Texts: John 14:15-17; Acts 1:6-14
Last Friday the New York Times published an essay titled “We aren’t built to live in the moment.” The authors point out that none of the things we’ve previously proposed that set humans apart from other animals actually do. It turns out language, tools, cooperation, and culture aren’t unique to us.
But, they argue, there is a defining characteristic that sets us, humanity, apart: “We contemplate the future.” They write: “Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to ‘commencement’ speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.”
The essay goes on to weave insights from psychology, brain science, and various forms of therapy to make its case. Much more than looking back at the past, we seem to direct most of our mental energy toward anticipating the future and adjusting our behavior accordingly. We do the things we do and feel the things we feel because of the kind of future we anticipate, sometimes the one just seconds ahead, sometimes years and decades.
Our future mindedness impacts even the way we form and reform memory. Rather than being an archive of past events that remain stagnant, the brain has a way of continually rewriting history. New contexts, and the kind of future we anticipate add fresh content to past events and change the way we remember them. The essay states: “The fluidity of memory may seem like a defect, especially to a jury, but it serves a larger purpose. It’s a feature, not a bug, because the point of memory is to improve our ability to face the present and the future. To exploit the past, we metabolize it by extracting and recombining relevant information to fit novel situations.”
These authors propose that our gaze is a forward gaze, even when we seem to be looking back, and that’s what makes us uniquely human.
The essay comes out at the same time we are pondering this text from John 14, when Jesus is speaking to his disciples, anticipating his own death. It was the lectionary reading for last week, but since we asked our new members to give commentary on their own faith journey rather than an exegetical study of the day’s lection, we’re carrying the John 14 passage forward into this week alongside this week’s lection of Jesus’s ascension in Acts 1.
With his crucifixion looming just days away, a future Jesus has already determined he will not avoid, he tells his companions he will send them the Spirit of truth, to be with them forever. The Spirit gets referenced in all kinds of ways throughout Scripture, but here it’s specifically referred to as the Spirit of truth.
In a time when we are discovering the fluidity of memory, we also seem to be encountering the fluidity of truth.
Truth is getting a lot of press these days. It’s made its way from the Religion section to the front page. A few years back Steven Colbert proposed the term “truthiness” as a sign of the times. More recently, commentators have wondered whether we are in a post-truth society where alternative facts, fake news, and pure opinion rule the day.
So when John tells of Jesus offering the Spirit of truth, it has a fresh kind of urgency to it.
The word truth appears over 100 times throughout the Greek New Testament. It’s a common word. But I somehow missed until this past week what the word evokes. It goes all the way back to Greek mythology. So, on this Ascension Sunday, when Jesus rose into heaven, please come with me on a very brief tour of Hades, which I’m sure, is the reason you came to church today. Hopefully it will help us discover something about the truth.
In Greek mythology, there are multiple rivers in the underworld of Hades. Of these, the river Styx has the most name recognition, aided by the 70’s rock band that took on that name. The river Styx served as the boundary between Earth and the underworld, the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. In the Greek imagination, the newly deceased were ferried across the river Styx to the entrance of the underworld.
Another river within Hades was the Lethe, and this is reason for the brief tour. Its waters were shallow, not for ferrying, but for drinking. The Lethe was the river of forgetfulness. The dead would line up along its shores and were required to drink from the Lethe in order to forget the life they had just lived. The Lethe was a meandering, murmuring river, peaceful. When one departed the earthly life, its waters wiped away memories both painful and joyful.
This concludes our brief tour of Hades.
John writes that Jesus offers his followers “The Spirit of truth.” The Greek word for truth is alethea. The prefix “a” is a negative, as in “un” or “non.” It negates whatever comes after it. A-lethea. And we know what lethe means. We were just there. It’s that river of forgetfulness. It’s where you drink to forget what it has meant to be alive. Truth, a-letheia, means the undoing of forgetfulness. To do truth is to un-forget. The Spirit of truth is the spirit of un-forgetting. It negates the ultimate negator: forgetfulness.
Built into this concept of truth is the understanding that there is a wide stream of forgetfulness that flows not just through the land of the dead, but the land of the living. Well before we breathe our last, we all drink from the river Lethe.
We forget who we are. We forget where we come from. We forget where we belong, and that we belong. Not to mention we increasingly forget where we put our keys, but that’s another story.
In forgetting, our consciousness gets colonized by whatever is around to tell us who we are. To tell us where we belong, or that we don’t.
And so here’s where we seem to be. We are creatures who are future minded. We contemplate and anticipate the future like no other animal. These abilities have brought us to the point we are now in history. They impact how we go about our days. Even our past experiences can be shaped and molded by the kind of future we imagine. Even what I’m saying now was put down with thought toward how it might relate to what might come next. Our gaze is a forward gaze, however subtle it might be.
And yet we have been given the Spirit that would have us not forget. The Spirit of a-lethea, the Spirit of truth. “It will be with you always,” Jesus said. It speaks of a reality that undergirds and makes possible everything else. It preserves and seasons and enriches and guides. It keeps us from forgetting what we must not forget in order to truly live.
So where does the Spirit of truth direct our gaze? Is it a gaze backyard, forward, always both at the same time? Is it working against or with our tendency to always be glancing ahead?
There’s another gaze going on in the Acts scripture for today. It’s the one of the disciples gazing up into heaven. Jesus had been appearing to them off and on after his Easter resurrection, but this is the final time. He leaves them by ascending up into the heavens. And they’re left there gazing up.
This story is a cosmological conundrum for us living on the other side of the Copernican revolution. We no longer conceive of our world as a three tiered universe: the earth and underworld surrounded below by the deep seas, and above by the heavens. In a universe in which we’re no longer in the center, up extends out in all directions depending on where you’re standing on the round earth, and satellites are yet to locate a place called heaven, it’s tempting to get hung up in the disconnect between premodern and contemporary ways of making sense of the world. Ways of speaking truth.
What’s the truth here the author is trying to communicate? What must the disciples and we not forget about who Jesus was and is in order to live truthful lives?
Just as the underworld played a key part in the pre-modern mind for the meaning of death, the heavens played a key part for the meaning of life. What happened in the heavens had direct impact on the land of the living. Whoever was or wasn’t exerting influence up there played itself out it what happened down here.
This story of the ascension has brought theologians to speak of the Cosmic Christ. The Christ who was in the beginning, is now, and will continue to be. The Christ who Jesus embodied, but is not limited to the short lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth. The ascension means that everything Jesus represented: mercy, healing, boundary shattering love, relentless truth telling, is a force making itself available to the universe on a cosmic scale. It has ascended, or to put it in more philosophical language, it permeates the very fabric of Being itself. It is cosmic.
But most of the time we don’t live on a cosmic scale. We live in our earth bound fleshy bodies, oriented toward our little future, trying not to forget. We wake up each morning to the first day of the rest of our lives and do what we need to do for the day’s work. We gaze back, we gaze up, we gaze forward.
In a world permeated by the cosmic Christ, with the Spirit of truth ever with us, the living of our days hold out the possibility of being enriched from all directions. To un-forget that we are first and foremost beloved children of God. To live into a future in which the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven. To consider that we, like the disciples, are witnesses to all this. To participate, even in small ways, in this great cosmic unfolding.