Here is a link to listen to the sermon by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on June 9, 2019, the Feast of Pentecost. There is also a link to the scripture for this Sunday and the text of the sermon below.
In today’s gospel passage we’re back in The Upper Room with Jesus – once again peeking in on his final conversation with the disciples. He’s been talking about what the disciples’ lives will be like after he departs – after he returns to “his Father”.
Now they’ve come to sort of understand what he’s about in the last three years – and like us, perhaps, never quite arriving. And they’ve grown quite comfortable with his physical presence among them – how he moves in and around their lives. They feel safe with him it always seems. But he’s begun to tell them that he must go, and – and this is the whole point of Pentecost and the coming of the spirit – that they can continue to rest assured in the knowledge that God will somehow still be present with them.
And then we hear from Philip. For Philip, Jesus’ assurance provides little comfort. He asks for proof. “Show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied”. (Interesting side note – he’s somehow avoided being labelled Doubting Philip.)
But again, in Johannine fashion, Jesus’ layers of response to Philip, and to the disciples, point toward being subject to – or stuck, really – in a pattern of understanding God as being external to them. Externalizing God, rather than in conceiving of God’s intrinsic nature – or, imagining the way in which God is already present in you. So, using very simple language, Jesus creates a series of images of how the God-head resides in Jesus and Jesus in the God-head. And then, as means of underscoring that point, he refers to how it’s that presence – the presence of the God-head within – that has enabled him to say the words – to teach – in the ways he has. It’s the God-head’s presence in him that has enabled him to perform the works he has.
Jesus is very much aware that it’s the combination of words and works that’s been so illuminating, so sustaining…so healing, affirming and just simply stirring – that all of this has brought those he’s loved and lived among to just this point. To the point of separation – the point of Jesus’ departure. And in beautifully balanced correlation, it’s the same point at which he is now letting them know that they’re ready to move from understanding God as external to them, and toward embracing God as being in them. In a new way. A way in which we can know without knowing, how God is both transcendent and imminent. Untouchable and yet inescapable.
And then he goes on: “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…because I am going to the Father.”
Now what do you suppose he means by that? “…will do works greater than these…because I am going to the Father”.
You may not agree with me, but I have a strong sense that Jesus’ linking of “works greater than these” and “I am going to the Father” doesn’t exactly jump up and shout “this is a formula for creating the church institutional!” (Or does it? This is definitely one of those questions seminarians debate Church History classes.) And the reason I have this impression has to do with the context within which “works greater” and “I am going” are juxtaposed. It’s a climactic moment in Jesus’ opening up minds and hearts to God’s authentic nature – opening to God’s spirit of love and care that will now – with the gift of the Advocate – the Holy Spirit – be intrinsic to them – be in them the same way God-head and Jesus co-exist.
I’m not getting that this moment is a mandate to erect institutional structures. It seems much more to me to be giving primacy of place to belief as behavior – to re-creation of the words and works Jesus has modelled for us. He’s going to the Father and, it almost appears that he’s prepared to take with him all that we might try to cling to about his physical presence – all physicalized representations of God – all the physical trappings that might speak of authority rather than loving care. What he is leaving with them – with us – is all the values. The understanding. All of what he’s taught, told and shown about loving God, neighbor and self. These are the works. And we’re called to be the ones to do works even greater than these. That’s his intention. From what we know of what Jesus delights in, as we see in the gospel stories, it’s far easier to imagine that, rather than building walls, structures and institutions that wittingly or unwittingly promote division, “works greater than these” more likely involves busting down Empire – all human, institutionalized, wall-building and differentiation-making systems that are so much the province of the worldly world.
It is immensely fortuitous that, on this feast of Pentecost – this feast that offers the image of many spoken languages being the symbol of eternal life being shed abroad to every race and nation by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit – the image of Diversity as Unity – it is fortuitous, indeed, that we are about to baptize Edson. Edson, the child of Lydia and Aaron. Lydia and Aaron, who have been drawn toward spirited exploration of a rich banquet of faithful traditions under their roof. What lively discourse and engagement have been central to their preparations for this moment – perhaps especially here at Church of the Ascension as Mother Liz and they prayerfully conferred.
We know, for example, that they strive to evoke contemplation and authenticity in their – and in their child’s – faith journey – by seeking and serving the best of their own faith journeys in all persons. We know that they’re committed to surrounding this child – and this is a model for all of us! – with love and prayers – and to do all that they can – that we can – to be responsible, thoughtful people engaged in faith dialogue. By being faithful in worship, in teaching and in modelling the deep and layered meanings found woven through creeds, prayers and commandments, in whichever faith-based wisdom they’re found. Aren’t these the “greater works” of which Jesus speaks?
And how will they do it? How will you do it?
We’re all going to thoughtfully, reverently and respectfully fashion greater works as we go along. That’s the non-destination. That’s what we can and will come to understand together – that place of deeper understanding of ourselves and of how God exists in each one of us. And we’ll support each other as best we can as we rediscover how to do so every day.
And we can only do so by relying on the presence of God’s spirit in us. We’ll do it by figuring out how to be loving in a given set of circumstances – a “figuring out” based on invoking the “good” of our faith.
It’s not about relying on a long list of rules and regs that have, as we already know from century upon century of witness, tended to tip over into becoming about the business of creating insiders and outsiders (PS, absolutely the antithesis of Jesus’ words and works). All division-making falls away when we set our minds toward doing works greater than these. And why? Because the works are not dependent upon institutions. They’re not even dependent upon Jesus – that’s why he plays down his role. He’s teaching us that “the works” are dependent upon the Holy Spirit, who comes in every color of the rainbow and is not bound by even the most well-thought-out or well-intentioned dogmatic principles.
It’s worth noting, too, that it isn’t even Jesus who sends the Holy Spirit. It’s the Father – the Godhead – who invites this most expansive interpretation of “the source”.
Christians have not cornered the market on God’s presence and purpose in the world. This? This particular framework in which we’re presently moving, happens to work really well for me and for millions of others. But the truth is that the market for God is not expressed in terms of the number of people who attend church, or subscribe to a particular religion. (It might not even be expressed through traditional “belief” in God.) It’s expressed in the enacting of greater good in the world outside the four walls of any church. That’s our “destination”.
Belief in any tenet of any faith construct is only as good as its ability to engender more good in the world as it’s made manifest through the greater works of those who profess that belief. The measure is not the belief itself, or even in the religion that houses it, rather the measure is in that belief’s effect on you, and by extension, the world.
This feast of Pentecost is a powerful reminder that the God that is with us is spirit. And I believe our spirit-God desires actual physical experience – our spirit-God has infinite appetite for greater good as it is experienced by the people of this world – all people.
This distribution of God and the getting of people to do it is called religion. And the best religion for you today is the one that will get you to do greater good tomorrow.
Do you hear that Edson? We want you to do great good in the world and to experience great good from the world. We – spirit-God in us – will do all we can to support you as you and the world rejoice in each other’s presence. There IS a sweet, sweet spirit in this place. So let’s, then, be about sealing Edson by that Holy Spirit in Baptism!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!