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Sermon ~ Pentecost: The Spirit of Truth

John 13,36 and 14,1-19
Glengowrie Uniting Church
15 May 2016 (Pentecost Sunday)

Sermon at Pentecost about Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Paraclete.

I.

Pentecost.  50 days after Easter.

All of us know this story inside out.  Ever since I was a child and began to understand the story, I was fascinated by it:  All those who had been following Jesus were congregated when, in the German translation of the story by Martin Luther in 1545,

2 Vnd es geschach schnelle ein Brausen vom Himel /
als eines gewaltigen Windes /
vnd erfüllet das gantze Haus / da sie sassen.

3 Vnd man sahe an jnen die Zungen zerteilet / als weren sie fewrig /
vnd er satzte sich auff einen jglichen vnter jnen /
4 vnd wurden alle vol des heiligen Geists /
vnd fiengen an zu predigen mit andern Zungen /
nach dem der Geist jnen gab aus zusprechen.

Or in English, in the King James version from 1611:

(2)  And suddenly there came a sound from heauen
as of a rushing mighty wind,
and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

(3)  And there appeared vnto them clouen tongues,
like as of fire, and it sate vpon each of them.

(4)  And they were all filled with the holy Ghost,
and began to speake with other tongues, as the spirit gaue them vtterance.

In my imagination as a child, I could see myself sitting amongst these elderly men — at least that’s how they seemed to me — and saw real tongues of real fire on their heads.  Wouldn’t the fire have eaten their hair, is what I was wondering?  And why did it make them speak in languages, so that all people outside understood them?  Are there really that many languages???

In later years, I met people and attended congregations who called themselves “Pentecostals”.  I saw them praying and singing in “tongues” as a gift the Holy Spirit gave them, so they claimed.  I would not deny it — who would I be to question the power of the Holy Spirit?

But for me — a male, German Protestant theologian, influenced by a historically critical reading of the Bible, and rational as I am — this was strange.  Speaking in tongues, so that all those around understood them????  I would love to have this gift.  But I don’t.  So, what’s wrong with me?

 

Many of you might remember that in the past few years I have been working with Aboriginal and whitefella people who are trying to reclaim and revive their local indigenous languages.  And as a church worker both in my international assignments in Germany and now here in Australia, language and understanding has always been an important issue of my life and work.

For instance, a long time ago, in 1992, I visited South Korea and attended a conference.  I was the only European amongst a group of young activists discussing how to respond as Christians to the dictatorship situation in their country.  My interpreter was a young Korean woman who was reasonably fluent in German.  However, she kept forgetting to translate for me because she was closely involved in the discussions.  At first I was quite frustrated, but then I had this amazing experience of being able to understand bits and pieces of their debate.  No, they did not have tongues of fire on their heads, nor do I think I had been touched mysteriously by the Holy Spirit.  My understanding of the Korean language (or Hangul, as it is called) was very limited, but I discovered that my friends were using international terms or names which I knew, and they often used their hands, feet and faces to describe what they were saying.

All of a sudden I was part of the discourse, even though I could only speak a few words.

It was like the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel in reverse:  Yes, we spoke different languages, and no, neither of us was sufficiently fluent in the other’s language — but we were able to understand one another.

Was the Holy Spirit involved?  I will never know — but it was a miracle.

 

II.

Our sermon text, from the Gospel of John, chapter 14 takes us back again to the time a few days before Easter.  It was the last meeting Jesus had with his immediate followers before the tragic events of his suffering and crucifixion, followed by his resurrection.  It was the evening of the traditional Jewish Passover Festival — around the table for their last supper, which we as Christians celebrate as Holy Communion.  It was a tense moment, full of doubt, confusion, fear, and despair amongst the disciples.  Jesus had washed their feet, foretold the treachery of Judas Iscariot, and then — possibly over the meal — this discourse evolved over his farewell, as reported in the Gospel of John.

All the disciples sensed this was going to be the end of their journey together, and nobody really knew what was going to happen next.

Even Jesus told them:

“In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me.
Because I live, you will live also.” (v19).

I can really sense the confusion of these twelve men (and perhaps a number of women) who had followed Jesus through, as we say in German, “Dick und Dünn”, through thick and thin.  The worst was to come, the traumata of their betrayals, the fear of detection, the crucifixion, the ultimate moment of the end.  It was a moment of the Kairos, as theologians call it, the time of the ultimate truth.

Some of the modern Bible editions try to mirror this dialogue through their print setting:  Jesus said …, Simon Peter responded, Peter confronted, Thomas asked, Phillip challenged, Judas (not the Iscariot) inquired … and the responses by Jesus set in-between with an indent to the margin.  If you have such a Bible, have a look — it is a fascinating read.

I imagine them sitting in the house of a friend in Jerusalem, on the floor around a low table, with some food and wine (or water), it may be dark outside so that they have candle light, and their mood is subdued.  Surely, most of the enthusiasm of the early days of their crusade with their Rabbi ישוע (Jeschua) from Nazareth would be gone.  It’s obvious: everything is about to end.

 

III.

