Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Holy Spirit: Love Stronger Than Death

The Rev. John Shearman, of the United Church of Canada, has said: “The history of the Christian Church from the very beginning is the story of how the Spirit continually challenges the faithful to carry the gospel to the world...” Today’s readings from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, from Revelation, and from John’s Gospel all confirm the truth of that statement. 

The reading from Acts (11:1-18) deals with a reality common to any organization of two people or more, especially if the organization has set up any sort of established procedures. It could be summed up in the oft-repeated exclamation frequently heard from longstanding members of church congregations: “We’ve always done it this way!” “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’”   

It must’ve been very difficult for Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was truly the expected Messiah to come to terms with realities which challenged their long-held Jewish loyalties.  Though there was a long and ancient history of Jewish tradition, Jesus made no excuses in interpreting it in a fresh way.  The bottom line was all about ritual purity. How often had Peter’s critics prayed: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts...” (Psalm 24:3-4) 

Pastor Shearman says that “The whole of Israel's liturgical practice and the architecture of the temple itself as well as the accepted customs of eating rested on the right answer” to the questions posed by Psalm 24.  The Temple structure was designed to preserve the purity of the Temple through a series of courts: the Inner Sanctuary of the Temple itself was divided into the Court of the Priests, the Court of the Israelites, and the Court of the Women. The separate area, outside the Temple, was known as the Court of the Gentiles whose purpose was to exclude all non-Jews and those who didn’t perform the strict ritual observances to purify themselves and their offerings before entering.  And even among the priests, ritually purified men who had the sole right to offer sacrifices, it was the high priest alone who could, only on the Day of Atonement, enter the Holy of Holies, the symbolic dwelling place of the invisible God.

Jesus of Nazareth, however, believed otherwise. Professor George B. Caird ("The Apostolic Age." Studies in Theology, London: Duckworth & Co., 1955. p.83-84.) notes that strict Jewish orthodoxy demanded appropriate ritual practice rather than belief.  Jesus and his band of followers were at first viewed as just another of many Jewish sects.  Their beliefs were common to most other Jews: e.g., about the Messiah, the resurrection, and the final age to come.  Thus no one accused them, at least at first, of religious disloyalty, because they continued to observe the ancient ritual laws prescribed by the Torah.  But Judaism was a nationality more than a religion, a religious precept, combining both social customs and civil laws, a sort of national ideology.  A faithful Jew who abandoned the Torah as a national way of life effectively became denationalized.

Jesus felt that every Jew had the right to come before God in worship and to make his/her own offering.  He didn’t necessarily observe all the strict dietary laws.  When he cleansed the Temple, driving out the money-changers, he acted out a clear challenge to the exclusive priestly establishment’s authority, as well as to the ancient traditions. The result: betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot, perhaps because even Judas disagreed with his convictions, Jesus was hauled by the Jewish authorities before the Romans and eventually executed. 

Jesus had shown even more disregard for the ancient traditions by  including notorious sinners, prostitutes, and non-observant Jews in his day-to-day dealings, especially in his frequent table fellowship, which was intentionally meant as an example for the community of his disciples.  In his own mind there was no doubt that these gatherings were made sacred and acceptable, by and for God, as pure and holy worship.  This was eventually what separated the followers of The Way from the Jewish community. Luke’s story in Acts of Peter and Cornelius’ household was part of this coming to terms with Jesus’ vision. 

The “Aha!” moment for Peter came, at two points. The first was as a result of the vision, repeated three times, at Joppa, and recounted in today’s first lesson. Peter, obviously, as on other occasions, was a slow learner! When he meets the gathering of Cornelius’ family and friends, in Chapter 10, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean...” (10:28) Then in today’s passage, Peter says that “The Spirit told me to go...and not to make a distinction between them and us...” (11:12) The second moment of recognition came, as Acts 10 describes it, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles... Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” (10:44-45; 47) Today’s reading describes Peter’s reaction: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?...” (11:17)

The Spirit’s presence and outpouring, confirming Peter’s actions, is the driving force behind the transformation of the Jerusalem community, and once Peter explains it to his critics, “when they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God...” (11:18)
So how does all this speak to the Resurrection mystery which we celebrate and contemplate, especially during these 50 days after Easter, but also throughout all our lives? During Easter time I read a book called Immortal Diamond, by Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. It’s a follow-up on one of his previous books, Falling Upward, both of which I heartily recommend to you. Fr. Rohr emphasizes what an incredible grace humankind was given in the way God led Saul of Tarsus, later Paul, step-by-step to his mission of bringing Christ to the Gentiles, such as you and me! Chapter 9 of Acts, just two chapters before today’s passage, tells us of Paul’s conversion. God tells Ananias, whom he sends to Paul, “...I have chosen [him] to bring my name before Gentiles...”, and Ananias advises Paul that he’s been sent partly so that Paul can “be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Rohr exults in the reality of God’s unboundedness, and in the fact that, as he says, “God is very clearly not a mere tribal God...” God can’t be fenced in or boxed up; no organization, not even the Church, can ever confine or control God, though we still, foolishly, try do it. My dear friend, the late Lutheran monk, Fr. Arthur Kreinheder, once exclaimed to me, “God is so lavish!” God’s Spirit blows where it will!

