My sermon this afternoon addresses what happened in Charlottesville yesterday in a real way but not as directly as this moment warrants so I want to talk about it directly up front, even though we’ll come back to it as we go. I started this series last week so you would know what your new pastor is all about so this isn’t reactionary. Nor is it mere coincidence because the Spirit knows how to line things up and also because what went on in Virginia yesterday is not an anomaly or something that came out the blue. It’s also not merely a “Southern problem.” The racism we saw put on public display yesterday in Charlottesville is a pervasive part of the American story. From the way the earliest colonizers interacted with the native Americans they encountered in this new-to-them world, through a national economy built on slavery, through the period of brutal subjugation in the Jim Crow South and barely-more-subtle discrimination in the rest of the country, all the way down to the present where racism most often takes the form of colorblindness and things like the war on drugs are used to continue the division and harm of the previous eras behind a thin veneer of respectability. All too often we follow the letter of our civil rights laws with a self-righteousness that blinds us to the many ways we violate the Holy Spirit’s call to live in loving unity, cherishing the image of God in each other, and loving all our neighbors as ourselves. We stand with the lawyer of the Good Samaritan passage who asked, “who is my neighbor?,” by which he really meant, “who is not my neighbor, who do I get to exclude from the onerous demands love places on me?” To which Jesus replied, “who are you being a neighbor to?” There are no exclusions to neighbor. The neighbor is the person you meet when you open your door, at the restaurant, the coffee shop, on the sidewalk, in the car next to you at the red light, at work, at school, standing on the corner asking for money, waving a Nazi flag, living in Iran or North Korea. Every human being is a precious creature made in the very image of God. Every human being is our neighbor. Followers of Jesus must hear again and again the command our Lord gives, the demand our King places on us: love our neighbors. We must obey this command to remain followers of Jesus. Except we can’t because it’s too hard and we are too sinful. Did you see the picture of the folks carrying torches on the UVA campus Friday night? Did you notice how normal they look? They don’t look like monsters. They don’t look like irrational, hate-filled, racists. They look like our neighbors. And they may be coming here next, so we need to be ready for seeing some of our actual neighbors marching for hate. Is it that hard to imagine people from Alachua or Spring Hill or even right here in Gainesville waving Nazi flags, wearing tee shirts with quotes from Hitler, making the awful Heil salute? Whenever we see something as awful as displayed in Virginia yesterday, an immediate reaction is to create mental separation from the perpetrators. “What is wrong with them?” “How could they think and act like that?” Denial is the first stage of grief and one we come back to often in the grieving process. But we have to resist that urge. We have to become able to see our own sin by the light of those tiki torches. That’s the only way any progress gets made on this. We can denounce white supremacy all day long, but if that comes across as creating more separation, we’ve only made matters worse. We can’t use the tools of hate to defeat hate. Only love can conquer hate. We can only overcome the hate, sin, the demonic principality of racism, and the toxic ideology of white supremacy, by joining in the mission of the Paraclete.
John 16.8-9: The Paraclete will convince the world about sin and justice and judgment: about sin, because they do not trust me;
I began last week by trying to explain what the words “Paraclete” and “elencho” tell us about the nature of God and the divine mission Jesus is describing here. I can’t go over all that again today but the keys to remember are that Paraclete describes the Spirit as One who comes alongside us as One who is radically for us, supporting us, encouraging us, directing us forward toward our best possible selves and actually empowering us well beyond what would be possible on our own (more about that in a minute). The Spirit advocates to the Father and Jesus on our behalf and advocates to us directly about following Jesus (we’ll get into more of that next week). And the verb here describes just that sort of action: advocating, persuading, convincing. The old translation “convict” is only helpful if we think of how someone who loves us might talk us into exercising, eating better, taking our vitamins, or something like that. Not in the sense of a courtroom conviction and subsequent punishment. This is an encouraging to do what is best for us – and yes that often involves hard work we are avoiding.
There are a few more things I want to point out about the grammar of our passage. First, this is a single sentence. Yes, I’m spending four weeks preaching from one sentence. 40 dense pages of my dissertation on this one sentence. What makes this significant is that the Paraclete is the one acting throughout this thought and the action being done through is this persuading/convincing action. And the object being acted upon throughout is the world. The Paraclete will convince the world. The rest of the sentence is an explanation of what the Paraclete will convince the world of and how the Paraclete will convince the world. Today and the next two weeks are about the what and how. The other factor to bear in mind here is who is being addressed. Jesus tells all this to his followers as they are walking from the Last Supper to the garden where he was arrested. Earlier in this last discourse, Jesus told them:
John 14.15-17: If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
In our sentence for this series, Jesus is saying the Paraclete will convince the world. But he’s already said the world can’t accept, see, or know the Paraclete. So how is the Paraclete going to convince the world of anything? That’s where we come in church. Jesus is telling his followers this – Jesus is telling us this – because we are participants in this work. The Paraclete convinces the world about sin, justice, and judgment through the life and witness of the church in the world. The Spirit persuades those who don’t trust Jesus through the lives of those of us who do trust Jesus. Which only works to the extent that we live lives that look like we trust Jesus. This is the only us/them separation that exists for followers of Jesus. There are those who trust Jesus with our lives and those who don’t. And those of us who have begun the adventure of living a life trusting Jesus have only great sympathy for those who haven’t yet, because we know all too well how hard it is, how often we fail at it, and how we often can’t decide which is scarier, shrinking back from trusting Jesus or stepping out and risking to trust.
