Readings: Luke 8:26-39, Divine Providence #309 (see below)
Photo credit: Lewis Burrows
I have always been fascinated by this text. In my opinion, it is one of the most quietly creepy stories in the bible, particularly because of verse 30, when Jesus asks the name of the demon and he replies “Legion.” This story is also recounted in the book of Mark, and it is rendered even more ominously: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” I can’t read that without the hairs rising up on my arms. Now why do I think that is? Well, for many of us, there is something inherently scary about “the malevalent many.” At the time of Augustus, a Roman legion was about six thousand men. Thus, the demon’s name calls to mind an enormous army. One person does not have much chance of standing up to that many. I’ve also seen one bible translation use the word “mob” instead of “legion.” That adds an additional dimension of violent chaos to the characterization. So, whether we are talking about the menace provoked in a disciplined army of many thousands, or a the chaos of a mob, we almost unconsciously understand this “legion” to be completely uncontrollable, and I think this is why it is deeply unsettling.
But, you might have noticed that a different type of fear shows up in the narrative as well. A few verses later, in v. 35 we find that the people, seeing the healing that Jesus has done, seeing the formerly possessed man dressed and in his right mind….are they grateful, joyful, amazed? No, they are afraid. They ask Jesus to leave. Jesus has done this amazing thing, this amazing service to their community, but they ask him to leave. What is that about? Surely, this possessed man no longer being violent and uncontrollable, that would be a good thing? Why didn’t they think so? It’s a good question. So, while I do love the understandably scary and ultimately ridiculous Legion, I would submit today, that the fear of the people in the face of the healing itself is the much more interesting part of the story. So that’s what we are going to talk about.
First, a little background on the text. This healing comes directly after a story of Jesus calming the raging waters of a storm. Jesus had to take a boat across a lake to get to Geresene, where he encountered the possessed man. While they are in this boat, Jesus goes to take a nap, and then a squall comes up and the boat was in danger of sinking. The disciples go wake Jesus up, saying “we are going to drown!” and Jesus “rebukes the wind” and calms the waters. He then asks them (rather famously) “Where is your faith?” and they in turn, incredulously ask each other “Who is this, that the wind and the water obey him.”
And it is at this point, with these two important questions still hanging in the air, that the story turns to the demon-possessed man and his healing. So, in terms of the narrative, we are seeing that Jesus first shows his command of the natural world (the wind and sea) and then he also shows his command of the spirit world (by ordering the spirit out of the man and into the pigs). Jesus will follow up this story with another healing of a chronically bleeding woman who touches his cloak, and then he raises a little girl who had just died, foreshadowing his own resurrection. All these stories in quick succession are trying to answer the question “Who is this Jesus?”….by saying that Jesus is someone whose power is so great that he can command the weather, vanquish demons, can raise the dead, whose power is literally so vibrant and pulsing that someone need only touch his cloak and they are healed.
But, while the narrative is trying to answer who Jesus is, Jesus himself is also kind of subversively asking a different question. He asks: Where is your faith? This question too, given first to the disciples, lingers in the air as the demon-possessed man is healed, as the townspeople react negatively and ask Jesus to leave. We might like to think that if we were present in Jesus’ day, that we would react positively to what Jesus was doing. But, if we put ourselves into the position of the various participants in the narrative, perhaps we might we a better sense of why they didn’t. In the disciples’ case, imagine being tossed about in a near sinking boat, or in the townspeople’s case, imagine being terrified by the unpredictability of a violently possessed man. In both those cases, we surely might feel very very small, very powerless. From this vantage point of smallness, the mercy and power of Jesus might also seem like just another thing that we cannot control, as large and disconnected from our own sense of agency as the howling wind, or a legion of spirits. No wonder the townspeople wanted Jesus to leave. They were afraid of yet another thing that they could not control. Fear was compelling them to ask some very uncomfortable questions like…in the face of all this uncontrollability, who am I? What am I? The wind is invisible and destructive, the spirits are legion, and Jesus is incredibly powerful….and so I must be…nothing. What do we do with that realization?
And doesn’t that get right to the heart of our deepest spiritual questions: Who and what am I? How do I hold and experience my sense of self? How do I relate to my own life, to God and to other people as a result?
