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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Easter 6 An (almost) Alien Language of Presence



Easter 6
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; John 14: 23-29;

There are times when the task of preaching can feel almost intolerable: particularly 0n those occasions when we face a familiar text and the words seem to have such a smooth and polished surface that we can find little to take hold of; it is then that the mind seems to lose traction and we feel the slippery surface of platitudes threatening to tip pulpit and preacher into the void.   What do you do when you hear such words as these?

“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.

These are words that seem to come from beyond this world and to speak beyond this world and so there is little wonder if we find them hard for us to connect to.  In their immediate context they are spoken as words of comfort and reassurance to the disciples as Jesus prepares them for his death.  In our liturgical context as we prepare for the Feast of the Ascension, these may also be read as words of comfort and reassurance as the Church prepares for the Feast of Pentecost.  But in our immediate context, roughly two thousand years after this gospel was written, as a people who got up this morning, made breakfast and have gathered here, bringing with us our cares and the cares of the world, these words may likely sound strange and, before we may feel any trace of comfort and reassurance, these words may instead offer challenge and uncertainty.  

“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.

Think of where these words lead us.  You could say they lead us to a cognitive melt-down as before us in the next week or so we face the sheer strangeness of the Feast of the Ascension – the literal oddity of which is for me most bizarrely commemorated in the Chapel of the Ascension in the shrine at Walsingham where, in the ceiling, are set two plastered feet!  Then fast on the heels of this is the great feast of Pentecost, the interpretation of which usually generates more heat than light; and, as if this were not enough, the following Sunday is Trinity Sunday  with that most intractable and incomprehensible doctrine.

As we feel our heads swim at this approaching tide of strangeness and incomprehensibility, these familiar but difficult words of Jesus confront us with a mysterious and almost alien language of presence. The familiar drone of the atheist and humanist buzz in the background (their shadows inhabit us all) resisting all thought of this presence.  Yet the thought persists:

“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.

We are talking about a relationship.  The word ‘love’ expresses that – this concerns the conscious choice of our inmost self; a conscious orientation of our will; it is the choice of where we set our heart: despite our cognitive incomprehension; despite our disorientation in the face of strangeness and oddity; and despite the possibility of being wrong.

This choice is not a philosophical abstraction: this is not at all like Pascal’s Wager.  (You may remember that over three hundred years ago the mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) offered what we call ‘Pascal’s Wager’: that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God – one would lose nothing and stood to gain everything.)  No!  This is different:

“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.

The words stretch to us across two millennia and invite us to set our hearts on Christ, even though our minds may not follow.  To do this is to choose Christ as the One we have made a choice to follow.   This is our free choice, our decision – and we make it knowing the difficulties and uncertainties – but whenever that choice is made there begins a relationship.  A ‘door’ in the self is opened and in the homely language of the Gospel ‘we (meaning the Trinity) make our home with them’. To be ‘at home’ with God changes us: over time it shapes us and forms us and ultimately transforms us. 

About the same period that Pascal was formulating his wager, the poet -priest George Herbert was writing his poem ‘The Elixer’ explaining the transforming experience of being at home with God – we have it in our hymnal (no. 583) “Teach me my God and King.”

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