Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon: Different Names for the Same Thing

This is the sermon I preached on May 8th at FPC.  I’m a little late in posting it here…

John 14:15-29

15 ‘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 for ever. 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.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But 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. 27Peace 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. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.


Different Names for the Same Thing

Audrey Penn wrote her children’s book The Kissing Hand for her daughter who was afraid to go to kindergarten.  The story is about a raccoon named Chester who is afraid to start school – afraid to leave his mom behind as he tries something new in the world.  His mother takes his hand, and kisses it, telling Chester that this kiss will stay with him always.  This kiss will be his reminder that he is always loved and care for by her, no matter what.  He cannot wash it off, and whenever he needs to be reminded of his mother, all he has to do is put the kissing hand up to his face to remember his mother’s love.  Chester does remember this, and on the night he goes to school for the first time – -raccoons are nocturnal animals – he suddenly turns, and kisses the palm of his mother’s hand so she will remember his love for her.

             Now, Jesus was not a raccoon, and the disciples were not children headed for their first day of school, but like Chester the raccoon and his mother, there was a time of separation coming for Jesus and the Disciples.  And like Chester, the disciples were anxious.  Our reading for today is in the middle of what is known as Jesus’s Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John – his goodbye speech.  In chapters 14-16, Jesus explains in great detail the significance of his death and departure before they happen, so that the disciples will be ready to interpret them through the eyes of faith and not despair when the time comes.  Woven throughout the discourse are the themes of Jesus’ abiding love and continued presence after his death, the necessity of Jesus’ return to God the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the future of the community and centrality of love.[1]  It is in verse 16 – in our portion of the farewell discourse for today, that we see Jesus first mention the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom he will ask God to send to be with us forever after his departure.  Jesus will leave, but will not leave us without a reminder of his everlasting love for us.

It is in this Farewell Discourse that Jesus really brings home the point that he is actually leaving.  There will be no last minute change of plans, no replacement for him on the cross, no one to take his place.  Not only will he die, but after his resurrection, he will really leave them for good.  He will return to God and they will be left here on Earth to continue the work he has begun.  That must have seemed a scary prospect to the disciples – -to be left here seemingly alone to do work that they felt unprepared for.  This was a much scarier prospect than the first day of school or the first time away at summer camp without your parents or older siblings.  The disciples were probably scared, possibly anxious.  They may have wondered – who will replace Jesus?  Can anyone replace him?  Are we to be left here alone to fend for ourselves?

             Well, yes and no.  No, no one can replace Jesus.  And Jesus does not promise a replacement.  There will not ever be another human who will do what he has done.  There is only one Christ, only one savior who died for us.  However, Jesus promises to send someone to be the ongoing presence of God and Jesus with the community after he is gone.  Jesus says to them, “ ‘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 for ever…‘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…”  That word “advocate” – from the Greek Parakleos, or paraklete –  is an interesting one: Jesus promises to send another advocate when he is gone.  An advocate is someone to stand up for you.  Often we think of advocates in adversarial situations – in court proceedings, our lawyers are our advocates, and stand up to speak up for us.  As children, our parents are supposed to be our advocates when we need someone to argue for our best interests when they are not being met; often you will hear a parent of a special needs child talking about having to advocate for an individual education plan or accommodations when a school may not be providing them.  Patients in hospitals may need to enlist the services of a patient advocate to ensure they receive proper care if it is not given.  We often also hear the term advocacy in terms of legislature – there are advocacy groups for all sorts of political issues who will go before legislative bodies and speak on behalf of their causes.  Bartow Advocates for Children speaks up for children who may not have anyone else to speak for them in all sorts of situations.  The Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, where we volunteered last summer, speaks out on behalf of the homeless who have no political standing of their own.  So, perhaps we can read this passage as the Spirit being the one who will bring our case before God in hopes that God will be merciful to us. However,…it is just the opposite upon a deeper reading.  God has already done something merciful for us.  God has already done the most merciful thing for us God could do.  God gave us the gift of unconditional love through the death and resurrection of Christ, and that love is what creates genuine life.  The holy spirit, the advocate, the paraclete is who brings the truth of that love to people after Easter which makes faith possible.  So, when Jesus calls the Spirit another advocate, the assumption is that Jesus was also an advocate from God, communicating God’s message to us.

