Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 10:44-48+Psalm 98+1 John 5:1-6+John 15:9-17

I am not much of a gardener. I enjoy digging in the dirt from time to time and planting bulbs and annual flowers and such, but I am just so bad at it that it seems nothing short of a miracle when I plant something that actually survives. This spring, it has brightened my days to see the peony bounce back after a pretty severe pruning I gave it last year, and the leftover Easter azaleas I planted a couple of years ago are about to pop. And it causes me to marvel at just how that happens.

Although I may not be much of a gardener, I do love gardening stores and nurseries, and I daydream about what the huge variety of plants might look like in my flower beds, even though I lack the eye to visualize the end result very well.  Yet still I enjoy looking at all the pretty plants and flowers, reading the tags to see which ones might work well in the space I have. These tags often say things like “loves full sun,” or “loves shade,” or “loves neutral soil,” or “loves a good soaking.”

I’ve been thinking about that word, love, that appears nine times in our short gospel reading for this morning. There are four words for love in the bible, and the one used by John is  ἀγάπῃ, the kind of self-giving love that Jesus talks about most.

In modern English, we have a single word for love, and it is so overused as to be almost meaningless. I can say to my spouse, “I love you,”  and in the very next breath say, “wow, I love this cheese!” Now, obviously, I don’t love cheese in the same way or with the same feeling that I love Tim, but how are we to know the difference if the word is the same? Well, we just do. Usually. And sometimes, I love Tim with a romantic kind of love – eros – and at other times it’s more of like agape – seeking his good even if it means I have to give something up. Love is certainly not static, but it is sometimes hard to understand when we use it with such abandon talking about a pair of shoes or our favorite ballplayer or…cheese.

Last week, Jesus talked about the vine and branches and abiding in him, staying connected to our source and sustenance. This week, there is more abiding, but it’s abiding in love. It’s the kind of love that applies to those flowers and plants. The things they supposedly love are the things that help them thrive – water, sun, climate. Without these things, plants wither and die or simply fail to grow in healthy ways. Well, Jesus’s love for us is what we need to thrive – it’s our soil and water and climate. To say, “I love Jesus,” is to say that Jesus is the source of our life, our flourishing, and like flowers turning toward the sun, we, too are drawn into that presence.

While I know and believe this all to be true, God is still full of surprises. In the reading from Acts, Peter is in the midst of a sermon when all of a sudden, the Holy Spirit blows among the people – the Gentiles of all people. They weren’t baptized. They hadn’t converted. The Jews in the gathering who had been circumcised and were legit converts, or so they thought, couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The spirit blows where she will, unpredictably and powerfully, upending our best laid plans, wrecking our certainties, reversing our doubts, and bringing us into the household of faith. She just doesn’t always play by the rules.And yet we gather each week, online or in person, and expect that everything will be predictable and safe. I believe I have shared this from Annie Dillard before:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[1]

In a couple of weeks, we’ll celebrate the Feast of Pentecost when that same Holy Spirit ignited a fire that became the Church. The only thing we can do to prepare for the unexpected is to stay connected to Jesus and to each other. Drink deeply from the spring of living water, nourish yourself with spiritual food in the sacrament of the Eucharist, support one another so that, crash helmet or no, you are ready to go where the spirit leads.

One of my favorite bits from C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is about the lion, Aslan, who is the Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis wrote:

Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.[2]

I planted a lilac tree a couple of weeks ago, and every big wind or storm has me running outside to see how it’s holding up. It hasn’t had time to get fully rooted so that it can flourish. I’m cheering it on. It isn’t safe to be a young tree in the face of springtime storms around here.

It isn’t safe to go it alone as a follower of Christ, disconnected from the source of our strength. We can be ready when the Holy Spirit does her thing and picks us up like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz and plops us down in the middle of who-knows-where, in situations where a profession of faith, loving enemies, praying for persecutors, and protecting the most vulnerable among us are required of us. We are prepared for the unexpected when we are rooted in Christ.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16). We are chosen, whether we know it or not, to bear fruit that will last. The water and soil and sun that help us to thrive are found here: in the gathering of the people, in prayer and worship, in hearing God’s word, in celebration of the sacraments.

Come, Holy Spirit. We’re ready.

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1950) 75.

ASEPSermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas