Reflection on the Promise of the Spirit of Truth - Sermon
'For the good and gracious God who has provided us with a copiousness of blessings, riches of food, and the joys of life, conditions this abundance with a commandment to share equitably and justly.'
My aim this morning is to make you hungry. Masashi has been providing us with biscuits and chocolates at the back of the church to have with our coffee. So if I succeed you will be able to satisfy yourselves afterwards.
We are going to use our imaginations. A table has been set. Fairly austere, but there are plates of food and flagons of good red wine. The main dish is lamb, well cooked and smelling delicious. Sorry about this – but there are no vegetarian dishes this morning. Although there are steaming dishes of fresh vegetables. There are plenty of herbs, some bitter.
We are eavesdropping on the table with Jesus and his disciples on the night before he died. There is a conversation taking place. It is intense. Jesus might have been justified in offloading his worries onto his disciples. He knew what was going to happen to him. But his concern was with this select, elect group of friends sharing the meal with him. The going was certainly getting tough for Jesus when he sat down with his disciples for what turned out to be his final meal with them. He knew what he had been to them over the time they had shared. Now he knew that he would not be with them for very much longer. Perhaps he can sense the distress, anxiety, even fear among the disciples. Maybe from our vantage point, we can sense it too. So he made them a promise – to ask God, his Father, to send another ‘advocate’. Another comforter, supporter, helper.
We all need help from time to time. Even those people who apparently seem to be strong and capable. Part of our work in this church, through our Margins Project is to provide advocacy for people who lack access to housing or who are not receiving all the entitlements they are due under our benefits system. Or ‘advocating’ for their employment. In the past years, there has been a concerning reduction in access to legal aid and therefore to justice. Leaving voluntary organisations under pressure to substitute to ensure people are able to call upon their rights. So Jesus knows what he must do. He promises his disciples that he would intercede on their behalf for the Spirit of Truth to stay with them – to abide with them and be in them.
Jesus didn’t make any promises that he would not keep. If he had not kept this promise, we would not be here today. For this commitment to send the Spirit of Truth was a commitment not just to those disciples engaging in this intimate conversation but also to every generation of disciples since, including us as we eavesdrop on the Last Supper.
But lean in a little if you can to hear exactly what Jesus is saying: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth’. Jesus has told us that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. So the Spirit of Truth that is promised fulfils the role that Jesus had played. Jesus was the helper to his disciples, their advocate. He then sends ‘another advocate’, a substitute! And that replacement is the same Truth, which comes from God’s commandments.
People who travel at weekends will be familiar with replacement bus services. We have a replacement for the living God who shared our flesh and continues to help, to care, to love, to protect, to support through the Spirit which he sent. And the promise comes true. When thousands of people are gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Shavuot.
Last Sunday, Katharine and I were invited to the New Stoke Newington Shul, a Jewish congregation. We will be meeting them online in the next two weeks. They were celebrating their new Torah Scroll. It was an important day for them and a real privilege to be there. They processed the scroll through the Hackney streets singing and dancing on the way. Their devotion to the commandments of God was transparent and very touching. They are now celebrating Shavuot – as we celebrate Pentecost. For them it is the day they remember the giving of the commandments to Moses. We are now going to join those same disciples in a very different mood.
It was fifty days after the day of resurrection. Fifty days –yes a Jubilee – when the euphoria of the resurrection had overwhelmed them. As Jesus had instructed, they had waited patiently in the city. Then on Shavuot - Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to them with the sound of a rushing, mighty wind. Tongues of fire appeared on each of their heads. They experienced the Holy Spirit within them but it could not be contained. They spoke in such a way that whoever heard them speak, heard in their own language. This is the Spirit which empowered the followers of Jesus to be bold in their proclamation of the Truth of Jesus. Something massive had happened. They were there at the dawning of the age of the Spirit.
