John 15:26-27; 16:4-15
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below. / We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / In Flanders fields. / Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.” May, 1915; Lt. Col. John McCrae
The torch is passed…generation to generation. “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” The foe may change names and faces and tactics…but the quarrel remains. It is a fact of this fallen world. The quarrel remains. The living may not have asked for the quarrel, anymore than did they who fell. But to abandon the quarrel, to leave it unaddressed…oh, that is to break faith with those who have gone before, to break faith with those who fell, giving “the last full measure of devotion.”
It is to break faith with them, and to render their sacrifice meaningless. As Mr. Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “It is for us, the living…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Oh, how different is that spirit than ours today. How very different the spirit which inspired those words, than the animating, decimating spirit which fills our day with such cries of self interest. One fears for the future. For what will come of a people who are so quick, so heated in their talk of “me,” and so very cool and distant toward any talk of “we”? What will become of us…in this world…in the Church?
Col. McCrae wrote that the dead will not sleep if we break faith with them…aye, but what of us? What of us? And what of those who come after us? Indeed, how peaceful will be anyone’s sleep…if we fail to take up that quarrel with the foe?
This Gospel Reading for Pentecost in John 15 & 16 contains the longest sustained discussion about the Holy Spirit in all the Gospels. It is also one of the most difficult passages to grasp. Jesus is passing the torch. The setting is the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday. Jesus is now preparing to give the last full measure of His devotion to the Father. The great battle is at hand, Armageddon, the cross.
And there in that Upper Room, like soldiers huddled in a foxhole, or as at Flanders, hunkered down in a trench waiting for that dread whistle to send them “over the top,” the disciples are not entirely sure they want to take up this torch. Now that the ancient quarrel with the foe is passing from Jesus to them, well…their hearts are sorely troubled!
Oh yes, there’s also a good bit of bravado, as often happens before the shooting starts. Peter nosily tells the others that he’s willing to die for Jesus. And the others, not to be outdone, all chime in, “Me too! Me too!” There’s a lot of chest thumping from this band of brothers.
But once the shooting starts, once things begin to explode all around them, as God begins sifting out the hearts of these men…well, it becomes a very, very different picture. And the disciples break faith and run, every man for himself.
But Jesus knows this. He knows them. So He also tells them, a little later in this passage, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Now the battle is at hand, but one day the peace. Now it is the quarrel, but one day the resolution. Now it is Good Friday, but Easter comes. And then, Pentecost passes the torch to them, to us…and a fire that burns with both the quarrel and its peace.
This is what makes Pentecost and the work of the Holy Spirit so much more profound than all the hand-clapping, drum-banging, Hallelujah-whooping and hollering that gets associated with the Day of Pentecost. You cannot measure the Spirit by the decibels in worship or by the fever of the preacher or by the passionate boldness of the people. The fire of the Holy Spirit is a very different fire in the belly…
It is the Holy Spirit, sent from the Father, through Jesus the Son, who fires us for the quarrel with the foe. Jesus says, “He [the Spirit] will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Spirit will reveal the lay of the land, how the battlefield is laid out. He will show where wrong and right and judgment all lie.
But the quarrel with the foe is so very intense because the world will not recognize the Spirit’s jurisdiction. The world calls evil good and good evil. The world calls sin righteous and righteousness sin. And the world has a thousand and one ways to crucify anyone, including Jesus, who dares to convict it concerning right and wrong and judgment.
So who is sufficient for the torch passed to us from the hand of Jesus? Who is sufficient to bear that torch passed from generation to generation, from the hands of martyrs fallen in witness to the faith, to the hands of those who have shaped the path of history in faith, passed now into our own hands. Who is sufficient to take up the quarrel with the foe, especially these days when it is far easier, and far, far more popular just to make a lot of noise and bang on drums!
Who is sufficient? No one. Not the Twelve. Not us. But…when Jesus passes that torch, He passes Himself with it. And the Spirit, sent into the world on Pentecost comes through the Son, bearing the sufficiency of that Son to us. “He will glorify Me,” Jesus promises. “For He will take what is Mine and declare it [give it] to you.”
Which means, yes, Jesus’ quarrel with the foe is now become our quarrel. But the passing torch also means that with the Spirit, Jesus’ peace is also ours, and all that that means. The peace, the promises, the presence, and at the end, the resurrection.
“You cannot bear this now,” Jesus recognized in the Upper Room. It is too much. But when He comes, when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, as He did in our Baptism, He will guide us, teach us, fire us…as He has done for all those who have gone before us.
And when we fall, He will lift us up. When our tongues grow silent with fear, He will give us new speech. When our hands grow weak with meaninglessness, He will give us new strength. And when our own flesh betrays us with selfish cowardice, He will embolden us once again with the fire even to lay down our lives to pass the torch to the next hand. And by the Spirit who gives us the fire of Christ, that Holy Spirit also gives us the life of Christ—though we die, yet shall we live.
In Ezekiel’s strange vision there is no hope in the valley of dry bones; no hope, until God acts by His Word. When God speaks through His prophet, the bones become incarnate, covered with flesh. When God speaks by His prophet, the incarnate bones are inspired with the breath, the Spirit of God. It’s a profound vision, not only for Israel, but also for the Israel of the Church in this world.
The quarrel with the foe leaves us fragmented like those bones, scattered and parched. The quarrels with the foe come by warfare, they come by our politics, our economy; all the quarrels both great and small, in the public square and in the privacy of our homes…the quarrels which fragment us and dry up the marrow of life.
Pentecost 2012 finds the floor of the valley, our own Flanders field, littered with bones. Our bones. The Church’s bones. The world’s bones. Can these bones live? Can our bones even take up the torch, let alone hand on what has been passed to us? O Lord, You know!
“Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest!” Rattle our bones. Draw us together, bone to bone. Clothe us in the flesh of Christ and breathe again into our nostrils the breath of God, that we may take up the quarrel with the foe…in all its forms.
“Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord.” Quicken us that we may again dedicate ourselves to the great task of love toward the Church and for the world, the task of love which lies before us.
“Holy Spirit, ever dwelling…ever living…ever binding Age to age and soul to soul,” come, work in us…work in us…that those who have died, that those who have labored long before us, shall not have done so in vain.