This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Keller, on Sunday, April 29, 2018.
St Martin in the Fields, Keller 2018 5 Easter – Year B April 29
The celebration of Confirmation tends to be a day on which we celebrate what is good, and true, and beautiful about our tradition. So, if you’re a visitor you may need to endure that – fair warning. Henri Nouwen says that a celebration is more than a party. To celebrate someone’s life is to lift it up, make it visible, affirm it, and be grateful for it. I would suggest that there is much to celebrate today about St Martin in the Fields and the Episcopal Church. (I’ll say more about that momentarily.)
But, first let’s turn to today’s Gospel. The disciples are gathered in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. Jesus has washed their feet. Judas has left to do what he must do. Jesus is well into his farewell speech (his last words) when he says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. … Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”
Throughout his speech on the night before he dies, Jesus uses images which suggest that we abide – that we dwell within – the Divine, and the Divine dwells within us. He says, “abide in me, as I abide in you.” He says to his followers that the Father will give you another Advocate – the Spirit of truth – to be with you forever. “You know him,” he says, “because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
The Spirit of truth abides with you, and he will be in you. These are words that the early Church took quite seriously. For the first 600 years of the early Church, theologians insisted on the reality of the indwelling of the Spirit – some claiming the Spirit of truth to be written on the human heart.
One early theologian put it this way: “Grace engraves on the heart … the laws of the Spirit. [We] must NOT therefore draw [our] confidence ONLY from the Scriptures written in ink, for God’s grace also inscribes the laws of the Spirit, … on the tables of the heart.” [Pseudo-Macarius]
By this quotation we can see that there was a dynamic interplay between Word and Spirit in the early Church. However, to do a little history, with the split between the East and the West came a split between Spirit and Word.
To unpack that a little, when the Church split at the first millennium between East and West (what we tend to think of as a split to the East by the Eastern Orthodox traditions, and a split to the West by Roman Catholicism) we saw the beginning of a divide in that interplay between Word and Spirit.
The West became mostly influenced by the Word – the cognitive, the rational, the structural. And then, with the Protestant Reformation, we in the West became further entrenched in the Word, as some western Protestant theologians declared that not only are the Scriptures the PRIMARY form of God’s revelation, but the ONLY way by which God is made known.
And this theological move reflected the western personality. And religion in the West, like western culture and western science, was a religion of words: rational, empirical, and cognitive (good things, by the way).
Now I’m not suggesting perfection in the East, but while the West can be characterized by the Word, the idea, the mind, the East is known by another dimension of reality – the Spirit. Poetry, music, and art are of the Spirit.
The Spirit evokes a reality beyond the mind. Wind, movement, energy, breath, freedom, the heart: these are words of the Spirit, and they characterize eastern Christianity, other eastern religions, and eastern culture.
So, we’ve had this split between East and West. And yet, now that’s beginning to change – perhaps to change back. Some have tried to pinpoint Vatican II, 50 years ago, as the beginning of a new day in the West, and that viewpoint has credibility. Others would say that our nation’s long overdue move to open immigration to Asians in 1965 was the defining moment. Asians brought with them Eastern practices which fed a deep hunger for those starved by an overly rational religion. Others would say that post-modern science, unlike Newtonian physics, observes what Eastern metaphysics has claimed all along: that all is one, all is connected – like the vine and the branches.
Whatever the convergence of factors, with the shrinking of our world and our growing exposure to the East, western theologians are experiencing eastern dimensions of reality. And the people, longing to encounter the Divine Spirit, are not far behind.
Throughout American culture we have seen evidence of this thirst to encounter the Divine, sometimes in ways that make some us westerners uncomfortable: the charismatic movement; the growing popularity of eastern religions (in a West Coast bookstore, the number of books from eastern religions will double Christian authors); and even New Age Spirituality is an attempt to encounter something beyond the rational, morality- driven religion of the West. People are seeking something more.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear about someone seeking something more. He is nameless in the story, but he is an Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. As the story goes, Philip, one of the apostles, is moved by the Spirit to go to the chariot and ask the seeker, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Ethiopian eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
The seeker in the story realizes that there must be more to the passage than the written word. The divine meaning of the scriptures must go beyond the letter, beyond the word. And with Philip’s help, he understands through the interplay between Word and Spirit.
Here’s how a Roman Catholic monk, named Bruno Barnhart, sheds light on that interplay between Word and Spirit. First he likens the Spirit to Music. He compares the Spirit to Music, and reminds us that to read or listen to scripture is to listen for the Music.
He says: “The scriptures themselves are the score, not the music. The music happens when the words, the marks on the page, are actualized by the Spirit of Life. … The goal of reading or listening is to hear the Music.” [Barnhart, p 126]
The scriptures themselves are the score, not the music; marks on a page, not the music. The goal is to hear the music. The music happens when the words are made alive by the Spirit, which happens in the heart.
People, including me, and I bet you, are seeking the Music. We thirst for the Spirit. And according to Jesus, God has planted the Spirit within our hearts. “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Now here’s where I want to suggest something on this day of celebration. The Episcopal Church has roots in the mystical tradition of the East, and we have maintained that connection. I don’t want to overstate that connection, but it is true that our earliest Prayer Book authors incorporated eastern theology into our prayers. It’s also true that the influence of Celtic Spirituality can be felt in our communion today. Jon Macquarrie refers to the Celt as a “God-intoxicated man.”
Both historical threads (the Eastern and the Celtic) can be characterized by a desire for an encounter with the Divine – whether through nature, through people, through worship, through Scripture.
I would suggest that deep roots in this interplay between Word and Spirit can be found in our tradition. While it is God’s doing, and not our brilliance, today we celebrate the Episcopal Church. We lift it up, and make it visible, and affirm it, and remember with gratitude our calling, our peculiar voice, in a culture seeking something more … in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.