Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Truth of the Love of God” (John 16:12-15)
June 16, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This year Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day fall on the same day, so in this sermon we will connect the gospel of Jesus Christ to Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday, and along the way have some illustrations from the Harlem Globetrotters, Eddie Vedder, John Lennon, and Brennan Manning because, well, why not?
One of my favorite memories of my father took place when I was ten years old and in fifth grade. It was a snowy Saturday in Northern Virginia. We were supposed to go to the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland to see the legendary exhibition basketball team The Harlem Globetrotters. I had seen them on television many times and enjoyed the silly cartoon series they had in the early 70’s. I loved their amazing basketball skills and their tricks and antics—they were so talented and so funny. But as that Saturday wore on the snow grew heavier and heavier. I thought we were going to have to stay home.
But to my surprise my dad called me to the garage, said he needed my help. We loaded bags of sand and cement into the trunk of his beige 1974 Chevy Malibu—the same car I would drive several years later as a high school student—along with some sleeping bags and a snow shovel. I tried not to get my hopes up when I asked, “Are we still going to see the Globetrotters?” I’ll never forget the moment he shut the trunk and smiled at me, “Oh yeah, we’re going alright.” And we did.
We stopped for hot chocolate at a convenience store and rode through the heavy snow to the Capital Centre. Most of the crowd had opted to stay home, and so the modest crowd was invited to move closer to the court. We were just a few rows away from the real Harlem Globetrotters, including the legendary Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal, the most famous Globetrotters of all. We were in awe of their basketball talent and skills, and in stitches at their hysterical antics. Although we needed the snow shovel afterwards, the sleeping bags remained in the trunk and we got home just fine. It was one of the best nights of my life. The Capital Centre was demolished in 2002, but that memory will never be demolished.
For many, Father’s Day is a time to celebrate and share good memories of the things their fathers taught them and did for them; for others, it is a difficult day that brings to the surface painful memories. In a 2017 Special Collector’s Edition of Rolling Stone magazine focused on the iconic band Pearl Jam, the writer describes the strange relationship Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer, had with his father:
When (Eddie) was 17 years old, his mother told him that Peter Mueller, the man he knew as his father—a man he hated—was not his father at all. His real dad was his mother’s first husband, Ed Severson, a sometime lounge musician who had died several years before of multiple sclerosis… (Eddie) grew up knowing him only as a family friend (50).
By the time Eddie Vedder knew who his real father was, it was too late to get to know him. On the final track of Pearl Jam’s epic 1991 debut album Ten he sings:
Oh dear dad, can you see me now?
I am myself, like you somehow
I’ll ride the wave where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Oh dear dad, can you see me now?
I am myself, like you somehow
I’ll wait up in the dark for you to speak to me
I’ll open up
Release me, release me, release me, release me
(From the song “Release”)
Now trust me when I tell you that Eddie Vedder is by no means the only one out there who has waited in the dark for his father—dead or alive—to speak to him, waited in the dark for his father to release him from some kind of pain.
Recently some close friends gave me an album for my amazing record player, John Lennon’s 1971 classic Imagine. Like Eddie Vedder, John Lennon barely knew his father, who was absent most of his life until he tried unsuccessfully to reconnect with John once the Beatles were famous, at the height of Beatlemania. As John put it in an interview, “It was like he was dead.” On the first song on the second side of Imagine John sings, “All I want is the truth, just give me some truth.”
When it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is a place in every human heart that cries out the very same thing, “All I want is the truth, just give me some truth.”
On this Trinity Sunday the setting of the gospel reading is the Last Supper. Whether or not you noticed it, all three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are present in this passage, a passage in which Jesus, God the Son, talks about God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as God gives us all some truth. At the Last Supper Jesus assured his disciples:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:12-15).
When it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, here is some truth: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—three Persons, one God—love you unconditionally, love you completely, and love you eternally. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do or not do to change that, because as scripture puts it, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is the truth—and a wonderful truth it is.
