WHEN THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH COMES….
John 16: 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 authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The promises you just heard from Jesus began to be fulfilled on that Pentecost Sunday that we celebrate today and every year. Jesus promised to send us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who, he said, would “guide us into all truth.”
So, how do we know when the Spirit is guiding us, and how? I’ll begin with a story that tells us more about how and when the Spirit is not guiding us.
A woman from a lively, Pentecostal-type church happened to be far away from home, on vacation one Sunday morning. Wanting to worship with other believers, she went to the nearest church, in a big mainline cathedral across the street from her hotel. Everything about the service and the sanctuary were unfamiliar to her, and boring too, compared to the lively, emotional style of worship, music and preaching she was accustomed to. Nothing spoke to her until the pastor began preaching. It wasn’t the dry and academic style of delivery that spoke to her. But the Bible was the same, and the sermon had powerful, penetrating points about it, with which she agreed. To the first of the pastor’s zingers she said, aloud, “Amen!” Just like in her home church. The pastor looked stunned for a moment, and heads turned in her direction with quizzical expressions. Next point, and she couldn’t stifle another outburst: “Praise the Lord!” More puzzled expressions in her direction. The third time she let out a “Hallelujah!” an usher came up to her pew and whispered, “Ma’m, if you continue interrupting the sermon, we’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied.
But with the next Bible quote she couldn’t contain herself and out popped another “Amen!” So the usher came over, took her by the arm and began escorting her out of the sanctuary. As they entered the hallway, she told the usher, “I can’t help myself; I’ve got the Holy Ghost infilling and anointing!” To which the usher replied, “Well, whatever your condition is called, Lady, you didn’t get it here! And if its the least bit contagious, please leave before anyone else catches it, too.”
With that story you have illustrated the extremes and pitfalls of our understanding of the Third Person of the Trinity, the One Who is both God and the Spirit of God, also called, in Acts chapter 16, “The Spirit of Jesus.” The Trinity has been compared to a fire, a union in three interdependent manifestations: if the Father is the flame, and the Son is the light of the flame, the Holy Spirit is the warmth of the flame. Each of these are separate expressions or experiences of fire. Yet there cannot be one without the other. That’s as far as I dare to go in comparing the awesome mystery and majesty of one God in a three-fold self-expression to something we can see and experience.
One extreme is in believing that the Spirit will always work in some dramatic, emotional, attention-grabbing way that will either make you deliriously happy or depressingly guilty. I’ve been in some worship services where it seems like we were being manipulated into feeling one or both of those emotional extremes. And if we didn’t feel such things, the Holy Spirit must not have shown up, supposedly.
But I’m just as concerned about the opposite extreme, that we will resist or deny or stifle or ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in our spirits and in our midst. Or think that there’s no need for the Spirit to work among the members of the church because we already have traditions, hierarchy, institutions and experts who can already tell us all we need to know and who can do all that the church is called to do, for us.
But all the things that we discern as God’s will for ourselves and the congregation require this one all-too-often overlooked element: God’s Holy Spirit. This year we discerned that our banner Bible verse calls us to “seek the peace and well-being of the city to which God has called us,” from Jeremiah 29. Do we think that this could happen only and entirely on human wisdom and our congregation’s very commendable skills in management? More like, the Spirit has given these gifts, and can use them. But without Him, they could become dead and empty structures awaiting His filling, like empty homes in which no warmth or light glows on dark winter nights.
So how do we know what God’s Spirit is doing and wants to do in us and through us? Well, to answer that question, how long do we wish to stay here this morning? We could spend a week talking about all the ins and outs of discerning God’s work and God’s will and still not cover everything. Besides, if we could nail it all down and come up with a complete check list to mark off, so that by the time we get to the bottom of it, we’ll know with 100% certainty that this the will of God and the work of God’s Spirit, so that there will be no room for disagreement or uncertainty, then that would mean that our faith was now in checklists, rather than in a living, loving, personal and relational God. Let’s not go there.
But Jesus, in today’s gospel passage, gives us two ways by which to discern the work and the will of God’s Spirit in our lives and the church, when he says, in John 16:14-15 “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he [the Holy Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.” That night over that Last Supper, when Jesus said these words, this was more than a matter of discerning whether or not to put air conditioning into the Upper Room. Knowing and following the Spirit’s presence and guidance would be a life-and-death matter in the days and years ahead when they would continue Jesus’ ministry without his physical presence around to guide them.
And yet Jesus says that it is better for them that He leave them, and that the Spirit continue in them the work that he began in the flesh. Otherwise, how would they carry out his mission “to the uttermost ends of the earth” if they were still relying on his presence in bodily form? How could Jesus make new disciples through his twelve disciples in the many different times and places of the world to which they and the gospel are still going? For you and I to be here, in this sanctuary, this morning, Jesus had to leave First Century Galilee and come back to the whole world in the person of His Holy Spirit.
But that still leaves begging the question, “How do we know what the Spirit is saying and doing in the world today?” Jesus gave his disciples at least the following two things to cling to: 1) that the Spirit would always point to Jesus, to honor him and bring him glory, and therefore not to any one or anything else; and 2) the Spirit would keep taking what belongs to Jesus and giving it to us. In other words, the nature and the results of the Spirit’s will and work will always look like Jesus. The Spirit will always guide us and gift us in ways that resemble the way Jesus guided and gifted his first disciples.
About that first thing—the Spirit will always draw our attention to Christ, to honor and glorify him: in a moment we are about to share with one of our own her entry into a life of discipleship, in the footsteps of Christ. In talking with Andra Zerbe, I have sensed a genuine desire to follow Christ, to imitate him and to know him. According to today’s Scripture passage, that is the signature work of God’s Holy Spirit, evidence that He is alive, active and powerful in the world. Human nature being fallen as it is, I don’t think we would have the will nor the strength on our own to make that choice and follow through on it. If we are wondering where and if the Spirit of God is in this world, just consider your own desire and choice to follow Christ and to know him, to obey and honor him with your lives. We have some responsibility for that, but not all the power necessary for it. Everything that honors Christ, that lifts him up before the world and draws the world toward him is the Spirit’s work. So let’s ask ourselves that about any work or words or plan that we engage: does it honor Christ, or is just to honor ourselves? Does it point the world toward Christ, or does it just sell a church and its programs?
It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To really honor someone we would imitate them. Which leads to the second thing—that the Spirit would take what belongs to Jesus and give it to us. Any direction in which the Spirit will lead us, personally or as a church, would and should look like Christ. It may even have a costly, cruciform shape. So in any choice before us, it makes sense to ask What is the Christ-like thing? Like the question that has often been posed: What Would Jesus Do?
I hope this doesn’t come across as some burdensome command: Do What Jesus Did, or else! Rather, I hope this is comforting and encouraging. Jesus is promising us that we can trust His Spirit to keep drawing our attention to him, and to keep doing Christlike things in us and through us. As he is doing for Andra, as we can tell by how she is willing to honor him and follow him in baptism and Christian life. And in the way he has gifted her with Christlike qualities and spiritual gifts for life and ministry. The Spirit has done it for us before; He is doing it even now. We can trust him to continue doing this among us. Can I get an Amen? Or a Hallelujah? Or a Praise the Lord?