Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cling Very Close to Each Other...

John proclaims the Divine presence of God in Jesus in his very first Gospel with the words:  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God… And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And now in (John17:1-14), as he announces the end of the physical presence of the incarnation of God in Jesus…he passes the baton to us:

All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.

 Once again John relies on mystical words to speak to us in that place in which the personal images of reality and life itself reside in each of us. John invites us to close our eyes and picture what being in a relationship with God really means. Note, I use the word “picture,” not “understand,” in an effort to prompt our imagination and senses to feel the words as a palpable, sensory experience, and know what being in a relationship with God actually feels like, tastes like, and smells like. This is at the essence of our being and what we mean when we say “and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God fully shared our humanity through Jesus as we through Jesus, fully share in God’s divinity. Anything less than that relationship with God would be reduced to mere acquaintance.

It is beautiful to hear Jesus pray for his apostles, not alone in a garden or in the desert but right in their midst. What a great model for prayer he provides us. In John there is no “teach us how to pray,” followed by the Lord’s Prayer, but rather it’s a prayer in which he asks the Father to bless us as we are called to follow him now, as we did while he was on earth, and invest our lives and love in one another as we glorify the Father.

It is, perhaps, the most relevant definition of what Pentecost means to us as his disciples. Jesus is no longer in the world. The incarnation is over. Jesus has been resurrected. He ascended to the Father. But we are still in the world and Jesus’ works are now in our hands. He is counting on us to be his presence to one another in his absence.

What if we imagined that the resurrection of Jesus was just the beginning and not the conclusion of the Gospel and that the promises of the resurrection are, in part, ours to fulfill? This prayer before parting is bitter sweet, after all Jesus is leaving his friends, but in many ways the sorrow of his leaving is replaced by the love he shares with us and we share with one another.

For some reason this Gospel conjures up for me the beautiful words that Oscar Hammerstein penned for Anna in The King and I, as she wishes for new young lovers, the love she shared and continues to share:

When I think of you
I think about a night
When the earth smelled of summer
And the sky was streaked with white

And the soft mist of England
Was sleeping on a hill
I remember this
And I always will

There are new lovers now on the same silent hill
Looking on the same blue sea
And I know  you and I are a part of them all
And they're all a part of you and me


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Come Holy Spirit & fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love

I vividly remember Dean Henry’s initial invitation to our “Wednesday Evening Bible Study,” originally entitled “The ‘Jesus Way’ Bible Study” in our weekly bulletin. I was intrigued by the last sentence in his posting: “No expertise in Bible Study is necessary, not even helpful. So, come and join us,” This last sentence spoke directly to me and gave me the courage to give it a try and see what it was all about. In retrospect, I can’t help but think that Dean, like John, was carefully selecting his words for the way in which they struck us or to use the current vernacular, resonated with us.

We have come to learn over the years that John’s Gospels defy literal translation and ask that we suspend our intellect and allow the words to become flesh in us and take them to our hearts so that we might intuitively feel their presence and know the Spirit. Padovano tells us that Jesus will never be found by those who reduce faith to words or doctrines or who limit religious behavior to moral exercises or spiritual behavior. Perhaps Dean had John in mind when he suggested that prior expertise or literal knowledge of the Bible may not be helpful. So, in our Gospel (John 14:15-21) Jesus says: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”

Have we ever seen the Holy Spirit? This is not a trick question.  Let’s think for a moment. The best description we get in the Bible of the Holy Spirit are tongues of flame or a freely blowing breeze. However, in this week's reading we get two helpful hints that offer a pretty good picture of just what the Holy Spirit looks like.

The Holy Spirit looks like an Advocate --the one who stands up for you when you need it; the one who speaks on your behalf; the one who lends you a helping hand, takes your side, and won't leave you while you're down.

The Holy Spirit looks like Jesus. The Spirit is "another advocate" because Jesus is the first. The Spirit, Jesus goes on to say, will abide with us and is sent in Jesus' name to remind us of what he taught. In a very real way, the Spirit affirms Jesus presence in us and through us, and helps to keep his promise that he will not leave us orphaned. You know him, because he abides with you, and lives with us

An advocate is defined as one who upholds and defends a cause or person, and intercedes on the part of another. Yes, we've seen the Spirit many times in those who share the love of Christ, and stand up for one another. They are advocates.  And unfortunately, we have also seen the adversaries to the first Advocate, Jesus, in the Pharisees who as with the proverbial “brood of vipers,” were self-righteous in the preservation of their egoistic demands, quick to judge and condemn and eventually put an end to Jesus, while destroying and dividing his community in order to serve their own purpose, and not God’s.

John’s Gospel is as relevant today as it was when it was written two thousand years ago. There are advocates for the love of God in our midst…and there are adversaries.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled

We are taught to read literature as though it is newspaper. Time is sequential and reality is flat. It’s one–dimensional, in which the words on the page are an assemblage of letters to communicate information in real time. What you see on the surface is what really is in black and white. This is not the case when we read the Gospel and especially John’s.

