In an article titled, “Of Resurrection and Spiritual Communion,” in the May 4, 2020 Covenant, the Living Church online blog, the theologian Dr. Elizabeth Anderson explored a particularly post-modern problem which has emerged from the forced Eucharistic fast imposed by sheltering due to the pandemic. The two positions come from those who mythologize the Resurrection into some sort of eternal presence*, and the literalists who want to see Jesus’ rising as more of a resuscitation than a transformation into a body of a different kind. She says, “The Gospel accounts seem keen to stress that Jesus is not simply a ghost, or a figment of anyone’s imagination, or merely a felt presence. He can be touched; he still bears his wounds.” She goes on to suggest that post-modernists assume that real things are physical things. That relegates spiritual things to anything from metaphor to a disturbed imagination. But ancient and Medieval theologians understood that spiritual realities were “true because they were spiritually true, and material things reached their perfection in being united and conformed to that more fundamental spiritual reality,” and not individual subjective experiences. Her article pivots to the current debate about spiritual communion via live streaming and the like. But I would like to stop here, with the question about the reality of the spirit world.
If we believe in the Holy Spirit, such that Jesus isn’t merely a teacher of some good ideas and the Spirit is a cultural artifact to remind us of this teaching, but that Jesus is the incarnate Son of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is both spirit and real, then we must believe in other spirits and other gods. It isn’t for naught that much New Testament Scripture deals with spirits, ones which cause illness or demoniac seizures, and Satan, who tempts Jesus in the desert, and is a powerful being, a trickster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Spirits are real. If they are not, the whole foundation of Christianity has just been demoted to a New Age cult of love and butterflies. Not the overwhelming notion that God poured out himself into humanity to die for our sins, and returned with such overwhelming love for us that, no matter what happens to us in this world, we can be saved, forgiven, brought forth in a new body, a new life, for all eternity. And as an aside, while post-modern Christians are shedding all that superstitious stuff, the neo-pagan magicians and witches are totally on board with the view of the spiritual world’s reality, spells, signs, and all, a view which they share with Scripture, the first Christians, and early church Fathers and Mothers.
Which brings us to the two readings for today’s Eucharistic liturgy, Acts 14:5-18 and John 14:21-26. I just love the reading from Acts. Paul and Barnabas, once more on the run, are in Lystra, a Roman colony in Anatolia. Paul sees a boy crippled from birth, but with faith to be healed. And he heals him. The crowds are astonished, and call Barnabas “Jupiter” and Paul “Hermes.” A priest of Zeus comes with an ox to sacrifice to them. Paul shouts, denying this, and despite his preaching the Gospel, the crowd are barely restrained from sacrificing the ox. And I can just picture them, waving their arms, shouting in every language they knew, “No, no, we are not gods. Stop.” It makes me laugh. But the theological point is that the notion of the One Living God in and through Jesus is not an easy one to grasp if your culture has always had simple, if not very useful, gods who are more like Roman patrons than the Holy One of Israel or of his Son, Jesus the Christ.
Turning to John 14: 21-31, even Jesus’ own disciples don’t get it. They are blind, or kept blind until given the Holy Spirit, as to the reality of Jesus as the Son of the Father. Verse 21, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them,” is not a suggestion. It is a commandment. And the fruits of obedience to that commandment open the heart and eyes to see and love Jesus. Still, his own can’t wrap their heads around this new reality. Thomas asked Jesus to be shown the way, as in map directions, missing the point that Jesus is the way (Jn 14:5). Philip has asked Jesus to be shown the Father (Jn 14:8). Now it is Judas’ (the other one) turn. “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world? (Jn 14:22).” St. John Chrysostom writes about verse 22, “See how [the Apostle’s] soul was oppressed with fear? He was confounded and troubled, thinking that he would see Jesus as a dead man the way we see people in a dream.” While I don’t think that this was fear, what is surprising is Jesus’ reply. The Rev. Dr. William Countryman, in The Mystical Way of the Fourth Gospel says, “Jesus replies with an “inappropriate response,” which seems at first to have nothing to do with Judas’ question. Yet it is the only possible answer to it. Jesus will show himself to the believers alone because they are the only ones who can see (p. 104).” Two critical points lie here. First, Jesus does not come back as a ghost. That is what all those eating-with-Jesus stories are about. The dead don’t eat. That he is often not recognized points to the metaphysical change which we are to expect at the End Time. The second point is that only believers can see Jesus. Jesus has over and over told them that he is in the Father, that if you see him you see the Father, that they are one, that all he says comes from his familial intimacy with and from the Father. And even then, they don’t get it. This is both a stumbling block and the gate to faith.
And that brings us back to the post-modern deconstruction of the reality of spirit. As much as I appreciate the post-modern German theologians when they suggest that God is mutable, changeable, they are wrong. If their prayerful insight explains the inexplainable in new ways, well and good. But God, I AM, does not change, although we might be given different visions of him at different times. As a collect for Compline says, “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 133).” Without that changeless God, what rest is there in this chaotic, ever changing world? It has to stop someplace. That changelessness supersedes exploding stars, black holes, quantum entanglement, and other things we also do not understand. but accept as real. Equally or more real is Jesus dying on the Cross to redeem us from our sins and rising to defeat death.
If what Anderson suggested does obtain in the modern world, we have sold the farm. If the spiritual is a metaphor or self-delusion, a phantasm in a REM state of sleep, and not real, the entire foundation of Christianity is destroyed. Yes, only the faithful can see him, and love him, but we are all called to be the faithful. Pray. Keep the faith. We wait for Pentecost.
* I would speculate that is the basis of “spiritual but not religious,” but which perhaps would make us want to be social reformers.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.