initiated. Christ promises us here that those who become a part of the community will have the Advocate both with us and in us. Christ promises to care for us like a mother and not leave us alone to fend for ourselves like orphans. He then prepares the disciples for his departure from this plane of existence but tells them that while he won’t be seen he will be alive, and because of his life we shall live.
And then, beloved, we get to one of the most Johanine – having to do with the Gospel of John – statements in this passage. John’s Gospel, as some of you may be aware, is a quite different text from the synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s writings are much more philosophical and require us to really analyze and think about what John has written. In verses 20-21 Jesus says this, “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.”
Much of the Church’s Trinitarian theology comes from John’s writing about God. In these two verses, Jesus talks about our knowing that he is in his Father, our being in Christ, who is still in the Father, and he being in us while we are in him and therefore in God the Father. Furthermore, he tells his followers then and now that the followers of the commandments are those who love him. Followers of Christ’s commandments will be loved by God the Father, and God the Son will love them and reveal himself to them.
Wrapped you mind around that? It’s okay if you haven’t. Again, John is a book of philosophy and deep thought. What he writes about here is parachoresis – the way the three persons of the Trinity intersect one another, constantly engage one another, and still remain as One. The Godhead is involved in an unending huge cosmic dance that we simply cannot understand because we are the created rather than the Creator. Constantly swirling, intertwining being one but constantly making clear that the three parts are distinct. And the dance goes on.
What we have to aid us in understanding, though, is that gift Christ’s promised us: the Holy Spirit. It is a gift that we receive in the waters of baptism, where we are filled with the Holy Spirit and sealed and Christ’s own forever. In the terrifying waters of the font we are baptized into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. For a little while we no longer see the newly baptized, and we were not seen by those around us. When we came up, we had been invited to join in that cosmic dance. And the dance goes on.
When I spoke here last year, I told you that I am being trained to ask a question about every Gospel text. It is a question that seems quite simple on its face but can really be quite complex: What’s the good news? The good news about this text, my friends, is that we are not orphans. “In the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s Holy Church, incorporated into the Living Body of Christ, and given a new birth by water and the spirit. This is God’s gift offered to us without price.” We have been sent the Advocate Christ promised us. That’s good news. And the dance goes on.
Earlier I mentioned that I was flying back from Forth Worth while working on my sermon today. I returned last night from a less than twenty-four hour period at the 2008 General Conference. But, though there a short time, I saw in every face there that the Advocate Christ promised us was present. It was on our faces on Friday night as a group of my colleagues and I participated in a twenty-four hour drum vigil and sang about “dancing in the light of God.” It was on the faces of those who disagreed with us and engaged in conversation with us or merely prayed for us. And the dance goes on.
It was there before worship yesterday morning in the movements of the liturgical dancers, and as people from all over the world in the garb of their choice gathered on the floor of the Conference, hooking up to headphones for interpretation as necessary. It was in the movements of the lay reader, and the words of Bishop Hutchinson’s sermon, and in Bishop Lee’s usage of a pine bough to sprinkle those on stage who had just reaffirmed their baptismal covenants. It was with us as the recent confirmands from that annual conference esperged the entire gathered community with water. And the dance goes on.
Our gift from God the Holy Spirit was there when I was greeting people yesterday morning on the streets with “Good morning. Peace!” and an African delegate said to me, “My brother, why did you not greet me with the peace? Because I don’t have a nametag? Because I am facing the other direction? The peace of Christ be with you!” The Holy Spirit was present and active at midday Eucharist when about fifty people gathered around the Lord’s table which is made of a tree that was uprooted in Katrina and has been turned to be used for God and the Bishop of Cote d’Ivoir presided in French. It was in the eyes of the people from the Oklahoma-Indian Missionary Conference when, though they hadn’t gathered on the floor at the Table, they were brought the means of grace found in the Eucharist. And the dance goes on.
During my time in Forth Worth, from the drum circle to the dancing to the engaging in conversation to the serving of the Body and Blood of Christ I felt, learned, and know one thing, and I want to share it with you, people of God, people called United Methodists: the Spirit of God that is imparted on us at our Baptisms is alive and at work in Forth Worth. It is taking many different forms, and while it has been sent to help is, we’re still mortal and have to do our best to understand it, and that is happening in Fort Worth, on every side of every issue. The delegates will continue to be reminded by worship services and the bishops that they share One Lord, One Faith, and One Baptism. And the dance goes on.
In the sacrament of Baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s Holy Church. In the sacrament of Baptism we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament of Baptism we are invited to participate in a mystical, incomprehensible, cosmic dance between three parts of the Trinity. And in remembering that, the dance goes on.
In the name of the Holy and Triune God, whom mortal lips, while joining in the dance, address as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.