The older I get, the more I love the ministry and poetry of the apostle Paul. Over the years I have discovered that like me he doesn’t always get it right – in fact, sometimes he is so totally wrong that it is painful. Even worse, when his words are taken out of context and used to wound others, it is always ugly.
· Ask any preacher about that one and if they are honest they’ll tell you stories that will make you sick to your stomach concerning how some folk in their brokenness can twist and distort your words into something mean-spirited and cruel.
· But… when old Paul is right, his words can sing in ways that inspire courage and hope and understanding like none other in our Bible. Some of the first words I ever committed to memory come from Paul’s writing to the ancient church in Rome:
We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because (hope is) God’s love (being) poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Now I know that conventional wisdom advises that we NOT boast in our suffering: we have been taught to get rid of inconvenience and pain as quickly and efficiently as possible. And when we can’t distract, mask or evade our suffering, then we complain and carp and whine about it. But Paul says there is another way – a way born of the Holy Spirit – that empowers us to take even our deepest sadness and fear and let them become for us a pathway into hope. Peterson’s reworking of Romans 5 puts it like this:
We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy… we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit- (because we are nourished on hope.)
· Do you sense something of the contrast Paul is describing for us? Left to our own devices, he says, we will grumble about or evade whatever wisdom our wounds might carry – we’ll want to get through it all as fast as we can – and more often than not we’ll do so as self-absorbed whiners.
· But those who know – those who have tasted something of God’s grace in the very life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ – will hold their tongues and practice patience so that by the spirit of hope we might be led into new truth and greater strength for living.
I think that is what Jesus was telling his friends in today’s gospel reading, too when he said: In this moment you cannot grasp everything. In fact, you probably don’t want to know the whole story. You cannot bear it. But when the time is right: the Spirit of the Truth will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won't draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said. He will honor me; he will take from me and deliver it to you (so that you know that) everything the Father has is also mine. That is why I've said, 'The Spirit takes from me and delivers to you.
This is how we become a blessing for another: we respond to all of life with hope born of the Holy Spirit. It takes practice, commitment, forgiveness, patience, community and humility so that we both learn from our mistakes and discern how God wants to us them for blessings.
Small wonder then that the closing segment of our worship each Sunday is called: bless – a time to respond to God’s grace with our lives and our resources. It is our weekly practice of giving shape and form to living lives that are centered, engaged and reflective. The very structure of our worship, you see, is a template for cultivating the hope born of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul described.
· We begin by coming together as a community, letting go of our anxieties and becoming centered in God’s love. As we celebrate God’s love, we remember our sin – our wounds – our brokenness and hand them over to the Lord for healing and forgiveness. The first two parts of worship are grounded in grace.
· Then we open ourselves to a wisdom and tradition that is not only bigger than our experience but also deeper than our knowledge: we listen to the voices of our ancestors in Scripture and seek to find our response twenty centuries later. We gather, engage, reflect – and then bless.
We do these things over and over again, week in and week out, because it would seem we need a lot of practice to live by hope. It is not easy to rejoice in our suffering so that it becomes for us not just a trial, but a way into the very character of Christ who trusts God in all things. Jesus was clear about this if we go back to the words in John’s gospel: Christ tells his friends that he knows they won’t grasp the depth of his life, death and resurrection all at once – you can’t bear it he says – it is beyond comprehension.
It is a mystery how God brings blessings out of something like the Cross, yes? But Easter is God’s response to Good Friday – new life and resurrection is God’s reply to our sin – and hope is God’s answer to our fears and shame. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “I will not leave you alone. I will send you the Paraclete – the source of spiritual friendship – who will take you by the hand and guide you into the future with hope.”
· Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus says about the Spirit: 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 (from me) and will declare to you the things that are to come.
· So right out of the gate Christ is bringing a word of comfort: it is natural to be confused, to NOT grasp the fullness of God’s love all at once. So, please, stop fretting and worrying about it, ok? What you are feeling is natural – try to learn from those feelings – because they can lead you to hope. And let’s be clear: I am talking to myself right here as much as I am preaching to you about this, ok?
