Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
The sense that we can have it all is always beguiling. It suggests that material success and a rich family life are always compatible and easily achievable, so long as the structures are right. It hides the reality that we have to make choices and commitments and to live with their consequences.
In some things moreover, the character of our childhoods and education do indeed affect our prospects, regardless of personal merit and application. In this way, we find that life does not always lead to the goals that we had imagined in youth or as we set out into the world.
The point of all this is how do we let these things affect us? With satisfaction for some, regret or even bitterness for others, perhaps a measure of resignation for many.
If these are our only signposts in life, then it is driech indeed.
But Jesus points us differently, and in a single sentence in the gospel there are several turning points.
First there is there is the “if …then” aspect. If we love Him then we will keep His commandments. This can be seen in two ways: Jesus’ threefold question to Simon Peter: “Do you love Me?” brought forth a threefold affirmation. As we love the Lord, and make ourselves sensitive and indeed vulnerable to His commandments, so we find that we are drawn into the economy of His life and nature, and that love is a matter or identity and of will rather than of sentiment or feeling. As we commit to Him, so we find that He does indeed come through in our times of need.
Jesus is always looking for our response, for that is what a relationship is. But equally, our often shallow and even puny sense of commitment is more than matched by the royal and majestic commitment of Jesus to us.
But is also shows His confidence in us: if we love Him then He has no doubt that we will indeed keep His commandments and He will give us that special and personal advocate to be with us and near us and in us: the Holy Spirit.
That Advocate – whom Jesus calls the Spirit of Truth – is there to lead us through the pitfalls and past the dead ends of a culture that essentially rejects Him, even if it gives a grudging tolerance to Jesus’ followers: and even here the climate of fashion and opinion is easily changed.
And yet we indeed need that ability to discern the true from the false and to see beyond appeals to sentiment or aesthetics or even to implied guilt.
We need that discernment to lead us to the heart of a relationship, an argument, a campaign, a fashion or a presentation. When it is said that the image is the reality, then all trust is put in presentation. It demands that all material facts and considerations are being or will be presented without distortion, bias or deception, and that all processes in which the case is made will be equally open to scrutiny.
Indeed when the medium of exchange in ideas has become ever more a matter of emotional manipulation then I really have to doubt whether this is indeed where we right now.
The next point that Jesus makes is that the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit for it neither sees Him nor knows Him. John’s writings are full of the incompatibility of light and dark, truth and falsehood. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.”
There is the world in all its finery of economic and military power, cultural subtlety, its infrastructure and political institutions, its technology and mass health and education.
There is also the world in which the devil came to Jesus and offered Him the whole of this magnificence in exchange for His worship, pointing out, without contradiction from Jesus, that it was his to give away.
It was a world in which there might indeed be a godless magnificence in all spheres of human endeavour, but being godless they would beguile and ensnare many as if there were nothing more, and as if even more could not have been achieved by the Body of Christ properly working together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But Jesus pointed out that the world not only did not have the Holy Spirit but that it could not have Him, for it neither saw not knew Him. It was in denial of Him, and claims that the Spirit of God was there in all places so that adherence to Jesus Christ and Him crucified was not only optional was always a deception.
The Spirit of God is there to lead all Jesus Christ and to none other.
In all this therefore we should take comfort. The Holy Spirit who was given to us at baptism is not a once-and-for-all-time blessing. St Paul calls on us to be filled and filled and filled and filled and filled with the Spirit. Whenever drained or discouraged, then that is the time to ask for a new filling. Indeed the Holy Spirit is given in order that He might be poured out – and our capacity to be refilled is inexhaustible.
One final point: the struggle for success and domination demands that some – indeed many – should fail. Indeed it rejoices in such failure, for it represents the measure of the success of the mighty. But Jesus does not look for failure in any – and has given His all that all may succeed.