Sermon for the Day of Pentecost, Year B, May 24, 2015 on Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26; 16:12-14
“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.
“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.
My son was just home for a brief visit recently after completing his freshman year at university as a chemistry major. It did not take him three minutes into an explanation of some of the things he was learning to make me feel completely ignorant; and that is after freshman year! I took a lot of history in college, but precious little science. My last chemistry class was so long ago it began with instruction in how to use a slide rule. But that was the transitional moment. After Christmas break that year, the wealthier kids returned to school with expensive calculators. How the world had changed!
We are living in a time of knowledge explosion. I have heard more than one of us complain that our smart phones are smarter than we are. How true. If you feel that the pace and enormity of change happening all around is dizzying, you are in good company.
This is a transitional time in the world. Ideas and beliefs that had seemed settled and fixed now often seem up for grabs. What is reliably true? Where do we turn for solid footing in our quest for truth?
This is Pentecost Sunday, in which we celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit of God. This is a perfect moment to talk about truth, because Jesus, in John’s gospel, calls the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth.” Let us reflect on that for a moment.
The foundation of everything else I will say today is this: All truth is God’s truth. If it is true, then it is true for God. If it is true, it is not a surprise to God, it is not an embarrassment to God, and it is not a problem to God.
So, the structure of a benzine molecule that my son was describing to me is not a mystery to God, as it still is to me. If the structure of that molecule is what it is because of a long process of evolution, that is not a surprise to God either, even though it took us a long time to figure it out.
But it did take us a long time to figure it out, did it not? And there are still huge areas of knowledge that are yet to be understood. If you have ever tried to read what scientists are saying about the universe, you know that our lack of knowledge is astounding.
Scientists at NASA tell us that 68% of the universe is comprised of dark energy, 27% of dark matter, and only 5% of normal matter like planets and stars, and we do not know what dark energy or matter are.
The point is that God knows what dark energy and dark matter are. He will not be shocked by it as humans may be one day when we figure it out. All truth is God’s truth.
God is not surprised by discoveries we make in biology, in psychology, or in sociology. So, God does not have the problem we have, as humans. That problem is that we have to live with the limitations of our current knowledge. We do not yet know how to predict the landfall of the next hurricane, or what its intensity will be, so we build our little houses all up and down the coast, and hope for the best.
There are disturbing truths that are hard to bear. I love the frank honest of the text from John in which Jesus acknowledges this human foible,
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
I take it that those 12 men were not able to bear the truth that women were their equals. I believe they could not bear to imagine a world without hierarchical family structures or one that had eliminated slavery.
Sometimes, discoveries disturb us. We actually do not want to know. We did not want to hear that the earth was not the center of the solar system, because that upset our sense of being at the center of God’s world. We did not want to hear that there were invisible germs making us sick.
Many people today will flatly deny what the entire scientific consensus has proof for because for them, it is simply unbearable, like the effects of climate change.
But the beauty of this text is the hope for change in the future; hope that there will be a time when unbearable truth becomes bearable; the impossible will become possible. Jesus says,
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”
On this Pentecost Sunday, it is good to celebrate the truths that the Spirit has guided us to learn and to embrace.
Pentecost: The Word Comes to the People
The book of Acts tells the story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This is so beautiful. Pentecost was a regular Jewish holiday celebrated at the time of the harvest. But the original moment being celebrated was the giving of the law, the Torah on mount Sinai.
The Jewish people had been slaves under Pharaoh’s empire, but had escaped on the night of the Passover. According to the story, fifty days later, on the other side of the Red Sea, Moses came down the mountain with Torah. So, Pentecost celebrated the giving of the Word of God to the Jewish people; Hebrew letters written on stone tablets.
So far, this is a story of one people, one family, one nation. If you remember the original story of the promise God made to Abraham, centuries before Moses, you know that the promise was that Abraham’s descendants would eventually bring blessing to the entire world. God says to Abraham,
“in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12)
The prophet Joel picked up on this worldwide promise, which is the text Peter quoted from in his Pentecost sermon.
“this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’”
And what happened? Now, instead of God’s word coming in Hebrew to one nation, everyone is hearing the Spirit-inspired words in their own languages. And who is included? Jewish people living in the diaspora as far away to the west as Egypt and to the east as Mesopotamia, but also and importantly, to non-Jewish people, including Arabs and Greeks!
The truth that the Spirit of truth was leading them into was the truth that God’s love and grace has no ethnic or racial limitations. God’s message of reconciliation has no boundaries, no borders.
For most of those Jewish disciples, this was a truth they were unable to bear. It took Paul to fully embrace the truth and to go to the non-Jewish world with the message of the gospel.
I love how he sums up his mission, as a ministry of announcement that in Jesus, God was at work reconciling the world to God’s self,
“God, …reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5)
The Spirit in a Global Village
One of the dramatic changes taking place in this time of transition in the world is that the world is shrinking. Air travel, economic globalization, the internet, and instant access to news and information from across the globe, has put the world literally in our hands.
We carry our smart phones around, and without even leaving Facebook we watch video of the buildings falling in during the earthquake in Nepal. We see ISIS smashing crosses from churches in Iraq. We see Rohingya people stuffed like sardines into the bottom of boats escaping persecution in Myanmar.
Now, instead of being distant and exotic mysteries, these people have become our global neighbors. Muslims are our neighbors; both Sunni and Shia. Buddhists and Hindus are part of our world.
The question of Pentecost today, with its message of the globalization of the work of the Spirit, is about how much truth we will be able to bear. Will we, in our generation, be able to bear the idea that the circle of the work of God’s Spirit is wider than the circumference of the church?
Can we actually take on board the vision of Joel, for whom the Spirit was for all flesh, and the ministry of Paul for whom God was reconciling the world through Christ?
Can we accept that when people of other faiths report experiences of God, they are authentic? Can we, who experience the Spirit through Jesus, bear to allow that others’ experience the Spirit outside the context of religious structures?
Can we even embrace a holistic concept of the universe that understands that matter and energy are forms of the same cosmic stuff, making the distinction between the physical and spiritual world difficult to maintain? So that experiencing God in the bread and the cup at communion is as likely as experiencing God through the lens of the Hubble telescope?
Celebrate the Spirit of Truth
Today, we celebrate Pentecost; the birthday of the church. We celebrate our Christian tradition that has given us a vision of a loving God of grace, a worldwide message of reconciliation, and a Spirit-led hope for the future. We celebrate the church that gathers to bear witness to the ongoing power of the Spirit to make us, who were strangers to each other, into a family of caring and a community of mutuality; the impossible made possible.
On Pentecost we celebrate the Spirit that is present to us personally, as we pray and meditate in silence, as we worship, as we do yoga, and as we live our days in mindfulness. And we celebrate the Spirit that is so powerfully present to us as a gathered community in the church.
This church gathering is where we take courage to embrace truths that are difficult to bear. And with renewed courage, we then ask the necessary followup questions: what is our role in this new global village?
What should our relationship be to people of other faiths or to no religious attachments? Can we love our Muslim neighbors? Can we accept that the Spirit is at work in the lives of non-religious people? Can we be open to the Spirit of truth continuing to guide us into all truth, believing that all truth is God’s truth? This is our hope and our prayer.