The Last Sermon (of yesterday’s 3)

The first two sermons were, in a sense, practice runs for the third sermon, which I’m more-or-less transcribing below.

Today’s Gospel lesson is John 16:12-15.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson from John, “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.”

This passage is the enemy of fundamentalists everywhere.  Because Jesus says explicitly to his disciples that he is not done giving his message to the world… only that his flight is called, he still has to get through the security and customs barriers, and it’s time to go.  But don’t worry, his associate is on his way, and he’s an even better teacher.

We can look at the first century AD world of Jesus, and get what he means.  The times that Jesus lived in were horrific.  Death claimed most men before the age of fifty.  Childbirth claimed most women before the age of thirty. Child mortality was two deaths for every hundred births, maybe even higher.  A brutal totalitarian government had controlled most of the Mediterranean world for the last century, and would rule for another three.  Jesus preached his message of love and forgiveness to an audience that had seen brutal repression at sword point for sixty years, had fought for and lost their freedom four times in two centuries.  Relationships between women and men were drastically unequal, and often violent.  Marriages were usually arranged while the happy pair were still in diapers, and marriage for love was out of the question.  In less than fifty years, a volcano would erupt and bury a city of thirty thousand people under molten rock, ash and mud.  There had been more or less constant war for four hundred years.

OF COURSE there is no way that they could handle all the truth.  The whole truth would kill them.  There’s electricity, and computers coming,  Jesus might say,  and mobile phones.  And cities of millions of people. And storms that can kill cities of millions of people.  And nuclear weapons, and cold wars.  And oil slicks the size of New England states. And New England states.  There are two continents beyond the World-Ringing Ocean, did you know that?

They didn’t have asylums in the first century AD.  Or psychotherapists. But they’d have found a way to keep Jesus sedated for that kind of talk — confined in his mother’s house, and out of sight and mind.

Nonetheless, this passage in the Gospel of John is Christianity’s escape clause from the insanity of fundamentalism.  Because Jesus explicitly argues that there is more truth than what he has time and inclination to reveal, and that some of it is so harsh and difficult that his audience is nowhere near ready to hear it.   Fortunately, the Spirit of truth is coming, and that Spirit will speak what it hears from Jesus, and Jesus will say to the Spirit of truth what he hears from dear old Dad.

In Christian doctrine, we say that the three persons of the Trinity are co-equal in power and ability, but with distributed responsibility.  It’s like a major project — and I say this to the engineers in the audience — where you need a chief designer, a chief marketing guru or project manager, and a hammer.  The designer’s job is to make the design so that it’s effective, and that’s God the Father originally.  The marketer’s job is to set a date for delivery, and see that the engineering schedule keeps up to deliver the product on time.  That’s God the Son, come into the world at the right time to deliver the right message to the right people.  And the hammer’s job is to deliver the… pardon the pun, Come-to-Jesus speech or the arm-twisting, that gets the product delivered on time.  The hammer delivers the hard truths that the designer and the marketer know, but feel uncomfortable about saying out loud.  That’s the Holy Spirit, who kicks us and tells us in no-nonsense terms, enough with the dawdle and delay, change is coming and there’s nothing to do about it but accept it.

And the nice thing about the Trinity is that all three are co-equal… any one of them can be the engineer, the marketer or the hammer. You can meet any of them, or all three, at any time.  And their messages sound remarkably the same, because they all talk to one another, all the time.

  • God the Father, the creator, says he has have given us every green herb of the field, and the whole Earth is ours.  That’s a pretty powerful truth.  But there are side effects to that ownership:  the laws of nature as God has designed them insist on it.  So if we drill too deep into the earth, we may poison the ocean.  Be careful:  we already own the planet, but it’s the only one God’s going to give us.
  • God the Son, the redeemer, says that we are empowered to make all kinds of choices in our personal lives, having to do with what we eat, what we say, and what we do.  But we should choose to do to others what we would want done to us.  And if we refuse to forgive others, it will come around to hurt us.  Moreover, there are people sick, in prison, lonely, upset, in trouble, and in harm’s way — if we don’t protect them, the damage is incalculable.
  • And God the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, says Yeah, what they said.  Or else.

We recognize these truths every day.  Some of them are easy, and some of them are incredibly hard.  Our tradition, the Episcopal Church, is having deep, divisive fights between those who say we must remain the same as what Jesus taught two thousand years ago, and those who say we must move forward and accept new truths.  The Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps the whole world, is reeling from the damage caused by “a few short-cuts to profit”.  Hard truths can be ignored, but never forever.

When I was in the eighth grade, I had terrible difficulty with Algebra.  My father labored with me at the dining room table for most of the year, trying to teach me to understand math.  I didn’t get it.  While I loved the attention from him, I fought his instruction for so long, that my father hired me a tutor.  He was older than me, but younger than my dad, and with the tutor’s help I passed algebra by a hair’s breadth.

Many years later, I was able to assist another student who had difficulty with algebra, and I used the dimly remembered experiences with my tutor to do it.  About a year after that, I ran into my old tutor in the grocery store, and I thanked him for the assistance, all those years ago.  “I couldn’t do it with my father,” I told him.  “It had to be you.”

He laughed at me. “My math teacher in eighth grade left because she got pregnant.  Your dad was my long-term substitute teacher.  I taught you his way… it’s the only way I know to explain algebra.”

When the Father couldn’t reach the Son, he sent another comforter.

So don’t get caught up in who the messenger is, or whether you like the message or not.  The really important thing isn’t who says it. The important thing is whether it’s true. Because if it is true, the source of the message is God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Engineer, Project Manager, and Hammer.

And if the message is true?  It’s time to act on it.

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