SPIRIT OF TRUTH
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on May 25, 2014 (Sixth Sunday of Easter/Memorial Day Sunday)
1 Peter 3:13-22
”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This 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.
18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” – John 14:15-21
Back when my wife and I were young(er) adults living in Boulder, CO, we became close friends with a couple who were also members of the church there, and at the time had two young children. One day, Paul and Joie asked us if we would agree to be guardians for their two children if something were to happen to them. It was an honor to be asked to accept such a great responsibility! Fortunately, our friends are still very much alive and their children are now parents themselves. But I was impressed at how those two people took seriously the future needs of their children. When I counsel couples planning to marry, I encourage them to make arrangements for the care of one another and any children they might have if the unforeseen might happen.
In this “farewell discourse” of Jesus in the gospel of John, Jesus is doing the same for his disciples – preparing them and providing for them for when he will be gone. He promises that God will provide “another Advocate” for them. Jesus calls this the Spirit of truth. This is what we usually call the Holy Spirit.
Actually, the gospel of John uses an interesting Greek word for this promised gift – parakletos. It is a word with a variety of meanings, all of which are appropriate in this context, and so it gets translated many different ways in various English versions of the Bible: Exhorter, Comforter, Helper, Advocate, Counselor. Sometimes the Greek word is retained with its whole range of meanings: “Paraclete.”
This is the divine presence and power that will comfort, encourage, and energize the disciples to continue the work of Jesus after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith says that God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, “creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.” It is that “good conscience” we receive in our baptisms.
This Spirit of Truth — this Paraclete also helps with another challenge that would soon face the young Christian community. Jesus encouraged the disciples to love him and to keep his commandments (words). Those first disciples of Jesus might have been able to do that, because they had spent significant time with him. But what about those who would come later?
My grandmother, when she was alive, did a lot of research into our von Trebra family history. My great, great grandfather, Carl Friedrich Heinrich von Trebra, came to this country from Germany in the 1850s after serving for a time in the German army. When the American Civil War broke out, he, along with many other German immigrants, enlisted in the 1st German, 32nd Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army. Several years ago, my brother and I made a trip to Mumfordville, KY, where we knew he had fought in a Civil War battle. As we were walking around the town, we stumbled upon a mural with his portrait.
I am proud of Henry von Trebra, He was apparently respected for his bravery and leadership before his death from some illness while he was still in his 30s. I have visited his grave at Arcola, IL. But I can’t say that I love him – not like I love my brother,or sister, or mother, or grandparents. I was able to spend time with them, to know them, to be held by them, fed by them, taken fishing, etc. But how do you love someone you have never met, and never had any relationship with?
That is the challenge facing later generations of Christ’s disciples, to this very day: How do we love Jesus whom we have never seen?
We are able, in a way, to see Jesus, and to know him, through the presence of this “Paraclete” – this Holy Spirit which abides with you and will be in you. It is important to understand that this “you” of which Jesus speaks is not singular, but plural (y’all). We come to know and love Jesus through the community of Christ’s followers. That’s you – the church. The Spirit is alive among us. We learn to love Jesus through the stories we continue to tell about him, and through working together and breaking bread together and ministering together.
This is why it is a particular challenge for folks to be Christian who claim they are “spiritual but not religious” — those folks who say they believe in God and Jesus but don’t like organized religion. It is very difficult to love Jesus (and through him, God), and to live out the words and commandments of Jesus on our own. That really only happens in community.
Last week I talked about the book “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith,” by Brian McLaren, which I have been reading. One of the questions McLaren asks is, “What is the purpose of the church?” We have wrestled with that question here at Lyonsville when we developed our mission statement. But Brian McLaren comes out of a church background in which many people think the purpose of the church is just to get folks into heaven after they die. Now I think that is a good thing – I’m hoping to get there myself some day. But I think there is something more the church should be doing, and so does Brian McLaren. He suggests that the purpose of the church is to form Christlike people.
I think Jesus would agree with that purpose. He says in our text for this morning, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’ commandments? In the gospel of John, his commandments are all the words he speaks. “Believe in me; Believe in God; Love me.” Interestingly, there is only one commandment Jesus gives the disciples that is actually called a commandment in John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” We are to love as we have been loved. I would call that being Christlike.
That can sound like a tall order. I know that there are many times when I am not very Christlike. I fall short in spite of my best intentions. I know I can’t be Christlike on my own. But thanks be to God, we have the gift of the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit – to help us.
Imagine what this would could be like if we had more people who were Christlike in their living and in their relationships and in their work. Imagine if we had people who were truly wise, and healers, and peacemakers, and compassionate, and faithful. What a wonderful world that would be! There are some. There is always room for more.
But the gospel story, and the reading from 1 Peter that we read this morning, remind us that in this world, Christlike people often get into trouble. They don’t fit with the way the world works. I hope that will not dissuade us. We have the Exhorter, Comforter, Helper, Advocate, Counselor to help us through.
Robert J. von Trebra