One important principle of Swedenborgian thought is the connectedness of the spiritual and natural worlds, that there is a basic continuity between them, that they are not separate things. We don’t escape this world to enter into heaven as if it is some place completely or categorically different…rather we will recognize ourselves in the next life, which is part of the reason why we believe personal transformation and how we relate to our own “selfhood” is so important to our spiritual progress. Our reading for today highlights the struggle and the fear that is elicited from our ego when we attempt to give over to God’s providence what is due, to recognize that our selfhood is pure gift and that God is the source of all. We read earlier:
…These people who credited everything to their own prudence (we could even call them overly invested in their own image) flared up so violently that fire came from their nostrils. "You're talking paradoxes and madness," they said. "Surely this would reduce us to nothing, to emptiness. We would be some idea or hallucination, or some sculpture or statue." (DP 309)
Do you hear that fear? “Surely this would reduce us to nothing.” Perhaps we can resonate. And I think this might be one of the complicated things that the villagers of Gerasene were feeling. Were they wondering where their own agency might be in the face of a man subject to a legion of demons, but who is equally subject and reliant on Jesus to save him? Perhaps they just didn’t want to think about what that meant, didn’t want to grapple with it. It was too much. Swedenborg continues:
 All I could say in response was that the real paradox and madness was believing that we are the source of our own life…Further, this is like people who are living in someone else's house, with someone else's possessions, and convincing themselves that they own them as long as they are living there.’
Maybe the people at Geresene didn’t want to think about the fact that their selfhood was metaphorically, someone else’s house, someone else’s possession. This is understandable of course, we are all very invested in our selfhood. We want to OWN things, physical things yes, but also to own our accomplishments as a way of proving our worth, proving our existence. We say: I own that, I did that…..look at this evidence of my healthy individualism, my moxy, my focus, my hard work, my brilliance. But of course, we all know that this MY is always part of a WE, whether it is the WE of a family, workplace, society….or just the WE of ourselves and God. Our individual selves are always, always, found in a matrix of relationship.
And sometimes we forget that, we forget about the people looking after our children, the people collecting up the trash, picking our vegetables, building the bridges and the roads, the people keeping us safe and the electricity flowing, the people who made our shiny new possessions in perhaps less than humane working conditions…And we forget the most amazing thing….that God is letting us live in God’s house! This body, this world, this life is a most incredible gift, like an air bnb that we get for free and forever. This is why we praise, to remind us of the truth of God’s generosity, to prevent us from becoming like those seagulls in Finding Nemo, going around saying “Mine! Mine! Mine!” to everything around us. Because that is the madness, that is the absurdity, trying to co-opt something that could never truly be ours, forgetting the true blessing is that we are given this house, this life, to live in, no questions asked.
But this begs the question: how do we live in this house that is not ours? What does that look like, psychologically? What are we supposed to do, detach completely from ownership of anything in our life? Float about not caring about any of it? Well, that is not actually what the healed man is told to do. At first, he wants to come along with Jesus. He DOES want to detach from his life as he has known it. We might wonder: how could his old life have any meaning for him now? But Jesus says, go back to your house, go back to your life. Go back to your house that is filled with “someone else’s possessions,” go back to this house filled with gifts from God, see and feel your gratitude there in your life, and there in your life tell people how much God has done. God does not wish for us to abdicate the responsibility of our lives, the blessedness of our connections or the uniqueness of our context. God wants us to be IN our lives, with gusto, just not to grasp them in fear and desperation. Yet, how do we find that balance?
There is a philosophical idea that has been helpful to me in thinking about this, an idea known as the “deconstructive embrace.”(1) Yes, we embrace this metaphorical home, this life, this selfhood. God has invited us with love into it, and we are allowed to love it too. We are allowed to take up space. We live in our life, we use it, and we take care of it because it is a glorious and wonderful gift. But we don’t grasp it, we don’t allow ourselves to pretend that we own it, we actively, constantly, “deconstruct” the illusion that we might have built it, we abdicate being the source of life. We hold this life, this selfhood, with a knowing, deconstructive embrace. We hold, but lightly, with love and gratitude.
And so when Jesus asks: “Where is your faith?” may we recognize that it is not located in ourselves, in our own selfhood, but that our faith is located in the giving nature of God, in all the forms of connectedness that give glory to the kingdom. When we know that the house isn’t ours, when we know that our very existence is based on an God’s act of radical hospitality and love, then perhaps, we can welcome Jesus, and the all transformation he brings, to stay, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us feel.
(1) Attributed to Gayatri Spivak, in Mayra Rivera’s The Touch of Transcendence, p114.
