Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Next to last words: Thursday

Bishop John Bluck continues his series of daily reflections for Holy Week on the last teaching of Jesus to his disciples.

John Bluck  |  31 Mar 2015

Thursday in Holy Week  

Enjoy is a funny word to use in a setting as grim as this. It’s not the sort of sentiment you expect in the middle of Holy Week with betrayal, trial and execution just ahead of us. Yet joy is what Jesus ends up talking about in these Farewell Discourses.

It’s the sort of joy that Martin Luther King talked about days before his assassination, when he said I’ve been to the mountain top and I’ve seen the promised land.

It’s the joy that flows from having walked the walk and obeyed the commandment to love as best you could. You have kept faith with this difficult child,  you’ve done all you can for this friend in trouble, you’ve kept fighting for rights and recognition for this group whose suffering is no longer noticed or known. And out of the frustration and the setbacks  and the exhaustion of your efforts, against all the evidence, you glimpse and taste something of how the world might be when God has finished working through us.

For some of us, there’s a bit of watching and wondering going on as we read these Farewell Discourses and ask ourselves whether we could ever love so selflessly and generously, whether we could find the courage to stand in the ground zero places of suffering and despair. And there are plenty of them to choose from right now. With the families who wait at airports for missing flights to land, who wait for their houses to be repaired in Christchurch, who wait for surgery, and jobs and food for their children.

The most remarkable promise of all the expectations offered in this passage (John 16: 19f) is the promise of delight that will come when we put ourselves out there where we’re needed most and give ourselves over to others in the service of love.

Does that really happen? How can we know?

Well, only by watching others who love selflessly and generously, beyond all measure like God does. Never as completely as God, only in hints and glimpses which is all we’ll ever get in this life, but that is more than enough to be going on with. And when we catch a glimpse of that sort of self giving love in our heroes and our aunties and whoever else, our lives are never left the same and the standards we set for ourselves on how much to give and how far to love are somehow lifted higher.

One of the books that changed my life is McGlashan’s seminal work  “The Savage and Beautiful Country”, a great title for this territory of delight.

“Delight is a secret. And the secret is this; to grow quiet and listen, to stop thinking, stop moving, almost stop breathing; to create an inner stillness in which like mice in a deserted house, capacities and awarenesses too wayward and fugitive for everyday use may delicately emerge. O welcome them home, for they are the long lost children of the human mind.. delight springs from this awareness of the translucent quality of things.”

The promise of these Farewell Discourses is that a self giving life of loving and serving others before we serve ourselves does bring delight and joy. Not because of some sort of cosmic payback reward scheme,  but simply because delight is what you experience when you’re in the close company of those who inspire and enliven your love, both given and received.

If we’re lucky we’ve had a taste of such delight from lovers and children and friends. And the logic of love extends endlessly outward and inward from that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah where he describes  God’s steadfast love: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return till they have watered the earth, so shall my word be that comes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” Self-giving love has that boomerang quality, given or received it bounces back a hundred fold, surprising us by joy as C.S.Lewis called his famous work.

If we live in God and God lives in us, in the very core of who we are, and we learn to listen to that presence and trust that awareness, elusive as it is, then delight will follow as surely as night follows day, and as Jesus promises, “our joy may be complete”.

Could it be then that this experience of delight, even in the midst of the worst of times, even only glimpsed in passing, could it be that is what sustained Jesus on his walk to the cross and gives  hope and strength to all those who walk the path of costly love? 

Wednesday in Holy Week

There is no more  haunting story in Aotearoa than that of the Rev Hare Maehe Ruarangi.

He was an Anglican chaplain who chose to stay with the smallpox victims in Hopu Hopu outside Hamilton during the epidemic in 1913. His ministry with these dying people, and his refusal to leave them, led to his own death from the disease.

Hare Maehe’s sacrifice is marked by a small gravestone under the trees  alongside the main road south. The trucks and cars on the expressway rumble by oblivious to this simple memorial (so simple his name is misspelt and no one has bothered to correct it), testimony to a modest man of God whose self emptying love  still sets a benchmark for us.

There are plenty of other such stories from the saints and martyrs of our church under the Southern Cross.

Charles Fox is another of my inspirations. He was a very slight man of indifferent health, growing up in the small country town of Waipawa in central Hawkes Bay.

