Imagine the scene: Jesus is giving his disciples last minute instructions before he leaves them to establish the church and supervise the Kingdom of God on earth. They’ve been in class with him for three years, but they’re only just beginning to catch on to what God expects of them. Now Jesus is about to hand them the keys to the car and tell them they’re on their own.
How many times has it happened to you – you’ve been given just enough information and instruction to make you dangerous, and then you’re put in charge. I came up with a long list of those times in my life – like the day the flight instructor got out of the plane and said, “Go ahead and take her around on your own.” Or when Vicki and I drove away from the church thirty-six years ago, looked at each other and said, “Do you feel married?” Or when the nurse put the baby in my arms and said, “Here’s your daughter, Daddy.”
Nine years ago, Bishop Pennel asked me to be one of five new District Superintendents. Every August, there’s a four-day school at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina for new Superintendents from all across the country. I arrived at Junaluska with two briefcases: one with the official district superintendent’s laptop computer with profiles, literally, of every congregation and every clergyperson in the Virginia Conference; and another briefcase with my Bible, Book of Discipline, district and Conference directories, and The Journal of the Virginia Conference. Four days later I left with two more briefcases, filled with policy and legal manuals, superintendency workbooks, books about supervision, and so forth. After the last workshop, the other four new superintendents and I met on a sidewalk outside the Terrace Hotel. We were overwhelmed with terror over the task that lay before us, supervising dozens of clergy and their families, dozens of churches, and thousands of laity. “Why didn’t they tell us what we were getting into?” one of us wailed. “Because we never would have said ‘yes’ if we’d known,” somebody else said. “But you know what’s the most important thing I’ve gotten this week?” someone offered. “I’ve got a long list of telephone numbers, web sites, and email addresses. I’m just going to call and email you all and all these other people and ask what to do, over and over and over.” And that’s what we did: the Bishop and his assistant and the other superintendents and former superintendents and the General Conference boards and agencies were all on our speed dials. We didn’t have a clue about what we were doing – but we knew who did. And the Bishop gave us his cell phone number, and told us to call him, anytime. We did.
In this morning’s lesson, Jesus, essentially, gives the disciples his cell phone number. Those who love me will keep my word – they’ll do what I have done and have told them to do – and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. . . I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send as my replacement, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. The disciples are not left to figure things out on their own, remembering as best they can what Jesus had said to them during the three years they were with him. Jesus and the Father will be present with the disciples, in the person of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the Spirit is twofold: to teach, and to remind.
To teach you everything. Jesus is telling his disciples – including you and me -- that even if they could remember perfectly everything Jesus had ever said to them, they still wouldn’t know everything there was to know. The world was going to change constantly, and situations were going to rise that Jesus hadn’t covered. That’s what the Book of Acts is all about: the disciples have to figure out how to organize the church, how to choose an apostle to replace Judas, whether Gentiles are welcome as believers, what women’s roles are, how to manage spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy, whether people should get married, how to handle property and money. They couldn’t say the Bible has all the answers, because not only had the New Testament not been written, the Hebrew Bible hadn’t even been standardized yet (not until the Council of Jamnia in 90 CE). They needed the Holy Spirit to teach them day by day how to live out their faith consistent with Jesus’ Lordship.
To remind you of all I have said to you. Not everything is new. My grandfather loved history, and passed that love on to me. Americans, it seems to me, are, in general, lousy at history. We live out George Santayana’s dictum that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It happened again this week on Wall Street. It happens every day in our homes, schools, churches, and halls of industry and government. A friend of mine in the superintendency asked me this week what I thought about a thriving non-denominational church renting out one of our struggling campus ministry centers twice a week. I asked him, “does anyone remember Highland Park Church?” We rented out the sanctuary of Highland Park to a Church of God in Christ congregation. Today, Highland Park United Methodist Church is history, and the building on the corner of Second and Dill Avenues is Fresh Anointing Cathedral Church of God in Christ. It’s important to be reminded.
This morning we held up our new pew Bibles. We say the Bible is inspired, literally, God-breathed. The Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the primary means by which the Spirit reminds us of all that God said. But the Bible didn’t fall down out of heaven one day – it’s surrounded by thousands of years of the Holy Spirit guiding people to write it, guiding people’s translations and interpretations, and guiding the fathers and mothers of faith who decided which books belonged in it and which didn’t.
It’s essential to understand how the Holy Spirit teaches and reminds us. The Holy Spirit is not given to isolated individuals for their personal pleasure, understanding, and sanctification. Every time the Holy Spirit comes in the Bible, it is to create community. In two weeks we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and we will read the story of how the Spirit descended upon the disciples in Jerusalem, binding them together and empowering them to proclaim the good news to all the world. Then the Spirit falls on the crowds gathered to hear Peter’s sermon. The result of the Spirit’s descent was not that everyone had a private ecstatic spiritual experience and went home – they were bound together in a holy community, sharing their prayers, lives, and property with each other. The Spirit reminds and teaches us as we are gathered together in the name of Jesus: that’s what Jesus meant when he said, whenever two or three of you are gathered together, there am I in the midst of you – if you agree on anything, ask, and it will be done for you by my Father. That doesn’t mean that I gather two of you and get you to agree to ask God to give me a new boat. It means that the Spirit works to connect us to each other, reminding us of who we are under Jesus’ Lordship, and leading us into greater holiness for the salvation of the world.
Yes, we are invited into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but never a private relationship. No spiritual experience you or I have is disconnected from our relationship with each other, or disconnected from God’s call to us to bless the world with our lives. This winter I did a great deal of study, for the first time, of the 16th Century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. His Dark Night is a powerful love poem to God written from the depths of a windowless prison cell. At the heights of John’s mystic love poetry, he abandons himself to the love of God, not for John’s own sake, but so God can use him as a clear instrument for the sake of others. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit – to remind us of all Jesus taught, and to teach us further how to follow Jesus, who was led by the Holy Spirit to give up his life for the salvation of the world. That’s ultimately personal, but never was there a spirituality more absolutely public and communal.
When Bishop Pennel gave us his cell phone number and told us to call anytime, it wasn’t so we could chat about baseball. I could call Joe Pennel anytime to ask him how to better serve the people and the churches of the Ashland District. I called him when a minister’s son was accused of sexual abuse. I called him when another minister’s child had a stroke. I called him when my mother was dying and the Cabinet was meeting to make appointments. And he called me, before going to church in Nashville the first Mother’s Day after my mother died, to tell me he was thinking about me on that day. Those calls were deeply personal, but they were reminders of who we were and how we could move forward to serve God’s people. I knew I was never alone in that lonely work – I had the Bishop, I had the books, and I had the full weight of the connection.
The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said it. They didn’t understand until Pentecost how Jesus would remind them and teach them. They understood it more when churches started arguing about spiritual gifts, more when kings and princes started massacring the faithful, more when they had to choose between life and eternity. They were anything but alone. They remembered, and they were taught. And they were left with peace, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That same Spirit is right here, for you, and for me.