March 5

Lenten Communion Meditation

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3:1-17

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Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. 

Scripture and tradition depend on reason and experience.  Spirit involves reason and experience.  A question for you, day by day as mortality approaches, is whether you can find the courage to trust your own experience and whether you can find the capacity to rely on your own reason.  Opportunities to subcontract both are amply available.  But in order to live a life that is yours not almost yours, Spirit is needed. 

The fourth gospel, with stories like of Nicodemus today, bears down on those who are almost people of faith.  Like Nicodemus, who have some but not the depth of the gift of faith, and later the Samaritan woman, and later the man born blind, and later Lazarus, and, in full and truth, later, the disciples themselves, who do not hear the gospel until after the cross.  We, many of us, are like that, are we not, especially in different seasons, when we slip on the ice, the ice of anxiety and depression, of alienation and disconnection.  John holds out for us for the fullness of faith, for a fervent love, like that of St. Augustine, our conversation partner, this Lent. 

John had the courage to face the awful disappointment behind the New Testament:  Jesus did not return, not on schedule, not as expected, not soon and very soon, not maranatha, not yet.  But John looked at his own experience, and in biblical measure, with traditional tools, reasoned.   In place of apocalypse, he celebrated the artistry of the everyday, and in place of the speculation about the end, he celebrated the Spirit of truth, and in place of parousia, the coming of the Lord, he nominated Paraclete, the presence of the Lord.  He sang: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.   One way to solve problems is to face them, to name them, to admit them.  No parousia.  Paraclete. Spirit! 

The stark strangeness, the utter difference of John from the rest of the Bible we have yet fully to admit.  My beloved advisor, perhaps the greatest John scholar of our era, Fr. Raymond Brown, got only as far as saying that John is best understood as ‘an embraceable variant’, emphasis on embraceable less emphasis on variant.  But when we get to John 3, we see chiseled there in ice and covered fully with wind and snow, an enigmatic, mysterious riddle:  Spirit, sweet Spirit, Paraclete.  The endless enemy of conformity.  The lasting foe of the nearly lived life.  The champion of the quixotic.  The standard bearer of liberty.  The one true spirit of spirited truth.  Yet we cannot even give the history of the term, nor fully define its meaning, nor aptly place it in context, nor finally determine its translation.  Paraclete eludes us.  Paraclete evades us.  Paraclete outpaces us.  Paraclete escapes us. 

Notice that in John, starting with Nicodemus, the Spirit is given to all, not just to a few or to the twelve, definitely not.  Notice that it is Spirit not structure on which John relies.  Notice it is Spirit not memory which we shall trust (good news for those whose memory may slip a little).  Notice that Spirit stands over against what John calls ‘world’ –another dark mystery in meaning.  Notice that the community around John’s Jesus is amply conveyed a powerful trust in Spirit. 

Other parts of the New Testament take another trail.  The Book of Acts offers confidence by way of hagiographical memories of Peter and Paul, and of false but loving assertions of the utter agreement of Peter and Paul.  Trust your memory and when you cannot create a new memory.  The Pastoral Epistles—and to some degree 1 John in opposition to his gospel namesake—rely not on memory or memories and not on Spirit, but on structure:  presbyters, faith once delivered to saints, deacons, codes of conduct, stylized memories of orderly transmission of tradition.   We need memory.  We need structure.  Neither can hold a candle though to Spirit.  That is, for John, what Moses, the Law, the historical Jesus, the Sacraments or anything else cannot ever fully offer, Paraclete SPIRIT provides.  By Spirit we hear the word God.  God reveals by Spirit.  God self-reveals by Spirit.  Here the stakes are very high. 

Again, Raymond Brown:  This is the ultimate self-revelation of how the word of God gets translated as God.  To a community living in time and space, the Spirit of Jesus is proving the world wrong.  People who live by the spirit is the only way others will be convinced of the victory of Jesus (Hill, Courageous, 82). 

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder (Chesterton).  Your life does not lack for mystery but only for a sense of mystery.  Your week does not lack for worth but only for an hour of worship.  “I love the silent church, before there is any speaking” (Emerson).  Pause just a moment in prayer. 

When you come to worship you place yourself in prayerful sight of beauty.  When you come to worship you stand and sit in the company of real courage, heroines and heroes of old.  When you come to worship you at last find a way—language, imagery, symbol, all—to express an ultimate concern for ultimate reality. When you come to worship you see the whole horizon, the whole ocean, from birth through love to death…and beyond.  When you come to worship you place all the rest of your life in the loving embrace of Love, capital L.  When you come to worship you are reminded that you are a child of God, no matter what else or other your boss, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends or roommates have said or intimated.  When you come to worship you enter the space of Grace.  People have such ragged reasons for skipping worship.  Make it your plan, as you walk along, to find a church family to love and church home to enjoy and a church service to attend at least one hour a week.  In prayer, at least now, at least here, at least here and now. 

Yet sometimes worship goes wrong.  When it does, for you, say so, to whomever.  If it does so regularly or spectacularly, go elsewhere, pronto.  Life is short.  We need make no excuses for prizing our time. 

