What if you had to describe snow to someone who had never seen it? You couldn t show them a picture, just had to describe it in words. Chances are whatever you say won t really prepare that person for his or her first snow experience. I saw this at Seminary with students who had come from Africa and had never seen snow. They were amazed and spell bound.
You re probably thinking, What on earth does snow have to do with this morning?
Well, I m fascinated seeing how Jesus in the gospel of John tries to describe the Holy Spirit to the disciples. I think there s at least a partial parallel. It s really hard to explain something to someone who has never experienced or seen what you re trying to describe.
Snow is easier. Snow has shape and form. We can see it, touch it. Some folks say they can even smell it. Snow has substance that is readily visible. And even if it changes shape, say by melting, we can see its essence water.
The Holy Spirit is harder. Just what is the Holy Spirit? How does Jesus explain this yet to come apparition or whatever it is to his disciples?
Jesus makes four attempts to describe the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John. These occur within chapters 14 to 16. Today s reading (John 14:15-21) marks the first one. In an effort to take in just what Jesus is describing I reviewed all four passages.
This is a case where translations are really inadequate. Remember our talking from time to time about how inadequate our English word love is in describing the different varieties of love for which the Greek has several words? Our word love simply does not capture the essence of the agape love that Jesus teaches, preaches and models. It s as if we must take the approach, Okay, at least I know it when I see it in action.
We have a translation challenge here, too. The best translation for what Jesus is trying to describe when he talks about the Holy Spirit is the word Paraclete. But Paraclete is a word that doesn t seem to have much resonance for us. It s difficult to flesh out just what the Holy Spirit looks like from that word. It was a word which to the Greek mind had a descriptive breadth and depth which we entirely miss. The Greek mind takes the word Paraclete and hears its many nuances: counselor, comforter, advocate, helper, strengthener. In the four descriptive passages in the Gospel of John when Jesus tries to describe the Holy Spirit he talks about the Spirit in terms such as those above as well as the following phrases: the one who will be sent by the Father; the one who is sent in my name; the one who will teach you everything; the one who will remind you of all that I have said to you; the one who will glorify me; the one who will testify on my behalf; the one who is an Advocate who will guide you into all truth; the one who is the Spirit of truth; the one who will be with you forever.
These words of Christ describe origin, action and presence. There s nothing about what the Holy Spirit looks like. It s a picture that provides no shape, no form, no profile we can trace with our fingers. We, like the disciples, will know the Holy Spirit only as we feel its presence and see its movement in and through our lives and in and through the lives of others.
I ve tried to describe the Holy Spirit before as energy, as a force that moves around, within and through us, that energizes us to move into and with God s purpose. How esoteric that sounds! Or, maybe it sounds like I ve seen too many Star Wars movies with my grandsons. May the force be with you!
When all is said and done, I think what Jesus is trying to get the disciples to understand is this: the Holy Spirit is the love of God in action.
Here Jesus is telling the disciples about an experience that they can anticipate after he is gone. This Holy Spirit will come only after Jesus goes away from them. Jesus has provided them, in human form, the presence of God in their lives. And here Jesus is giving them comforting words and an assurance that the Divine presence will continue with them, although not in human form.
A metaphor that has had meaning for me is thinking of the Holy Spirit as like the wind. I can t see the wind, but I know it s there when I see leaves on a tree move or the tree itself bend in the wind. I know the wind is there when it blows my hair about, or speeds the crest of a wave on the ocean, or fills the sails of a boat, or pushes the clouds around. I know the wind is there by the response of physical objects to its presence and its power.
When I came to St. James s to interview with Randy and the search committee and to tour St. James s I remember telling the search committee at the end of the interview that I really felt the movement of the Holy Spirit here. I couldn t explain exactly why I felt that way. I couldn t list all the impressions and observations that added up to that conclusion. I couldn t pick apart or rationally explain what I felt, but I just knew it. And I knew I wanted to be a part of it here.
My experience here at St. James s has only confirmed what I sensed on that interview day several years ago. Over and over my impression has been affirmed. And I hear other people talk about it. That special energy they feel here. Some of the newcomers and various visitors have talked about St. James s have a special spirit.
And I feel the presence and the movement of the Spirit here. This motto in our sanctuary has something to do with it. We re in a place baptized with the vision, Be ye doers of the word . . . . We re graced with the presence of the Holy Spirit constantly stirring us and moving us to action.
And the story of our banner, designed many years ago by parishioner Bill Propert affirms this evolving sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit here. Initially, only three of the quadrants on the shield of the banner were filled. The fourth quadrant was left blank. As Bill described the design to me, the fourth quadrant was left blank on purpose left that way to be filled as the church lived into its future.
The flame that now fills that space was added after the great fire in the early 1990 s. But I have the eerie conviction that the flame was meant to be there all along not as a representation of the fire that almost consumed this church, but as recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit ever moving among us here. It s a Pentecostal flame, refining and inspiring. It s like the flame that rested on the disciples at Pentecost when, after Jesus ascension and as he had promised, they were baptized by and filled with the Holy Spirit.
This morning, Recognition Sunday, we honor volunteers who are at the heart of St. James s just look at the amazing length of the list in our bulletin. And these are only a small part of a larger number of those here who give of the time, talent and treasure that they have received from God witnesses stirred by the Spirit to give back both within and outside this parish. They are living evidence that the Holy Spirit is moving about this place with amazing energy.
And so are you living evidence of that Spirit as you come to this place to worship and work together as you open to the potential of God working through and transforming you and as you leave, going back into the world to be doers of the Word.
Let the wind of the Holy Spirit continue to stir you, lift you, strengthen you, sustain you, comfort you and raise you up to fulfill the purpose God has planned for you. May we together as a community continue to grow, to let the flame of the Spirit refine and inspire us. May we be a church family that others can point to and say, That St. James s is a spirited congregation and You can tell that they are Christians by their love.