Pentecost B May 24, 2015 (Viewa video of this sermon here.)
What happens when Jesus leaves?
When the one on whom all your hopes were pinned is gone, what then? Last Sunday, we celebrated the Ascension, and Luke’s version of that story has the disciples skipping off to Jerusalem with great joy. It’s a nice ending to the story that began with angels announcing “tidings of great joy” to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem. There’s sort of a “they lived happily ever after” sense that the story has come to a satisfying conclusion, at least for the moment.
But we know better, with our twenty-fifteen hindsight. We know that those disciples were about to experience hardships and persecution they couldn’t possibly imagine. We know that they would soon fall into disagreement, that they would argue over little things, like whose turn it was to wipe down the tables after a meal. And they would argue over big things, like whether or not Gentile converts had to become Jews before they could claim to be Christians. To get through it all, they would need the Holy Spirit to guide them, to comfort them, to be Christ’s presence among them.
In Luke’s version, the Holy Spirit comes in a dramatic way on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover. We heard that familiar story from Acts 2 a few minutes ago. But today’s Gospel reading comes from John, and his version of these events takes a different spin. To understand Pentecost from John’s perspective, we have to rewind to the Upper Room, on the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and shared one last meal with them. We find ourselves in the middle of what scholars call The Final Discourse. It’s the longest speech in all the gospels, taking up four full chapters. We’ve heard parts of this speech over the past few weeks of the Easter season, and now as Pentecost brings that season to a close, we come to the final words Jesus gives to his disciples before he prays for them.
What happens when Jesus leaves? When the one on whom all your hopes were pinned is gone, what then?
“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. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. … “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless 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. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When 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. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)
This isn’t a sermon, or even a teaching moment. Jesus is not leaving his disciples a carefully constructed list of things to do after he’s gone, or step-by-step instructions on how to do them. This final discourse – or as Eugene Peterson calls it, this final conversation – is more about reminding the disciples of things they already have heard. Jesus rambles, and repeats himself many times. Over and over, he tells his friends that he is leaving. Over and over, he tells his friends that, once he is gone, the Advocate will come to be with them.
This is an interesting word: Advocate. Only John uses it, here in the Gospel, and once in First John (2:1). It also gets translated as Paraclete, which sounds a lot like the Greek word it translates – parakletos. This isn’t the usual word for Spirit. Most of the time, the New Testament word for Spirit is pneuma – which also means breath, or wind … but here John calls the Spirit of truth the Advocate. This aspect of the Holy Spirit does not come as a mighty wind or tongues of flame. The Advocate comes alongside, pointing us in the right direction, showing us God’s truth, standing with us as we face the world.
Remember that the world, in John’s view, includes everything that is against God, everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. For John, there are only two kinds of people: those who believe, and those who reject. There is no gray area here, no option to accept just the nice parts of following Jesus. It’s all or nothing at all. You either belong to Christ, or you belong to the world.
If you belong to Christ, your job is to testify that Jesus is the Son of God. The Advocate standing with you also testifies to this truth. The Advocate will support you in your testimony, helping you to tell your own story of repentance and redemption. But it’s your story. You are the only one who can tell it. You are the only one with first-hand knowledge of what God has done in your life through the person of Jesus Christ. While you tell your story, the Advocate will be at work in the hearts and minds of those who hear you. The Advocate will be agreeing with you and affirming the truth in what you say.
And, Jesus says, the Advocate will be busy doing some other work, too. When the Spirit comes, he will confront the world with its wrong ideas about sin and righteousness and judgment. Notice that it’s the Spirit’s job to prove the world wrong. It’s not our job. Tempting as it may be to explain to non-believers that they are wrong about sin, that they don’t understand what it means to be righteous in God’s eyes, and they haven’t a clue about judgment, that’s not really our job. Our job is to tell our own story of how God loves us, how he has forgiven us, and how he wants us to be part of his Kingdom.
In fact, I think it would probably make the Spirit’s job a lot easier if we would just get out of the way sometimes. When we start telling others how wrong they are, we aren’t doing the Spirit any favors. We only make it harder for those who are in the world to accept the grace Christ offers. We come across as judgmental and arrogant. The world sees us as hypocrites who criticize others for the same sins we commit ourselves.
You probably see this all the time in comments on Facebook or Twitter, or remarks made in the comment section of articles that get forwarded to you from well-meaning friends. It doesn’t take long for disagreement on hot-button topics to lead to harsh words and cruel language.
Instead of escalating conflict with accusations and condemnation, our job is to tell what difference knowing Christ has made in our lives. We are to testify, and that means telling the truth about what we ourselves have experienced in our own walk with Jesus. Then we make it possible for the Spirit of truth to confront sin, to reveal righteousness, and to execute judgment.
