SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
(3rd May) 2015
Readings: Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
I make no secret of the fact that I have often found the second volume of Luke’s history fiercely disheartening. Like the infinite extensions of movies, Ice Age excepted, by which the second, third, fourth extension becomes progressively more insipid (think of the Airport and Rocky series somewhere in the Dark Ages when I was still alive), it has always seemed to me that Luke should have got out while he was ahead. In Luke, the gospel-telling, he narrates a theologically infused, tight tale, with powerful imagery and characters, nuanced especially for women in the church, and leaves us with powerful images of the resurrection that we are called to bear to the uttermost ends of the earth.
In Acts it turns to custard. In his attempt to tell of the glorious and miraculous expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem through the Roman Empire and to the theoretical ends of the earth (by which I do not mean Invercargill) he pushes credulity and my patience beyond the pale. Every time an apostle sneezes, it seems, thousands are converted. A recent glorious three minute condensation of Acts in cartoon form conveys the problem well: “the disciples are gathered together on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrives. Tongues of fire hover over them, the disciples speak in tongues, Peter preaches the first sermon, three thousand are converted. God: One. Satan: zero.” And so on. And so on. Paul is converted. Paul preaches. Thousands are converted. Paul’s own autobiographical statements are more circumspect.
The narrative depresses me: it has caused many Christians to hype up their expectations of the gospel, to over-emphasize the miraculous, to distort the impact of their own preaching ministries, while the more pedestrian amongst us plod on with few if any signs of exuberant outcome. Are we the unholy, the unspiritual? For many years I all but boycotted Acts. With time I came to see the narrative for what it is – a highly symbolised portrayal of the admittedly remarkable expansion of the gospel-message through the labyrinths of the Roman Empire.
Sometimes I have been tempted to play off the gospel writers against one another. I so much prefer John’s at first quiet but increasingly strident narrative of love. Assuming that the Johannine Epistles come from the same source as the Fourth Gospel, and I hold to more or less that view, then we find a powerful if sometimes convoluted story of the embodiment of love, and the challenge to the followers of Jesus to embody that love in turn following the departure of Jesus from human sight. I find John simple to follow: hang on to love, embody love, be love. If you fail to do that then you fail in the Christian task.
For John no less than for Luke the gospel is unstoppable. Where there is love there is God. John – whoever he was – lived and proclaimed the gospel in a very different culture to our own. But in a sense he didn’t. Perhaps I’m wrong, and socio-historical evidence would be hard to produce, but I suspect the need for up-building love has never changed. John played carefully with linkages of love and God: God is love and while, grammatically, that may not be quite the same as love is God the telling of the gospel pulls the equation closer and closer together. Where we, or anyone, exhibit the edifying forces of divine love, justice, righteousness, there we are exhibiting the influence of divine love, and God is at work in the exhibitor. But the love John’s Jesus exemplifies, embodies and makes possible is no sloppy love. It is the unpopular love that restores human beings, even the most broken, to their feet. It is love that gives the unloved and unlovable a new start. It is love that that says even those at the very bottom of the human chain of being are created in the image of God’s love and can be given a place in the heart of God’s eternities.
There is an opposite of John’s equation. Where love is not, God is not. I have watched this past week the outpourings of somewhat naïve hope and the outpourings of somewhat embittered hatred towards the death row candidates Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Under any circumstances I am opposed to the death penalty, but, that aside, what has sickened me most has been the hatred and anger directed towards those who have seen the possibility of restitution and forgiveness in the lives of these and the other Bali Nine “executionees,” not least my doctoral alma mater, the Australian Catholic University. There has been in many quarters a black and white “they knew what they were doing, let them rot” attitude if not in the media than at least in the column-square metres of feedback on media websites. There has been little room for the belief that a human being who makes a dreadful mistake can be restored, forgiven, presented with life once more. The doctrines of Jesus who is God who is love are as unpopular today as they were in the first century. Where love, with all its ramifications of forgiveness and rebirth, is not, God is not, and a genuine Christ-centred gospel of hope and restoration remains as critically unpopular today as it was in first century Roman brutality.
For the Christ-follower, Christ-bearer, there is an exhausting challenge. It is not easy to forgive, to restore, to nurture. It is easier to perpetrate cycles of hatred and revenge. These, though, are not the way of the cross, and it is to that which we are called.
Which brings me back to Luke’s second volume, Acts. Forgiveness is and always will be the work of the Spirit of God who makes the possibilities of God as they are embodied in Jesus available to human beings. Restoration or even the slow lifelong journey towards full humanity is and always will be the work of the Spirit of God. Luke got that: the numbers of thousands of converts may be symbolic, embellished even, though the exponential growth of Christianity down through its early centuries gives him some credibility. But his point was ultimately spiritual, not statistical: where we practice the cruciform shape of divine, self-sacrificial love their lives will be changed exponentially. Our job is to make our lives and our church communities an embodiment of that love.