I Peter 3:8-18
The Gospel passage we’ve read this morning is part of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In John’s account, Jesus speaks these words to his disciples just after the Last Supper, before he is betrayed and arrested, brought to trial, and put to death. It’s a lengthy discourse, spread over four chapters, offering further teaching, reassurance, and prayers. The farewell discourse is packed full of theology, and it can be challenging for readers to understand all that Jesus is saying. Some readers may feel like they’re pushing through a lengthy theological lecture, interesting at points, but definitely heavy-going. There’s a lot here.
Tucked into these chapters of theological discourse is a short phrase that catches my attention. Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
What prompted him to say that?
If we view this Final Discourse as a lengthy theological lecture, we’ll miss the significance of this phrase and of this entire section. We shouldn’t imagine Jesus standing like a teacher at a lectern, explaining to his sleepy disciples complex theological concepts that he thought they ought to know. Rather, we should picture him surrounded by his closest friends, speaking to them with great compassion, care, and concern. This is a very intimate conversation, not a theological discourse.
My brother Michael used to live in Manchester in northern England. I went to stay with him one August during a heat wave. His apartment was hot and claustrophobic, and the city felt suffocating. So, one day we just took off. We got on the little pay train which wound its way slowly, out of the city and up, up into the glorious Peak District. The train stopped at a tiny station surrounded by magnificent hills. We got out and we climbed and climbed for several hours till we reached the top of the highest hill, Kinder Scout. We were exhausted, but wonderfully exhilarated. We drank in the cool air in great thirsty gulps, and as we breathed we felt quite intoxicated, and I remember we started leaping around, and shouting and laughing with sheer joy. Way below us a couple of hikers looked up, and I think they probably thought we were drunk!
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of divine power came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it; for it was accompanied by an experience which pounded their senses. Divine power was invading them. An intense, ‘catastrophic’ experience. A rushing wind, tongues of fire, a power beyond human lives invading human lives. Perhaps the disciples started leaping around, as extraordinary words came out of their mouths. Certainly, others thought they must be drunk!
“Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit…” I can still remember stumbling across this Gospel passage when I was a young boy. Yikes. It nearly frightened me to death. For several years of my young life I lived in a kind terror that I would accidentally blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and go straight to hell. It’s not that I would do this intentionally. But that was the problem. I was afraid I might goof up and blaspheme by mistake – kind of like if I were to accidentally step on a crack and break my mother’s back, or walk under a ladder, or say or do something which everyone knew was jinxed.
As it turns out, I was not alone. Since the 3rd century, church luminaries have written at great length what Jesus meant about this unforgivable “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” From the earliest times up to the present, there is no agreement in the church – from east to west – on what Jesus meant.
John Wesley, the 18th century Church of England pastor and theologian, thought that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” would be the conclusion that Jesus Christ exercised his miracles by the power of the devil.[i] Wesley asks, rhetorically, “Have you ever been guilty of this, calling good evil and evil good?” He answers his own question: “No, of course you have not.” So, he said, there’s nothing to be afraid of here.
Tom Wright, the contemporary English New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, says that if we were to call Jesus’ undeniably good work “evil,” we end up in a moral cul-de-sac without any turning room. “Once you declare that the spring of fresh water is in fact polluted, you will never drink from it.” You are stuck, you will dry up. Bishop Wright adds that “the one sure thing about [Jesus’] saying is that if someone is anxious about having committed the [unpardonable] sin against the Holy Spirit, their anxiety is a clear sign that they have not.”[ii]
[i] John Wesley (1703-1791), Church of England clergyman, theologian, evangelist, and brother to Charles Wesley.
[ii] Luke for Everyone, by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2001), pp. 149-150. Nicholas Thomas “Tom” Wright is an English New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop (Durham, 2003-2010), and a prolific author.
I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Today’s lessons present us with two very different accounts of how Jesus’ disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first account, recorded in the Gospel of John, takes place in the evening of the first day of the week; that is, on Easter day. The disciples are gathered in a house with its doors locked shut. The gospel writer tells us they are afraid and explains why: they are imagining that the same people who put Jesus to death might now come after them. Without warning, and apparently without knocking or using the door, Jesus appears in the room, standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He then shows them his hands and his side, proving that he is the same Jesus they knew, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion. The disciples receive him gladly, and he responds by ordering them into the world, just as the Father had sent him into the world. Then, he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Finally, along with the commission to go into the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit, he grants them power to forgive people’s sins, or to refuse them forgiveness.
It’s a gentle episode – emotional perhaps, but not terrifying; surprising, but not overwhelming. We can imagine Jesus greeting them in a calm, quiet voice to soothe their shock at his sudden appearance: “Peace be with you.” The Spirit comes to them in such a gentle way: Jesus simply breathes on them. The Hebrew word for “spirit” means “breath” or “wind.” Here it comes as a gentle breath.