This Lent 2023 our Catholic theological conversation partner is St. Augustine.  In 1991, having at long length and at last completed the PhD, I went down the street to a young Jesuit College, Lemoyne 1946, in our neighborhood, and whence some of our student members had come over the years, to see about teaching.   A very loving and very knowledgeable (her adage, ‘as humans we are lovers and knowers’) former religious Dr. Nancy Ring, greeted me.  I explained my visit.  To which she responded…’So…you…you want to teach?’  She seemed, rightly, dubious.  Yet the next semester began a relationship of 25 years, teaching part time the mostly first-generation college students there, and the full discovery of a second spiritual home, in no small part due to Dr. Ring, whose own academic work focused on Paul Tillich.  She would happy to know that some students at Merrimack College nearby, on the encouragement of their professor, STH graduate Dr. Maria Teresa Davila, are joining us by radio for worship this Lent.  The Professor wrote:  As an Augustinian school, I believe that the Religious and Theological Studies department at Merrimack College would greatly benefit from incorporating this into our classes either as extra credit or further formation for our students and faculty…can you forward me any schedule or description you might have? 

For St. Augustine of Hippo at long last found himself, his soul, and his true vocation, by finding a personal relationship to God. Yes, Augustine entered the ministry. He became priest and bishop in North Africa. In an age, like yours, of intercultural conflict, Augustine made sense of faith’s highest vision…the city of God. In a culture, like yours, that wore the nametag of Christianity without fully understanding its meaning, Augustine celebrated…the grace of God. In a political climate, like ours, that honored highly individualized freedom and the power to choose, Augustine praised God’s freedom to choose, and acclaimed…the freedom of God. In a highly sexualized age, like ours, Augustine colorfully confessed his own wandering, his own mistakes, which, he attested, did test but did not exhaust the …patience of God. In a religious climate, like ours, which buffeted a truly biblical belief, Augustine praised his maker, and so reminded the church of the proper…praise of God. His Confessions—perhaps part of your summer reading—his great autobiography, is a prayer—for the city of God, by the grace of God, in the freedom of God, to the patience of God, as the praise of God. Augustine found a relationship with God and was ordained. And vice versa.  

A long time ago, Augustine of Hippo started into pastoral work, in North Africa. He had many troubles. He fought fundamentalism, for instance, as we do in our time, shouting, ‘love understanding wholeheartedly’. He also argued and wrestled with the Donatists, an ancient, spirited and disciplined form of Christianity. One side of the spat was the question of the extent of the church.  

 How much real estate is church and how much is not? How much humanity is church, or potentially so, and how much is not? Should the church focus on quality or quantity? Are only those baptized by good Bishops baptized well, or at all? What makes the hotentot so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Is the church, as the Donatists argued, a select remnant, a pure priesthood, a leaven in the lump, a company of resident aliens, a band of holy Methodists fleeing from the wrath to come? If so, then church is always and ever separated from, alienated from the culture in which it exists. Christ against culture.

Or is the church, as Augustine argued, and as I do today, itself a mixture of wheat and tares, saints and sinners, holy and not yet holy, yet all and objectively founded upon and protected within spirit, divine grace, a set of networks and invisible relationships in the world to redeem the whole world, to transform culture, and the society from which culture comes, and the language that is the very root of that society? Christ transforming culture.

Is church us in worship or does it include unemployed men, whether in worship or not? Is the church the circled wagons of resident aliens? Or is the church found in all humanity, ‘nothing human foreign to us’? How you answer, on this Lenten Sunday will determine whether you think Christ and his church have anything in common with men without work. 

 Our friend and colleague at the Howard Thurman Center, Mr. Nick Bates, gave recently a summary of where and when and from whom he learned about love.  He spoke about ‘A Love Ethic’.  His guides and sources included names familiar, central and sacred to us here at Marsh Chapel:  hooks, King, Thurman.  His exemplars, his guides, especially Howard Thurman, gave him a way to reflect on love and to reflect love, both.  Love is commitment.  Love is growth.  Love is suffering.  Love is prayer.  Love is reconciliation.  Commitment, growth, suffering, prayer, reconciliation.  That is the what of love, one could say.  And the how?  A mixture of desire, imagination and—what for it—leisure.  Desire, imagination, leisure. 

 Augustine of Hippo exchanges his very earthy and earthly passions in love…for a love of God.  Here is a phrase we use—love God, love neighbor—but without always a personal, or true, or real sense of the loving in that love.  If you say to your spouse, ‘I love you with all my heart and soul and mind and strength’, you can feel that verse becoming a universe.  You feel it because you see him or her, as you hold your lover in the arms.  Or you feel it because the memory is so piercing, maybe now because the love is in heaven, but the love you feel is still on earth.  In a way it should not surprise us that Augustine (‘Lord please make me chaste…but not just yet’) can turn to now the Love of God and the Love in God and the Love to God, with a fierce and physical, poetry of love.  Do we think when we allow ourselves the thought of the love of God, of our love for God, that such a love and its expression should be every bit as fierce, as our best earthly love, best human love?  As fierce, as physical, as muscled, as sensual, as jealous, as eager, as personal?  You say you love God…you have a pretty tame way of showing it!  I say I love God…I have a pretty tame way of showing it.  Here enters Augustine of Hippo, a passionate lover if there ever was one.  His invitation, the Gospel invitation, the sacramental invitation before you this morning, along the center aisle saw-dust trail, is as personal and as fresh and as real as can be: will you love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself? 

Great art Thou O Lord and greatly to be praised.  Great is thy power and thy wisdom is infinite.  Thee would we praise without ceasing.  For our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. 

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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