A sermon by L. Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
May 18, 2014
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 66:8-20; John 14:15-21
John writes his gospel for the second generation of Jesus followers. Do you know what that means? It means the apostles are now gone. Those who walked the dusty trails of Palestine with Jesus, who left family and professions and abandoned their previous dreams to follow the Nazarene, who witnessed his miracles and listened to his teachings and stories, who after his resurrection took off to all manner of places and people and cultures proclaiming what they said was good news – that God had brought salvation through the atoning life and death and resurrection of this remarkable rabbi from Galilee… if, indeed, remarkable is a strong enough word to describe him… this first generation of believers is now reunited in heaven with their Lord and Master.
He had told them, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:2-3). Well, Jesus has now taken them to where he is, and these second-generation Jesus-followers are left behind to carry on the faith as best they can.
Evidently, they’re not exactly feeling up to the task, if for no other reason than the rest of the world isn’t taking too kindly to these who have given their hearts to Jesus of Nazareth. And so, John writes for them what we now know to be the fourth gospel. You can think of it as a story of encouragement, if nothing else.
What do you do when the eye-witnesses are gone… Peter, James, and John and all the rest? When you’re surrounded by those who persecute you rather than appreciate you, who revile you rather than respect you… who do you believe? Who do you trust? Where do you go?
John is writing to and for those who are still around, who have likewise committed themselves to following Jesus just as the original disciples had done, and who may be beginning to have doubts about all this, if for no other reason than Jesus hasn’t returned as they thought he would do, as they were told he would do. And now, like Jesus, their heroes and models of the faith are gone too.
They’re feeling like maybe they’ve been left out to dry, have been thrown under the proverbial bus, so to speak, are wandering aimlessly in a world hostile to their faith and way of life, and they aren’t at all certain what they ought to do. These are the people to whom John writes his gospel. To use a good old Southern colloquialism, John is communicating with folks who’ve got their dobberw down. The church has been left to them and they’re not doing so well. These second-generation Christians are beginning to understand that it’s tough to be second in anything.
Have you ever wanted something – really wanted it – and come in second? That’s happened to me many times. It all seems to have begun at a fairly early age.
When I was ten years old there emerged a problem in our church, the church where I was baptized, and where still my earliest church memories reside. I recall the ceiling fans in those pre-air-conditioning days, moving the hot air that some of us thought was not only the result of summer weather but perhaps also the sermons coming from the direction of the pulpit. And even though I was only seven at the time, I remember my baptism as if it were yesterday.
I recall encountering our pastor in the church hallway one Sunday morning, asking him when I was going to be baptized. It had been awhile since I had taken my daddy’s hand and asked him to walk down that aisle with me as I gave my heart to Jesus, and I thought it was past time to get the baptism done! After it occurred, I remember some of the adults remarking how I had stood tall and straight in the water as the pastor spoke of my desire to follow Jesus. They took it to mean that I was serious about this, and that became a point of some pride to me.
I look back fondly on those halcyon days.
The parsonage was just behind the church, and often I’d spend a Sunday afternoon there with my buddy Guy Whitney, Jr. Guy’s dad was our pastor, you see, and we were really good friends. We still are after all these years. We’d play catch or basketball, depending on the season. Regardless of the activity, we’d find plenty to do outdoors before Training Union started later that evening before worship.
One of my treasured possessions, given to me by my friend Guy, is a picture I have in my office, taken when I was about nine years-old, of our church’s Royal Ambassador baseball team, coached by Esko Huffine (yes, that was his name). We didn’t have uniforms; we all just wore our RA T-shirts with blue jeans (this was also the days before shorts came into vogue… no air-conditioning, no shorts, and certainly no video games… we sweated a lot!). Still, we were carefree and life was good.
But a couple years later things weren’t going so well at the church and Bro. Guy was asked to leave. There were plenty of people in the church who were really sore about all this. They felt the situation wasn’t handled appropriately, and that certain people were behaving badly about it. it. My dad, who was a deacon in the church, was in that group. You know as well as I do that when feelings get hurt and people get crossways with one another, very little good can come from it. So they decided to start a new church and asked Bro. Guy to assume the pulpit. Bro. Guy was reluctant at first, as I recall, but eventually he agreed to lead the new church, pastoring our fellowship until Guy Jr. graduated from high school a year before I did.
The new church was fun. For a couple years we met in an old laundromat on East Kingshighway, until we could build our own facilities on the other side of town. It was very inter-generational and small, and everybody knew one another. The church was growing, and by all indications we had a bright future together. That was the first generation of the church.