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. 30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
Divine Providence #309
Allow me, though, to pass on something I have heard from people in the spiritual world. These were people who believed that their own prudence was everything and that divine providence was nothing. I told them that nothing is really ours unless we want to call "ours" the fact that we are one kind of subject or another, or one kind of organ or another, or one kind of form or another--that no one has any "self" as people usually understand the word "self." It is only a kind of attribute. No one actually has the kind of self that is usually meant by the term. These people who credited everything to their own prudence (we could even call them overly invested in their own image) flared up so violently that fire came from their nostrils. "You're talking paradoxes and madness," they said. "Surely this would reduce us to nothing, to emptiness. We would be some idea or hallucination, or some sculpture or statue."
 All I could say in response was that the real paradox and madness was believing that we are the source of our own life and that wisdom and prudence do not flow into us from God but are within us, believing that this is true of the good that comes from caring and the truth that comes from faith. Any wise person would call this claim madness, and it leads into a paradox as well. Further, this is like people who are living in someone else's house, with someone else's possessions, and convincing themselves that they own them as long as they are living there.
Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17, Apocalypse Revealed #533:1, 564 (see below)
Today we celebrate (three days early), the birthday of the Swedenborgian church, or as it has called itself since its beginning: The Church of the New Jerusalem, or the New Church for short. In many of his books, Swedenborg describes the beginning of a new church in both heaven and in the world, a church that is represented by the descent of the New Jerusalem, which we explored together a few weeks ago. At one point, Swedenborg recounts a vision of the Lord calling together his twelve disciples in heaven and sending them out to preach the gospel of this new church to the whole spiritual world, a message that says: the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns and that this kingdom will last for ages upon ages. Swedenborg tells us that this event occurred on June 19th, 1770 and thus those of us in this world who are inspired by the writings of Swedenborg celebrate this day, the day that a new thing that the Lord was doing was definitively announced. Thus, The New Church has always resonated deeply with the vision of the holy city Jerusalem descending from heaven. Our identity, as a group of people, is tied to this vision of a city that represents the presence of God in the world, that calls forth a future in which all suffering will end, and issues to a challenge to us now to be vessels for its manifestation.
But, the vision of the holy city is the culminating metaphor of the book of Revelation, the shining and beautiful picture with which that book ends. The rest of the book is certainly less peaceful and this is because the way to the holy city will be full of challenges. It takes work, fearlessness, and persistence to bring a new consciousness into being. So while many believe the book of Revelation is predicting the return of Jesus to earth, the New Church sees the events in Revelation as a grand cosmic story, as a representation of spiritual events that have already happened, and are continuing to happen in the hearts of every human being. The book of Revelation tells of the endurance and the courage that it takes to live a life of faith and love. Specifically, we can see this playing out in the image of the women clothed with the sun and the dragon, which communicates to us the process, the danger and the hope of birthing a life of love into the world.
The woman clothed with the sun is a beloved figure in Swedenborgian theology. She represents what Swedenborg calls a new church(1). Just to be clear, when we talk about church in this mystical context, we are not referring to a specific earthly organization but rather the manifestation of God’s connection with people in this world, whatever form this is taking. This can take the form of secular organizations, it can take the form of informal groups of people, it can take the form of one person striving to unite wisdom and love in their lives, as well as groups gathering as we do in places of worship. So really, by a “new church” is meant all the various ways a new spiritual consciousness and reality is becoming manifested for humankind. The woman clothed with the sun represents this new hope and this new way of engaging with spirit, a new opportunity continually given to open up to the presence and guidance of the Lord.
The woman clothed with the sun also gives birth to a child. In Swedenborg’s worldview, this child represents doctrine(2). Doctrine can be such a loaded word but all it means is how a church, or a group of people, or even an individual, thinks about truth, and what we think that truth is calling us to do. But the child does not represent doctrine as we might have come to understand it; dry, intellectual and disconnected. The child represents a doctrine of life, a living religion, brand new and alive, where faith and love together lead us into action. The woman needed to labor to give birth to this child, because when the truth moves us to act it can sometimes take a lot of work to figure out how that needs to show up in our lives. But when we do that work, and figure out how truth will be showing up for us, this effort to produce our own “doctrine of a life well-lived” is protected by God. And it is not so much that our own precious interpretation or construct of doctrine is protected, but rather, God protects our sacred capacity to see truth and let it move us into action, into a new way of living. God protects our ability to give birth to ever new interpretations of our context and how God wants us to show up in it, because this is how we grow, this is how we regenerate.