2 Timothy 2:8-15 & Luke 17:11-19
The patterns of life help us predict and control the chaos of creaturely existence. But there arises inevitably the unforeseen variable. The variable may visit in the form of a disruption in a system; as a tipping point or breaking point. Or a sudden reversal or unexpected contradiction can interrupt the flow of a familiar pattern. We witness this in all fields of human experience, from economics to meteorology to evolutionary biology to poetry. The loss of control that accompanies such variables can be truly terrifying. But there is another law of creaturely existence to bear in mind: without the unforeseen variable, genuine change cannot emerge. Without the couplet at the end of the sonnet that unlocks the poem’s meaning, the reader will remain unmoved by the galloping rhyme and meter that brought her there. For us, the Holy Spirit is this change agent. The Holy Spirit is made known within us as what theologian Karl Rahner called “an interior pressure by which we become more.” Such moments are usually the cumulative effect in our praying consciousness of many seeds of grace planted and forgotten, tended in the nourishing darkness of God. Moments of becoming unfold in real time as the fruition of a pattern, but what they point to is something altogether unpredictable. We can witness them if we have eyes to see. They break upon our hearing if we are attentive to how we listen.
The authors of scripture were well-attuned to the basic momentum of the Holy Spirit, that “interior pressure to become more” pulsing within the collective life of Christ’s new Body. They interiorized and recorded the testimony of those who had witnessed, at firsthand, the great unforeseen variable of The Resurrection. The cross and empty tomb together represented the sudden reversal by which God’s wisdom and power shone forth in the least likely, promising, or predictable ways. I want to explore the ways our Epistle and our gospel text show us this relationship between the pattern and the unforeseen variable in the shape of Christian life.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since the origins of Western drama in ancient Greece, playwrights have utilized the narrative convention of the unseen character. Through layers of references and descriptions established by the onstage characters, the offstage, unseen character begins to acquire a distinct identity and motivation within the mind of the audience. The absence of such a character works to advance the action of the plot as much as any of the characters present. The Wizard of Oz is the best example of this in popular film. If the unseen character does eventually appear onstage – as does the “great and powerful Oz” – it is after much anticipation, and the moment rarely unfolds as the audience has come to expect it will. Sometimes the unseen character dies, or departs, or simply never shows up. Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot is a classic, twentieth century example. And sometimes, as in the plays of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, the audience may be tempted to question whether the unseen character is a projection, a symbol of an onstage character’s unresolved longings: an unseen male child, a lost mother, or a beautiful, young stranger. These characters are like messengers from another world, or magnets whose energy holds together a visible outer life and an invisible, unconscious world.
Throughout the long story of salvation history, there are distinct moments when the Holy Spirit acts in the manner of an unseen character. The Spirit dances around the borders or surges as an undercurrent beneath the lives of women and men, palpably felt though never quite glimpsed directly: at times, a blazing fire on mountaintop or altar, whose power is just barely contained; at other times, an almost fluid substance invading a prophet from without; at still other times, a guiding light illumining the dreams or visions of a hero. Even in the synoptic gospels, the moments we might consider cameo appearances of the Spirit serve in the narrative much more like elements of Jesus’s inner experience, enriching and deepening our understanding of Jesus as one whose every intention and motivation are guided by the Spirit. It is in our reading from Acts of the Apostles that we seem to encounter the iconic, much-awaited stage direction of the Divine Playwright: “ENTER, from above, the HOLY SPIRIT.” But as in many dramas, this momentous, much-anticipated appearance onstage contains an unforeseen twist: as the first followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high” the Holy Spirit speaks not a climactic soliloquy, but in the speech of one-hundred-twenty actors speaking all at once, in all the languages of the known world. Offstage and onstage collapse as framing devices that no longer apply, if they ever had. The author of Acts sends a clear message: we are there among them. The Holy Spirit has come upon us, and is with us, and is in us. The whole world has changed. A new era has begun. By undergoing baptismal rebirth, the Spirit can be given by one believer to another, like the passing of a candle flame.
This gradual, transformative, and utterly significant shift in our relationship to the Holy Spirit, effected by the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, is delineated with the greatest power and subtlety in John’s gospel. Scholar Andrew Byers has dedicated significant attention to the Holy Spirit as a distinct character in John. For Byers, the Spirit is a significant “offstage” presence who emerges quite slowly and mysteriously as an “onstage character.”[i] The role of the Spirit in relation to the intimacy shared by the Father and the Son comes into focus as language applied to Jesus in John is re-applied to the Spirit. Jesus describes the Spirit as “another Advocate,” the Spirit of Truth, who is with and in the disciples, and is unacceptable to the world. The true work of the Spirit ultimately extends beyond the gospel narrative. The Holy Spirit cannot emerge in his own right as an agent and source of the disciple’s ongoing transformation in Christ until the primary onstage character of the gospel – Jesus – has made his exit in the flesh.
