The Friendly Ghost
Sixth Sunday after Easter - Year A
April 27, 2008
Sixth Sunday after Easter - Year A
April 27, 2008
Let us pray: O God, guide my words and use them, that they may tell of you with praise and thanksgiving. Amen.
Let’s play connect the dots for a moment. Dot One - you probably know that I’ve been attracted to a paraphrase of the bible called The Message as translated by Eugene Peterson. If you want a readable and accessible version of the bible I recommend it. I wouldn’t rely on it for accuracy to the original text, but Peterson has a way of capturing the story and presenting it in a way that has a homey attraction. He also often has a way shedding light on difficult passages. The Message version of today’s gospel reading translates the word Advocate - as used in the language accurate New Revised Standard - as Friend.
Dot Two - when I was a kid, the trinity was most often referred to as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In fact, a vivid memory of this time in my life, is singing the well known Doxology with the old words: Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Now don’t get me wrong - I’m not recommending a return to the traditional here at all. I much prefer the new words that we commonly sing as the Doxology. The patriarchal language is gone, and there is no longer a reference to that most interesting of images - the Holy Ghost. In fact, I think it was something of a frightening image to me in my younger years. Not the stuff of nightmares, but still a curiously disturbing concept. You see, we were trained to be afraid of ghosts, or at least doubt their existence. And yet there we were in church each week, singing praise to a Holy Ghost. I think you can see why that phraseology has gone away, to be replaced more often with the term Holy Spirit.
Dot Three - around the same time of my life when I was singing praise to the Holy Ghost I was watching Saturday morning cartoons. One of my favourites was a cartoon that in part tried to redeem the scary nature of ghosts. I’m sure if you are of the same generation as me, you will recall the adventures of Casper, the friendly ghost. Even if you don’t remember it as animated Saturday morning fare, you may have seen the 1995 movie, following a trend of turning baby boomer cartoon favourites into feature length movies - probably to appeal to nostalgic boomers wanting to recapture their childhood bliss.
Having read the gospel passage this week in “The Message” I was intrigued by the description of the helper as promised by Jesus as a “friend”. I like it, but I also like the description in the New Revised Standard Version - advocate. At once this shows the promise and peril of reading different bible translations. Some renditions may make certain passages much more understandable or appealing, but they also may make for a diversion from the original meaning of the text. Do you agree with me, that there is quite a difference between a friend and an advocate? I can see common characteristics, but I also see a difference and the difference points out the importance of reading more than one version.
The same goes for the difference between the word spirit and ghost. I’m sure in a certain time the word “ghost” did not hold the same kind of meaning as it did for me in my childhood. Even such things as cartoon characters have a hand in changing our perception. A whimsical, fun-seeking, friendly ghost like Casper, probably had a conscious or sub-conscious effect on me and my response to the holy ghost that I sang about on Sundays. Perhaps that holy ghost was not quite as scary because there was also a friendly ghost with which I could compare it. Well, perhaps there’s a master’s thesis in there somewhere, or perhaps a book about the theological implications of Casper, the friendly ghost as a metaphor for the holy ghost. After all, if Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie merit the book “The Gospel according to the Simpsons”, surely Casper deserves some recognition.
The point of this connecting of dots and my little walk down memory-lane is to demonstrate the importance of context. Our response to the biblical record is defined by the experiences we’ve had in life, the words we use in everyday conversation and our social and cultural milieu.
The passage from John’s gospel that we heard this morning is very often used as one of the scripture readings at funeral and memorial services. Here the promise of an advocate or friend is a very reassuring one, especially when the promise comes in the midst of Jesus’ farewell speech to his friends the disciples. People who are in the midst of grief want to be reassured in two different ways - one that they will be comforted in the midst of their pain and sorrow and one that their loved one who has passed from earthly life into the realm of life after death will be cared for. The verses we read today are but part of a longer discourse of Jesus, beginning with the very comforting words - in God’s house there are many rooms, and I am going there to prepare a room for you. I cannot begin to tell you how helpful those words can be to someone left to mourn the death of a loved one. In a few short verses they offer the needed reassurance. As if to seal the reassurance, Jesus continues with the words of today’s reading. I will send you a helper - an advocate, a friend, the spirit of truth, who will live in you. You won’t have to reach out further than your hand can reach or further than your mind can imagine, you won’t have to do that to be in touch with God’s presence - for God, the spirit, the holy spirit will be in you, closer than the breath you take, and closer than the skin, bones and muscles that comprise your frame. I am reminded of the choral response written by Jim Strathdee - the same person who wrote today’s other spirited response Dance with the Spirit. The one I’m thinking of goes like this: we’ve sung it here before: The spirit in me greets the spirit in you, alleluia. God’s in us and we’re in God, alleluia.
A common theme across the Sundays in this season of Easter has been resurrection appearances. These appearances range from the hard-to-fathom transcendent nature of resurrection, to an extremely intimate connection. The cosmic Christ points us to God who is beyond our understanding, leading us to imagine beyond ourselves, seeking connection with even part of creation and its creator in a cosmos which goes out beyond our knowledge or ability to imagine and which goes within just as infinitely. But Jesus also points us to God who is close at hand, dwelling within us, in you and in me, leading us to live the resurrection with our lives, causing us to dance with the spirit and the way in which it inspires our lives and leads us to work and hope for a new world and a new life. This is the immanent nature of God - the spirit in me that greets the spirit in you. Transcendent and immanent - the dual nature of God’s presence in our lives and in the world. Today’s promise is that immanent one - the helper, the friend, the advocate, the spirit of truth within us. Friendly ghost? If that description works for you, why not? Amen.