a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C]
John 14:23-29 and Acts 16:9-15
The other day I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few items, and as I made my way to the stack of baskets something caught my eye. One of the cashiers, in her green Publix vest, was walking around the flower department and then the produce section with a young girl who was clutching a stuffed animal. As they passed in front of me, I clearly heard the cashier, a woman who could have easily been the age of the young girl’s grandmother, ask the girl, “Now, where did you last see him?” The woman had her hand gently placed on the girl’s shoulder and was guiding her around the store but at the same time looking up, scanning the scene, as if she was intently looking for something.
I was witnessing the other side of every parent’s nightmare—the little girl had been separated from her father, or maybe it was her brother or her uncle. In any case, my heart immediately went out to the girl, however, when I looked at her face it did not look frightened in the slightest. There was something about the way this cashier was taking control of the situation that must have calmed the girl and made her feel safe. I watched the two of them meander through the vegetables and fruits before I lost sight of them. It was not clear to me where the girl had last seen the adult she had come in with. It was not clear to me if he was looking for her, too. But what was clear to me was that for the time being, the girl was in the right hands.
On the evening before his death, Jesus assures his disciples that they will always be in the right hands. Even though they will likely feel lost, maybe even abandoned, even though their hearts will be troubled within them, even though they might be afraid, Jesus promises that someone will be there to place a hand on their shoulder and guide them along. At the time that Jesus is saying these things, it is pretty clear the disciples have no idea what he is talking about. The events of that evening have been very strange. He’s just finished washing their feet…of all things! And Judas Iscariot has run off to turn Jesus in…of all things! They are asking all kinds of questions about what’s about to happen and they’re confused.
But after his resurrection, after they see him die and then rise again and after they spend some time with him these words may start to come to them. As he says, Jesus is not always going to be with them in the same way. He is going to the Father. The disciples will continue in the way of love he has taught them, but he won’t physically be with them like he was when he multiplied the loaves and fish by the sea or the way he was when he broke bread around the Passover table. His community of followers will need to find their way around the grocery store of life without his physical presence. They’re going to have to imagine a life on their own without having him at arm’s length. They’re going to have to make decisions without his direct leadership, without being able to turn to him and say, “Hey, Jesus. What would you do in this situation? I’ve got this bracelet on my wrist that says WWJD. Help me out, dude.”
Does the life of faith ever seem like that to you? Hazy? Open-ended so much of the time, a bit like shooting in the dark? Maybe even a bit frightening, if not frustrating? If it makes you feel any better, it certainly seems the early disciples felt some of that too. Just look at what happens in this morning’s Acts lesson. Paul is stuck in Troas, and he’s not sure where to go next. His original plans had been to go elsewhere and preach and spread the gospel there, but that way for some reason had been closed off to him. So, as a result of a vision, he and his crew wind up in a totally new and foreign place. In fact, it is the first time the message of Jesus comes to a new continent. Macedonia is in Europe, and up until this point the church had only been an Asian thing.
Even when Paul and his crew finally get to the city of Philippi, they still seem a bit perplexed as to what to do. In other places they had found the synagogue in order to launch their ministry, but here they find nothing like that right off the bat. So they just go to one of the main public areas and start talking to some of the women they find there. That’s how they end up getting introduced to a woman named Lydia, who is likely fairly wealthy and influential. She ends up getting baptized, along with her whole household. More than that, she offers Paul and his people a place to stay. What would Jesus have done? Hard to say, but they were guided in the right direction after all.
On a much, much smaller scale I think about how directionless I felt during one point in college and how some simple advice from my grandmother one day over Christmas break ended up leading me down the path to where I am today. She wasn’t by any means insistent in encouraging me to return for a second summer as a counselor, but at a time when I felt a bit troubled and unsure of what to do, she and my grandfather were like a hand on the shoulder giving me permission to take another step.