That’s a lot to take in.  Anyone feel a little bit like you are in the Charlie Brown Cartoons and I’m the adult going “mwah mwah…mwah mwah…”?  Think about it like this – -rather than the Holy Spirit communicating only the message of Jesus to us, The Holy Spirit and Jesus both communicate the message of God to us.  They are both sent by God, and are both sent into the world.  Jesus communicates what he has received from God, and the Spirit communicates what she has received from Jesus and God.  Both of them each bear witness to the truth, and the world fails to recognize each of them.[2]

             We need to be careful though, that we are not trying to put a square peg into a round hole here.  The Holy Spirit is not a replacement for Jesus.  I’m a big fan of those Tervis Tumblers – -the insulated glasses that are wonderful at keeping my drinks cold.  They have great lids that keep me from spilling all over myself when I take one in the car, and I tend to lose them, so I keep extras in my pantry.  What’s nice is that the lids are interchangeable for the same size cup – I don’t need to keep the exact same lid with the exact same cup like I do with my travel coffee mugs that all have specific lids that only fit one mug.  With the glasses, I can grab a cup and grab a lid and go.  When I leave a lid at church, or one is in the dishwasher, there is another one to take its place.  Well, the Holy Spirit and Jesus don’t work like that – I can’t grab the lid from my coffee mug and put it on my drinking glass just like the Holy Spirit is not interchangeable with Jesus.  Calling the Holy Spirit “another advocate” does not make her the same as Jesus.  The spirit continues the work of Jesus without taking the place of Jesus.

This all started when Jesus was born – the love of God was made known through the incarnation – that’s fancy theological language for saying that God sent God’s love to earth in human form as a baby.  That love grew up and taught us about how we are to love each other and how God wants us to live.  That love was a person named Jesus.  He had a real body and was a real human who was also God.  This real human had a ministry on earth, teaching and preaching and healing, and caring, and advocating for those who had no voice.  His ultimate ministry was his death for us on the cross.  And he was resurrected and then ascended, and his earthly ministry ended.  The sending of the Holy Spirit was a continuation of that ministry – a way the revelation of God that occurred in Jesus Christ was extended in to the future.  The Holy spirit was sent to the community by Jesus and God to be an eternal sign to the community – after the resurrection – of God’s love and care for us.

There are many names for that eternal sign.  We have heard several so far today – -Paraclete, Advocate, Holy Spirit.  Eugene Peterson uses the word “friend.”  We can also translate it as counselor, comforter, and helper.  The idea is that Jesus did not leave us alone, but with someone to comfort us, to care for us, to walk with us, and to be with us as we continue the mission God and Jesus teach us to do.  The Holy Spirit is the ongoing presence of God with the believing community.  The Holy Spirit is the bridge between what Jesus said during his ministry and what will happen in his absence.  The Holy Spirit is the link between the historical ministry of Jesus and the future of the church after his death.

As I was preparing for today, I was also thinking about images for the Upper Room service – -how to depict the Holy Spirit on the big screen.  There are several Biblical images that we have – -the flames of Pentecost, the descending dove, the rushing wind.  In Jesus we have a concrete idea of what that looks like.  God is a little harder to depict, but we can try hard to put imagery to it.  But if I passed out crayons to each of you and asked you to draw the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure how far we would get.  Have you ever actually seen the Holy Spirit?  In person?  Standing next to you?  David Lose is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN and each week writes a letter to pastors.  This week’s letter was about this text, and I appreciated his comments.  He says that in this week’s text, we get a really good example of exactly what the Holy Spirit looks like in two ways.  I’ve dropped both clues to you so far…let’s see if you got them.  First, the Holy Spirit looks like an advocate – the one who stands by you when you need it, the one who speaks on your behalf.  The Holy Spirit looks like the one who helps you when you need it and will not leave you when you feel abandoned or lost.  How is your mental image coming?  Does it have a face or faces?  Are there names coming to mind?  Is the amorphous blur of fire and wind beginning to take shape?  The second clue is when we thought about “another advocate”.  The Holy Spirit looks like Jesus.  Jesus was indeed the first advocate.  The spirit came to remind us of what Jesus taught, and to be the bridge between him and the future.  So, as David says, the Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks a lot like Jesus.  And acts like Jesus.  So, anytime someone bears the love of Christ to another we have seen the Holy Spirit.

