June 9, 2019, Day of Pentecost, Charles D. Mayer
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26). In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises the Advocate – or Paraclete – to the disciples as the one who will continue to teach and guide them after Jesus returns to the Father (Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 208). Sitting with the text in preparation for this sermon, the words that struck me were “will teach you everything.”
I think the words struck me because just last week, as you may remember, I mentioned in my sermon that I have sometimes dragged my feet in my Christian life by thinking that I needed more training – there was one more book I had to read, one more course I had to take, etc. But John’s Gospel teaches us that it is the Spirit who teaches us everything. This reminds me that while of course it is good to learn new things, it is important to feel led to whatever it is I embrace to learn next. So the Spirit should guide my learning. This is completely opposite to using learning one more new thing to resist stepping out in faith.
Actually, God showed me this in a very big way a long time ago. Let me take you back a little over forty years, to the summer of 1978. I was a student at the Pierre Monteux Domaine School in Hancock, Maine, an orchestral training and conducting school founded by the former Music Director of the Boston Symphony, Pierre Monteux. I was in my second summer after graduation from the Oberlin Conservatory, where I had majored in Trombone Performance, and I was still working hard to fight off a powerful sense that where God really wanted me was in ministry. We students were housed with local families, and six of us young men lived for the summer with a retired army colonel, Colonel Hill, in his beautiful white Victorian home, with a great lawn that rolled almost to the sea. As the summer began, I was beginning to think that maybe I had eluded God. I was making music in a beautiful place, I was young and strong and could run along the ocean road each evening, and I felt quite smug about all the religion and philosophy courses I had squeezed in at Oberlin, arming me, I thought, with arguments against a life of faith.
But God had a different plan for me that summer. Living with me at Colonel Hill’s house was Mark, the principal cellist of our orchestra, who at thirty years of age was an elder statesman at the Domaine School. Mark was a professor of music at an Advent Christian college in Massachusetts, a wonderful player and a calm, kind, very likable man who had a deep, quiet, mature Christian faith. I don’t remember how it came about, but almost right away we established a practice of sitting out on the lawn after dinner for a long talk before my evening run. I liked Mark very much, and looked forward to our conversations; but in all honesty, I had an agenda. I wanted to debate the merits of Christianity.
I remember Mark’s wonderful patience and utter lack of defensiveness as I challenged him on his beliefs. Always, he was respectful, interested, open to my arguments. The time came around mid-summer that I thought to myself, I’m winning! He’s a nice guy, but he’s wavering in the face of my dazzling ideas.
One evening, on my post-conversation run, I actually had the thought that perhaps I no longer had to work to elude God. Maybe I really was on my own now, free to pursue a life in music or whatever else I wanted. I got back to the house and was stretching out on the lawn, thinking these thoughts, when suddenly I was in a different state altogether. Not for the first time, but more powerfully than ever before, I felt surrounded by the loving presence of God. In that moment, I knew that God was no longer chasing me; God had me. I literally got up, went into the house, and sent for an application to divinity school.
Through my kind friend Mark, the Advocate had proven me wrong. All my intellectual efforts to disprove the reality that our lives are in God had fallen away. The Lord had been pursuing me all along, and I had known it; I had been working hard to oppose it, out of sheer willfulness and fear. Now, I was convicted of this sin, right in the courtroom on Colonel Hill’s lawn. I saw that there could be no righteousness except in the service of the Lord of love. And I experiencd the gentleness of his judgment, asking only that I let him love me and live in response to that love.
Let me hasten to say that this was not the end of my efforts to argue against what I knew to be true; nor have I lived on anything like a straight and narrow path. The gift of Pentecost is not that we human beings ever completely lose our sinful predispositions in this life, but that the Holy Spirit is actively working to guide us to live according to God’s will and purposes. He helps us in our personal spiritual lives, our lives in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in our digestion of the Word of God made known to us in scripture. He fulfills Jesus’ promise to us that we are never alone, and never without God’s own guidance.
It’s interesting – on this day on which we celebrate language, understanding words that would usually be foreign to us, speaking ecstatically and finding ourselves understood, it is perhaps what we hear when we are quiet – in the silence of our own interior lives – that emerges as the most powerful language of all. How have you been opposing what you know to be true in your own life? Are you willing to be quiet and let the Advocate speak to you wherever Colonel Hill’s lawn is in your life? Will you embrace the truth that the Lord loves you and has work for you to do?
May nothing less than this be true for each of us on this Day of Pentecost.