The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

Learning to see again

Gospel: John 14:8-27

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

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.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Learning to see again

The Ascension of Jesus is decades ago. People feel separated from God; this is why John has Philip ask Jesus to show them the Father. Into this anxiety, John speaks the Good News to his community. He says to Philip, "If you have seen me, you have seen the father." And, more good news, they have not been left orphaned. The father has sent another Advocate, another helper as Jesus was, to be with them. And Jesus says, "You know him because he abides with you, and he will be among you." In John's time, that future statement is fulfilled. Jesus is saying to John's community, "You know him because he abides with you and he is with you."

Augustine speaks to every one of us who has ever felt belittled by 'spiritual' Christians: "How can we love so as to receive Him, without whom we cannot love at all? And his answer was: "We are therefore to understand that [the one] who loves has already the Holy Spirit, and by what [she] has [she] becomes worthy of a fuller possession..."

We forget who we are. We are not the first Christians of Jerusalem. We are not those who are witnessing a new outpouring of God called Holy Spirit. We are the children of those people. And so, for us, the presence of the spirit is the same as the presence in John's community. "You know him because he abides with you and he is with you."

 It's reminds me of Robin Mann's hymn:

At the dawn of the ages
you pulled land from the sea.
With your word you invented
all we know, all we see:
creek and desert and forest,
red and grey kangaroo.
You were in this place—
but we never knew.

This is a hymn of repentance for we white Australians who assumed the absence of God in the land and among its owners. But it is a hymn which might well be sung at Pentecost.  "You were in this place— but we never knew."  

Pentecost, in John's reflection, is not about the giving of that which has never been present. The spirit of God "swept over the face of the waters" even when "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep..." (Genesis 1:2) and John makes reference to this in the first verses of the Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…" Pentecost is about the presence of God which has always been. We might quip that what is in some way newly given in our experience, has always been the given. John is reminding his people of what they have already known.

My experience is that as I have sought to love my wife, my children, my neighbours, my congregation, and even the people I meet in the street,  and as I seek to love them in the way that Jesus loved,  I find a level of peace and acceptance about the world which I've not ever had before. This mystifies me. I cannot find an adequate grammar to explain what is happening to me. Could it be that this is the "Peace I leave with you; my peace [that] I give to you...  not... as the world gives?" My heart is less troubled, and I am less afraid.

I can explain very clearly what closes my eyes to this presence and peace. Getting too caught up in the rush of the world closes my eyes to it. Seeking after position and status means it fades from view. Trying to pretend that everything is alright in my world, and that I'm not going to die, leads to the loss of peace rather than some kind of rest from all the pain of the world.  All these things remove the peace and the presence that I have met.

It seems to me that nothing has changed, except in me. Something in me is able to see the same world with new eyes. Reading the same biblical stories I see a new story. I no longer see only cultural apprehensions of God which are simply unacceptable; I'm thinking here, for example, of the massacres in the Old Testament which people thought God had demanded of them, and all the misogyny which wrote out or did not even see women's experience of God. That remains— it is more obvious— but under it I can see people grasping to express a slowly growing sense of God. I can read the stories of Jesus, and hear the story of Pentecost in Acts, and some of the healings in the first churches, and can see a reality underlying them which is not mere wand waving magic1 and superstition, or wish fulfilment. I see something more: presence, love, and shalom. I take this to be the work of the Spirit within me.

There are three things I need to learn.

Firstly, I need to love as Jesus loved, not love according to the ancient way of 'us and them.' The obvious question here is which Jesus I trust? The one with the Persil white robes and the long blonde hair, and the blue eyes? That's who some folk see in Scripture. How can I know my imagination is even slightly correct? This is crucial; the Jesus I imagine will shape the Father I imagine and see. John  has an answer:  "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." And the commandment is to "love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34-35)

This loving is full of passion, because how can we love, and how can we love all people just the same,  if we are not inflamed with the power and passion of the Spirit? But there is also something quite detached about this love. Loving someone as Jesus has loved us, is done aside from, even despite,  our feelings. It is commitment to the way of the Cross. It is to risk our lives. It is to live in a way which transcends survival at any cost. We detach ourselves from our own needs, and our own fears for our survival, and we do what is necessary for the survival and the flourishing of others.

And this is where we meet the real Jesus. It is in this way of living that we begin to understand the essence of Jesus. It is this which protects us from creating a Jesus based in our own desires and our own needs for safety. In fact, it is more correct to say, that it is this kind of loving, the loving in the way that Jesus loves us, which converts us away from trusting in a Jesus of our own construction, and brings us to see the Jesus whom the apostles met.

Secondly, I need to learn again to speak about the Spirit. 

