Tag Archives: John 15

24 May – The Spirit of the unbearable church

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Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104
John 15:26-16:15

Jesus says to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

What are these “unbearable” things? The text is not explicit, and the neither do the commentaries seem to be very interested in the question either.

Why might this be an important question? It seems important to me at least because there is much today which the church finds “unbearable”: Decline in numbers, deteriorating, outdated unmanageable buildings, a much bruised reputation, the cause and effects of Uniting our Future, increasing exposure to risk in an increasingly litigious society, increasingly complex governance responsibilities. The Synod’s Major Strategic Review springs from the sense that these things cannot or should not, be borne further: they are “unbearable”.

These unbearable things being part of our common life as church here and now, what is the relationship between them and the things Jesus considers his disciples will not be able to bear? And how does the Spirit make such things bearable?

The nature of the unbearable things Jesus speaks of here becomes a little clearer when he refers to the work of the Spirit. Many things are said about the work of the Spirit in John, and we tend to pick and choose a bit between these things. John 3 gives us the Spirit which “blows where it wills”. This is the Spirit of a Major Strategic Review: open the windows, let the gale of the Spirit blow everything around; change. Then there is the Spirit of John 7, which bubbles and gurgles, springing up to do watery things for parched people. This is the Spirit for the weary minister or the jaded congregation. And then there is the Spirit of John 14-16 who “comforts”, advocates, defends: the Spirit for a church feeling under siege.

Towards the end of our text this morning, however, we heard of another Spirit – although, of course, they are all the same Spirit. This is the Spirit who “convicts”, who “proves the world wrong” about sin, righteousness and judgement. This is the least “spiritual” of the Holy Spirits we might choose to emphasise, at least so far as the popular contemporary interest in “spirituality” goes. This is a spikey Spirit that does not waft or flow or comfort but skewers us with the pointy end of sin, righteousness and judgement.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” They cannot bear them “now” because the Spirit has not yet been given. The Spirit has not been given because Jesus has not yet been crucified. The truth about sin, righteousness and judgement will not be revealed until the crucifixion, and it is the Spirit which will reveal this and make it bearable, the Spirit who comes after the crucifixion and resurrection – in John’s case straight after them. The crucifixion becomes unbearable not because it was the loss of a loved one but because the Spirit reveals the cross to be a judgement on our judgement about what is sinful, about what righteousness looks like, about their capacity to make the right judgement. For, in its first movement, the crucifixion is a pious act, the worshipful exclusion of a heretic. Jesus tells them of their own future ordeals, and also of his own: “An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God”.

The truth which the Spirit will tell about Jesus is a reinterpretation of the cross. And that interpretation is this: that the cross is for “the world” – including here, the synagogue, the church – the sign that Jesus himself is the unbearable thing: sinful, unrighteous, worthy of a judgement of guilty.

Jesus himself – that Jesus might truly be the Christ – is the unbearable thing, the contradictory, wrong thing. What the Spirit does in convicting the world – including the disciples and the church – about sin, righteousness and judgement is make Jesus bearable. The Spirit, then, does not deliver “a truth” about Jesus – a proposition or a doctrine; the Spirit truths Jesus to us, seals this Jesus to us. The Spirit causes us to see where we have been blind: to see that God’s way in the world is very, very strange indeed.

But it gets stranger still when we get back to why we asked about these unbearable things in the first place. What is the relationship between the unbearability of Jesus, and the unbearable church – the church even we, let alone “the world”, can scarcely bear? And if the Spirit helps with respect to the unbearability of Jesus, how does the Spirit help us with the unbearability of the church?

The unbearability of Jesus, the unbearability of the church and the work of the Spirit are bound up in this way: the Spirit points to the unbearable truth in Jesus by creating the unbearable church.

The truth about Jesus which the Spirit brings is not doctrinal fact; it is a truth which changes things. Jesus is crucified because he doesn’t look right, because he clearly cannot be true; the Word cannot become flesh in that way. And so the claims he makes must be sinful, unrighteous and rightly condemned.

Over against this the Spirit teaches the truth about Jesus, but it does so not by simply contradicting our condemnation of Jesus with a “No”. The Spirit tells the truth about Jesus by doing the Jesus again: now as the church – the unbearable church. The proof of the righteousness of the unbearable Jesus is the unbearable church.