After his conversion, Paul wrote that from the creation of the world onward, God’s everlasting power and divine nature, even though invisible, are accessible to everyone “through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:19-20) God isn’t so stingy as to have to squeeze Godself, who is Being itself, into any “specific time frame, culture, or vocabulary”. If God, who is Being itself, can be understood and seen through the things God has made, then creation’s timeless message will be evident to us: viz., that all things live, then die, then live again in new ways. You and I voice this each time we use Eucharistic Prayer A to proclaim “the mystery of faith”: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Many people of faith, even the many disciplines of science, philosophy, mysticism and poetry, confirm this, using different metaphors.

The point of the mystery of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is that, through our face-to-face relationship with Jesus the Christ, initiated in Baptism, the Incarnation has become the Resurrection in you and me. Eastertide through Pentecost, meaning the span our whole lives rather than just the annual seasons of the Church year, is, in Fr. Rohr’s words, like a “laboratory for resurrection” where you and I learn the ultimate truth: that Love is stronger than death. He says “The Crucified One is God’s standing solidarity with the suffering, the tragedy, and the disaster of all time, and God’s promise that it will not have the final word.” Because of that you and I can face all the evil, all the tragedies, all the wars, all the failures and sufferings of our lives, a sampling of which we endured just two weeks ago in Boston. We can even learn to cope with our personal deaths, whenever and however we will pass through them.

Note how curious it is that in the Gospel passage (John 13:31-35), Jesus, speaking to his followers the evening before he is to die, is focussed on “glory”: the Son of Man being glorified, and God being glorified in him. Jesus is fully aware of what lies ahead the next day, and Scripture attests to his predictable human reactions to that prospect. Yet, he’s given the inner wherewithal, by the Father with whom he knows himself to be one, to look beyond tomorrow, and to see that death will not be the final word. 

The reason that this is possible for us, says Fr. Rohr, is that “The Risen One is God’s final word about the universe and what God plans to do with all suffering.The Book of Revelation, in the second reading (21:1-6), speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth...See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them...God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more...I am making all things new.” The price of all that is having to first “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) with Jesus, and perhaps to wait at other people’s tombs, family or friends, as the Marys of the Gospel do.

In John’s Gospel Jesus tells his friends, “I give you a new commandment...Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (11:34) A little later he tells them that, if they can accept this, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth...You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you...” (14:16-17)

Fr. Rohr identifies “the human problem” as: 1) “we fear, and 2) we kill what we should love.” Think about that for a minute. The dysfunctions of the world, of our nation, of our community, of our family and home, come down to fear and violence to the other, in some form. But Love, as Jesus has shown us, is the Holy Spirit who is God. God only and always loves: everyone, always -- no exceptions. In the Letter to the Romans St. Paul claims that our sufferings in the present aren’t worthy to be compared to “the glory about to be revealed to us.” He says that you and I and all creation are waiting, during this time between the Resurrection and the coming of God’s reign, “on tiptoe” for the ability to recognize the love already abiding in us, which is the Holy Spirit. Paul says our groaning during this time is like labor pains, though us men wouldn’t know much about that...unless, of course, you’ve had kidney stones, as I have! Nevertheless, says Paul, “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words...” (8:26)

Fr. Karl Rahner wrote: “...[The Risen Jesus] is in the ineffable yearning of all creatures who, without knowing it, yearn for a share in the transfiguration of his body. He is in the history of the earth...He is in all the tears as hidden joy, and in every death as the life that conquers by seeming to die. He is in the beggar, to whom we give a coin, as the secret rich reward that returns to the giver. He is in the miserable defeats of his servants as the victory that belongs to God alone. He is in our weakness as the strength that dares to let itself seem weak, because it is invincible. He himself is even right in the midst of sin as the mercy of everlasting life that is prepared to be patient to the end. (The Eternal Year, p. 93)

And all this comes to pass through the Holy Spirit with us and in us, whom he sends, who is the Love challenging you and me each day to “cry the Gospel with our lives”.



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