I do recall that back in seminary we had a talent show each year. A favorite moment came when students would do impersonations of professors, and we’d guess who was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he began incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.
So our epistle, Romans 5:1-5. I keep imagining Paul, pacing, thinking out loud, grimacing like Tom Langford, dictating to a scribe what we now read. He had to be uber-inspired as he sorted things out without the benefit of a New Testament or even one volume of theology on his shelf. He’s not figured out a Trinity yet, but he wrestles with the idea of “peace with God the Father through Jesus,” and “the Spirit poured into our hearts.” I wonder if a sermon might look like Tom Langford, and we simply restate, with uhs and sighs, the notion that we are at peace with God the Creator, through the agency of Jesus (his cross being, perhaps, like a wooden bridge from us into the heart of God, as Catherine of Siena suggested) – and as we weigh all this, our hearts pulsate with joy and energy, the Spirit not so much an emotional jolt but an undercurrent of understand, insight, aha!
And then I always like to repeat Paul’s stunning litany – and maybe without explanation: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” I might pause there and say hope might not disappoint? Or rather, segue into what Christopher Lasch taught us about hope’s ability to cope with disappointment, and how it is so very different from optimism: “Hope doesn’t demand progress; it demands justice, a conviction that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope appears absurd to those who lack it. We can see why hope serves us better than optimism. Not that it prevents us from expecting the worst; the worst is what the hopeful are prepared for. A blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”
Optimism depends on us; it’s Scarlett O’Hara’s naïve view that things will somehow be better tomorrow. Hope depends on God; it can bear tomorrow being worse.
Our Gospel, John 16:12-15, is so titillating. Jesus has “many things to say, but you can’t bear them now.” Jesus will continue to speak long after Good Friday and Easter, though the Spirit – and I wonder if there’s some hint in there that the fullness of Jesus’ truth is something you can only grasp over time, only after much pondering and getting ready. The preacher would be wise to remember this: that you can’t just download the riches of the Gospel into people’s heads. They aren’t ready for it all just yet. Be patient. Dole out some, hint at more to come.
This “spirit of truth” is perilous, as too many Christians treat “truth” as some sledgehammer to judge or belittle others. St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century): “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth without Love is unable to fly, so too Love without Truth is unable to soar up; their yoke is one of harmony.” Denominations are lousy about truth; both “sides” blithely presume to have cornered it. I love Ephraim Radner’s insight: “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say? How did he contribute? When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind? They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.” Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him. So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”
Truth somehow begins, ends and may well be fulfilled in silence. Our people, and we clergy ourselves may feel uncomfortable with silence, or exasperated by it. Oscar Romero, speaking to hurting, fearful Salvadorans feeling forsaken by God – on Good Friday, 1980! – said, “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray any more. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”
Our text underlines what Frederick Dale Bruner once suggested – that the Holy Spirit is the “shy” member of the Trinity, preferring to glorify others, like the backstage help doing everything to make the star on stage shine.
We are having Holy Communion this Sunday at my place – which draws me to reflect on the Rublev icon. Once I spoke of it and imagined three friends at dinner, inviting you, us, to join at our viewer’s side of the table. God’s Threeness yearns for the one who’s not yet there, maybe like that shepherd leaving 99 sheep to seek out the one.
Check out my two most recent books. For leaders in church, business, community? Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership – and then also Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.