As a young man he joined the Melanesian Mission in the Solomon Islands and served there for the rest of his life, as a teacher, scholar, labourer, linguist, translator.

As a very small boy, I met him at my grandmother’s house while he was home on leave, and I still remember the feeling of being in the presence of someone very special. During the Second World War, during the Japanese invasion, Charles remained in the island in great personal danger, working undercover as a coast watcher, and continuing his missionary work.

His memory in the Solomons is legendary even today, where he’s buried at Tambalia, alongside the other martyrs of that brotherhood, legendary because of his complete disregard for his own importance and self interest.

These are important stories for our understanding of the Farewell Discourses  because they point us to the core of what Jesus demonstrates on his walk to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and the quality that’s needed of us if we are to enjoy this entwining and indwelling of the human and the divine.

The Greek word for it is kenosis, literally the emptying of self. And on the face of it’s an impossible ask.

What’s more, it is deeply offensive to the individualistic, me first consumer culture we swim in; a culture driven by meeting personal needs and wants; proving, fulfilling, affirming, realising, satisfying, pleasing ourselves, and maybe making it one day into the society pages in the back of the local paper, with a squiffy smile and  a glass of chardonnay. 

Kenosis is about letting all that go, giving away, stripping back every shred of self importance, self justification, self advancement, burrowing down into that core of our being which we think is so essential and precious but behind which might just be an empty space.

The Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton, son of a New Zealand artist, once wrote these incredible words about that interior space:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalising of our own will.

This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God within us, as our poverty, our indigenity, as our sonship.

It is like a pure diamond blazing with the visible light of heaven. It is in everybody. And if we could see it we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and the blaze of the sun which would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish forever. I have no programme for this scene. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. By this light we shall see the light.

If God really is in us and between us, as we say in our liturgy,  if the very source of our life is the Spirit of God, rather than some personally copyrighted, ego centred, privately owned  essence, then self emptying becomes more about reconnecting with the source of light and love that we each carry as the sons and daughters of the God in whom we find out who we really are and where we really belong.

The lifestyle Jesus models on the journey through Lent depends on trusting this to be true. Without that trust, the walk is impossible to make.

The heroic lives of a Fox and a Ruarangi and a Merton only happened because they  somehow knew that what the job they had to do really would lead them into the heart of God.  And the job was simple enough – to do  the work of love, staying where they were needed and useful, keeping faith with the people around them.

That’s the kind of love Jesus commends to his friends around this table of the last meal together. Not love as a feeling or an option to choose from a menu of religious qualities, but love as a commandment -  steady, sustained, respectful even of the people you don’t like, who disagree with you profoundly, looking out for each other through good times and bad, in an out of season, because that’s what we do as Christians, that’s our core business.

The Passion story describes just how far Jesus is prepared to go on this steady path of self emptying love.

At the table surrounded by frightened friends who are about to let him down, then later in front of the zealous high priests and the cynical governor and the hostile crowds, then finally hanging on the cross between two  thieves, Jesus takes this kenotic creed all the way.

He puts himself onto the ground zero of all that is evil and corrupt and deadly and he is only able to stand there because he knows what he promised the disciples would enjoy he already is experiencing, namely that“ I am in God and God is in me.” 

Tuesday in Holy Week

Jesus makes a remarkable promise to us in the Farewell Discourses in John’s  gospel. He summaries it in one remarkable prayer:  “ The glory  that you have given me I have given them so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me..”

In other words, the bond of love and trust that led us to see Jesus as the Son of God is now transferred and shared with his friends. We become caught up in an interdependence with God. Humanity and divinity are entwined like never before, in a depth of intimacy unknown before.

There is nothing in the Bible that explains just what form this intimacy might take, and religion has been scrambling to do that by prescribing words and music in vain. For the intimacy comes like the wind and all we can do is wait for the signs of it coming, and open ourselves to the gale.

Eileen Duggan wrote a poem about that: 

When in still air the planets shake

Like springs about to flow

 A wind from off Australia

 Is gathering to blow

And I who have my signs of you

 Am weatherwise in vain.

 Oh you are gale and wet to me

 But come, my wind and rain

Descriptive language breaks down in attempting to explain what Jesus is offering here, so we have to resort to poetry and metaphors.   

