Sunday, May 14, 2023
Rev. Brent Gundlah

I have a confession to make — don’t worry it’s nothing too bad.

As you were listening to today’s gospel passage, it might have sounded familiar and, if it did, that’s because it’s the same one you heard last week. This wasn’t by design; it’s what happens when your pastor mistakenly copies the same text into two week’s worth of bulletins. The moral of the story: always proofread your work. Truth be told, there’s more to it than that.

I was sitting there last Sunday as Dennis began to read; it took me a few seconds to catch on because I, like many of you, was mesmerized by his mellifluous voice.

“Oh… darn,” I thought to myself, “What the heck am I going to do now?” I have taken some liberties in recounting these thoughts to you; the words inside my head were a bit more colorful than those. Please forgive me, I had a lot going on.

I peered into the pulpit in search of a Bible containing the text I’d intended to share with you, but I couldn’t find it amidst all of the stuff stored under there. I suppose I could have just asked one of you to hand me your pew Bible; Conversely, I could have grabbed the giant version sitting on on the altar table — which would have been dramatic and lent some much-needed gravitas to the situation — but that didn’t occur to me in the heat of the moment.

And so I did the only thing I could think to do: I ignored my mistake and preached the sermon I’d planned to preach — even though it didn’t have anything to do with the text you heard.

If you noticed and didn’t say anything, I apologize and thank you for your grace. If you didn’t notice because you weren’t paying attention, then maybe you have something to confess as well; I’ll leave you to take that up with God.

My unfortunate (but relatively inconsequential) experience here last week led me to consider something else, something more timely something far more important, — which is, perhaps, the real moral of this story: What are we to do when unexpected things happen in church?

Over the past few years, the church (here and everywhere) has been faced with all sorts of circumstances to deal with and problems to solve and questions to answer that we never thought we’d have to deal with. So how can we be the body of Christ in the world when things happen in unforeseen (and often unwelcome) ways?

Even though it may not provide us much comfort right now, it’s worth mentioning that there’s been a few times over the past two thousand years during which there have been disruptions to the ways in which groups of Christ followers have gathered and done ministry together: the Reformation, countless wars, and multiple pandemics, to name just a few.

And while knowing this doesn’t necessarily make going through challenging times any easier, the fact that we’ve managed to make it this far should be kind of reassuring.

The fact of the matter is that volatility has been part of church life since the very beginning. As we look at today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we know that the first disciples are about to experience some pretty big changes.

In the aftermath of Jesus’s death and resurrection they will scatter to the four winds in order to save themselves and to share the good news; they will meet in small groups, locked inside of homes as they continue to worship in secret, hoping to avoid detection by the authorities who just executed their Messiah.

I’m sure that these early believers missed the fellowship they once shared at least as much as we missed ours during the pandemic. But these first disciples will soon have to grapple with a loss that’s difficult for us to understand. I mean they actually knew Jesus; they walked with him and talked with him and learned from him and dined with him.

The one they’ve given up their lives and livelihoods in order to follow will soon be gone; this amazing person in whose presence they’ve been for the past few years will no longer be there with them. This is what Jesus is preparing them for in our text for today: life as a community of believers after his departure.

Even though we haven’t experienced the loss of Jesus in the same way his first disciples did, we, as modern-day followers of Christ face a variant of the same basic problem they had: How do we continue to sense his abiding presence in light of his absence?

The answer, as Jesus explains in today’s passage, is simple: “Keep my commandments.” But Jesus also knows that this is not going to be easy for them to do, so he promises them support. “I will ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with you,” is what he tells them here.

The Greek word paraclete, translated as “advocate,” could just as easily be rendered as “helper” or “counselor” or “companion.” Call it whatever you will; the point is that this paraclete is here to help.

The paraclete is the third person of the Trinity, the manifestation of God known as the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is anything but simple.

In the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit is generally understood as being an equal of the Creator and the Christ. And yet, the Holy Spirit has historically been shortchanged in and by the church.

Sure, we sing the doxology every single week when we’re together here, giving praise to “Creator, Christ and Spirit one,” but the Holy Spirit never really gets the airtime that we tend to give to God and to Jesus; we just don’t seem to know what to do with it.

If I gave you some markers and paper and asked you to draw a picture of the Holy Spirit doing what the Holy Spirit does, you might be hard-pressed to come up with something. And if you were able to come up with something, it would probably look very different from what the person sitting next to you might have drawn.

If I asked you both to draw me a picture of Jesus, however, your results would probably be more similar. You might show Jesus healing people or walking on water or even hanging on a cross, but you’d likely depict a man of some sort doing these things.

Sure, none of us has ever seen Jesus, none of us had a direct, personal relationship with Jesus like the first disciples did; but Jesus was an actual flesh-and-blood human being, and we’ve all met our fair share of those.

By virtue of our common humanity, this kind and caring and vulnerable person named Jesus, is relatively easy for us to understand, to feel a connection with, and to love.

But one of the most difficult aspects of our worldly existence is that we can’t  always be face-to-face with the people we love. I think we’ve all recently come to realize (as if we didn’t know it before) that things like time and distance and circumstance — and, of course, death — conspire to separate us from those about whom we care.

The very first disciples certainly felt this way about Jesus, and we later disciples do too, albeit in a different way.

In today’s text, Jesus explains to his disciples that their love for him will transcend all of the constraints of this world, that their love for him will persist after he is gone, if they keep his commandments — if they hear his call and do his work.

And this new Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will always be there, challenging disciples in every age to do all of these things, as it also gives us the inspiration and the comfort and the strength we need in order to do them.

Maybe this is the reason that we Christians have always kind of tried to keep the Holy Spirit at arm’s length. I mean it would have been a whole lot easier for the disciples simply to wallow in their grief over Jesus’s departure, to wax nostalgic about the way things used to be, to think about their love for Jesus — and their commitment to Jesus — as things that ended the moment he left their side.

But Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook that easily — Jesus doesn’t let any of us off the hook that easily. He tells his disciples that truly remembering him and loving him involves an unending commitment to the ideals of truth and justice and compassion that he lived into during his own life, and to making those ideals a reality for all God’s people.

The Holy Spirit comes here not only to give us strength and inspiration on life’s journey as we seek to do what God is calling us to do in our time.

The Holy Spirit comes here to make sure that Jesus is not just someone we study like an artifact in a museum, but rather an abiding presence that is felt in our lives — and in the life of the church — today.

The Holy Spirit comes here to be with us in order to ensure our faith is not just words that we say but, more importantly, the deeds that we do.   

So, how do we continue to be a church, how can we still be the body of Christ in this world, even when that body isn’t quite the same as it used to be?

The answer, at least from Jesus’s standpoint, is pretty simple: keep his commandments, keep his word and do his work. The details are ours to figure out in our particular place and time, as circumstances change — and this is the hard part.

But the Holy Spirit will always be right there with us as we do all this, inspiring us and keeping us on task.

For this, and for so much more, thanks be to God.