Now your translation probably doesn’t use the word “trust” in this verse at all. Your translation probably uses the word “faith” (or “believe”) which is the standard English translation of the Greek word “pistis.” As your pastor, this is one of main points of influence I want to have in your lives and in the life of our church – redefining “faith” as “trust.” This is partly based on a grammatical point but more importantly is based on a shift we need to undertake in our theology and philosophy. In other words, it’s not that “faith” is such a bad translation as it is that as people living in modernity (and postmodernity) have adopted a very anemic understanding of what “faith” names and entails. We have come to misunderstand “faith” as mostly a matter of mental assent, agreeing to a certain set of ideas, adopting a certain statement of faith (even the name perpetuates this misunderstanding). This is really hard because even in calling it a “misunderstanding” I am playing into the hands of how we approach such things on this side of the Enlightenment. We are convinced that getting our thinking right, coming to the “right” ideas is the first step, the most important step, that everything else flows from our mental aspect. But this was not the approach Jesus took. He told people like Peter, “follow Me.” If they followed (not all of them did), Jesus let them do stuff like pray for healing or cast out demons well before they understood what Jesus was teaching. They often showed remarkable slowness in coming to understand. But what they exhibited was obedience. They trusted Jesus enough to do what Jesus said, even when they did not understand what Jesus was teaching or what He was up to. Faith is not mental assent, faith is obedience. Faith is trusting the Spirit enough to follow those nudges we get and act on them.
I posted the other day that “theology cannot be ideology” and that “theology can only be ideology in the service of idolatry.” I was thinking of this message when I posted those. I’m not sure but I’m hoping a little math(ish) explanation will help. Any word that ends in “-ology” means “the study of” or “words/discourse about” a given topic. It comes from the Greek word “logos” which means “word.” So “biology” is the study of life (“bios” is the Greek word for life). “Theos” is the Greek word for God, so theology is the study of God, or more precisely a careful examination of the words we use to describe God, our experiences of the divine. There are typical ways people talk about God, and those reveal much about how we understand life, ourselves, our ethics, etc. “Ideology” is the study of ideas or ideals, those conscious or unconscious principles we each live by. What I was saying in those posts is that Theology ≠ ideology. So a little math. If we factor out the -ology it looks like this: (God)(-ology) ≠ (idea)(-ology). The (-ology)’s cancel out and we’re left with the root idea here: God ≠ idea – just to repeat how difficult this is, I just called this an idea. Grr. God is not reducible to a human idea or set of ideas.
We talk with limited, halting, faltering words about the God of the universe. We dare with finite, forgetful, landlocked minds to fingerpaint pictures of the Infinite Creator of all that is – 98% of which we don’t know anything about or have any experience of. And each of us winds up with some set of ideas that we are partial to. They make sense to us – they make sense of us – so we assume they work for everyone else too. But they don’t because the person who lives next door to us has a very different experience of life and the world that leads them to a different set of ideas. And the person who lives across town has an experience of life and the world so radically different from us that our set of ideas makes no sense to them at all. Even though we’re speaking the same language, rooting for the same teams, eating the same food. Go to the other side of the world and the competing sets of ideas there are beyond radically different – we can hardly enter into conversation with the various “sides” in other contexts because we don’t understand the context, or the ideas, or the people invested in them. And then still, all these different ideas about life, the world, human nature, the divine – none of them have anything more to do with the real God of the universe than any of the others, or than ours do. This is what Jesus confronted. He came to his own people as the Son of Yahweh and they could not understand or accept him or his teachings because they didn’t understand Yahweh at all. They didn’t understand Moses or the prophets or their own story as Israel. Their ideas were badly off track from the truth that Jesus revealed. How much less on track are the ideas that we bring to the table? God is not an idea. God is Transcendent Being and all our ideas are crap we make up. None of our ideologies are sacred. None of them will save us. Every last one of them is a sinful, idolatrous creation of people just like us determined to live this life apart from radical obedience to Jesus Christ.
