25 May 2014

The Spirit of Truth & Love

John 14: 15-21

Sixth Sunday of Easter/ 25th May 2014

More than eight hundred years ago there was man named Joachim de Fiori. He was born in Italy around 1135 and died there, in Calabria, in 1202.  Joachim was a Cistercian abbot, theologian, and mystic. Some of his writings were condemned as heretical.  Joachim himself was never declared a heretic.  In Dante’s (c.1265-1321) Divine Comedy, Joachim is placed firmly in paradise–not in hell or purgatory, but in paradise.  His day of veneration each year is May 29, so this Thursday.  Joachim was a controversial figure. Dante considered him a prophet, although Joachim never claimed that role.  Joachim was imaginative, and as a mystic he had a particular vision that attracted some and threatened others.  He was a millenarian—that is, someone who believed that the one thousand year reign of Christ promised in Revelation (20:6) would be realized, literally, historically.[1]  It was only a matter of time. 

            What did Joachim see?  He saw history divided up into three ages, modeled after each person of the Trinity.  First was the Age of the Father: this was the Old Testament era, a time of judges and rules and obedience to the law of God. Then came the Age of the Son: this was the New Testament era and the generations that followed Christ, the period that witnessed the emergence and growth of the Church.  Joachim believed the Age of the Son was coming to an end in his day. The year 1260 would mark the arrival of the new and last era, which he called the Age of the Holy Spirit. This would be a time when people would have direct contact with God through the Holy Spirit.  It would be an age known for universal love, the kind that flowed from the presence of Christ, but—and this is critical—a Christ transcendent to the letter of a text, beyond scripture. And the institutional Church would be replaced by something else. In the Age of the Holy Spirit, “there would be no more need for the hierarchy of the Church, for [everyone] would be contemplatives” or mystics.[2]  People would know the freedom of Christ first-hand, individually, not through the mediation of the Church. The meaning of the gospel would be experienced within community, but not mediated by an institution. In the Age of the Holy Spirit the Church would become unnecessary.  Or so Joachim imagined.  One can see why the Church considered his ideas heretical.

            We need to remember, though, in every heresy there’s always some element of the truth.  The novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991) once said, “Heresy is another word for freedom of thought.” Another approach is to think of heresy this way: a partial truth mistaken for the whole truth. This means there’s still an element of truth contained in the heresy. Sometimes that hidden truth needs to be brought out into the light to be seen in another time—because we need it.

            Perhaps the partial truth that needs to be given more space in our “orthodoxy” is Joachim’s vision for the work of the Holy Spirit.  It has some resonance with what we find here in the Fourth Gospel, in Jesus’ teachings on the Holy Spirit.  Here in these verses of John 14 we hear that after Jesus leaves he will send someone to us, an Advocate—the Paracletos—literally, someone who will stand alongside us and walk with us. 

            Jesus tells us the Advocate will be among us, around us, but the Advocate, the Spirit, will also be at work within us. The Spirit will be both among us, but, also, significantly, at work within us.  In John’s Gospel the Holy Spirit extends and embodies the presence of the crucified-risen Christ.  However, in Acts, we have a different description; we find Luke’s account of the Holy Spirit arriving in tongues of flame on Pentecost in Jerusalem, after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2:1-47).  In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit during his ministry, as we see here (John 14), and then after his resurrection, meeting with the disciples on Easter, we’re told that Jesus “breathed” the Holy Spirit into them (John 20:22).  In Acts, we see the Spirit at work in the Church, forming, shaping the Church.  In John, the Spirit has a communal dimension to her, but it’s also far more individual, although never individualistic. The Spirit rests around and in the disciple of Christ, the individual disciple who worships and serves in community. 

            This Spirit will abide with us and among us, but also within us. Jesus is talking to his disciples here, in community, yes, but he’s talking to them individually and personally.  So, yes, the Spirit is evident in the community, but Jesus also wants us to see that he will come and live within us, within our lives, within our spirits, deep in the core of our psyches.  The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and leads us in the way we should go. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and leads into the truth—not dogmatic truth, not theological propositions, not even beliefs, but the unfolding of knowledge, what we discover in and through our relationship with Christ, through the Spirit.[3] The Spirit leads us into the truth about who Jesus is, the truth of who God is, the truth about the world, truth about who we are within the world, within God. Through the relationship with God in Christ over time we discover more and more the truth of God’s grace and love.

            Whatever we discover in the relationship, the source, the content, the yield will all be rooted and grounded in love.  Love the source; love the content; love the yield. Actually, one way to know that the Spirit is moving in our lives is our growing capacity to love and to receive love.

            Love and truth then come together here in the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and leads us in the way of love.  If we love the Lord, we will keep his commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12: 30-31).  And we do not try to love the Lord on our own, the Spirit comes along side us and enters into our lives and frees us to love.  The Spirit is given to help us to love as Jesus loved.  The love that Jesus offered God is possible within us because we have an Advocate who helps us.  The experience of love that Jesus felt from God is possible for us because the Advocate will create the space for the love to be experienced.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit we discover, more and more, that Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us.  Can you sense how relational this is?