There is a consequence to our western cultural dis-enchantment2. Our doing away with a world where reality is 'more and deeper' than mere chemistry and physics, means that our language has lost the ability to talk about and interpret the 'break in' events that nonetheless happen in our material lives. More than this, language is not merely the ability to speak; our language shapes and forms the culture which enables us to see and to perceive. As a culture, we are often as impoverished as the Pharisees of John 9, who though longing for the Messiah, were blind when he came among them. The pathos of that story is that their opposition to Jesus is not recalcitrance; they simply could not see who he was! (40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’) And in our time and culture, because we can barely speak of spirit, we can barely seeexperience— spirit!

This all means that, for years, I was never sure what we were even talking about when we spoke of the Spirit, and had the distinct impression that I was far from alone.  I always remember the sad story from an older colleague about the minster berating a clergy meeting many years ago about the "spirit this and the spirit that..." and "we should listen to the spirit..." Eventually, my colleague asked, "What do you mean by this 'spirit,'" and his colleague snapped back, "You should know what I mean!" And so we should. But like that man, our longings and our desperations are often expressed in rhetoric, and our ignorance is projected upon others, because... we haven't known.

We are ignorant in the presence of our riches and need to learn to see again. We can only do that if we love as Jesus loved.

And third: I need to learn to trust rather than constantly seeking to describe and control the Spirit. I have seen Jesus. In the end, it is that which matters. I can talk about what I have seen. I sense that our western desire for conciseness and exactitude and analysis of what we have seen is deeply infected with something else: Our culture explains things away. For us, to understand is not to stand under; it is to master.  So we need to learn a slow Pentecost which is content to be healed over a lifetime. Otherwise we will see no place for the Spirit because we cannot perceive the Spirit, or we will simply project our own desires into an excitement which is more about us than it is about God.

 Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

20190609lastsupper

What do you see?  (Henley-Fulham UCA)

1. cf Alan Brehm

The idea of God who can magically fix any problem is comforting to most people.  I think a lot of people in our world assume that’s what it means for God to be “God.”  But if you think about it, if God could have just waved a magic wand, why did he go to all this trouble?  It would seem to me the answer is that’s not the way God works--it’s not the way God has ever worked.  God has always gotten involved in the ordinary experience of human beings. And at least part of the reason why God has chosen to work in this seemingly frustrating way is that God wants us to respond to him in love--as a choice that we make freely.  God doesn’t want puppets he can manipulate.  He wants people who choose to accept his love, and who in turn choose to share that love with others. [I would add... for this is what makes us human. It is what fulfils us and makes us whole. Andrew] …

And that’s why God entered our human existence in Jesus--to demonstrate what that love looks like in the life of a flesh-and-blood person.... And it seems to me that was the purpose for God pouring out his Spirit on “all flesh” at Pentecost.

  This may sound like a much tamer version of Pentecost that we’re used to.  We’re used to the whole idea of the Spirit poured out as a means of enabling mere humans to work miracles.  If you read the Book of Acts from a certain perspective, that’s the impression you can get. But John’s version of the Spirit coming to create the church gives us a different perspective with which to view the Acts of the Apostles, and the whole Christian life, for that matter.

 

2. cf Charles Taylor on enchantment

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

This is not a mere “subtraction” story, for it thinks not only of loss but of remaking. With the subtraction story, there can be no epistemic loss involved in the transition; we have just shucked off some false beliefs, some fears of imagined objects. Looked at my way, the process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world...

[I think of this as being a world where we have insulated ourselves from a greater reality around us. Andrew]

The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings)...

 

Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding. Latin Christendom has tended more and more to privilege belief, as against unthinking practice. And “secular” people have inherited this emphasis, and often propound an “ethics of belief,” where it can be seen as a sin against science or epistemic decency to believe in God. So we tend to think of our differences from our remote forbears in terms of different beliefs, whereas there is something much more puzzling involved here. It is clear that for our forbears, and many people in the world today who live in a similar religious world, the presence of spirits, and of different forms of possession, is no more a matter of (optional, voluntarily embraced) belief than is for me the presence of this computer and its keyboard at the tips of my fingers....

 We have great trouble getting our minds around this, and we rapidly reach for intra-psychic explanations, in terms of delusions, projections, and the like. But one thing that seems clear is that the whole situation of the self in experience is subtly but importantly different in these worlds and in ours. We make a sharp distinction between inner and outer, what is in the “mind” and what is out there in the world. Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world. Some chemical can cause hormonal change, and thus alter the psyche. There can be an aphrodisiac, but not a love potion, that is, a chemical that determines the human/moral meaning of the experience it enables. A phial of liquid can cure a specific disease, but there can’t be something like the phials brought back from pilgrimage at Canterbury, which contained a miniscule drop of the blood of Thomas à Beckett, and which could cure anything, and even make us better people; that is, the liquid was not the locus of certain specific chemical properties, but of a generalized beneficence.

Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so….

 


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