The Spirit of Truth
A Sermon about Baptism and Pentecost
When you were growing up, what was your favorite TV show? I grew up in the very first generation of television watchers. Long before Sesame Street or American Idol, there were other shows my family and I enjoyed. Shows like Sky King. I Love Lucy. Gunsmoke. The Howdy Doody Show. This Is Your Life.
As I grew into adolescence I began to watch a lot of shows about the law – who broke the law, and who kept it. Batman and Superman. Columbo and Maddox. Dragnet. Long before John Grisham popularized non-stop, legal-eagle, page-turning novels, there was a TV lawyer who seemed to right all wrongs: Perry Mason. Today legal women capture our attention. The Good Wife. Here's my personal favorite, perhaps because its star, Kathy Bates, was my high-school classmate: Harry's Law.
If you grew up in this country or have spent any time here, if you have seen any American television at all, then you, too, have heard this question, over and over again, a question asked and then answered: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” “I do.” “Please be seated.”
In a few minutes you will be asked questions – five, to be exact. These questions are part of what we Episcopalians call our Baptismal Covenant. And they fool us, these questions, with their easy, identical answers. Yet just like the witness who has been called to take the stand, we may not know what our answers to those questions – a simple “I do” or “I will” – may mean for our lives. In fact, if we are honest, we have no clue what “the whole truth” is in some parts of our lives – whether we're in a courtroom, a classroom, a boardroom or a bedroom. If we are honest, truly honest, we are often clueless about “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – so help us, God!
The truth is that, even when we think we know the truth, we may not want to tell it. Because if we tell it, we may fear where our truth-telling will lead us. What will happen to me if I tell the teacher that someone was cheating on that test? What will happen with my church friends if I tell them I lost my job? What will happen, if I say: I just don't know if I can take it anymore? If I tell the truth, who will help me?
On Friday Vice-President Joe Biden spoke to families and friends of the women and men who had laid down their lives in service to our country about his own journey with the sudden loss of loved ones. When he was first elected to the Senate, the Vice-President's wife, Neilia, and his 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash. Biden’s two sons — Beau, then 3, and Hunter, 2 — were seriously injured. “For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” Biden told the 18th annual seminar of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (“TAPS”), a group that offers counseling to relatives and friends of military personnel who have died. People take their own lives, Biden continued, “not because they (are) deranged, not because they (are) nuts,” but “because (they’ve) been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again. . ..”
Today we are going to have a true “mountain top” experience. We are going to baptize three babies: Benjamin, Catherine and Sienneh! This is a great day for them and their families, and there is joy in our hearts for all of them. But the truth is. . .that we do not know how their new lives will turn out. We do not know what will happen to them. We do not know just how they will try to navigate this turbulent, troubled world. What we do know is that we are here because we trust in the truth of God. And we know that we will soon be asked five questions about our trust and our faith in our one, true God.
At the Baptism service (At this service), before all of us are asked those five questions, the parents and godparents of these beautiful babies will be asked some questions of their own. Before we baptize their babies, these adults will be questioned about taking responsibility for their beloved children, raising them as Christians and helping them to grow up, as the book of Ephesians puts it, into “the full stature of Christ” (4:13). And they will be asked six more questions – three questions about turning away from evil and three more questions about turning to Christ. Questions like: “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” We can almost hear: “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
After all those questions of them, and after all of us recite the Baptismal or Apostles' Creed, we will finally face those five questions – questions all of us will be asked today, whether we are at the Baptism service or not. Five questions have been saved for all of us grown-ups here today. Five grown-up questions, that, as they are asked, will be more and more difficult, truth be told, to answer truthfully. But don't take my word for it. Take a quick peek at them now. They're on page (7 at the 8 am service; 9 at the 10:30). Truthfully, now: how easy it is for you and for me to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”? Or to “respect the dignity of every human being”?
Notice the answer to those five questions. It's the same answer! And it's the same answer to the first two questions the parents and godparents were asked. The answer is, I will, with God's help. I will, with God's help. What does that mean to you? For me, it means that, without the help of God, I really, truly cannot do the things I have promised to do – at least, not very well or for very long. I cannot persevere in resisting evil, I cannot proclaim God's Good News in Christ – in short, I cannot follow Jesus as his disciple, unless. . .UNLESS I ask for God's help. I will, with God's help means that I will do these things God is asking me to do, these things I want to do – if and only if I ask for God's help. The truth is that, to live a Christian life, I need – WE need – God's help.
And the truth is: help is on the way! That's what Pentecost was and is all about. On that ancient Jewish festival day, when a mighty wind blew through the house where Jesus' disciples were waiting after he had left them, just ten days before, to ascend to heaven – something happened. GOD happened. Tongues, like fire – those pointy hats our bishops wear are meant to remind us of these flames – now came down and rested on each one of them. It was none other than the Holy Spirit of God.
And the Spirit, we are told in that story from Acts, filled all the disciples with the special ability to speak a language they had never learned but that others learned as children. In no-longer-foreign languages, they spoke of God's deeds of power. To tell the truth, some just didn't believe what they were seeing and hearing. They sneered, the Scripture says, and they said, they're just drunk! Then Peter, their leader, spoke and reminded them all of that the prophet Joel had said, all those generations ago. This was God's Spirit at work, and this gift of the Spirit was not just for them. It was for all flesh. And the gift was the gift of prophecy, the gift of telling God's truth to all of God's people in a way all of God's people could understand.
All who had followed Jesus were given this gift. And the Giver was an Advocate, who came alongside them forever. The Giver was a Guide, pouring out new abilities on those who followed or wanted to follow Jesus. The Giver was a brand, new Helper, now that Jesus had gone away. Before Pentecost, before Easter, even before Good Friday, Jesus told to his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you. . .the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16,17). “. . .it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go away, I will send (the Holy Spirit) to you. . .(and) when the Spirit of Truth comes, (the Spirit) will guide you into all the truth. . .” (John 16:7,13). The truth is: God keeps sending God's Spirit, who, our Prayer Book says, is “God at work in the world and in the Church, even now” (p. 852).
At the end of his talk on Friday, the Vice-President said, “There will come a day, I promise you, and your parents, as well, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife (will) bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen,” he said. “That day will come. . ..I’m telling you: it will come.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, this is NOT television. This is real life. I'm here to tell you – and this is God's honest truth – THIS is the day! This is the day we have been waiting for. This is the day when God is pouring out a fresh, new Spirit of Truth and Love. This is the day when God sends us a helper! We do have to ask for God's help, but that's all we have to do. For God the Helper, God the Comforter, God the Counselor is here, right now! And the truth is, all we have to do is to ask for God's help. The question is: Do you believe that? Will you?
Come now, Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit, your people need you.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
May 27, 2012