But giving birth can make us vulnerable, and so when the truth moves us to act, then the dragon is waiting to devour whatever we bring forth. The dragon represents worldliness and selfishness, our own and that of our environment or culture(3). It represents materialism, selling out, entitlement, self-aggrandizement. And in the context of religion, it represents the idea of faith alone being able to save us, believing that faith should give us a free pass so we can do whatever we want. I think we are all familiar with the dragon part of ourselves and our world. We all have our shadow sides that just want to get our own way, that want to take the easy way, that believe we should not have to examine ourselves, we should not have to transform, we should not have to sacrifice ego, superiority, accumulation and power. We can see this everywhere. And in the dragon, we can see the kind of anger and hate that arises when we don’t get what we want, we can see the ever-escalating defensiveness that grows out of the inability to reflect, and the unwillingness to be accountable.
So, the dragon attacks the woman, to prevent her giving birth to something new and hopeful and alive. As protection, she is given “the wings of a great eagle.” These wings represent spiritual intelligence and circumspection(4), a God-given ability to see truth and to understand truth’s underlying order of love, to recognize and make connections, to see the story of God’s Word as a grand love story between God and humanity. The wings represent the opening up of that potential within us, this potential to feel moved by the beauty and truth of God’s ordering of the universe. Those wings take the woman away to the safety of the wilderness. Yes, the wilderness, as counterintuitive as that may seem. We can’t skip the wilderness. We all will need to wrestle with our dragon selves in our wilderness times, but we go into it with the protection of the Lord: our ability to rise above our circumstances in thought, to see God and God’s guidance, to see patterns and order and beauty and potential. The woman with her wings teaches us that being under the wing of God allows us to soar, to rise above our selfish desires, to rise above the dragon’s urgings. For us, when we can view our circumstances with God’s eyes, when we know that God is with us and will always endeavor to bring light to our darkness, this knowledge can sustain us, just as the woman is nourished in the wilderness.
There is one final character in our story: the earth - the good ground. If the woman is the possibility of new way, and the wings are a God-given ability to see truth and beauty, and the child is what the truth calls us to do, then the earth is the actual doing of it, the earth is being the church(5). The earth is a life grounded and rooted in love, day by day. The earth is solid, the earth is real life, the earth is planting our flag, the earth is coming out of the wilderness and actually choosing to live out the wisdom of love in our actions. Swedenborg calls the earth here “spiritual truth rationally understood” but I would go further to say that it is truth understood so deeply that, in both a personal and organizational context, we are able to move beyond the life of the mind, where we tend to over-complicate and rationalize, and simply be the church, putting one foot in front of the other in service to what is good.
The earth teaches us about the power of love, about seeing the truth and grounding it, about establishing a connection to God in the living of life through each sacred moment. And as the culmination of our process, the earth provides the ultimate protection for the woman clothed with the sun and what she represents. The earth opened wide and swallowed the flood that issued forth from the mouth of the dragon. The selfishness of the world always wants to sweep away the potential for transformation, and so the dragon tries to overwhelm the woman with a torrent of water. And haven’t we all felt that we are going to be carried away by the world sometimes? The false assumptions, the expectations, the siren song of “more”? Life in this world whispers in our ear and suddenly we’re floating miles away from where we thought we were. The dragon and his torrent of water is the crafty reasonings of the ego, that voice in our head leading us away from the grounding of love. The false thinking that sweeps us away from what we know is right(6). But it is the earth—with it’s crystal clear understanding of the efficacy, the wisdom, of day-to-day loving action— that swallows the flood and saves the woman, and turns that great flood of falsity into the nothingness that it really is. The flood is in turn devoured by God’s truth for us, the truth of love.
So, these are our players: the woman, child, wings, dragon, and earth. They depict for us a story of what is looks like to try and manifest the New Jerusalem in our lives and in the world. God clears a space, creates an opening, calls us forth to give birth, provides protections. The world reacts, and our shadow selves, lash out in anger and put up obstacles. Yet, the dragon’s torrent of water is pure nothingness, as overwhelming and as powerful as it may seem.
The author Neil Gaiman wrote the following, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton:
"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” (7)
The truth of this story from Revelation is similar; it is scary and difficult to live a life of true spiritual transformation. The dragon is all around. But so is God. So is a woman clothed in the beauty of the sun, so is her fertility and her ability to birth something new, so is the preciousness of a new baby, so is the magnificence of soaring wings, so is the steadfastness of an earth that swallows all that would harm us. Dragons can be beaten because God will show up wherever the have the courage to call God forth. May it be.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
Revelation 12:1-6, 13-17
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
13 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
Apocalypse Revealed #533:1
A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. This symbolizes the Lord's New Church in heaven, which is the New Heaven, and the New Church to come on earth, which is the New Jerusalem…A woman symbolizes the church because the church is called the Lord's bride and wife.
