Sunday, May 21, 2017

Easter 6A

John 15:15–21




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


On Tuesday members of Holy Trinity Catholic Church and of St. Andrew will come together for our final “Meet the Relatives” gathering. “Meeting the Relatives,” especially for the first time, can be a daunting experience. My wife Donna and I could each share some interesting stories about meeting each other’s relatives for the first time. Participants in these Tuesday gatherings appear to have enjoyed meeting the relatives.


To stimulate conversation we have used a little book entitled One Hope, written by six authors, three Lutheran and three Catholic. One Hope is intended to assist Catholic and Lutheran communities in commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and fostering the church’s unity at the grassroots level. Indeed, we have experienced a Spirit of unity with our brothers and sisters from Holy Trinity. We have begun each discussion session by reading the story at the beginning of a given chapter. The chapter on “Forgiving and Reconciling” began with this story from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Broek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body was also burned.


The woman was present in the courtroom and heard the confessions offered by Mr. Van der Broek. At one point, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, `So what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?’ `I want three things,’ the woman said confidently. `I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a proper burial.’ She continued, `My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Broek to become my son. I would like him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.


And, finally, I would like Mr. Van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Broek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”


I have heard other amazing stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But what could possibly have given this woman the power to forgive this man? Nothing less than the Spirit of truth Jesus spoke of in his farewell address to his disciples.


Jesus knew what was coming for him— an unjust, horrific death on the cross. He wanted to prepare his disciples for life after his death, when he would no longer be physically present with them as he had been. They would be filled with sorrow and grief. They would subject to fear of the authorities who had put Jesus to death. They would be wondering where to go from here. In John 14:18 Jesus assures them: “I will not leave you orphaned.” He promised to pray to the Father, and he assured them that the Father would give them, what is called in Greek, a parakletos. Parakletos is translated in our gospel as “Advocate.” It can also be translated in English as “Comforter,” “Counselor,” or “Helper.” In John 14:17 Jesus clearly identifies the parakletos as the Spirit of truth— that is, the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity.


As discussed earlier, the Spirit of truth empowered the grieving widow and mother in South Africa to forgive in a way that seems miraculous yet so real. Mr. Van der Broek did not deserve such forgiveness. It would not have been difficult to make a case that he deserved capital punishment. But this woman chose a different way, the way of Jesus, a way that offered the possibility of healing, not only for Mr. Van der Broek, but also for her.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I once heard him share that a number of times during the proceedings he was brought to tears— often because of the horrific atrocities that were disclosed. But surely many who heard this woman express the desire that Mr. Van der Broek be her son must have been moved to tears, especially when she embraced him. Nothing less than the Spirit of truth could have instilled such a desire in her heart.


What else does Jesus teach his followers that the Spirit of truth can do for us? The Spirit of truth can make the presence of God and Jesus real in our lives. In John 14:23 Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” The love of God at work in the community of faith is a sure sign of God’s presence. Especially in times of loss and grief, how comforting it is to know that God and Jesus are present with us, that they have made a home with us. They are present by the power of the Spirit of truth. That Spirit helps us in our weakest moments. As the Apostle Paul assures us, “even when we do not know how to pray as we ought, . . . that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”


The Spirit of truth also helps us discern what it means to live out Jesus’ commands in our daily lives. In John 14:15 Jesus makes clear that those who love him will obey his commandments. In John 15:12 Jesus tells his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Knowing that we are to love one another does not mean that it is always easy to figure out how to do it in a particular situation.


When a person faces a difficult legal matter, it makes sense to seek legal counsel. When we are seeking to discern what Jesus wants us to do in a difficult situation, it makes sense to seek the counsel of the Spirit of truth. In John 14:26 Jesus assures them, that even after he has gone, “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Then in John 16:13 Jesus adds: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”


That does not mean everything will then be black and white. We will still face some difficult situations, such as the South African woman faced in having to decide how to respond to one who wronged her so deeply. She had no rule book telling her precisely how to handle this situation. But the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of God and Jesus, guided her to an amazing response. In John 8:32 Jesus tells his disciples that “the truth will make you free.” The Spirit of truth freed this woman to respond in the way she did.


There may be a time in life when we have to choose between two or more possible responses, none of which seem desirable. We will finally need to act, and let God be the judge of our action. God will carry forward that which needs to be carried forward and leave behind that which needs to be left behind. When we have to make such a decision, the good news is that the Spirit of truth will assure us of God’s gracious love for us. We are free to decide and act, knowing that God and Jesus will not leave us orphaned. Or as one participant in our “Meet the Relatives” discussion said on Tuesday, “God’s gracious love for us frees us to engage in the messiness of life.”


Finally, the Spirit of truth teaches us to speak the truth in love. At the Harmon Swim Center on Friday morning, one of the swimmers asked me in the locker room: “What are you talking about this Sunday?” I knew this swimmer by sight, but I had never really talked to him before. He tends to come earlier than me. I am not sure who told him I was a preacher.


I had not written the sermon yet, but I mentioned something about the Spirit of truth and speaking the truth in love. “That’s hard,” he said. “Yes, it certainly can be,” I responded. He and I were both on the way out, so we did not have much more time to talk.


Speaking the truth in love can be hard, but in both the Gospel of John and in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians it is viewed as critical to the well-being of the community of faith. In chapter four of Ephesians Paul affirms that speaking the truth in love is essential to maintaining the unity of the Spirit, to equipping the saints for the work of ministry, and to building up the body of Christ— that is, the church. Speaking the truth in love can build up individuals and the community as a whole. In Ephesians 4:29 Paul exhorts: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Often we shy away from sharing hard truths with one another. We don’t want to make people feel bad. But in hindsight some of the most grace-filled words I have received have been hard truths that have been shared with me. Unless Mr. Van der Broek had been confronted with the hard truth of what he had done, he and the woman he deeply wounded would never have experienced forgiveness and reconciliation. This is not post-Apartheid South Africa, but we are in desperate need of truthful speech in our current political and social climate.


After completing his Farewell Discourse, in John 17 Jesus prays to the Father on behalf of his disciples. In verse 17 he prays: “Sanctify them in the truth.” Sanctifying the followers of Jesus in the truth is the work of the Spirit of truth. Be assured that the Spirit of truth continues to intercede for us, at times with sighs too deep for words.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.