Emmanuel, Champaign—John 14:15-21, Acts 17:22-31, I Peter 3:13-22
Many of you know that I am not a cradle Episcopalian. I found Anglican Christianity and the Episcopal Church about 45 years ago, when I was in my early 20s. I was raised in a free-church evangelical tradition, as I suspect some of you were as well. In that environment, there was a pretty strong emphasis on the necessity of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ. ” So my attention was arrested recently when I saw a meme on Facebook with a quote from a theologian debunking that notion, saying that Christianity is not about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My first visceral response to this was to cringe in horror. I still do have an inner Evangelical, and while this inner Evangelical is duly constrained by my more overt Anglican Catholicism, he is nonetheless capable of raising his voice from time to time.
But, when I clicked on the link itself, I felt much better. It led me to a healthy explanation of the essentially communal nature of Christianity, that the Church is a “we” and an “us,” rather than merely a collection of “I” and “me.” Since this is a Sunday parish congregation and not a seminary class, I won’t use language like “ontological priority” … except, I just did! … and simply say that first there’s the Church, to which individual believers are then joined through baptism, rather than there first being individual believers who come together to form the Church. That might seem like splitting hairs, I suppose, but, when you stop to think about it, it’s really a very counter-cultural assertion, even subversive, perhaps. Modern and post-modern Americans are, if anything, hyper-individualistic. In our culture, everything is, in the end, personal.
This makes living as a traditional Christian challenging, because Christianity is, in essence, a communal affair. Notice the language our Prayer Book uses for the Nicene Creed, even in a Rite One context: “We believe … “ And this sense of communal identity, that believing and living as disciples of Jesus is something we do together, not in individual silos, goes right to the heart of our mission, much of which, as we see in our readings today, is apologetic in nature. Now, that word, “apologetic,” has kind of a peculiar definition in church-speak. It doesn’t mean we think our faith is anything we need to apologize for. Rather, it has to do with making a rational, reasonable, and persuasive defense for what we believe, putting it in a way that an open-minded person would find appealing, intriguing, worth looking into further.
This is exactly what St Paul is doing when he finds himself in Athens, around a bunch of people who are famous for their religious curiosity. He exploits that curiosity by pointing out that they even have a temple dedicated to “the unknown god,” the god they haven’t met yet. He tells them, “That’s the God I’m here to tell you about. I’m here to make the unknown God known!” That ingenious strategy didn’t automatically make them putty in his hands, but it certainly kept their interest enough to maintain the conversation.
Indeed, in his letter to a group of newly-baptized Christians, St Peter tells them to “always be prepared to make a defense” for the hope that lies within them as disciples of Jesus. We are all to be engaged, in one way or another, in the work of Christian apologetics. But it’s certainly not easy, not by any measure. In the language of both the gospel and epistles of St John, we are up against “the world,” which is the expression John uses to denote those who are not disciples of Jesus. And this is precisely where it gets sticky, because the world chooses to “receive” or “not receive” the gospel based on the behavior of those who are proclaiming it. In the eyes of the world—and, I would say, understandably and appropriately so—in the eyes of the world, actions speak more loudly than words. The world is quick to assign guilt by association. The misbehavior of some who profess to be Christians complicates the apologetic task for all.
Plus, there’s also the small matter of persecution in many parts of the world. It hasn’t yet come to overt persecution in our society, but our Christian sisters and brothers in many other countries risk their lives just by coming together for the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day, as we are doing at this moment. Persecution can put quite a damper on apologetics.
So we find Jesus in today’s liturgy speaking into our fear and anxiety over our apologetic task. We’re afraid we don’t have the presence of mind to exploit things like the temple to the unknown god the way Paul did in Athens. We’re afraid that we are not, in fact, prepared to give a plausible defense for our faith the way Peter encourages us to in his first epistle. Jesus comes to us today speaking “y’all” language. He’s not addressing his disciples as individuals, one by one, but as a community, gathered in his presence. He talks to them about something called a Paraclete, which is a Greek word that is not particularly easy to efficiently translate into English. If you look at various Bible translations, you’ll find “comforter,” “advocate,” counselor,” and “helper,” and even that probably doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. The most common interpretation of this passage from John’s gospel is that Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, and he probably is. But—if you’ll allow me to make an adjective out of a noun—“parakletic” ministry is not limited to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is himself a paraclete; he says, “If you love me, keep my commandments, and I will send you another paraclete.”
It is “parakletic” ministry, then, whether we’re talking about the Holy Spirit, or one of the other Persons of the Trinity, or just God in general—it is parakletic ministry that resources us in our apologetic endeavors. The advocate, the comforter, the counselor, the helper—this is how our witness as disciples of Jesus to his resurrection, and to his lordship over heaven and earth, is made winsome and attractive and even compelling to those who are searching for deep meaning and purpose in their lives.
But here’s the catch: Everything about the Paraclete depends on our sticking together, being a community rather than just an aggregation of individuals. Jesus says, “keep my commandments.” To most English speakers, that sounds something like, “Obey the rules I lay down for you.” Well, not very many people like rules, particularly those in my Baby Boomer generation. That’s a pretty shaky start to engaging in the task of apologetics. But, according to those who know what they’re talking about with respect to New Testament Greek, “commandment” doesn’t so much mean “rule” as “word” or “words,” and might be best understood as an intense relationship of the community to God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. And sticking together, being in a communal relationship with God in Christ, not just a bunch of personal relationships with God in Christ, this is part of the “keeping” that Jesus has in mind when he says, “keep my commandments.” And this is not just for the sake of the individual Christians who succeed in sticking together; it’s for the sake of their mission, God’s own mission, which is the Church’s mission. In other words, stick together, and in your sticking together, “the world”—you remember the world, not naturally friendly territory for disciples of Jesus—stick together and the world will see God.
It is precisely through life in community that the Church is able to fulfill her mission of proclaiming the good news of God in Christ to the world. This is why fragmentation among Christians—the various “brand names” under which we operate—is so injurious to our mission, and why ecumenism, efforts toward full visible unity, is so vital. God the Son, whom we know as Jesus, God in human flesh—God the Son in his role as paraclete reveals God the Father to us through the mediation of the “other” paraclete, God the Holy Spirit.
And never are we closer to this nonstop transactional energy than when we are gathered at the altar for the celebration of the Eucharist. We offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, represented by bread and wine, to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. God returns those gifts to us as God’s own life, the Body and Blood of the Son, made effective for us through the Spirit. And this is something we can only do together, not by our individual selves. Together, we have all we need to bear compelling witness to a broken world. Alleluia and Amen.