Easter 6 2020
Acts 17:22-34, Psalm 148, 1 Peter 3:8–18, John 15:1-11
In today’s lessons, we heard Paul’s sermon at Athens. He promises to reveal the unknown god who they have already been worshipping and proceeds to use their own writers to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of their longing. For instance, he quotes, “In him we live and move and have our being” from one of their own philosophers. But then he proceeds to say that Jesus is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Paul points to Jesus and his resurrection as the fulfillment of our desire and the source of our hope. Some mock, but other believe.
Then we heard the joyous exclamations of Psalm 148 where all creation is joining in a hymn of praise to our God. The sun and moon, stars and skies, earth and sea and fish as well as fire and hail and snow and mist. All creation is rejoicing before the Creator. In the middle of this jubilation are the people of God, His saints, leading the chorus of Praise to the great High King of Glory. This Psalm grounds us in the earthy, physical praises of God. Stories like St Brendan an St. Kevin and other Celtic saints are filled with images of animals and birds and all creation rejoicing before God.
Here is a ninth century Celtic Psalm of rejoicing that is very similar to Psalm 148:
Glorious Lord, I give you greeting!
Let the church and the chancel praise you,
Let the chancel and the church praise you,
Let the plain and the hill-side praise you,
Let the world’s three well-springs praise you.
Two above wind and one above land,
Let the dark and the daylight praise you.
Abraham, founder of the faith, praise you:
Let the life everlasting praise you,
Let the birds and the honeybees praise you,
Let the shorn stems and the shoots praise you.
Both Aaron and Moses praised you:
Let the male and the female praise you,
Let the seven days and the stars praise you,
Let the air and the ether praise you,
Let the books and the letters praise you,
Let the fish in the swift streams praise you,
Let the thoughts and the action praise you,
Let the sand-grains and the earth-clods praise you,
Let all the good that’s performed praise you.
And I shall praise you, Lord of glory:
Glorious Lord, I give you greeting!
Then our second lesson today calls us to humility, brotherly love, and a tender heart. We are encouraged to share our faith with gentleness and respect. We live in the world not in anger and self-rightness but in kindness and wisdom and grace.
Finally, our Gospel calls us to abide in Christ like branch in a vine. We are to rest, to abide, to dwell, to remain. We rest in the love and joy of God by obeying Him, by loving like He does, which means laying down our lives for one another, or pouring out our lives as an act of worship to God and service to others.
Jesus says in John 15 that abiding in Him will bear fruit. If it does not bear fruit in our lives, then our we truly trusting in Christ? As I was preparing this reflection, I remembered a short film from Charlie Chaplin that I saw back in my college days. The film pits a rugged, angry boss man against Chaplin’s tramp character. It starts out at the break of day as the boss man wakes up from sleep. He immediately kneels down beside his bed and opens the prayer book and begins to pray. Then he goes to work. The rest of the short depicts him shouting at the Tramp, knocking him around, and so on. It is funny and yet sad because his faith which featured so prominently in the opening does not translate into the way he acts in the world. That image has always haunted me.
Does my faith in Christ translate into the world around me? Does the love of Christ reshape my thoughts and actions in this world? What does it look like to be a people who live and move and dwell in Christ? A people who lead the song of praises on behalf of all creation. A people who model gentleness and kindness and wisdom and grace. A people ready to pour out our lives in love.
On the one hand, we have been taken up into Christ by His grace. He has taken hold of us and called us to himself and has revealed Himself in the world around us: that is the world of nature and the world of humans. Just as Paul can see the hand of God at work in the Greco-Roman culture, we can see the hand of God at work in the arts, in music, in great literature. Every so often, we catch a glimpse of all creation, praising God in unison.
But then the image shatters and we are quickly aware of our own sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world around us. Even as we are trusting Christ who is our hope and salvation, we are following Christ, pursuing Christ, longing for Christ. Paul says that “Christ Jesus has made me his own, and then says, “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
Even as Christ has taken hold of Paul, Paul is seeking to take hold of Christ. Paul is pursuing. This gets us back to St Brendan the Navigator and the Celtic idea of pilgrimage or peregrination. St Brendan is seeking to pursue Christ. His whole story is a story of pilgrimage, of longing, of challenges, but also of hope that Christ is providing for Him and drawing Him closer to the Isle of Saints.
The story of St Brendan the Navigator is a fantastic tale, but it captures the great longing to draw near to God on this earth, in the middle of this creation, and the story also captures the idea of all creation participating in some way in this journey with Brendan. We don’t know much about the travels of St. Brendan, but we do know that long before the fantastic stories of Brendan circulated, the story of the man Brendan inspired many Celts to go on pilgrimage for the love of God, including the great missionary Columbanus. His story inspires us that love for God translates into what we do and how we live.
In today’s Gospel and in other Biblical passages, we see organic images of plants growing, producing fruit, and even becoming a refuge for other creatures. These are images of change, of conversion, a maturation. Pilgrimage has this same idea of movement, of growth, of long sought destination. We are growing up into a people who love as Jesus loved. We practice in small ways by honoring one another, serving one another, preferring one another, but we are growing up as a priestly people reveal the love of God to a world in need, who behold the love of God all around us, and who stir worship of God in creation and in people all around us.
As I meditated on growing up into this love, I came across a wonderful poem by George Herbert in Benedicta Ward’s Give Love and Receive the Kingdom. In one essay, she is writing about the role of pilgrimage in English spirituality, and she quotes Herbert’s poem, Prayer.
PRAYER, the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies-world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
— George Herbert
That first stanza captures this image of prayer as a pilgrimage of the heart. We are crying out to God in reversed thunder, and we are being changed over time. Prayer is part of this pursuit for Paul. But this prayer is not separated from living in the physical world. We live with and around people. We live in the midst of trees and grass and skies and stars. The Romanian Orthodox writer Dmitrue Staniloae talks about our life in this world as movement toward love in time and space. The physical and the spiritual are not separated into distinct categories.
We are on pilgrimage each day as we interact with people, as we eat our meals, as we travel to and from work. We are moving. All this movement is part of a greater movement of love poured out upon us by the Father, Son, and Spirit who created this world in love. We respond to His love in prayer and thanksgiving even as we walk through struggle with people, with thus stuff of this world, and even with our own bodies. In the midst of joy and sorrow, we turn to God in Christ, trusting He is shaping us and leading us into a life where we begin to look and act like Christ.
For me, the legacy left behind by the Celtic Christians has stirred me to turn to God in all things. They’ve provoked me to be more aware of God’s blessings all around. They’ve provoked me to give thanks in all things. I am grateful for the witness of God’s people from different ages, and I pray that all of us might also leave of legacy of witness to the Goodness of God revealed in Christ Jesus for ages to come.