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Sermon for Easter 7 year B

April 23, 2015


Sanctify them in the truth – words from today’s gospel.

“One day a small boy was trying to lift a heavy stone, but he couldn’t budge it. His father, passing by, stopped to watch his efforts. Finally the father asked his son, “Are you using all your strength?” “Yes, I am,” the boy yelled,” I am using every last bit of energy and strength I have. As the boy talked he sounded exasperated and worn out.”

I get increasingly exasperated during Eastertide. Every Sunday we have listened to readings from the Acts of the Apostles and from the first letter of John.

Luke writes about an ideal church that makes thousands of converts every day, where everyone shares their wealth and live together in perfect harmony. Just like our church today – not.

John makes some incredible statements: no one who is born of God sins; Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar

One of our house groups at St. Paul’s looks at the upcoming readings. They got really depressed with John. So I’m not the only one and I’ve sent them a copy of this sermon. Maybe it will put things into perspective.

This Sunday, between the Ascension and Pentecost, gives us another impossible reading. Jesus is going away so he hands over his work to his disciples. What God did in Jesus, he wants to do in us. Like Magnus Magnusson in ‘Mastermind’, ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’. Jesus prays for the disciples, that they may be one, that they might be sanctified.

So does Jesus have any disciples today? Where’s this church where nobody sins – as John wanted? Where everyone one is of one heart and mind, as in Acts? United, as Jesus prayed it would be?

But wait a minute. The church in Acts of one heart and mind? In Acts 13, Paul wanted to go back to the churches that he and Barnabas had recently planted in Asia Minor. Barnabas wanted to take Mark. Paul didn’t.As a result, there arose a “sharp disagreement.” Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. This dispute resulted in anger, irritation and exasperation. So my friends in the house group and I are not the only ones to be exasperated.

And disagreement goes back to our reading from Acts. They wanted to replace Judas. Some wanted Matthias. Some wanted “Joseph called Barsabbas.” – “son of the Sabbath”. How did they settle the disagreement? They drew lots. And did they get it right? Matthias was chosen but we never hear of him again. This is the only Biblical reference to Matthias. There are conjectures about Matthias’s exact identity, that he was Zacchaeus or Nathaniel. The fifth-century “Synopsis of Dorotheus” says that Matthias proclaimed the gospel to the “barbarians and meat eaters in the interior of Ethiopia.” In the 14th century Nicephorus said that Matthias preached and then died in Armenia. A third legend says that Matthias was stoned and beheaded in Jerusalem. A fourth tradition says his bones are buried in Trier, Germany. The mystery of Matthias’s personal destiny thus includes great historical obscurity. As for the other candidate, tradition says that Joseph was later required to drink poison, but it didn’t harm him.

Man proposes (by lots) but God disposes. Surely the real 12th apostle to replace Judas was Paul

Always the one to make a quick decision, Peter established the essential criteria for the new apostle: he must have been an active disciple from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (his baptism) to the end (his ascension). But Paul didn’t accompany Jesus from his baptism, though he did see the risen Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus.

Later, there will be additional apostles who didn’t meet Peter’s criteria:  either. “the apostles, Barnabas and Paul” (14:14). We first met Barnabas on the pages of Acts rather than the Gospel of Luke.  Not from Jesus’ baptism onward. And we’re not told that he saw the risen Christ.

Paul refers to “James, the Lord’s brother,” as an apostle (Galatians 1:19) But Jesus’ brothers seem not to have believed in him until after the resurrection (see John 7:5).

Paul called Epaphroditus an apostle (Philippians 2:25). Did he accompany Jesus from his baptism to the ascension?  Did he see the risen Christ?

So the church in Acts did make mistakes, did disagree. It’s not the case that the New Testament church was pure and then got corrupted. Rather, it’s the other way round. Jesus prayed ‘Sanctify them in the truth’ Sanctification is a lifelong process. Our exasperation is like the irritating child in the back of the car continually asking ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

Sanctification is a lifelong process. And if you look a bit more closely at John’s first letter you’ll see that he wasn’t the hard-line perfectionist, that he gave advice to help the gradual process. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. Which I take to mean that we try to love, that it’s a process helped by prayer – abiding – that helps us to move towards perfection

A process. Renewed by prayer. All the cells in the human body (except brain cells) renew themselves, with old cells dying and being replaced. Blood renews itself completely three times in a year, the gut lining is renewed every three days and the skeleton is renewed every four years. This means that no part of the body is more than 10 years old.

We are constantly changing; maturing. In the Christian vision of things each of us is completed as a work of art, not on our birth-day but on our death-day. In the emptiness of our dying, God adds the final creative touch which completes us. A non-believer attending someone who has just died can say, ‘He’s finished!’ or ‘She didn’t make it!’ A believer can say instead: ‘God has completed his work.

Death is the final stitch which completes a tapestry, or the last dab of paint that makes a great portrait. We become ‘a new creation: (Galatians 6:15) To Grow in Love – B. Grogan (Messenger 2011) p. 14

Sanctify them in the truth. Jesuit Bernard Longergan speaks of “Human authenticity (as) not some pure quality, some serene free­dom from all oversights, all misunderstanding, all mistakes, all sins. Rather it consists in a withdrawal from unauthenticity, and the withdrawal is never a permanent achievement. It is ever pre­carious, ever to be achieved afresh, ……. uncovering still more oversights, acknowledging still further fail­ures to understand, correcting still more mistakes, repenting more and more deeply of hidden sins. Method in Theology. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972 p. 9

The boy was exasperated. His father said, “No, you are not using all of your strength, you haven’t asked me to help you. So the boy asked the father to help, but still that stone couldn’t be moved. So, the father asked a neighbour to help, then another neighbour, and another, and finally with each one giving all their energy and strength to the project, the stone was moved!

After everyone had left, the father turned to his son and said, “You see, when we all work together, when we use our strength together, then we can accomplish some things that any of us by ourselves could not accomplish. Unity, togetherness, working together can add greater strength to any project.”

Sanctify them in the truth

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