Guidance of the Holy Spirit
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
By The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, June 16, 2019
Trinity Sunday (Year C), Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
John 16:12-15: Jesus said to the 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.”
Today’s readings seem to me to be a strange selection for Trinity Sunday. They only seem very loosely connected to how we understand God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God. The reading from Proverbs writes about Holy Wisdom: the metaphor of wisdom as a beautiful woman. Perhaps those who selected this reading wanted to say something about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. But as the reading indicates, wisdom is something created by God, whereas God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are not created, but eternally one with God the Father. However, we do learn that true wisdom comes from God.
The short reading from Romans is about our suffering and endurance as Christians. Perhaps the tie-in here is that God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is with his apostles at the Last Supper. In this scene, he tells them that he will pray to the Father and the Father will send the Holy Spirit. Here in today’s passage, he tells them how the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth. This is the truth that comes from the Son and the Father.
Though this is not directly related to the doctrine of the Trinity, let’s explore this statement by Jesus. How does this work? How does the Holy Spirit lead us into all truth? We often make mistakes in trying to understand what is true. How do we rightly discern the voice of the Holy Spirit?
We say in our creed that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, but there were false prophets too. How do we tell the difference? Many people advocate for radical change in our society and in the church by saying “The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing.” So how do we know when this is true, and how do we know when this is just our own biases and wishful thinking?
Because the Holy Spirit is God moving powerfully in the world and in our experiences, people often equate the Holy Spirit with good feelings, or with a collective excitement in a group of people. If we are all excited about the same thing at the same time, we sometimes feel that this must be the Holy Spirit at work. But we forget to check our blind spots. This can be especially true if the new message resonates with our ideas or our politics. We see this with advocates of radical change, and we see this with certain conservative preachers too, who perhaps speak too quickly about the Holy Spirit’s political opinions.
However, the Holy Spirit is not a metaphor for our favorite ideas. The Holy Spirit is not our personal mascot for the cause of the day. The Holy Spirit is God, to be worshipped and obeyed.
So how do we avoid the trap of projecting our own ideas onto God? This is the process of discernment. Discernment starts with being formed and shaped in a community of prayer and scripture and sacraments. We pray, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is different from asking God to bless our ideas. Instead we first we ask what God’s ideas are so that we can then follow. Then we take time in prayer to notice where God might be calling our attention. Is there a theme to which we need to pay attention? Is there a part of our lives about which we need to think and pray?
As ideas emerge, we should test them. Is this something that God would say, based upon what we know about God? In several places in scripture, we are called to this kind of testing. In the first letter of John, we are called to “test the spirits, for not every spirit is from God. Only those who acknowledge Jesus are true (1 John 4:1-3). Paul writes “do not quench the Spirit, but test everything, hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). He also writes that we should not be blown about by every wind of doctrine, or tricks or deceit. But speaking the truth in love, we are to build each other up in the knowledge of Jesus—into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16).
The most important way we can test the message to see if it is indeed from God is to examine Holy Scriptures. Is what we hear consistent with the Bible? The church has turned to the Bible as the authority on how we understand God and how we understand ourselves and our response to God and each other. The Bible, as Paul writes, is inspired by God and useful for teaching, correction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
We see this in the life of the church. When questions arose about how to describe the nature of God, the early church leaders were careful to build their case on Holy Scriptures—the old testament and the recognized writings of the apostles. They met together to hear each other. When they formulated what is now the Nicene Creed, they were careful to avoid going beyond what scripture revealed. In this way, they made sure that the doctrine of the Trinity was faithful to the truth of God, and not a mistake.
So after we pray and listen for the Holy Spirit, we test what we hear against what we know, especially from what God revealed to us in the Bible. Now, some people will claim that what they teach comes from the Bible, but we know many teachers who have come up with strange teachings that they claim are in the Bible. Cult leaders like Jim Jones or David Koresh often skew the meaning of the Bible with horrific results. Mormons and Muslims put unique spins on the Bible’s story. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a strange translation of the Bible that comes up with very different meanings. So how do we guard against misuse of the Bible?
We listen not just to the opinions of others we know in the church, but to the whole church—Christians down the street and around the world. And we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the church that came before us. We listen for how the church has understood scriptures, especially those teachings that have stood the test of time, those teachings consistent with those who were with Jesus. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses came up with strange new teaching that is inconsistent with this understanding, all the way back to the first Christians. When we can find continuity with those who were with Jesus and handed down the faith, then we know we are on safer ground.
Sometimes we find the matter complicated in scripture and in the church. Sometimes the matter is quite clear. Always, however, we learn when we go to the Bible and when we listen to the voices of the church. Always, we learn as we listen to each other. When we listen rather than assuming our own prejudices, we are more open to hearing God more clearly, and more open to understanding each other. This process of listening and discernment leads us to greater understanding and greater clarity of God’s will for us.
Let’s try a test case, shall we? Let’s say that you are having a difficult time in your job. After some prayer and listening, you think that the Holy Spirit is telling you to go tell your boss what a jerk he is. What if you studied the matter in scripture? You might find passages that ask you to respect authority. Then you might find passages that encourage you to resist unjust authority. Then you might read the part about ‘speaking the truth in love’ and building each other up. And if you read some of the tradition in the church, you would find both encouragement to humility and to honesty and holding each other accountable.
You may not quite get a straight answer to your question, but perhaps you learn to ask better questions. You may learn how God wants you to deal with the problem by speaking with your boss, but also to be constructive and seek to make things better. And if you are listening well with others who are praying with you, you might get further guidance from your Christian friends about how best to approach your boss, speaking the truth in love.
This is a made-up scenario, but you see how with prayer and scripture, informed by tradition and strengthened by the Christian community, God the Holy Spirit indeed does guide us. These are steps that we take but notice throughout all this the good news that God is not always silent. God cares about you and your life, and God the Holy Spirit does move and strengthen and support us. Sometimes we may not learn the answers so clearly. But God the Holy Spirit does strengthen us with his presence, and lead us to the truth we need, even in the midst of the mystery.