So Jesus takes people with highly incompatible ideologies and puts us together to do life together. He couples together Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector. Paul the Pharisee and Barnabas the Businessman. But we’ve been fighting against this since basically the beginning of the church. Most of the books of the New Testament were written to help people in the early church live together in unity across all these same fault lines that plague us. Unity across all boundaries: race, gender, economic status, age, physical or mental ability, ideology. Especially ideology. The Spirit convinces the world it can trust Jesus by creating communities of people who live in peace across all these lines of division, communities where people who would otherwise be enemies love and care for each other as neighbors. But churches succumb to the way of the world and wind up dividing along all these lines, especially ideology. We create statements of faith and elevate our ideas about God onto the throne of God and worship the idols we create. That’s nothing new. We’re no different than Aaron and the Israelites worshipping the gold cow they made out of their own jewelry. And when we see people exhibiting vile ideologies like the deadly white supremacy riot in Charlottesville yesterday, we tend to respond with a competing ideology. We wrongly think we can force a better ideology on them and use violence to attain a peaceful outcome. But violence always leads to more violence and an ideological war is not what Jesus has called us to. There were clergy and other people of faith out yesterday trying to bear witness to faith in Jesus. And if the racists come here to put on another ugly display, we will be asking ourselves, what should the church do? What should our church do? Jesus is answering this question in our text for today. The church communicates to the world that it can trust Jesus by being a community of people who trust Jesus, which means becoming a group of people who trust each other. This is what our church must do. We must do all that we can to obey the nudges of the Spirit pushing us to become a community of people who trust Jesus and trust each other, specifically trusting each other across racial, gender, age, economic status, and ideological lines. We don’t have a quick, easy answer. We only have the hard work of a long obedience in the same direction of becoming a community of people where enemies become friends, where love grows between people the world thinks can’t love each other. A love for each other that is radical, shocking to the world. That is what the Paraclete calls us to.
And we have to lay this right on the table – this is not easy. This is hard. You know our old Vineyard saying: faith is spelled R-I-S-K. That is nowhere truer than right here. This is at the heart of what I mean by replacing “faith” with “trust” in how we understand and live out this life together in Jesus. Mental assent says, “I believe a parachute will deliver a person who jumps out of an airplane safely to the ground.” Sure. But that’s not faith. That’s not trust. Trust is strapping the parachute on and jumping out of a plane at 12,000 feet. The reason churches retreat from being communities that bear witness that Jesus can be trusted is that we don’t often actually trust Jesus with our lives. It’s not comfortable. It doesn’t feel safe. It pushes us out of our comfort zones. It makes us question our prejudices. It’s easy and safe to look on in disgust at those awful people who were in the streets of Charlottesville yesterday. It’s a lot harder to ask ourselves about the racism that lies in our own hearts or our prejudice against people who disagree with our politics. We can’t participate with the Paraclete in convincing the world of its racism if we’re not willing to let the Spirit convict us of our own prejudices. 1 John was written specifically to people who were having a fundamental ideological break. It was about the sin of prejudice that John wrote:
1 John 1.8: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Don’t mishear this. This isn’t about sin generically. It is specifically about the sin of prejudice. We all do it. There is prejudice in my heart. And there is prejudice in your heart. This is the real RISK we run in trusting Jesus, that our hearts will be exposed and we will be confronted by the Spirit and forced to decide between following Jesus or clinging to our prejudice. This isn’t new and it never ends. Remember how Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and thousands followed Jesus? Then he preached to Cornelius and saw first hand as the Spirit opened the door and brought the Gentiles into the church. He went back to Jerusalem and argued for the inclusion of the Gentiles to the church leadership. Some time later, this same Peter, champion of faith, acted like a racist bigot in Antioch, refusing to eat with Gentiles, mostly because he caved to peer pressure and refused to stand up to his brothers in Christ who were wrong in their thought and practice. Still, that’s no excuse. Peter proved the remaining prejudice in his heart through his actions. In Galatians 2, Paul relates how he confronted Peter to his face in front of everyone because he sinned and led others to sin along with him. In that same context, further in the letter, Paul makes this statement:
Gal. 3.26-28: So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through trust, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We are one because we trust Jesus. That’s what our baptism signifies – that we are giving our lives and bodies over to trusting and following Jesus, to obeying this Paraclete who convinces the world to trust by leading us into community with each other. We risk in small ways – “can I pray for you right now?” – and then we learn to risk in large ways, life altering ways. The Spirit is going to lead this church to take big risks. The Spirit is going to ask us to trust Jesus, to demonstrate that by jumping out of the plane. We will be able to measure how well we are doing in obeying by how diverse our community becomes and how diverse our leadership is. The church that trusts Jesus is racially diverse. The church that trusts Jesus has women leading. In the church that trusts Jesus, rich and poor people are close friends. In the church that trusts Jesus, young and old people speak into each other’s lives prophetically – in both directions. In the church that trusts Jesus, people with very different ideologies feel welcome, become friends with those who think very differently, and together experience the Spirit drawing them beyond their ideologies, away from their idolatries. This is risky business. Kingdom business is always risky business. It doesn’t happen more because it is so risky, so hard, so hard to sustain.
