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Sunday Sermon - Not Orphans but Offspring

Sixth Sunday of Easter, 14th May 2023

Acts 17.22-31; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21

Our Gospel reading today follows on from last week's passage and is again taken from Jesus's parting worlds to his disciples on the night before he died. At first sight this seems a bit odd – why, in this joyful season of Easter, should we be revisiting the events of the Passion? But if - as I think we are- we are being invited to walk with the first disciples through the weeks immediately after the Resurrection, then it makes perfect sense.

Those weeks must have been profoundly unsettling for Jesus's followers. No sooner had they been thrown into deep shock and grief by Jesus's death than Peter and John, sent by Mary Magdalene, brought the astonishing news that he was alive. He began to appear among them without warning and would then vanish just as unpredictably. This was a Jesus who could walk through closed doors and yet who ate and drank and whose body still bore the marks of his crucifixion. Caught as they were between desolation and joy, despair and hope, fear and exultation, how could the disciples begin to understand what was happening? All they could do was to wait in Jerusalem as Jesus had asked them to do, not knowing what they were waiting for. And as they waited, I'm sure they would have gone back over and over again to that last evening before his death, reminding each other of what he had said; searching for clues; looking for comfort. And so the promises in today's Gospel reading must have been vitally important to them. 'I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. I will ask the Father, and he will send you another Advocate, to be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth.'

That word 'orphaned', which is a direct translation from the Greek, carries a powerful emotional force. It resonates with echoes of helplessness, vulnerability and bereavement, feelings that those first disciples in Jerusalem would certainly have recognised. And, if we're honest, I think most of us will recognise them too, from the times in our lives when God seems impossibly distant or absent altogether, and all we can do is wait.

But today's passage from Acts gives us the other side of the picture. This has been the pattern of our readings through the Easter season. Like before and after photographs, we see the promises given by Jesus in the gospels brought to fruition in the book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit takes hold like wildfire and the good news spreads.

In his speech to the Athenians, Paul draws on their own poets to proclaim a great truth. 'We are God's offspring. In him we live and move and have our being'. If we are the the children of a living God, the maker and sustainer of the universe, then we are not, and never can be, orphans.

It's easy to forget that the stakes for Paul in Athens were very high. He had been accused of proclaiming foreign divinities. Four hundred years earlier Socrates had been charged with the same offence, brought to the Areopagus for trial and condemned to death. Paul wasn't one of the original disciples. He hadn't witnessed Jesus's life, death and resurrection at first hand. And yet he was so convinced of God's deep, intimate, fatherly love for himself and all creation that he was willing to risk his life to share it.

And for Peter, one of those who had waited in Jerusalem, holding fast to the promises of Jesus, it is also the conviction of God's living presence and power which he offers to support and comfort Christians suffering persecution. He paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the divine life force breaking through the barriers of time and space and reclaiming as God's children those who died at the time of the great flood. Not one of them has been lost.

Here are some words of Cardinal Basil Hume: 'When one day we shall see God as he truly is, we shall understand the riches and fullness of life itself with all its wonder and all its beauty. These things lie beyond us now; they are beyond our understanding. But we can see enough to know that life and love in Jesus Christ could not possibly be extinguished, could not be defeated. With him, they rise and become then his gift to us'.

Not orphans, but offspring. I pray that we may know this wonderful promise as a reality in our lives this week, as we wait again for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and that it may bring us hope, courage and peace.




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