May 21, 2017
Easter 6, Year A
Donna G. Joy
As I read and reflect on our Gospel reading for this morning, I am filled with a sense of hope. This past week during a conversation over lunch with a friend, the subject of Nadia Bolz-Weber came up, and this may be why she kept surfacing as I was preparing for today. I am a huge fan of Nadia’s work, and her theology... Primarily because I believe that she serves as a symbol of hope to countless people who all-too-often live - in despair - without it.
She, herself, grew up in a church where there was a pretty narrow view of who God is, and what God represents. As she was growing up, Nadia received a message of God which suggests that we can only experience God if we are deserving of God’s acceptance and love. If we’re good enough. Faithful enough. Righteous enough. Then, and only then, might we discover the gift of God’s love and God’s grace. Nadia Bolz-Weber fought against this teaching with every fibre of her being, and in so doing she learned to hate the church and she reached the conclusion that she did NOT want a relationship with such a harsh and judgemental God whose love could only be described as conditional... whose approval she could never deserve. She had no desire to establish a relationship with a God who says, “If you do this right, and this right, and this right, then I might learn to love you.
By the time she was 18 years old Nadia was fully immersed into the world of drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity; she was receiving tattoos from junkies off the street. But by the Grace of God, through a varied set of circumstances, she discovered a new way of experiencing God (higher power) when she found herself at an AA meeting in the basement of a church. It pleases me that we - St. Peter’s - open our doors to an AA group, and alas, they meet in the basement of this sacred building. We will never know how many lives have been and continue to be changed because we open our doors to the community in this way.
After being four years sober, Nadia was introduced to what she describes as, "a pretty cute Lutheran guy" who was - at the time - a seminary student... Through him, she discovered the Lutheran Church where she was introduced to a God who does NOT withhold love and grace until we have lived up to his expectations; she discovered a God who always, no matter what, comes to us: loving us, feeding us, guiding us, caring and comforting us in ways more generous than she had ever imagined possible. She discovered a God of hope.
And what I particularly love about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s story is that that’s just the beginning. Once she became ordained it occurred to her that ‘her people’ had no pastor. That is, the junkies living on the street, the alcoholics who have lost everything, the transvestites and transgendered people who have been disowned by their families and friends: ‘her people’... They were not finding a church where they discovered a God who loved them, embraced them; a God who welcomed them home. So, in cooperation with her Bishop, she began a Lutheran faith community that is growing, thriving, and highly populated with ‘her people’: a HOUSE FOR ALL SINNERS AND SAINTS.
I love Nadia Bolz-Weber’s story, because it is one of hope. She discovered hope through the transforming, life changing, unconditional love and grace of God, and now she embodies this gift and makes it accessible to others. It has been said that, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” Nadia Bolz-Weber discovered this hope - this extended hand - in the midst of the darkest of places.
Thomas Long tells the story of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of the most respected rabbis in Great Britain. As a boy, he and his family were imprisoned in Auschwitz. As Orthodox Jews they would know that any religious observance would present them with enormous danger, but Hugo’s father insisted that the Sabbath as well as the festivals must be kept. Hugo remembered the time when, to observe the Sabbath, his father took a piece of string and placed it in a bit of butter to make a Shabbat candle. Watching him light it, Hugo became furious and said, “Father that is all the butter we have!” His father replied, “Without food, we can live for weeks. But we cannot live, really live, one minute without hope.”
These stories and messages of hope sprang to my mind this week as I was pondering today’s Gospel reading from John, where Jesus is telling his disciples that although he will be leaving them soon, the same Spirit that has empowered his earthly life and ministry will be given to them – to empower them. To this weak kneed, frail, fickle, self serving group of friends, Jesus promises: no matter what, he will always be with them. With this empowering gift working in them and through them, extraordinary things will be made possible. Of course, those same deeply flawed disciples were to become empowered - in time - through the gift of Jesus' death and resurrection, and remain empowered through the gift of the H.S. which will dwell with them - with us - always. Through this gift, these terribly flawed followers of Jesus become the very ones who announce hope through the resurrection as God's way of connecting with those who are lost.