The woman here appeared clothed with the sun because the church is governed by love toward the Lord; for it acknowledges Him and keeps His commandments, and that is loving Him (John 14:21-24). That the sun symbolizes love may be seen in no. 53.
Apocalypse Revealed #564
But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the river which the dragon had spewed out of its mouth. (12:16) This symbolically means that the multitude of reasonings flowing from falsities that followers of the dragon put forward come to nothing in the face of the spiritual truths rationally understood that are advanced by the [angels] of whom the New Church is formed.
Readings: Genesis 2:1-7, John 14:8-20, 25-27, Divine Providence #324:1a, 2 (see below)
Often times, on Pentecost, (a day of celebration of the Holy Spirit) we will read a passage from Acts. Something like:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
This is why we often wear red for Pentecost, in line with this ancient image of the Holy Spirit as fire. However, the lectionary this year also gives our reading from John as an option. It is very different in tone from the public mayhem of the Acts reading. Like last week, with Jesus’ prayer for unity, this scene is intimate. Jesus is talking with his disciples during their last meal together. They are grappling with the knowledge that Jesus will be leaving them and so Jesus tries to comfort them. He tells them: “you know the way to the place where I am going.”(14:4) They have been through a lot together, and Jesus believes in them, even as he knows the road will be challenging.
As with anyone who we love who is leaving us, in small and larger ways, we want to know something about how we will stay in contact. When my daughter leaves for a sleepover with a friend, I tell to her bring her phone in case she needs to text me. When I leave my brother in Australia, we promise that we will Skype. When we can’t be there for a friend at an event, we tell them that we will be there in spirit. Likewise, the disciples want to know how Jesus will remain present to them after he is gone.
So Jesus starts to speak to them about it. He invokes something called the paraclete, from the word in greek: parakletos (par-rah-clay-tus). This word is variously translated as advocate, helper, counselor, comforter, consoler, intercessor. It was a word used in those days to mean someone who represented you in court, one who pleads another’s cause, and more broadly it meant anyone who helps of assists. It literally means “one who comes alongside,” from the greek para, meaning beside or near, and kletos, meaning one who is invited or appointed.
This is what Jesus will leave the disciples with: the knowledge that there will still be something or someone walking alongside the them in their continuing journey. What exactly will that be? The gospel here calls it The Spirit of Truth, and later The Holy Spirit. The third part of what is known theologically as the Trinity.
Christian Theologians have argued throughout the ages about the three-fold nature of the divine: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some make a very clear separation between the different divine figures and treat them essentially as different people, in action if not in thought. Swedenborgianism, or the New Church, however, teaches a strict monotheism; that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit represent three different aspects of God’s nature: Divine Love, Divine Truth and Divine Outreach or Use.
Now it is easy to see why some trinitarian theologies lean towards distinct persons. Jesus does often speak to “The Father” as if separate, and does speak of the Holy Spirit in these terms: “I will send another comforter to help you…” This certainly sounds separate. But there are two kinds of words in greek that mean “another”: allos, meaning another of the same sort and hetero, meaning another of a different quality or kind. This verse, verse 16, uses allos, meaning another of the same kind. There is a clear continuity implied. Now, with our own temporal human minds, we mark our lives through beginnings and endings. To the disciples, Jesus was leaving and something would need to replace him. To human beings, that’s the way it works, that is our experience. In God’s time however…this replacement, this holy spirit, was and could only be, that which has always been.
We are see this right from the beginning. The spirit of truth in the greek is pneuma aletheia. In a sense that is lost to English translations, pneuma means not only spirit, but also breath, or wind. The use of this word recalls the breath of life breathed into us by God in Genesis. “Then the Lord formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” (Gen 2:7) The breath gave life, and with that breath came movement, lungs expanding and contracting, the flow of air, the absorption of oxygen. Likewise, that sacred breath, the spirit of truth, continues and contains the movement and flow of our own spiritual journeys. Our hearts and minds expand and contract, we are challenged, we are inspired, we spiral upwards, two steps forward one step back, the flow of life taking us along, in-breath, out-breath. The holiness and the diligence of the spirit comes alongside and within us, breathing us into new realities and perspectives.