When we condemn the church for its heresy or dogmatism or managerialism or incompetence or corporatism or wishy-washiness, or for its wealth or anxiety or triumphalism or self-interest or lack of faith, or whatever, we declare: surely this cannot bear the Word of God, be the presence of God, be even useful to God. Surely there is more of God somewhere else. This is the presumption and the engine of modern, popular nowhere-in-particular spirituality: that, of all places, the Spirit cannot be found here.

But the gift of the Spirit – the gift of this particular Spirit – is the gift of extraordinary ordinary. This is the truth the Spirit brings: here, now in the church – even this church! – is the presence, or the promise, or the possibility of “heaven”, which we declare not because what of we see but because of who chooses to name this place in that way.

It matters not whether the same might be said of other places. It matters for us only that this place – our place – is claimed by God as God’s own, embraced as if an Only-Begotten Child.

This is the gospel – that, even we as are, God wills to have us.

And out of this springs the imperative: love the church. Love the church not as an idea but as it is. Love your congregation; love not only the one you’re happy to sit next to, but the one who sits in front of you, or behind. Love your presbytery. Love your church council. Love your Synod. Do this not because they are lovely, yet. Any of these can sometimes be quite unbearable, entirely unlovely.

Love because it is the love which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things which makes the beloved lovely.

This is God’s way with us; by the power of the Spirit God sends, let it be our way with each other. Amen.

10 May – “As I have loved you…”

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Easter 6

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

“This is my commandment: that you love one another.”

The rhetoric of “love” is often very vague, non-specific or ambiguous. It easily becomes sentimental on the one hand or, on the other hand, we broaden its meaning and application to things like “tough love” – that kind of love which declares to the one who is being “loved,” “This hurts me more than it hurts you!”

What is the love of which Jesus speaks? “… Love one another as I have loved you”. Okay. But Jesus then almost hopelessly confuses the matter with his next declaration: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. This is unhelpful because Jesus himself literally does just this: he dies, as we have subsequently come to understand, “for his friends”. It is unhelpful because it lends itself to adoption into stories of heroism; we need only think of the way in which this Scripture verse has been taken up as an interpretation of the loss of life by soldiers in war. “Greater love hath no man” is inscribed on the Stone of Remembrance in the Shrine of Remembrance here in Melbourne, and doubtless in many other similar war memorials.

Whatever might be said about Jesus’ own laying down of his life, and the laying down by soldiers of their lives in war, the problem with what Jesus says for us here and now is the way in which it can be heard to over-dramatise the act of love. As a statement by itself it is true enough but it seems to locate the work of love in a place where most of us are never actually going to be: the heroic moment, the moment in which we are called to risk or even lose our life in the act of seeking to save another, as a father might do who swims into out to sea to retrieve the child dragged out by a rip, or a soldier might do to drag her wounded comrade out of enemy fire. Whether or not such moments are in fact real acts of love is not in question. But they are not, for the most part, real life – at least, the real life of most of us. To declare “no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” can suggest that this is about the end of our life, the possibility of the need to die that others might live. In the Scriptures, however, thought about life and death is for the most part not thought about when or whether ours hearts are beating or not. Rather, it is a matter of how one’s heart beats – what rhythm it beats, according to which we then march.

To lay down one’s life for friends, as the Jesus of John’s gospel puts it, is put by the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels as “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”. The laying down of one’s life is a manner of living and not simply the moment at which we finally die. This is a living which knows not only self but others, and not others as we imagine or want them to be, but others as they actually are, even when in this or that way they seem to be radically wrong and so to require of us more than seems “fair” or “reasonable”. To lay down my life for my friends is to allow where they are to be my problem – and not my problem to fix but the unavoidable cause of my “death”, so-called: the occasion of my cross to bear. This may be a literal death as in those rare “heroic” cases, or a metaphorical one, in the much more common and mundane challenges of everyday life together.

Any talk about self-denial runs the risk of being heard to suggest submission to abuse by others. But this is not the point. We need to acknowledge this danger in such talk, to watch for it in situations where it might arise, and to act where appropriate. But again, for the most part, these are extreme cases which cloud the issue for most of the rest of us most of the time. At the heart of the question of what it means to love is understanding why love is here spoken of in terms of a commandment. Our familiarity with love as sentiment, or even simply as lust in one form or another, also clouds our vision. These emotions and drives come naturally. We cannot be commanded to “fall” in love or even in lust; it just happens, and we generally like it. But the love of which Jesus speaks is not natural or appealing in this way. It must be called forth, commanded, because it contradicts the natural. It contradicts our over-estimation of the other, or our under-estimation, or even the presumption to estimate what another person is. The commandment to love contradicts our desires for them, and so our presumption to know what they think or desire or need.