This is the age in which we are living with the possibility and hope that creation is being restored, renewed. This is the age when we can know that God is alive, present, shaping and equipping us for a better way of living. To turn our face with joyful positivity toward the future. The age when God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh and our sons and our daughters prophecy.
Let’s come a little closer and join the Jerusalem crowd. It is a harvest festival. When you read the instructions for Shavuot in the Book of Leviticus, it will make your mouth water. If you like you just close your eyes and imagine. I am going to make you really hungry this time. First there is bread, made with the best flour. Can you smell it baking? Then there is lamb, just a year old to be sacrificed (and then eaten), delicious, tasty, tender lamb, it’s the only meat I would ever eat. But if you are a real carnivore, then get a load of the beef and the rams cooking. Oh, and the Bible also says that there needs to be plenty of drink to go with it. This is a time for food. Each settlement – each household – was instructed to prepare and bring their baskets of food to share. Are you hungry yet? I hope so.
Pentecost/Shavuot is about abundance. It is celebration. It is a Jubilee And it takes place fifty days after Passover – or for us 50 days after Easter. There is a party going on in those Jerusalem streets. So no one was surprised to see a bunch of people apparently out of their minds. They must be drunk. No, says Peter, not drunk because it is only 9 o’clock in the morning. As if that ever stopped anyone. For sure, Peter, his fellow disciples, Mary, the mother of Jesus were all there and they had more than an abundance of food. They had an abundance of the Holy Spirit. Overflowing with it. So today is about abundance, blessing, food, God’s goodness. It is a Jubilee.
At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, I was working as a youth worker in Newcastle. For some reason, which I will never understand, the clergy at the Cathedral had the idea that the official service should involve young people and someone recommended me to organise the service. It was a mistake, on their part and on mine. I thought we should take the idea of Jubilee from the Bible as the theme. The Jubilee is about putting things right; it is about justice, restitution, putting things back in order, forgiving debt. We involved schoolchildren who thought about the Bible theme. They were then asked to make posters and banners. And they did so, about world hunger, homelessness and other social justice themes. The service began with the young people processing into the cathedral carrying their banners. The choreography didn’t quite work and some of the young people took the wrong direction and some just froze on the spot once they had reached the front of the Cathedral. The service was not well received. In fact, there was a chorus of complaints at the next meeting of the City Council and a host of letters in the evening papers. Thank goodness there wasn’t any social media then.
The biggest offence was that a young person, who had made a placard reflecting her thoughts about homelessness, had frozen throughout the first hymn but a metre from the eyes of the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress. Her poster simply read: ‘where did you sleep last night?’.
How easy it is for the church to reflect the status quo and avoid the challenges all around us.
We often talk about and hope for a Pentecostal revival. We want the Holy Spirit to fill our churches with joy, exuberance, and all the excesses of that Shavuot/Pentecost which gave energy to the Jesus movement but 50 days after the resurrection. The revival of the spirit of Pentecost in the churches is not dependent on the right worship songs or even the mighty power of prayer, nothing wrong with worship songs (well some of them), and my goodness we need powerful prayer. But the Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of Truth. It is the advocate, comforter, helper promised by none other than our Saviour Jesus Christ. This Spirit was promised to those who keep God’s commandments. And in those commandments, which Jews believed were given to Moses at Shavuot fulfilled in Jesus Christ we can read these words.
‘Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.’ (Deuteronomy 16.20).
For the good and gracious God who has provided us with a copiousness of blessings, riches of food, and the joys of life, conditions this abundance with a commandment to share equitably and justly.
On this our Pentecost we are invited to a table. Not to eavesdrop this time but to be there. To take bread and drink wine. Sorry there aren’t any vegetables or lamb or beef or herbs and spices, but there are chocolate biscuits at the back. I hope I have made you hungry this morning, hungry to share this bread and this wine. If I have and you share this with us then I can promise you a blessing. I can promise you that the Spirit of Truth will guide you.
For the Spirit of Truth directs us to the one who said:
'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.' (Matthew 5:6).