A Sermon by Tim Trussell–Smith
Celtic Holy Eucharist
All Saints Parish
May 16, 2009
I am a seminarian at Andover Newton Theological School. The campus there is beautiful. The road that comes up from Newton Centre loops around a long, green quad bordered with tall shade-trees. On the far end there is a gorgeous new chapel styled like a classic New England meeting-house. If you look out past the chapel, you can see rolling tree-covered hills off to the west of Boston. It can be either the best place in the world to work on homework – or a sermon – or, the absolute worst place. It all depends on who is around, if the day is really nice or just kind-a nice, and most of all it depends on whether you are as easily distracted as I tend to be.
Earlier this week, I was sitting on the quad and (surprise-surprise) I was actually working on my sermon for this evening, reading through the lessons and making notes. Cars would go past occasionally. Everyone was busy finishing final papers or busy not finishing final papers. Perfect. Then, a car stops behind me and I hear someone say, "Hey Mr. Trussell-Smith!" It was my friend, Bruce, who I hadn't seen in two weeks at least. I hopped up and strode over to the edge of the road and leaned down to the driver's window just to say, "Hi."
Ten minutes later ... I noticed my knees aching. At some point I had squatted down beside his car. I'm sure we were discussing profound theological matters even though I can't remember exactly what we talked about. Finally, I stood up. "I've got to stand up, Bruce. My knees are KILLING me!" So, Bruce pulls around – I go back to my chair. Open my Bible. Then, Bruce yells from the far side of the quad, where he had parked his car, "Tim, I'll be right back out. I've got to go to the bathroom really bad!" It turns out neither Bruce nor I wanted to suspend our conversation just because of a pesky thing like physical discomfort. There is great joy in hearing a friend call out to you.
Another Andover Newton friend, a Unitarian Universalist student, once told me his conception of God: "I think God exists in the space between one person and another. God is in the connection." That feels absolutely true in light of the scripture passages for today. In the reading from Acts we have this sneak-peek at Pentecost – the Holy Spirit forges new connections between the "circumcised believers" and a whole new group of people. It says that they "were astounded." In both the letter and the Gospel attributed to John, we hear the words "love" or "loved" 12 times, as "John" describes the various connections between God, Jesus, God's children and the Spirit. Most importantly, we hear Jesus' "commandment" – "love one another as I have loved you." In addition, this week's readings serve as a connection in themselves. As already mentioned we are looking ahead to the Pentecost and to the work of the Holy Spirit which continues following the ascension, which is also on the horizon. But we are also right in the middle of a cycle of Gospel readings in which Jesus is teaching His disciples who He is and also teaches who we are in our relationship with Him.
This particular passage, like the one last week and the upcoming readings, is taken from the so-called "Farewell Discourses." As you may know, these discourses were given during the Last Supper. They are a summation tying together the most important points of what Jesus has taught his followers during his ministry We might think of them as Jesus' final exam review. But also we, like the first disciples, are actually looking backward at these teachings in light of the resurrection. Jesus' words here must have taken on a whole new meaning within that surprising new reality. We are beginning to see the end of the Great 50 Days of the Easter Season, in which Jesus is alive again with us and during which time his teachings first begin to make sense in a brand new way. And, we see the coming of the Holy Spirit following Jesus' departure. Acts promises us that we will be "astounded" by the work of the Spirit in our midst. The Psalm, of course, states that God has done "marvelous things."
In the Gospel from last week, Jesus was "the true vine" and we as the "branches" were told to abide in him. This week, Jesus gives us a new image of connection, a powerful one: "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends ... " Truly, that is a "marvelous thing," isn't it? God is our friend – our table-companion no less! Thankfully for us here at the Celtic Eucharist, there is an idea from Celtic Spirituality that illuminates Jesus' statement in a profound way: the idea of an anamchara.
I just discovered this concept, so forgive me if this is obvious to some of you. To me, it is fascinating. The term "anamchara" is hard to translate, but it is commonly rendered as "soul-friend." It has been mis-translated as "soul-mate," and used as a term of endearment. But in its traditional use, the anamchara is both a spiritual director or guide and a friend. The early Irish monastics used this model of spiritual formation "whereby a new monk or nun would be paired with an older, more experienced monk [or nun]. In this way the new Religious would have a more personal mentoring in the monastic tradition." This differed from other monastic traditions of the European continent which functioned more like a group of "students in a class." That description, by the way, comes from the web site of a group called the "anamchara Fellowship" which is a very new ecumenical religious order "founded in the tradition of the Episcopal church with a Celtic spirit." Cool, huh? Each of their members has their own anamchara – as one might expect given their name. In some cases, the practice is more mutual between two people, instead of one "guiding" the other. Having an anamchara or serving as an anamchara isn't just something you take on lightly, however. It is a deep responsibility. The anamchara is not just there for support. They are described as the "cartographer" who helps their fellow believer map their "spiritual journey." However, the anamchara must be trusted enough to also challenge their fellow – correcting their soulfriend as well as listening deeply to them.
This desire for close Spiritual interaction obviously fits in perfectly to the Celtic understanding of faith. The idea of anamchara also helps us understand one reason the three-personed God is so central in Celtic Christianity. According to John O'Donohue: "Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. Jesus is the secret anamchara of every individual."
To know God as friend – as one whom we experience in an achingly intimate way – is a key component of the Celtic spiritual tradition. We know God as an intimate friend, even though we are confounded at all times by God's otherness and separateness from us. O'Donohue says that God knows God-self in that way. Given these ideas, it also seems that this week's readings are pointing toward Trinity Sunday, which will come right after Pentecost. After all, the descent of the Holy Spirit reminds us again that God is focused on relationship beyond anything else. Not only do we confess that God "put on" skin and walked among us. We confess that God in God's very nature is in constant, intimate relationship. Our confession of who God is isn't a logical formula – it is a confession about the very, very illogical nature of relationship ... of friendship ... of Love. God's friendship with us is excessive. Overwhelming. As if Jesus' life with His disciples wasn't enough – we also get Easter. And as though that wasn't enough, we get the experience of Pentecost. And just to top it all off, the Church thought it would be a good idea to celebrate God's relational nature with Trinity Sunday! But that is the point. God always says, "the relationship isn't over. The story keeps going." God is adamant that we understand how personally connected we are both to God and to each other. And God, in and through Jesus, teaches us that in response we must follow a commandment which is both inspirational and impossible – "to love one another" as Christ loved us.
The early Irish monastic movement was greatly influenced by the "desert fathers" of 3rd and 4th century Egypt. One of these monks, Abba Poemen, articulated beautifully what it means "to lay down one's life," as Christ modeled: "There is nothing greater in love than that a person lay down that person's life for his or her neighbor. When a person hears a complaining word and struggles against himself or herself and does not begin to complain; when a person bears an injury with patience, and does not look for revenge that is when a person lays down his or her life for their neighbor." But laying down our life can also be a joyous response which we don't even think about in the moment – although it might make our knees ache later; although it may indeed lead to much more than that.
Just after our comical encounter, Bruce sat down and asked, "What are you doing for dinner?" I had plans with another group of friends, actually, but the invitation rings in my mind as yet another metaphor for our friendship with God. At the end of all things and beyond all things, God is a friend who invites us over for dinner.