"Are We Ready To Handle Truth?"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 8, 2003

Psalm 104:24-34; John 16:4b-15

     This morning we celebrate Pentecost, the day nearly 2,000 years ago that tradition has marked as the birthday of the Christian Church.  This "birth of the Church" is rooted in a mystical experience that believers had during one of their gatherings.  The Book of the Acts describes their experience this way:  

Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the house where they were sitting.  Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. (2:2-4)           

     It is interesting how experiences can change the motivation and direction of people's lives.  For example, it was a mystical experience that caused John Wesley to start a movement that was unkindly labeled by his critics as "The Methodists."  Wesley's experience took place at Aldersgate Church.  He wrote, "I felt my heart become strangely warmed." 

     One of the problems with experiences like these is our tendency to search for one of our own.  Who would not find absolutely delightful an electrifying experience where we felt the unequivocal presence of God?  When we are unsuccessful in duplicating what others claim happened to them, we can feel left out, as though God has not found us worthy. 

     Historically, however, people have not sought a burning bush experience like Moses encountered. (Exodus 3:2)  People have not approached an act of baptism with the idea that Heaven will open and the Holy Spirit will descend like a dove as happened to Jesus. (Mark 1:10)  In fact, when God came to the ancient prophet Elijah, we learn that God was not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the "still, small voice."  (I Kings 19:11-12)  When believers seek God's presence in some material way, these various forms can appear confusing.  Are such experiences necessary or important before we allow love to show? 

     In our lesson today, Jesus said, "I have so much more that I want to tell you, but now it would be too much for you to bear.  When the Spirit comes, who will reveal the truth about God, that Spirit will lead you into all the truth." (vrs. 13)  Why did Jesus resist telling his closest friends the truth?  Perhaps he knew from experience how hard it is for people to handle truth. 

     Without fully realizing how our lives are shaped, each of us can become the authority over what works for us. When we stay with our interpretation of life, frequently our story line does not change. Many of us remember, for example, how quickly Moses manufactured excuses  illustrating why he was not finding much joy in what God was asking him to do. (Exodus 3:11f).  His comfort levels were being threatened. He knew what he wanted, and it had nothing to do with going into Egypt and facing a ruthless ruler.   

     Sometimes an unexpected experience is necessary to "shock" us into seeing another reality or to face a new direction for our lives.  Most of us are not prepared to change our story line until we experience something that requires it. 

     Many years ago a woman came to see me.  She was feeling lonely and abandoned by her husband.  He was involved in two softball leagues and was seldom home during many summer evenings.  During the winter months, he became involved with indoor tennis and bowling.  I had a chat with the husband and he consented to leave one of his softball teams so he could be home with his family.  Was the problem solved?  Absolutely not.  We seldom solve a problem by treating  the symptoms.  

     Susan called me again.  She said, "He's home, but now he's reading, or sitting in his recliner wearing earphones or working in our garage.  He's here but he's not here if you catch my drift.  I don't know how I can break through to him; this family needs him." 

     The couple came to my office and I  listened.  When I had heard enough, I offered a number of radical recommendations.  I said, "Jim, I want you in the kitchen preparing supper on Tuesdays and Thursdays."  Susan immediately snapped back, "Not in my kitchen!  He's a klutz.  Turning him lose in the kitchen would be a disaster. He does not know where anything belongs. I'll be weeks cleaning up after him."   

     I chose to ignore her remarks for the moment.  "On Mondays and Fridays," I continued, "I want you to bathe the children and get them ready for bed."  She started laughing.  "He will destroy the bathroom, get the kids worked up with his foolishness and he will fail at getting them settled. Firmness is not one of his strong suits." 

     Notice who had become the authority in the home.  With total confidence Susan knew how best to manage the family. She could not understand why I was sending Jim into her territory.  Jim went there nevertheless.  Susan was absolutely correct in predicting the outcome; Jim was a disaster.  

     While frying chicken one night, Jim had remembered a technique his mother used.  He dipped the pieces into scrambled eggs, tossed them into a brown bag filled with flour and bread crumbs and shook it. The mixture filtered through the bag's seams and went everywhere.  When the frying had been completed, there was not a surface that was not covered with spattered grease. Jim loved what he made!  He absolutely loved it.  He got into this.  He got the cookbooks out for the next meal! 

     Susan had become the "expert" at efficiently managing the household leaving no room for her husband to participate in the family. He had gone into the world of softball because there he was valued and appreciated for his skills as a batter and a short stop. Without realizing it, Susan had been sending Jim a message that he was not needed and could not possibly fit into her management style.  Rather than teaching him, she had been screening him from the process. It took several shocking experiences before the two of them got their marriage growing again.  

     When our familiar story line governs the direction of our lives, how does "the truth" break through the barriers we have unwittingly created?  If we can do this in our marriages, think of what can happen to our relationship with God.  Often it takes a unique experience for us to look in the mirror at who we have become. 