The first biblical metaphor is the vine and its branches. Familiar enough to talk of vineyards with Israel as God’s vineyard and God as the gardener. A metaphor that’s  familiar enough, but here we have Jesus as the whole vine, the new Israel, in the same way that Paul sees him as the whole body. He becomes the  source of life to all who seek it through every limb and branch.  

And the next metaphor is the dwelling place. Jesus is the Way. He  provides a  unique access path into the heart of God, but Western Christianity has traditionally chosen to paint that uniqueness as exclusivity, forgetting that in the same passage Jesus spends much more time talking about many dwelling places in God’s house. Not high places and low places, first and second best, but different places with room for all who come.  We’re being reminded  about the inclusive nature of God, generous beyond all measure, who comes to us before we come to God.

The third image to express this entwining of the human and divine is consecration, the ritual reserved for the hereditary priests of the Temple. The word literally means to “make holy” . Jesus includes all his friends in this elite and limited group, once reserved for only Israel’s most privilege and devout. Now you and I, our piety unpolished, can  join the ranks of the sanctified,  echoed  again  in the first letter of Peter; that democratising, barrier breaking call to claim a space to stand in God’s dwelling place: “Come to him like living stones and let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, where all can offer gifts acceptable to God..”

All of this is made possible by the gift of the Spirit of God, described by Jesus as another Advocate to take over where he leaves off, doing the same work he did in Palestine, but now on a universal scale, forever. “This is the Spirit of truth..  You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you.” 

This indwelling Spirit of peace and love, no longer limited by geography or gender or language or culture, is known to us as a presence we can experience, but also as a capacity to see things we couldn’t see before. This Spirit does what Gladys Knight and Roberta Flack sing so beautifully about: “ I can see clearly now, the rain has gone..”  The ability to see God at work in the world, to find our way where it was clouded over before, that is the gift this Spirit gives.

Just before this promise of Spirit is made to the disciples, Philip has been anxiously asking, ”Show us the way to God.” The Spirit answers that question, not by demanding answers from Jesus but directing attention to what we do and say as followers And we can dare to believe that, such is the depth of this indwelling Spirit in us, such is the breadth of this entwining of the human and the divine. 

Monday in Holy Week

Lent has been all about getting ready for the Christian passion or Passover and the events of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. We are getting ready to follow Jesus through that journey so we need to do some homework. That won’t guarantee we complete the journey or comprehend it. The first disciples tried and mostly failed, even though they had the advantage of some team talks by their leader.

Maybe we can do better. We still have the speech notes of those talks. They’re called the Farewell Discourses, reassembled and recorded in three latter chapters of the Gospel of John. They are often quoted but usually out of context.( I’m  inspired by Cynthia Bourgeault’s work on these passages.)

When you read them in the setting they were written for, these discourses become  very powerful and very intimate stuff.

Here is Jesus on the eve of his execution as a criminal, sharing a final meal with his closest friends, even as one of them betrays him and another is about to deny knowing him. It is a time of intense anxiety and fear. The incredible three years they had together are rapidly dissolving. Any one else would have walked away.

But Jesus speaks directly into the face of all this personal disintegration and chaos. He talks to his friends with breathtaking intimacy and honesty. He draws them into the mystery of God treating them as privileged insiders. For all their failures and betrayals, however much they felt they had been hijacked by the violence that follows, that’s how  the disciples are treated. As insiders with the inside story.

And that’s what we are now. These discourses are our training manual, our road map for the journey that lies ahead of us. Over these days of Holy Week, we’ll listen to what it offers us as we revise, remember, rethink what we can expect of God; what we see in Jesus, what can we dare to trust from this discourse about how to live and how to love.

Well, there is some amazing stuff on offer.

What Jesus lays out here is the chemistry between the human and the divine. Up till now that’s been focused in his physical presence, his words and actions. You could see this evidence, record it, even taste  it when you broke bread with him.

Now all that’s about to change. The relationship between human and divine is about to shift because Jesus is about to be taken away. “ I have come into the world and now I am leaving the world”

Now it’s up to you. Because from here on out you are no longer simply human, you’re also agents of what is divine and holy. I no longer have to mediate for you with God, you can do it yourself, such is the love God has for you, the trust God has in you.

Bishop John Bluck lives in Pakiri, Wellsford.