When Bro. Guy left us, the second generation began. I didn’t take too well to his successor. It just wasn’t the same. His preaching was more harsh, it seemed to me, and he didn’t take an interest in the youth, not in the way Bro. Guy had done. Maybe that’s because his children were younger and I didn’t relate to them very well. I don’t think I was the only one in my family to feel this way, either. After I left home for college, my parents joined another congregation in town. Maybe they were influenced by their empty nest; I’m not really sure. But for whatever reason, a sense of unease set in for them.
But I do know this. Being second – the second generation, the second fiddle – at anything can be a struggle. It was to these second-generation followers of Jesus that John wrote his gospel. When you’re second, occasionally you need a jump-start, something that will reinvigorate you to keep on keeping on. That’s what John’s people were facing. They needed the encouragement of the gospel in a way that would keep them moving forward in their faith. So John decided to write them the story of the One to whom they had committed their lives.
John’s gospel is different from the other three that were written a number of years earlier for the first generation of believers. It needed to be, as far as he was concerned. His people were facing new challenges never seen before, and the way he framed the story of Jesus needed to be different too. So he gives a lot of emphasis to what Jesus told his disciples before he left them. You see, John’s church feels as if they’ve been left behind too, and John thinks that if he can assure them, as Jesus did his followers before he left them, then they might be encouraged to continue in their faith.
“I will ask the Father,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and he will give you another Advocate or Helper, to be with you forever.” Remember: it’s tough to be second. How can this Advocate, this Helper, be as effective in reaching into the hearts and minds and souls of these people as Jesus so obviously was? Regardless of who it is that God sends in Jesus’ stead, that Person – that Advocate, that Helper – is still going to be number two.
There’s nothing like seeing someone face-to-face. You spend time on the phone with your child or your friend, your parents or another of your loved ones, especially if they live in other parts of the country. And now, given our computer technology, you can Skype and actually see your loved one on a screen. But oh, when Christmas comes, or you plan a joint vacation, where you can all get together and touch and hug and love on one another, if even for just a little while… well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
So how can the promised Holy Spirit, who cannot be seen, be the same as standing face-to-face with Jesus? Wouldn’t it be better if we had a God we could see… and touch and know that we are not in this venture alone?
Let’s look at it this way… If John were standing in front of us and we had a question-and-answer session with him, what question would you ask him? Eventually, someone might put forward to him something like this: of this encounter and conversation between Jesus and his disciples, where Jesus is preparing them for his physical absence, which verse, which statement by Jesus, is your favorite? Watch John as he rubs his chin while in deep thought. I think he might, finally, tell us that verse twenty is the one that gives him goose bumps. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Now look into the faces of the people who are hearing John’s gospel read to them for the very first time, these second-generation believers who are finding it more and more difficult to believe and live out the demands of following Jesus without having seen him or knowing him.
“I am in my Father…” Jesus says to his followers. “I am in my Father…”
“You are in me…”
“I am in you.”
Let’s say it again…
“I am in my Father…”
“You are in me…”
“I am in you.”
“I am in my Father (Father), you are in me (Son), I am in you (Holy Spirit).”
Can you imagine the encouragement, the inspiration, that would give these people? What does it do for you? Anything? Anything at all?
Let’s take another look at what Jesus said. Of these three phrases – “I am in my Father, you are in me, I am in you” – if you had to reduce it down to the one that means the most to you, which one would it be? “I am in you,” Jesus said to his disciples, and to you and me, “I am in you.” Isn’t that the phrase you would choose? “I am in you.” What does it mean – not theologically, not analytically – but personally, inwardly, to have the Spirit of Jesus in you? Not what it means to the person sitting next to you in that pew, but to you, that the Spirit of Jesus is in you?
You may be aware that before the followers of Jesus were called Christians, they were said to be people of The Way. It meant that their following Jesus was a journey of faith and growth and understanding, of stumbling and searching and wondering, of what it meant to live as Jesus lived. If they had had it to do all on their own steam and by their own power and initiative, there would not have been a second generation of believers. It would have all ended with Jesus on the cross.
But now, John is telling his congregation that Jesus’ Spirit is alive and well and living in them. What the journey requires is for them to believe. Oh, but hold on. Believing in Jesus, and having his Spirit dwell within us, is not believing in a set of doctrinal affirmations, like you would affirm the Constitution of the United States. In the context of The Way, believing is “to give one’s heart to.”1
It is not a mental exercise. It isn’t something you necessarily reason out, it isn’t a logical transaction that encourages you to believe doctrinal statements about Jesus. The heart is one’s self at its deepest, most personal, most intimate level. And you give that to Jesus even though you cannot see him.
And when you do that – give your heart to Jesus – you breathe deeply and slowly and sense that you are no longer the same. The Holy Spirit is now dwelling within you, and there’s nothing – absolutely nothing – second place about that.
Come, Holy Spirit of Christ, dwell deeply within our hearts and may you find us – each one of us giving ourselves wholly to you. Amen.
1cited from Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus for the First Time (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 137.