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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Exposé of the exposé of the heart of God


Readings:       Acts 16.9-15
                        Revelation 21.10, 22 – 22.5
                        John 14.23-29

As the public ministry of Jesus picked up momentum – (in John’s gospel version it was a ministry of only one year, not the synoptists’ three) he was clearly becoming aware that his work would need to be carried on without him. This is not to suggest that he had some crystal ball or even divine insight into the future, but rather that he knew by now the extent to which he was pricking the conscience of his own Hebrew people and the conscience of the Roman realm in which he lived and taught. Like a parent pining for the future of their child – (you may have seen the episode of All Saints in which a grandparent understandably frets at the pregnancy of his Downs Syndrome grandchild) – Jesus knows that his followers are capable of losing direction without his presence with them. They have been, God knows, obtuse enough even with him amongst them. But he is human, and to worry about life after we have died is fundamentally human.
He also reveals a clear sense of the working of the Godhead. This in theological terms is not surprising; he is, even in the flesh, fundamentally a part of Godhead. If Jesus is the revelation of the heart and the purposes of God then he recognizes that in the purposes of God, God’s energy and purpose will go on. It will go on through and after his death and after the resurrection that will be the signature, the authentication of God of all that he is and all that he has done. He knows this not as a forlorn hope, and certainly not with the kind of desperate gloom of a Jeremiah, but as an essential certainty. If he is the exposé of the heart of God, then death cannot undo all that he has been. For if death does defeat him, if death undoes his exposé of the heart of God, then death is greater than God, God is less than death, and life is meaningless. Or, as Paul puts it, more are we to be pitied than all people.
Certainly by this stage there is something dark lurking around the periphery of his circle. Judas, as well as Jesus, is making his way towards Jerusalem. Jesus has every opportunity to know that the immediate future is ugly. But he knows too that the heart of God reaches beyond the immediate. According to eleventh century poet Dante, hell has written over its gates the words “abandon hope, all you who enter here.” To give up hope is to enter hell, and Jesus has no intention of leaving his disciples in the depth of any hell. So it is that he begins to tell them of the coming of what we might effectively (if heretically!) call his “other self,” the Paraclete that our translation calls the Comforter. This, Jesus wants his disciples to understand, is the one who will continue the work of exposing the heart of God. The Paraclete, though, who will liberate that exposé from a moment localised in space and time, pinned down in first century Palestine, to an eternity of moments throughout space and time, reaching to 21st century Cunnamulla, reaching beyond his disciples’ moments and loci and beyond our moments and loci. The vision of Jesus is reaching from the already to the not yet and from space to spacelessness.
So Jesus promises peace, and the Paraclete as the bearer of that peace. There is peace and peace. I experience peace as I cross the God-breathed wide red and brown and occasionally green lands that make up this continent; as I drive to Quilpie or to Birds­ville (or more especially as I stop travelling and be still) I can experience a depth of peace that is beyond words and which hints at the magnificence of God. But such an experience is only a part of the peace of which Jesus speaks, and which, in John’s resurrection stories, he breathes into the lungs of the disciples.
For many years in the history of Christianity the words of peace that we will shortly share in liturgy, words which echo these words of Jesus spoken in our passage and in the resurrection story, were considered so special that they were heard only by the baptised, and baptism itself took place only after up to three years of preparation. The experience of such peace, sacred peace or shalom, was considered to be a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. These words were considered to be comprehensible only by revelation, not by intellect or habit. The peace of God was and is God’s to give rather than ours to earn.
The shalom of God was more than mere stillness. More, however much I love it, than a landscape or oceanscape that takes breath away by its beauty. Nor in Hebrew thought was the presence of peace just the absence of war. It was the presence of justice, the presence of the God-enabled compassion and justice that seems at times to be so far away from the hearts of the world’s leaders and our leaders. The timelessness and eternity of space of Jesus’ thought was not the absence of walls but the presence of active concern to bring in and give hospitality to the stranger and the outsider. That way they too might know the touch of God so absent in our brutal policies of alienation and extermination. Inclusion and compassion and justice: these would be and can be the signs that the Paraclete of Jesus continues to draw near long after the events of Good Friday and Easter and Pentecost.
And it is we, however small we are, however without hope the task sometimes seems to be, who are called to be the bearers of that hope and comfort and justice and compassion (and to be receivers of it too) long after the events that Jesus was seeing and John narrating in our gospel story. As the early followers of Jesus addressed by John were persecuted by their neighbours and needed the reminder that the Spirit of Jesus, now liberated in space and time, dwelt with them, so now we experience the persecution of parody, disinterest, and the tyranny of distance[1]. We too are called to realize and make present and be ourselves comforted by the One who draws near to us, and through us and our compassionate love and justice draws near to those around us. Such is both our comfort and our commission.


[1] Cunnamulla is an isolated community in the far south west of Queensland, 800 kilometres from Brisbane. It has experienced massive economic and well-being decline since the glory days of the sheep’s back in the 1950s. St Aidan’s church was built on the back of the sheep’s back and resultant optimism to seat 2-300: this sermon was preached to a congregation of a half dozen.
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