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Sunday, April 27, 2008

And of the Holy Spirit

“ . . .and he will give you another Advocate . . .”
John 14:15-21
VI Easter – April 27, 2000
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton
rector and pastor

I must confess that sometimes, when reading the Gospel of John, I can get myself so tangled up in his use of words and convoluted sentence structure that I either get frustrated and annoyed or, well, sometimes I just get downright silly. I mean, listen again to this: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

I confess that as I tried to pray into these words, I was interrupted by the words of another John – Lennon, that is – which buzzed into the quiet of my meditation like a mosquito in the thick of summer: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." That of course, is from Lennon's "I am the Walrus."

Free association being what it is (and, of course, potentiated by a lovely glass of wine) it’s not a far jump from there, to Lewis Carroll’s poem of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’:

"The time has come/the Walrus said/“To talk of many things/ Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax / Of cabbages and kings /And why the sea is boiling hot/And whether pigs have wings”.

See what I mean? Reading the Gospel of John can lead you through quite a jumble of words and thoughts and lead you to take flights of fantasy. Take, for example, the idea of the Holy Spirit. This section of John’s Gospel is from the Farewell discourses of Jesus. We use them now because we are preparing for The Ascension of Jesus – which is this coming Thursday – and then Pentecost, which is May 11th.

Jesus is preparing his disciples for his eventual departure by consoling them with the idea of The Holy Spirit, whom he names “The Advocate” and “The spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”

One of the kids in Confirmation Class nailed me on the question of the Holy Spirit just last week. We were doing one of my favorite series of classes on The Creeds, after which, the kids get to write their own Creed. They were cool with the idea of God and they completely got Jesus, but they were stumped about the Holy Spirit. “Who is it?” they wanted to know. “How is the Holy Spirit part of the Trinity?”

My usual explanations didn’t seem to work. “Well,” I said, think of the Trinity as water. It can exist in three states, liquid, ice and vapor, yet it is a single element.” I saw a few light bulbs going on above the heads of some, so I pressed on.

“This is really very simplistic and doesn’t really convey the mystery of the Trinity and the uniqueness of each person, but think of the liquid state of water being God, the ice being Jesus, and vapor being The Holy Spirit. They are three different states of water, but they are, each in their own way, still water. See?”

There were a few sparks of insight in some of their faces. Others seemed nonplussed. Still others had that unmistakable look of teenage boredom. I might have been the Walrus talking about shoes and ships and sealing wax and whether pigs have wings, or John Lennon, sitting on a cornflake singing “Goo-goo-gachoo.”

One of the darling cherubs gave me “The Face.” You know. You’ve seen it on your teenaged kids. “Vapor?” she asked incredulously. “The Holy Spirit is a vapor?” “No,” I said, “The Holy Spirit is LIKE vapor. You can’t always see it, but you know it’s there.” She rolled her eyes up to heaven and I could tell she was silently praying for a merciful end to my explanation. Well, I thought, at least she’s praying something, even if it’s just for her priest to shut up and go away.

It’s difficult to believe in these concepts, isn’t it? The Trinity. The Resurrection. The Holy Spirit. The Ascension of Jesus. I suspect it was as difficult for the ancient mind as it is for the postmodern intellect to wrap itself around these great mysteries of our faith.

St. Paul told the people of Athens that “God . . .does not live in shrines made by human hands . . . and ‘in him we live and move and have our being’, adding ‘ . . .we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” (Acts 17:22-31) Jesus reassures us that the Holy Spirit lives in us, to guide us and lead us to believe impossible things and, in fact, do impossible things.

Let me give you an example: I don’t know much about either Bob Arnot or Ruth Pring. I met Bob once when he was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and a resident of the nursing home on Main Street. I never met Ruth, however, I know this to be true: They were once members of this church. They loved this church. Their bodies sat in these pews. The memory of their prayers may still lie hidden in the deep nooks of this sanctuary. The recollection of the distant sound of their voices lifted in song may still vibrate in the wood of the church ceiling.

They both died about five years ago and, while they left no living relative, and no great legacy, their love or and generosity to this church lives on in the garden we have planted in the front of the church. It may be difficult for you to remember what this church ever looked like without that garden in the front. I remember. Stark. It looked stark.

Shortly after the garden was planted and the fence went up, Ann Bennett remarked that they gave the church ‘definition.’ She’s right. We had to begin to define ourselves outwardly before we could describe ourselves inwardly.

The miracle is that it took the spirit of Bob Arnot and Ruth Pring, their generosity, their love for this place, to help us do that. Immediately after the service, we will bless the garden on this Rogation Sunday for having blessed us with a sense of our past, an understanding of our present, and hope for our future.

That, for me, is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. That garden is living proof of the obedience of the commandment Jesus gave us to “love one another as I have loved you” - foolishly, lavishly, wastefully.

I am reminded of Alice’s conversation with the White Queen in ‘Through the Looking Glass’. The Queen said, “‘Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

The White Queen is quite right. Believing takes practice. Belief in the Holy Spirit is not an easy thing. We might as well be talking about shoes and ships and cabbages and kings. When you try to understand the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, it is good to take the advice the White Queen’s gave to Alice . Draw a long breath and shut your eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. And you will find yourself smack dab in the midst of an impossible thing – a paradox of sorts.

There it is: two very different actions and yet, one breath. Life cannot be sustained without breath and yet it takes two completely different actions to make a complete breath. One is incomplete without the other. We human beings are a living paradox, our lives are an impossible miracle, and we live into the paradox of life every time we take a breath.

That’s because love is a paradox. The Love that is the second person of the Trinity and the Love that resides within us, guiding us to know the Truth. The Love that inspires two people to leave their life’s legacy to the church, that we may continue Christ’s legacy of love and hope for the world. Just as Jesus did for us. Just as Jesus commands us to do.

Now, when you look at it that way, unpacking St. John’s words and unwinding St. John’s convoluted sentences, it’s really pretty simple, right? As simple as the sun knowing when to rise and set each day. As simple as the mysterious beauty of a flower in the Arnot-Pring Garden. As simple as the force that keeps the world revolving slowly on its axis.

If you find yourself having a hard time believing in the impossible thing such as a flower, just remember the advice of the White Queen – draw a deep breath and shut your eyes and before you know it, you’ll begin believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.


1 comment:

Bill said...

Great sermon. And I always thought it was only me that thought John was the master of the convoluted sentence. Reading John reminds me of when I go out to Friendly’s and they put one of those kids place settings in front of me. There’s always a maze that goes round and round. That’s when I think of John.