Acts 16:16-34; Ps 97; Rev 22:12-14, 16-, 20-21; JOHN 17: 20-26
Do not leave us comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us. Amen.
This Sunday, Easter 7, three days after Ascension Day, a week before Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the scariest Sunday of the Christian year, at least for me. The whole ten days from the Ascension to Pentecost are both challenging and lonely, and test us and our faith. These days remind us about heading into the unknown and what it takes from us to trust in promises that sound fine, but actually who knows, who can know? Such promises risk sounding too good to be true, and that makes us wary, but Jesus says, “I will not leave you comfortless,” and promises to send the Holy Spirit. Whatever can the disciples have made of that promise? What’s the Holy Spirit; what’s a Paraclete, and what would an Advocate look like or be?
This is the backdrop of today’s lessons, and I’d say of our situation at St. John’s concerning the merger. Before the dismissal today, we’ll have a short Q and A, moderated by Chip, before we fête and say thank you to him. I wonder whether the disciples were allowed such a “I don’t like it/what do you mean/what’s really going to happen-session?”
Easter 7’s readings, however, don’t actually come close to addressing the specific questions that Jesus’s promises and leaving would seem to generate. Today’s Gospel, part of the “farewell discourse” in John has Jesus praying for his disciples and their followers that they all may be one. Jesus specifically prays “in behalf of those who will believe in him through the disciples’ word.” That would include everyone from those the disciples ever met, were going to meet, and right down to us, and the young woman who’s asked to be baptized here in two weeks. Jesus explains that the Father has given him glory, and that he has passed that along, so that the disciples all may be one. Jesus explains that the Father has loved him since the foundation of the world, but he says he understands that the world doesn’t know the Father as he does. He goes on to observe that the disciples know the Father sent him. It’s hard to hear this paragraph aloud, because it flips the same small phrases back and forth, almost like a grammar or puzzle exercise, all those “I in you” and “you in me,” and so on. Jesus’s prayer ends when he prays to the Father, saying, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me be in them and I’m in them.”
Jesus is telling his friends and disciples that as he is permanently unified in and with the Creator to bring all peoples, then, now, and always into the one love and reality of the Creator, so are we all. My guess is that made not much more sense to them then, than it has clear meaning to us. How that oneness will be lived out in eternity is no clearer to me, than the possible oneness with St. Paul’s. I’m pretty sure in both instances, unity doesn’t mean either sameness or loss of identity, but some new being that has a merged oneness.
Revelation has Jesus say that he is the A and W, the first and last, the beginning and the end. Merging into that continuum has a wider range to be part of—at least it seems so to me. A and W are, of course, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so this could also be translated “the A to Z.” The word for “last” is esxatos, which is the root word of esxcaton, the ultimate time of the hereafter. The words that begin each arc of time, first and beginning are just the words that we translate as such. Prwtos, as in proton, prototype, and protoplasm and other first examples are named as first examples, while arche is the standard beginning, whether as the “in the beginning” word, or architecture. The “end” word in the span with “beginning” is telos as in teleological, meaning more than the place of stopping to end, for the goal towards which the beginning aims. Somehow purpose is included in the telos of a “begun” series of something. For Jesus to say “I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them,” is an explanation of the telos in the esxaton to which he invites all, or says we’re all headed towards. The rhetoric of each phrase is pretty clear, while the meaning: the place, is less clear. Think of Emily Dickinson’s poem: I never saw a Moor /I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks, And what a wave must be.
Yet certain am I of the spot, /As if the chart were given.
That’s the sort of esxatonic telos that is the realm of theology rather than geography. Revelation goes on to invite, “everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Somehow Revelation in its metaphorical and poetic language offers an almost parallel image, but one that invites imagination and hope into Jesus’s invitation. The word flipping in the Gospel has a nearly mathematical ring, and so I often get stuck playing with the grammar, rather than imaging the pull of the goal’s promise.
Both the Gospel and Revelation assert a road and a destination toward which we’re pulled. I don’t see or hear how to live along that path though. In the Acts reading, Paul listens for a while to a girl with a spirit of divination. He believes and has taught to leave people alone with such powers. He gets annoyed at the girl’s “handlers,” who are using her for profit almost as a dancing bear or worse, so he calls the spirit out of her. That makes the people angry who’d been profiting from marketing her divinations, and they complain to the authorities, who respond by arresting Paul and his companion Silas. They go along peaceably enough to jail, and preach and tell their stories and ones about Jesus. In the night there’s an earthquake, which breaks down the walls of the prison. The jailer is about to kill himself for fear of the anger of the controllers of the prison. He’d assumed that Paul, Silas and other prisoners would have fled, but they hadn’t. They’d honored the rule of law, which had had them imprisoned, and they also recognized that their proselytizing in the prison was as good a field of preaching, if not better, than other gathering places. The jailer caught both the honor of Paul, as well as the verve and righteousness of his preaching. He asked Paul to baptize his family and himself.
This dramatic, if not melodramatic, narrative catches, shows, and demonstrates the unity faith and action can produce. People heard Paul and were inspired to join him in getting to know Jesus and his story and promises. While the proclamation that Jesus is the A and the W has a fine portentous ring, Paul’s not escaping from prison paired with the jailer’s eagerness to join him in the community of faith, the Way, and Jesus’s promise of life everlasting show lives being lived out in true time and place. Since Paul felt one with those by whom he was imprisoned and those to whom he was preaching, keeping on keeping on was his way of living. That picture, of living into the one true path Jesus was traveling, is vivid. Paul and the jailer were comforted and did experience being one with Jesus.
The complexity for them then and us now is that it’s hard to know ahead of time which way, what actions, will be “right,” or faithful in the future. Had Paul been queried when he was hurled into prison, whether, given the chance, he’d escape, he might well have said “yes.” Following Jesus, knowing what will happen next, trusting it’ll come out right is hard to do. Worse it’s often sad, unpleasant, and terrifying to imagine what to do “if”…. Jesus promises “I will not leave you comfortless,” but suppose he doesn’t know now, in this time, and this place, what I want and need. How does he know what will be of comfort to me, to us? Worse, suppose the Holy Spirit—a pretty vague diaphanous wisp of an idea—isn’t my idea of comforting. It’s the reason for me that these ten days are the real occasion to practice faith. We can imagine with the disciples what being offered that promise of the Comforter felt like—insubstantial. We can practice trusting that the Holy Spirit, “the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” somehow encompasses all of that, and even provides True Comfort. Luckily we are aware of our communities, our communal living out our lives, both from the past and now in this moment, these communities have and do experience the presence of that Spirit enough to have found their trust repaid. We’re not in that original lonely ten days of waiting for the Comforter’s arrival. For us to envision ourselves to be there is only an opportunity to rekindle our work of hope. We have examples from Paul and Silas’s prison time, to a myriad of other experiences of curious providential occurrences, which provide each of us with personal encounters with the Spirit enough to trust in her on-going work for us. We will not be left Comfortless, ever: Good News. AMEN. ©
Katharine C. Black 12 May 2013 St. John’s, Boston