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So Much More

A message preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on Sunday May 22, 2016.  I utilized and refer extensively to two sources in this sermon, Eric Smith,   and an essay by Edwina Gately, “Deeper Than the Darkness” posted may 15, 2016

Text:     Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

So Much More

I’ve been thinking about a phrase from last week’s story of Pentecost (Acts 2).  Many people in Jerusalem that day experienced something they wouldn’t have believed if they hadn’t experienced it themselves.  It was something amazing.  Something glorious.  Something from God.  That much was clear.

Or was it?

For it says in Acts, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

The disciples had to be thinking, “yep … we wonder that all the time!”  Hang around Jesus for any length of time and this becomes the on-going question. Sometimes the question is posed in wonder, other times, not so much.  That final night together with Jesus, when he washes their feet, then with bread and wine, Jesus describes God’s new covenant as his very own body and blood–that had to be a time when the question was pondered in wonder.

I find this phrase from Acts 2 so fascinating because of what I see as a juxtaposition. What had to be the disciples’ question suddenly become a question shared among many different people in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

As I reflected upon the scriptures before us today for Trinity Sunday, that question from Acts 2 still echoed within me.  Each passage in their own way point toward the discovery of “meaning”: Proverbs with its description of Wisdom, Paul’s discussion of faith in Romans, and perhaps best of all, the words of Jesus recorded by John, words which I treasure:

“Oh, there is so much more I want to tell you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “but you can’t understand it now.” The NRSV phrases it, “… but you can’t bear it right now.”  The disciples miss much of what Jesus is sharing, teaching, giving to them. They’re too overwhelmed by sorrow, grief, anxiety.

That’s why I treasure these words from Jesus.  For it seems to me that just as the disciples often struggled to know what their experiences with Jesus meant, so also do we. We ask the question whenever something impactful happens:

·   when the cancer test comes back;

·   when our job is eliminated;

·   when someone we love dies;

·   when our marriage ends, or someone we love betrays us or harms us;

·   when another terrorist or rifle-toting malcontent kill and ruin more lives;

·   when another rogue storm seems to confirm that we’ve done irreversible damage to our planet;

·   When [fill in the blank] happens, in your life, in my life, we grasp at anything that helps us understand “what does this mean?”

For me, Jesus’ words spoken on his last night with his disciples is a good place to start:  “Oh, there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.”   Because in the midst of the storm, we cannot hear what Jesus might be saying to us.  In the thick of the chaos, there is no “understanding” it.  When the ground disappears from under our feet, life is reduced to finding a way to function somehow as our minds are spinning from disorientation. For me it becomes a matter of how to cling to Jesus’ promise that he’ll be right there with us, to tell whatever we need to know … whenever we need to know it.

I personally believe that this is where Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit becomes indispensible.  John’s gospel records Jesus’ wonderful promise that God’s presence will come to the disciples (and to us) as the “Spirit of truth” sometime in the future, presumably after Jesus is no longer with them. Theologian Eric Smith notes that this Spirit of truth doesn’t speak for itself, Jesus vows, but speaks as God’s messenger or agent.  Jesus is sparse with details but what he’s sketching is quite compatible with the description of “Wisdom” given in Proverbs–not that John or Jesus necessarily have Proverbs in mind, Smith is careful to note, but it’s worth considering how Wisdom does fit the pattern for this kind of divine activity.

Smith further observes how Jesus here is describing one out of a large number of possible ways and means that God can and does express and communicate with people:  “There is a kind of freedom in noticing the many expressions of God’s presence without immediately categorizing them as one of the three parts of the Trinity.”

And speaking of freedom, I’m excited to share an insight Smith shares.  Paul’s well-known words about “faith” in Romans, that “we are justified by faith” is typically interpreted as meaning our faith–that is, our belief in Jesus.  Suggesting that our “intellectual-assent” is the key to our access to Jesus’ saving power. Smith disagrees: “… increasingly scholars are understanding the Pauline emphasis on faith to refer most properly to the faith of Jesus, and Jesus’ faithfulness, as the saving work meant by Paul in this and other passages.”