Often I hold on to what Paul said in another section of Romans: We know (that is, we trust) that all things work together for good, for those who love God. He doesn’t say that all things ARE good, right? But for those who love and trust God, even the worst things in life can be turned upside down so that blessings can triumph over sorrow. Paul wraps up the eighth chapter of Romans like this: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
He knows – and has experienced in his heart, soul, mind and flesh – that God’s Spirit always leads us through our suffering towards hope. That doesn’t mean we won’t hurt – or be confused or afraid – it doesn’t mean we won’t stumble and fall either. We will… it just means that even our failures are not the end of the story for those who trust the grace of God in all things.
At the start of this month, Dianne and I celebrated being married for 18 years – not a record at all – but a blessing for us nonetheless. And while we were away, walking by the ocean in Portland, ME we got to talking about some of the changes we’ve been through over those years – how we’ve grown up a lot – hurt one another from time to time – and found the grace to grow through that pain. Looking backwards is not all bad, you know? And one of the things I’ve been pondering in my heart since that walk is the mystery of all that has taken place during those years: how back when we were first married there were things that we could not bear together – things about our commitment we were not yet ready to hear – but now, nearly 20 years later, we’re stronger and more attentive.
I suspect that is part of what Jesus was trying to tell his friends in today’s text: you won’t – and can’t – grasp the totality of God’s truth yet. So I’m going to send you a Friend – the Paraclete – who will take you by the hand (if you are paying attention) and lead you towards the path of hope. Now notice something here: these words – you aren’t ready for things yet… but there will come a time when I will send you another who will take you by the hand – sound a great deal like what Jesus said to Peter at the end of John’s gospel.
· In that setting, Peter has betrayed the Lord, run away from the community and tried to lose himself in his old ways. Jesus comes to him in mystery and after a breakfast on the beach of fish and bread, Peter’s eyes are opened and he recognizes the Risen Christ.
· And after asking his old friend, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus goes on to say: In your mature love – tested and humbled – you must become a blessing. (Don’t waste this pain!) When you were young and strong you could go wherever you wanted to go, but now that you are older I will send another who will lead you into those places where you do not want to go.
He was talking about places of personal surrender and confession, places of ministry and service, places that speak truth to power with humility and grace, places that challenge the status quo with love and forgiveness: to be a blessing, it would seem, you must take the hand of the one Christ sends to us who leads us into places we would never dare imagine if left just to ourselves.
This is the only way we can boast in our sufferings: when we are being led by the Spirit. For only God’s Spirit in Christ can turn suffering into endurance – and endurance into character – and character into hope. In the Spirit we can imagine the world as it ought to be – not as it is – a world where sharing by all means scarcity for none – a world where God’s will is done on earth as it is already done in heaven – a world where we listen more than speak and forgive more than judge. A world born of God’s Holy Spirit is guided by hope.
And let me go a little deeper here because the radical truth of these words can be lost in the English poetry of John’s gospel: The Paraclete – the Holy Spirit who is our friend through Christ – comes from God to testify and witness to the truth of Christ’s way. And the word the text translates as “testify” is martyresei – a form of the Greek word martyr – meaning one who speaks from personal experience.
· In its original context a martyr was not a sacrificial lamb, but rather one who had personally experienced and lived the truth – in this case the power of God to bring hope into our despair and life into our death.
· A martyr was a witness who not only knew the right words, but had experienced them, too. So what does that tell you about the Holy Spirit?
The Spirit acts as our helper having intimate experience trusting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To be a martyr is to practice trusting when all evidence is obscure – listening beyond the voices of confusion, shame or fear – resting in the assurance that Christ will not leave us alone – and sharing compassion and justice even when no one else thinks it will make any difference. Jesus says the Spirit – the Paraclete – has done this and will help us do so, too.