Advocates.  Comforters.  Friends.  Companions.  Helpers.  Have you seen them?  I invite you to think for a moment about your everyday activities.  When you get up, go to work or school or the store or to get gas or to eat.  When you go to the ball-field or the pool.  When you come home.  Have you seen the Holy Spirit at work in the world?  Have you seen someone standing up for another?  Perhaps a parent cheering for another child at a baseball game, even if the child was not having a great game.  Did someone carry your groceries to your car?  Offer a seat on the bus?  Serve at Friendship table?  Come help prepare for VBS?  What would your picture look like now?  Because my friends, the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in each of you.  I see it every day – perhaps the first place you should look is in the mirror.  I see it when you care for each other’s children, or drive one another to church.  I see it when you agree to disagree and then find ways to continue to be the body of Christ together.  The Holy Spirit was at work when several of you went to volunteer at Habitat last weekend and showed the love of Christ to and for your community. The love of God taught through Jesus Christ flourishes in us.  We may not always recognize it, and we may not always look for it, but it is there. 

Yes, the Holy Spirit is known by many names.  Many names for the same thing – the continued presence for God and Christ in the world.  The assurance of God’s love and encouragement to follow Christ’s command to continue God’s work – The Holy Spirit calls and inspires us to be advocates for those who do not have one, to love those who are alone, and to embody the love of Christ.  Amen.

[1] New Interpreters Study Bible.  Page 1937, footnote at 14:1-16:33.

[2] Koester, Craig.  Commentary on the Gospel.



On Pentecost they Gathered

The sermon for Pentecost

The Text is Acts 2:1-21

On Pentecost They Gathered

“Birthdays – -everyone has one.”  Isn’t that how the saying goes?  And it seems for most people who have birthdays, there are birthday parties.  When we are children, there are parties with themes – -maybe a superhero, or a princess, clowns or cowboys, or ponies and rainbows.  Most of the themed birthday parties I attended during elementary school occurred during the 1980’s so I remember lots of Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony, Smurf, and Gummy Bear themed events.  Each complete with those cardboard hats with the elastic bands, paper noise blowers, crepe paper streamers, printed plastic tablecloths, and the plastic goody bags with the handles that ripped before you got home full of party favors – -all coordinating with the theme of the party.  Birthday parties are a big deal!  They are a time for us to gather with friends and family and celebrate the birth of someone we care about.  Birthdays are a chance for us to celebrate the life of a person, both to look back at where they have been and look forward at what is to come.

My family loves birthdays, and we have lots of fun birthday traditions.  On your birthday, you get to pick what you have for birthday dinner – whatever you want.  Every year we tie helium balloons to the chair of the birthday person, and every year it is a surprise as to when they arrive during the day – -you just walk in the door and there they are!   The choice of birthday cake is a serious decision as well – store bought with the icing so sweet your teeth hurt is what you get if that’s your choice, or if you want something else, someone will make it for you.  If you happen to be me, and your birthday happens to fall in the middle of March, you might be able to make the celebration last the entire month between spring break and vacation and family visits.  What I love about how my family celebrates birthdays is our birthday dinner – -it is long. -we cook together and eat and simply sit around the table and talk and visit for a long time.  Since we do not live in the same town anymore, birthday dinner usually happens during a weekend visit back to my Mom’s house, so it is really a birthday weekend.  We gather as a family and share our stories and our memories.  We savor our time together.  And there is cake – -now usually baked by my sister, who has amazing talent in this area.  Cake and candles – -and by the time the candles are lit, it is dark and they glow in the dining room.  When we blow out the candles on our cakes, we remember our pasts as we look forward to the future and wonder what happens next.  As we “make a wish and blow it out” we are thinking about our futures.  What is our prayer for the next year?  We like birthdays in my family.  And always, at some point during the day there is the phone call from Aunt Maureen.  Now, Aunt Maureen is not my Aunt – -she is my mom’s best friend, who has known me since before I was born.  And your birthday does not feel complete until she calls and tells you the story of the day you were born.  It is the same every year- no matter where you are, no matter where she is.  “I remember the day you were born…” is always how it starts.

