Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Make Way for the Advocate

Scripture for the 6th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 17:22-31, I Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21

At Wednesday’s eucharist at Sweet Brook Care Center, I thought I’d test the currency of the word Advocate. “What is an advocate?” I asked, hoping the question might launch a seat-of-the-britches nursing home homily, but fearing it might just as likely sink it.

Scanning their faces, I thought “Note to self: think twice about starting out with a question like that,” when, clear as a bell, from the front row, the person directly in front of me, came this voice: “It’s someone who stands up for you, speaks for you in front of a magistrate.” Thank you, Joan.

From there it is a graciously short reach to grasp the barely-imaginable good news announced by Jesus: that in whatever trials we will face we will be represented, defended, counseled, by One whom God the Father will send to us.

If you’re a fan of the Christian Year, you know what season comes next. You also know that this One Jesus promises is the Holy Spirit, the very energy of God that we will celebrate on June 12th, the Day of Pentecost, and keep celebrating the following Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we need our fingers to count the ways we and God encounter one another.

And if this One who will represent, defend, and counsel us sounds too airy-fairy to grab hold of, or to be able to embrace us, it might help to hear Lutheran re-voicer of scripture Eugene Peterson speak not of the Advocate, but the Friend (capital F) who will always be with us.

I find appealing the growing trend to speak of this Spirit of Truth, this third person of the Holy Trinity, as feminine in nature. That’s not a modern or novel idea; it rises from the period between Old and New Testaments, when the Wisdom literature of Israel personified Lady Wisdom, and subsequent Christians found it easy to imagine that this Lady Wisdom, said to be present at the creation of the universe, could be that Spirit of truth promised by the Christ who, according to the Gospel-writer John, was also present at the creation.

So indulge me, and argue with me later. I’m picturing the Advocate, the One sent from God with all the energy of God to defend, represent, and counsel us, as any one of an array of compassionate but tough, gracious but gritty female attorneys who could, even for a moment of fantasy, serve us metaphorically. Name your pick: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martha Coakley, Sonja Sotamayor, or that passionate, intense, persistent and very hot Assistant DA on Law and Order (you know the one?). I’ll bet you can do a better job generating a list of candidates, but let’s not lose our focus…

Which is that when any one of us is in a time of trial, and must face any number of things that could go against us, for us and for our salvation stands one who speaks for us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and whose role it is to speak the deepest truth, so moving the whole proceedings from the courtroom of fear to the sanctuary of faith.

Our scriptures today bear witness to what that deep truth is.

The concept of conscience is brought to us in the First Letter of Peter. By classic definition, conscience is the voice of God within us. By equally classic distortion of religion, that voice is quick to accuse and judge us guilty. But Peter speaks of conscience as if it were a sanctuary to be kept clear and open for the reconciling love of God to work on our behalf. Even more, he reminds us that baptism’s saving power is how it roots conscience in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This takes conscience to a deeper place than right and wrong, innocent and guilty. The resurrection takes us to the purifying place where all that is human is bathed and renewed in all that is God, all that is limited in the limitless, the mortal in the eternal, the wounded in healing.

The deep truth the Advocate speaks is not that we are guilty, but that we are loved. I believe this good news is just as revolutionary and transformative in our 21st century as in our New Testament’s first century, and just as urgently needed to be heard. It is news that brings our souls to a new springtime, and frees the human will to love as boldly and generously as God in Christ loves all.

And there is Christianity’s best claim on our allegiance. That the voice of God-in-us calls the human race not to pour out more blood, sweat, and tears on more altars whether public or private, but to respect the dignity of every human being and learn to live up to the full stature of Christ, not live down to the common denominators of fear, greed, blame, and self-serving power.

Which brings us to our lesson from the Book of Acts. There we find the apostle Paul, a Jew trained in the rabbinic model of religious argument, reaching out to philosophical Greeks in their great city, Athens. He presents credentials meant to open Greek ears, the talent to carefully observe and reflect upon the phenomena of life. He says little judgmentally about the various shrines he must have seen, shrines that glorified those traits that made the Greek gods what they were, displaying those attributes by the art of craftsmen in gold, silver, and stone. But he implies that these various altars and shrines required endless offerings by human hands, and I think we hear, barely below the surface of Paul’s words, his inner conviction that what he saw was idolatry, the worshiping of something human or manmade as if it were God, and it isn’t.

But he sits on that judgment and rather deftly addresses these Greeks as a religious audience in a religious way about religious matters, looking for a religious response. And like any good commencement speaker (and it is very much a commencing that Paul intends), he uses a local site layered with legend to catch the attention and open the minds and hearts of his audience.

Somewhere in Athens, he has found an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” For Paul, this is like finding the gene in the genome that opens the future to new life, restoring the wholeness of the body. He is able to use this evidence to remind the Greeks that by their own light they have recognized that there is more to the divine than they know, and Paul names this the Creator God who made the world and everything in it, all nations, all people. (This is, you know, how Israel described God.) Here is an altar that shows recognition of religion as claiming something much more than tribal or nationalistic or idolatrous allegiance. Here is a religion that may be of the mind and of the heart and of the will. And Paul intends to ride this horse right into the corral of Jesus Christ, and hope someone follows him (a small number do, and so a Christian congregation is born in Athens).

He builds a sympathetic case. This God who has made the very web of life has planted in us the desire to know him, the urge to search for God “and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” This may sound less like Paul the Rabbi and more like Paul presenting himself as a philosopher like Socrates, while in fact being true to his calling to be a winsome truth-teller like Jesus.

The point Paul drives home in Athens is the same he makes in Corinth and Rome and every other city he visits: that the one true God has not left us comfortless, has not left us to our own devices to find truth and to know the Holy One. God has taken on our human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and by his resurrection has completely revealed this Jesus as the Christ so that through him the world may be set right, one person, one household, one community at a time. “In him we live and move and have our being,” wrote an unnamed Stoic philosopher; and to this Paul says, “Yes, and now it is up to each person to enter that truth, lay claim to it, make the astonishing discovery that what God says to each is not ‘I judge you,’ but ‘I love you,’ and thereby frees each person from the ancient way of blame, frees each person for the new life of self-giving love.”

Such is the freedom we claim today for Nicholas and Diego. What is truly ours to claim is a joyful responsibility to introduce these boys to a religion of the heart and mind and will, one that will have more appeal than the altars of 21st-century gods of gold, silver, stone, success, technology, sensation, and violence—all the powers that fall far short of love. Religion can fall far short of love, too, and what we wangt for Diego and Nicholas is a dose of St. Paul’s insight that by our own best light there is more to know of God than we yet know.

We, their families, their Godparents, their Church will fulfill our responsibility best by deeply hearing, receiving, and treasuring the Advocate, the Friend, the relentless voice of love that frees us to be agents of the very energy of God.