Sermon Sunday Morning, at the Holy Communion
by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26
'Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us', we prayed in the collect at the beginning of the service; and God's reply can only be, 'Guess what--I already have. It's yours any time you want.' I say this because I've recently been thinking about Paul's words in Acts 20.32: I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. God’s word, which can build us up---strengthen us---and sanctify us, make us holy.
Those words are said by Paul to the leaders of the parish of Ephesus, and they are said when he has to leave them. He is reminding them of the resource they will still have, even though they will no longer have him. That resource is God’s word, and Paul suggests that it’s the next best thing to having a real live apostle preaching in the church every Sunday. God’s word builds us up, strengthens us, and gives us a share in what the Prayer Book calls the inheritance of the saints, an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. God’s word is the key to salvation, and the key to growing stronger in faith once we are part of the saved community.
Paul is saying this to the church in Ephesus, but there’s no way it can be true for them but not for the church in the USA, the church in Pittsburgh, and the church in Highland Park. If it’s true for anyone, it’s true for everyone. And the Episcopal Church endorses this every time it uses the prayer on p 236 of the Prayer Book: ‘Blessed Lord, Who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which You have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.’ Scripture teaches us what we need to know, and leads us to everlasting life, to the inheritance of the saints.
That the Scriptures were written for our learning is a direct quote from the Bible, I Corinthians 10.11. The Bible was given to us so that we could know things we don’t know, and acquire abilities we don’t have. It’s good to use it, because not knowing things can be dangerous. If you don’t know anything about electricity, you might not believe it if someone were to say to you, don’t touch that cable over there, you’ll die if you do. But if that cable has 100,000 volts of electricity running through it, and you touch it, it can kill you. Not knowing about that can be very dangerous. That’s why we put warning signs around dangerous things, for our learning. In case someone doesn’t know, we put up the warning sign—danger, don’t touch.
Not knowing other things is not dangerous, but just such a pity, because they are such wonderful things to know. There are so many great things you can never know about, never enjoy, if someone doesn’t teach you. My favorite example of this is rhubarb. If you’ve ever seen rhubarb growing, you know that it doesn’t look very interesting or appetising. And if you’d never learned about it, and decided to check it out for yourself, you’d have an awful time. To start with, the leaves are poisonous, so if you tried them you’d never even get to the stalks. But if on a whim you decided to take a bite of the stalk, you’d still spit it out in a second because it tastes so awful, and you’d probably never believe any one who told you that if you combine it with something sweet, you discover one of the most delicious flavors in the world. You can just dip the end of the stalk in sugar and suck it like a lollipop, and you’d never believe it was the same plant. And if you pour hot syrup over diced rhubarb and let them soak it up, and serve it with ice-cream or custard—oh man, there’s nothing better! But if no one teaches you how to eat it, you’ll never know how good it is. There are lots of things in life like rhubarb; they look like things you don’t want anything to do with, but once you understand how to use them, you’d never want to be without them. Until you treat Scripture as something written for your learning, you just don’t know how wonderful life can be.
God caused Holy Scripture to be written for both those kinds of learning, learning that warns us away, and learning that guides us to. Some things are really dangerous; not dangerous physically, like electricity can be, but dangerous spiritually. And God caused Scripture to be written so that we would learn about those things, and avoid them. Some things turn out to be wonderful, spiritually, even if they don’t seem wonderful when we first come across them or hear about them, and God caused Scripture to be written about those things, too, so that we would learn about them, and add them to our lives. That life goes better when we follow Jesus, for instance, is one of those. Most people think that their lives go best when they do what seems good to them. But the Bible says There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. We would never know that life goes better for those who follow Jesus if God hadn’t caused it to be written down, written for our learning.
And God has so many more great things for us to learn. I’ve been a Christian for forty years, and I’m still learning wonderful things to do, and dangerous things to avoid, and I’ve known people who have been Christians even longer than that who tell me the same thing. But the Bible doesn’t do us a bit of good if we don’t read it, or at least listen carefully while someone else reads it. And hearing it, or reading it, doesn’t do us a bit of good if we don’t think seriously about what it says. Remember the Prayer Book formula: we are to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s word. The word mark means to pay attention, as in ‘mark my words’—pay attention, get the message! Scripture is not just ‘holy words’, Scripture is information that makes a difference when we pay attention to it, and only when we pay attention to it.
One of my mentors in the faith, now with the Lord, wrote this not long before he died after a long battle with cancer: ‘The Bible speaks to me with ever greater authority and relevance. Each day as I open it, God speaks straight into my heart by his Word. And it tells me of what lies beyond this life. I can see the end of life. It looms over the horizon, and I am encouraged to think it will not now be long before I am there.’ It’s the Bible that gives us a faith that can turn something bitter into something not just sweet but eternally good. And only God’s word does it—even the best sermons don’t do that. Good sermons only point you to the Bible. You still have to open it and apply it to yourself. When you do, your life starts to grow in ways you’d never guess.
We can all deal with the bitter things in life by adding the sweetness of God’s word. A parishioner at the 9 am service gave me the perfect closing point after the service, when she said that the next time she came across a passage that was difficult, she would remember the rhubarb, and pray that God would sweeten the passage for her. When you come to a passage that seems difficult to understand or that says something you don’t want to hear, remember the rhubarb, and ask God to show you the sweetness. We can all go easily to the source of salvation and growth faith, by simply opening our Bibles and reading them, and remembering that the words we read are God’s words to us personally.
No wonder Paul said what he did to his church when he was called away: Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. May we also be built up by it, and given our share of the inheritance of the saints, through Christ our Lord, Amen.