The Fourth Sunday after Easter


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


O almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills…
James 1:17-21
John 16:5-14

One of the unquestioned truisms of our time is that we live in an era of unprecedentedly rapid change and the assumption behind this is that we are more greatly affected by change than any previous generation in recorded history. Behind this commentary, too, there lies the worry that rapid change generates uncertainty: “Goodness knows what will happen next”, we say, as if we are in a novel. Yet, at the same time: although one major source of upheaval is climatic aberration, never has meteorological forecasting been better; although we are subject to massive, global capital flows, economic forecasting has never been better; and although technological change has never been more rapid, our capacity to take advantage of it has never been greater. Conversely, we think of the era when the BCP was compiled as one of rural stability, from one generation to the other, with people contentedly living in the rhythm of the cycle of the seasons. Yet even describing the mid 18th Century, the historian J.H. Plumb said that the single biggest factor in politics was sudden death.

When the Collect talks of change, this might not only result from sudden death but also from the exercise of arbitrary power or a catastrophic change of fortune; change might not have been so rapid but uncertainty bit much more deeply into the fabric of everyday life. No wonder that the Collect contrasts these uncertainties with the fixed point where true joy may be found. In doing so, however, it makes an implicit connection between human suffering and “unruly wills” which is still a controversial topic today. As we know from discussions on the effects of climate change, those whose wills are most unruly are not those who suffer the consequences; in a way which we intuitively grasp, the excesses of Manhattan will obliterate the Maldives. This is not to say that there are not areas where we inflict suffering on ourselves but the connection is more complex than that which the Collect proposes.

James, who tends much more to the concrete and practical than the abstract and theological style of Paul, points out how easy it is for us to hurt others through what we do. He is particularly concerned with rash speech and with anger and proposes that our first action in any situation must be to listen, to God and to ourselves.

We are to receive with meekness the “engrafted Word”, a term which naturally refers us to John. The Gospel is an extract from the great valedictory discourse, one of whose central themes is the way in which the mission of Jesus will continue after his death. The pivotal event, says Jesus, will be the sending of the Holy Spirit which will take place after he has returned to the Father. This Trinitarian theology can easily become anthropocentrically time bound. If we are not careful we can take John to mean that the coming of the Spirit is only possible after the Ascension, that the moment when the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (to quote the Nicene Creed) takes place in time. This is a profound misunderstanding of the co-terminality of the three persons of the Godhead. What Jesus might mean is that as long as he is bodily present there is no need for a church but once he has ascended to the Father the nascent church will need the Holy Spirit.

After making sense of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, perhaps the most acute issue facing the Apostles was to grasp the nature of the Godhead, faced with the risen person of Jesus and the evident fulfilment of his promise to send the Holy Spirit on the Church. Looking back from his position in the late 90s, John could make much better sense than the Disciples of the blueprint which Jesus set out from the time when he ‘turned’ towards Jerusalem until his Ascension. This yet again raises the central issue of how far the human Jesus understood the divine plan or, to put the matter slightly differently, what kind of theologian was Jesus if he was one at all? Nowhere than in John’s great discourse is it more important to recognise that the text has a theological purpose rather than its being an historical account of what Jesus said, heard and recalled by the “Beloved Disciple”.

Understanding the timeless co-terminality of the Trinity forms the basis of the emphasis in the Readings on the fixedness or stability of God’s purpose compared with the forces under which we operate and the waywardness with which we behave. Our best response is surely to follow James and, in meekness, to control what we can rather than complaining about our helplessness and the vicissitudes of life to which we are subjected. It is a sobering exercise to list those matters over which we have control, from our own speech and deportment, to the resources we command and the power we exercise. To acknowledge that we can only be saved through the merits of Christ, as specified in the collect, and that we are utterly dependent on the Spirit, as the Gospel implies, does not contradict the Epistle’s essential requirement that we hold ourselves responsible for our own actions. In our rapidly changing world it is tempting to renounce responsibility for our own actions by pleading that we have lost control of our own lives but an a social ecology of dense communication and inter-dependence, while much of the change may have diluted collective power at the national level, it has massively increased our personal power.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Consider change and uncertainty now and in the 16th Century
  2. What connection is there between sin and suffering?
  3. Discuss the purposes of the ‘Great Discourse’ (John 13-17)
  4. Was Jesus a theologian?
  5. Draw up an inventory of your power and influence.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)