Sermon – May 25, 2014

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Paraclete

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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[Jesus said:] “….I will ask the One who sent me to give you another Advocate, another Paraclete, another Helper, to be with you always, forever— the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, since the world neither sees Her nor recognizes Her. But you can recognize the Spirit, because She remains with you and will abide with you, and will be within you.” — John 14:16-17.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were both writing collaborators and theater titans. While Kaufman became famous about a decade earlier than Hart, their mutual notoriety lasted from the early 1930s through the early 1960s. Together but also separately, they wrote plays, musicals, reviews, directed and produced shows.

In 1938 together they wrote a play— The Fabulous Invalid. In part, the tale offered lamentations on how the theater of that era, a long, long time ago was dying.

Despite this premature obituary the institution known as theater somehow survives and lives on. Indeed, both Kaufman and Hart continued to have another two decades in which they were fabulously successful in the theatrical trade.

The name of that play, The Fabulous Invalid, has been and remains a code name for the theater. Why? It always seems like theater is dying— that is until the next hit production.

And yes, theater people often lament the theater is dying. That is, until they, themselves, become involved with the next hit production. In short, the theater just seems like it’s always dying. It’s not.

I suspect the real reason theater survives is because we are a race of story tellers. Theater is, you see, about telling stories. Further, I maintain one of the things which makes us human is we tell stories.

We tell stories to communicate, to make sense of the world around us. The art of telling stories— a central aspect of theater— will always be with us.

Now, that title— The Fabulous Invalid— is one many would apply to the church. After all, how often have you heard it said the church is dying?

It’s likely that was said about three days after Pentecost. It’s likely many of us have said it. And it can be readily argued Christianity in Europe and North America is in decline today— at least in terms of numbers, attendance, budgets, societal influence.

On the other hand, Lutheran Nadia Bolz-Weber recently published a sermon: Stop Saying the Church Is Dying. She draws a distinction between the cultural church— a church that probably is in decline— against a church who proclaims the Gospel, administers sacraments, names as sin the brokenness we find in the world.

Another Lutheran, Erik Parker, says what’s actually happening is not that the church is dying. Rather, the church is in transition, transforming from what for a number of generations it has been. Further, there is a serious flaw in saying the church is dying, especially if the self-centered implication is we today are killing the church.

Consider the weight of that claim over the course of 2,000 years of history. You see, at first the church barely survived getting off the ground. Even a cursory look at the facts will tell you it took nearly 400 years before the church could be called a viable institution within society.

Right after that, the church survived the trauma of becoming imperial, being designated as the religion of the state and taking on the failed structure of that state. Next, the church survived going to war— the Crusades. Then the church survived the Great Schism— East and West— something we in the West barely acknowledge— because those folks over there don’t count— right? I think not.

Still later the church survived the stress of reformations, the rancor of counter-reformations. The church survived the discovery of the so called new worlds.

The church survived numerous splits, scientific revolutions, nationalism, revivals, charismatic movements, global wars. (Slight pause.) And we think we can kill the church today? [1] Come on! (Slight pause.)

So, let me ask an obvious question: is the reason church survives not because we are an institution but because we are story tellers who tell the story of the love of God? Is the reason the church survives not because we are an institution but because we strive to understand and communicate the love of God, because we strive to be… relational? (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as the Gospel According to the School of John— [Jesus said:] “…I will ask the One who sent me to give you another Advocate, another Paraclete, another Helper, to be with you always, forever— the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, since the world neither sees Her nor recognizes Her. But you can recognize the Spirit, because she remains with you and will abide with you, and will be within you.” (Slight pause.)

There is no question about this. We are conditioned by our culture to recognize some things and ignore others.

A case in point (quote): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Slight pause.) What is most important, the prime word in this sentence? (Slight pause.) Our culture would insist ‘commandments’ is the important piece. And our culture would be wrong.

Throughout Scripture one thing is absolutely clear: the prime imperative is love. And love is, in every sense, the only commandment. All else is superfluous.

Put differently, God does not demand, command, compel, require, force, dictate, order, burden, saddle, mandate. God invites… God invites love. It is human society, our social context and its structures which demand, command, compel, require, force, dictate, order, burden, saddle, mandate. (Slight pause.)

If God invites love, the church is by definition more than an institution. The church is by definition a Spirit-led community proclaiming the gospel, administering sacraments, naming as sin the brokenness we find in the world. If God invites love, the church will exist long after structures of the current institutions are gone. (Slight pause.)

In saying we are a Spirit led community, not a structurally bound institution, I am also suggesting we mis-read Scripture. We read Scripture through a parochial, cultural lens. Our cultural lens instructs us to demand, command, compel, require, force, dictate, order, burden, saddle, mandate and presumes the church should do likewise. (Slight pause.)

But how did Jesus read Scripture? Did Jesus use the cultural lens of the Roman Empire, a cultural lens for which force was the imperative or did Jesus use a lens which sought to be led by the Spirit? (Slight pause.)

Methodist Adam Hamilton says the method Jesus used in reading Scripture is pretty clear. Jesus never set out doctrine or dogma or read scripture in a wooden way.

Jesus clearly favored passages that portray a God of mercy, a God who invites love. In short, Jesus was led by the Spirit in reading Scripture and did not try to tweak instruments of violence out of every jot and tittle. [2] (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to the fabulous invalid known as the church. It is Jesus who refers to (quote): “the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept,”— the world cannot accept— and then says (quote): “…you can recognize the Spirit, because She remains with you and will abide with you, and will be within you.”

So, the challenge set forth here for us is to read the Scripture the same way Jesus did. Clearly, when we become enamored of a lens which encompasses only our own parochial, limited cultural context, we will see the church as dying.

On the other hand, when we read the words of Scripture with Spirit filled hearts and minds— then what Jesus says (quote): “you can recognize the Spirit, because She remains with you and will abide with you, and will be within you”— what Jesus says will be both empowering and will empower us. You see, when we do read the words of Scripture with Spirit filled hearts and minds we are invited to love.

Further, when we read the words of Scripture with Spirit filled hearts and minds, we are invited to communicate to all people that the prime imperative is love. Put another way, we are invited to tell the story Jesus tells about God who loves. And we are invited to relate to each other. (Slight pause.) Love is, you see, is the only commandment. (Slight pause.)

Oh, and you know that thing our denomination— the United Church of Christ— keeps saying: “God is still speaking”? That’s what this Spirit of Truth, this Advocate, this Paraclete, this Helper is about: God is still speaking. Amen.

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Earlier, I claimed the Spirit is still speaking. Well, you heard and anthem today by Lloyd Larson. Mr. Larson adapted a poem by Samuel Longfellow, altered the words and made a really lovely anthem. We also sang a hymn for an Affirmation of Faith. I chose that hymn out of the 1904 Pilgrim Hymnal without realizing it was the same Samuel Longfellow poem. But Mr. Larson had changed the words of Longfellow just enough that at first I did not know it was the same poem. And, guess what? The words were different enough so that they were not they not the same, but they simply complimented each other. Now what was that I said? I think I said the Spirit is still speaking. What do you think? I think ‘yes.’”

BENEDICTION: Let us never fear to seek the truth God reveals. Let us live as a resurrection people. Let us understand every day as a new adventure in faith as the Creator draws us into community. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] http://millennialpastor.net/2014/05/18/can-we-kill-the-church/

[2] Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, HarperOne, © 2014, pg. 54.

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