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Third Sunday after Easter

I Pet ii. 11
John xvi. 16
Preached 5/15/11 (Good Shepherd, Charlestown, NH & Trinity West Lebanon, NH)


For with thee is the well of life, O Lord, and in thy light we shall see light. (Ps. 36:9) Alleluia.

Sometimes don't we feel as if we have this religion thing all figured out? Even if our religious practices don't live up to our religious ideals, the world is ultimately knowable. Every complexity in the universe is reducible to a set of universal laws, to some scientific dictum, to some mathematical equation. Religion is but one of a long set of subjects that given an appropriate amount of time and application can be mastered. This is our Western inheritance. We adulate sound minds and clear thinkers, heaping accolades on those with a great ability to discern and understand. And so we approach religion as one might a course of instruction. We sit in our well-lit churches, just as one sits in French class, slowly gaining fluency, until some blessed day when we will know exactly what the Blessed Virgin is or is not, just what happened on Easter Day, and exactly how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin. There is no error in this. Certainly, as George Buttrick used to quip: "No church should be so low that one has to leave his head at the door." Reason is one of the three legs of the Anglican stool; it is a gift of God and should be treasured. There is no error here, but there is a danger.

The problem with reason is that the Christian faith is not at all reasonable. That isn't the same as saying that there is no reason in Christianity, but our functional premise is not reason but mystery. St. Paul writes to Timothy: "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory." St. Paul does not proclaim the reasonability of our Faith, nor does he seek to make it relevant. St. Paul knows, as only one who has been knocked off his high horse can, that religious progress can only be made when we are prepared to sacrifice our intellectual mastery for spiritual mystery.

Mystery is so often unwelcome. It is intimidating. It belittles, suggesting that we have an imperfect capacity to understand and a limited ability to know. Entering into mystery means leaving behind mastery. Mastery of ourselves, mastery of our lives, and mastery of the world, these are the illusions we must sacrifice to join in the continual cry of the Seraphim and Cherubim. Entering into mystery means overcoming the limitations of mechanical reasoning.

This is the difficulty presented to the disciples in this morning's Gospel. Our Lord says: "A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father." The disciples hear this and can't make heads or tails of it. Is it a riddle? The disciples murmur and wonder amongst themselves. Surely there must have been at least one there, the theologian of the group, who postulated some interpretation of those confusing words. Others perhaps, standing at the limits of their own perspective, shrugged and waited for the most persuasive argument to percolate through the chatter. Those disciples, never really known to be decisive, brave, or insightful, here, presented with the splendor of Truth, pool their own ignorance and attempt the master the problem.

We shouldn't be too hard on these disciples. We know the key to the riddle. Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection. But for the disciples who could not fathom Jesus' self sacrifice on the cross, what resources could they pull from to guess at the resurrection? These disciples resemble these words of T.S. Eliot in "Little Gidding": "…And what you thought you came for/Is only a shell, a husk of meaning/From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled/If at all. Either you had no purpose/Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured/And is altered in fulfillment."

These disciples would not come to understand these words of Jesus until they had seen the resurrection, until their limits of logical possibility were opened to the awesome power of God.

Our Lord of course knows their confusion. He even seems to mock the disciples a bit: "Do ye inquire among yourselves" for the meaning of my words? Does it sting you a little bit too? As an expert teacher Jesus seeks not just to teach the material but to inculcate values and influence action. Why did Our Lord let the disciples murmur and wonder so long? What did he want to teach those disciples? Perhaps this: Mystery cannot be approached by sitting and reading or standing and discussing. Mystery is best learned on the knees and praying. Jesus in his last moments with his disciples wanted to teach them to pray.

T.S. Eliot is again more eloquent that I am: "If you came this way,/Taking any route, starting from anywhere,/At any time or at any season,/It would always be the same: You would have to put off /sense and notion. You are not here to verify,/Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/Or carry report. You are here to kneel".

Prayer is a conversation in which God alone has the initiative. We are in that time and moment merely listeners. God's Word is the invitation and the response because God's word is God himself.

It is in God's Word that we will find our Easter joy. Because in God's Word:

We are not left with an inspirational martyr. Our Martyr rose! His sacrifice once offered cleanses still. Alleluia!

We are not left to decipher the dry words of an ancient teacher. Our Teacher is risen! He teaches us still. Alleluia!

We are not left to lament the loss of an idyllic age. The promise of the ages has been realized for us. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Let us pray: O god, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man's understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all we can desire. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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