David Steindl-Rast writes: “to understand these (John’s) images in the way they were meant we must develop a sense for poetic language. These images speak to our intellect through our poetic sensibilities…Tuning in to this language means both taking them seriously and not taking them literally.” Marcus Borg goes on to say “it invites his hearers to see in a radically different new way. The appeal is to the imagination, to that place within us in which reside our images of reality and our images of life itself.”

So when John begins the first chapter of his Gospel with In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God (verse 1)…And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, he announces the incarnation of God in his fullest humanity as the Word became flesh in Jesus, and he also signifies that the Word becomes flesh in us. “The Word speaks to us in that place which reside our personal images of reality and our images of life itself.”

So back to John’s Gospel for today (John 14:1-14).  Jesus comforts his apostles and says: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me, says Jesus. Trust me. Trust God— you have seen God in me. I am enough. Trust that you will find me in the community as we come to see God in one another.

Andrew Prior writes: “I do not think we can overstate the love and the intimacy of the household of God and our place in it. What we can miss, however, is that it is not a geographical place at a certain time. It is a relationship in eternity into which we can enter; in which we can place our trust. We will not be left alone, or orphaned.”

We know that Jesus was killed for political reasons: he violated the “status quo” of the prevailing Jewish law that caused the Judeans, not all Jews, to want him removed. The Judeans were those who aligned themselves with Rome to maintain “control” of their “religion” and maintain their “status quo.” As such, their religious leaders collaborated with Imperial Rome to have Jesus “removed.”

Throughout his life, Jesus made it clear that he resisted the man-made rules of “organized religion” as it existed. I wonder what he would think about the religions of today.  How different are some of its members from the Pharisees who resisted change. History reminds us that Jesus was not the last to be persecuted for bucking the “status quo.” Leave things alone I’m comfortable with the way things are; hey, I read the scripture and preach the Gospel; isn’t that enough?  But where is the Love that Jesus was?

Wills tells us that “Jesus opposed any religion that is proud of its virtue, like the boastful Pharisee. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn. Any that wallows in gossip that destroys and divides the community in order to serve its own purpose and not God’s.” And how do we relate to hear Jesus’s words in our Gospel: Do not let your hearts be troubled…I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I tell you, I am the gate

I grew up in New York City in the ‘50s. We lived in a two–family house in Brooklyn. I recall it as a carefree time of life. It was a time which while doors marked certain boundaries, we were not so afraid of others inappropriately crossing them. It was not always necessary to lock our doors. And when we finally did, my father kept a key in the milk box on the porch or left one with our upstairs neighbor. Our ability to come and go was safe. However, in later years when both my parents worked I, as the oldest of my siblings, was entrusted with that key. Later concerns for safety appeared to be heightened and more attention was paid to doors and security. I know I was older and more aware of the news of the day but times were changing.  We were a little less carefree and the world was not as safe as it was before.

While gates and doors provide protection and security, they are the means for going in and out of a home or place. They also serve as boundaries to permit entry and exit. In today’s Gospel (John10:1-10) Jesus, the Good Shepherd, describes himself as a “gate” and not a “gatekeeper.” Our frame of reference for a shepherd does not likely fit with the image of the shepherd in the time of Jesus.  Is there any more powerful artistic depiction of Jesus the Good Shepherd in our Christian heritage?  For me it is the famous painting of Jesus with the lamb draped over his shoulder that was hung on the wall in one of my grade school classrooms, and was one of the stained glass windows in the church.  Yet, when Jesus lived and John writes his Gospel, shepherds were among the most disreputable and mistrusted outcasts of society. We might consider replacing the image of the loving guardian strolling peacefully in the sunshine among his flock, with the marauding motorcycle gangs of our century or cowboy outlaws of the 19th century. They were drifters with no fixed address and because of their occupation, they were perpetually unclean and, by definition, in violation of Jewish law. These outcasts are the very people John’s gospel is talking about. 

Needless to say John shocks his audience by comparing Jesus to a shepherd and then later calling this very shepherd “good.”  He challenges his listeners to look past their assumptions of where God is located and who God belongs to and who can belong to God.  We and the people of John’s time are asked to see God in those who are outsiders, who exist on the fringe of the community, who are despised and even a little feared.  The readers of John’s story are told to look for God among the despised.

It is interesting today that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, does not describe himself as the gatekeeper, but rather as the gate. Jesus calls himself the gate, because that is the role the shepherd assumed. We are told that there was no actual gate in sheep-folds and that the shepherd would stand, sit or lie down in the opening which allowed entry and exit. In this way the shepherd could serve as protector of his sheep.  He knew his sheep and they knew him. John purposely contrasted Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with disreputable religious rulers of his time who exploited their congregations.

Jesus clearly defines his role when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I am the door.  I am the proper way, the right way, the only way into the sheep fold.”  He preached the power of love and denounced the love of power.