But the command to love still remains abstract until a specific contradiction enters our lives – until we feel ourselves “contra‑dicted”, hear ourselves literally “spoken against”, have our own sense of the world and how it should fit together challenged. That is, the command to love comes as a command at the very point I feel unloved, when I have not been heard, when I feel disempowered, when I am disoriented by the fact that the world – which means those around me – is not as I imagined or desire. Drawing on an observation from Rowan Williams (Christ on trial): At such points I naturally tend to act out a longing to be somewhere else or, perhaps more precisely in such cases, out of the longing that you be somewhere else. For it is in this moment that the specific shape of what love demands then becomes clear in all of its unpalatableness. The command to love is the command to be where you are, with others who are not where you want them to be.

“No greater love has anyone, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In this way Jesus describes his own way of being and, of course, the actual playing-out of his ministry in the cross. The logic of what I have said about love has its basis in the ministry of Jesus himself: “…as I have loved you.” We will miss this, however, if we remain with abstracted ideas about the love and death of Jesus – as if it were about Jesus’ love for “everybody”, or that Jesus “had to die” as part of God’s plan, so that he is a special case we don’t have to consider. Against this is the doctrine of the incarnation, which holds not merely that Jesus was God become “human”, but a specific human being in a specific time and place in the midst of specific people. Jesus the human being doesn’t just “die”; Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the scribes contradict him and plot his death. He is not merely “arrested”, but what he taught is contradicted in betrayal by Judas and denial by Peter. If Jesus’ life and death is a thoroughgoing act of love, then it is so within these specific relationships. If Jesus dies for love’s sake, it is for the love of Caiaphas and Annas, of Judas and Peter, of Mary and Martha and Magdalene and so on, all of whom are not just the potential beneficiaries of his death but, in different ways, the cause of his death: “This my body, broken by you…” Jesus dies in the way he does because he insists on being with them, “as they are”.

The cross, then, does not simply effect a divine salvation as if by a holy magic; it gives shape to love. It is Jesus “being where he is”. The shape of love Jesus’ persistence with and for both friend and foe. The Christian life, correspondingly, is cruciform – it is cross-shaped. It involves that kind of dying to ourselves which is necessary if any human community is to survive error and injustice – particularly the error and injustice of “someone else”.

And this brings us to the importance of the church. It does not matter whether other faith communities come to the same conclusion about love as the church, or whether the church generally fails miserably at living what is at the heart of its being. If others can know this truth by other means, we celebrate with them. If the church fails at living the truth, we are simply all the more reminded of how imperative it is that we continue to work at it. The church is a community which is learning not simply how to love, but the difficulty of love.

Love is difficult, and it is difficult for the church. It will be difficult for us to deal with each other when we have to make very concrete, far-reaching and doubtless very disruptive decisions about what to do with our property resources. It is difficult to deal with each other when we begin to express ourselves in relation to things we need to have in common – and we might think here of the conversation we have planned this morning about worship. And yet it is precisely in such potentially conflicted situations that we are called to do something extraordinary. This is not the heroic feat of agreeing to sell up, or agreeing to soldier on on this site, or with a stroke of genius achieving just the balance in worship that pleases everyone. The extraordinary thing is in the manner of engagement – feeling ourselves to be in the right, but not requiring that others recognise it. Or, in more evangelical terms – believing not only that I am justified by grace alone but also that you, who are clearly wrong in what you do or think, are also justified by grace and not condemned for the error I see in you. This is the fruit Jesus appoints us to bear “fruit that will last” (John 15.16) because it reflects that love which overcomes all things. This is the extraordinary thing.

There is not much between how we stand before God and how others stand before us. It is because we do not understand this that we often turn out to be lousy lovers. The command to love comes precisely because we need constantly to be called to love. This call comes again and again in God’s hope that we might see: as we are to God – claimed in grace – so others are to be to us; as God is to us – claiming through grace – so are we to be to others.

…as I have loved you” is where we begin, and the end towards which we move, if the “love” which at is our heart is to be meaningful, and effective.

Let our prayer be, then, that our hands do not fumble the gift of such extraordinary trust – the gift of each other to love – that the work of our hands might finally be found to match where love began, and never ends. Amen.