I think that’s why Pentecost is one of my favorite days of the Christian Year – after Christmas and Easter.  It is our Birthday Party as a church.  Pentecost is our day to tell our story – “I remember the day you were born…”  It is our chance to gather as a community and savor our memories.  No matter where we are worshipping, someone tells the story of the day the Holy Spirit came and set us on our way.  There may not be balloons tied to the back of a chair filled with helium, but there is the breath of God moving among us.  There may not be birthday cake or candles, but there is the memory of flames descending from heaven.  At Pentecost we tell the story of the day we were born.  We remember the origins of our life as a community of faith, the day we were claimed by the Holy Spirit, as we look forward to our future.

We do consider Pentecost to be the birthday of the church – -the birth of the body of Christ.  “On Pentecost they Gathered” or so the hymn goes.  Pentecost certainly was not the beginning of the work of the Triune God.  God breathed over the face of the waters back in the beginning.  This was not the beginning of the work of Jesus Christ – that had been happening throughout the life of Jesus Christ.  But this was the arrival of the long-promised Holy Spirit.  The fulfillment of the promises made in John.  The Gospel readings in John the last 7 weeks, through this Easter season, have all been taking about this very thing.  We have been reading and hearing about Jesus promising to send someone to be with us when he would no longer be with us, after his ascension into heaven.  He promised to send a comforter, an advocate, a counselor, a helper, someone to serve alongside us.  That was indeed the Holy Spirit.  The one who came to be with us when Jesus could not.

“The disciples had gathered in the upper room, trying to figure out what they needed to do next. It had been 50 days since the Resurrection, which is not, all things considered, a very long time. In a short week they went from having their friend and teacher with them, to having him arrested and crucified, to seeing Jesus risen from the dead. When we meet them at Pentecost, they’ve had a week to get used to the idea that the Christ they were coming to know has now ascended to heaven.”[1] It is natural that they would have gathered at this time on this place — Seven weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the followers of Christ have come together for a festival.  It is the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot – the third of three great feasts – -a joyful festival when the first-fruits of the harvest were offered to God.  Shavuot was the celebration of the giving of the 10 commandments and of the Torah to the people from Sinai.  And so, we might see that Luke is drawing a parallel here for us – -just as the exodus revelation signaled the birth of the chosen people of God, for us, Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit signals the birth of the church.[2] The scattered followers of Christ have gathered from across the land and come back together – the entire community numbered about 120 – men and women, the Twelve, and all the followers of Jesus were gathered together in one place when it happened…The festival gathering turned into something else that they had not imagined it would be – it was something entirely different.  In addition to the celebration of their ancient past, it was also the birth of something new.

Have you ever watched the coverage of hurricanes on TV?  You might be familiar with the stories where the news anchor stands on a beach somewhere in the driving wind, tethered to a news van in the expensive rain jacket, holding onto their microphone for dear life as the waves crash behind them.  Have you seen when the palm trees blow almost sideways as rooftops that used to be attached to gas stations and convenience stores blow by in the background and they tell you not to try this yourselves?  I imagine that is what the wind of Pentecost may have been like – -without the rain and the news anchor who really should know better.  A violent rush with the power to turn things upside down and knock people off their feet.  Loud, like jet engines.  Rushing, strong – maybe more like a tornado than a hurricane.  And as that wind rushed through the room where they were, those who were gathered all began to speak in many different languages – the languages of the world.  They began to speak and understand the Gospel in every language imaginable – -not just their own, but everyone else’s too.  This was not speaking in tongues as we may know it today.  This was all of a sudden they could speak and understand Spanish and Dutch and Aramaic and Russian and Arabic and Afrakaans and Chinese.  They had been given the power to take the good news of the Gospel to the corners of the world and share it with all they met – to go and bear witness to the power of the risen Christ.  On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit had empowered the church to leave the safety of the known and minister to strangers wherever we may find them.

