like the sound of a mighty Wi-Fi signal

a sermon for the Day of Pentecost [Year B]

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 and Romans 8:22-27

Last week I began a three-week online webinar for continuing education. Typically when pastors and other professional people complete continuing education events they are at conferences where you are in-person. You go and register for the event, buy your plane tickets, get a hotel, and then listen to the keynote speaker. But, as you are well aware, things don’t really work that way in a pandemic. This event was coordinated through Zoom. I have taken part and led Zoom meetings all year long, but this one was different.

I logged on and there were well over a hundred people taking part. There, on my computer screen, were dozens and dozens of boxes with faces and names in them. As I scrolled around, I saw all kinds of people I knew in those little boxes. There were close friends that I didn’t know had signed up for the same event. There were people I went to seminary with who I hadn’t seen since we graduated almost twenty years ago. There was a guy who was my counselor at a summer camp named Lutheridge when I was in elementary school. The two of us figured out it was sometime in 1985, which makes me feel ancient, for some reason. There were people I had heard about for years but had never gotten to meet. And there were many many more people who were completely new to me. It was amazing—a group of people from all over the country and we were able to participate in the same activities and learn from the same lecturer because of Zoom.

This is nothing special for most of the youth today, people like our confirmands. This is how they’ve been learning all year. Maybe the virtual classrooms haven’t been quite as large and quite as diverse, but technology like Google classrooms and Zoom have been able to take the knowledge offered by one central teacher and spread it out to all kinds of different places.

That is like the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who takes Jesus, the one Son of God who is in heaven with the Father, the one who once walked among us as a human in flesh and blood, and spreads that Jesus everywhere all over the earth. Jesus is now someone that all of us know and can learn from and be healed by and be loved by because the Holy Spirit has been given to us like a passcode link to a Zoom chat. The Holy Spirit is who enables Jesus’ lifegiving words to be received here and in the church down the street and in the church down the next street and all the way across the world. The Holy Spirit is who has brought Jesus’ presence to people who’ve worshiped through YouTube and Facebook live this year.

the first Zoom session

And it’s not just that the Holy Spirit can bring Jesus to every place all over the earth, into the hearts of every believer, in the conversations of people who work for peace and justice but also all of these places and people at the same time. Because of the Holy Spirit, there’s no taking turns to have time with Jesus—as if we all got to have him as our guest speaker, one after the other. As much as I’ve been on Zoom this year I still don’t understand how the technology works, and neither can I grasp how the Holy Spirit does what he does. Maybe if the first Pentecost had happened in 2021 instead of 2000 years ago, WiFi and Bluetooth would have been the metaphors for the Holy Spirit rather than wind and fire. You can’t really capture WiFi, or see it, but you always know when it’s there. And when it’s not.

Jesus tries to explain this phenomenon to his disciples on the night before he is crucified, but it probably goes over their head, just like I think it does ours. To do so he calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate. In some translations of the Bible the word used here is “Counselor.” An advocate is someone who speaks for another person. Often when a young child is involved in the court system in situations of custody rights, for example, they will be appointed an advocate so that the child won’t have to speak themselves. Maybe they’re too young to understand their alternatives or too traumatized by something to vocalize what they truly need. The advocate comes in, learns that child’s story forwards and backwards, and serves that critical role of truly representing that child’s position.

So when Jesus says that an Advocate will come once he leaves them and goes to his Father in heaven, he is letting them know they will be taken care of. God has thought of our needs even before we have, and God is giving part of himself to help us with that, to help us communicate to God what is in the deepest parts of our hearts, the pains we’re too afraid to share, the things we don’t even understand yet.

But on that night the disciples are pretty sad, which is understandable. Jesus has mentioned he will be going away and he knows they feel abandoned. He knows they may even be like a child who just doesn’t know what the alternatives are, how to give voice to their own needs and desires. It makes me remember how several years ago Melinda and I took a short trip out of town with our son when he was an infant and our two girls stayed at home with my parents. When we got back I asked one of them, “Did you miss mom and dad while we were gone?” And she responded, matter-of-factly, “Yes, but mostly I forgot about you.”

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the one Jesus sends to keep us connected to Jesus and each other, will not let us forget about Jesus. The Holy Spirit will continue to teach us and remind us of the things Jesus did and said when he walked the earth.

And so we see that the Spirit is not just our advocate, someone who searches our hearts and voices them to God, but that he also is communicating what God knows and wants to us. Jesus says the Advocate will not speak on his own, but will speak what he hears. And what he hears is the intense love between the Father and the Son that wants to include all of creation and renew it. The Holy Spirit is the WiFi reaching from God, the Creator of the whole universe, to each one of us.

In the Lutheran Church, confirmation has a beginning and an end. For us, it starts in ninth grade and ends in May of the sophomore year. We study various things about Scripture and about our faith. We take a deeper look at things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. These are just some of the things that the Holy Spirit has declared to us about God the Holy Trinity. God is bigger than anything we can understand and put on paper, but the Holy Spirit helps us just focus on Jesus and his love for us. We can always start there.

Confirmation has an end, but the life of faith does not. Nothing Jesus tells his followers would suggest that they will ever receive all the information about God, like God is in a book somewhere and we just need to read it enough times to grasp it. For Jesus, knowing about God in the power of the Holy Spirit is like a relationship. It grows as we grow. It changes over time. One of my prayers for the confirmands today is that they never equate having faith with having all of the answers about God. My prayer is that they see the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal things to them about the life of faith. Sometimes they’ll find that life includes parts where we just sigh or groan. We cannot give words to the pain or anxiety or frustration we feel, but that God is still there, listening, understanding, advocating, urging us one step forward.

That’s what this whole last year has been, right? No one alive knew how to live through a pandemic, what all of the right choices were. We just headed into it, finding the truth as we went, living in hope. And in the points when we were too tired ourselves, or too frustrated, or too sad, we let others carry us forward. We leaned on others to give us hope, to remind us that together we can get through this.

Sometimes I wonder if this generation of young people, like the ones who are being confirmed today, the ones who’ve spent formative years of their youth learning through screens and talking through masks, the ones who’ve had to forfeit a whole year of childhood activities and normal social interactions, are going to teach us all about the power and importance of real community. There’s no much negative talk these days about what these youth have lost, but maybe there’s been more gain than we realize. Maybe they will take the feelings of isolation this year and translate that into a deeper appreciation for the benefits of being together throughout their lives. That will be the Holy Spirit, working through them, guiding us in truth.

There’s a song on country music radio right now called “My Church,” by Maren Morris. It’s a catchy tune and the lyrics are pretty relatable. Morris sings about how driving in her car with the radio turned up to some of her favorite classics is a religious experience. The song goes,

“I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial.
Can I get a hallelujah?
Can I get an amen?
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through you
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah, I guess that’s my church.

I certainly have been there and I have turned up the dial myself, on occasion, singing every single verse. In the end, though, the Holy Ghost runs through us only to link us up with other people. My church is never just my car, never just my house or my prayers, or even just my own experience with God. My church is your church and their church and our church—everyone’s church where the Holy Spirit is zooming Jesus in and helping us grow in faith. My church never keeps me by myself, but leads me into greater community with all kinds of people, the diverse humanity that God has made through the self-giving love of the cross. John, Audrey, Hank, Yasmine, Anna, Ella, Rowan and Justin… this is your church.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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