May 17, 2020


Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21

“The Best is Yet to Come!”

When the Apostle Paul addressed the people of first century Athens, he commented that he had noticed an altar in their city with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ I suppose he must have found it sad that these people were searching for God, and seeking to worship God, and maybe even wanting to offer their lives in service to God, but God remained a mystery to them.

But Paul came with good news for the Athenians, the same good news that has given our lives meaning, purpose, and hope as well. He said: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things… In him we live and move and have our being… We are his offspring.”

How did Paul know this? And how could he proclaim with such confidence that the God of all Creation was present and active and giving life and breath to all people as God’s beloved children? Because God had revealed God-self to us in Jesus Christ.

“Living Faith,” a statement of Christian belief of our Presbyterian Church in Canada makes a similar declaration in these words:

  • There is one true God
    whom to know is life eternal,
    whom to serve is joy and peace.
    God has created all that is.
    The whole universe testifies
    to the majesty and power of its Maker.
  • God has come to us.
    The Lord spoke to the people of Israel
    and entered into covenant with them.
    From Israel came Jesus Christ,
    the Son of God,
    bringing salvation through a new covenant
    entered by faith.

My favourite line in that is “God has come to us.” Paul talked about how human beings have searched for God and groped for God, looking for meaning and hope and help in their lives. But Paul says that God is not far from each one of us.

The good news is that God has come to us in Jesus Christ. In the life and ministry of Jesus, God was present in our world, revealing God’s love and grace, as well as God’s desire for us to live in loving relationship with one another and with the whole of Creation.

Those who walked with Jesus in those days received a special gift. Can you imagine? They were in the front row when he was teaching the crowds. They were part of his team when they were feeding the people. They shared meals with him, and relaxed with him over a glass of wine. They served and helped him, and had their own feet washed by him. They prayed with him, and sang with him, and undoubtedly had the experience of holding his hands or being embraced by his loving arms.

Our passage today from John’s Gospel comes from the time when Jesus’ disciples are coming to terms with the fact that all of that will be coming to an end very soon. As he has already told them, he is going to be arrested and killed. Jesus is going to die, and on the third day he will be raised – not to be physically present with them again, but to go on to a new and everlasting life with God.

A little earlier in the same chapter, Jesus encourages them not to despair at his dying. He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” As awful and difficult as this situation may seem, it doesn’t spell the end. It doesn’t mean defeat. It’s a transition. Transitions can be difficult, but they can also be good.

We’ve all been through transitions in our lives, so we know that’s true. Transitions can be difficult – like stepping into a new and challenging role for which you don’t feel completely prepared; or like moving out of your own home into somewhere you can receive more care; or like going on with life when an important relationship has ended for whatever reason.

I think that transitions are particularly difficult for us when we really liked how things were before. And transitions are challenging when we’re not confident that things can ever be that good again without somehow stepping back in time to those good old days.

Thinking about transitions in these days made me think about our sudden transition from gathering in this place week-by-week to new and different ways of worshipping, connecting, and serving together as a church online and by phone and mail. Like Jesus, no longer physically present with his disciples, we had to change to a community that was no longer physically present together in one place. We had to adjust to new ways of being together and work creatively to continue our mission and ministry despite our changed circumstances.

Like the disciples, we liked the way things were before. And like them, we wouldn’t have chosen for this to happen. But Jesus assures them and us that things are going to be okay. We need not be troubled or afraid.

The promise Jesus gives them in today’s passage is that he is by no means abandoning them. His teaching about the coming “Spirit of truth” is a soothing word of solace: “I will not leave you orphaned.”

If we are God’s offspring, as Paul also said, and the early disciples experienced the benefit of that parental guidance and love in their relationship with Jesus, his assurance to them is that another parental figure will be guiding and helping them in the future. The Holy Spirit will be their Guardian.

After that section in “Living Faith” which affirms that God comes to us in Jesus, the next part declares that in his death, we are not abandoned:
The Lord continues to come to us by the Holy Spirit,
God present in the world, and Guide to the church.

There are many titles and descriptive words for the Holy Spirit in Scripture, and the Gospel of John contains many of them as Jesus encourages his followers to look for God’s continuing presence with them even after his death. One of those words is “Comforter,” and that is good news for us in the midst of a difficult transition.

