Benediction Online

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Holy Spirit

Several times this past week, I’ve been in conversations with long-time Episcopalians who say they heard very little about the Holy Spirit when they were growing up. (In those days, of course, the Holy Spirit was called the Holy Ghost, which made sense in the days of the first Prayer Book of 1549, but to 20th century children sounded something like the mythical ghosts of Halloween.)

When we were older and learning the Creed, it was much easier for us to understand the nature of Jesus – and the nature of God the Father – than to understand the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Creed told us that the Spirit is the giver of life; yes, the Creed told us that before Jesus the Spirit spoke through the prophets, and after Jesus the Spirit built up the church; and yes, the Creed also told us that the Spirit comes to everyone in baptism. But who is the Spirit, and how does the Spirit speak to us and give us life?

Today I’d like to look at what Jesus himself says about the Spirit – everything he said, not just the words in today’s Gospel reading. (Part of our problem in understanding the Spirit is that we hear Jesus’ words about the Spirit in bits and pieces, in separate readings on separate Sundays of the church year.) To connect the dots, we will all need our Bibles, beginning with the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John.

John 14:1 - Conversation after supper

Here John remembers the Last Supper, and a long conversation Jesus had with his disciples after supper. It’s a late-night conversation that covered many topics, and now fills several chapters of John’s Gospel. Let’s imagine that we are in the room with those first disciples, listening, questioning, and trying to understand.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places... I go to prepare a place for you... And you know the way to the place where I am going...” Thomas asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life...” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father... Trust me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me...”

So Jesus is about to die, but he says he will not abandon them. No wonder they are asking questions: How will he possibly still be with them after he has left them?

John 14:15 - How will Jesus still be present with his disciples when he has left them?

Jesus now begins to tell his disciples about the Holy Spirit, which he calls the Paraclete – a word that literally means “the One who calls alongside”. In the Greek, Paraclete gives us an image of a constant companion, One who never leaves us - walking with us, talking to us and guiding us. In English, this word has been translated with many different words: the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. All of those words help us to understand what the Spirit does, but it’s most important to listen to all the words Jesus uses to describe the Spirit. (Please note, as we go along, that although your English translation says the Spirit is masculine, the original Greek is neuter – and in the Hebrew, “spirit” is feminine.)

Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you.” “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live....Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them... I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you... Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you... Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You have heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you...’”

The Paraclete – the One who calls alongside – will live with them and in them. The Paraclete will guide them into the truth, teach them everything they need to know, and remind them of what Jesus taught them. But most important, the Paraclete will be the Spirit of Jesus – that is, through the coming of the Paraclete, Jesus himself will be coming to them and abiding with them. Jesus says, “the Father will give you another Paraclete...” – all along, Jesus has been their Paraclete, the One who calls alongside them, who walked with them, taught them, guided them, and gave them peace. Now another Paraclete is coming, One who will never leave them.

John 15:1 - What does Jesus mean when he talks about “abiding”?

Jesus said, I am the true vine... Abide in me as I abide in you... I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Jesus gives his disciples the image of the vine and the branches, a visual metaphor to help us understand how he is connected to the Father, and how we are connected to God through Jesus. No branch can stay alive if it is cut off from the vine; no vine can live if it is cut off from the roots; no grapes will be produced unless the whole plant is connected – and it is the Spirit living in the vine which keeps the juice flowing through the roots, the vine, and the branches.

John 15:26 - What will the abiding Spirit do?

Jesus said: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, that one will testify on my behalf...”

Once again, Jesus tells his disciples that the Paraclete will be speaking to them, telling the truth about Jesus, guiding them through all the future decisions they will need to make.

John 16:6 - If Jesus does not leave, the Spirit cannot come

In spite of Jesus’ words of reassurance about the coming of the Spirit, the disciples do not want him to leave them. But Jesus tells them if he does not go away, the Spirit cannot come.

Jesus said: “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send that one to you. And when that one comes, it will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.... I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear to hear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for it will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and it will declare to you the things that are to come...”

When the Paraclete comes, it will show the truth to them and to the world. The world, Jesus says, does not understand about sin and righteousness, judgment and forgiveness; but the Spirit will point to the truth, again and again, working in many disciples and not just through Jesus, until the truth is finally seen and understood.

And now John’s Gospel points ahead to Pentecost, to the day when the Spirit is poured out on all Jesus’ disciples – those who followed him through Galilee and Judea, and those who will follow him down through the centuries.

