Sermon for Sunday, May 20, 2018 || Pentecost B || John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since before my time at St. Mark’s, the readers of our biblical lessons have concluded their readings with this line: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Before coming to St. Mark’s I had never heard this response to the lessons, and I fell in love with it immediately. At my previous churches, the more traditional line was always used: “The Word of the Lord.” Let me hastily say the traditional response is just fine in its own right, but there’s something about what we say at the end of our readings that really gets my blood pumping.
A few weeks ago at our Episcopal 101 class, they asked me why we say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” This was a new formulation for them just as it was for me back in 2014 when I came to St. Mark’s. And their question got me thinking. Why do we say this? What are we proclaiming about God and God’s Holy Spirit by ending our readings with such a bold statement? “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.”
Let’s break it down, shall we? The first thing to notice is the present tense nature of the response. It’s not “the Spirit said”; it’s “the Spirit is saying.” This is so important for our understanding of the sacred texts we call the Bible. The stories, poetry, prophecy, and letters of the Bible are the product of God encountering God’s people in many and varied ways over the course of more than a thousand years. During that time, those encounters with God found their way into written form and from there they were compiled together into the great witness to God’s presence in the life of Creation that we call the Bible.
Did God write the Bible? No. And the biblical witness never claims as such. Did God’s power and presence in the lives of God’s people compel them to find necessarily inadequate words to describe such power and presence? Yes. And we believe God’s Holy Spirit inspired both their work and the collection of their works into the Bible’s sacred library. By claiming that the Spirit still speaks to us through the Bible, we are proclaiming that the same Spirit encounters us just like God encountered our ancestors. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Thus, our own stories are part of the fabric of the biblical witness. We are the continuation of the Bible’s sacred story. The Bible is not just a dusty tome sitting on the shelf with other classics of ancient literature. The words of the Bible are alive in the power of the Spirit, and they live in us when we let them speak in our lives.
That’s why our response to the readings begins with a command. “Hear what the Spirit is saying.” In English grammar, this sentence construction includes a verb in the imperative mood. The imperative mood is no joke. We use it when we say things like “Run!” or “Duck!” or “Watch out!” In our response the command is to “Hear!” And the subject of the sentence is the implied plural “you.” You, hear what the Spirit is saying. We could just as easily say something like: “This is what the Spirit says.” But no, the response is imperative. It is imperative that we listen to the biblical witness, that we let the words of our sacred texts invade our ear canals, that we allow the Spirit to travel to our minds and hearts on the wind of those words.
Embedded in the command to hear is an invitation to listen. Hearing and listening are very different things, and I know this because I have little kids. I know they hear me. But listening? Listening takes attention and intention. We attend to the words of scripture, and we intend to examine, and perhaps change, our lives in light of their message. Such attention and intention means we might need to wrestle with scripture. We might need to dwell in discomfort for a while when the Spirit moves us to let a particularly itchy passage get under our skin. My favorite passage of the Bible is one I disliked for a long time – until I realized why. I realized I was the person Jesus was speaking to in that passage, the person Jesus was gently trying to move out of his comfort zone, out of his rigidity, out of his know-it-all-ness. When I finally let my shields down and allowed the Spirit to work that passage into my life, my whole outlook changed. And you know what? The very prompting to let my shields down came from the Spirit too.
So let’s talk about that Spirit. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, [the Spirit] will guide you into all the truth.” How true and wise these words of Jesus remain. I have so much more to tell you. God always has more to reveal to us, and we never have the capacity to receive it all. Think of it like this. You could be married 45 years and still find out something new about your spouse. If that’s the case, how much more so with God?
The Holy Spirit is God’s chosen vehicle for the continued revelation of God’s truth. And notice what Jesus says: “The Spirit will guide you into all the truth.” The Spirit guides us. There is no info-dump of truth into our brains. The Spirit leads us on our journeys, guiding us deeper into the revelation of God’s love, grace, justice, and presence in our lives and the life of the world. Dwelling in the sacred texts of the Bible is one way we open ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance.
This guidance reminds us again and again who we are and whose we are. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” The people who appear on the pages of the Bible are the people of God. And we are also the people of God. God has claimed us as God’s own children, created by God, redeemed by God, beloved by God. God’s claim on us is the fundamental marker of our identity. By hearing what the Spirit is saying in our scriptures, we learn more about ourselves. The more we know and love ourselves, the more we can join deep, meaningful, and healthy relationships with other people. And the more healthy relationships that exist in this world among individuals and peoples, the more the evils of injustice and oppression will ebb away.
I’m so glad we end each reading with these words: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” They invite us to witness in our own lives the same power and presence of God that was apparent to the people who inhabit our sacred stories. The Holy Spirit is still moving in our lives and guiding us into deeper truth. And so with great joy I say again the words we all echo after the reader says, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Thanks be to God.