Fourth Sunday of Easter 2023 at Volmoed

Readings for the day

When I was growing up the Cold War was raging, and the US was in a particularly fearful and paranoid way. Communists, or as we said back then “godless communists” were spotted behind every shrub. The Soviet Union was the great instrument of Satan and all things bad – and so the US was the great instrument of God and all things good. The rest of the world, at least in the American mind, was left to fit into one or the other sphere of influence, the good sphere (ours) or the bad. In the US we like things to be very binary, very black or white.

The USSR and the USA fought proxy wars in Cuba, Viet Nam, and in various spots in Africa. Any tyrant, no matter how depraved or abusive, if he opposed the USSR, could count on a vast supply of guns, other weapons, and large amounts of money from the US – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” was the controlling doctrine. The world has not recovered from this. 

Christianity is still struggling to recover as well. Many parts of the Church in the US taught, and teach, that Capitalism is God’s own economic system, the only system, therefore, that Christians can embrace. In that thinking, capitalism is godly, and communism is ungodly. I suspect that God is more concerned with the fruit of any economic system – are God’s sheep being fed? And on that measure, both systems are in trouble. 

The drama played out differently here in South Africa, but nonetheless, the animosity between the USSR and USA produced proxies and still affects events – who were friends in the middle of the last century still has an impact. The ghosts of old wounds and enemies haunt our modern world. This may be something to consider as we observe Freedom Day.

You may be wondering what this has to do with today’s readings… I’m wondering a bit myself…

But let’s reflect on the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We’re told that the faithful followers of Jesus would sell all their goods and distribute the proceeds to each as they had need. And not only that, but they broke bread together and ate with glad hearts.

You could make a pretty strong argument that these early Christians were socialist, not capitalists. The problem with this is that neither socialism nor capitalism will come into existence for more than a thousand years…

The author of the Acts of the Apostles could not be influenced by Karl Marx, but it is pretty likely that Marx was influenced, at least indirectly, by the Acts of the Apostles. The important question is how should we be influenced by the Acts of the Apostles?

The Apostles in the Acts of the Apostles are really struggling with what it means to be a follower of Jesus, now that Jesus is no longer in human form to follow. They are filled with fear. They had become accustomed to quite a luxury – they could go ask Jesus what to do. The answers they got may have been cryptic and vague at best. But we don’t even have that luxury. We have this body of answers to other people’s questions asked two millennia ago from which we must try to determine what Jesus calls us to do.

But we’re not as bad off as we might want to think. Jesus says that when he goes, God will send another in his place: the Holy Spirit of God. This is the event we remember as Pentecost, which is just a few weeks away. The disciples had to learn a new way to relate to God. The disciples had to learn to rely on the Holy Spirit. That is our task as well – how do we live in the Spirit?

The teachings of Jesus as recorded in scripture are, in some ways, like insects frozen in amber. But we are not archeologists studying the remains of things long past. We are followers of Jesus, a living community. The Holy Spirit is very much speaking to us today and every day.

A friend of mine told me of a marvelous dream he had. He was in an old hospital – the type you might find in a story by Charles Dickens. It had high ceilings and heavy stone walls. Outside the room massive corridors rambled around. He was alone in his room and the only object in the room was a white curtain on a frame – now hospitals have the curtains all suspended from railings on the ceiling, but in older hospitals, there were these folding frames of curtains – like shoji screens.

At some point he became aware that God was on the other side of that screen… And when he realized this, he flung himself on the floor and immediately began to pray for God to forgive him. Every bad thing he had ever done was suddenly pouring out of his mouth.

And then he woke up and he realized that God had been speaking from the other side of that screen. What had God been saying? He had no idea. He had literally drowned out the voice of God with his endless repentance…

There is a time and place for repentance, but when God is speaking, it is the time to listen.

The reading from the Gospel according to John is another invitation to listen. It’s easy to be a bit distracted by this discussion of thieves and bandits breaking into the sheepfold with murder in their hearts. But pay attention to the sheep. They listen to the true shepherd – to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to God. They know their shepherd’s voice and so they are not distracted, not confused, not fearful. We are at least as smart as sheep…

There are many reasons why we might want to ignore God. Not good reasons, but not necessarily bad reasons. The difference between God and the god who my friend discovered behind the hospital curtain is that God does not stop speaking when we wake up. God speaks. When we are ready, we will hear God’s voice.

Among the really bad reasons not to listen to God is fear. How many times in scripture are we told not to be afraid. And yet, being human, fear is always with us. The instruction to not be afraid is not helpful, but I think the instruction is really to not be driven by fear. We can, and will have fear, but we don’t want to let it be in charge.

In the Cold War, an irrational fear of communists took hold and became a major guide for world politics dominated by the United States. The results were horrific. Adolph Hitler used fear to manipulate the German people – again with horrific results including the Second World War and the Holocaust. And still these days, political leaders use fear as a way of motivating behavior. Nothing good ever comes from this sort of motivation.

Surely at the time of Jesus there was great fear. Keep in mind those Apostles hiding in a locked room. And Jesus comes to them and patiently sets aside their fears.

John’s Gospel tells us that perfect love casts out fear. And we hear marvelous stories of people doing heroic things for the sake of love. Even mother cats who risk their lives walking into burning buildings to save their beloved kittens…

Alfred Lord Tennyson in his series of epic poems on the legends of King Arthur tells us that perfect hate casts out fear as well. Experience tells us this is true – people filled with hate are capable of horrific acts like suicide bombings. Their fear has been cast out.

Freedom Day may have many meanings including the memory of the freeing of South Africa. But real freedom is being freed from the grip of fear. That is the freedom of Jesus that we find in the Gospel.

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