Sermon at Grace Church
Easter 5 B – May 6, 2012
by the Rev. Constance Jones
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8
The book of Acts, which the Church traditionally reads in the Easter season,
is full of signs and wonders, prison-breaks, shipwrecks,
people getting beaten up or miraculously healed,
long voyages, arguments and conflict,
and even an attack by a poisonous snake.
But most significantly, Acts is filled with conversion experiences,
because in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead,
God’s Holy Spirit is unleashed in the world and unheard-of things happen!.
And from Acts today – the dramatic conversion of a very high Ethiopian official.
He’s reading the Bible when Philip appears.
What does this mean? he asks,
and Philip interprets the passage from Isaiah in terms of the risen Lord Jesus.
The Ethiopian is converted.
Wow! he says. Look! I see water in that ditch!
You could baptize me right now!
Philip does exactly that, then POOF!
Philip is whisked away by the Holy Spirit,
and the Ethiopian embarks on his new life as a Christian.
Now, I figure that all of us are here in church for one of two reasons.
Either we ourselves had a conversion experience at one point.
It may have been in an instant, as it was for the Ethiopian,
or it may have been a gradual process.
Each conversion is unique.
But we have been claimed by God, and somehow it’s unmistakable.
The other possibility is that we feel pulled in God’s direction somehow.
Maybe we are on a deliberate quest,
or maybe we just know something is missing from our lives.
We are open, though, to finding what this conversion business is about.
What a blessing it is, I might add,
when we are honest enough to tell these stories to each other.
They are marks of the ongoing work
of that main character in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit,
abundantly alive in the church, the world,
and our lives to this present moment.
My own conversion moments began in adolescence,
and many of them came through books.
I kept a book journal, in fact,
which I’d give an arm and a leg to get my hands on now.
It was a chronicle of the development of my soul.
These days I sometimes run across and reread one of those books
in which I found God speaking to me.
One was C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.
And as it happens, nine of us from Grace Church went last night went
to see a live stage version of Screwtape Letters rewritten as a play.
It was quite an experience.
Screwtape imagines the advice a senior devil writes to a novice devil
on how to subvert a Christian soul and keep him from serving God.
It’s satire, but it’s also full of wisdom about our frail human nature,
and the ways we can be drawn away from the love of God.
But the final scene when the devil is defeated and union with God is won
is a religious experience in itself.
Anyway, whatever the beginning of your journey in Christ –
whether it was through reading, or a singular religious experience,
through prayer or a dream, or a relationship with another person,
it was only the beginning.
Now you are called to be a disciple, to grow in the faith.
You will weather the times of temptation and dryness,
and wrestle with inner arguments that just might be the wiles of the devil.
You learn prayer, obedience, and perseverance.
You prepare for all that will unfold in your life.
I mean, suppose you met an Ethiopian asking you about Isaiah,
and what if your only answer was, “I dunno.”?
I remember an interview with a survivor of that plane so neatly landed
in the Hudson River by a pilot named Sullenberger.
who’d helped several people down the emergency chute onto the wing of the plane,
was asked what he had learned from the experience.
Well, he said, a lot of things, but one of them is to stay physically fit.
You never know when you might need to swim for your life,
or when you might be able to save somebody else’s life.
There’s spiritual fitness, too,
that’s preparation for unforseen challenges that come to you.
At any time, your faith may be called on to keep you afloat in rough seas.
At any time, you, and only you,
may need to be Christ to a co-worker or a stranger.
Will you come up with the right words, the act of kindness,
or – dare I say? – the knowledge about the prophet Isaiah?
The Holy Spirit uses us every day, you know, in unanticipated ways.
We need to be equipped and ready for action.
I figure this is a good reason to come to church.
To find God here, to be touched and fed by him,
and then to learn how to live a life that abides in Christ,
as the Gospel of John puts it today.
To share your story with others and learn from them,
and to be prepared for the task, in the Holy Spirit,
to go out an live a holy life in this world.
This isn’t an abstract path.
Those early Christians did what we do.
They gathered, prayed and ate together, taught their children,
sang hymns and studied Scripture,
and cultivated the habits of a holy life.
Some of them, as it turned out, were preparing for martyrdom.
Others had less dramatic ways they lived out Christ’s call.
But all the same, they set out on an unknown journey,
equipped by their faith for whatever befell them.
This doesn’t mean we don’t mess up.
Nor does it mean that we feel holy all the time.
Sometimes we can’t really feel God’s presence at all.
But we’ve chosen the path of obedience and faithfulness,
and we ask for God’s guidance and strength as a matter of habit.
We trust we will be given all we need to persevere,
whatever joy on the path, or suffering.
In Screwtape the elder devil giving advice on how to avoid losing this soul to God
(whom the devils call “The Enemy”), says
“Do not be deceived. . . .
Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring,
but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will,
looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished,
and asks why he has been forsake, and still obeys.”1
There are a variety of ways of expressing
this gradual process that Lewis describes in Screwtape.
Mystics and teachers have written untold numbers of books about.
It’s the process Jesus invited his disciples into, and every one of us as well.
You can call it growing in the faith, or call it sanctification.
With St. Paul, you can call it putting on Christ, like a garment.
But I think it’s the chief reason for being part of a church.
Now, church as it actually has existed for two thousand years
is always faulty.
OK, sometimes it is negligent or pig-headed or simply wrong.
But surely the Holy Spirit has preserved it for God’s own reasons.
It must be for the nurture and training of, well, saints.
Who will go out into the world and be God’s love in this hurting world.
Who will show kindness, speak the truth,
comfort those who mourn,
make a safe haven for children, for things of beauty, or even for bees.
Who will forgive, even where there is a legitimate grievance,
who will pray for the unlovable,
and who will remember and do what Jesus asked us to do.
The saints (that’s you and me, remember)
will be church, in order to
show forth the truth of the resurrected Christ,
the triumph of hope, mercy, and love.
Screwtape played last night at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk
to a very mixed audience –
old and young, mixed races,
I suspect church-goers and non.
Many evangelicals, I’m sure,
because C.S. Lewis is much loved by conservative Christians these days.
During the discussion with the actor afterwards, though,
a show of hands revealed that half the audience or more had never read Screwtape.
A page in the program anticipated that some of the audience
would be uncomfortable with such an explicitly Christian story
So it printed an excerpt from a review of the play during its New York run.
Here’s a paragraph:
Among many of my peers [the young reviewer says] Christianity is something for bible-thumpers and right-wing conservatives–something we are predisposed to mock rather than venerate. . . . It is therefore doubly important that ironic post-college twentysomethings like myself go and see The Screwtape Letters.
What is presented is an intelligent, accessible, bitingly satirical and funny exploration of profound issues of right and wrong. This is not bible-thumping; this is serious meditation on issues having to do with the human experience–and it is an important reminder of what Christianity can be.
Well, as it turns out, this play not only explores the process of sanctification,
of growing into a holy life, it is a product of it.
A foundation called the Fellowship of the Performing Arts
raised the money to produce professional high-quality plays
that explore matters of faith and unabashedly profess it.
It occurred to me last night that I had witnessed
yet one more fresh, new instance of the Holy Spirit set loose in the world.
You could even tack it on to the end of the Book of Acts.
So, I invite you in joining me in getting ready to see
what the Holy Spirit is going to do today,
this time through you and me. Amen.
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (NY: Macmillan, 1950), 47.