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The Sixth Sunday of Easter - May 26, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

What is your favorite sequel? Either from a movie or from a book or from a television show. And what is it about that sequel that makes it good for you? How does it relate to the original? How is it similar? How is it different? What makes it your favorite?   

I wish I had a clever, off the beaten path kind of answer for this question. But, to be honest for me, it’s The Empire Strikes Back, a fairly common answer for folks like me who grew up with Star Wars as the epic narrative of our childhood.

What got me thinking about this this week is, that while Game of Thrones is ending, they’ve announced that there will be three to five spinoffs from that show. Indeed we find ourself to be in an era of sequels. Harry Potter, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead already have started prequels. Once the main Star Wars saga ends in December, we’ll get more movies and shows in that world. Star Trek has new shows now and more are in the pipeline. And the number of superhero movies and shows that are coming boggles the mind.

Sequels are nothing new, of course. But it seems like there are just a lot more of them these days. And maybe it’s just that there’s more media content in general but it seems to me there’s also a distinctive trend going on right now too. Game of Thrones, and Star Wars, and the Avengers, they’ve all been these sprawling huge epics that are, strangely enough, all coming to an end at about the same time… and so all of them are firing up sequels that are smaller. Not trying to continue the scale of the original story. But rather to tell new stories that keep elements of the original but maybe focus more deeply on a smaller number of characters, or be more comic, or maybe just go in some quirky new interesting directions.

Quirky sequels. It’s actually how I found myself thinking about today’s Scripture readings. You know, we’ve come to that time in the church year where we’ve already heard about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s the big epic narrative in our Christian tradition. And so, as the Easter season goes along, we get these smaller stories of what happens after the resurrection. And they can seem, at least to me, a bit anticlimactic sometimes. But when I think about these stories as quirky sequels. Text that are compelling because they feel a bit different… a bit off the beaten path… Then that kindles some new interest for them in me.

So, I want to start with the John passage as quirky sequel. It’s actually set just before the crucifixion but it’s Jesus talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit who will come after the resurrection. Here in John, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit- the Advocate. It’s sort of an odd descriptor. In the ancient Mediterranean world, it would refer to folks who were legal advocates, something along the lines of a defense attorney.  Now, we tend to think about the Holy Spirit along the lines of how she’s described in Acts. As one who comes as wind or as fire. Or we think of her as a dove like when she came to Jesus at his baptism. But, we don’t think of the Holy Spirit as Matlock or Johnny Cochrane. But that’s kind of how the community of faith behind the Gospel of John seems to have seen the Spirit. As something akin to a legal advocate for us.

And actually it’s even more quirky and nuanced than that even. Some of you who grew up with the King James Version being read might remember that, in that translation, this word is translated Comforter. The original Greek word Paraklete is one of these fabulously multivalent Biblical terms… words that hint at more than one thing at the same time. So, the Holy Spirit is both one who comforts us and one who advocates for us. You know, I’m definitely pandering to my crowd right now but I find myself picturing the Holy Spirit here as one part Oprah and one part Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Warm and caring and thoughtful when we need compassion. And sharp as nails when we need an ally. One who is always out in front of us and who is always by our side and who always has our back. To be honest, I like this image of God’s Holy Spirit more than a white bird or a dancing fire. In a world mired in a seemingly insurmountable environmental crisis… a crisis that seems to be accelerating as it destroys the globe and so it terrifies us... in this world with such a lust for violence of all sorts… in a world where raging racism and xenophobia seem like they will have no end… in a world where our own lives so frequently throw so many challenges our way… addictions… the loss of health… the loss of jobs and security… the loss of loved ones… In this world, we need our God to be more than just a peace-loving white bird. We need an inclusive, welcoming, compassionate Comforter who is also a forceful, justice-creating, world-transforming Advocate, a God who does makes things better. Jesus says that is the Holy Spirit.

One more quirky sequel to the resurrection. That’s Lydia’s story in Acts. It can seem relatively insignificant on initial reading. Lydia hears Paul preach about Jesus. She is moved by his words and gets baptized. She invites Paul to stay at her house. But, when you take a deeper dive, you see that there’s a whole lot more to this story.  When the reading says that Lydia was someone who sold purple cloth, it’s signaling that she was a businesswoman of some repute within the community. Purple cloth was an incredibly expensive, exotic fabric in those days worn by royalty or people of significant means. Lydia seems to have been a mover and a shaker in Philippi.  So this means a couple things.

First of all, her welcome of Paul and his followers gave them an automatic credibility in the community to spread the message of Jesus. Who knows if Christianity would’ve spread in the Greek and Gentile world If it weren’t Lydia and the women of influence in other cities who opened doors for the early missionaries of the church. We all probably won’t be sitting here today if it were not for them.

Second of all, when Lydia invited Paul and his group of rabble-rousers into her home, it was dangerous. I don’t so much mean dangerous in the sense of welcoming strangers. Rather, Lydia risked her credibility as a businesswoman in the community by associating with these folks. She was putting her livelihood on the line here. And even more she was risking the ire of the authorities. In the next chapter of Acts, we see a man Jason who housed Paul gets imprisoned for it. Lydia was putting it all on the line in her offer of hospitality. Hospitality in the early church was costly and dangerous. Maybe akin to a church nowadays offering sanctuary for an undocumented family. It makes me think that perhaps the ways I tend to offer hospitality aren’t terribly aligned with Gospel since they rarely cost me much and are almost always on my own terms.  Perhaps welcome and generosity that doesn’t cost anything aren’t welcome or generosity at all.

Last thought. Sometimes sequels are bigger or better than the original. It might sound a little heretical to suggest that the sequels that come out of St. James’s, either our own personal stories or our collective story together, might in some ways improve upon the original stories of Jesus. We might see ourselves as the small quirky sequels to the resurrection. We might see ourselves as continuing that love that was shown forth on that first Easter. But we certainly don’t see ourselves as nearly as important. He’s Jesus after all and that was resurrection from death. But it’s in moments like this that I’m reminded of the mind-blowing statement that Jesus makes in the Gospel of John just before today’s reading where he talks about the Holy Spirit as Advocate. In that passage, he says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.

I’m not always sure I believe that. That as we believe in Jesus we will do greater works than his. But that’s what he says. We don’t get to know what our story will be and we don’t get to control half as much as we’d like. Life is too unpredictable. But the world still needs the powerful story and sequel that is your life.  We don’t get to know where our story will take us. All we get to know is that God always walks with us as our Comforter and our Advocate, and that our story deeply matters because all of us deeply matter.