Sunday, May 15, 2016

Standing with an Army

Solemnity of Pentecost (C)

When I’m with you, when I’m with you,
I’m standing with an army, I’m standing with an army…

My dear friends, do any of you find these lines familiar? I have to confess that, since hearing them not too long ago, I have found them quite difficult to forget. They are taken, as you know, from a song released some months ago, entitled Army. Written and performed by the talented English singer and songwriter, Ellie Goulding. The song is a moving tribute to the power of friendship.

Now I’m no expert. But there are three themes in the song that I find particularly striking. Three aspects, if you like, of the power of friendship. The first of these is presence. As we find, for example, in these lines:

I know that I've been messed up.
You never let me give up.
All the nights and the fights,
And the blood and the breakups.
You're always there to call up.
I'm a pain, I'm a child, I'm afraid,
But yet you understand.

Isn’t this the kind of friendship we all want? The kind we dream about? The kind where you know that your friend is somehow always there for you. Even if s/he may not actually be around. For you know that, wherever your friend may happen to be, s/he is really only a call away. And it doesn’t matter even if you consider yourself a nuisance. Or childish. Or if you’re scared. Your friend understands. Remains by your side. A constant reassuring presence. Even in absence.

A reassuring presence. This, however, is not the only blessing that friendship brings. A second is the power of resistance. True friendship helps you to resist. Resist what? Well, how about those insistent voices in your head? Telling you you’re not good enough. Or the hurtful comments of the crowd? Persuading you that you’ll never measure up. Or the destructive influences of the world? Deceiving you into thinking that you must make something of yourself in order to be loved. True friendship gives you the power to resist all these insidious pressures:

We both know what they say about us.
But they don't stand a chance because,
When I'm with you… I’m standing with an army…

True friendship gives us the strength to withstand harmful influences. But that’s not all. There is at least one more positive aspect to the power of friendship. In addition to presence and resistance, friendship also gives us the power of connection. Not just connection between friends. But even beyond. Why do you think that Ellie Goulding’s song is so popular? Why can’t I seem to get it out of my head? Could it be that, quite apart from it having a catchy tune, there is also a power to its message? People can connect with what is described in it. Even if they haven’t experienced it themselves. It is something for which they yearn. Deeply. To experience the power of true friendship. The power of presence. Of resistance. Of connection.

And isn’t this very much like what we are celebrating today? On this solemn feast of Pentecost? In the gospel, Jesus speaks of the relationship between his disciples and himself as being so close, that he and the Father will be forever present to them. In the Holy Spirit. If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him. These lines, as you know, are taken from chapter 14 of John’s gospel. Later, in chapter 15, Jesus will speak of this same relationship  as one between friends. I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father (v. 15). Friendship with the Lord. Giving us the power to constantly experience his presence. Even in absence.

In the second reading, St. Paul makes a sharp distinction between spiritual and unspiritual things. Things that lead to the fullness of life. And things that lead to destruction. And Paul somehow assumes that all disciples of Jesus have already received the power to resist the unspiritual. And to embrace the spiritual. There is no necessity for us to obey our unspiritual selves or to live unspiritual lives. If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put an end to the misdeeds of the body you will live.

Paul believes that it is by the Spirit that we are able to put an end to the misdeeds of the body. It is in and by the Spirit of friendship with Jesus that we receive the power of resistance. And not just resistance. But also connection. For Paul goes on to say that the Spirit enables us to make that most basic and crucial of all connections. The connection with our heavenly Father. The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’

In the first reading we find, in the experience of the first Pentecost, a broadening of this power of connection. What the Spirit of brings is not just the ability to relate to God. But also to connect with people who speak languages different from our own. Surely all these men speaking are Galileans? How does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language? The ability to communicate–not just with our words, but also especially with our lives–in such a way as to enable others to understand the good news of Jesus. And not just to understand. But to be moved. To be evangelised. To be saved.

Friendship with Jesus gives disciples the ability to experience the power of his presence, in the Holy Spirit. Which then enables us to resist all that would harm us. And also to connect. Not just with the heavenly Father. But also with all those to whom the Father sends us. To proclaim the good news. To bear witness to love of Christ. To usher into the friendship of God.

Friendship leading to presence, and resistance, and connection. This is what we celebrate today. This is the power that the Spirit brings at Pentecost. A power for which we all yearn so deeply. Whether we care to admit it or not. A power that many often seek in all the wrong places. In smartphones and computer screens. In financial markets and corporate structures. In relationships characterised by deception and domination. A power that is actually already given to us. By the Father. Through the Dying and Rising of the Son. In the Holy Spirit. A power that we have spent these seven weeks of the Easter Season to ponder. To celebrate. And to claim for our own.

Not long after the release of Army, Ellie Goulding tweeted a message to her fans. Telling them about Hannah. The best friend for whom she had written her song. Here are some lines from that tweet:

The person who has seen me at my lowest and the first person I call in muffled sobs when something bad happens. We've been deliriously happy together, deliriously tired and deliriously sad together. I wanted to show our friendship for what it really is–honest, real, electric…. We open our hearts up and take risks, but together we are more powerful than ever. We are challenged every day but we see it through and sometimes it feels like we can conquer anything. When I'm with you, I'm standing with an army.

My dear friends, as we bring the Easter Season to a close, what must we do to continue standing in the friendship of the Lord? To continue standing in the power of his Spirit? To continue standing with an army, today?

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