Now, as disciples/followers of Christ, it is important to be really clear about how and why this belief system differs from the New Age spirituality that plays such a significant role in our culture today. New Age motivational speakers will say such things as, “YOU are the very essence of what is good. What some folks call ‘god’ I call YOU! Embrace the divinity that is YOU!” New Age Spirituality is about the elevation of the self, while Christianity is about the elevation and glorification of God, working in us and through us, as has been promised. The older I get the more aware I become of my own frailty and limitations and with the increased dawning of this awareness I realize that my HOPE is in remembering that God has promised to work in and through me, particularly in the midst of those places that are vulnerable and weak. Part of what made Nadia Bolz-Weber so receptive to the gift of God’s love and grace was her awareness of her own weakness and frailty and brokenness.
As Jesus is speaking to his disciples about his imminent departure, they are gathered in the upper room, and clearly filled with fear and sadness about the events that are soon to unfold. Aware of their own frailty they cannot even imagine how they will get through this. Jesus tells them (and us) that our hope is found in him. He promises them, “...you will receive an advocate . . . to be with you forever. This advocate will abide with you and be in you. I will not leave you orphaned/desolate . . . because I (Jesus) live, you will live.” This word ‘advocate’ comes from the Greek word ‘Parakletos’ or ‘Paraclete’ which means literally ‘someone called alongside.’ In other words, never – never – is there even a second or a moment when this advocate – this Spirit – this Divine Friend - is not with us, empowering us to do and be what God has created us to do and be; offering us courage and strength that we – left to our own devices – could NEVER otherwise have. Here Jesus is reassuring his worried disciples that God will actually dwell within us. To trust in this, is to live in hope.
Jesus is giving his disciples the One who is the link between Jesus and his heavenly parent – the One to whom Jesus identifies as Father. Everything that Jesus has done, throughout his earthly ministry, has been done “in the Spirit,” that is, empowered by, authorized by, and enabled by the Spirit. So in promising his disciples the gift of this same Spirit, Jesus is giving them a profound sense of hope.
Once again, contrary to N.A. spirituality, the H.S. is not an aspect of human nature. The Holy Spirit is God - that which links Jesus’ disciples to the whole rest of the Godhead. That is huge - The Spirit that unites Jesus to the Father/Mother/heavenly parent, that SAME Spirit is given to those fearful, trembling, terrified disciples AND through our baptism, to each of us. This is the hope we cling to. The Holy Spirit, that power through which God is most vividly present, that energy that empowered Jesus to preach and to heal, that force that pushed the first Christians out into every corner of the world to preach and to heal, that same power, God’s presence, is in me and in you!
Jesus begins today’s lesson by saying, “If you love me . . . keep my commandments.” We are not simply to only believe in Jesus but also to follow Jesus. We are to show our love for Jesus through our obedience to Him. Our love for Jesus will be made manifest to the whole world through our loving obedience to Him. And Jesus brings today’s Gospel to a close by saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them will be loved by me . . . and I will reveal myself to them”
I think this means that as we try to follow Jesus, try to discern and do what he asks of us, as we do our utmost to devote ourselves to him - then we are more likely to find him in the struggle; he will tell us and show us what we need to know in order to faithfully follow him. That mysterious, elusive Other whom we call God will NOT stay distant from us but will as he promised, be with us and in us.It is, in so many ways, an extraordinary claim.
Imagine those disciples sitting with Jesus. Clearly they were full of sadness, fear and confusion. They were about to lose this Jesus on whom they had come to rely. And yet he gathers with them and says, in effect, “As you love me” (which they obviously did) and “as you are trying to obey and follow me I will be with you, and in you.” (“Even though, as you try to follow me your success rate ebbs and flows, I will be with you.”) Indeed, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” Those disciples, followers of Jesus throughout the past 2,000 years, Nadia Bolz-Weber have discovered this extended hand through the gift of the Spirit in the midst of the darkest of times, and have been transformed by it.
Each of us knows what it is to live in fear. I suspect that each of us knows the experience of feeling lost. My hope and prayer is that we are open to the gift of the Spirit which is always reaching out to us in those dark and scary places and times. I urge each of us to acknowledge the presence and power of God's Spirit rising through these challenging times, and to live our lives in ways that extend that gift - that hand in the dark - to others.
Let us pray: Eternal, loving and living God, help us to remember that our hope is found in you. We give you thanks for the gift of your Holy Spirit which fills us with your presence, reveals you to us and within us so that we might represent you in the world. Left to our own devices we do not have the gifts we need to be your faithful disciples. But fill us with hope and faith that you fulfill your promise to give us the gifts we need in order faithfully to do the work that you summon us to do. Amen.