Do you recall what Paul taught about the Spirit back in I Corinthians 12 and 13? After reminding the church that there are a variety of gifts given to us by the Spirit to strengthen the community – gifts that include faith and acts of love and even sometimes speaking in tongues – he wraps it all up like this: now I want to lay out a far better way for you. If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back but keeps going to the end.
The essence of the Spirit empowers us to love as martyrs – those who know and trust the grace of God from the inside out – and if that sounds crazy or too demanding or something you can’t get your head all the way around, here is the good news: Jesus said that’s exactly what he expected. Some things are just too much to bear in the beginning – they require practice – in community – open to the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Take, for example, how we practice this truth in the blessing section of worship when we gather to celebrate Holy Communion. Three truths are observed:
· First we recognize that we are are part of a community – not just a collection of odd individuals who stumbled into this place by accident – by the very Body of Christ. That means when we stand and come forward to the table, we do so with great attention. Together we are approaching the Lord who is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. So this should be a time of joyful reverence – quiet and focused – without chattering or visiting. It is like a pilgrimage to Jesus that we share together, but our attention is always on Christ rather than ourselves.
· Second, we remember that it is Christ who stands at the door to offer us grace – not me or any tradition – but Jesus. So our standing and coming forward is a body prayer that lets us practice choosing to live a disciple. That’s the fundamental reason why we don’t come to you to serve you – then the emphasis is on receiving rather than choosing – it is passive rather than active – too easy to conclude that communion is about getting something from the Lord before offering yourself to God.
· And third, after we have actively humbled ourselves and intentionally chosen to step forward, we practice returning to our lives by going to our seats in silence so that others are not disturbed. It would be so easy to chat with a friend as we stroll back to our seat, but that would distract others from their pilgrimage. With respect and love, we return to our seats and our lives to pray for the whole body.
The same idea shapes giving our offering, listening to the choir and receiving our marching orders at the close of worship, too: they all point to how we practice becoming part of the body of Christ called to give witness to love as martyrs. Now at first these practices seem odd – even uncomfortable – and some would say boring or irrelevant. That’s mostly because we cannot bear their deeper blessings – we must first learn to watch and wait and practice in prayer – so that it is the Spirit rather than our habits who leads us. Think of it like this:
Once upon a time there were two young brothers who had lived all their lives in a city behind great stone walls and never saw field or meadow or anything of nature. But one day they decided to pay a visit to the country. So as they walked along the road they saw a farmer at his plowing – and watched him with amazement. "What on earth is he doing that for! He turns up the earth and leaves deep furrows in it. Why should someone take a smooth piece of land covered with nice green grass and dig it up?"
Later they watched the farmer sowing grains of wheat along the furrows. "That man must be crazy! He takes good wheat and throws it into the dirt. I don't like the country!" said one in disgust. "Only crazy people live here." So he returned to the city. His brother who remained in the country, however, saw a change take place only several weeks later. The plowed field began to sprout tender green shoots, even more beautiful and fresher than before. This discovery excited him so he wrote to his brother in the city to come at once and see for himself the wonderful change. His brother came and was delighted with what he saw. As time passed they watched the sproutings grow into golden heads of wheat. Now they both understood the purpose of the farmer's work.
And when the wheat became ripe the farmer brought his scythe and began to cut it down. At this the impatient one exclaimed: "That farmer is crazy! He's insane! How hard he worked all these months to produce this lovely wheat and now with his own hands he is cutting it down! I'm disgusted with such an idiot and going straight back to the city!" His brother was more patient an held his peace as he remained in the country.
He watched the farmer gather the wheat into his granary. He saw him skillfully separate the grain from the chaff. He was filled with wonder when he found that the farmer had harvested a hundred-fold of the seed that he had sowed. And then he understood that there was logic in everything that the farmer had done. (Brian Stoffregen)
So, too, with practicing the way of the Lord in worship for those who are led by the Spirit: we have been called to share God’s love in the world as martyrs – those who know and trust the wisdom of the Lord from the inside out – it is an upside down way of living. And it is filled with blessing.