May God take our minds and think through them.
May God take our lips and speak through them.
May God take our hands and work through them.
May God take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
“We are in unprecedented times.” How often have you heard or read that or a similar phrase over the last two months? We are living through something none of us could have imagined a year ago, an economic collapse deeper than the Great Depression, a disease that is devastating in its effects, with no cure or vaccination. For us as Christians, we are not able to worship together, to celebrate or receive the Eucharist.
But I’m a historian, a historian of Christianity, and when someone says something like “we are living in unprecedented times” I want to examine that. Indeed, many have reached back to the past in search of parallels to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, or to the Black Plague of the 14th century. Certainly as we think about the future of Christianity, the future of the church, the future of the Diocese of Milwaukee, we might think about how Christians have responded to techtonic cultural shifts like the fall of the Roman empire in the West, or the Protestant Reformation. We sense that the things have shifted dramatically, perhaps even permanently, and the roadmap into the future isn’t clear at all.
As I’ve thought about our situation in these months of COVID-19, I find myself returning to the story of Japan’s hidden Christians. You may be familiar with part of it. During the sixteenth century, as Spanish and Portuguese explorers sailed across the globe, Christian missionaries sailed with them and followed in their paths. Jesuit missionaries like St. Francis Xavier who first went to the Portuguese colony of Goa in India, then to the Philippines and Japan. He died there while preparing for a trip to China. In Japan, Jesuit and Franciscan priests converted thousands before Christianity was outlawed around the end of the sixteenth century. The story of the martyrdom of some of those priests is powerfully told in Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s Silence, which Martin Scorsesemade into a film a few years ago. If you know the story, that’s probably where it ends.
But the story didn’t end there for Japanese Christians. The faithful went underground. They maintained their faith in secret for the next 250 years. Over the centuries of isolation, they developed and adapted Christian rituals to their situation. With no priests, no Eucharist, they continued to practice their faith as best they could. After Japan was opened by Western traders in the 19th century, and Christian missionaries returned, Catholic priests were shocked when native Christians came out of hiding; there were perhaps as many as 30,000. Their faith, their persistence against great odds and at great risk to their lives, remains a powerful witness to us.
As I think about our situation, all of the fear and uncertainty, the challenges that face us, and as I think about all of the challenges faced by Christians seeking to be faithful to God over the last two thousand years, the words of today’s gospel reading provide comfort, encouragement, and admonition. We are again, still, reading from the lengthy farewell discourse in John’s gospel, still at the Last Supper with the disciples and Jesus. Jesus is preparing his beloved friends for his departure—for his crucifixion and resurrection.
“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” Jesus and the gospel writer are talking about the Holy Spirit here. They use a word here that is unique to this gospel and significantly deepens our understanding of the Holy Spirit—the word in its Anglicized form is “Paraclete,” literally the one who comes alongside us—and advocate in the sense of the one who pleads our case, takes our side, is perhaps the best translation possible. There are other English words that have been used: Comforter, Encourager.
When we think of “advocate” we are apt to think of a court of law, the advocate who pleads our case before a judge. And so when we hear the word used hear, we might think that the Spirit is the Advocate on our behalf before God. There’s no doubt some truth in this—the Holy Spirit as the one who pleads on our behalf to God when we have fallen short, when we have failed to love Christ and keep his commandments as the first verse in our reading tells us.
But there are other ways to think of the Spirit as Advocate. Sometimes, the Spirit comes alongside us and pleads God’s case to us, reminding us who we are as disciples of Jesus, beloved by God and by Jesus, as followers of Jesus called to love him, each other, and the world. It’s easy when there are so many other messages being sent in our world, when the language of fear and despair and hate dominates our world and burrows into our minds, to lose hope and to lose sight of the one who has called us into new life and relationship, the one who has called us to love. Especially now, the Spirit, the Advocate may strengthen us and guide us on the perilous journey that lies ahead.
We can be sure that comes what may, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be with us, guiding us, leading us, comforting us. We needn’t lose heart, or lose our way. We may wish we could go back, we may long for the past, but the Advocate is leading us forward into the future.
There’s another chapter to the story of Japan’s Hidden Christians. When the Christian missionaries came in the 1850s most of the underground Christians came out and embraced the opportunity to worship freely, to receive the sacraments, to learn about the faith they and their ancestors had sought to follow without leadership for 250 years. But some of those indigenous Christians, as they encountered this new and strange Catholic Christianity, became afraid and went back to their villages and homes, turned their backs on the foreigners’ faith and church and instead continued to follow the traditions and rituals that had developed. Fear conquered them; they preferred a familiar past to a new and different future. I encountered this story via a documentary by Chrystal Whelan: Otaiua: Japan’s Hidden Christians.
We are living in the midst of a crisis and we know that there is no map for the journey that lies ahead. Nonetheless we are not alone. The Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide is walking with us, leading us into the future, assuring us of God’s presence and the love of Christ. Thanks be to God.