Sermon: The Spirit of Truth
Church of the Ascension, Wall Heath
John 16: 12-15 and Proverbs 8:1-4 & 22-31
Today is Trinity Sunday, and the readings are about Wisdom. Or are they about the Holy Spirit, as per the John passage? Or perhaps some people would even interpret the Proverbs passage as being about Jesus. There’s certainly a link between the ‘Word’ of John’s gospel – which the writer of John explains is Jesus, and who was there before the world began – and ‘Wisdom’ in the Old Testament, which this Proverbs passage says ‘was set up… before the beginning of the earth’. That’s the thing with the Trinity – it’s not really something that is clear-cut or explainable. Best to leave it shrouded in mystery, I think. Best to try and understand the meaning of these passages than to explain them in literal terms. There is in fact a danger in literalism – that you actually move further from the truth in your need to pin down what is ‘factually accurate’. Faith is about so much more than fact.
Jesus calls us in today’s reading to listen to the Holy Spirit – which he calls the ‘Spirit of truth’. The Gospel of John never lays down any rules. It is all very mystical and open-ended. It’s about discernment and discipleship and ongoing revelation. It invites each reader to listen to the ‘Spirit of truth’ for themselves. That is extremely helpful when it comes to the kinds of topics that Inclusive Church is interested in, because the Bible is not always clear on each specific one. It is about discerning the Spirit of truth for our age – from Scripture, but also through experience, and by paying close attention to the words and actions of our great teacher, Jesus. John admits that his book cannot contain all the things that Jesus said and did – he has only written down a small part, he tells us at the end of the gospel. Even Jesus in the passage for today says that he has not told his disciples everything, because they ‘cannot bear it now’. There is always space beyond Scripture for learning something new from the Spirit.
Sometimes we’re not ready to learn something new. Sometimes we’re not open to the Spirit of truth. There have been times in my life when I myself have been closed to new wisdom. My wife, who is 9 years younger than me and was vice president of her university LGBT society when we met 11 years ago, had to educate me about trans rights, because I would not open my mind and understand at first. ‘Does not wisdom call and understanding raise her voice?’ says Proverbs. We don’t always want to understand, but John’s gospel tells us that being open to new revelation – to all the things which we formerly could not ‘bear’ and all the things there was not room for in the gospels – is of essential importance to our faith and discipleship. The Bible is not a closed book. It’s not even a book, as I’m sure you know. It is a collection of books – a collection of experiences of God, stories of God’s people, wisdom from God’s followers, and stories of Jesus’ life.
The Spirit of wisdom and truth – Sophia in Greek – was there long before the world began, so of course she is still here now, teaching us about God and one another long after the books of the Bible were written and handed down. Today she might be calling you to new wisdom and insight, to take on board things you formerly couldn’t bear. In order to hear the ‘Spirit of truth’, we need to lay down our weapons of defence. We cannot be both defensive and open to new wisdom. What is it that we have not understood yet? Who is it that we have not understood? God calls us into deeper community with one another, just as the Trinity is an unfathomable, mysterious community at the heart of God. We are called into that mystery too – but we cannot be a part of God unless we are open to being a part of one another. This means laying down our weapons, opening up our arms, and being receptive to what other people are saying, especially those who have been marginalised and continue to be marginalised in our church – those whose stories so often go unheard.
The Spirit calls us to be more like Jesus, and Jesus was always in community with those who were the most marginalised. He was open to learning from others – like the Syrophoenician woman who challenged him for refusing to heal her daughter because she was not a Jew. She called him to expand his understanding and his ministry, and he commended her for it. The stories where Jesus seems to learn and get it wrong make us very uncomfortable, and yet he is giving us an example to follow. We need to listen, learn, be challenged, grow. We need to listen to the most marginalised people of today’s world – people living in poverty, people living on disability benefits, people whose lives are threatened because of their gender identity. These are the people whose lives and words the ‘Spirit of truth’ is calling us to heed. We need to grow in wisdom, so that we can be in community with all God’s people, and we need to expand our understanding, so we can all be a part of God’s kingdom on earth.