John 14:15-21, Sixth Sunday of Easter
Have you ever had the experience of having something stolen from you? Recently I had the unfortunate experience of being robbed at a place where I have always felt safe. While I was in the changing room of our gym, someone stole a belt from my trousers. Talk about petty crime! Granted that the lost item did not cost much, still it was a belt I liked. Perhaps more than just losing something that belonged to me, I felt wronged. I became suspicious of people around me. Instead of being open to the goodness of others, I no longer trust them. Now everything is kept locked away inside my locker.
What happens to you when something is stolen from you? Chances are that you, like me, will feel wronged. You might feel unsafe, and will reason that you need more security: locking things away, installing CCTV cameras. Perhaps the most drastic effect of being robbed of something is that we clamp down on our trust and openness to other persons. We begin to see other people as a threat to our safety. Indeed, after something is stolen from us, the world becomes a darker place.
What would it be like for us if we were robbed not of some insignificant thing, but of someone we loved? It seems to me that this is what is on Jesus’ mind as he speaks to his disciples on the eve of his passion and death. Jesus knows he is about to be robbed from them and is concerned that his disciples would feel wronged, disoriented by mistrust, feeling deeply unsafe as they live among the people that acted violently and brought about the death of their teacher and friend. In the first days of Easter this is how we find the disciples. We have heard of Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb and the two walking towards Emmaus with their faces downcast. In each instance, Jesus’ first words to them allows them to acknowledge what they have lost. To Mary Magdalene he says: ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’. To the disciples on the road, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’ Indeed, the first step that Jesus invites his disciples to make in Easter is to acknowledge the experience of being robbed of him, of God’s protection.
Yet, even before his disciples experienced being robbed of Him, Jesus pointed to who they would gain when he was to be taken from them. In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit. He is first referred to in today’s Gospel as the Paraclete, the helper who is with you forever. He is the Spirit of Truth, which the world fails to receive, but he is with you, he is in you. As the disciples will come to lose the company of the Jesus who taught and lived with them, they will come to recognise the spirit of Jesus and the Father who already is living within them. The disciples would have recollected these words to themselves as they moved out of the rupture of loss into the recognition of a new way of being with the risen Christ: a relationship so intimate that the only way of capturing its experience is with that word that expresses the fulfilment of all our desires: love. Jesus says at the end of our Gospel today: anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him. The second step the Risen Christ invites his disciples to make in Easter is to recognise who they have gained out of the experience of loss: a new way of relating to God in and through the consoler, the spirit of truth and love.
This recognition of the Spirit living deep within them changes the lives of the disciples dramatically. We have heard over these weeks of Easter how they preach and perform miracles, adding great numbers to the church. But today we hear of how Philip went to preach and heal in a Samaritan town. Now the Samaritans, at the time of Jesus, are pretty much the enemies of the Jews. We get glimpses of the hostility that exists between them for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan — Jesus challenges his hearers to acknowledge that even their enemy can be a neigbour to them, helping a wounded man on the road who was left to die. In our first reading then we read of how the perception of the early Christians have changed through the experience of death and resurrection, the loss and the finding again of their God. This openness to the Spirit — the divine Other, allows them to open up to the human other. It is remarkable how those walls of mistrust and fear of the stranger crumble as the disciples experience the love of the Spirit. Indeed, the third step the Triune God invites the disciples is to turn their gaze towards the human other, the stranger, all those who have experienced the rupture of loss, like them, and to be instruments of God’s healing love and compassion.
The question that I think our readings invite us to ponder on this Sunday is: what happens when we lose God? We run that risk when we experience the painful loss of something or someone dear to us, when we fail miserably to do good and instead do something we think is unforgivable, or when we stop to care about the state of our hearts and our relationship with one another and with God. Our readings assure us that this loss of God is not the final word. If we are united to Christ, then our lives are scripted by His words; He too experienced the deep loss of God on Good Friday, moving from that terrifying charge against God ‘why have you forsaken me?’ to the calm trust of ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit’. Not only will we lose God time and again, our readings tell us that we must lose God. We must lose the God that we would like to domesticate and make familiar, and allow ourselves to enter into a loving relationship with the mystery of God. As the poet W. H. Auden says: Every Christian has to make the transition from the child’s ‘we believe still’ to the adult’s ‘I believe again.’ (This cannot have been easy to make at any time and in our age it is rarely made, it would seem, without a hiatus of unbelief.)
What false images of God are you being invited to lose? What new, strange and beautiful experience of God are you invited to find again?