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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Second Advocate

This week the Gospel of John continues with John 14.15-21.  It is a continuation of Jesus' farewell discourse and the beginning of a serious reflection on the work of the Spirit.  I find the language here fascinating.  Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to ask the Father to send them another Advocate to be with them forever.   Jesus is the first Advocate that has been sent by God.  The formless God of the universe has become 'formed' in Jesus of Nazareth and now that the incarnation is about to come to an end, it is the incarnate Word who realizes that there is need for another.  This second Advocate--the Holy Spirit--will be that aspect of God that unlike the incarnated Word--Jesus--will be in the world and actually dwell in/among the disciples.  How do we understand the Holy Spirit?  For confirmation I will take a candle and lite it.  I will tell the kids that the flame is the light of Christ.  I then put a glass container over the flame and we watch it go out.  I then tell them that the oxygen in the air is like the Holy Spirit.  It is that which allows the light of Christ to continue to shine in the world.   I like this metaphor because Jesus uses a word that suggests that like the air we breath, the Holy Spirit will be both within and among us.  That seems to me to be an important aspect of what the Spirit does.  It certainly calls me to holiness and relationship with God; but it also is that which we mutually share and need for life.  That is, it is extremely personally and yet ultimately communal.  I like that.   How do you see the Spirit at work in your life?  
Joseph Mildrofer, Pentecost 1750's

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The end of the Incarnation....

This Sunday we'll have the famous passage from John 14.1-14 where Jesus talks about there being many mansions--or places--for us and that we should not be afraid.   Thomas of course, taking Jesus literally blurts out, "We do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?"   This leads into an even deeper conversation where Philip asks to see the Father and Jesus tells him that whomever has seen Jesus has seen the Father.    But behind all of this conversation is the fact that the incarnation, the Word made flesh, is coming to an end.  I don't know if you ever thought about this or not, but when Jesus is resurrected he is changed, he is no longer simply flesh and blood, but is the first born of the dead and the one who now points to what our own resurrected life will be like.   So this means that the incarnation will lead to death--as will the life of all human beings.   But here Jesus is pointing us to a reality that death is not the end of the story.  The crucifixion will give way to the Resurrection and to the Ascension.   Incarnate life is good; but it is not the end---there is mystery to be found when we understand that we are more than what we have experienced in this world---and Jesus is more than what the disciples have seen.   This of course points us to what Christians call the Trinity.  The understanding that God was fully present in Jesus of Nazareth.  That Jesus is God with us.   That being said, while God can become incarnate, the incarnation cannot fully express the reality of God.  God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a mystery as wondrous as the promise of life everlasting.   So as Christians we live fully committed to this life--it is after all the only life we know--but we do so fully anticipating that it is not the end of the story, but only one part of that story, just as Jesus is only one aspect of the mystery of God.  

Here's some art that might help you reflect on this mystery of the Trinity.
Domenico Beccafumi, The Trinity 1530

El Greco, The Trinity 1577

Monday, May 5, 2014

Christ as the Good Shepherd


This Sunday is unofficially known as "Good Shepherd" Sunday.  Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we get a reading from the 10th Chapter of John.  The image of Jesus as the good shepherd is one of the oldest known in the Christian church.  It was particularly useful because in a time of persecution a statue of a shepherd carrying a lamb or ram would not have raised suspicion.  It was a known pagan image as well (see the pagan idea of criophorus or the Ram Beaer).   And of course we can also connect the image of the Shepherd to the Old Testament as well, where often this was an image used for God and also for the kings and leaders who were called to care for God's flock.  It is probably no accident that David was out keeping the flock when Samuel came to look for the new king to be anointed.    Or reading for this Sunday makes the most sense when we see it as a continuation of John 9--the story of the man born blind.  This poor man, whom you would think would have been blessed beyond believe by having his sight restored is instead offered one hardship after another.  He's given a "Sabbath Violation" ticket by the authorities, his friends don't recognize him, his family distances themselves from him, and he is kicked out of the synagogue--accused of being a sinner!   In answer to this story, Jesus tells the three Good Shepherd vignettes in John 10.   He is the one who cares for the sheep (not the leaders of the day) and he is the one whose motivation is entirely at work on behalf of the sheep, not the institution or some inaccurate sense of who belongs and who doesn't.  He is the Good Shepherd who knows you by name!  You!  With all your complexities, doubts, insecurities, triumphs and joys.  He knows your name and you know his voice!  Listen for it!   

Below, a great brown pencil sketch by Murillo.  Look at the Child Christ walking firmly and purposely forward.  Even as a child he knows for that which he has been called.  The sheep over his shoulder keeping his eyes on the Christ, the sheep's body is relaxed and you get the impression that the child is truly carrying the entire weight of the animal.  Now look at the Child Christ.  He eyes are on the look out; but for who and for what?  Is he searching for those who would endanger the sheep in his care (John 9) or perhaps he is looking for his other sheep--us--and compelling us to allow him to carry us as well.   It's a great sketch from a brilliant artist.  Peace! pj
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the Christ Child as the Good Shepherd, 1680