John 20:19 - The Holy Spirit comes

It is now after the crucifixion, and the disciples are hiding in a locked room, full of fear. Mary Magdalene has come to them, telling them that she has seen the Risen Jesus. After hearing Mary’s story, Peter and John have run to the tomb, which is now empty. Outside the tomb, Mary sees the Risen Jesus, who tells her go to the other disciples to tell them he has risen. But they are still afraid, and still unbelieving. Wouldn’t we also have wanted more than Mary’s story of seeing him in the garden?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear... Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

And so the Risen Christ came, bringing peace. The Risen Christ brought forgiveness to the disciples who betrayed him, who ran away in their fear. The Risen Christ brought the Holy Spirit to them – the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of forgiveness, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit who guides, the Spirit who teaches, the Spirit who calls alongside them, the Spirit of Jesus – living with them and in them, never to leave them again.

And how does that same Holy Spirit work in us today, twenty centuries later? The Day of Pentecost is now only two Sundays away, and the lessons on that day will tell more of the story, helping us to understand that what happened to the first disciples can also happened to us.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Good Shepherd
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on April 13, 2008

The dog story

Pastors are often thought of as shepherds (the word “pastor” means “shepherd”, and this week we learned that even the pope’s airplane is called “Shepherd One”) so it’s easy for parish pastors to think it’s their job to be the local representative of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

That was me, the first time I was a rector. It was a lively parish, with a wonderful liturgy, great music, and lots of creative people. But it also had a vestry that needed help, college students who needed programs, teenagers needing a youth group, and older people needing home and hospital visits. I was determined to do it all, and to do it right. The only trouble was that when I finally got into bed at night, I couldn’t sleep – because I felt that the youth group, the college students, the vestry and the sick and hospitalized were all in bed with me. Every night, I lay there thinking about all the mistakes I had made that day, and all the things I hadn’t done.

Then one weekend my son arrived with a gift – a beautiful yellow dog about nine months old. We named her Lady because she was so beautiful, but she wasn’t a lady at all. She had no manners, she had received no training at all, and she ran around the house, the yard and the town with abandon.

So I started trying to train Lady – on top of my real job, the job that was keeping me awake at night – and Lady tried (she really did try) but mostly she kept making mistakes and she kept excelling at running around the house (chewing everything in sight), running around the yard (digging holes under the fence), and then running around town (getting arrested by the doggie police).

One day, as I was fuming about Lady’s latest mistake, she came up to me, wagging her tail and putting her paws on me with great affection (something she wasn’t supposed to be doing, of course) – and I realized that this dog really thought she was doing a great job, being my dog and taking care of me.

So this hopeless, happy, loving dog taught me a lesson – about dogs and about myself, too. I was trying to love God, and I was trying to do a good job for God as his substitute shepherd in that parish, but I was making all kinds of mistakes. Maybe – like Lady – I was even making mistakes when I thought I was doing just fine. I was trying so hard to be a good shepherd but as a shepherd I was pretty mediocre, and on some days I was a real failure. What was I going to do?

And then I realized that I was trying to be something that I could never be – the perfect pastor, also known as the Good Shepherd. Actually, I wasn’t really supposed to be the shepherd of that parish, perfect or otherwise – Jesus was the real shepherd, not me. Rather than trying to be Jesus, maybe I was supposed to simply be his sheepdog, keeping the flock together, leading them to food and water, making sure they were safe.

If I were just a sheepdog, I wasn’t supposed to be doing everything on my own. My most important job was to listen - and follow – the voice of Christ, who is the only real Shepherd of the sheep.

The Good Shepherd

Today’s Gospel [John 10:1-10] is about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. I am the gate for the sheep.... I am the gate; whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture ...I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

Because none of us has ever been a shepherd in the Holy Land, we might not know what Jesus means by telling us, “I am the gate.” We need to understand that in summer the sheep are pastured in the high hills of Judea and Galilee, far away from their home farms. There in the hills the shepherd and his sheepdogs keep watch over their sheep: the shepherd whistles, and the dog takes off after a wandering sheep; the shepherd speaks to the dog, and the dog starts herding the sheep in the right direction.

At night, the shepherd, the sheep and the dog all sleep right there in the hills. To keep the sheep together, corrals have been built – circular stone structures about waist high, with just one opening to let the sheep in and out. And at night, when it’s time for shepherd and sheep to sleep, the shepherd lies down in the opening of the corral. The only way in and out is to walk over the shepherd’s body – not something the sheep are willing to do, and something that makes wolves or thieves really hesitate.

