A Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Why are you here?
That’s the implied question hiding just behind each of our readings this morning. Both our passage from Acts and our Gospel lesson bring us into the middle of conversations already in progress. They can be difficult to understand without a little context. But the key to grasping our Scripture today—and the key to grasping its meaning for us—is to hear and face that question: “Why are you here?”
“Why are you here?” It’s the question that St Peter asks when, just a few verses earlier in Acts Chapter 10, messengers arrive from a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Peter is busy puzzling over a vision he has just received: the strange spectacle of a sheet filled with unclean animals descending from heaven, accompanied by a voice commanding Peter to “Rise, kill, and eat.” As a faithful Jew who is also a follower of the Risen Jesus, Peter can’t understand what this vision might mean.
But waking from his reverie just as Cornelius’s messengers arrive searching for him, Peter finds himself more perplexed than he was before. At this early point in the Church’s life, the Gospel was a message for Jews only, and not for Gentiles. And so Peter asks these Roman seekers the sensible, appropriate question, “What is the reason for your coming? Why are you here?”
“Why are you here?” is the question that Cornelius himself asks with respect and hopefulness when Peter finally arrives at his home in Caesarea. Though Cornelius had had his own vision, a vision in which the angel of the Lord told him to send for Peter, yet he had not been told why he should beg the Apostle to visit his home. Reverently, expectantly, surrounded by his assembled family and friends, Cornelius may well have asked Peter the fisherman now made a fisher of men, “I was told to send for you, and now have you come. We are eager to hear what you have been commanded by the Lord to say. So tell us…why are you here?”
“Why are you here?” is the rhetorical question behind Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples in Chapters 14, 15, and 16 of John’s Gospel. As the Lord prepares to face his passion, cross, and death, he takes time to tell his closest followers of the immeasurable depths of his love for them, and he urges them to love one another with the same love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus wants them to understand what has brought them together around him. He wants them to comprehend the origin and nature of their connection to him. He wants them to grasp the gift of mutual abiding that will sustain them in the difficult days ahead. And so the master talks to his servants—the lover speaks with his beloved—the friend tells his friends—his own final answer to the persistent question they have of him and of themselves: “Why are you here?”
“Why are you here?” This question standing behind our readings today reverberates down through the centuries to us, too. Why are you here? There are plenty of other ways to spend a Sunday morning. And even if you insist on spending the Lord’s day in worship, that doesn’t answer the question of why you are here, at Trinity—after all, there are plenty of other churches in Columbia, and limitless options for finding spirituality on television and online. So why are you here—here sitting in these pews, here looking up at these windows, here worshipping before this altar? Why are you here?
The power and importance of this question stems from our potential for getting it wrong. That danger was certainly present for Peter. He might have taken one look at the Gentile slaves and the Roman soldier who came seeking him and said, “No. There must be some mistake. Whatever your reason for coming, as a faithful Jew I cannot associate with unclean people such as yourselves,” and then sent them away.
The danger was present for Cornelius who, though he was himself a Gentile, was attracted to the worship of the God of Israel. Cornelius might easily have jumped to conclusions or made assumptions about the reason for Peter’s visit. He might have greeted the Apostle with sure and certain expectation, telling him, “You have come here to make us Jews, because God has considered me worthy of the honor. So speak, Peter, and tell us what we must do to join the chosen people.”
The danger of getting the question wrong is ever present for Jesus’ followers—those feeble, faithless, foolish men who so regularly get things wrong in our Gospels. Remember that everything Jesus says in our Gospel today he says on the very eve of Good Friday. What if the disciples had attempted to address the question “Why are you here?” with reference to their own keen perception and extraordinary promise? They might have reassured themselves, “Well of course Jesus calls us his friends because we have earned the distinction. After all, we have followed him all these years. Surely he sees how clever and enlightened we are. Surely he knows how useful we can be in his coming kingdom on earth. Surely he will reward us for our faithfulness and service. Surely we are here because we have earned the right to be here.”