So although Jesus brings his disciples’ attention to the spirit in the moment that they understand that he is leaving them; the spirit has always been there, layered intrinsically into the very moment of our creation and the very movement of our life. We read in Swedenborg’s book, Divine Providence:
Everyone is created to live forever. Everyone is created to live forever in a blessed state. This means everyone is created to go to heaven. Divine Love cannot do otherwise than intend this and divine wisdom cannot do otherwise than provide for this.(1)
All people are created for heaven. This is the purpose of the spirit bringing us life, and purpose of the spirit attending to our journeys, the one who comes alongside. Thus Jesus says: “I will not leave you as orphans…I will come to you.” The Divine is incapable to leaving us. The moment God created us, it sealed us and God together, as our life is composed of God’s breath, our spirit a gift of God’s outpouring.
As we heard in our reading, God could not create anything less intimate. Divine Love could not and would not create playthings, create human beings for amusement, to be enjoyed at a distance. Divine Love could only create that which could continue to accept love to eternity, and moreover that which could learn to recognize and reciprocate love. Divine love could only create that which has the potential to increase ever more blessedness.
From our reading:
What divine purpose would there be in all these changes unless they were serving subjects who would accept something divine more intimately, who would see and sense it?
Of course Jesus would not leave us with nothing, no connection to him. The purpose of our creation is so that we might have an intimate, seen and sensed relationship with God. But, the spirit is not new. The spirit is naturalized in creation, in our creation. In this moment, in our text, Jesus is lifting up what has always been true, that the spirit comes alongside, that the spirit is breath and life. That the spirit is an advocate, counselor, comforter, helper. That the spirit is a part of the sacred reinforcing circle that is the trinity.
The trinity: God placing the holy spirit, the holy breath, within our creation, so that we might come to know our belovedness and our destiny. Jesus, revealing to us what God is up to, how God will never stop reaching for us. The Holy Spirit reminding us how Jesus showed up, and that love is for living. The trinity is a dynamic interplay between the ways that God has made provision for us, the ways that God wants to love us, the ways God calls us to respond.
From verse 25: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” As breath moves us forward in life, one inhalation at a time, so the spirit moves us forward in the living of our life, reminding us what is important, reminding us of our grounding in God, urging us onward into new truths, new perspectives, new insights. The Holy Spirit as it is with us now becomes the re-interpreter of Jesus’ words, the great contextualizer of divine truth (2), the maker of usefulness and meaning, application and growth, so that Jesus’ life can be ongoing in the here and now. So that we can realize love in the everyday, so that we can accept and engage with the breath of life.
Now, the sad reality is that sometimes we will want to opt out this amazing opportunity that God has set up for us….some of us will refuse heaven, refuse the blessedness that God offers because it requires the loss of ego, requires making space for being open and being wrong, requires sacrifice. But that doesn’t change the fact that God still comes alongside. “Divinity, though, gives what truly is, or what does not cease to be.”
The Father creates, the Son comes, the Spirit contextualizes. The Creator loves, the Redeemer reaches, the Comforter reminds. May we all choose to consciously participate in this sacred process, and this sacred gift.
(1) Divine Providence #324
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. 4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
John 14:8-20, 25-27
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. 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 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.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Divine Providence #324:1a, 2
(a) Everyone is created to live forever.  What would the Lord have been doing with all this creating of a universe if he had not made images and likenesses of himself with whom he could share his divine nature? Otherwise, it would only have been making something so that it existed and [then] did not exist, or so that it happened and did not happen, and doing this only so that he could simply watch its permutations from far away, watch its ceaseless changes like something happening on a stage. What divine purpose would there be in all these changes unless they were serving subjects who would accept something divine more intimately, who would see and sense it? Since Divinity has inexhaustible splendor, would it simply keep it all to itself? Could it keep it all to itself? Love wants to share what it has with others, to give to others all that it can. What about divine love, then, which is infinite? Can it first give and then take back? Would this not be giving something that was bound to perish--that was intrinsically nothing, since it would become nothing when it perished? There is no real "is" involved in that. Divinity, though, gives what truly is, or what does not cease to be. This is what is eternal.
So today we find ourselves back in the gospel of John. Two weeks ago, we explored Jesus prayer for glorification. Last week, if not for our jaunt through the holy city, we would have heard Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. Now today, we hear Jesus’ prayer for all believers, his prayer for oneness and unity in the church and the world.