Unfortunately through the centuries this gospel of the love of God has often been hijacked by those in some kind of power—political power or ecclesiastical power or military power or corporate power—the gospel has been hijacked in order to justify war and moralism and persecution and oppression—and in the process countless people have become turned off by and disillusioned with Christianity. But the truth is that none of those uses of power have anything to do with the actual gospel. When it comes to the actual gospel of the love of God in Jesus Christ the only power there is, is the power of love.
It was out of this love that God the Father sent Jesus, God the Son, to die on the cross for you to save you from yourself, to save you from your sins, to save you from all the hurtful things you have done to others, to save you from all the hurtful things others have done to you. Scripture says “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God is love.
Again, in today’s passage, Jesus identified the Holy Spirit as the “Spirit of truth” who “will guide you into all the truth.” The Holy Spirit will never lead you the wrong way but will always lead you to the right way, Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). The Holy Spirit will always guide you to the truth of the gospel that God loves you unconditionally, completely, eternally.
On Good Friday Jesus rode the wave of rejection, the wave of suffering, the wave of shame all the way to Calvary where on the cross Jesus in his own way cried out, “Oh dear dad, can you see me now? I am myself, like you somehow. Release me, release me, release me, release me.” On the cross Jesus held the pain until he breathed his final breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and God the Father indeed released him. That is the love God the Father has always had for you, that is the love God the Son has always had for you, that is the love God the Holy Spirit ministers to your heart to release you from the pain. The love of God is the truth to which the Holy Spirit will always lead you.
Years ago my favorite preacher ever, the late Brennan Manning, told this story:
My doorbell rang one afternoon when I lived in New Orleans. I opened it and it was a woman about thirty-five years old. She asked, “Are you Brennan Manning?” I said, “Yes ma’am.” She said, “My dad Joe is at home dying of cancer. I don’t think he has long to live. Can you come pray with him?” I said, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” When I arrive I go to his bedroom and he’s lying in bed, his head propped up on two pillows. I said, “I guess you’re expecting me.” He said, “No sir, who are you?” “Oh,” I replied, “I thought maybe your daughter might have mentioned I was coming, and then I saw the empty chair and just assumed you expected company.” He said, “Oh, the chair. Do you mind closing the door?” I close the door and wonder what is going on here. Joe said, “I’ve never told anyone this, even my late wife or my daughter. But about two years ago my best friend, who I never thought was very spiritual, says to me out of the blue, ‘You know, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. What you do is sit down in a chair, place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith you see Jesus sitting on the chair because he promised, I’ll be with you every day until the end of time. And then you just speak to him and listen like you would in a conversation with your best friend.’”
Joe continued, “Brennan, I’ve been doing that two hours a day now for the last two years, and I love it. But I’m careful, in fact, cautious. I don’t want my daughter seeing me talk to an empty chair because, you know, she’d say, ‘Funny farm for Daddy.’ You seem to have a background in this. Do you think it’s prayer?” I said, “Joe, you don’t have to ask me. That is so simple, so uncomplicated, so unsophisticated, so real that it delights the heart of Jesus.” He said, “Yeah.” I anoint with him with oil, pray with him, and go back to my house.
Brennan concludes this story:
Two nights later Joe’s daughter returns to tell me her dad had died that afternoon. I asked if he seemed to die in peace. She said, “Yes, when I left the house at 2:00 to go to the store, he called me over to his bedside, told me one of his corny jokes, and he kissed me on the cheek. When I got back just before 3:00 I found him dead. But there was something strange, beyond strange. This is weird. Dad was leaned over and resting his head on an empty chair beside his bed.”
You see Joe was released that day by his Heavenly Father, the same Heavenly Father who is not just a friend of the family but is your real dad, who has never stopped loving you. Joe was released that day into the lap of Jesus Christ, his best friend—and your best friend. Joe was released by the Holy Spirit who had always led him to the truth of the unconditional, complete, eternal love of God.
So on this Trinity Sunday, on this Father’s Day, may the Holy Spirit guide you anew to the truth of the love of God for you.
And regardless of how heavy the snow falls in your life, may the Holy Spirit smile at you and assure you, “Oh yeah, we’re going alright.”