At our baptismal re-birth, the Holy Spirit catalyzes a process that the ancient church would come to call theosis. A single white cotton thread, when dipped in a cup of red dye will gradually absorb the dye and become red by osmosis. Likewise, we are called to enter into full participation in God’s inner life, whereby we undergo theosis: absorption by grace of what God is by God’s divine nature.[ii] We do not become God, but we become more and more like God – and more and more the full expression of who and what God has made us to be, in a dynamic, life-long process of synergy between our faithful praxis and God’s free and energizing self-gift. As we allow God to be God-in-us, the likeness of Christ is restored to us and suffuses our whole personhood. While this is not a linear progression, there are some basic movements described in Scripture and the writings of the saints.
Before we ever consciously embark on this adventure, the indwelling Holy Spirit already prays within us, preparing the ground for theosis. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[iii]
The transforming Holy Spirit bestows deepening inner freedom as we engage the life of theosis in the Church. Again, Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[iv]
The empowering Holy Spirit frees us and sends us to receive each moment and circumstance of life as it is. The whole of life becomes an opportunity for ever-deepening theosis. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus counsels his disciples:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.[v]
As a high school actor I had the joy and privilege of becoming more fully myself by inhabiting the skin of a character onstage. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which an audience catches a glimpse of a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself.
The true miracle of our own becoming, our own theosis, becomes apparent by a similar process. The Holy Spirit, once an unseen character dancing around the borders or surging as an undercurrent in the life of God’s people, has been revealed in power and glory at Pentecost. Now it is the Holy Spirit who anticipates, with hints and guesses, the unseen character waiting in the wings of our own inner stage. That Spirit encourages us in sudden epiphanies and cherished dreams, in quiet moments of profound trust, in providential encounters with loved ones and wise guides, and in times of waiting, when the strength of our courage or faith may be put to the test. For the one who is ready, the Holy Spirit stands ready as an intimate, personal companion, a co-creator, and a collaborator in our sanctification. Of the person whose life is gathered in that state of readiness, Richard Meux Benson, our founder, writes, “The powers of the Holy Ghost are ready to co-operate with him, if he is ready to use them. The Holy Ghost waits, and is kept waiting by our unreadiness. If we are too fast or too slow we miss his presence; whereas if we are just doing the right thing at the proper time, we find him ready to meet us and work with us.”[vi]
Come, Holy Spirit, again and again, in the Pentecost of every moment, revealing the likeness of Christ within, and sending us to see Christ in all. Amen.
[i]See Andrew Byers’ extended treatment of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 11 of his Ecclesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John, Cambridge University Press (2017).
[ii]For a unique and masterful exploration of theosis from an Anglican perspective, see A. M. Allchin’s Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition.
[iv]2 Corinthians 3:17-18.
[vi]Richard Meux Benson. Instructions on the Religious Life, Series III.
We continue our Epiphany preaching series, “Gifts for the Journey,” on following God’s call, focusing tonight on the gift of guides. Currently on display in the middle of our chapel is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Her hand gestures toward the child, in the classic iconographic depiction of the Hodegetria, Greek for, “She who shows the Way.” The tradition of iconography identifies St. Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer, who painted the image of Mary while she was still alive; the icon he is said to have painted is the original Hodegetria, establishing this particular image of Mother and Child as both widely popular and a deeply reflective picture of who Jesus is, and, consequently, who Mary is. Jesus is the Way, and Mary is she who shows the way, her simple and silent hand gesture representing the life of the Virgin burning, brightly and endlessly, with the love and knowledge of God. In today’s Gospel reading, this is further encapsulated. At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the servants to do whatever her Son tells them. Just a few verses beforehand, Jesus has told the disciple Nathanael that greater signs of Jesus’s work and identity await. John, in his gospel, then describes the scene at Cana, and so gives us the first of these promised greater signs. In this scene, it is Mary who initiates the interaction, and it is Mary who points the way: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is ever-vigilant, always pointing to her Son, always guiding us to the Way.
This is no surprise or coincidence. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High. It is the Spirit, dwelling in and among us right now, who is constantly pointing to Christ. It is the Spirit who, in quiet whispers and gestures, points to the Son as the Way to the Father. It is the Spirit who binds us, uniting us to one another in Christ as his body, uniting us to the Bridegroom as his Bride. It is the Spirit who points the Way, and teaches us how to point the Way, if only we let him, as Mary did so long ago.
