Jesus in agony
PENTECOST 2018 | Acts 2:1-21; Rom 8:22-27; Jn 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Blaise Pascal was a scientist and theologian in the 17th century—back then, you were allowed to be both. Among his idiosyncrasies was the fact that he had sewn a piece of parchment into his coat, a note that contained his most intimate musings about God. Every time he got a new coat, he would remove the parchment and sew it into his new coat. When he died, a servant found the parchment, which included this very curious line: “Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.”
It’s an odd thing to say, and it begs the question, “WHY is Christ in agony?”
The first reason, according to Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas, is because Jesus is lovesick. Do you remember when you were young and in love, when you couldn't bear to be out of your beloved’s sight for more than a few hours at a time? I sure do. I was in high school, and I was head over heels in love with Kathy Mahalovich, a tall, gangly girl with a freckled nose and oversized glasses who gave me my first real kiss.
I was so lovesick I couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork, I didn’t feel like doing anything but simply be with her. I think I went three straight days without being able to eat a bite. So…it was a great weight loss program! It was also a form of temporary insanity that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Fortunately, it passed, but it was neither fun nor comfortable. It was, however, very real.
In John's Gospel, Jesus has told his disciples that he loves them three times, which is symbolic for perfection, infinity, perpetuity. John is telling his readers that Jesus was desperately in love with the disciples—and by extension, with John’s readers and with us—and that going away grieved Jesus tragically. He cannot wait until the fulfillment of all things, when they can be together again in the general resurrection, once more together in the flesh. “Jesus is in agony” until this promise can be fulfilled.
So, Jesus is lovesick for us, his disciples, but secondly, Jesus is heartsick for the world.
I am a “J” on the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, and I do not mean I am a mild “J,” I mean I am a “J” off the scale. I loathe leaving anything unfinished. If something is hanging, a decision unmade, a course of action undecided upon, or a task yet to be completed, it gives me the hives. There is no feeling on earth as good as a clear TO DO list. It causes me physical pain to be called away from a project, especially when I have only a couple of paragraphs to go. I literally have to be dragged away from my computer. Lisa sometimes must use a crowbar. So if anyone understands the agony of a project left unfinished, I do. I get it. It’s painful.
When we look at the world, though, what do we see? We see an unfinished project. There is simply no other way to see it. I don’t know what God has in mind for the rest of the universe, but the events on this planet are very much in process, they are very much incomplete.
Prejudice and injustice still rule the day. People still die of starvation, not just in Africa or North Korea, but right here in the East Bay. Women are still not paid equal to men. People are still driving vans into crowds of pedestrians. Just this week we had another school shooting in Texas, where ten people died. People still go on shooting rampages and drive vans onto crowded sidewalks. We are still divided from each other by language, by culture, by religion, by politics. We have hair-trigger tempers and leap at every opportunity to take offense.
Whatever God is up to here, IT IS NOT FINISHED.
For the past fifty days, we’ve been celebrating the resurrection. But the resurrection of Jesus did not herald the end of all things, it was just the BEGINNING of the end. It did not accomplish the healing of everything broken, it was the BEGINNING of the healing. It was not the end of tyranny and injustice and death and hell, it was the beginning of tyranny’s downfall, it was the beginning of injustice’s undoing, it was the beginning of death’s destruction, it was the beginning of Hell’s redemption.
On the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In our dramatic reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see the disciples gathered after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, uncertain about their future or even their identity. Their leader was murdered, the miraculously rose from the dead, and then mysteriously abandoned them. And then, just as Jesus promised, the Advocate arrives with the sound like the rush of a violent wind, filling the house. Tongues of fire sprung up from their heads, and they began to speak in languages they did not know.
But the arrival of the Holy Spirit didn’t really start anything and it didn’t finish anything. The Holy Spirit simply picked up the baton from Jesus and carried on. From then on, it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ work would be continued, that the work of healing everything broken would move toward its eventual fulfilment. Part of our healing is rejoicing in a healing larger than our own healing. Part of our redemption is rejoicing in redemption larger than our own redemption. But that larger project is still ongoing.
In grammar, we have a special tense used to denote this kind of action: the progressive imperfect tense. It is progressive because it is ongoing, and it is imperfect because it is not yet complete. And ever since that first Pentecost Sunday whenever God speaks to us, it is in the SPIRIT’S voice that we hear. Whenever Jesus speaks to us, it is the SPIRIT’S voice that we hear—but this is a voice that only speaks in the progressive imperfect tense, because THIS work is ongoing. THIS work is not yet complete.
We often speak of both/and categories in our faith. The kingdom is here AND it is not here. Salvation is accomplished once and for all by Jesus AND we continue to work out our salvation by fear and trembling. Christ is risen AND he is rising—in us and in all that is in the process of being healed, restored, and redeemed.
As I said, I am not comfortable with incomplete actions. I don’t think Jesus is either. And so it is for this reason, too, that “Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.” And Christ is not the only one. Paul says, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” And not just creation—we, too, feel the pain of this incomplete redemption, this unfinished job, this salvation that is STILL COMING. We too, have experienced the pain of injustice and prejudice and cruelty.
Paul says “We wait for [our hope] with patience” [Rom 8:25) but man, that’s hard. It hurts SO much. And that is EXACTLY why the Holy Spirit has been sent into our hearts, crying out "Abba!" (Rom 5:5). That is exactly why the Holy Spirit is called “the Comforter.” That is exactly why the Holy Spirit arrived on that Pentecost Day and has never left us. That is why the Holy Spirit has been our constant companion, the breath of God in our bodies, the wisdom of God in our minds, the presence of God in our midst.
We sing, “Come, Holy Spirit,” but she is already here. We say, “Spirit be near,” but she already is. We say, “comfort us,” but she has never ceased to do so, from the moment she first arrived heralded by wind and fire.
The Holy Spirit is the one who holds us, heals us, soothes us, enlivens us, and gives us hope. The Holy Spirit is the scrap of parchment sewn into our coats, to remind us that God has not abandon us. She is the whisper we hear when we feel the most alone. It is she that lights the candle in the dark, to keep us from stumbling. When things are grim and we are tempted to despair, it is she who reminds us that dawn is coming, and promises that our mourning will be turned into dancing. Let us pray…
Jesus, we love you and we miss you.
Every day our heart cries out with our longing, for we long to be with you again in the flesh.
Every day our heart cries out with our longing justice and peace,
and we long for the day when evil and violence will be put down like a rabid dog.
But until that time, until you host that great feast at the end of time,
that great feast when we will grab hold of you again, and you will not say, “Don’t cling to me,”
but instead will say, “never let me go, my love”—until that time,
we give you thanks for the Spirit, who holds us and nurtures us and comforts us and urges us on
even in our waiting, even in our groaning, even in our lovesick stupor as we wait for your return.
Fill us with her, satisfy us with her presence, and let her be enough for us…for now. Amen.