            The Spirit leads us into truth, in and through love.  In and through the Spirit’s love we are led into truth. The Advocate, working on our behalf, is tirelessly calling, inviting, and leading us into a relationship that leads us increasingly closer to the source of Life.  This is, in fact, one way we can view Jesus’ entire ministry.  Even here in the closing chapters of John, just before the crucifixion, Jesus wants his disciples to understand that this has always been God’s intention from the beginning of time: that we come to know that we were created to be in relationship with God, to know that our existence matters—yours and mine—and that we come to know the inherent worth of our existence in and through that relationship.  In Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1: 23), God took on flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14)—not just historically, in space-time a long time ago, but also experientially, psychologically, here and now, in my space and in yours, in my time and yours, in my life and in yours, in the depths of my soul and in yours. 

            In the long history of Christianity those who have known this best are the mystics. Unfortunately, the Church has often viewed the mystics with suspicion, especially Protestants.  “Mystic” is a bad word for some Reformed theologians.  That was my impression coming out of Princeton Seminary. To be honest, my own views of mysticism have changed over the last ten years.  I was initially doubtful, but not now.  I was very surprised several weeks ago when a Methodist colleague said to me, “I kind of think of you as a mystic.”  I was startled by that remark.  It was also slightly alarming.  Me? Mr. Reformed pastor-theologian? I’m not sure what she meant by that. I don’t see myself as a mystic.  I certainly don’t pray like a mystic, but aspire to. 

            I do feel, strongly, however, that contemporary Christianity has a lot to gain from the rich and deep vision of the mystics in the Church, both the orthodox and the heretics.  Why?  Because what they point to, what they offer us is this extraordinary claim: it is possible to experience the Holy, both among us and most certainly within us.  They want us to know that the Holy Spirit is available to us; the Spirit of Christ has come and is coming alongside us to lead our lives into the very life of God!  Isn’t this what Jesus said?

            The word Julian of Norwich often used to describe this experience of being drawn into God was: oneing.  Julian, born in 1342 and died in 1416, an English mystic, lived in solitude for many years; she was an anchoress. In 1373, at the age of 30, seriously ill and close to death, she was given a series of “showings” or revelations, which ended when she was fully healed. These were later written down in what might be the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love.[4]

            What was revealed to her? The power and presence and reality of God’s love.  It was the experience of a love that was calling her, leading her, deeper and deeper into a profound intimacy with God.  It was an experience that released a longing in her, drawing her toward God.  She realized, “It is by our longing that we will be liberated.” It is our longing, our desire for God—to be close to the Holy—that will ultimately lead us to the One we’ve been looking for and who has been looking for us, forever.  “Through our yearning,” she discovered, “our yearning for oneing we shall come to be one.”  One with God; one with Jesus. One. In such a moment, Jesus tells us, through the help of the Spirit, we will know Jesus participates in the life of God, and that we are in Jesus, and that Jesus is in us, which means, then, that we, too, are in God.  That’s what the Spirit does.  That’s what the Spirit is doing, wants to do: draw us deeper into intimacy with God. It’s the goal of history. As a result Julian of Norwich could affirm, “And all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.”

            Some have argued, such as Jungian analyst and contemporary mystic of sorts, Helen Luke, that maybe Joachim was right all along; he was just off by about 800 years.  Perhaps we are seeing signs now of something new emerging within Christianity.[5]  I don’t believe the Church will become unnecessary, there’s no biblical warrant for that.  (And she’s not claiming such.)  What is true is that the nature of the church, how the church sees itself, understands its ministry, is changing and needs to change.  Phyllis Tickle suggests that every 500 years the Church clears out its attic and has a giant rummage sale where we get rid of the things that we don’t use and no longer need, in order to lighten our burden so that we can move toward the next thing the Spirit is leading us toward.  Every 1000 years the Church almost reinvents itself.  Five hundred years ago the Church weathered the Reformation.  Today, we are living through one of these once-in-a-thousand-year moments, she suggests.  Something new is emerging.[6] And we can see it in the decline of church membership and worship attendance in Europe and the United States over the last forty years. 

            People aren’t looking for religious institutions and church hierarchies to mediate the presence of God. People don’t want the faith of the Church. People want an experience; people are hungry for an experience of the Holy.  People still yearn for the voice of the Spirit, for the love and truth that Christ reveals.  We are actually living through one of the greatest upheavals in the history of Christianity as we rediscover the purpose of the Church, as we rediscover the Lord of the Church, as we rediscover the power and presence of the Spirit, our Advocate, sent to help us to love.  Perhaps we are slowly emerging into a new age of the Spirit.  I hope so.  Because it’s going to take the power and presence, the love and truth and grace of the Spirit—in community, but more important within us—to save Christianity and the Church.  

            Perhaps, then, the ancient prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit,” is needed now more than ever. Let this be our prayer: Come, Holy Spirit. Come!

[1] On Joachim’s theological view of history see Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 145ff.
[2] Helen M. Luke, Kaleidoscope: The Way of Woman and Other Essays (Morning Light Press, 2004), 176.
[3] Gary D. Badcock, Light of Truth & Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 33-34.
[4] The full text of Revelations of Divine Love may be found here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/julian/revelations.
[5] Luke, 178.
[6] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2012).

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