Acts 16:9-15; Ps 67; Rev 21:10, 22—22.5; JOHN 14: 23-29
Let the peoples praise you, O God, alleluia; let all the peoples praise you, alleluia. AMEN.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give it as the world gives. But 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. Do not let your hearts be troubled. — And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. Don’t let your hearts be troubled, and don’t let them be afraid.”
Jesus says this, in what’s called the Farewell Discourse of John’s Gospel, before his crucifixion. He is trying to comfort his friends before his death, to alleviate their anxiety, worry, panic, disbelief, and then their guilt, remorse, and embarrassment. At least they’ll have heard what he’s sure will be happening, so that even when it happens and it is awful and frightening, they’ll have heard about it already. As each event happens, and it matches what Jesus told them and they’d heard, he hopes they’ll be able to panic less and trust more. The events, however, turn out to be beyond anyone’s experience, and so are hard to describe before the fact, almost impossible to stand by and observe phlegmatically, next genuinely impossible to accept, and then simply unbelievable to watch, participate in and trust. Yet each occurrence in the sequence happens as Jesus had sketched it out, tumbling into the nearly unimaginable, until Jesus knew he was leaving. He knew there would be comfort to follow, a comforter, an advocate.
Jesus knew there would be something about, throughout, abroad in the world after he ascended to his Father: a Spirit, a Spirit who would teach everything, and remind people of all he’d already taught. Perhaps even Jesus had little idea of the form, substance, method, reality of the how that comfort and advocacy would be transmitted. As it has turned out for those to whom Jesus had spoken, and for those of us who’ve followed along, for all these years, there’s still little agreement on what, or who, or how, the Spirit works. What was clear to those who lived in the time of Jesus was that Jesus had let them know ahead of time that he’d die miserably, then having defeated death would rise again on the third day, be with them again, and then leave finally. However, later they would receive a way to be taught again and be reminded of all that Jesus had said to them, and they would continue to experience that connection’s force.
The disciples were told all this, ahead of time, and then they did experience what Jesus had said would happen. Yet Jesus kept telling them not to let their hearts be troubled, and not to be afraid. How, though, could those disciples, or we, as disciples, be anything but troubled and afraid? The predictions were strange and their fulfillment, stranger. Even so, being associated with forces that broke boundaries, changed the experience of death, and promised new life had to be somewhere between unbelievable and terrifying. That hasn’t changed for people much, if at all.
We lean more to the science of this whole story and its implications for truth, then and now. We consider how the narratives were put together, whether the people who wrote them were there, and so on. We are almost more afraid for these accounts to be verifiably true, because, as it was for those disciples, the known shape, limits, or boundaries of Jesus’s resurrected life are beyond our science, our factual and usual research, study, and understanding about life and death.
We often don’t notice what the disciples did next. After Paul had had his transforming experience with Jesus, he traveled around preaching and baptizing. It had taken considerable hectoring by the Canaanite woman for Jesus to heal her daughter, and so for Jesus to heal beyond his boundaries, beyond his Jewish followers. She persuaded him and he changed—learning that he was to go to everyone, even the non-Jews around him. Paul understood he was to reach out particularly to the Gentiles around him. Today’s account, though, shows that he left his region and went north and west to Macedonia, from Troas on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey, to the small island of Samothrace, and on to southern Macedonia, (northern Greece) to Neapolis and on to Philippi. He was led, pushed, or called beyond the sea to what is now Europe, past the sea to where few local people from around Jerusalem went. Again, for us, since many of us simply hear that list of places and—one place being both as foreign as the next, and not on the map in my mind—this itinerary doesn’t seem like a big journey. However, people really didn’t do much elective travel, involving going to the next continent. Here, Paul is traveling beyond his Jewish roots, beyond his mission to the Gentiles, and heading into a new continent of Greeks, Gentiles, and unfamiliar travel places. Sailors, traders, and armies traveled, but this is a dramatic trip, more astonishing and bold in its time, than it sounds to us now.
The point of hearing Luke’s account of Paul’s journey is to demonstrate where people went after the resurrection to tell the Good News. People reached beyond their geographical world and the immediate time of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and his area of living and traveling. People learned about Jesus, continually inspired by the Holy Spirit, and heartened, given strength (the root meaning of com-fort,) from a spirit speaking for Jesus. Pairing both Jesus telling his followers that he would no longer be present with them, but there would be a Spirit conveying what he’d taught and also connecting him to the Father, also with Paul’s extending his travel mission to a new continent, pairing those two narratives is to show that dynamic action.
The dream-like passage from Revelation shows an even more extensive image of the far-flung Spirit in distance and time. That there would be found a tree of life with fruits for each of the twelve months, and its leaves for the healing of the nations extends the power of the Spirit to the twelve months of the year, the twelve tribes of Israel, and beyond to absorb Jerusalem. All this will continue to happen until G*d and the Lamb absorb both night and day, beyond any need or use for light. Whatever this means, it has no literal one-to-one correspondence of time, place, or other factual anchor. When we use expressions like “when Hell freezes over” or “all in G*d’s good time” we’re nudging towards this vision of the sometime, somewhere, when G*d and the Lamb exist alone.
This vivid imaginative theological image of the future yanks the thread of the disciples’ mission, past Paul’s journey to Europe, into an almost magical attenuation, where people will extend the Jesus’s Way by the Gospel Word. Beyond the fears and timidity of the disciples recuperating from the crucifixion, this dreamlike future expresses instead a temerity of communal hope, in a world transformed by the presence and power of the Spirit Jesus identified and promised. Whether we’re indifferent or casual students of history, we know the physical and temporal travels of the Christian word, message, and mission, into worldwide communities. Some versions and actualizations of the mission in action worked out more authentically, or closer, to the outline of a Way, Jesus offered and taught, while some were soured by human limitations.
We, here and now, are descendants and disciples of those disciples and their spirit-lead journeys. We inherit their anxiety and fears about the future. We wonder about whether the Spirit will stay with us. This community, this parish we are fed by, this inheritance of passion for our experiencing together the Real Presence of Jesus in our midst, in our lives, in our reaching out to others, must change. We know that. We don’t much like that reality, but we know in our heads that it’s true. We are anxious and afraid that we’ll change the wrong things, losing our heart for worship and mission. The Spirit has been promised to us as it has been to earlier wandering communities, and it will not leave us comfortless. Listen to the Anthem; it has it right: “The Spirit will abide with us forever.” We love our building, and I’ll bet Paul had some place he cherished too, but we don’t have a memoir of Paul’s beloved home. We have a record of his being transformed by the reality of Jesus and where and how he took himself to new lands. If our Cathedral can reach out to a world outside its doors in a vivid new blue artistic way, as well as continuing to nurture those inside liturgically and programmatically, we can change some outwardly too. We will not lose our identity and our infectious passion. We are secure in the peace Jesus has left us, and we know the Spirit will not leave us comfortless, ever: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 5 May 2013 St. John’s, Boston