And then there is this quiet exchange between Jesus and his friends.  Like filling an empty bottle of wine, drop by trop, Jesus encourages his disciples not to give up.

You cannot follow me where I am going,
but I have given you a new commandment:
love one another, as I have loved you.

Don’t be troubled,
in my father’s house there is place for you all,
and I shall return to take you there.

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father; …
what I say I do not speak of my own accord …
because I am in the Father and the Father is in me.

I am the Way, I am the Truth and Life
If you know me, you know the Father.

Whoever believes in me,
will perform the same works as I do,
and even greater works.

And almost like a beacon shining into the darkness,

I will ask the Father
and he will give another Paraclete
to be with you forever,
the Spirit of truth,
whom the world can never accept since it neither sees or knows him
but you know him,
because he is with you,
HE IS IN YOU.

Closing this discourse of farewell, the promise:

I shall not leave you alone like orphans,
I shall come back to you.
And while the world will no longer see me,
YOU will see that I live, so shall you live.

 

Like a rainbow spanning its colourful arch over the troubled world, so Jesus:  I am the way to the father;  who believes in me will do greater works than I;  the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete given to you;  and, you shall live!

 

The Paraclete.  Many Bibles translate this word as the helper, advocate, encourager, or the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther, the reformer of Christian theology and culture in Germany 499 years ago, translated it as comforter in times of sadness.  For him and his times of political battles and uncertainties, peasant poverty, and times of dramatic changes, it had the strong connotation of encouraging those who were discouraged.

The way the author of the Gospel of John writes about the Paraclete, the word refers to a person, not a thing or just an unseen power, but rather as “someone called to be alongside” you or me to counsel, encourage, exhort.1 ]

A few lines later (verse 26), Jesus explains to his disciples that the “Paraclete will teach you everything and remind you of everything I have told you”.  Jewish scholars around the end of this first Century after Christ, when much their culture and language had been lost, tried to interpret this “Helper from God” in the context of the trials and sufferings of old Job:

“He who performs one good deed
has gotten to himself an advocate [paraclete],
and he who commits one transgression
has gotten to himself an accuser!”2 ]

Still today, when we celebrate Eucharist, in some church traditions we invoke the spirit of the Paraclete.  Following the teaching by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, in some churches we may recall the story of that meal on that very night:

(23)  … the Lord Jesus, in the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

(24)  And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said,
Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you:
this do in remembrance of me.

(25)  After the same way he took the cup, when he had eaten,
saying, This cup is the New Testament in my blood:
this do, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me.  (1 Corinthians 11:23-25 KJV)

It is the Spirit of the Lord, who is amongst us, in us and with us.  And he is reminding us of the life and work of Jesus, the Son of God.  The Paraclete is pleading for us to God, but he is also teaching and reprimanding us!  He is the Word of God that lives in us.

No, we can’t see God, and No, Jesus has not yet returned.  But the miracle is that, like the rainbow arching over despair and hope, beyond our own human powers, there is more.  There is so much more that Jesus can tell his disciples that they — or perhaps even we today — can fulfil things greater than what Jesus did in his life time.

Despite all the sufferings that the early Christians had to endure, and the sufferings that we later Christians have brought to bear over many peoples around the world, and not least here in Australia amongst the Aborigines —— despite all this, the Spirit of the teaching of what Jesus Christ did in his life time still lives on, right here — right amongst us.

 

IV.

Pentecost.  50 days later.

Did the Apostles really remember?  I don’t know, and sometimes I wonder.

But they were not forgotten, not at all.

50 days later, while having congregated, the Paraclete, God’s own Spirit, took control of them.  Beyond all their expectations, suddenly there was fire in their hearts, enthusiasm, courage, vision.

Perhaps my childhood fantasy of the flames on their heads was just an imagery of later generations.  Perhaps it was only the sun shining brightly into the windows, creating a light effect.

Speaking in tongues so that everyone understood?  Perhaps, maybe!  I never understand my friend praying in tongues.  Perhaps it’s me.  But perhaps it is not at all important.  Perhaps it is the fact that we can pray, and sing, and perhaps dance, together, with each other, for each other, and for the world — each of us in our own language.  The words don’t matter — it is the heart that has been set on fire!  It is that we have been caught by the story of Jesus, remembering his life and work and suffering, speaking out against suffering, for justice and in reconciliation.  And we may try to be like Jesus, out there, and perhaps even more …

Pentecost is one of the most important days of the Christian Church year for good reason.  It was the moment when the disciples of Jesus, the Apostles, his friends, men and women, went out into the world.  They accepted their calling by the Paraclete:  To lay the fingers into the wounds of the world, to speak the truth about sin, justice and judgement (16, 9f).  Ever since then, today and surely tomorrow, and despite all failings, this has been our calling:

  • love one another, as I have loved you
  • Jesus is the Way, the Truth and Life
  • Whoever believes in me, will perform … even greater works.

And beyond all,

  • YOU will see that I live, so shall you live!

Amen.

print

Footnotes

  1. Lectionarystudies.com <http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/studyn/easter5agn.html> [top]
  2. Kaufmann Kohler: PARACLETE, in The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11899-paraclete> [top]

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