When we’re grieving the lack of contact with family and friends, when we’re worrying about our finances, or our health, or the safety of our children or elderly loved ones. When we’re feeling overwhelmed by all the awful things happening in the world, and we just want to curl up in bed and pull a big warm blanket over ourselves for a while, the Spirit of God is our Comforter.

But Jesus uses another word to describe the Spirit in today’s passage. He says, “I will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” In the original Greek, the word is parakletos, translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “Advocate” and elsewhere as “Helper.” Literally, parakletos means “called alongside.” As a lawyer comes alongside a defendant, or a teacher comes alongside a student, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come alongside us to teach us, and guide us, and advocate for us.

For those first disciples who had been walking beside Jesus on the dusty roads of his missionary travels, and being guided by him in their own tentative ventures into healing and helping and proclaiming the good news of God, the transition was from Jesus beside them into the Holy Spirit beside them.

Although they huddled in a house together in fear and shock and horror after his violent execution, when Jesus breathed the Spirit into their midst it was not only for comfort and consolation. It was a Spirit of truth and courage and power that would send them out and go along beside them as they continued Jesus’ mission of love for the world.

Earlier this week, as I pondered the transition that those early disciples experienced from being together physically with Jesus into relying on the invisible and spiritual presence of the Holy Spirit, I compared it to our transition from being physically present together as a worshipping and serving community into virtual or spiritual togetherness through technology and other forms of communication.

Someone pointed out that it’s not a perfect analogy, especially since we don’t expect this current reality to become the new normal in a permanent sense. Certainly, we do expect that gatherings will eventually be able to resume, and people beyond immediate households will be able to visit and embrace one another, and sing together, and share food together again. Likely we’ll need to take slow steps back together again, and learn new practices of cleaning and hygiene to keep everyone safe.

But I wonder if we can be encouraged by the example of the early disciples whenever we are going through transitions, experiencing loss and grief, and being prompted or even forced to change. After all, this pandemic is not going to be the only time that the church will need to adjust to changes that are somewhat beyond our control.

Imagine if Peter, James, and John just couldn’t get their heads around the idea that they were called to continue Jesus’ mission in a new way. Imagine if Mary and Martha just sat around their kitchen lamenting Jesus’ death and longing for the wonderful days when he used to visit them and receive their hospitality.

That could be us, couldn’t it? Remembering the good old days when we had these big church buildings and they were filled with people, when there was prayer in schools, and respect for the churches as the centre of community life? We could get stuck in that lamentation, or keep on spinning our wheels in an effort to get back to it or re-create it.

I like the way the SALT Lectionary Commentary describes the broad choreography of Jesus’ mission in John’s Gospel: “Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, comes to dwell with humanity and to recruit the first apostles; Jesus then departs from them in the flesh, precisely so he can dwell with them in a deeper way in the Spirit, ‘abiding in’ them as they abide in him; and in his place, Jesus assures them, God will send the Holy Spirit, who will guide and empower them as the movement grows into the church, a community who will go on to do ever ‘greater works’ than Jesus did.”

That part about doing “greater works” comes from John 14 also, just a few verses before today’s passage. Jesus says, “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.”

I think it’s believing in that promise of Jesus that gets the disciples through the transition that lies ahead for them – believing that they will have the power to do great things as they continue his mission. And I think that when we also place our hope in God through our transitions, trusting that God has good things in store for us too, we’ll make it through as well.

Things were pretty good in the past, and we have amazing memories to treasure and experiences to be thankful for, but the best is yet to come. We’ve got to believe that as we are stepping into new roles, trying new things, and letting go of how things used to be.

As “Living Faith” says, God has come to us in Jesus. And God continues to come to us in the Holy Spirit. In our times of transition and change, and indeed in all the days of our lives, the Spirit comes alongside us to guide and help us towards the great things God has prepared for us to do. The best is yet to come!

“Living Faith” concludes in its final chapter with these words of hope:

  • Life had its beginning in God.
    In God it will come to completion
    and its meaning be fully revealed.
    All creation will find fulfillment in God.
    Christ will come again.
    Only God knows when and how
    our Lord will return.
    Now we see in part.
    Then we shall see face to face.
  • Come, Lord Jesus!
  • May the God of hope
    fill us with joy and peace in believing
    so that by the power of the Holy Spirit
    we abound in hope!