So look what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying that the disciples, or future clergy down through the centuries, need to become the Good Shepherd. He’s saying that it’s his voice that matters – it’s his voice that calls to both sheep and sheepdog. He’s saying that’s it his care that matters – it’s he who guards both the sheep and the sheepdog with his own body. He’s saying that it’s his desire to give abundant life – to sheep and sheepdog alike.

The first Christians

Today’s lesson from Acts [2:42-47] gives us a picture of the very early church, soon after the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. We need to understand how that very early church functioned.

Luke writes, Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles... Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Who was directing this community? The passage doesn’t mention anyone ... (Yes, the apostles were teaching and preaching, but there weren’t any bishops yet, there weren’t any priests yet. In fact, there wasn’t much organization at all. The organized church came later, as the community grew and the needs became more complex.) So who was leading this community?

If we could go back and ask those first Christians, they might have told us: “The Good Shepherd is leading us, working in us through the Spirit of the Risen Christ.” The Good Shepherd was a favorite image of Christ for the early Christians – we find it painted on the walls of the catacombs where they hid during times of persecution; we hear this beloved passage of Scripture again and again in ancient sermons. As the years went on, most of the Christians who saw those pictures and heard those sermons were urban people who’d never taken care of sheep, never known an actual shepherd – and yet the figure of the Good Shepherd inspired them, helped them to know they were cared for, helped them to believe that Jesus would lead them to abundant life.

Do we believe that the Spirit of the Risen Christ still speaks to us, still cares for us, still leads us? When I’m here in worship with St. Benedict’s, when I sit with St. Benedict’s Vestry, when I listen to people in the Bible study on Sunday mornings, I see – I feel – the Spirit here among you. And I see – I feel – you trying to listen, trying to follow, trying to move in the right direction. The Spirit is here, the Good Shepherd is here, whenever two or three of us gather together.

Over the past year our priest, Caroline Hall, has worked to help us listen to the Spirit, worked to keep us safely together, worked to guide us in the right direction. Now she’s gone on her study leave. If we think of Caro as the Good Shepherd, who has gone away and left us on our own for a while, we can feel bereft, worried, even scared. But if we think of Caro as Christ’s sheepdog (and she’s a great sheepdog, a very smart and well-trained sheepdog, a sheepdog who works hard to hear the master’s voice and proclaim that voice to the flock – but she’s not the Good Shepherd, who is Christ himself) then we will have confidence in the months that lie ahead. Then we will realize that with Caro here or gone, the Lord Christ, the Good Shepherd will still be speaking to us, taking care of us, and leading us to abundant life.

And yes, we do have some substitute sheepdogs around here – Mary-Elizabeth and Faye and me and now Brian – but the Good Shepherd is really the one who will be leading us – and each and every one of us, clergy and lay, need to be listening for his voice in the months ahead.


Sunday, April 06, 2008

On Becoming Holy and Being Faithful

We Episcopalians tend to be a little squeamish. You don’t hear us talk much about Jesus’ blood. Of course we do during the Eucharist when we remember Jesus words ‘this is my blood of the New Covenant’, but apart from that, we don’t bring it up much in conversation. I actually can’t remember hearing any of you talking about the blood of Jesus. A brief glance at the hymn book shows that we don’t focus on it there either. Not for us the wonder working glorious blood of the Lamb, not for us being washed in the blood. In fact such bloody imagery is almost enough to make most of us vegetarians.

I mention this because the writer of the first epistle of Peter says that we are ransomed, not by silver or gold but by the blood of Christ. Our squeamishness tends to make us rush past it, but there are some important truths in this imagery which I want to spend a few minutes on this morning.

In the ancient mind, life force was contained in the blood – it makes sense, because of course we can bleed to death very quickly - they understood blood as essentially the same as life. Jesus’ blood is a metaphor for Jesus’ life force. Jesus did of course bleed during the crucifixion but even if he hadn’t we would still be ransomed by his ‘blood’ because his life was given.

A ransom is demanded when someone is kidnapped; or when someone is a slave a ransom might be paid to secure their freedom. So in talking about ransom, the writer is suggesting that we have been rescued from a state in which we had been captured against our will and were not free. Baptism is the sacrament of our freedom; it is the outer symbol of our inner ransoming. So when we dip our fingers into the water in the font, or when we sprinkled each other with water, it is a visible and tactile reminder that we have been ransomed, we have been set free.

But the ransom is not in itself the complete solution. When the money is handed over and our prison door opened, we still have to walk out. Our freedom has been procured but we have to avail ourselves of it, and that is the aim of the spiritual journey. We live with the problem of human nature, our mixture of good and bad parts, and the need for us to be transformed through the renewal of our minds so that we become holy. The few verses before this reading in 1 Peter tell us to become holy even as God is holy.

