Easter 6A Sermon (1999)

6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:15-21;
Acts 17; 1 Pt 3


In the first chapter of John’s gospel we read:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. — John 1:9-10

The true light has already come into the world! That’s the Good News that John begins his Gospel with. When we look around at the terrible darkness in our world right now, do we get excited about the light? Do we believe it? Do we see it? When everyone around us looks at the tragedy of Columbine H.S. and asks “Why?!”, do we proclaim to them that the true light has come into the world to help us see in the face of such darkness?

St. John is sure. He proclaims Jesus as the light of the world in no uncertain terms. And he ups the ante in his gospel, here in chapter 14 where we read last week and this week. Jesus himself tells his disciples:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father…. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. — John 14:12, 16-17

The Spirit of truth to be with us forever. Again, those of the world might challenge us: ‘Spirit of truth? The Spirit of Truth has been with us for two thousand years now, and we’re still at war both abroad and at home? Look at our world: we’re fighting a evil man across the ocean who threatens to pull us down to his level. And at home, we have our own children seemingly at war with us. The unbelievable tragedy in Littleton has opened the floodgates for craziness in our schools all across our nation. What’s going on? Spirit of truth? Then you explain it to me! What’s the truth here? Tell me, disciple of Jesus!’

What do we say in response? I have a feeling this is a big reason why our pews are relatively empty around here. Not just here at Emmaus, but at scores of churches across this land. People look around them at the craziness and no longer find anything here at church that helps them understand the world they live in. Oh, they may still say they believe, and they might even come to church every now and then. But I think it’s mostly to hedge their bets for the afterlife. They think to themselves:

‘If I believe in Jesus, and come to church every now and then, and get my kids baptized — well, maybe we’ll at least go to heaven after all this craziness on earth is done. But as far as Jesus being the light of the world and sending us the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, what difference does that make right now, today, in seeing through the darkness. Look at Kosovo; look at Littleton. Can you tell me where you see any light? Can you explain to me where the Spirit of Truth is in all this?’

And what do we say to them? Isn’t part of our problem today that we don’t seem to have the language to talk to people about their big questions, “Why?” We can tell them about things like love and forgiveness and heaven, but when you look at Littleton, and now the grenade prank at Park H.S. on Friday, do these things cut it? Do they answer the big “Why?” questions? Should we expect to be able to answer them, or are they just part of life’s mysteries?

When we proclaim Jesus as the light of the world, and as having sent us the Spirit of Truth to abide in us, I think we should be able to have at least a few answers. Maybe I’m foolish for trying, but on Tuesday evening I’m going to try my best to offer a few answers to the big question “Why?” when we look at a tragedy like Littleton. From the tip of my toes to the hair standing up on my head, I believe in the light of Christ and the Spirit of Truth. I think we have some helpful answers and guidance for people in understanding the growing, frightening violence around us. I truly hope you will join me, as we look for the language, look for the things to say in the face of such darkness.

Now, on Tuesday, I’m going to take a couple hours to offer some suggested answers. I’m not going to do that here. But I think that our readings from Scripture this morning can at least lift up for us why we should be trying to find the language. Take St. Paul in our first lesson, for example. He gave it his best shot to talk to the great philosophers and thinkers of his day in the city of Athens. He wasn’t too successful yet, but he really paved the way in trying. St. Paul was still best in talking the language of his own Pharisees; and I think he learned a bit to talk the language of the average pagan person in those days, the language of mythological gods and of sacrifice. He may not yet have learned to speak the language of the philosophers, which was the up-and-coming way to speak, but over the next centuries other Christians did learn that language and its categories. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were especially good at it.

And this is partly what I think is meant in John’s gospel when Jesus says that those who will come after him will do even greater works because he is going to his Father. He gives us the Spirit of Truth to help us to find the language and categories of the people in every age. And each new language, I think, helps shed more light in the darkness. St. Paul got it started that day in Athens, and then saints like Augustine and Aquinas followed up and did great things, helping the people of their day understand things a bit better. Luther then helped in his day during the time of the Renaissance. The greater works that Jesus talks about in John 14 has to do with learning to speak the gospel in the language and categories of every time and place. That’s why we need the Spirit of Truth to be with us.

