Joseph is in love with Maria. I know this sounds strangely close to a Bible story, but it is not a Bible story. These two young people live in Mary Gordon's story, "Temporary Shelter." Joseph has loved Maria since the two of them were children, since the day his mother went to work for Maria's father. He is drawn to Maria's Jewish roots, even though Maria and her father have left that tradition behind. And she is drawn ever more deeply into the life of the Roman Catholic convent near her home. She loves the pure singing of the nuns, the voices of angels. Now, Joseph was losing her. He knew it. And he remembered the day not long ago when it all became clear.
That day in the convent she was far away from him, and knew it, and looked down at him from the lit mountain on whose top she stood, and kept him from the women's voices, rising by themselves into the air, so weightless...rising, rising without effort above everything that made up life. You never saw the faces of the women who made these sounds that rose up. You saw only the light that struck the floor, shot through the blue glass and the red glass of the windows, slowed down, thickened, landing finally as oblong jewels on the wooden floor. He saw Maria rise up on the breaths of the faceless nuns, rise up and leave him, leave the body she loved that did always what she told it, that could dance and climb or run behind him and put cool hands over his eyes and say, "Guess who?" as if it could be someone different. But in the chapel she rose up and wanted to leave the body life that she had loved. Leave him and all their life together.
Joseph saw Maria rise up, up, up...she wanted to leave the body life she had loved. Oh, she was not the only one, nor the first. This is a longing at least as old as the Greek philosophers who longed to get beyond the weight of matter to live in the ideal realm of pure spirit. Many religions, and voices within perhaps all religions, teach that lifeÂ with ÂGod can only be attained by being freed from the bonds of earth, from the pull of gravity, from the body. To be with God is to be in some other place, if not geographically, then in a spiritual trance, a state of pure ecstasy, an outÂ-of-Âbody experience where we will be closer to God, and farther from ourselves and this earth.
This seems to be where John, Chapter 14, is taking us: "Do not let your hearts be troubled," says Jesus. "Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." To be with Jesus is to be somewhere other than where we are now. The promise Jesus made to the disciples -- and by extension, to us -- is that the relationship begun will not end. We cherish Jesus' words and the strong image of closeness -- "where I am, there you may be also." We who dance and climb, and run, who lie on the grass or sit watching the lateÂnight news, are waiting to be surprised by Jesus' hands over our eyes, and a voice saying, "Guess who?" But how can we rise above the grass, above the living room chair, above this tired or tempting bodyÂlife? How can we enter the pure life of the Spirit to be with Jesus?
Wait. Before you rise up to lose yourself, to let go of earth, to be freed from your downward pull of gravity and your own body, listen -- for Jesus has more to say. Chapter 14 is the beginning of Jesus' last conversation with His disciples, the farewell discourse that comes after they have shared the Passover meal. Jesus moves beyond His opening promise to say some rather startling things. Toward the end of today's reading, Jesus says: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father." [I. John 14:12] If anyone other than Jesus had said those words we would call it blasphemy. Greater works than Jesus? How can that be?
Jesus is not talking about heavenly doings here. Jesus is talking about earth. A bit later in this same chapter, Jesus says, "I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me; because I live, you also will live." Jesus is not speaking of heaven, but of earth. Very soon, Jesus -- as the disciples have seen him and heard him -- will go away. Jesus will not bend down to wash their feet; they will wash each other's feet. They will remember that night when He took the basin and towel when He bent down and surprised them saying, "Guess who?" It was that same night when He said, "A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you."
Jesus promised to be present with the disciples in a different way. "I will ask my Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever." But "forever" was not postponed to a time after death, forever included life on this earth. The Spirit of truth, the Advocate will come here. Jesus' presence will be deeper than memory and closer than heaven. That is, Jesus will forever be messed up with this bodyÂlife, this earthiness which some tell us to discount, even disdain.
Though this promise is surely personal, it is primarily communal. These words are Jesus' last words to the community He has gathered, the community of disciples which would become the Church. Now, I realize that you are not listening to this in church -- you're in an apartment or a house or in your car. You may have no intention of being part of any church (because church is too boring or too destructive or too full of hypocrites or too whatever.) Maybe if the church were pure spirit, it would be more satisfying. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who was hanged for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. In his book Costly Discipleship, he wrote about Christ's body, the church. "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth," he said -- as buildings take up space, also cars, dirt, flowers, rocks, skateboards and people. Then Bonhoeffer goes on, "A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities...that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him." The body of Christ takes up space on the earth. This is more than a spiritual metaphor; it is bodily reality.
Which is why we're are often so dissatisfied with the church: if the church didn't take up space, it (or we) could be more faithful. If it were spiritual instead of earthy, we could do those things Jesus promised the disciples long ago. Still Jesus calls us to claim space on the earth, to remain here, to do the kingdomÂ work begun in Galilee.
Those of us who are part of the Church know we are not what Jesus called us to be. We spend too much and share too little; we judge too many and love too few; we wait too long and act too late. Perhaps you are saying, "Show me a church where ministers aren't selfÂ-serving; where hypocrisy has been purged away; where love is genuine, and I'll become a member." You'll wait a long time, my friend, for such a church takes up no space on this earth. It has floated up, up, up and disappeared beyond Oz. Or perhaps, such a church lives as a memory -- a time when disciples believed, when faith could move mountains, and motives were pure.
In her book Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard writes about such yearnings. She says we tend to get romantic about people in the Bible -- prophets and publicans, tax collectors and disciples.
...as though, of course, God should reveal Himself, if at all, to those people from the Sunday School leaflets. They were simple and faithful, while we now are complex and full of doubt. We are busy. I see now, so were they.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in God's holy space? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth...but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent ancestors are all dead and our children are busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to pressure, and grown exhausted. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.
There is no one but us, not in this time and space. The twelve disciples are gone and heaven is not yet here. I trust Jesus' promise about the dwelling places in God's house, about a future with Jesus which I cannot see. But do I, do you, also trust the promise that the Spirit has come now to this earth? Do we believe that the Spirit continues to call and shape the Church? "Very truly, I tell you," said Jesus, "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father."
Jesus spoke those words to His disciples before He went away from them. Who is listening now? There is no one but us; the body of Christ must claim space on the earth. "Do not let your hearts be troubled." We are not alone -- you and I who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lay on the grass and sit watching the lateÂnight news. We are not alone. The Spirit of truth, the Advocate comes, surprising us at every turn saying...