In the Northern hemisphere, as we are, we celebrate Easter in the midst of spring. The message of new life, of Christ’s victory over death and of the restoration of creation that is part and parcel of Easter is visibly echoed in what we see around us as plants come back to life, flowers bloom and trees are covered with leaves again. Many of our Easter songs and hymns make reference to this and use it as an example – now the green blade rises is perhaps to most obvious example.
The season of Easter continues for 50 days until Pentecost and today is Rogation Sunday. Rogation Sunday is in some ways like the opposite of a harvest festival – it is a day for praying for the fruitfulness of the earth and asking that there will be a good harvest. It is easy for us to forget about these things because we can generally easily get the food we need – a quick trip to the supermarket and all is sorted. But for many people in the world it is not so straightforward and indeed for some of our forebears it was not so easy. Their prayers for the fruitfulness of the earth were heartfelt because of their basic need for food. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we ask for our daily bread but it is probably easy for us to skate over that knowing that there’s a loaf and a half in the bread bin.
Paul, preaching to the people of Athens could speak of God’s presence in creation. He was able to speak to them in terms that they could relate to. They had an altar which was dedicated, as they had put it, “To an unknown God”. And so Paul comes saying, what you do not know, we will now tell you. This God you’ve built an altar for but who you do not know yourselves is the one we preach. Paul describes him: The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth. I don’t know if the culture or tradition of Athens said anything about this unknown God, but Paul could identify him as the creator and could place him in that long tradition of the scriptures of speaking of God as revealed in creation.
On our weekend away a fortnight ago, as we shared something of how we pray, a number spoke of their experience of perceiving God in creation. The amazing diversity of what God has made and God’s continued sustaining of his world does indeed speak powerfully of the life that he gives. That life reflects the risen life of Christ and is offered to us all through Christ. As we pray today for the fruitfulness of the earth and for a good harvest, we pray too for the fruitfulness of our own Christian life and that God might use us to bring in the harvest of his kingdom. If you read on in Acts, you’ll find that some of the people in Athens Paul was preaching to thought he was ridiculous but some of them became believers. We too are called to share the news of that goodness of God of which the whole creation speaks.
Forty days after his resurrection, which we celebrate on Thursday, Jesus returned to heaven in the ascension. His presence with us in this world is for ever changed from how it was with his disciples, both before and after his resurrection. Then he was with them on the road, as they shared meals, as he taught and healed and so on and so forth. In looking towards the time when he would no longer be with them in that way he said, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” It’s one of those statements that you can think is all very well to say, but what on earth does it mean? And if you’re a disciple, it’s perhaps cold comfort. It’s one of those place where you think that someone like St Thomas, or perhaps St Peter will say, “Yes, Lord, but how will we see you?”
The implicit response to that in this gospel reading is in terms of the commandments. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father and I will love them and reveal myself to them. In other words, live your life according to the pattern that I have shown and you will see me. Follow the ways that I have set out and you will know me. The greatest commandments – the greatest pointers to that way – are love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. They are open ended calls to the Christian life – they are not rules that you could tick off on a checklist at the end of each day as to whether you had kept them or not. We could always keep them more. Our Christian life is one of change and development and growth. We need too to pray today for the fruitfulness of that growth, that God might draw us along the path of holiness. In our Methodist tradition, echoing themes in the wider church, we have talked of sanctification, that is being made holy, as part of the way of salvation. By grace, by the power of God, we can be made holy, we can be transformed such that we love God more and we love our neighbour more and we reflect ever more closely the likeness of Christ. We need to pray for this growth.
“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth,” said Jesus. After the Ascension we look to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into the church and leads us into all truth. In the Western Church when symbolic colours are used, the colour we use for Pentecost is red, representing the fire of the Spirit – the tongues of flame that we read about in that account of the apostles in the upper room. But in the Orthodox Churches, often the colour used is green, the colour of growth and fruitfulness. For the Spirit brings forth in us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We need to pray for a great harvest of this fruit.
In our prayer and in our worship today then, let us pray for the harvest of the earth, that the earth may be fruitful and that all may have what they need for each day. Let us pray that God may make us thankful for all that we have. But let us pray too for the harvest of the Spirit, for the grace to love God and to love our neighbour and to show forth the fruit of the Spirit. And let us pray that through the new life God gives to the earth and through the new life God gives to us and all his church, the greatest new life of all, the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord, might be known to all people. Amen.