Week of Sunday May 29 - Easter 6
Gospel: John 14:15-21
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They 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.’
Life really began to come together for me in Year 10. The school science teacher, who was also my class teacher, had a lot to do with this. He was vibrant, brash, and noisy. He treated us more as equals than students. He kept order by lobbing chalk at us with uncanny accuracy, and crashing a yardstick down on desks in a paradoxically good humoured way. He used the rabbits l shot for dissection classes. He introduced a bunch of us boys to bushwalking, which was a life changing experience.
At the end of the year, he was transferred back to Adelaide. I didn't know how to say goodbye. After 40 years I still remember him saying to me, "You'll be alright. You'll make it. You've got what it takes." It was an intimate moment, and a substantial balm to a deep grief I didn't really recognise.
In this chapter of John the disciples are feeling that grief. The person who has brought life together for them, is leaving. How will they go on? He tells them they have what it takes. He is sending them the advocate. "You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you." The spirit who will be given is already there. The spirit is not some afterthought.
In the beginning was the Word... while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
As Jesus has been saying this, the theatre lights have faded so Jesus alone is clearly visible. He looks out into the dark at us: ''You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you."
My Year 10 story is about me, one lonely student, and Mr Fauser, a teacher who couldn't remember me when I spotted him in a shopping centre, ten years later. The reading is not about me. It’s about the community of Jesus' disciples. It's about that community in community with the Father, and with Jesus. Jesus is speaking to me as one of the disciples. He is speaking to us as a group, not me as an individual. As one of the group I can appropriate his words, but they are never spoken in isolation to me. I may only interpret them through the lens of community.
I think we have little idea how individualistic, and non-communal, our society and culture actually is. This skews our understanding of the Father, Jesus, and the Advocate. We do not see, first of all, community. We instinctively look for Jesus to help us, us alone. That is how we think of us. This skews our experience of the Divine so much that we do not see it.
In my final school year, I would come home on the bus, for weeks at a time, and walk the boundary of half the farm. Today we would probably diagnose that I was depressed. The isolation, and my choice of solitude, removed me from the place and the people where I would most likely experience the presence of God.
Contrasting this were the great experiences of that year. Yet another school science teacher ran a youth group in the church. That youth group was our centre. At youth group I just was. My neediness, my doubts, and my anxieties were all softened and even removed for a few hours. The effect would last days.
At youth group I was actually somebody. It's not that I was a leader. I was a lesser light in many ways. The muso's were the ones with status. What counted was that here, for the first time in a long time, I counted. I belonged. I did not understand this at the time. I was unconscious of it. But I was "at home" in a way I had not been at home before.
It could easily be observed that I have described the dynamic of the town football club- sans beer, perhaps. It also provided a place to belong. There was powerful identity.
There would have been days when the team was on fire. How we love that expression for things of the Spirit! There would have been days when no matter what the team from Jamestown tried, Gladstone worked together as a unit that was like one body, and crushed the opposition.
We might say this experience is a familiar artefact of human behaviour, and human groups. We don’t know why, on some Saturdays, a team is on fire, and yet on other Saturdays the whole team is knee deep in a bin of soggy wheat. But whatever is going on, you don't need to import God into the situation; it just is. It’s how the world works.
I think this is wrong. It’s the blindness of verse 17. The world cannot receive him because it neither sees him nor knows him....
There is a great pressure and deception that comes from aspects of the pentecostal movement, and from Christians looking for something to prove God exists in a world where God is out of favour, and everything can be explained by science. That pressure and temptation is to treat the spirit as a yet unrecognised “ace in the pack,” something special which will gives us the signs and wonders which Jesus calls "even greater works than these." Like our individualistic faith this hope, longing and expectation, is so prevalent it is hard to discern. We are, if not careful, sold expectations just as deceptive as those of May 21, 2011.
Let me be as equally blunt as the salesfolk of signs and wonders: the Spirit is not special. The spirit was not absent before Jesus. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters. Of course the Spirit was present in the Gladstone Football Club, much as it hurts the hockey player in me to say this.
What defines the Spirit from our perspective is not presence or absence, but recognition.
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you-plural.
The church cultivates recognition of the spirit. By loving Jesus (15) and keeping his commandments, it is able, perhaps we should say it is enabled, to see the reality of God among us and the desires of God for us, and work in community with those. God becomes real, rather than a concept about whose existence we argue. This makes the Advocate and Helper seem strangely mundane when compared to a School of the Supernatural, and yet it is incredibly powerful.
In our first parish together, we were crucified. We were lied to before we arrived; maybe people just hoped their denial would make the problems go away. We were lied about, and slandered. When the wider church finally took notice, people we'd never met, and who'd never been to church while we were there, came out of the woodwork to tell the authorities how nasty we had been. That was the least of it. Our children were abused; people tried to recruit them against us, and attacked them rather than face us. To be fair, the main protagonists were driven by fears and forces they didn't understand. I was totally out of my depth, and no use to them, or to the people they were recruiting.
So we were kicked out. My wife was exhausted. I was ill enough to wonder if suicide might be the best way out, and would rid my family of a burden. At this time, job insecurity was becoming mainstream experience in Australia. I was just reaching the “too old to employ” time of life. We suddenly had 22 ministers without a parish in our synod. And we were pushed out of a parish house, with no jobs, no house, no car and nowhere to go.
The voices which had been insistent on ordination for life, were suddenly saying we had no right to expect a job just because we were clergy. Being a minister was just a job like everything else. Abused, ill, broke, and exhausted, we were headed for disaster.
Three women in the synod office found us an empty manse, whose parish just gave it to us. They found interim work for my wife. They made sure my sick leave continued for months after we had left the parish. The church schools took our kids, even though we couldn't pay the fees. They gave me some voluntary work in the synod office as I began to recover, and then interim jobs that made allowance for the fact that I was very wounded.
This was Advocacy. This was Helper. This was Spirit. This was greater even than what Jesus had done. It was a miracle.
But because we are fixated on signs and wonders we often don't see it like that. We start schools of the supernatural which will raise the dead. We are fixated on proving the reality of God, afraid that if we don’t, God might disappear. It has blinded us, and we cannot see the greatest power of all; the power to recognise God’s Spirit among us. So alienating have our “communities” sometimes become, that we have closed ourselves to recognising the Spirit of God, and chase after the idol of extraordinary experience.
My family were not seen as people being helped and comforted by the Spirit of God. We were expendable; someone you could drive out of town and forget about. Like many others, it was assumed that when we arrived at CentreLink, we were seeking to cheat the system.
But the Spirit of God knew us, healed us, helped us back on our feet, and gave us a place when society had begun to write us off. As a society, we look at the half sunken wrecks of people roaming the streets, people sometimes only a few weeks or dollars on from where our family was standing, and condemn them as losers, and complain about dole bludgers, and the nanny state. We do not see the invitation to recognise the Spirit of God among us, and the ability to help transform, and be transformed.
I do not come naturally to community. I'm solitary, a farm kid, and a solo cyclist- altogether an introvert. I've suffered grievously from community gone wrong, and I'm cautious. But where I have been in community; been a part of it, keeping the commandments, letting it touch me and help me; then life has had a different quality. Then Spirit is not some “out there,” mystical, puzzling unknown. Spirit is God-Advocate, Helper, Friend found in the love of the church. And the mundane spirit of God is more than all the hype and extravagance of the signs and wonders crowd. She is real, and she comforts me. And then, ordinary struggling community does become extraordinary.
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