May 27, 2012

 

ON THE SHALLOW AND THE DEEP ENDS

                                                    Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                             at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 27 May 2012 

                                             Reading from the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-21

 

I once asked the members of an Episcopalian congregation – not this one – about the day of the week on which the universe was created, and I must confess that I was a bit surprised when they said that they did not know.  So then I asked them what did Genesis, chapter 1, have to say about this, and a few replied that the universe was created on the first day.  So then I asked what day of the week was the first day, and I was quite shocked when they said it was Monday.  That just goes to show how secularized even our Episcopal Church members have become.  We have become so accustomed to thinking of Saturday and Sunday as the week-end, that we forget that our Bible teaches us that Sunday is the first day of the week.  This is the day that the Lord has made on which the universe came into being.  There is even a verse in the Psalter about it, a verse that has become the basis of a modern-day popular hymn. 

          This is the day,
This is the day
That the Lord has made,
That the Lord has made.
We will rejoice,
We will rejoice
And be glad in it,
And be glad in it.
This is the day that the Lord has made.
We will rejoice and be glad in it.
This is the day,
This is the day,
That the Lord has made. 

Now let me pose another question.  On which day of the week did God create humanity, male and female, in his own image?  The answer is the sixth day, which we now know is Friday.  That was the day on which he breathed his Holy Spirit into our ancestors, and the writer of Genesis 1 tells us that when he had done this he saw that all that he had made was very good, and that included human beings as the very pinnacle of creation.  But then things went very bad.  So the son of God, the first man, who was meant to be immortal, became mortal because he had become immoral.  The immoral cannot be immortal. 

Yet God did not give up on us now mortal beings and he sought to have us return to that initial state of innocence, but the more he sought to restore our immortality, the more our ancestors resorted to immorality.  And eventually there was but one thing left for God to do, and that was to send his Word incarnated as his Son, the Son of God, to undo the evil wrought by that first son of God.  And so the Christ came into the world to take upon himself the entire sin of the whole world, and having done that he surrendered the Holy Spirit that he had received and he did so on a Friday, so that the Holy Spirit that had been given by God to a man on a Friday was returned to God by a man on a Friday.

But we know that that was not the end of the matter, for on the first Sunday after that Friday, at the start of a brand new week, the Christ was raised from the dead, and the second verse of our modern-day hymn tells us just that.

          This is the day,
          This is the day
          That he rose again,
          That he rose again.
          We will rejoice,
          We will rejoice
And be glad in it,
And be glad in it.
This is the day when he rose again.
We will rejoice and be glad in it.
This is the day,
This is the day
That he rose again. 

However, the Holy Spirit had to breathed yet again into human beings, and seven weeks after the Resurrection, as we celebrate today, again a Sunday to mark something that might be called a new beginning, the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of disciples of Jesus, and our reading from Acts of the Apostles 2 this morning recounts what happened next.  And there is a third verse to our modern-day hymn.

                This is the day,
                This is the day
                That the Spirit comes,
                That the Spirit comes
                We will rejoice,
                We will rejoice       
                And be glad in it,
                And be glad in it.
                This is the day that the Spirit comes.
                We will rejoice and be glad in it.
                This is the day,
                This is the day
                That the Spirit comes. 

On that first Whitsunday, to use the traditional title of this day in the Anglican Communion, thousands joined the membership of the Church and went on to receive baptism.  Ever since then new members have been received, and in many places this has been done of Whitsunday, or White Sunday, so called because the candidates for baptism wear white.  (Incidentally the word, candidate, is derived from the Latin word meaning “white”.)  I myself was baptized at Whitsuntide in 1935.  At baptism, we believe that we receive the Holy Spirit, but it is our experience, as it has been the experience of the Church from the earliest days, that not everyone who is baptized and, thereby, becomes a member of the Church, the Body of Christ, automatically becomes a disciple of Christ.  We see this in the account in Acts of the Apostles 8 from which we learn that although many in Samaria were baptized at the hands of Philip the Evangelist, yet they still did not demonstrate the traits of discipleship that we read about in the Gospels when the disciples followed Jesus wheresoever he led them.   In the story in Acts 8 we see the beginnings of the rite of Confirmation, as it is still practiced in the sacramental denominations of the Church, when the apostles, Peter and John, travelled from Jerusalem to Samaria to lay their hands on those who had been baptized. 

Yet again we do not always see those traits of discipleship even among those who have undergone the rite of Confirmation and who have made some very serious vows before the congregation of believers, before the Bishop lays hands upon them.  So many people just play act at being Christians.  I came across an analogy recently that might help us to understand the difference between a member of the Church and a disciple of Christ.[1]  Members of a congregation do most of the right things.  They make a financial contribution to the life of the parish, they attend public worship, although not every Sunday, let alone during the week, and they participate in activities that interest or amuse them.  As the person making the analogy put it, they are like children playing on a beach, running in and out of the water, making a splash and often a lot of noise, but they go away when things get difficult.  Disciples of Christ are prepared to launch out into the deep to be with Jesus, committing themselves to him and to his words.  When the going gets tough they keep on following Christ, no matter what the cost may be to themselves, even if it means their liberty, even their life.

Another analogy, and some of you have heard me use this before, is that members of a congregation are like bottles filled with whisky.  Some of it might be well-aged whisky, but it is still in the bottle and there it stays until someone comes and unscrews the top.  Disciples of Christ are also like bottles of whisky.  They are filled with the Spirit but they have had the cap unscrewed and the Spirit pours forth to bring joy to everyone who shares in the Spirit.  And the wonderful thing is that, even though the bottle has been opened, the amount of Spirit in the bottle is never reduced, no matter how much is poured out, since God keeps it replenished as he did the oil and flour of the widow of Zarephath during the great famine in the time of Elijah, as we read about in I Kings 17. 

The challenge of Whitsuntide or Pentecost, or however you refer to this season, is to accept being more than just a member of the congregation, playing like a child on the seashore, and becoming a committed disciple, one who accepts the discipline of Jesus, following him through thick and thin, shallow waters and deep, until you come to the place where he wants you to be, having done only what he wants you to do, and having said only what he wants you to say.  Pentecost is not a season to be simply comfortable in your membership of a congregation of like-minded people, but to be comforted, strengthened, so as to become the disciple who Christ wants you to be.



[1] Robert Gepert, Bishop of Western Michigan, in his Weekly Message, May 24, 2012.