The theological term for becoming holy is sanctification. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in us that sanctifies us, but this isn’t a passive thing. I think it’s very tempting for us to be spiritually passive. We may be outwardly busy, ministering in the workplace, serving in the Abundance Shop, finding ways to raise funds so that we can continue to worship God in this building, but inwardly we’re sitting back waiting for the Holy Spirit to do God’s thing.

The disciples trudging to Emmaus didn’t get it. Even though the resurrected Jesus walked alongside them, even though he explained the scriptures to them, they just didn’t get it. Their minds were too full of their grief and confusion. They were intent on getting to Emmaus. They were too busy with other things to notice what they were missing. I’m sure if someone had asked they would have said they would give anything to be with Jesus again. They were too preoccupied to notice who was talking to them.

It’s not enough for us to get busy with what needs to be done and just hope that God is handling all the spiritual stuff. Yes, God does call us to be active and to do things to make the world a better place, but that action becomes empty unless it is filled with the spiritual juice that comes from being attentive to God.

Jesus knew the two disciples had a lot on their minds and so he explained the scriptures to them. One of the two important places for us to be attentive to the Spirit is through the scriptures. I think if I could just once be transported into a scene from Jesus’ life this is the one I would choose. I would love to hear Jesus himself explain what happened and why. But the words he would choose for his disciples of the twenty first century might be different from the words he chose back then.

And this leads us to some difficult about scripture reading. We think it must be difficult and we don’t know enough about the Bibles or we’re not clever enough or we don’t have time. There are several things that can help. We make “Forward Day by Day” available each quarter which each day gives a page of thoughts stemming from that days Bible reading. Our Sunday morning Bible Study is going to be learning more about the Apostle Paul in the next few months, using material from the biblical scholars Domininc Crossan and Marcus Borg. This will help you to understand much of the New Testament much better. But the most important thing is just to read it and ask the Holy Spirit to interpret for you.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus still didn’t get it. And they probably wouldn’t have done if their manners hadn’t suddenly caught up with them and in keeping with standards of Middle Eastern hospitality, they asked Jesus to stay. This is hugely important. They invited Jesus in. The single thing that takes us from being good natured churchgoers to people who are on the spiritual path being set on fire by the Spirit of God, is to ask Jesus in. This is not a once for all born again experience which you can point back to and say on August 7 1966 I accepted Jesus. Maybe there is a date that’s important to you like that, but being attentive to God, becoming sanctified, means asking God over and over again. Not because God goes away but because our natural tendency is to forget. Our natural tendency is to put our heads down and keep trudging along the road, and not notice God.

But God does try to break through to us. It was at dinner that the disciples finally recognized Jesus when he broke the bread. In that familiar gesture they suddenly realized who they were with, the one who had said, “This is my Body broken for you”. We too recognize Jesus in the eucharist when he is especially present as we, the Body of Christ, gather together and remember and experience in the bread and the wine, God’s touch of love.

Today is my last Sunday with you until August. I am going to be taking the time to complete the academic work that God has given me to do, and I am deeply grateful to you for your support in this. For the next three months I will be here in Los Osos but I will not be worshipping with you and I will not be among you as your teacher and pastor. However if we bump into each other on the street or in the market please don’t feel that you need to shun me – I will be happy to chat. I know that I will miss being here, but I am leaving you in very good hands, both human and divine. Services will be taken by Faye, Donna and Mary Elizabeth with the occasional guest, our administrative needs will be served by a number of people and the vestry will continue to manage our financial, practical and outreach activities.

Several of you have expressed your concern that we might lose momentum while I am gone. This will not happen provided that each of you continue to do your own spiritual work. It is summarized at the end of the reading from Acts and in almost the same words in our Baptismal covenant – continue in the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread and the prayers. When we do that, when we continue individually and together to seek God’s face and to serve God in our homes and community then we come out of our prison, we claim the ransom of Jesus’ blood as our own. Then God is glorified and as we lift God up, our church will become irresistibly attractive to those seeking and thirsting after a true relationship with the divine.

So this is my request to you. In my absence, stay faithful to that which God has called you to. Read the Bible – let’s all plan to read John’s gospel during the next few months. One chapter a week is enough. If you need a Bible there are boxes in the back. So read John’s gospel, come to church so that you can worship God here and meet God in the eucharist and in the Body of Christ gathered for worship. And above all, pray.

Pray that you may be made holy. Pray that God will be glorified in our worship and service, and pray that hundreds and thousands of people may come to a life-giving knowledge of God through our ministry here.