This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, on Sunday, May 20, 2018. He was preaching in the wake of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s highly acclaimed sermon the day before at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel. Curry preached about the power of love, and Bishop Mayer picked up on that theme in his sermon.
God’s love is the answer
Trinity FW 2018 – 1 Day of Pentecost May 20, 2018
Today’s reading of the Acts of the Apostles tells us about the beginning of the Day of Pentecost, and how “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, … and divided tongues, as of fire, rested on them, … and all were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.”
But if we keep reading, the story tells us even more about this community of love. It tells us how the newly risen Body of disciples devote themselves to the teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. And they have all things in common, selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to all, as any have need. That’s love. With generous hearts and having the goodwill of all the people, they share, whether deserved or not.
This is not a forced political agenda; it is love freely chosen. And so attractive is this love to others, that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The power of God’s love, proclaimed and embodied.
Well, we can read the rest of the book (the Acts of the Apostles), and for that matter we can read Church History and be mildly observant today, and we can see that the trajectory of the Church’s capacity to love and grow has not been a steady incline.
But most of us here can say we have experienced such love: sacrificial love; love without conditions; love we did not or do not deserve. And we know that such love is what changes lives. We know that such love can raise the dead. We know that God’s love is the answer – even in our own time and place.
I want to suggest today that there is a time and place within the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that might resemble our own context in 21st century North America. Moving forward on the timeline within the Book of Acts, I want to take us to the time and place where baptized people were first called Christians in Antioch.
According to the Book of Acts, Antioch is where the first disciples of Christ were called Christians. (Scholars believe it was a derogatory term.) A metropolitan city, the third largest in the Roman Empire (behind only Rome and Alexandria), Antioch was a cosmopolitan city where people of all cultures freely mingled – perhaps not unlike a large American city. Situated geographically in the Roman province of Syria, quite naturally the population would be Syrian. But, it would have a large Jewish colony, as well. And the influence of Greek culture would be huge.
And it is the move to bring the Gospel to this city of Antioch – and specifically to Greek culture – which triggers the first rapid growth of Christianity. It’s where a growing Jewish sect which follows the Risen Christ meets Greek culture – and the Gospel message takes off. The conversion of the Greek world is dramatic.
So, what would attract a people like the Greeks to Christianity? The Greeks were brilliant, and the Greek influence on this emerging new religion can never be underestimated. The Greeks help shape the emerging new religion, but what would attract a people so brilliant in the area of philosophy, and science, and the arts to this new religion in the first place? How could a culture which put such a premium on the mind and reason, who sought Truth through intellectual inquiry, who through mythological deities made sense of divine action in the world – how could they be open to conversion to a Jewish sect, now called Christians?
After all, the Greeks had in their culture already the wisdom of rare philosophers, like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and many more. They had a world view with classical hero gods, like Zeus and Apollo and Hercules and Atlas and Dionysus – theological aspects of each deity would eventually be applied to the Christian Trinity.
Already, they understood gods as both transcendent and as immanent (as beyond and as near) – just as Christians understand the One God. They wrestled with the problem of evil. They put a premium on ethics. They sought meaning in life. They believed in an afterlife. What in this new emerging world view coming out of Jerusalem could be so attractive? What about it was so compelling? What about it was different enough to convert?
And the answer can be given in one word: love. This new message, this new Gospel revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth, proclaims something unheard of – something radical and attractive: it proclaims, declares, and even demonstrates that God loves us. More than Creator, more than Divine Ruler, more than Judge: God loves us. That’s the new message: love.
And that love is expressed through the sacrifice, suffering, and universal compassion of the Word made Flesh. Unlike the Greek hero gods, the Christian Divine Archetype (the Christian hero) surrenders. Jesus of Nazareth surrenders. And following Jesus, all one has to do to know God is to surrender. Rather than strive through effort to achieve union with God, surrender.
That’s a very attractive message to a culture which has been seeking union with the Divine through the intellect, through brilliance and strength and culture and beauty and knowledge (all good things). Richard Tarnas, author of “The Passion of the Western Mind,” says: “In contrast to the Greek focus on great heroes and rare philosophers, the Christians proclaimed a universal salvation, available to all – slaves as well as kings, simple souls as well as profound thinkers, sick and suffering as well as strong and fortunate.” [Tarnas, 116]
The Christian Gospel as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is first and foremost a Gospel of love, proclaiming God’s love for everyone: that Love sacrifices; love shows compassion; love surrenders for the sake of others. An emerging religion from Jerusalem proclaims to a sophisticated, intellectual Greek culture the new message (the Gospel) that God loves them. That’s our message today, and always. That is the main thing. It was true in Antioch. It is true in Fort Worth.
Love. That’s the main thing. That’s the difference whatever one’s context. That’s the Gospel we are called to proclaim and embody in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.