The point is, the life of faith is rarely clear cut, and Jesus knows this. His own life was full of twists and turns, some of which were terrifying and which involved a good bit of suffering. But in some way, a part of his Father was always there with him, and Jesus promises that same part will be with his followers, too. The name he gives that part is Advocate, or, in Greek, Paraclete. If you think about what an advocate is, wou realize it is a person who can speak on your behalf, someone who can understand and articulate your needs often better than you yourself can. The image that Paraclete or Advocate would have given Jesus’ disciples is a person who would come alongside you, kind of like how an advocate in a legal setting sits down at the table with you to help you make your case. Jesus means to say that it is the Spirit of God that will come alongside them, gathering them together and speaking to them and reminding them of that love that we’ve come to associate with God.
I’ll never forget the children’s sermon a bunch of youth once did on this Scripture for youth Sunday several years ago. They called the children forward, and it was clear they were going to play the part of Jesus’ anxious disciples while some of the high school guys put on a skit. At the time we had a set of identical twins in the youth group, Matthew and Stephen von Schmidt-Pauli. They were so similar-looking that most people couldn’t tell them apart unless you got really close to them. Stephen played the part of Jesus in the skit, and he told his disciples, “In a little bit I won’t be with you. I’ll go to the Father, but it will be OK because I’ll send someone who will remind you of me.” He left out the side door and then in comes Matthew, who says, “Hi there. I’m the Advocate. Do I remind you of anyone?”
That’s the role of the Spirit: to remind us of Jesus, to bring us into places where we will experience him. Just as the Father and the Son share this special bond of love, that bond will now be shared with those who have been claimed by Jesus.
The promise of Jesus is not that we will always know what decision to make, or which path to choose or how to solve a particular problem. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples as he prepares to leave them is not that life will be easy or that there will be no hardship. The promise is that we will always have the love of Jesus assessible to us. The promise is that we will always be able to count on God’s presence to be with us in some way. We will always be able to look at the cross, to encounter God’s Word at worship an in study, to receive the bread in our hand and wine on our lips and hear Jesus speaking to us that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are treasured. God will always be seeking us out when we’re lost putting his hand on our shoulder, and finding a way to guide us, comfort us, and give us peace in the same way that God found a way to raise his crucified Son to new life.
On this weekend we remember those who served our country and who have died in combat. These men and women saw something greater worth giving their lives for. They followed through on a mission, whether or not they may have personally believed in it, and never had the chance to see how it all turned out. In many ways, their dedication to a cause and their willingness to move forward in bravery in spite of fear or apprehension can serve as an inspiration to our mission as Jesus’ people of peace. Because of the freedoms we have in this country, it is unlikely we will have to offer our lives for God’s kingdom in the same way that a soldier does, but we do die to self every day in Christ’s venture. Whether we’re speaking as a congregation getting ready to embark on a bold and exciting new construction project or we’re talking about our own personal faith journey, there are always opportunities to move forward by letting familiar ground give way, ground we may have unknowingly become too attached to. In a world where so much is changing, one constant is that Jesus grants his followers peace. People of a nation can sleep in peace knowing their servicemen and women are on the front lines offering their lives. Jesus’ people can live in eternal peace knowing he has offered his life on the cross.
A few weeks ago the confirmands (those 10th graders who professed their faith last weekend in worship) attended a council meeting where they shared a Bible verse that was important to their faith. Each of them had selected a different verse, and all of them did a great job of explaining what that meant to them. There was one young man who had chosen Psalm 31:7, “I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction, you have taken heed of my adversities.” He then very honestly and open shared how in an especially dark time in his life when we wasn’t sure of anything else, even how to move forward, he felt sure of God’s presence. It was the gentle hand of God, the God who conquers death and darkness, who reminded him of who and whose he was. That is a powerful testimony to the Spirit Jesus promised us.
That Spirit is here, and that Spirit gathers us in spite of ourselves to hear the words of Jesus and to take his body and share his peace. In fact, the Holy Spirit just gave me those words, put them together. And it is the Holy Spirit who, perhaps, helped those words make sense to you just now.
That girl in the grocery store was eventually reunited with her father. As I was checking out, right there in front of me I saw the kindly cashier present her to a man holding groceries, the three of them forming a little trinity. Father, girl, and holy Publix employee, bringing them together. There was a huge smile on the girl’s face, and of relief on the father’s. It had been several minutes. He thanked the woman, and as I handed my cashier my card, I heard the him say to his daughter, “I don’t know how we got separated, but I knew I’d find you.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.