Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: This I Believe: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sunday, April 26, 2015

Audio Available here.

This I Believe: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

            This is our third sermon in the series on “This I Believe,” which we are studying alongside our Confirmation Class as they engage the basic theological tenets of our faith. We have taken time the last two weeks to study God and Jesus Christ, as the first two members of the Trinitarian way in which we understand God. Again, allow me to reiterate that I realize that this is a little nutty. But, if we believe that God has been revealed to us in such a way, then it is our faithful task to seek to understand it.
          That means that this week, we are focusing on the most perplexing person of the Trinity: The Holy Spirit. Many years ago, I supervised a Confirmation Class at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ, and there, the youth had to write out exactly what they believed about the basics of our faith. They wrote beautifully about God: I believe that God is bigger than me, created everything, loves me, wants what is best for me. They wrote directly about Jesus: I believe that Jesus is the son of God, born of Mary, and lived on earth so that I may know the fullness of God’s love and how to live on earth. And then, they had to write about the Holy Spirit: I believe the Holy Spirit is present now, and always, to remind me that God loves me and is always with me.
          I watched these youth struggle with fear and trembling over their statements. They had a lot to say about God, some fine “straight-from-the-Creed” language about Jesus, and a few vague remarks about the Holy Spirit. No one could quite pin that person of the Trinity down, which I suppose is the point. The Spirit is amorphous, androgynous, and atypical. I joke each week with my preacher friends about our sermon prep, and we have varying ways in which we describe the Holy Spirit’s presence or absence in our writing. My dear friend, Sam, once wrote that the Holy Spirit neglected to show up for inspiration until Sunday morning, at which point she dragged in wearing last night’s clothes with an unlit cigarette hanging from her lips. These images are so resonant for us, because the text is so inconclusive about how we should understand the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.
            Our text today comes to us from Jesus’ great farewell narrative to the Disciples, after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, but before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. At this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ministry has covered everything from healing to feeding to exorcism to prophecy; he has even raised Lazarus from the dead. In order for the message of Jesus’ ministry to sound like anything other than the ramblings of certifiably insane people, there must be a force on earth that can testify to the truth of it. Jesus tells his Disciples, “The Advocate is coming, whom I will send to you from the Father. The Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, and the Spirit will testify on my behalf.” The author of John uses the Greek word “Paraclete,” which is typically translated to mean “one who has been summoned or called to the side of another--literally, an ‘advocate,’ or, by extension, a helper or legal representative in a trial or other arena of judgment.”[1]
            God, in Christ, knows that the way in which God’s presence on earth has been revealed is not going to be received with assurance. So, God has elected to send this Spirit to us, that we might have help in times of judgment. This is the first way in which God ensures that we will not experience life on earth alone – outside of God’s comfort – but with the help of the One who is always with and for us.
            The language of Advocate is deeply resonant to me, because it requires courage to say, in truth and love, things that are difficult to hear. Like the Disciples, we are called to testify – to tell – to proclaim what God has done in our lives, that others may come to share in it. But this is messy, and often falls on the ears of those who cannot hear or perceive it. Think how much more bold we can be when we have support and help. Jimmy Carter, in speaking out about the treatment of women world-wide, said that, “It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”[2] The courage to challenge. This is what the Advocate does for and with us.
            The Holy Spirit, then, is about more than just the completion of a three-fold way to understand God’s abiding presence in the world. The Holy Spirit is about the gift of Hope.  David Lose writes that it is “The cross by which God dignifies and sanctifies all human suffering by promising to be there with us and for us. If God’s greatest revelation was made manifest in and through the struggle and suffering of a man hung on a tree, then what suffering of ours can ever truly be God-forsaken. Hence, God promises to be with us amid suffering, and even work through that to build character and endurance and increase our capacity for hope.”[3]
            We are still watching as the death toll from the earthquake in Nepal rises, this morning up to 2,200. There are countless ways in which we can identify the need for God’s spirit to be more mightily present in the world than it seems to be. The world’s capacity for suffering is too great, and the need for an Advocate to be in this world with us, arguing with the forces of evil, persuading the darkness to recede, and condemning the rulers of this world is paramount. How, then, do we see this happening? We need the Holy Spirit to be the answer to the looming, perpetual question of, "HOW?!" "How could you let this happen?" "How can I go forward?" "How do I tell them?" "How do I know if this is right?" 
            As I wrote and edited last night, the wind was blowing mightily outside my home. The leaves were battered endlessly as the wind whistled through the narrow passageway between the houses in Arch Beach Heights. It made us all sit still and pay attention, as the normally placid weather has become shrill and attention-seeking.
            When we speak of the Spirit, we often do so with the idea that it is sent to comfort us. This is how the word in John’s Gospel, Paraclete, is often translated: comforter, or helper. But the Spirit of God is not just a serene blanket, wrapping us in a soft, downy nest. She is also a mighty force, pushing us urgently through the darkest of nights and asking us to be more brave and courageous than we thought we could be. There are times in which the vision of Jesus as Shepherd, tender of his flock, isn’t comforting. It’s too benign. Too pastoral.
            There are times when we need the relentless and unforgiving Wind to blow across the face of the deep, so that something moves in us. We cannot be still. We cannot be herded. We can only be pushed to be, do, or become more than we ever thought possible.
            This is the gift of the Spirit, my friends. Jesus says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” It is almost impossible to understand how the absence of such a beloved person could be to the Disciples’ advantage. But, Jesus reminds them that if he doesn’t go away, the Advocate won’t come. It is the most painful thing in life to consider that absence may make space for something new to grow.
            The Holy Spirit is the abiding “I AM,” The substance of heaven that fills all of earth. If God has promised since the dawn of human history to be present in our life and story, then the Holy Spirit is the means in which God does this. I AM that I AM, God declares. This ontological statement of being is more than just a philosophical argument. It is the Divine Promise to be present, always, that we may never be alone.
            Jesus goes on to confess something remarkable to his Disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” But, maybe if we listen carefully, we can hear what Jesus conveys. This text is so challenging, because the Spirit is too obtuse to pin down precisely. And, my experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life may look very different from yours.
            So, let’s pay attention to what is here. If you do a quick survey of any Bible passage, you’ll find that the verbs dominate. “It’s what we do and don’t do that preoccupies human beings. And it’s the verbs we cannot imagine for ourselves (live, liberate, forgive, resurrect) that the church offers, and that we reach for, week after week.”[4] So, as a preacher, it is my job to preach the verbs. And, as hearers of any text, it is our job to enact them.
            The Spirit comes to speak what the Spirit hears and declare the things that are to come. Speak! Declare! Glorify! This is what the Spirit – as our Advocate - empowers us to do. And, we can do them because the things we have understood about sin and righteousness and judgment are wrong. And, it is not up to us to correct them. It is up to God – the Spirit of God – the mighty force that abides with us, which is powerful enough to move mountains and gentle enough to provide comfort to those in peril.
            So, let us be willing to let the Spirit work in our lives. Let us be open to perceiving the still, small ways in which the Spirit is present. And let us speak, declare and glorify the God who is courageous enough to abide in this world with us, now and always.
            In the name of the “God who is with us, for us, and refuses to be God without us.”[5]

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