Scripture : JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4B-15
Craig Barnes is a Presbyterian minister who is now the president of a seminary. Last year he wrote a kind of fictionalized memoir about his time as a pastor in a local church. He writes there about what he strives to do with each worship service. “Every time I put a worship service together, I’m trying to present the twins of beauty and truth to the congregation.” In everything he does, he’s essentially saying to the congregation, “Behold. Look. Notice.” He wants “some beautiful word of truth to pierce through the distorted world in which we live.
“Occasionally someone will come through the line at the door following worship, shake my hand, and say, ‘Well, that was nice. Now it’s back to reality.’ It takes everything careful in me to resist taking that person by the neck and yelling, ‘Don’t you get it? You just had an hour of the most real thing you will encounter this week. You stood before Holy, Holy, Holy. Now it is time to return to your mission to witness the beauty and truth of this holiness in a society that is so distracted it has no idea how to see it. This worship service was designed to wipe the smudges off your spectacles so you could behold. The people around you need to believe that at least you believe.’
“I don’t say any of that. I just chuckle and respond with a ‘yes’ so I can keep the line moving. But a voice inside my soul says, Swing and a miss. They still don’t get it.
“That’s why I am here. If they understood the holy claims on their lives, they wouldn’t need a pastor. Next Sunday I will have another at-bat . . ..
“When the pastor stands in the pulpit and says, ‘Hear the Word of the Lord,’ [the people] aren’t expecting to encounter either beauty or truth. Mostly they’re just hoping I’ll be entertaining and brief. It’s my job to smuggle in something that can change their lives . . .. The sermon has to help people behold” (Diary of a Pastor’s Soul, pp. 188-190).
I hear in Barnes’ wistful writing words that articulate my own striving. I, too, want the service and the sermon to change your lives. I, too, want you to be transformed. Ultimately, of course, what happens to and in you is out of my hands. I can’t make that happen. That’s God’s work. It doesn’t stop me from hoping and trying, though. It doesn’t stop me from yearning for all of you, and finally for me, as well, to behold sacred mystery and beauty. Whether we know it or not, this, I think, is what we all most deeply crave: an encounter with holy love, an awakening to blessed wonder, a trust that our lives really do matter. At our core, we all want to be at peace and to know we’re adored.
And to be honest, I don’t really know how to do that—to remind us all that there is something more real than what we think of as real life. To help us open our eyes to a level of beauty and truth that eludes us much, if not most, of the time. To have our hearts so warmed, as John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, put it, that nothing is ever quite the same again.
This holy day of Pentecost is a celebration of the Spirit of God fluttering in our midst. As Jesus is preparing the disciples for his imminent death, he knows they’re frightened, that their anxiety is through the roof. These followers of Jesus have had the unsurpassed privilege of accompanying him on his journey, of being with him physically, of witnessing the power of his mind-bending teaching and his healing touch among the people. His is a gripping, electrifying presence. They have been filled by it.
And now that they know he’s about to depart, they’re almost certainly at wits’ end. It’s all going to come crashing down, isn’t it? This whole astonishing and exhilarating movement is just going to die out. And they’ll likely just return to their somewhat flat and listless lives. God forbid. No really, I’m sure they’re thinking: God forbid! The thought of it is just too much to bear.
Jesus knows this, of course. A lot of this final discourse of his is his way of saying, ‘Take a deep breath. You’re gonna be OK.’ And what he tells them is that his death is by no means the end. No, his death will be the occasion for the coming of the Spirit. His death will be the occasion for them to see beyond the life of the human Jesus to the richness and wholeness and peace that lies beneath the surface. His death will be the occasion for them to say: Behold!
Unlikely though it may seem at first blush, I think we can imagine what Jesus is trying to say here, and to appreciate that it is indeed perhaps for the best for Jesus to leave. If the human Jesus were here in our midst now, if he were to walk into your living or kitchen or wherever it is you are participating today in worship—if Jesus were to walk in where we are, we would be so starstruck, so gaga about Jesus that we likely forget entirely the magical richness to which he points. We would be looking at him rather than at the wonders of our own lives. We know this is true, don’t we. If Baker Mayfield suddenly showed up at your door, or Renee Fleming or Chris Hemsworth or Scarlett Johansson or Harry Styles—if any of them suddenly appeared in our living rooms, we would scurry about to neaten things up and serve some delicious appetizers and make sure they were comfortable. And for at least those moments, we would stop living our lives. Jesus doesn’t want to be venerated that way like some lifeless statue. He wants to point beyond himself to the fire and the life and the Spirit that are all around us. ‘Don’t look at me,’ he might well say to them. ‘Look at grace and beauty and truth.’
I suspect Jesus knows he needs to get out the way if the disciples are to really live the richness of their lives. I suspect Jesus needs to leave so that his followers will be able to claim their own God-given power. I suspect that Jesus knows that it’s only if he departs that those disciples will find their footing and be the God-bearers they were made to be.
The stark and mad and wildly improbable truth of the matter is that you and I were created to be the bearers of God in our own unique ways. I was talking once to a colleague of mine serving another church. She had been at the church long enough to say somewhat sadly, “There aren’t many God-bearers in this church.” Just as Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the paradigmatic bearer of God, so, too, are we beckoned to bear God in our daily lives. We have been made by God to shine a holy light into shadowed recesses. We have been made by God to touch with holy water the heads, indeed the lives, of those in our circles and beyond and to announce in no uncertain terms that each of them is entirely beloved by God. Oh, my, my—what a task tinged with holiness. It’s enough to stand you up straight with the extravagance of beauty and truth.
