(Based in part on a sermon by Chuck Currie of the United Church of Christ, and on commentary by Karoline Lewis.)
The question is – what do the disciples need to hear from Jesus now? For that matter, what do we need to hear? Jesus’ followers have already heard a lot from him. However he knows his time is short. He knows just how much they don’t yet understand. And how much help they’ll need. So what is essential for his followers to hear?
Today’s passage from John puts us back in time before the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus is telling the disciples that tragedy awaits him, that one of them will betray him, and that there will soon be a time when he will not be with them in the same way he is now.
It puts me in mind of the doctor explaining the sure and certain side effects of radiation and chemotherapy while at the same time assuring me that it would no doubt save my life.
Nevertheless all this bad news is set in the context of reassurance. Jesus tells the disciples that they will not be abandoned by God as events unfold. That God will send an advocate that will help not only them but future generations to discern the will of God as issues and problems arise. This advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be the voice of God with us, the voice of Jesus with us, and thus we will never be alone.
The Holy Spirit. Some years ago I went to a clergy gathering where Phyllis Tickle was the featured speaker. (Lorraine, you might have been there.) Tickle was a college teacher, an academic dean, a writer and a publisher. She was esteemed as an authority on religion in America. In her church she was a lector and a lay Eucharistic minister. What stuck with me the most about what she said is the idea that in Old Testament times the focus was on God. God created. God rescued. God led. God guided. As we transition to New Testament times, the focus is on Jesus. Jesus comes. Jesus loves. Jesus saves. Tickle suggested that once again the focus has shifted. That we are now in the Era of the Holy Spirit.
We believe in God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. And. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son, is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
The Old and New Testaments make us, I think, fairly secure in our understanding of the Father and of the Son. But the Holy Spirit might be another matter. We recognize God the Creator through divine actions. We can picture Jesus in action because we read the details. But the Holy Spirit, skipping around in flames over the heads of the disciples in a closed room is quite another matter. Kind of a – spooky sort of thing.
When we repeat the words of the creed, we assert that we believe they’re true. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit. Yet the Holy Spirit is a mystery. Jesus himself seems to struggle with an explanation when he says: “The Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).
One thing I learned early in my teaching career is that it’s OK if we do not know. Of course I did want my kids to learn how to write a coherent essay. I wanted them to remember that the Civil War preceded WWI. I wanted them to know their vocabulary, to know how to conjugate regular and irregular verbs.
But I also wanted them to be comfortable with questions that were challenging – especially those “why” questions. Why are there two Spanish words for swimming pool? Or, closer to home, the questions from my refugee kids like, “Why, when I have change coming in the grocery store, do they put the money down on the counter – but when somebody white’s getting change, the clerk puts it in their hand? Why are they afraid to touch me?”
So, where does the Spirit choose to blow? Where does it come from? Where does it go? How does it come and go? It’s OK to say I dunno.
Once upon a time there was in my church a four-year-old boy who loved to play with dinosaurs and who also liked to play church. At home he’d go around to visitors pretending to give them communion. He was familiar with Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Only he would say Christ will come again; Christ will come again; Christ will come again. One day he said to his mother, “I know Christ will come again. But how will he come?” And his mom said, “I don’t know. Let’s ask Gretchen next Sunday.” Fortunately I was given forewarning.
For the sermon I had Andy sit with me on the steps below the altar, and I told him a story of a family of four very small dinosaurs who lived on a forest floor. They could fly, by the way. They found themselves threatened by some forest-floor-dwelling, dinosaur-eating dinosaurs, and the two little ones kept asking, “How will we be safe?” Under the cover of night the Mommy and Daddy dinosaurs each took one of their children on their back and they flew to the safety of a mountain top. Naturally the children slept, I told Andy, just like you do on a long trip in the car. When they woke up, they were safe, and they realized that how they had reached safety didn’t matter. The point was that they were safe. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know how Christ will come again. The point is that he will.
So even though we don’t totally understand the Holy Spirit, we nevertheless know that it – is. That it’s working.
It would be a tragedy if we thought of the Holy Spirit as something that had worked only through the first disciples. The Holy Spirit speaks to and through us still, to challenge us to think in new ways, to move the church forward.
God speaks through tradition. Through reason. Through experience. And through our on-going encounters with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us to be faithful disciples of God in sometimes new and exciting ways. In Acts, the Holy Spirit, the promised advocate, sets the world on fire and the Church is born and is still being born.