This word, unity, might cause you, as it does me, to sigh and feel a bit cynical. It seems like everyone is calling for unity right now, but no one seems to know how to get there. Politically, this country is extremely divided right now. That’s not news. But let’s just say it: it’s exhausting. Disagreements are a normal thing in the life of a country, but I don’t think it’s the fact that we disagree that is so discouraging. What feels discouraging is that we can no longer agree on what is true, and so we are retreating, we are digging in, we are treating each other with suspicion and distrust. Unity seems impossible when a person or group of people refuses to compromise, refuses to concede to common ideals, or to look for common ground. It is easy to call for unity, but much harder to decide what to do when overtures are rebuffed, when compromise itself is seen as a sign of weakness, or capitulation. At that point, it seems there is nowhere to go but further into our own silos. And from there, either out of disappointment, disillusionment, or pure preoccupation with power and being right, retaliation starts to seem justified. So, I will forgive you, and you can forgive me, if we hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and oneness and think: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that. That will never happen.”
Except. [Sigh.] Except…there is the tiny problem that our whole religion is based on the actions of Jesus, who endured torture and humiliation and returned those actions with love, not retaliation. A person’s whose last prayer for us was for oneness, for forgiveness. We don’t get to take a pass on this, not if we truly want to follow Jesus, not if we want to say that the Easter story means something to us. So, I guess that means we need to buckle up.
Part of the problem with this text, is that we hear Jesus praying for unity but he doesn’t tell us how to make it happen. Unfortunately, the bible is not an instruction manual. Sometimes we desperately want it to be, but it is not. It is stories about people trying to figure out how to live in relationship to God, their triumphs and their failures both. In this text from John, we are essentially overhearing Jesus own prayer for us, which is different to receiving a teaching(1). We are eavesdropping. We are hearing the intimate and heartfelt desire of Jesus, praying for his disciples, praying for us, not telling us what to do. What we do see, though, is Jesus grounding that unity he prays for in love, as we hear in verse 23: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me.”
When we turn to Swedenborg, we receive advice about the three essentials of love: “The essence of love is loving others who are outside oneself, wanting to be one with them, and blessing them from oneself.” This description certainly sounds a lot like love, and it might seem easy to contemplate how these characteristics of love manifest in our personal relationships. But how might these ideas be used in particular towards unity, in a situation where unity is not the first impulse? This is a little harder.
First, the essence of love is loving others who are outside of oneself. This might seem obvious, but we can’t love others if we are filled with our own ego concerns. And neither can a group of people act as a team, or work together towards common goals when everyone looking out for themselves. The easiest example is a sports team. A player who is grandstanding will probably miss the right play, and get in the way of the whole team succeeding. Loving means caring more about people outside of ourselves, or the common good, or a higher ideal, more than we want to serve our personal ego, and our personal goals, reputation, or righteousness. It is simple; love requires sacrifice.
Second, the essence of love is wanting to be one with others. Of course it is easy to want to be one with the people we already love, that feels very natural. It feels much less natural with people that challenge us, feel different to us. It often feels easier to put physical or emotional distance between us and them, so we choose that option. We choose to “other” people, make assumptions about them that justify the distance, put them in boxes so that we don’t have to respect their inner life, and recognize their humanity. The demonization of immigrants or transgender people is a clear example of this tendency, one way cruel policies are being justified. Yet, we will find there can be no unity without respect, curiosity and openness. Love is inherently connective; it helps us to recognize what we share.
Third, the essence of loving another is blessing them from oneself. Love is nothing unless it is put into action, used to serve others, in greater and lesser ways. And again, it is easy to serve the people we already love. We do that almost automatically. It is much harder, in the service of unity, to serve and bless those who hurt us or disagree with us, those whom we think don’t “deserve” our help. Yet, love is courageous, love is faithful. There is an amazing example that happened a couple or years ago(2). A well-known comedian named Sarah Silverman received a tweet from a man calling her a filthy name. Instead of retaliating, she looked at his profile, and found a story of frustration and depression, as he suffered from debilitating back pain and a traumatic past. Ms. Silverman reached out to him over twitter in empathy and understanding, even rallying local fans to help the man find treatment for his back pain. The man was amazed and grateful, and apologized for his behavior. Ms. Silverman could have been defensive, made her main concern her pride, and yet she looked closely and found something to connect with and a way to help.
