Sermon: “Telling The Story”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.7-18; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21
Today’s gospel continues our study of Jesus’ Final Discourse. Last Sunday we considered Jesus’ promising words of comfort to the disciples – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14.1-4; NRSV). These are words of comfort not only to the disciples, but by extension, to us, for we live in tenuous times. As of now, over 88,000 Americans have died from Covid-19.
We considered Jesus’ response to Thomas when asked about the way to the place he was going: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father also” (John 14.6-7; NRSV) and we considered Jesus’ statement “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14.10; NRSV).
Having said these things, Jesus now tells the disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14.15-16; NRSV). Jesus says this Advocate is the Spirit of Truth which will abide in the disciples. The Greek word for ‘Advocate’ is ‘paraclete.’ The paraclete functioned as defense attorney. As Rene Girard notes, “The paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, the chief defender of all innocent victims, the destroyer of every representation of persecution. He is truly the spirit of truth that dissipates the fog of mythology” (“History and the Paraclete,” chapter 15 from The Scapegoat, p. 207; http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/easter6a/ ). Satan, the world-spirit, would keep us in captivity and spiritual death, but the Advocate, with our consent, frees us, comforts us, and helps us to walk in the spirit of truth and everlasting life.
Although Jesus was about to be crucified, he assured the disciples that he would not leave them orphaned but would come to them. The world would soon no longer see Jesus, but the disciples would see him. Judas (not Iscariot) then asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14.22-23; NRSV). This passage, as you may have noted, speaks of God as Father, as Son, and as Advocate (Holy Spirit). The mutual love between the Father and the Son abide in us as the Holy Spirit.
Then Jesus added, “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (John 14.24; NRSV). Once again, Jesus emphasizes that faithfully obeying the commandments stems from our love for God, that the Word ultimately comes from God the Father. We live more fully into this love through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
With this in mind, let us consider the words of today’s collect: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” (emphasis mine) Life lived in the Spirit manifests the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit. In God’s Spirit, we have new life and a new story.
We seldom hear the old hymn “I Love to Tell the Story” written by A. Catherine Hankey, “who was associated with the Clapham sect of William Wilberforce, a group of prominent evangelical Anglicans” ( https://hymnary.org/text/i_love_to_tell_the_story_of_unseen_thing ). Listen to the first two verses:
I love to tell the story Of unseen things above, Of Jesus and His glory, Of Jesus and His love. I love to tell the story, Because I know ’tis true; It satisfies my longings As nothing else can do.
I love to tell the story, ’Twill be my theme in glory To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story; More wonderful it seems Than all the golden fancies Of all my golden dreams, I love to tell the story, It did so much for me; And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.
Catherine Hankey acknowledges how the story of God’s love ultimately comes to replace all of our fancies and our worldly dreams.
Our reading from 1 Peter 3 sets forth some of the characteristics of life in Christian community. We are to display “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” and we are not to “repay evil for evil” but to “repay with a blessing” that we “might inherit a blessing” (Vss. 8-10; NRSV). When our desire is to do the good, we will likely suffer less harm, but when we do suffer harm for doing what is good, we will be blessed. Once again, we find the model in the life of Christ. Then we read, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3.15-16; NRSV). When circumstances avail, we are to be ready to tell our story – to tell of our relationship to the story.
The account from Acts provides us with an excellent example. Paul is visiting Athens – he has noted the many temples to various Greek gods. Paul, speaking at the Aereopagus (the Hill of Ares) further shares his experience of encountering an altar with an inscription “To an unknown God,” then states, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17.23-25; NRSV). Paul, relating to the Greek culture, used his experience to tell the story.
The desire to tell the story is also present in the appointed psalm:
Come and listen, all you who fear God, * and I will tell you what he has done for me.
I called out to him with my mouth, * and his praise was on my tongue.
If I had found evil in my heart, * the Lord would not have heard me;
But in truth God has heard me; * he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, * nor withheld his love from me. (Psalm 66.14-18; BCP)
The psalmist was ready – he desired to tell the story of his relationship with God. He called out to God, praised God, God heard him, answered his prayer, and freely received God’s love.
In these tenuous times, our hearts are troubled. As I watch the death toll continue to rise, I am disturbed as I think of all who have suffered and the grief surrounding these deaths. A sense of compassion and empathy demands that our hearts be troubled. The times also call for prudent actions – for safeguarding one’s own and other’s health. Yet we should also take comfort in knowing if the worst comes, we stand in a loving relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Death has no dominion over us. And that may serve as the prompt for telling our story – for sharing God’s love with others in these troubling times.