My friend Parker, who many of you know, lives on a boat. There are hundreds of other floating vessels which line the Columbia River – from float homes to inflatables, to fishing trawlers, to grand yachts. Parker’s boat is not a sailing vessel but there are lots of sail masts visible and the clanking of their lines fills the air. Parker takes his boat out several times a week. Because of this, he has a reputation for using his boat a lot. People up and down the river recognize his boat when it comes along. I often think about all the other boats, just sitting there. It is kind of sad. The purpose for which they were created is neglected. What were the dreamers thinking when they purchased these boats? And why do they lay idle? What is keeping them from fulfilling their purpose? Is there no wind? No. Just no putting up the sails.
Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes owners find boat ownership much more costly than they anticipate and they abandon the boats, or put them up for sale. Sometimes it was a dream which they did not know enough to fulfill. Some owners find the fuel too expensive. And a few are so passionate about restoring and beautifying their boats that they don’t take time to sail. So many reasons, so little sailing!
The church could be compared to a sailboat. It is designed to set sail, not simply to stay afloat while moored in a marina. The Spirit is the wind of God that propels the church from where it has been to where it must go. There is sufficient ballast in the boat—what we may say is the accumulated wisdom of the ages—allowing the church to keep an even keel when the currents of culture strike it for good or ill, or when waves of chaos smash against it. Christ is the captain, sending out instructions as the vessel is underway, watching the currents, reading the river bottom, attending to the wind. And the captain uses the wind, the Spirit to give us all we need to adjust our course and adapt to changing seas.
Jesus said to his friends – there is so much more to say which you cannot bear now. I wonder if he is referring so the times when we will have to heave the “ballast” over the sides, when the storm requires a lighter vessel. Paul had to learn to heave the cargo through three shipwrecks; Jonah’s sailors did the same. Our ballast makes us feel safe and secure, but sometimes it has to go. And the disciples couldn’t bear to hear what their lives were going to be like under sail in the wind of the Spirit. They just couldn’t bear it yet! So Jesus promised a guide, but not all the information.
We humans have a fascination for fortune-telling. We want to know what the future holds. We visit palm readers, throw dice, read tea leaves, or rely on dreams. There is something in us which wants to know what the future holds. But when faced with it, do we really want to know? Do we want to know when and how we will die? Really?
No, because we can’t bear it now.
Jesus withholding knowledge was not a punishment, but a grace. There was too much ballast which was going to be thrown into the sea. Everything they held dear would be challenged, sifted and so much tossed out. Death was on the pathway to life. Truly a mystery, which they could not bear without help!
But Jesus promises a Guide.
To continue with the sailing metaphor, Jesus promises a captain. Jesus himself will still be the captain. He will not leave the disciples without the wisdom of God, without light for the way. The Spirit will be the agent of that captaining. The Spirit will guide us with Jesus’ instructions.
This particular description of the Spirit brings out an aspect which I don’t talk about very often. When I think about Spirit, I think about wind, power, energy, life, breath, creating, bringing things into being. Here we meet the Spirit of Truth. And that Spirit will always be revealing more truth as we need it. This concept that Jesus had more to say, but they could not bear it now, suggests that Jesus’ teaching is not finished, maybe is never finished.
I trust that the Scriptures give us everything we need to discover, and enter a relationship with God. And yet there is always more. Scripture may be finished, but revelation is not. The New Testament, especially the letters, are evidence that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide and teach. Paul, Peter, James, John, Mark, Matthew, and the others were part of the work of the Spirit of Truth. The teaching of the apostles was guided by the Spirit of Truth and their writings continue to guide us today.
But is the Spirit finished? We have not continued to identify writings as Scripture. But this does not mean the Spirit of Truth is done with her work. For, following Jesus is not simply about information, but about living a life in tune with what Jesus is still doing.
When we use the word, “truth,” what comes to mind is often doctrines, ideas, beliefs. But the Greek word for truth, aletheia, came closer to something like a moral compass. It was active, living, doing the right thing.
So the Spirit of Truth, is less about revealing knowledge and more about helping us choose the good path. In other words, Spirit is not just about wind and power and movement – for that could easily lead to chaos – but about the sail, too. And the rudder. The Spirit wind will take direction from Jesus to impel us into the Way. Spirit does not stand alone, but keeps us connected to Jesus.
When we review church history, it is obvious that the doctrines and teachings and practices of the followers of Jesus have changed in every era. When the church was new, the organization was light and free. When Rome fell, the church became the only organizational structure in many communities. So order became a theme. When everyone learned to read, and the enlightenment dawned, there was less need of structural control and clergy and hierarchies lost some of their power. How was Holy Spirit guiding in this era? It looked a little chaotic, but there was still Jesus’ principle: where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Gathered, we hear each other’s Spirit messages and test them for truth. Methodists did this in their home groups. Presbyterians did it by committee.
Now we face another new era, where all and any ideas are available to anyone almost instantaneously. We often find ourselves on information overload. How is one to discern truth when there are so many clamoring for attention? We are in a time when we need to listen. The Spirit of Truth is still there to guide us. That is a promise from Jesus himself. How do we learn to listen? I see two primary skills:
1. With humility. If there is a Spirit of Truth out there, then we ourselves are not it! No matter how smart we are, we need a guide. I am reading a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner and the title is worth the time with the book: I’m God, You’re Not. Enough said! Spirit is there to guide – as simply as answered prayer or as harshly as a shipwreck or a burning bush or a talking donkey.
Listen. How do we listen? By paying attention. We get out of our own self-confidence and pay attention to what God has put in our paths.
2. Listen Together – I have come to appreciate the Presbyterian dependence on committees. It takes time. It is cumbersome. But it is together that we will listen, and when we hear the same thing, we can go forward with confidence.
I appreciated the new Presbyterian Vital Congregations Initiative of which we are a part. A couple of things won me over. First, it is an initiative devised by a broad and diverse community of the next generation – people 25-45. It was one of the first places I saw that all our departments were working together on one thing, talking, praying, telling stories, sharing information. It reflects the priorities of the next generation of church leaders. And the biggest one I saw was that vitality is achieved through relationship. And so, if this is true, we have to build relationship with each other in order to model what we want congregations to do and experience in their own communities. Following the Spirit of God into truths which a previous generation or even our younger self could not possibly bear courts a certain degree of risk. So, Vital Congregations is done by a team of churches – pastors and elders together – within presbyteries, building networks for support, prayer and encouragement. The team lets each other know that we are not crazy. The Spirit of Truth is sometimes asking us to throw some of our cargo into the sea, to move lighter on the waves. Sometimes we pick up cargo from the sea, or are blown to new ports of call. When other followers cheer and say, “Go for it!” we receive courage. And not only courage, we receive joy! In this togetherness, there is joy.
Spirit of Truth, is the wind in our sails, keeps us journeying. And is the one who keeps us connected with our ship’s captain. And the wind is true.