Acts 17:22-31 • 1 Peter 3:13-22 • John 14:15-21
A column of American and Afghan troops were on a protection detail on September 8th, 2009. They were shepherding a group of Afghan government officials who would be meeting with some local village elders. The column came under ambush, taking fire on three sides. Captain William Swenson was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor recently for his actions on that day, among them running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead.
A sergeant who had been shot in the neck was one of the people he rescued. Captain Swenson and another soldier brought the sergeant to a medevac helicopter, and it just so happened, that one of the medics on that chopper had a GoPro camera on his helmet and captured the whole scene. The film shows Captain Swenson and the other soldier putting the sergeant on the helicopter, and then, before he turns around to go back into the fire to rescue more, Captain Swenson bends over the sergeant to give him a kiss.
There's a love there, and I wanted to know why is it that I don't have people that I work with like that? You know, in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backwards. Right? So I asked myself, where do people like this come from? And my initial conclusion was that they're just better people.
When we put the question to many who we might call heroes, who put themselves and their lives at risk to save others, their response is almost always the same. They risked their lives for others, they say, “because they would have done it for me.”
That is the key it seems to me, in the story from John. Perhaps you have noticed this before—I hadn’t—that the Advocate that Jesus speaks of whom our tradition understands as that third person of the Trinity, the Spirit of God, that Advocate is another advocate, a second advocate. I hadn’t seen before that the disciples already had an advocate in Jesus. He tells his disciples as he is preparing to give his very life for them. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”
In John’s story Jesus is the first advocate. His very life has been for these disciples and for those who will follow. He is for them, giving of himself, showing them the way by his example, washing and kissing their feet, loving them. This has been his way all along in the Spirit of the God he serves who is first, last, and forever, Love. Because love breeds love.
And the same is true for you and me. The astonishing claim of this story is that this same God, testified in the advocacy first of Jesus and second in the Spirit present with us—with and in you and me even now—is one of absolute love. Love that advocates for you and for me; Love that gives itself for you and for me; Love that is made alive when we live for one another.
The letter of First Peter underscores this idea. We need not be discouraged or afraid as we go through this journey, no matter how difficult and even discouraging it can be at times, because we have with us a God who will not abandon us, a Spirit who is committed to us, a God who in Christ, will lay down his very life for us, and calls us to do the same that we just might get it back.
In fact, these are the very conditions that we need, especially when we find ourselves exhausted or at the end of our rope, especially when we find ourselves uncertain or upset, especially when we find ourselves in danger. This is the Spirit that has the power not only to hold us and save us, but to shape us for abundant. The truth is, we need a community to hold us. We cannot do it on our own. But we need a particular kind of community if we are going to make it—one with the spirit of mutual love and self-giving, a community of advocacy. And that is the very kind of community that John imagines that Jesus creates for the disciples, and God’s spirit shapes in our midst.
Now, there’s something of a tension built into this highly complex and nuanced of gospels. While love is the defining characteristic of God throughout the narrative, there also seems to be this insider/outsider tension that persists in the story. In fact, John’s gospel in particular has been used historically as a justification by Christians for all sorts of abuse against the Jews in particular, because of the way they are singled out as a foil of sorts for Jesus and the disciples, and by implication, for the early Christian community out of which John’s gospel comes.
Our most current historical understanding is that this gospel was written at the turn of the first century as a group of early Christians found themselves being kicked out of the synagogues they had considered themselves a part of. They were under pressure from all sides, and it may be that their very lives were in danger.
We might be able to understand the reactivity we see here, then, even as it doesn’t fully mesh with the Spirit of love this gospel also claims. That’s why the Acts story of Paul before a bunch of pagan Athenians is such a gift. It stands before us as a corrective to any tendency we might have to assume that we over and against any other group, have it all figured out. It witnesses to the power of advocacy to change the storyline.
Paul has no stern words about pagans or heathen idols. He speaks respectfully about their skills, their creeds, even their openness. He meets them where they are as a friend. He sees in them a common spirit that he knows in this Christian way.
And while we are right to resist this idea that we have it right over against any other group or person, we are also wise to recognize that there are different ways; there are different spirits. And they are not all compatible as Senek rightly identifies when he asks “Why is that I don’t have people that I work with like that?”
There are places in our society with different values, with a different focus. There are places where the priority is on identity and security in wealth, in family and social connections, in competition. In fact it was these other priorities, these other powers and principalities that Jesus challenged that got him killed.
But as this season of Easter attests, these are not the last word. These are not what sustain us. And we are not alone in living in the richness of this Spirit of advocacy.
Senek tells the story of Bob Chapman who runs a company called Barry-Wehmiller, a large Midwestern manufacturing company. Like many companies, they were hit hard by the recession, and in 2008 lost 30 percent of their orders overnight. They had to cut 10 million dollars in expenses. So the board got together and discussed layoffs, as most companies would do. But Chapman refused to cut anyone. Instead, they came up with a furlough program. Every employee, starting with the CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted. But it was how Chapman announced it that mattered so much. He said it was better that we should all suffer a little than any one of us should suffer a lot.
And you know what happened next? Morale went up. They saved 20 million dollars, and as you might expect, trust and cooperation and a feeling of safety increased exponentially. And then something happened that no one expected. People started to trade with each other. Those who could afford it more traded with those who could afford it less. People would take five weeks so that somebody else only had to take three. And I believe the Spirit who is known as advocate was known in that place, perhaps as much as in a place such as this.
I don’t know about you, dear brothers and sisters, but I see this spirit here in spades. And while it does not guarantee that things are easy, or without their bumps and bruises, it gives us the conditions in which we just might thrive. It makes me exponentially hopeful as we enter into a new season of partnership with the Fountain of Life church that will begin to share our space in a few weeks.
I have no doubt there will be challenges and struggles. Some things will get broken and we will find it harder to take this space for granted than we may have. Yet I also believe we have the potential to learn a depth of love and compassion, a spirit of partnership and self-giving, a capacity for justice and advocacy that we have only just begun to glimpse. It grows out of that experience of belovedness. And it has the power to save us. In fact, it already has.