These are pretty disturbing times. Think of how Empire works in this day and age. If you need some help, come to our Resistance Cinema films and see where some of the world’s troubles lie – and how you can help. Or tune in to just about ANY news feed about politics at the national level in this country. Empire. Yes, the advocacy and consolation of loving people is so desperately needed.
The Feast of Advocacy and Consolation – The Feast of Pentecost is believed by a host of scholars to be the day that Christianity, as a faith movement, was born. The First Sunday of Advent might begin our liturgical year, but it’s Pentecost – as a point in time and space – where what we know of what it means to be Christ’s body, made an initial, quantum leap into expressed reality.
And while our story from Acts of the Apostles today illustrates what outwardly occurred among Jesus’ disciples in his absence – what outwardly occurred in terms of his promise of the Spirit – in our gospel lesson from John, we’re drawn toward that promise and what the internal implications are – that is, how we understand that promise from the inside out.
But there are so many theological themes in today’s gospel passage that, even though they’re all related to the doctrine of the Spirit, it’s hard to know where to start.
It might help us to acknowledge that what we see in this reading follows almost immediately on the heels of one of the most clearly articulated theological convictions in John’s gospel. That is, “No one comes to Father except through me.” (14:6-7) How does that color what we’re looking at?
Likewise, our passage today is closely followed by what I like to think of as Jesus’ primary wish for us, which is to be at peace. “Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (14:27a)
These two bracketing statements might help us better interpret the text they contain.
We begin, in our exploration of today’s gospel, by noting Philip’s anxiety, which is borne of his having just been told by Jesus that they will have to figure out how to continue in relationship with him despite the fact that he will no longer, physically, be with them.
Jesus replies with characteristic circular language about indwelling – he is in the Father and the Father is in him. This will expand at the end of this Final Discourse with the disciples, when he quits his address to them and turns heavenward – speaking directly to God – and pleads for that same indwelling to be theirs, his disciples, as well.
Jesus then continues to emphasize belief, edging away from belief as intellectual assent and toward its relationship with behavior, or works. How does your belief make an impact on your behavior?
This is followed by reflection upon what it means to act in Jesus’ name, what it means to keep his commandments (don’t forget he commands only one thing in John’s gospel), and, finally, a promise – an introduction, really, into the nature of the Holy Spirit.
John’s gospel is the most articulate of the four canonical gospels in reference to the Spirit. And while spirit language can be kind of confusing at first – especially to so many of us who feel a lot more comfortable, with the certainty of specific instructions – we may find ourselves less uneasy in the face of the bundle of theological complexities at hand when we consider them under the influence of Jesus’ peace that the world cannot give. Being at peace is always a good start!
But before we go any further, I’d like to briefly consider the first bookend – “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I’ll confess that I have struggled with this statement. It appears to me that, over the centuries, it has been seized upon as justification for use of Christian faith as a weapon – as means of creating insiders and outsiders. Even a cursory scan of world history makes that clear. And you have to wonder if this creating of insiders and outsiders is something that springs from what we know to be the heart of Jesus. Take, for example, his understanding of the two greatest commandments, which have to do with loving. Loving God fully and loving neighbor and self fully. No one coming to the Father except through Jesus, then, might bear a different set of implications.
The theological heart of these words must not be distorted and used for fearful purposes – for human purposes, even. It’s dangerous as means of interpreting the relative merits of different religions’ experiences and understandings of God. John’s gospel is not concerned, for example, with the fate of Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists – not even with the superiority of Judaism or Christianity. This seemingly troubling statement becomes less so when we are able to perceive it for what it really is: a confessional celebration of a particular faith community, a community convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. John 14:6-7 can comfortably be read as the core claim of Christian identity. But not from a place that seeks to be over and against. It is simply the kind of statement that distinguishes Christians from people of other faiths. It is our way of saying that it is through this Jesus that we have access to their God. Samuel Coleridge goes even further when he says, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.”
Moving through this gospel passage, as we noticed previously, we encounter a number of issues:
• The relation between Jesus’ person and his works
• The power of the ascended Christ at work in the church
• The nature of his coming again, and,
• The effectiveness of prayer
And even though express mention of the Holy Spirit only happens in the penultimate verse in today’s passage, it is her presence that ties them all together. (In keeping with the Old Testament tradition of acknowledging Wisdom’s role in relationship with God and the honored history of that identification, I often refer to the Holy Spirit as feminine – yes, even in the Creed.)
In John’s gospel, relations among the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit are understood first and foremost in relation to the mission of Jesus, rather than in relation to the inner life of God. As such, Jesus asks the Father – who is Spirit (just ask the woman at the well) – to send the Spirit in his name, so that through that same Spirit he will remain always with and in his disciples. It is simply a matter of having the same access to Jesus, but not in a limited geographical and historical form. Jesus’ influence, during his ministry, could only expand by normal social channels, and only gradually reach necessary groups. Now, through this gift of the Spirit, it’s equally accessible in every time and place.
In addition, you may be very pleased and affirmed – even comforted – to note that the intent of the entire 14th chapter in John’s gospel is very much directed toward formation of a community of believing and obedient followers. Obedient of his one and only command – to love each other as he loves each and every one of us. It’s important to realize here that this command of Jesus’ doesn’t bear markings of exact and detailed fulfillment. Instead, because of the nature of love, and because of the nature of Spirit, this command concerns the quality of spiritual life and not defined actions.
And the further we go in our experience of quality of Spirit, the less the community intended by this text will be entirely satisfied with things like book clubs, bible studies or fellowship opportunities – not even music and worship for their own sakes will satisfy.
Instead, from an internal experience of this quality of Spirit, such a community will be led to do “works” similar to those of Jesus: befriending outcasts, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned (and this is not just those who are incarcerated – think more expansively about what imprisonment means for some – some in our very midst) – works like speaking up for the marginalized, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and speaking truth to and about Empire.
Take a moment in quiet sometime soon. It can be your choice of time and place – even on the subway – and do yourself the favor of reflecting on this: What does it mean for you to believe? What does it mean – does it mean anything? – for you to say you know that the Holy Spirit is that which makes it possible for you to know Jesus or to believe in God? Think in as much detail as you can. Draw examples in your mind’s eye. If this is too difficult and strange for you, try to imagine simply holding yourself in God’s presence. Spend some quiet time in that place and, like the spiritual movement inherent in todays’ gospel, intend to bring from your reflection the kinds of energies that will help your prayer life and your belief-behaviors. Ask in God’s name and it will be granted you! Ask, then, in the name of love.
We, like the disciples, can still love him when he is gone, but it’s neither by clinging to a cherished memory or him nor by permanently retreating into a private experience of him. Rather, we can continue to love Jesus by doing his works, and by living what he taught and demonstrated. It’s then we’ll find ourselves immersed in his love.
Because this community remembers, because it has the gift of the Spirit – the gift to know God from the inside out – because it is obedient to Jesus’ command to love fully and because it is not afraid to risk doing God’s work out of love – publically and out loud – it will be – WE will be – a non-anxious presence in an anxious and fearful age.
With some practice – not much and not unpleasant in the least – you too can bring about God’s primary wish – that peace which the world cannot give. And, what’s even better is that, when it’s really and genuinely established from the inside out, it’s also the peace that the world – even in this present fearful age – cannot take away.