May 26, 2019
Donna G. Joy
The God we worship, has come to us through Jesus, called us to follow him, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit promised to be with us; to stay with us, advise us, advocate on our behalf. This God we worship, is not some remote other-worldly divine presence; no, the God we worship is present to and with us in the most intimate possible way. This is a profound message of hope.
Some of you know that I have great respect for Nadia Bolz Weber’s, and her theology, primarily because I believe that she serves as a symbol of hope to countless people who all-too-often live without hope. Nadia grew up in a church tradition where she received the message 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, pious 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, reaching the conclusion that she did not want a relationship with such a harsh and judgemental God whose love could only be described as conditional; a God who says, “If you do this right, and this right, and this right, then, and only then, I might come 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, in time, she discovered a new way of experiencing God when she found herself at an AA meeting in the basement of a church. (It pleases me that St. Peter’s opens 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 met someone she describes as, “a pretty cute Lutheran guy,” who was at the time a seminarian student. Through him, she discovered the Lutheran Church where she discovered 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 her story is: 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 had lost everything, the transvestites and transgendered people who had 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 highly populated with ‘her people’. The church is called 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 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 spring to mind as I ponder 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. With this empowering gift working in them and through them, extraordinary things will be made possible.
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, “You are the very essence of what is good. What some folks call ‘god’ I call 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 brokenness.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from John, Jesus speaks to his disciples about his upcoming departure. They are gathered in the upper room, clearly filled with fear and sadness about the events that are to soon 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 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 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 New Age spirituality, the Holy Spirit 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, “Those who love me will keep my word.” We are not simply to only believe in Jesus but also to follow Jesus. We are to show our love for Jesus in obeying Him: in loving others as he loves us; in serving others as he has served us; in forgiving and reconciling; in establishing peace and unity by seeking the beauty and good in others, especially those for whom this beauty is hard to find. Our love for Jesus will be made manifest to the whole world through our loving obedience to Him.
I think this means that as we (with God’s help) try to follow Jesus, try to discern and do what he asks of us, as we do our utmost to devote ourselves to him we become 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 despite their constant, blundering wrong-doing, 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.”)
And I’m sure that I’m describing something that has happened and continues to happen to and through each of you. I encourage each of us here today, to recall a time when despite our feelings of fear or inadequacy something good was accomplished. I encourage each of us to think of something at the moment that presents us with such a challenge. And I urge each of us to acknowledge the presence and power of the living God guiding us through these challenging times.
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.