With the coming of the Spirit, we are confronted with the most real thing we will ever know. More real than baseball games and card games, more real than the conundrums we face at work, more real than the electronic screens that so often threaten to devour us. Right there, right here, right everywhere, hope and grace and peace and humble service beckon to us and say, ‘Immerse yourself in me. Let me fill you.’
So here, really, is the task that calls to you and me. And I’m going to be as directive as I ever am today. You and I today need to stop everything, even if for only just a moment. Look around your room. Take stock of your children or your parents or your dear pet. Absorb how these really quite ordinary people and animals and things have made you what and who you are. Take in that you have been graced in sublime ways.
The thing Jesus tells the disciples is they are beckoned to be witnesses of these things. He says that the coming Spirit will “testify” on his behalf, and that they, too, are to “testify” to these things. It sounds like a legal word, doesn’t it. You go into a courtroom and testify for the defense or the prosecution. The word Jesus uses, though, can also be translated as “witness.” First of all, we are to see and take note. First of all, we are beckoned to take off the darkened sunglasses that obscure the brilliance of the colors and the shapes of life. First of all, as witnesses, we are simply to notice.
And what do we notice? We notice the song of whatever birds are just outside our window on these gorgeous near-summer days. We notice the kind woman who stopped to help us pick the glass we just dropped and broke. We notice the man who says he’ll take us to pick up our car at the shop when we have no other way to get there. We notice that our spouse just quietly prepares delicious meals for us without calling attention to themself. We notice that our life partner just pays the bills and takes care of the finances and does it all without complaint. And maybe, just maybe, we notice a three-year-old grandchild who sees the Band Aid on our hand that is just about to fall off and who says, so earnestly and seriously and intently, “Nana, if your Band Aid falls off, I will absolutely be happy to put another one on for you.”
Notice. Be a witness to these marvels of daily life. Take them in. The Spirit has showered quiet blessing upon quiet blessing into our lives. Life is at its richest when we pay attention, when we mark these graces with our gratitude, when we stop to say, “Thank you.”
If we’re to be witnesses, then we’re to see—to see the marvels of beauty and truth that are, at every moment, and in every circumstance, arrayed before us. And as we notice, then we’re to tell. The word “witness” means both to see—as if we witness a car accident—and to testify. We come back to the courtroom here. If I am to fulfill my role as a follower of Jesus, I am first to see, to notice. And then I’m to act, to live life’s inherent marvel as though it’s the only thing that’s really true.
I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if we looked at every single person as though they were the most beautiful or interesting or accomplished person in the world. Picture some really compelling person walking into your room now, like the Baker Mayfields or Scarlett Johanssons of the world. Maybe it’s someone drop-dead gorgeous. Maybe it’s someone you’ve long admired. Maybe it’s a politician or actor or businessperson whom you have always looked up to. And then imagine your reaction. You’re totally engaged, completely entranced. Hero worship, as we said a moment ago, is just a distraction—we’re not suggesting here that it would be good for an idol of ours to walk into the room. But if we were to treat others as if they were the most significant person in the world, that’s something entirely different. You give your undivided attention to this person. You forget about your responsibilities, your diversions, your phone, your bills, your chores for this afternoon. Everything comes down to now and your encounter with this enthralling person.
What if, just what if, we were to treat every encounter the way we treat that imagined encounter. If I were to treat you that way, you would know that nothing else mattered to me, that I was entirely engrossed by you, that you were wildly important in God’s scheme of things. As many of you know, my brother was for nearly forty years a TV sportscaster. He was probably the most well-known person in that part of Maine for several decades. When I would walk through a shopping mall with him, it was as if the Pope or your favorite actor or the person you admired most had shown up. People’s eyes would widen, they would poke each other and point subtly, or not so subtly, in his direction. They would approach him with glee and tell him how much they loved him.
A real witness to God would treat everybody in just that way. We would honor each other with adulation. Try it sometime and see how it changes the person to whom you’re talking. Act as though there is no one more important or more interesting in the entire world than that very person. And you can be sure that something will come alive in them. Something will quicken in them that conveys to them that they are entirely and uniquely special.
When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, we become witnesses, in both senses of that word. More and more we notice the fabulous riches that surround us at every moment. And more and more we become agents of that richness, actors in the holy drama, conveying in our look, our words, our gestures, our touch that holiness abounds, and that there is no greater or more transcendent moment than this very moment. We would see each other’s fear and pain and simply be present to it. We would see the barricades and impediments of Black sisters and brothers and impoverished people around the world and people who have been suffocated in a vise grip of despair and an earth that is being abused and mistreated and squeezed to death, and we would be allies of those who are being mistreated and held down, and we would be advocates of making things right and changing the world and blessing all creation.
When the Spirit comes into our lives, we notice transcendent wonder. And we live into the fullness of that wonder, manifesting it and giving it shape and form. That’s what Pentecost people do. We notice. And we make a difference.
So swing and a miss on today’s sermon? Maybe. Or maybe we’re all filled, at least a little bit today, by God’s Holy Spirit, and empowered, at least a little bit, to go and be witnesses—to see God’s shimmering glory, and to put God’s stunning love into action. Behold!