Lessons Still to Learn
John 16:12 (The Message)
"I still have many things to tell you, but you can't handle them now."
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Yesterday was graduation day at St. Margaret’s School. Since we live right across the street from the school, I can see a lot of the celebration from my front yard. It has now been twelve years since I taught at St. Margaret’s, but graduation always brings back memories. There’s nothing like seeing the graduates in their white dresses to remind you how pretty all these girls are, and how young. How big a transition it is from high school to college.
I was one of the teachers who never finished everything I had set out to do on my syllabus. I was always fretting about all the things I hadn’t gotten done with these kids, all the things we hadn’t covered, all the skills they hadn’t quite mastered, and thinking if only I had another week or two they would finally get it. There was so much more I wanted them to understand in the great literature we were reading together, so much more I wanted them to be able to express in their writing. I still had so many things to teach them. But graduation day rolled around whether I happened to be ready for it or not.
One priest had gone to take a one-week continuing education class for clergy and was enthusiastic about how valuable it was for his ministry. With some annoyance in his voice, he remarked to the professor, “Why didn’t you guys teach us this in seminary?” The old professor replied, very patiently, “We did teach you this in seminary. You just weren’t ready to learn it then.”
When I look back at my teaching now, I realize that there were some things in the novels and plays and poems we read that my students could understand at the age of seventeen, and some things they would understand only when they were a bit older, had a little more life experience, a little more perspective. And I remembered that my real goal was not to make sure they understood “The Great Gatsby” or Hamlet, it was to teach them how to read in a way that would continue to bring them delight and understanding so that they would learn not just from the books on my syllabus, but that they would learn from the books they would read in three years, and ten years, and twenty years.
So I am sympathetic to Jesus as he bids farewell to his disciples before his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. He tells them, “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.” Jesus uses the time he has, but many of the things he has to say to the disciples will have to wait for later, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The disciples cannot bear them now.
And what are the things that Jesus has to say to us that his disciples in the first century cannot bear? Our scriptures today tell us two things about the Church that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. One is that it is inclusive. Our passage from Acts 2:17-18 about the first Pentecost quotes the fulfillment of a passage that says,
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.”
So we see that the people who are inspired by the Holy Spirit are young as well as old, female as well as male, slaves as well as free people. God surprises us by speaking through a much wider variety of people than anyone expected. God doesn’t just speak through people who are authority figures. God takes even the people that the authority figures had tried to silence and speaks through them. God speaks through all the members of the community. And as on the day of the first Pentecost, the people through whom God speaks are people from all over the world, different cultures, different languages, each understanding God differently. The wonderful diversity of the Church (1 Cor 12:12-27).
Our scriptures for today also tell us that the Church that is inspired by the Holy Spirit is characterized by hope. In the words of our reading from Romans, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” What Jesus is telling the disciples is that there is always more to God than they are able to see. As the creed puts it, God is maker of all things, seen and unseen. As valuable as the past is, there is more to God than what has happened in the past. God is also in the future. And that is why hope is such a valuable part of faith.
On the day of the first Pentecost, the disciples had lost what was familiar to them, the tangible presence of Jesus among them. Jesus came back to them in the resurrection, and then just when they were beginning to wrap their minds around having the risen Christ with them, the ascension happened. If the risen Christ had stayed with them as a physical presence, he in his bodily form would inevitably have become an object of idolatry. Instead, God gives them the Holy Spirit working in their lives in a new way. And God gives them a sense of hope that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in their lives in new ways, in ways they can not yet see, in ways that they do not expect. They have learned from their rich past in a way that enables them to embrace the unknown future with hope, along with a wide variety of quirky companions, in whom the Holy Spirit is also at work, as they serve the poor, teach the children, feed the hungry, console the suffering, and celebrate with the joyful.
It is fitting that on Pentecost we celebrate the end of the Sunday School year, so this is a sort of miniature graduation for the children in our Sunday School. In various ways, their teachers have been teaching them the basics of Christian faith, things such as, “God loves you. Love God. Love your neighbor.” They are all great kids and they have learned those things well. And we also know that those are the things that they will continue to learn for their entire lives. And so will we. We cannot see what the future will bring, but we have confidence that as we move into the future God is still speaking, still acting, still inspiring us with hope.
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"