And though Mary is the fullest expression of this divine gift of guidance, it was taking place long before. Soon, we will sing the Nicene Creed. About the Holy Spirit, the Creed says that “He has spoken through the Prophets.” The long line of prophetic witness is another manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance, inspiring others to be co-laborers with him in his guidance. Tonight’s first reading is from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He is perhaps a mirror image of Jonah, whose single call to repentance of the people of Nineveh brought about repentance. Jeremiah has no such luck. He spends a lifetime prophesying to Israel of their sins and the impending destruction and exile coming from Babylon, to no avail. Jerusalem is sacked, the Temple is destroyed, and the Israelites are scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah spends the rest of his life in exile, in Egypt; he is left with bitterness, and tears, and lamentation. But this destruction, this uprooting, is no final death. It is the clearing of the brush, the making of the paths in the wilderness. Despite their settling in the promised land of Canaan, the wilderness has not departed from the People of God. Thickets still obscure the sight of the watchers, thorn bushes still ensnare the ankles of the travelers, wandering and searching for the Way. After foretelling humanity’s long exile in the wilderness of Babylon, Jeremiah offers us a prophesy of sweet hope: that God has a plan for us, that he has not forsaken us, that he has not taken the Way from us, that he will restore his people to the place from which we were exiled. We will be shown out of the wilderness and into the Garden. The Spirit who blew over the waters at creation is still a wind, whipping over the wilderness, ever working his act of re-creation on a world and a race beset by the spiritual wilderness of the formless void. This whirlwind is the breath, the voice of the prophets in the desert, proclaiming to all who would listen: there is a way. Here is the Way.
But this prophetic speech is no ancient tongue. The Spirit has always guided the world, but at Pentecost, his descent onto the people Church is as fundamental as Christ’s Incarnation. At the Incarnation, God the Son became imbued with humanity. At Pentecost, humanity became imbued with God the Spirit. So the Spirit has not stopped moving over the waters, but now moves with more grace and more power, more gentle and more ferocious than ever before. Dwelling in us, imbuing us with gifts of divinity, the Spirit’s guidance persistently abides within us. He shows us the Way, and shows us how to imitate him in showing others the Way.
And this is, perhaps, the most likely place you may have encountered the Spirit. Often, it is very difficult to discern the Spirit’s guidance, thumping in our own chests. Instead, we look outward, toward our human fellow-travelers. In the voices of their mouths, we, often quite unexpectedly, hear the whistling of the Spirit’s divine gusts. If we are open and prepared, a single word from a friend or a lover or a stranger may strike a silent chord deep within us, might stand out as a bright and brilliant sign, pointing out the otherwise-obscured path. A conversation might take an unforeseen turn, and words that strike us as ridiculous at first glance are actually the work of the Spirit, doing his eternal labor of Creation, planting seeds in the chaotic uncertainty of our own lives, so that they might grow into trees lining the Way. Despite our best efforts to dismiss, ignore, or push aside this guidance, God assures us of the truth of his path.
And we are called to be guides, to be the co-laborers of the Holy Spirit. This is a path that requires serious discernment. But to be prophets, to emulate the Virgin Mary as She who shows the Way, is to live up to our full human vocation. We are to be guides just as we are guided. We are to travel the path of God while clearing the brush so that others may join us. The Way is narrow, and long, and often obscured, but we are assured of the Spirit’s guidance, and we are assured of our vocation to work with him in that guidance. Let us show forth our Way.
This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series.
At the end of today’s Gospel reading we find Jesus pointing to the role of the Holy Spirit. In an age of persecution these words were a significant reminder of how important reliance on the Holy Spirit is. In an age like our own when many are mired down in ambiguity these same words can be a reminder to those who are uncertain about matters of faith that they can rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them to truth and certainty.
Last week I had been thinking ahead about today’s sermon. One night I dreamed that I was working on this sermon. In that dream I was told that I would find the message that I should preach at the end of the Gospel reading, and that it would be about light, or enlightenment. The next day I read through the Gospel for today and found that the last verse of today’s Gospel could be seen as an example of the enlightening of the 3 Disciples with Jesus, Peter, James, and John.
When I read over this lesson I could feel that it was a farewell address. Paul was giving advice and encouragement for the time when he could no longer be with the people of Ephesus. It was a prayer for spiritual strength; for courage and perseverance. (Vv. 16-17)
At the beginning of this 3rd chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus he referred to himself as a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
After a series of trials before several tribunals Paul had appealed to the Emperor. He was on his way to Rome by way of churches he had founded. (Cf. Acts 25:10-12) He did not want the concern that these people of Ephesus had for him to hinder the growth of their faith in God. Having said this, look at the main thrust of today’s Epistle reading.