Monday, May 18, 2020

Easter VI

John 14
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

James Bond is one.
Harry Potter is one.
Anakin Skywalker is one (sort of).
Batman is one.
Dorothy (of Oz) is one.
Frodo Baggins is one.
Almost everyone in the Marvel Universe is one.
Anne (with an e) is one, and Little Orphan Annie too.

If you guessed orphans, well done. If you guessed orphans after hearing Little Annie’s middle name, don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. Curious, isn’t it, that all these fictional characters—mostly aimed at children—are orphans. This is worth exploring, wouldn’t you say?

Whenever I have a question that relates to comic books, or comic book characters, I call my friend Ted. He knows comic books. He may be the only minister who signed up after learning that “to seek justice and resist evil” is at the heart of our call as a church, a bit of comic book hiding in plain sight.

“Ted,” I say, “I’m calling about all those orphans in the Marvel Universe.”
“Sure, he says, “it’s all about abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal.”

Now, with any trip to the mountaintop to consult with your comic book guru, there will need to be some pondering, unpacking, maybe some reframing. But before we do that, Ted also gave me a quick illustration of the opposite. Seems that in the golden age of comic books, DC introduced a character called Mister Terrific, who was, well, terrific. Athlete, scholar, self-made millionaire, Mister Terrific had it all, then turned to helping others mostly out of boredom. Needless to say, audiences didn’t respond to the character, and he was soon retired. Superheroes need to suffer on the road to becoming superheroes, so it would seem.

Before we draw a link between John 14 and some mountaintop wisdom, let's look at the choice of the word “orphans.” One of the pivotal (and often ignored) passages in scripture is found in Mark 3 (and Mat 12, Luke 8) where Jesus’ family comes knocking, and someone in the group says ‘your mother and brothers are here, looking for you.’ He looks around the room and asks ‘who are my mother and my brothers?’ A pause, and then ‘you are my mother and my brothers, along with anyone who does what God intends.’

Clearly, the church has found this awkward through the ages. For most of our history, we have billed ourselves as ‘family-friendly,’ where we honour mothers and fathers, and seek to love our siblings, literal and metaphorical. But here, Jesus seems to reject his mother and brothers, making himself an orphan. In fact, he is redefining family, and adding to the concept rather than replacing it. Still, it is dramatic, stepping out of kin and clan and naming friends and fellow-travellers as his family as well.

Back to John 14, Jesus is busy explaining this new universe they have entered, a universe where family is redefined, where the Spirit is promised, and where the faithful are Jesus’ kin and clan. And he describes it like this: “If you love me, keep my commands.” It’s pretty simple, and it opens that other instruction, to love God and neighbour—the heart of the law. In other words, Jesus is saying “if you love me, keep the command to love God and love your neighbour.” Or in other, other words, ‘when you love me, you are loving God, and cannot help but do what God intends.’ That’s a lot packed into seven words.

He then promises an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who we know will arrive in just two weeks' time (Pentecost). He calls the Spirit the “Spirit of truth,” something the world cannot accept, and something that will live within us. Then the same promise, restated: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” And finally, some poetry, a new psalm that expresses the heart of the gospel:

Before long,
the world will not see me no more,
but you will see me.
Because I live,
you also will live.
On that day you will realize
that I am in my Father,
and you are in me,
and I am in you.

We cannot be orphans, since death is no more. We are alive in Christ, and he is one with God. “You in me, and I in you,” the re-formed family of God.

So what about suffering, or “abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal”? All of the characters listed a moment ago began with suffering and loss, and applied that same suffering and loss to the service of others, to prevent them from being defined by the same experience. And isn’t that just another way of saying Jesus died on the cross to save us? The way it works is a mystery, but the outcome is the same: suffering redeemed for the salvation of others. “Because I live, you also will live.”

That’s the cosmic answer, the “meta-narrative” that animates the universe of Christianity. Closer to home—today—there is another answer: our sense of abandonment (in this time of COVID-19) redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal. The higher ideal is being the body of Christ, even when we’re separated by disease and the threat of death. Jesus said “you are in me, and I am in you.” Our suffering is his suffering, and his suffering is our suffering. In any part of the body, suffering is added to the great well of suffering that God keeps—as God tends to it, and holds it in our stead. We surrender it to God, trusting that we never suffer alone, nor will we ever be orphans. Amen.


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