These, and a thousand other wrong answers, lurk in the hearts and minds of the figures in our readings today, when they face the question “Why are you here?” And what about for us? What answers to that question rise in your heart and mind when you hear it this morning? How would you explain or defend or justify or earn your presence here today?
Make no mistake, clergy struggle to resist bad answers to that question just as mightily as laypeople do. Here I stand in this pulpit, ever tempted to answer the question “Why are you here?” with reference to my credentials and qualifications—with a nod to my degree or my ordination—with something I have achieved for myself or the approval I have been able to wring from others.
Or perhaps you sit out in those pews saying to yourself, “I am here because my family has always been here.” Or “I am here because I am a cradle Episcopalian.” (This, of course, is an answer with social implications. You will remember the story of the prominent clergyman who was asked whether salvation was possible outside of the Episcopal Church. “It is,” he replied, “But no gentleman would avail himself of the opportunity.”) Or you might respond, “I am here because I love The Book of Common Prayer.” Or perhaps even “I am here because I paid to have this pew refinished during the Restoration Campaign.”
But in light of the message of our Scripture today, all of these answers falter and fail. In light of Peter’s response to Cornelius’s messengers, and Cornelius’s patient waiting for Peter’s proclamation, and Jesus’ gentle explanation of the way his followers came to be with him, all of the answers based in what we have done, or what we have accomplished, or what we have given, or what we have earned simply fade away.
For the truth is, my presence here today has nothing to do with the vestments I wear or the title I bear. Your presence here today has nothing to do with your last name or your family legacy—nothing to do with your income or your education—nothing to do with how much money you’ve pledged or how many hours you’ve served. You are here, not because of the classes you have taught or taken, not because of the Bazaars you have run or rummaged through, not because you were cradle-rocked in that building over there, or because you expect to be carried out in a box from this spot right here.
Beloved, faced with the question “Why are you here?” we cannot point to our credentials or to our accomplishments—to our rights or to our privileges—to our power or to our prestige. For here in this place, none of those things matter. Here in this place, none of those answers count. Here in this place, we have no regard for the reckoning of worth and worthiness according to the standards of this world.
But you are here, and I am here, and this congregation has been gathered, and established and sustained through two centuries by nothing less than the power and purpose of Almighty God. We are here, dear people, because the Lord wills it— and in his righteous and holy will nothing shall be impossible. Listen again, Trinity, to the good and gracious words of our good and gracious Lord: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.
Dear people of God, the only real answer to the question “Why are you here?” is the same answer learned by Peter and Cornelius alike in our passage this morning. We are here by the prompting, and according to the promise, of the Holy Spirit. We are here because God has brought us here. We are here not because we have loved God but because he has first loved us. We are here because the Lord Jesus has claimed us, and sanctified us, and laid down his life for us, and called us his friends.
As surely as Peter went uncomprehendingly with those messengers from Cornelius—as surely as that pious centurion waited in hopeful ignorance for the words the Apostle would speak—as surely as the disciples, in those hours before the Cross, could not grasp the depth of Jesus’ promise that “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for his friends,”–just as surely we cannot always know the full extent of God’s plans for us. We cannot know what good things he has planned for the future of Trinity Cathedral. We cannot know what our place and legacy will be. We cannot know what God will do though the abundant love he pours out upon us, and through the abundant love he calls us to lavish on one another.
But this we know: whatever may come, it is God who has brought us here. “For none of us liveth unto himself, and no man dieth unto himself…But whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We have come to this time, to this place, by the sovereign will of our gracious God.
With Peter’s obedience, with Cornelius’s hopefulness, through Jesus’ undying love, by the Holy Spirit’s limitless power, may we confidently answer the question, “Why are you here?”: “Because the Lord has brought me here.” And may we be given courage and strength to follow where he leads. AMEN.