Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter May 10, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
There’s no conflict like family conflict. While conflicts between strangers can often be forgotten relatively easily, it takes a great deal to extinguish even minor family conflicts, even temporarily. Last week I went down to Maryland for my uncle’s memorial gathering. In a way, conflict was built into the trip, since my aunt has no religion and didn’t want a funeral, but the rest of us wanted to have one. By the way, this is why it’s so important to write down your wishes for your own service. So we didn’t have a service, but we did have a large, open reception yesterday. Even though this large group of people had known each other very well for decades, and had very different views on politics and religion, and had competed for some of the same jobs and perhaps even for some of the same affections, no conflict, at all, was visible. Not even subtle signs of enmity like making someone a weak gin and tonic. All it took was the death of a good man. But, one wonders, can such a peace last?
The death of Jesus suppressed the conflicts that had arisen among the disciples. They ceased to argue about who was the greatest. His resurrection encouraged them to go out and proclaim his good news, regardless of the trouble it would bring them. Their zeal, together with the Holy Spirit, brought many into the Way of Jesus, the Church. And then conflict came back, in much more serious forms than before. Keeping Jesus’s commandments was hard enough, but the dream of living in his love felt even more remote. There was conflict between Christians who had been brought up Jewish and those who converted from paganism. There was also conflict between Christians of both Jewish and pagan origins and the communities from which they originated.
All of these conflicts could be considered family conflicts, at least in the first century of Christianity. I believe this explains a couple of perplexing things about the New Testament. Firstly, the emphasis on believing certain things doesn’t originate out of a belief that believing them will make a person go to heaven and not believing them will make them go to hell, but rather reflects an effort at bringing other members of the family into the Church, or at least articulating what beliefs Christians hold dear and why we believe them. Secondly, why John’s Gospel has those jarring references to “the Jews,” which again should not be read as a condemnation of Christians’ closest cousins, but rather a reflection of a moment of extreme tension between two parts of the same family. This way of reading the New Testament gives rise to entire fields of scholarship, far beyond the scope of any sermon, but the important thing for now is to understand that the authors were working in a spirit of grace, trying to achieve reconciliation but being honest about their experience and the feelings that were coursing through their communities.
Rather than understand the Gospels as a musty family album of quaint, unfocused snapshots, we can see in them a lively and life-giving effort to achieve the hopes and dreams of enduring reconciliation, which is no less needed in our own place and time. Jesus, like my uncle who now abides in his eternal life, only died once, so any hope of enduring reconciliation must be based on more than the emotional shock of bad news. And while the resurrection more than makes up for the bad news of death, that good news does not by itself settle our differences. Our own mission work of keeping Jesus’s commandments and ceaselessly attempting to abide in his love is necessary, but again, not sufficient. Yet Jesus also promised that the ways of God would no longer be completely obscure to the vision of his followers, and we know what our friend is doing in order to achieve the joys he promised us.
Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, who illuminates the way forward with the uncreated light of her sacred fire, nourishes us with living water, and fills our sails of hope with her wind of progress and change. Just like natural light and wind, the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit affect the whole of creation, regardless of the understanding of observers, or even our notice. But just so, understanding these forces and their source will help us partner with them and achieve so much more.
This is why I believe that the worship and the sacraments of the Church are an essential foundation for all who seek to keep Jesus’s commandments, to abide in his love, and to enact his vision of justice and reconciliation in a world that cries out for them: faithful worship makes faithful Christians, as it has since the Holy Spirit fell upon all of Peter’s audience, without regard to their divisions, and he obeyed the Spirit’s leading to offer the sacrament of Holy Baptism to all of them, and their divisions were washed away, and the family lived in peace. The same Spirit is no less with us, no less powerful, and leading to no different end. Her life, in which we share, continues to offer, and accomplish, healing and reconciliation that surpass our understanding, and this is the victory that conquers the world.