     As we turn back to our lesson, we learn that Jesus was preparing his disciples for a major shock.  A day would come when he would not be with them.  The disciples had grown too dependent on him for their identity.  They were his disciples. He told them, "I am telling you the truth:  it is better for you that I go away, because if I do not, the Helper will not come to you." (vrs. 7)   

     Who is this Helper?  Was Jesus referencing an external source of rejuvenating energy that would become a part of them? Would God's Spirit enter their bodies enabling them to become different beings, giving them powers they did not before possess?  What was Jesus preparing them to experience? 

     Recently I performed a wedding ceremony where one of the bridesmaids was a pilot.  During a moment when the two of us were alone, I asked her what her most frightening experience had been while flying.  She smiled and said, "Without question it was my first solo flight.  I was very confident while my instructor was seated next to me. When I found myself alone in the cockpit for the first time, every fear and "what if" flooded my mind.  I had to learn that I could fly the aircraft without the calm, reassuring presence of my instructor.  I did it!  What a rush!"   

     Again, Jesus said, "I am telling you the truth:  it is better for you that I go away, because if I do not, the Helper will not come to you."  Could it be that Jesus was setting up his disciples for trusting God to lead them, to empower them, to give them insights and to move them beyond self-interest and into a ministry where their lives would influence the world?  

     Today we find a number of people who want to experience spiritual ecstasy more than to facing the challenges associated with the inner and outer work of discipleship.  We can search for some unexplainable, mystical experience or we can look upon life as did the young pilot -- learning to fly without the master pilot's physical presence.  Jesus had given his disciples the contents of the Sermon on the Mount but it was up to them to use it.  The Pentecost experience gave them that push to get out into the world.   

     This past week I was in a meeting where one of our lay persons said, "I do not think anyone should join our church without also assuming responsibility for contributing their time and talents to help with our growing mission to each other, our community and the world."

     Our committee discussed his thought.  Everyone is very busy.  This is not the same social climate we experienced 50 years ago when the church was the center of family life.  Scores of activities are in competition for our time.  Most of us tend to fit the church in where and when it is convenient.        

     People become empowered when they get busy.  Elijah found God's presence only when he left the security of his cave and went back into ministry.  There was no spiritual ecstasy.  Moses only found that God was with him when he went into Egypt and confronted Pharaoh.  There was no spiritual ecstasy. When the Holy Spirit filled Jesus, again, there was no ecstasy.  In fact, he had to enter the wilderness to reassess his identity. All of them had to move beyond their known story line and trust that God would lead them.  

     We need to remember that we do exactly what we want to do with our lives until we run into a wall.  That is what Susan and Jim were doing in their marriage. That is what Elijah and Moses were doing before an experience sent them in another direction.  Jesus had to wander for a period of time.   

     Some of us are not prepared to handle truth because we enjoy the control we have over our lives.   We do not like taking risks with our time and financial resources. We come well armed with every excuse in the book. Then during some sleepless night, we wonder why the Holy Spirit has not shown up in our lives. 

     When is the last time you spent time in one of our nurseries?  Have you ever taught a Sunday School class?  Have you worked a week of Bible School?  Have you ever traveled to the Men's Shelter and served a meal?  Do you give to the church a tithe of your income?   Are you currently serving on a committee?  How can God use us to change the world if our commitment to serving others never shows up? 

     Most of us remember seeing the painting where Jesus is knocking on the door.  When we study that scene, we notice that there is no handle on the outside.  The door can only be opened from the inside. This is what is meant by "free will."  Can we handle the truth?  If we think so, open that door!   

     The empowerment we receive from such a risk is beyond comprehension.  God's daily presence becomes increasingly clear when we get out of ourselves, away from our known story line and into ministry.  We do not need ecstasy before we make a difference; we need involvement.  When we find ourselves serving one another, the Spirit will work through us to change the world.  That is God's promise. 


     As we pray during these moments together, how humbling it is for many of us to review our week. We can remember when our words were sterile, when there were few smiles of affirmation, when we were preoccupied with concerns and desired to be left alone.  We can remember when we allowed fear to enter our minds, when we allowed little issues to overwhelm us and when our responses displayed irritability.  Lead us, O God, to remember to use all the talents and abilities you have given us.  Lead us to learn the lessons that can be found in many of life's fragile moments.  Enable us to lead others to rise to the full stature of which your son promised we were capable.  Thank you for the privilege of being a part of the unfolding of your will.  Amen.


     Loving and always merciful God, we stand in wonder of the towering figures who appear larger than life in our faith tradition.  Their words and example inspire us.  Their lives have provided guidance for what the indwelling of your spirit enables people to do.   

     We confess that often we search for experiences rather than ways to commit ourselves.  Many of us chase after you with the same curiosity as Philip who once said to Jesus, "Just show us God and we will be satisfied." Some of us long for experiences that fill us with ecstasy. Yet we have learned that faith is making a decision when the outcome is not certain.   

     Often we come to you seeking a greater clarity of our ideas when we could be engaging in random acts of kindness.  We come with our plans for greater efficiency and we could be giving ourselves away patiently even during moments of confusion.  We stress our need for accuracy in the interpretation of Scripture when we could become more focused on expressing three simply words, "Love One Another."   

     Why is it, O God, that it is such a challenge to get ourselves out of the way so that your spirit may shine through us?  Enable us to discover the difference between righteousness and faithfulness, so that we might become better instruments of your peace.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .