The Spirit's Call of Freedom

The remaining gospels of eastertide play out Jesus’ farewell discourse in the latter chapters of John. In the synoptics, conversation at the Last Supper is spare and concise, while here—as if to a community clinging on every word and hungry for more—it turns in slow concentric spirals, parceling out love and encouragement. This "community of the beloved disciple" is under persecution of one sort or another. They have publicly declared themselves and now pull together in a tightening circle.

Meanwhile, a parallel set of readings for this series is from Acts, which originates in a community clearly of a more expansive mode, breaking down barriers within and without. The juxtaposition of the two sets up, as lectionaries always do, a conversation between one another. And between the two the Spirit may be heard, a holy Spirit who seems to be working freely both sides of the aisle.

It is for us, firstly, to sit back and listen. And then to enter the conversation.

May 1
Roots of Nonviolence

Acts 8:26-40;Psalm 22:25-31;1 John 4:7-12;John 15:7-12

On the one hand, it’s no surprise in Acts: A high government official is intrigued and perplexed by a classic biblical text of nonviolence. And yet his questions are lucid ones (indeed the scholars still ask them of the servant songs in Isaiah): Of whom does the passage speak? The prophet? Someone else, perhaps a messianic figure? Or is this a more collective image, of a remnant or even Israel as a whole?

Philip seizes the question as an opening. He begins where the Ethiopian official is. He tells the story of Jesus as though its form and outline were there to be seen on the page with the suffering servant, or as though gospel nonviolence and the way of the cross could trace it roots to this very text.

Nonviolence is of the moment in these chapters. Stephen’s fiery and forgiving martyrdom is accomplished and a full tilt persecution is abroad (chapter 7). Saul, still breathing threats, will be stopped dead in his tracks in the next (chapter 9). Between Stephen and Paul is Philip, crossing barriers first to the hated Samaritans, now to a black African (a Gentile even?) from beyond the imperial borders. The conversation concerning the servant song is a still point around which much is swirling.

In Luke-Acts, love of enemies is the acid test of the gospel. In the letters and gospel of John, the acid test is to love one another in community. (I won’t presume to judge which is the tougher.) The commandment to love is connected to the vine (another image that goes back to Isaiah, 5:1-7). In fact, the vine in John is essentially an equivalent for what St. Paul calls "the body." You can’t bear the fruits if you don’t have the roots. The branches stay connected. They abide in love.

Philip, for his part, speaks as though the roots were nourished in the servant songs. He acts as though the vine could sprawl across the map. As though its branches needn’t stop for barriers or border guards. As though love of strangers or even enemies and love of community were not so different as we like to imagine.

May 8
The Politics of Friendship

Acts 10:44-48;Psalm 98;1 John 5:1-6;John 15:9-17

Allow us to consider another well-known text, from a letter of Thomas Merton to a young activist: "Concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything."

Apart from the Society of Friends, who have made it an emblem and a practice, friendship is too little honored in the church. When Jesus names the disciples his friends he changes the shape of things—the community is not to be a pyramid but a circle. The notion of friendship supplants hierarchy with a certain mutuality and equality. Above all friendship implies freedom. Not to mention delight in one another’s presence, that love which is "joy complete."

And yet. When discipleship becomes friendship, the way of the cross is borne along in the bargain to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. A deeper version of the same freedom. A deeper version even of the same joy.

In a community, like John’s, under persecution of one variety or another, friendship entailed a clear choice. Richard Cassidy (John’s Gospel in New Perspective) points out the contrast implied in being a "friend of Caesar" as coveted brutally by Pilate (19:12), and being a friend of Jesus. To "abide" in Jesus, to "remain" with him, meant a durable friendship. One that could endure the heat.

We stand by Jesus (he stood by us first). We stand by our friends. Love one another as I have loved you. The range narrows, but it gets more real.

May 15
A Prayer Upon Us All

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26;Psalm 1;1 John 5:9-13;John 17:6-19

The replacement of Judas with Mathias in the first chapter of Acts is not administrative busywork for the idle days between ascension and Pentecost. Something more poignant feels at work. In the absence of the Lord, Judas’ empty place at the table must be an ache too much to bear, like a branch lopped from the vine, or an open wound in the body. Judas was "numbered" among them. Now their number is incomplete.

Lots are cast to replace him. With credentials only that he was with them from the beginning, Mathias fills an ache and a place and a ministry—an opposite number of austere anonymity—never to be mentioned again in scripture. But the prayer of election falls upon him.

Let us venture to suggest that the prayer of Jesus in John 17 falls upon him as well. It is certain that, even at a distance of time, those in the community of the beloved disciple (see verse 20) experienced this as an intercession for themselves in a dark hour. In the same way, in the mystery of time, we know ourselves prayed for in this passage. The words of Jesus wash over us in love and also in sober warning: The world will hate them as it has hated me.

Scholars agree that kosmos here is not so much the universe or the planet, but the "world" of human social existence and especially that world as fallen, a realm of alienation estranged from God. Walter Wink has suggested "system" as a translation for this special meaning, as in, "My kingdom is not of this system," or, as in the present case, "The world system has hated them because they are not of the system, even as I am not."

Judas is alluded to in the prayer as one lost. His place is already empty. The infiltrator at the table, the agent of the authorities, representative of this world system, has already fled to his work. But the prayer avails nonetheless. Even now we pray it washes over us, pray to know its power.

May 22, Pentecost
A Spirit Exceeding Promise

Acts 2:1-21;Psalm 104:24-34, 35b;Romans 8:22-27;John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

In the synoptic gospels, the promise of the Holy Spirit is regularly associated with the ability to speak boldly and coherently in court or before the authorities (Mark 13:9-10, Luke 12:11-12, Matthew 10:17-20). Likewise, the promise in John is connected with the trials of persecution (15:18-25, 16:1-4) and the Spirit is named with a courtroom term. The paraclete is one "called alongside" to stand with disciples in court, a counselor in the manner, say, of a defense attorney. (Susan Thistlethwaite has sometimes translated it as "resistance counselor.") The Advocate is one who will prove the world system wrong about judgment, because the ruler of this old world order is the one who is truly condemned (16:8, 11).

In these readings, however, the life of the Spirit far exceeds such a promise. For Paul in Romans, the Spirit knows our hearts. It stands with us, faithful at our very depths. Its advocacy is intercession before God, articulating the groans of our hearts (which resonate as one with the groans of creation itself). We know, it seems, neither how to speak nor pray. The Spirit’s utterance names that hope which is both our own transformation and the transformation of all creation, freeing it from bondage to death (Romans 8:18-22). The groans are as a woman in childbirth—a new world being born.

Come the day of Pentecost, it is certainly that new world which is glimpsed in the dreams and visions identified in ancient texts (Acts 2:17). And talk about the Spirit giving utterance! Talk about boldness and freedom! Not only in court or at prayer, but in the streets. The old order is thoroughly transcended. The binding constraints of nation and culture and tongue, of age and race and sex (of even more by dint and hint) are broken in overpowering exuberance. The new world is here anticipated, here born.

The disciples themselves are made new. Who they are in the renewal of the Spirit stands them in pretty good stead when, soon enough, they appear in the dock.

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