Sermon for June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday, year C. Audio can be found here for a few weeks.
John 14:8-17, 25-27
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Sermon What is the Spirit Doing
We just lost a bright young woman in her 30’s, a mother of two, a New York Times bestselling author, blogger, speaker, and bright beacon: Rachel Held Evans. She died of a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics.
Her work helped many people of her generation as they struggled with faith and science, faith and diversity, faith and gender and sexuality, faith and the institutional church itself. She was always gracious and generous with people she disagreed with. Many of us will miss her.
I know that she is probably not well known to most of us here — the issues of her generation are not most of our issues — most of us of an older generation. But I wanted to begin this Pentecost sermon with Rachel because I want to briefly discuss what I believe the Spirit is doing in the world today, and she was a great example.
Rachel was a millennial. They look at many things differently. These are strange days. We are living in the middle of a sea change in our culture. We can see it happening, but no one can predict where it will end.
The one example that is so relevant to us is the huge rise in people who are called “the nones and dones.” When asked by opinion pollsters what their religion is, they say “none”. And as for participation in an institutional church, they are “done” with it.
Rachel started life as an Evangelical, but as she confronted gender issues like equality of gender roles in marriage, the role of women in ministry, she grew more uncomfortable there.
Then there were the issues of science and faith; she was learning about evolution, but she was in a church that thought the creation story in the bible should be read literally. She became aware that some of her gay friends were not welcome in her church, which she found increasingly problematic.
As I said, these are not our issues. The Presbyterian Church (USA) dealt with all of these already — many of them decades ago, if not longer. Rachel would have been a very comfortable Presbyterian, in my opinion. In fact, her journey away from evangelicalism eventually led her to become Episcopalian — a church quite similar to Presbyterians on these topics. I took that same journey myself, and, happily, ended up here.
Anyway, on her journey, as she wrote about her issues and struggles with faith and the church, she helped thousands of people in her generation who were having the same struggles. This is a movement. Surveys report that although so many millennials are “done” with the institutional church, a great many consider themselves SBNRs — Spiritual, but not religious. They have a deep longing for transcendence and spirituality, they just do not believe they will find it in their parents’ churches.
The Spirit of truth — unmasking falseness
This is not bad news for me. I believe this is, in fact, a movement of the Spirit. Why? Because as John’s community intuited so long ago, the Spirit is moving in a particular direction. In their version of the Jesus-story, Jesus calls the Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” whom, he goes on to say, “will teach you everything….”
I believe we Presbyterians have been listening hard to the Spirit and, consequently, we have been led to the truth by the Spirit’s teaching in many ways. Many, many years ago, we heard the Spirit of truth teaching us about science, and we opened our hearts and minds to serious biblical scholarship. Together these tools led us away from a rigid literalism to a more spacious appreciation of our ancient wisdom tradition.
We were able to learn the truth about structural racism in the civil rights movement and we got on the right side of that issue. We heard the truth from the Spirit of truth about women, and so we changed our constitution to require balance on our sessions and we started ordaining women for ministry. Women will account for five of the twelve new session members after today’s installation service.
We have heard the Spirit teaching us that although the majority of people are attracted to people of the opposite gender, and thus for so long, we have lived in a culture of, what they call, heteronormativity, nevertheless, other people are born to be attracted to the same gender. We have learned to affirm and celebrate their love and bless their unions.
Rachel Held Evans was as genuine and authentic as they come. Authenticity is a major issue for millennials. Characteristically, they despise pretension and hypocrisy. They unmask power-plays and discrimination of all kinds. This is one reason they have fled from so many institutional churches.
But again, I think this is a positive movement of the Spirit. And, I believe, we can be and are a church that is committed to authenticity. Our spirituality is not merely formal and institutional.
We do not claim perfection, but when we come together in public worship we always have moments of honest confession of our shortcomings. To be honest, I think our church is perfect for millennials, although it might take them a while to get used to our music and liturgy. I’m encouraged by the fact that Rachel discovered the Episcopal church and fell in love with the sacraments and the liturgy.
From Christian to Jesus Follower
There are so many good, positive and hopeful things that I believe I see the Spirit doing in these turbulent days, but I want to mention just one more. There is a new movement of people who are uncomfortable with the label “Christian” because of all the baggage it has acquired from Constantine to the Crusades, and from the rich televangelists, to the clergy sex-abuse scandals.
But these people want to be followers of Jesus. Today there is an outpouring of books, seminars, conferences, festivals, music, blogs and videos by people who are calling us back to the true fountain of our faith, back to Jesus. This, I believe, is a movement of the Spirit.
This is exactly what should have always happened, according to our Pentecost text from the Gospel of John. We see it clearly in the story of the dialogue between Philip and Jesus.
“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
God is invisible and infinite; beyond our human capacity to correctly conceive. But we can see Jesus, at least we see versions of him, through the stories recorded in our gospel texts. Whatever God is like, God must be at least as compassionate as Jesus; at least as inclusive as Jesus, at least as forgiving like Jesus. So to understand God, in our tradition, we go to Jesus, as John’s gospel tells us to do.
So, in these days, we are waking up to the fact that Jesus never made his people swear allegiance to a creed. Our liturgy of ordination and installation requires it — should it? Jesus never built a church or told us we had to sit in rows. Jesus never laid out a liturgy for us to follow beyond the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. So, while we love our traditions and find all of this meaningful, we know that it is all here because of historical development over time.
We could do things differently, and that would be okay. We do not turn our noses up at people who worship in different styles. When we set our sights on following Jesus, rather than the layers and layers of traction that have built up around him, we will be getting back to the true fountain of our faith. This is happening; this is what the Spirit is doing.
So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let us rejoice in the Spirit, our advocate, the Spirit of truth, the one who prays for us, binds us together, and leads us into an uncertain but hopeful future.