Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 17:22-31+Psalm 66:7-18+1 Peter 3:13-22+John 14:15-21

The 1st epistle of Peter is principally a letter of encouragement for Christians facing persecution. It was not written to one community in particular like many of the letters of Paul, so it is known as a catholic epistle, written to all Christians. In fact, it is only in this letter and a couple of times in Acts that followers of Jesus are even called Christians. The theme is suffering and in what kind of theological framework believers are to endure that suffering, even when they have done nothing to deserve it.

Today’s reading from this letter includes this rather noteworthy statement:

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you…(3:15)

I can just imagine the oppressors, the persecutors, and the doubters who cannot understand the confidence believers have that God is with them even in, or especially in, their times of trouble. Peter is telling them to be ready to answer at any time.

We are not generally a persecuted community. Yes, there are certainly Christians in this world who, even today, are being martyred for their faith. Around here, the opinion of those on the secular side of things toward those who go to church or confess faith in Jesus is more often than not one of apathy, sometimes mixed with a bit of condescension or even disdain. What’s the point of Church? What’s God done for you lately? All the Church does is put down gays and judge people self-righteously. Among people under 30, the Church hardly even registers as a thing.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.

What is our hope? For what reason do we gather together each week, even virtually? What is it we are looking for?

As you know, we are at the point in John’s gospel when Jesus is saying goodbye. He’s saying some last words to his disciples, trying to impress upon them the things he has been saying and doing and teaching while he was with them:

Love one another.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…

Today, Jesus is making them a promise. They will not be alone. The King James Version says, “I will not leave you comfortless” (14:18). We are promised the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.  And this is not an advocate who goes to God to plead on our behalf, to talk God out of dealing with us according to our sinfulness.

No, this Advocate pleads with us on God’s behalf. She is the gentle nudging that tells us that, even in the midst of this pandemic, God is here. She is the mighty power of God that can fill us with such love for our neighbor that we sacrifice deeply to ensure their well-being. The Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is how Jesus abides in us and we abide in God.

It seems an odd place to be wrestling with the Holy Spirit when we anticipate the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost in a couple of weeks. So it is significant and important that Jesus is talking about the Spirit here, at the final gathering with the disciples. It is the Spirit who will show them the way once Jesus is not with them. It is the Spirit who will help them keep the commandment to love one another as Jesus loved them. It is the Spirit who sent them forth from Jerusalem to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. It was the Sprit who inspired the Apostle Paul to stand in the Aeropagus in Athens, speaking to the people of Athens about the gods they cling to, not dismissing or critiquing them but simply pointing out that they missed one, the one true God.

For those eleven remaining disciples who heard these words, life was not going to be easy. All but one, the author of this gospel, would die a martyr, killed for proclaiming his faith. It was, even then, the Spirit’s power that strengthened them for what lay ahead.

It is the same Spirit which binds us together even when we are apart, drawing us together in community even when we are lovingly distanced. As the beautiful Percy Dearmer hymn goes

Draw us in the Spirit’s tether,

for when humbly in thy name,

two or three are met together

Thou are in the midst of them.

Alleluia, alleluia.

Touch we now thy garment’s hem.[1]

So, where is our hope? How do we make our defense, giving an account of such hope? Jesus said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (14:18). We, also, will live with Christ and in Christ. There is nothing in this world that can destroy the life we have been given in God. Yes, we all know that death comes. In just two months, almost 100,000 people in this country have died from COVID-19. The promise isn’t that we won’t die a physical death. The promise is that physical death is not the end. We need not live in fear that paralyzes us from living, right here and right now, the abundant life we have been given.

Our hope is this, that God loved us so much that God became one of us, and even though we crucified him, God’s love would not die. God’s continual mercy towards us is in this promise that we will never be left orphans. We belong to God. Full stop.

We may not be the disciples, gathered in the Upper Room with our friend who tells us he is going to die, but we are gathered in our homes, apart from the world for the most part, hearing stories of sickness and death and anxiety all around us. Our hope is in that same promise Jesus gave to his disciples. I will not leave you orphaned. The Advocate will come. Because I live, you also will live. And that is the only hope we need proclaim.

[1] Harold W. Friedell, Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether, SATB, © 1957 The H.W. Gray Co, Inc., All Rights Administered by Warner Bros. Publications U.S., Inc.

ASEPSermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas