Sunday, April 27, 2008

Uncle Stand-In

‘In him we live and move and have our being’

1 John 2:1-14

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments.

Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.


In the name of God, source of all being, eternal word and holy spirit - AMEN.

In the book of Acts we travel a long journey with the apostle Paul, from Saul the self-righteous persecutor to Paul the missionary. He begins his journey appealing to the Law – even against the Spirit and the Son of God. But last and least appeared to him the resurrected Jesus – and he became his messenger to the nations.

From Ephesus and Thessalonica and Tarsus and Damascus, where he had been able to speak in the synagogues – for a while – he goes to Athens; the capital of sophisticated discourse, of philosophers. He cannot appeal to the Law, the law they do not know: he can only appeal to the law they know in their hearts; as their own poets said, ‘for we too are his offspring.”

Paul proclaims to the Athenians that the god unknown that they have built an altar to is the god who needs no altar, who is not confined by time or space, certainly not by shape or form in stone or wood or metal, and indeed not by anything in all their philosophy – he is supreme, creator, One: he is the source of all being. And he is not simply the ‘mover unmoved’ – the original push (or bang) that got the universe started; he is the God who sustains life and gives breath to all his creatures.

He made all nations of the earth from one ancestor, Paul proclaims, and so planned the times and places of the lives of all people so that they would seek him – and, perhaps, ‘grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from us.’

Paul contends with the philosophers, the intellectuals, the coffee house crowd, honoring them and showing them that what they have sought is coming to pass: the one that they all have been seeking is seeking all of them. Indeed, he has sent a man to be their advocate, their vindicator, their righteous judge, and assured us of this by raising him from the dead.

Jesus comes to them, even the pagan world, not to condemn them but to bring them to life, full life, abundant life – that which they have worshipped in the dark – in ignorance – now they will be enabled to worship in the light of a new day.

What is dawning is an enlightenment born of God – and of the Spirit. Therefore what they hear in Paul’s proclamation is a completion of the groundwork God laid in the very foundation stones of creation. Earth and sky and sea testify to him – and now in fulfillment of his plan God sends one, his own, to call all to repent, and begin turning, turning home, to the home they never knew – to the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

“Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.” – this is the psalmist’s summons – and the psalm carries us on to the next step. Beyond argument there is devotion – and prayer – and the petitions of the psalmist have not gone unheard.

“I called out to him with my mouth, and his praise was on my tongue. If I had found evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard me; but in truth God has heard me; he has attended the voice of my prayer.”

Far from rejecting the plea of the unknown God fearer, the Lord hears the cry of the seeking soul, and all, Jew and Gentile, far and near, sophisticated and plain vanilla, can echo the psalmist’s thank offering and praise:

“Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.”

In the second lesson, from the first letter of Peter, the days of reassurance are far away – and the days of persecution ‘for the sake of my name’ are close at hand. Do not fear, do not be intimidated – nothing the world can throw at you can separate you from God.

In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord – let your conduct reflect his glory, and your speech confess the hope that is in you – the hope of Glory. With a clear conscience – made clear through the resurrection of Christ Jesus – you can hope.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh in deed, but he was made alive in the spirit. His life and death and resurrection and ascension give us freedom from fear forever – we no longer need be intimidated by the world’s judgments. We are already vindicated before the highest court – and in the name of Christ we are welcomed into God’s favor. And so Peter, like Paul, reminds us to be worthy of our calling and of the name of the one in whom we receive life.

In the Gospel of John we continue to hear the words of comfort and assurance, and of exhortation, that are part of the long discourse at the end of the Passover meal – remember, Judas has left, to go ‘do what he has to do’, and now the rest of the disciples are coming to terms with what it will mean when Jesus goes. How are you to go on living when the one who is the very principle of life has gone?

This is the dilemma and the bereavement that the disciples face, on the eve of the crucifixion: how are they to live in the absence of their master, their teacher?

Many teachers would leave their students feeling abandoned, orphans – this is the image used of the followers of men like Socrates. But such is not our fate – as followers of Jesus we are heirs to the promise made to the disciples on that first Holy Week, that Jesus will ask the Father – he will be our advocate to the Father, and make petition to him on our behalf – and what he asks for we receive: another advocate, to be with us forever; the spirit of truth.

Jesus makes of the spirit’s coming an ‘open secret’ – the spirit is only revealed to those in whom he makes his home. In Christ and through Christ, in the Spirit and through the Spirit, in the Father and through the Father – in all these ways, the three persons of the Trinity, we abide in God – and God abides in us. This is the promise Jesus is making on the eve of his own departure – that, in the spirit, he will be present. He will not abandon his disciples – and he does not. The world no longer sees him, but he lives – he lives in the Father, and we in him, and he in us. This is the promise of the spirit, of the abiding of God with us and us in him.

How heady this all is! And yet, the practical steps are laid out before us: to know him, is, well, to love him – and this is the love not of emotion but of obedience: if you love me you will follow my teachings; the one who keeps my word – and carries it out in the world – this is the one who loves me, and knows I am here.

Jesus’ promise is to send a ‘paraclete’ – originally a legal term, a “paraclete” was an advocate, a counselor, or a stand-in: someone who would speak on your behalf before the court. And a paraclete can be a teacher, and a comforter.

For example: when Sarah was ready for her ‘coming-out’ party all the girls were to gather every weekend to receive dancing lessons, together with their fathers, so that on the day of the big dance they could be presented, and escorted, and dance together, fathers and daughters.

Sarah’s father had died three years before, and so her Uncle was to escort her. But he lived in Texas. And so he could not attend the weekly dancing lessons.

But an old friend of Sarah’s father stepped in – he offered to go with Sarah to all the lessons, - he said, “I’d be glad to be your Uncle stand-in” and so she, the only girl without a father present, was not alone. Frank learned all the dances and taught them conscientiously to her uncle, who performed them perfectly on the day of the dance. It was a great success. And so I was especially glad, when I met Sarah’s family, to meet “Uncle Stand-in” – representative, comforter, and teacher.

We are not alone. Come, Holy Spirit, advocate and guide, be with us, to teach, to comfort, to lead: and bring us into the presence of the living God, in Christ. Amen.

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