Barbara Brown Taylor says:
“The question for me is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people, or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is pretty old and tired by now; that our God is someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but do we really expect our God to change our lives?’ [Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 145].
Jesus’ response to that might come from Matthew (5:17) where He says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [NRSV].” Jesus preached lessons from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), and interpreted those lessons for a new age. He applied the teachings of the Torah and of the prophets to his own time and place. Part of our faithful response to God should be to do the same thing.
Not too long ago was Earth Day which was instituted in 1970 to draw world attention to problems such as poverty, environmental degradation, chronic diseases among children, and other environmental health issues like polluted air in inner cities and lack of clean drinking water – think of the unconscionable levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s water.
There was a time when Christians turned to their Bibles and read Genesis and thought that because God had given humanity dominion over the earth (Gen 1:26), that we were free to use it in any way that benefited us. Now we know better. Just as Native Americans have always known, dominion over the earth requires good stewardship. Says the National Council of Churches, “To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruction is not only folly, it is sin.” [http://earthday.net/resources/205materials/press_release.aspx}
Who (or What?) do we think is in the forefront of the charge to be good stewards of our environment?
I’m going to take us on a little side trip: To me, personally, the Holy Spirit is like an imp. When I need its guidance, I visualize it sitting firmly on my left shoulder. This sort of hazy implike figure is the image I’ve held for years. I’m sure, though, that the Holy Spirit is in more places than just my left shoulder. I’m sure that the Holy Spirit has broader interests than just my issues. I can almost imagine an Earth Day Emergency Conference, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit sitting around a table brainstorming ways to encourage/to push/to nag humankind into protecting the gift of creation.
The thing that ties all three of these (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) [all one of these?] together, besides concern for the earth we live on and the water and air that sustain us, is love. Love which is first and foremost about relationship, right? The love that God shows for humanity is a love without bounds. Our God is the God of Creation who brought order out of chaos and mankind into being; our God is the God of Israel who brought slaves into the promised land; our God is the one who when we have gone astray, sends prophets to call us back to justice. Our God is the one who is also Jesus, our teacher, prophet and savior, who reminds us that love is not reserved for the powerful but for everyone. The Holy Spirit, the way I see it, is the presence in our daily lives of God’s power and love, of Jesus’ influence and love.
The Holy Spirit, the wind thing – blowing where it will – doesn’t always work for me. I need the Holy Spirit close at hand. Or close at shoulder. For times like when
Jesus asks of the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” That’s no small thing.
Today’s world pulls us in so many directions, tempting us with zillions of distractions. When I first sat at my computer working on this, I kept looking at the rain dripping past the window. At the cat on the window sill who was doing the same thing (as far as I could tell). Watching the occasional log truck going past. At our house you can hear the television and lots of conversation. There are books, magazines, and crossword puzzles calling my name. Not to mention other projects standing in line. Sweep the kitchen. Vacuum the living room. Empty the dishwasher. Write to Cousin Barbara. Oh, yeah! Finish this sermon. Focus on Jesus’ admonition to love him and keep his commandments. Be a good disciple.
This advocate, the Holy Spirit, can be our guide in our quest to be disciples, focusing us on loving Jesus and keeping his commandments.
To be a disciple means to follow after. (I’m quoting Marcus Borg here.) “Whoever would be my disciple, Jesus said, ‘Let him follow me.’ What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? It means to take seriously what he took seriously, to be like him in some sense. It’s what St. Paul meant when he said, ‘Be imitators of Christ.’ What Jesus was like as a figure of history becomes a model of discipleship, illuminating and incarnating the vision of life to which he called his followers.” [footnote -- Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1984), p. 193]
Back to Barbara Brown Taylor. [see previous citation] She asks if we still “believe in a God with power to transform us.” She wonders if we doubt that God will in any meaningful way change our lives. “But,” she says, “just look at how religious leaders are changing their theological tune on what the Bible has to say about our responsibility to defend creation, and you can see that the Holy Spirit is at work and that God is very much active, involved, and still calling us to do justice.”
If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments. If you’re like me and not always sure what the best way to do that is, take a deep breath and do what Taylor suggests: Pray “Come, Holy Spirit” and be open to letting God transform your life in unexpected, unsettling, and blessed ways.”