But that can only happen when the Spirit comes. As Jesus talked at length with his disciples that night, he had to keep repeating these words: I am going away. I have to go away, so the Advocate can come to you. Even though you don’t want to hear that I’m leaving, it’s to your advantage that I go.
It’s hard to let go of the past in order to embrace the future. The disciples were eager to hold onto what had become familiar to them. They were getting pretty good at this business of following Jesus wherever he went and watching him do amazing things. But Jesus is leaving, and the Spirit is coming. Instead of watching Jesus do amazing things, the time has come for the disciples to continue that work.
Eugene Peterson writes,
“This Holy Spirit will be in them, doing in them what Jesus did among them. The Holy Spirit, God’s way of being present with us, will make their life and work continuous with Jesus’ life and work. The way God was present to them in Jesus, God will be present to others in them.
The leaving and the sending work together, … Jesus’ absence from them becomes the Spirit’s presence in them. Everything Jesus said and did among them is continued in what they say and do.” (Eugene Peterson, Journal for Preachers 26 no 4 Pentecost 2003, p 4-8.)
In order to embrace the unknown future that lies ahead of them, the disciples have to be willing to let Jesus go. But it isn’t just those first disciples who have to be willing to change. The story of Pentecost is not about what happened way back then in first century Jerusalem. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit keeps coming. Holding onto the familiar and comfortable just isn’t possible when the Spirit comes.
“…the Spirit comes to testify that we might testify, often to a hostile world. …the Spirit’s presence is as at least as disruptive as it is comforting. Why? Because resurrection isn’t more of the same, it’s life from death.
… Is this really what we want? I mean, while I’ve never heard anyone actually pray, “Come Holy Spirit that we might remain exactly as we are,” that’s often how we act. For whatever we may mouth on Pentecost, most of the time we resist meaningful change in favor of “the way things have always been done.”
The thing is, there is no “the way things have always been done,” only “the way we’ve done them in recent memory” — which of course really means “the way I’ve gotten used to them being done.”
Lose goes on to explain that this focus on tradition is more than comfort or personal taste.
“Lots of the things we do — our church practices, if you will — we do, quite frankly, because they’ve worked. And so we trust them. But … the population for whom our tried-and-true practices are working is only getting smaller, while the population and generation for whom they are not working is only getting larger. Which means that it’s time to start innovating, and wondering, and exploring, and experimenting and in all these ways try to figure out together what works in this day and age…for those who are coming, for those who haven’t been coming lately, and for those who have never come.”
Think about our Wednesday Family Night programs for a moment. Four years ago, you could count the number of people in Sunday School without running out of fingers. There were sixty-one people at our Pentecost Party on Wednesday night. What has happened there? Why have families begun to commit to bringing their children to Wednesday night on a regular basis? And where are all those kids on any given Sunday morning? What is so compelling about Wednesday, that we don’t see on Sunday?
Well, food, for one thing. There’s always a great meal, and you don’t have to eat and run, because no one is going to make you stay and do the dishes. When the children arrive, there’s a reason to get downstairs as soon as possible. A child-sized table is set up with coloring materials, and in recent weeks, the popcorn machine has offered hot, fresh popcorn as an appetizer for those who arrive early. After the meal, children can go back to the coloring table or join in the singing and dancing that lead into the lesson for the day. Everyone studies the same scripture passage when they head off to age group classes, and there’s dessert at the end of the evening, where children get to show the adults what they’ve made to remember the lesson. The atmosphere is relaxed, and often quite noisy.
You might think that so much noise and popcorn and movement doesn’t belong in a church sanctuary. I might agree with you on the popcorn, but if we make a space for children to feel welcome, and find ways to include children in all aspects of our worship time together, what might that say to their parents? And their grandparents? And their friends from school, or the neighbors they invite to come with them to church? Think about it: what is it in our current worship that compels you to ask your neighbors to come with you, the way some of our children invite their friends?
Maybe we need a dose of Advocate. Instead of waiting for the the Holy Spirit to show up, maybe we need to realize that the Holy Spirit is already here among us, waiting for us to testify, as the Spirit testifies, that Jesus really is Lord, and we mean to follow where the Spirit leads us.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus says to his disciples, and that includes us. When the Spirit comes, Jesus promises, he will guide us into all truth. So claim your flame. Name truth in your world, knowing that the Advocate is right beside you to guide you.
When the Spirit comes is not just some day in the distant future. It is not just a day in the distant past. When the Spirit comes is now. Come, Holy Spirit, come.