And then, just like that, the rush of wind died down, the people were quiet, and they all look at each other.  It’s probably a confused silence for just a moment.  A “what on earth…?” sort of pause.  A few folks who may have been knocked down by the force of the wind got back to their feet and then they all begin to ask themselves what happened.  And, the bigger question… what does this mean?  What does it mean that our festival of offering the firstfruits of our labor to God was interrupted by a violent wind and the giving of multiple language skills?  What do we do now?  It can be easy to look back from our perspective and say, “well, of course – -the church was born and this is what you are supposed to do from here on out…” but the 120 people in that room were probably not so sure.  Peter’s response is to do what Peter seems to do best, he turns to scripture and he preaches to them.  He tries to help them find meaning in the events of the day.

“What does this mean?”  That question from verse 12 is a question we may find ourselves asking a lot in our lives.  It is a question we might ask about Pentecost as well – -what does this event that happened so long ago have to do with us today?  Why should we care about the birth of the church?  We’re still here, aren’t we?  Does it matter how that happened?  Tongues of fire and the Holy Spirit, we don’t do that – we’re Presbyterian….  What does this day have to do with us?  With who we are today?  With were we are going?  What does it mean?  The same question Peter answered for them back then is the one we answer today.  Pentecost was a powerful encounter for the early church with God.  The whole experience was the giving of the Holy Spirit, it was the unifying of the Body of Christ – -the beginning of this thing we call Christianity.  They were all in one place – all the Christians in the whole world.  They all received the Holy Spirit, and then they all were a part of what happened – -when they struggled to find meaning in it, they saw Peter turn to scripture.

Peter turns to scripture – -the first act of the Church is to open their Bibles when they need to make sense of the world.  When they ask the question, “what does this mean?” Peter guides them to scripture.  To the words of the prophets, to the words of the past to help make sense of the present as they look to the future.  The end of the Pentecost reading is Peter’s reshaping of the oracle from the book of Joel – 2:28-32:  ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Peter’s sermon, and his reading of Joel tells the early church that they are in new times – his use of the words “In the last days” is a sign to them.  God has sent the Holy Spirit to God’s people and a new time in human history has begun.  The times, they are changing.  Peter does a second thing when he uses Joel, he begins to interpret the community created by the Spirit. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. Peter describes the community created by the Holy Spirit.  Marked by the Holy Spirit that day, claimed by God as God’s to use for God’s purposes the church was given their mission when they were given their languages – -to go and proclaim God at work in the world to all they encounter – to prophesy – -they shall tell the truth about where we see God at work in the world.  And then Peter interprets the work of the community – -we were given languages and claimed by God in order to be prophets and answer the call of the Holy Spirit.

The language of scripture that Peter quotes still captures our imaginations – he uses languages of dreamers and visionaries – -in the time after the Holy Spirit comes, we will be inspired to do the work of God.  We will dream dreams of God’s kingdom, and have visions of how we are to do the work of the church.  We will be called to go outside where we are comfortable and do things we never imagined possible as we see God at work in the world.  The Holy Spirit will inspire us to move to places we never thought were possible, to serve people we never knew existed, and to see God in ways we never dared to imagine.

So why does Pentecost matter?  Why do we celebrate this birthday?  Because just as the phone call I get every year from Aunt Maureen reminds me from where I came, the child I was, of my origins, Pentcost reminds us of where we began.  It is our chance to look back at our birth, to tell the story of our origins as a community.  We, the Church, began as a band of 120 who gathered for a festival and got knocked over by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There were no helium balloons, but there was an amazing rush of wind.  There were no birthday candles, but the flames of fire that we were given in the gifts of speaking and understanding every language, and with that gift we were given the purpose of telling all who would hear about the power of God at work in the world.  Pentecost matters for us today as a way to remember a community turning to scripture when they needed to figure out how to make meaning of a strange time in their lives.  It is at Pentecost that we speak of the Spirit mobilizing us and calling us into all sorts of directions, beyond boarders and boundaries, empowering us to dream and envision, to imagine where we may go next.  So Happy Birthday to us!  May we remember the power of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost day and always.  Amen.

[1] Rev. Martha Hoverson.  “This I Believe: A Sermon for the Confirmation Class using Acts 2:1-21”.  Used with permission.

[2] Aymer, Margaret F. Acts 2:1-21: Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 3.  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2010 (17).