A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, May 21, 2017
The Epistle, James 1:22-27 – The Gospel, St. John 16:23-33
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Rogation days and Ascension
The Fifth Sunday after Easter is called Rogation Sunday, and the next three days before the Feast of Ascension on Thursday are called Rogation Days. The word rogation comes from a Latin word that means “to ask” or “to pray.” As Jesus returns to the Father, we focus on the privilege and power we possess as his disciples to pray in his name. As Jesus said in the gospel, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you…. Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”
- The Epistle from James
The epistle focuses on behavior rather than prayer. St. James writes,
If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
What James says will convict most of us at some level. We are all, at times, forgetful hearers. We come to Jesus in our prayer. We hear the word of God and say, “Amen.” Then we go back into the world, forget who we are, and practice behavior that is not consistent with God’s word.
Why do we do this? One reason is that the world, the flesh, and the devil, tempt us to act unfaithfully. Our transition from prayer to life in the world follows the pattern of the baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on him and the Father declared him to be his beloved Son (Matt. 3:16-4;1). Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to have that identity tested. We receive our new identity in baptism and we renew it constantly in our prayer. Then we go into the world to face various tests and temptations that pull us away from Christ.
We grow into our Christian identity over time as we continue to pray and hear God’s word. Some measure of behavioral failure is part of the process of our growth. We admit as much when we say the confession each week in the liturgy. We grow as we come to see more clearly how sin promises us a fulfillment that is does not deliver. We grow in our desire to do God’s will. As we continue in our prayer, we become stronger in Christ, in the Spirit, to resist the pull of the temptation. We increasingly become doers of the word and not hearers only.
We also become forgetful hearers when we have an unresolved past. We all carry with us deeply embedded emotional patterns that come from past relationships and experiences. These patterns include deep anxiety that is triggered by certain circumstances; a difficulty in trusting God because those who represented him to us before were not trustworthy; anger and resentment over past mistreatment; and denial, a tendency to insist everything is okay when, clearly, it is not. Our unresolved past creates a secret, hidden identity that acts out in unfaithful ways.
We retain these hidden identities because the gospel has not yet touched these areas of our lives. We need to forgive others to resolve these inherited patterns. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our own forgiveness is linked to our forgiveness of others. This is true in part because our failure to forgive others keeps us stuck in vengeful or victimized patterns of behavior. Forgiving others makes us free from them.
To forgive others requires that we acknowledge our pain. We cannot deny what we have experienced and also forgive those who hurt us. To forgive others does not require that the people we forgive intended to hurt us. If someone intends to throw a rock into the water and it hits us in the head instead, it still hurt—even though the person did not intend to hurt us.
The key to forgiving others is learning to trust in the sovereignty of God. The gospel message is that Jesus is Lord. He is in control of everything, even our past. This is the foundation for teachings like Romans 8:28, “In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” God is bringing his new creation out of the chaos of our lives. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Trust is the best synonym for faith. We are saved by faith, which means we are saved by trusting God; trusting in his power, trusting in the good that he has for us; trusting that he is changing us into new and glorious creatures; trusting that everything that has happened to us will be redeemed by God for good.
- The meaning of “the gospel”
Too often in our time, “the gospel” has been reduced to a mechanism for having our sins forgiven in a legal sense so God won’t punish us and we can get to some future place called heaven. This limited meaning creates a non-transformative practice of the faith. To accept the gospel means to trust that Jesus is Lord, and to apply that truth to every area of our lives right now, including our past.
To put our trust in Jesus means to live in his new story. The brutal execution of the Son of God is the means of our salvation. Following this pattern, the bad things that have happened to us are used by God as the means of our sanctification. To embrace the gospel, to trust Jesus, means to trust that Jesus is Lord and to accept the good that God is giving us right now in our real lives rather than holding on to the good that we wanted but did not get in the past.
When we do not trust that Jesus is Lord and is in control of everything, we become forgetful hearers. We hold on to hidden past identities that are triggered in real life and cause us to act out in unfaithful ways. We try to control things rather than trusting God and surrendering to his will in our lives. We become victims of the past rather than sons and daughter of God in the present. We become vengeful, seeking to make others pay. Or we remain captive to emotional impulses connected to past events.
The perfect law of liberty that James speaks of is not just a list of moral rules that we must obey to avoid being hypocrites. The perfect law of liberty is the truth that Jesus is Lord. It leads to corresponding truths that our sins are forgiven and that we can forgive. We can let go of the pattern of human sin that enslaves us. We can live in God’s kingdom right now.
This is what we are working on in the life of prayer. As we come to the altar of God to look into the perfect law of liberty, we are growing into the new identity God has given us. Our work in the life of prayer is to be honest with ourselves and with God. We must ask him to help us let go of our anger and regret. We must ask him to heal our wounds, to replace our pain with a new experience of his grace, so that we can practice new behavior that is rooted in our new experience of his love—and not in our past experiences of pain.
As we persevere in our prayer, as we practice trusting God, we grow in our ability to trust. The grace that comes to us through prayer enables us trust rather than control; to let go of our secret, hidden identities and embrace our new identity as children of God. God is able to do in us through our prayer what we are not able to do by our own unaided effort. This inner transformation is the true power of prayer. As Jesus said, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you….Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”