Allow me to read it again with that subtle adjustment made explicit:

“Since we are justified by the faith (of Jesus) we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

It makes more sense that way—to me.  Because I’ll tell ya what, I feel ANYTHING BUT PEACE with God when I start thinking all this rides on MY faith.  Putting it all on Jesus’ faith does indeed seem to better allow “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Holy wonders! What if the faith that “justifies” is the faith of JESUS rather than our own?  What if Paul is indeed preaching that the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is what justifies and saves us?  I’ll tell you what if: it means that we can let go of any worry about whether or not our faith is “good enough”.  And so please hear this: release that burden right now! Release that burden of having “enough faith”.

Smith makes yet another interesting observation. He notes “Christian faith is impoverished when it is understood as a simple intellectual act, requiring Christians to believe in the existence of God and believe that Jesus is the savior, but do nothing else.  I doubt very much,” Smith asserts, “that such a belief-based theology is what Paul had in mind; he certainly didn’t go around writing letters like Romans in the search for people to believe. He wanted them to believe, yes, but he also wanted a great deal more than that.”

Wow.  Sounds like an endorsement of Wisdom … Spirit.  Which isn’t to say that intellectual qualities are of no use.  That’s not what I’m saying or suggesting (or how I’m interpreting Mr. smith).  I’m not standing up here dumbing anything down.  It’s just that sometimes we get stuck thinking about our faith rather than LIVING it.

This is where I’ll call on another voice to participate in this conversation: that of Edwina Gately.

Gately suggests that the “intellectual mind” sees faith as, in her words: ridiculous.  For if, as Paul says, “suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” being faithful in a world of suffering is a challenge and maybe making sense out of it is, as Jesus says to the disciples in the Gospel of John, “too much for you now, but when the Spirit of truth comes, She will lead you to complete truth.”

Maybe, as Ms. Gately affirms, the “truth” that the Spirit summons is all about “hanging on with a ridiculous faith because we do not let go of that tiny but intense light that comes upon us in an on-going Pentecostal event.”  Gately says that Easter and Pentecost challenge us as followers of Christ to live out our faith more in darkness than in light.

Gately discovered that some years ago, Japanese scientists did some research on micro-organisms. They discovered that 10% of micro-organisms in and around us are “negative” (which I take to mean somehow harmful). Another 10% were deemed positive. The remaining 80% are classified as “neutral” or “wait and see” micro-organisms. These neutral micro-organisms observe which of the two 10% (negative or positive) gain ascendancy, and then they gravitate towards the stronger.”

I have not confirmed this study independently, but I’m willing take Ms. Gately at her word, and also her conclusion, that “this fascinating piece of research holds a powerful message for the Christian community in today’s world. We are [called] to be the 10% positive (e.g., light, leaven, salt) in a world of darkness.”  This is how ordinary, flawed human beings like the disciples, like us, become God’s agents of transformation and new life—willing to confront darkness and chaos armed only with faith in our Triune God.

For Gately, this Wisdom (my term) is what Easter and Pentecost empower us to live out in reality for she writes, “the Spirit of God … calls us to see deeper than the darkness and to recognize that, even in the heart of chaos, God lives, permeating our reality and calling us to remain intense and authentic” witnesses to God’s Spirit infusing all creatures and all of creation.  That’s what I see Jesus doing as he prepares himself and his disciples for his own confrontation with evil and death when he says, “there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t understand it now.”  We can’t and don’t understand Wisdom in the moment of crisis, in the midst of the flying debris. But whenever we can, by the Grace of God, resist the impulse to despair, or when in the midst of despair if we can simply refuse to let go of the sliver of light that is Jesus Christ, we will find ourselves not only “saved” but so much more …