Now in our day, science has been around for several hundred years. Have we learned to speak the Christian truth in that language and its categories yet? This Newsweek cover is a great example. It shows us a picture of grief in Littleton and asks the big question, “Why?” And here in a smaller subtitle is our typical approach at an answer, “The Science of Teen Violence,” it says. The Science of Teen Violence. Well, right off the bat, I can tell you that I think they’ve already narrowed their field too much by specifying teen violence. The problem is more than with teen violence, isn’t it? Isn’t this narrowing a sign that we are afraid to look at the bigger picture of darkness? (Not to mention the element of blame on teenagers it implies!) No, if we are courageous enough to look into the darkness, I think we should be trying to talk about a science of human violence. It’s all of our problem.

And I believe that’s what the Cross of our Lord is trying to show us. He died a violent death to help us have the courage to look into the darkness of our violence. But to do that in our modern age, I think we need to be able to talk in the language and categories of science. We need to be able to fearlessly, and with hope, be able to help people understand a science of human violence.

Does this sound crazy? ‘I’m not a scientist,’ you say. Neither am I. But all of us, you and I have learned to think and operate within the language and categories of science, whether we’re scientists or not. We no longer believe in this tiny universe of a flat earth with heavenly bodies fixed in the sky above us. We believe in a vast universe, where the earth is only a speck in one tiny solar system among billions of stars and galaxies of stars. And we no longer talk in terms of demons and evil spirits every time we get ill. We talk in terms of viruses and clogged arteries and of immune systems not working right. We look for physical causes and effects, not demons and spirits behind every rock. Yes, we live in a world where science has learned to define the language and categories we use to understand things. We answer most of our “Why?” questions in the language and categories of science. That’s a big reason, I think, why there’s shrinking crowds around here and in other churches. Science has taken over explaining the questions of life for most people, and we haven’t yet learned to talk well in the language of science. Again, that doesn’t mean you and I have to become scientists. It’s that we need to learn to adjust our God talk to the everyday scientific categories so that we can be bold like St. Paul in Athens, so that we can trust in the Spirit of Truth to guide us into even greater works.

Does it still seem crazy? I have two other quick suggestions to make that might help to make it seem less crazy. First, I think that we should want to learn the language of science to some extent because it has been successful. It has moved us into a much better understanding of how God’s Creation works and how we might be better stewards of it. I would even go so far as to say that the appearance of science is itself one of those greater works of the Spirit of Truth, working behind the scenes throughout the ages. Notice that modern science arose in the West where Christianity has had a major influence for centuries. I think that the spirit of the Resurrection is partly the spirit of science. Here was a man executed by the state as a criminal, for heaven’s sake! And now he’s risen from the dead? The spirit of that first Easter was to begin to take a second look and try to find out what was going on. What was really happening if Jesus was in fact innocent? That’s the spirit of science: to take a second, closer look, an objective, unbiased look, and to find out what is really going on. And it has been wildly successful with much of God’s Creation.

But science has also had one dramatic shortcoming, I think. It has fallen way short when we ourselves, we human beings, are the subject of investigation. We can be objective when it comes to the heavenly bodies moving around in the vast universe. We can be objective when it comes to our own bodies as bodies. But when it comes to us as human beings, trying to understand what really makes us tick as persons, can we be objective? If there is a dark side to us, if we need to have a science of human violence, for example, can we be objective? I don’t think we can on our own. I don’t think we can without the help of the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who can assure us right up front that when it comes to taking a look at our dark side, we are forgiven, unconditionally forgiven. And there is a light to help us see and make sense. I’ve experienced it as a new and exciting way for these past seven years and I stake everything on it. It is the gospel itself. It is the Spirit of Truth helping us to finally put the gospel in the language of our day.

Yes, when we look around us, it is a frightening, often dark, time. But because of that people are asking the big questions of “Why?” And so it is also an exciting time to me, because I’m convinced we can finally begin to offer them some answers. We can proclaim Christ the light of the world with renewed gusto, and we can offer them the Spirit of Truth to dwell with them, too. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 8-9, 1999

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