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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, June 4, 2006
A sermon delivered by Dr. Donald Luck

 
Feeling the Breath of God
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Saying `goodbye' can be so casual, so routine that we really don't stop to realize just how profound it can be. Children head off to school; couples part and go their separate ways into the busyness of the day. Friends drop over for coffee or a beer, a Memorial Day picnic or a game of bridge. They come and they go. We say `hello,' we say `goodbye.' But we usually don't stop to realize that saying `goodbye' carries within it the possibilities of risk and loss.

Some partings can be poignant, even deeply troubling. Think of spouses and children saying `goodbye' to a parent or a partner being shipped to Iraq. There is no assurance that they will come back. And if they do there is no certainty that life pick up where it left off. Psyches can be traumatized by in the horrors of combat. Saying goodbye can be very difficult.

I think of my maternal grandparents who immigrated here separately from the south of Finland, not speaking a word of English, with no relatives here to welcome them or smooth their way. Yet they embraced the pain of separation, said `goodbye' and came. They returned only once—after they had met and married and when their first child, my mother, was less than two years old. And the `goodbye' that closed that brief visit was final. They never saw their families, their villages, their homeland again. Saying goodbye can be deeply painful.

In this morning's gospel lesson from John we have an account of Jesus' final hours with his disciples. We find him saying "goodbye' to his companions, to those closest to him. They had no idea of what awaited him so his words of farewell puzzled them. But he spoke them so that later they would remember and find comfort in them. He tells them that their paths will separate. He will no longer be with them. They will no longer have his presence, his guidance, his encouragement, his companionship.

And then he says something quite remarkable. "It is to your advantage that I go away." Think of a loved one saying that to you. It is to your advantage. My absence from your life is going to be a positive, not a negative. It will be an occasion for joy. "For if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Helper is another possible translation] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." Unlike the disciples, Jesus knows that death will quickly claim him. But he promises he will still be with them—but in a new way. His will be a new kind of presence, a new way of being located in the flow of history and the pulse of human life. He no longer will be localized in one place; no longer be subject to the limitations of time. His presence will be realized as a spiritual presence, an abiding presence, one that cannot be lost. He will be present in and through and as the Holy Spirit, the Holy and Life-giving, energizing and directing Spirit can reach out more widely and more deeply than Jesus' being localized in Palestine and the First Century of the Common Era ever could. It's John's way of expressing what Matthew has Jesus affirm as he says his final `goodbye' to his disciples: "Lo I am with you always, even to the close of the age."

That is amazingly true. Jesus is still present, still active, still alive right here and now and whenever and wherever people gather around Word and Sacrament and are open to receive what comes alive through them. He is present wherever persons gather in his name to support one another and to take up the tasks of communicating the gospel. The meaning of "Holy Spirit" can be very confusing, very elusive. Just the word `spirit' by itself sounds so wispy, so remote. But it isn't. The Hebrew and Greek words for "spirit" also mean "wind" or "breath." So in John's account of the Risen Jesus' first appearance to his disciples the text says "he breathed on them and said, `Receive the Holy Spirit.'" Or we could read it as, "Receive the Breath of God."

Spirit refers to life-energy. A spirited debate has a lot of vitality. The human spirit can generate enthusiasm, summon courage, generate steadfastness during hard times. It is anything but vague. It is the very energy of our lives. And it is directed energy. It is purposeful. So "Holy Spirit" refers God's living energy and purposes breaking into our lives. God's energy comes alive in us. The same energy and vision that moved and shaped Jesus, now moves and shapes us. In the moments when we are impacted by the Spirit, God's life is taking root in us and realizing itself through our limited, even weak and unworthy, humanness. Think of it. We have the capacity to touch others with the very life of God when and as the Holy Spirit moves us.

And what is this Holy Spirit? There have always been folks who have identified it with ecstatic if not exotic emotional states and charismatic experiences. Pentecostalism is rapidly spreading throughout the globe. In parts of Latin America for example it has become a significant alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. And here in the United States pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ continue to grow even as mainstream communities like the UCC, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians continue to shrink. So it is very tempting to think somehow we have gotten it wrong and the Pentecostals have gotten it right. It's not that simple. I believe we ought to rethink our north-european tradition of being staid and self-contained and unemotional in church life, particularly our worship. A heartfelt "Hallelujah" here or there or the open expression of tears of joy or grief or longing wouldn't do us any harm and probably would do us some good. We need to learn how to give ourselves permission to express genuine emotion as we worship.

But emotional enthusiasm and charismatic experiences are not the heart of what the Spirit is about. In the Minnesota college where I taught before coming to Columbus, a member of the faculty had a very vocal charismatic student in his class. One day, when the student failed to turn in a paper that was due, he explained to the instructor, "I'm sorry. The Holy Spirit just didn't inspire me." "Kid," the instructor replied, "you wouldn't know the Holy Spirit if it came riding up on a white horse, jumped off and hit you in the butt with a banjo!" Religious enthusiasm and psychological certainty guarantee nothing.

Paul had charismatic experiences and gifts but he minimized them He noted that in the final analysis the outpouring of God's Spirit in the church is meant to provide mutual aid and comfort. And in this context he refers to the fruits of the Spirit. The key is that the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit results in the out-going of the human spirit. Its most authentic signs occur when the living presence of Christ moves us beyond ourselves, beyond our egos, beyond our own concerns. The Spirit is expressed in our openness to life. It is the opposite of strategies of being self-focused or in control. And in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, Paul identifies the very heart of life in the Spirit.

The touch of the Holy Spirit results in our being open to the mystery and the wonder and the greatness of God; of being liberated from our temptation to assume we have God totally figured out. That is why life in the Spirit is expressed as "faith." That implies a spiritual courage that enables us to accept life's complexity and ambiguity without being destroyed by them. For example, faith enables us to live with ambiguous moral choices and face difficult spiritual crises. It embraces doubt and uncertainty. It doesn't eliminate them from our lives. Life in the Spirit is the reverse of smug certainty and strident moralism that believe it has all the bases covered. The Spirit enables us to dare to do the best we can and trust God, not our own morality or our own conviction of being right.

And life in the Spirit enables us to face the future in openness even though we have no guarantees. It enables us to "keep on keeping on" as the Black Church so wonderfully puts it. The gift of Christ's spiritual presence is the gift of hope. We don't have to assume the kingdom is just around the corner or there is some obvious solution to the great issues that are shaking and shaping our world. We can live with an unfinished and incomplete life because we believe that the God revealed to us in Jesus is the power and promise of the future. That frees us to discern and work for what Reinhold Niebuhr has called "proximate goals." We can respond to the future with, as he puts it, "gradual measures, minor improvements, piecemeal changes, or just a little bit of progress." It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Life does not have to appear in white and black. We can live with and work with the greys because we know that the future belongs to God and that God is using our limited efforts and modest achievements. Jesus says in our text today, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth." We can experience creativity and resiliency in living in the world. We don't have to assume a final word about the ordination of women, or divorce, or homosexuality, or the design of a family any more than the early church was correct in assuming it knew the deepest truth about slavery.

And the inbreaking of the Spirit opens us up to move beyond ourselves and our own reading of life, our own projects and dreams. It is the energy of Christ-like love. And that means a love that takes the form of justice in a broken and conflicted world where so much of human energy is directed toward self-preservation and self-interest. Faith, hope, love—these are the fullest expressions of the Holy Spirit breathing on us and into us, shaping us and using us.

So that is the advantage. Jesus says "goodbye" but his leaving results in something that came alive after his departure and still energizes people today. Paul notes, "the Lord—which is to say Christ—is the Spirit." And the converse is equally true: The Spirit is the very breath of God, the energizing, directing presence of Christ, opening us to a wider world, to new horizons, and to one another. The Spirit is "breathing down your neck." It's filling your lungs. Can you feel it?

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church