6th Sunday of Easter

19 May 2017

Genesis 8.20-9.17 or Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.7-end; 1 Peter 3.13-end or Acts 17.22-31; John 14.15-21

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God our redeemer, you have delivered us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of your Son: grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

THE Easter season moves into Ascensiontide on Thursday, and Sunday’s readings invite us to go deeper into the mystery introduced in last week’s Gospel reading (John 14.1-14). There, the Gospel-writer began to probe what it meant for Jesus to be with his followers, and also not with them. Now the discus­sion continues, as Jesus explains what “his continual presence” (collect of the day) means for those who love him (John 14.15).

He has already spoken to the disciples of his unity with the Father (John 14.11). That unity is the starting-point for what he has to say. Out of it will come “another Advo­cate”, or Comforter, as some transla­tions prefer (John 14.16), “the Spirit of truth”.

John does not work with the linear chronology of Luke, and there will be no clear sequence of an ascension, followed by the outpouring of the Spirit (Luke 24.50-53, Acts 1.6-2.13). Instead, his record of Jesus’s promise moves between the present and the future. The Advocate’s arrival must await the Father’s response to Jesus (John 14.16), and yet this presence is already known to the disciples. It is not a fleeting impression, but some­thing faithful and durable. Again, John returns to the language of “abiding” to make this clear.

Even so, the disciples do not seem fully aware of the Spirit — if that is what “[being] in you” means (John 14.17). They will come to that knowledge by the route of paradox. Only through the physical absence of Jesus can the powerful presence
of the Spirit draw them into a new kind of knowledge, based not on external evidence, but on a deeper encounter with the love of the Father and the Son (John 14.18-21). Far from being orphans, they will find them­selves part of a relationship closer than anything they have ever experienced.

If these things seem abstract and impossible to grasp, John’s Jesus is the kind of good teacher who expects to have to reinforce concepts over time. He comforts his friends — and later readers — by assuring them that the Advocate “will teach you every­thing, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14.26).

Another sort of complex knowing becomes the subject-matter of Paul’s only recorded address to the Athen­ians, whom he met while waiting for Silas and Timothy to catch up with him (Acts 17.15-16). Distressed at the discovery of wide­spread idolatry in the city, he used his time to speak against it, in the process coming into conflict with some of the main schools of philo­sophy (Acts 17.18). Others were more sympathetic, and requested more information about the “new teaching” that Paul was offering.

Their reception seems to have been both serious and courteous, even though the writer implies, slightly disparagingly, that the in­­habitants of the city were forever rest­­lessly in search of new diver­sions (Acts 17.19-21).

Paul repays their courtesy, and, no doubt well aware of his auspicious surroundings on the hill of Ares, congratulates them on their ex­­tremely religious character (Acts 17.22; the KJV’s translation of the wonderful Greek word deisidaimon­isteros as “superstitious” is unfair). In fact, their scrupulous attitude has even prompted them to make pro­vision for “an unknown god” (Acts 17.23).

This is the opportunity to in­­troduce something radically new. Instead of living by the kind of knowledge which must always take precautions against what it does not know, he offers them a God who wants to be known closely by human beings.

Perhaps in giving life to humanity, this God went as far as to instil a longing for relationship, so that those who “groped for him” would discover that he was very near — so near that they were actually living within the being of God. Doubters could seek a precedent in their own poetic tradition (Acts 17.26-28).

A God of this kind is beyond idolatry, too close to be objectified and regulated by human attention. But there is a risk in meeting such a God, in the person of the risen Christ; for, after that, there can be no more ignorance.

Paul’s bold call to repentance before the world is judged to be a step too far for some who have followed up to this point, but a few “became believers” (Acts 17.34).

The writer of the First Letter of Peter reminds an audience who are already believers of the knowing that is involved in speaking up for their faith in difficult times. He urges them always to “be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15).

That is more than simply repeat­ing the facts of Jesus’s death and resurrection: it means being courage­ous enough to claim that, through baptism, they share the life of the resurrection (1 Peter 3.21).

On 22 April, Rachel Boulding, until recently editor of this page, died. As her illness progressed, she seemed to speak more and more radiantly of the hope that was in her. May she rest in the peace, know­ledge, and love of God.

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