But there is hope. We’ll talk more about hope specifically next week, but this isn’t just a tease for that. There is one very important aspect of the trust I’m talking about that I haven’t mentioned and it’s also right here in this sentence if we can see it. Remember I said the Paraclete is the one doing the convincing work here and convincing is the work being done. The Spirit convinces the world to trust Jesus by creating communities of people who trust Jesus. The Spirit creates communities of trust. The Spirit creates trust. We become people who trust Jesus and trust each other, not by some force of our own wills, not by just jumping out of the plane. The parachute is important. Don’t jump out of a plane without a parachute on. And what makes the parachute work? The wind. Air. The Spirit is the one who makes this work. The faith/trust I’m talking about comes from the Spirit. Trust is a gift of the Spirit. Trust is a fruit of the Spirit. In 1 Cor. 13, Paul said,
These three remain: trust, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.
This comes in the context of 1 Cor. 12-14, where Paul explains the charismata, the gifts of the Spirit, things like speaking in tongues and prophesying. The “love chapter” is the most important part of Paul’s teaching here and this sentence is the apex of the whole thing. The church fathers named these three: trust, hope, and love the “theological virtues.” That means these three are essential to living the Christian life and they come into our lives from outside – they are infused in us by the Holy Spirit. And to be clear, this isn’t controversial, this isn’t something that only Pentecostals and charismatics and folks like us teach. Across the whole Christian church throughout its history, the church has taught that God initiates the conversion process. We differ on how the process proceeds but everyone agrees that a person who comes to faith is responding to something the Spirit is doing to us and in us. Otherwise, we somehow are saving ourselves which makes the work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection null and void and no Christian thinks that. So faith is infused in us. The Spirit empowers us to trust Jesus. This is exactly what Jesus is saying here. The Paraclete enables us to trust Jesus. The Spirit empowers us to trust each other. If we will participate, the Spirit grows trust in us and will grow us into a community foundationally marked by trust. The more we grow into that, the more the Paraclete can convince the world to trust Jesus through us. The thing about people who trust – they are also people who are trustworthy. We can be known in Gainesville as trusting and trustworthy people. The Spirit will infuse trust in us and grow that trust in us. Then we will prove Jesus over and over. And more and more people will learn just how sweet it is to trust in Jesus.
A bit of dialogue from Return of the Jedi popped into my head the other day (as it sometimes does). The Emperor tells Darth Vader to go to Endor and wait for Luke Skywalker to come find him. Vader questions this and the Emperor responds, “his compassion for you will be his undoing.” The Emperor was right in thinking Luke’s compassion for his father would lead to their meeting but wrong in thinking he could leverage that to defeat Luke. Over the protests of Obi-Wan and Leia who are repulsed by Vader’s evil, Luke insists there is still good in him and he determines to call it out and coax it into flourishing. It turns out that Luke’s compassion is key to undoing the Empire.
We are in a moment where the two main political sides in the USA view each other as wholly evil, as foes to be defeated, rendered powerless, and given no voice in government. Neither side has compassion for the other. Neither side can sense any good in the other. The past election season was filled with attacks on character, each side claiming that to be on the other side meant a person was morally deficient, that a good person could only be on their own side. Each side is convinced it alone knows what should be done about any situation. Even basic facts are rejected if they come from the other side.
This morning on Facebook, Mark Van Steenwyk asked “what does a politics of grace look like?” I think it looks like Luke insisting there was still good in Vader and acting on that commitment. I think grace is best defined by that Wendell Berry directive: “love someone who does not deserve it.” Both Gandhi and Rev. Dr. King were clear that love and compassion for those who stood opposed to them was key to their movements.
It is the acid test of nonviolence that in a nonviolent conflict there is no rancor left behind, and in the end the enemies are converted into friends. – Gandhi
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition. – Rev. Dr. King
The quest for a politics of grace is most needed in this moment. Compassion is the compass on that journey, pointing us to the good in the other, helping to understand their perspective, and the desire for the good they have. It is especially important for those of us who sense a call to nonviolent resistance to understand that approach is based on the same belief Luke had of Vader – there is still good in the brothers and sisters who are called the opposition. If we employ all the creativity, vulnerability, and compassion we can muster to sense the good in our opponents and call it forth in each other, me may find that compassion will be the undoing of many of the hurts and ills of our time.