Monday, June 1, 2009

The Day of Pentecost, Year B - May 31, 2009 (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)

The hours until his departure are growing shorter, and Jesus is trying his hardest to convince his worried and perplexed disciples that when he finally leaves them things will be just fine. Despite any fears and misgivings about this strange plan they may have, he assures them that they will be able to carry on without him: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth:” he says, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”

As if there could be something better than having Jesus himself!

And yet, Jesus himself implies quite strongly that this Advocate, this Counselor—whom they have not even seen, the one who will come only if Jesus vacates the premises—is the more-exciting “Act II” of God’s gracious redemption story. That’s what Jesus seems to be saying, but I cannot help but think that they must sense they are about to be left in the lurch, with no one reliable to turn to show them how to carry on.

It kind of makes me think about the people in that reality series Clean House, which airs on the Style Network. I had never seen it until a few weeks ago, but as Melinda will testify, I can’t help but watch it when I stumble upon it channel-surfing. Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn in. Perhaps I’m thinking, “They could come to my office! And my car!” In an episode of Clean House, a quartet of extremely animated and ambitious home-makeover and design experts descend upon an inexplicably messy and cluttered house and attempt to organize it, throw away most of its contents or sell them at a yard sale, and, finally, completely renovate and refurbish the place. Clean House is kind of like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but with a more realistic edge and no sappy stories to make you cry. They don’t get a new home or a new yard, or new thousand-dollar household accessories to make their lives easier. The people on Clean House are, to put it bluntly, just plain messy, and the show’s organizing and design experts have to work with what they’re given and leave them better off.

In any case, one of the reasons I find the show so compelling is that the four experts who descend upon the house to clean it up are able to transform it so completely. Sifting through years of needless clutter and junk—junk which often obscures any useful purpose for the house’s given space—these feisty four people have the skills to clean, sweep, prioritize and counsel the homeowners into a completely new existence. And then, at the end of the show, after the house is re-done, they leave.

Anyone who has ever seen the show cannot help but wonder at that point: how long will that house stay so neat and clean once the experts have left? How long until the lucky homeowners return to their old, unfathomable clutter-generating ways without the motivation and know-how of the cleaning folk? They’re still the same people, with their same idiosyncrasies for collecting and allowing useless items to pile up…won’t the house go back to its former state in no time at all? I, for one, would like a Clean House, Act II.

That’s what I wonder, at least, and I wonder that about Jesus’ disciples, a group of folks who are about to be involved in a much larger world-organizing and cleaning scheme than an episode of Clean House. How are they to carry on once the Expert Redeemer has left the premises, when he’s crucified, then resurrected, then ascended? How are they to manage things once the Incarnate Christ is no longer hanging around? They’re the same disciples—aren’t they?—with the same flaws and idiosyncrasies as before. What will keep them from running this movement into the ground?

That’s when, Jesus does explain to them a little about the power of this Advocate, whose very name suggests he will be able to speak for and through the disciples and God. The Advocate will come into their collective midst and guide them in the truth, enlightening them one way or the other about Jesus. Nothing less than a direct connection to the Father and the Son, this Advocate will speak to the disciples the very communication he hears between the Father and the Son, the ongoing outpouring of love for us that we see on the cross. Jesus himself says that he hasn’t been able to say everything to the disciples, but this Advocate will enable him to do that. He will not lead them astray, nor will he withhold anything about God’s life from the disciples. “All that the Father has is mine,” Jesus reminds them. “For that reason I said that the Advocate will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

And even when they wonder about this Advocate’s presence, there will be undeniable proof when they begin to point to Jesus and Christ’s righteousness in everything they say and do. If they’re wondering how they’ll keep this giant world-cleaning project going, if they’re wondering how they won’t return to the same lives they led before, then they’ll need to look no further than their own life together, for the Advocate will be stirring and speaking among them. Jesus promises it.

Jesus rises and ascends to heaven and in his absence arrives a fuller presence of God. Only by the Holy Spirit can we truly experience the fullness of God’s life, that overpowering selfless love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son has for the Father. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we deeply connect, one life to another’s, in the same way that the Father and the Son deeply connect to each other. And so in letting go of and saying “farewell” to an incarnate Christ we receive the mission to take that Christ elsewhere. It’s not that having the Spirit is better than having Jesus, but that by receiving the Spirit, we begin to embody the fullness of who Jesus is and will be for the whole world.

Back in March, after I had only been here a matter of weeks, I attended a meeting of the team formerly known as the social ministry team (now named the Community Service Team so as to give a clearer description of the ministries they undertake). The meeting began and the team leader rattled off an impressive list of projects the team was organizing for the congregation in the spring and early summer. The list was long, and I barely could keep up. When I thought we were finished the team leader asked the question, “That’s what we’re doing now. Is there anything else we could do? Any ideas?”

At that point one woman across the table reached into her purse, pulled out a newspaper clipping, and proceeded to read an notice that the General Assembly of Virginia was preparing to earmark appropriations to purchase luggage for foster children. Holding the clipping in her hand, this woman expressed her near anger that state money was going to be used for something that the churches clearly should be doing. “This is a job for the communities of faith,” she remarked, “not for taxpayers of Virginia.”

I was astounded! Here was a person who was reading the newspaper looking for ways to serve as Christ’s people. Here was a person in our midst who, I may say, was so in tune to embodying Christ in her day-t-day that the daily news had become “daily opportunity.” I did not remember the woman’s name at the time, but she could have been called “Advocate,” for she was clearly animated by him, tongue of fire practically leaping off her head.

As could be expected, the Community Service Team pounced all over her suggestion. I’m not sure at what point the foster system luggage project stands right now, but you will hear more about it soon. For me, however, that moment in that meeting was another one of those knock-me-over-with-a-feather moments because I knew God had sent me to a place that was receiving the Advocate with joy and courage. Here was a group of people, here is a congregation who is unmistakably stirring with the Spirit, prodding each other receive that Life-giver, to continue the mission that Jesus has begun.

It reminded me of what turns out to be the wonderful surprise of Pentecost. As Bishop Kalistos Ware, a bishop in the Orthodox rite, puts it: “If the aim of the Incarnation, is the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, the aim of Pentecost is the continuation of Christ’s Incarnation within the life of the Church" (The Orthodox Way, revised edition. Kalistos Ware. St. Vladimir's, 1979 (1998) p.93).

To put it differently, there is, as it turns out, an Act II of God’s glorious redemption story, and we are it! You are it! I may be it, too, as the person holding the newspaper clipping attests. Together, the church is, so to speak, God’s bold next Act in the plan to remake and re-fashion creation. We are the fuller presence of God that comes about when Jesus ascends to the Father. And the Spirit is who makes this possible, because when we receive the Spirit we receive the whole toolkit, the whole assembly package, for being Christ to each other and to the world, be that through luggage for foster kids, or speaking a word of resurrection as we, this afternoon, inurn our faithful departed and supporting the bereaved in their grief. We are Act II, my friends, and the Spirit will spur us to countless ways of incarnating Jesus.

Or, to say it another way, “We’re not the same old disciples we were before! His grace changes us! Let’s…keep the house clean!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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