And this is the hard part. It is easy to want to be one with and bless others whom we already love and agree with. This kind of unity feels effortless, because we want to do it, it makes us feel good, included, safe. The subversiveness of the crucifixion is that Jesus extended love and forgiveness even to those who persecuted him. He resisted the natural human temptation to lash out in retaliation, and showed that the sacrificial nature of love is what brings life, resurrection, freedom. Now we must be clear: the cross is not calling for martyrdom. It is not to be used by the powerful to tell the less powerful what they must sacrifice. We definitely need to prevent harm from happening to ourselves and others, both physically and emotionally, wherever we can. But the symbolic import of the crucifixion is that our self-centered ego needs to die, our need for retaliation needs to die. Then we, and others, and the whole world, can really live, can rise from the tomb of mutually assured destruction.
Gandhi is said to have stated: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Lest we think that an eye for an eye is some ancient code that we have now moved beyond, just take a look at a few action movies in recent years. Take a look at social media. Vengeance and retaliation, or at least a habitually defensive and aggressive stance towards all who disagree, is still considered to be noble, macho, desirable, practical. Culture tells us that we are allowed to give up on the humanity of others, if they have wronged us, even in a small way. But Jesus tells us differently.
So we return to the essentials of love. They don’t make sense in the landscape of disunity. Our pragmatic selves tell us they are stupid, naive, insane. But they are also our only hope, our only way to life, the only way to stay sane.
I was recently watching an adaptation of the classic book, Les Miserable by Victor Hugo(3). The story is about the reformation of a prisoner named Jean Valjean, and a policeman, Javert, who dedicates his life to bringing Valjean to justice, even as Valjean attempts to create a new and respectable life. Once out of prison, Valjean takes on new identity and adopts an orphan girl, Cosette, who was being abused by her foster family. The years go by and they become as close as father and daughter. Javert, meanwhile, is tormented by the idea that a criminal like Valjean could be living a free life, and he searches for him everywhere. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with a boy named Marius and wishes to marry. Valjean is stricken at the thought of losing her, knowing that he would never be able to join her in society, due to his secret. Nevertheless, Valjean saves the life of Marius on the battlefield of the revolution, and drags him through the sewers of Paris to safety. As they emerge, Javert finally catches up with Valjean. He did not expect to find him in the midst of a selfless act. As he tries to puzzle out this contradiction on the way to the police station he asks:
“That young man…is he a particular friend of yours? Would you say that he is dear to you?”
Valjean replies: “Quite the contrary. If he lives, he intends to rob me of all my happiness.”
Javert is confused: “And yet, you….” he trails off. “Are you insane?”
Valjean replies: “No, I don’t think so. Are you?”
And we see it suddenly dawning for Javert that it is his life that is the insane one, a life preoccupied with vengeance and reputation, a life boxed in by obsession with being righteous, a life that couldn’t contemplate mercy or forgiveness or transformation.
The theologian Frederick Buechner has written: ”The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks [they] can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”(4)
What is the true insanity? In a world that feels less and less unified, ultimately, believing that people are unchangeable, and the world is irredeemable feels like the true insanity. Abandoning love feels like the true insanity.
But that doesn’t make the sane choice easy. The problem with the idea of unity, the reason that the word might ring hollow to our ears is that we all intuitively know that unity doesn’t just happen. You can’t just flip a switch. You have to love your way into it. And that is awful news because it is just so hard. So hard to love people that consistently act in bad faith, consistently take advantage, consistently act defensively and make decisions with which we cannot agree and cannot fathom. But what is our choice; would we really prefer the tomb?
Loving our way to unity is messy. Sometimes we will have to make the call to protect ourselves and others. As we heard in our reading “It is love that wants those three things, however, and wisdom that brings them about.” We act in wisdom but we do it while still practicing the three essentials of love. They are not a check list that we get to abandon because we think that someone or some group no longer deserves love. God is always working in people, in every moment, in a myriad of unseen ways. God is always planting seeds.
So we must practice being the sower, being the gardener, acting alongside God. There is a particular Buddhist meditation practice which involves concentrating on widening circles of loving kindness. First, we might repeat a phrase or mantra towards ourselves, something meaningful to us like “May I be happy, May I be filled with peace, May I be free from suffering.” Then, we widen the meditation towards someone that we love: “May they be happy, May they be in peace, May they be free from suffering.” Then, we widen the meditation towards someone to whom we feel neutral, and then to someone with whom we have a difficult relationship. Finally, we widen our prayer towards all beings in the world. And this, in a sense, is what Jesus does in chapter 17 of John, praying first for his glorification, then for his beloved disciples, then for all believers and finally for wide world that God so loves.
“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (v25-26) Let us kneel beside Jesus in this prayer, may we always work to make God known.
(1) The New Interpreters Bible, p682.
(3) see pbs.org
(4) Frederick Beuchner, The Faces of Jesus