Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday – June 12, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
On Friday I celebrated the 22nd anniversary of my ordination, and whenever that date comes around I find myself reflecting back on what it has been like to be a pastor. It occurred to me this year that I am now very likely more than half-way through my years as a full-time pastor, and I wondered to myself: if I had known then what I know now, would I have accepted the call to ministry?
I don’t want to sound like I’m whining, because I love what I do, but I wonder if I had been told as a 29-year-old seminarian that in my first year of ministry I would bury a college student who died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart defect, conducting his funeral on the same day I was supposed to meet with him and his fiancé for premarital counseling, would I have been so excited about being ordained? Or if I had been told that just a few weeks later I would watch one of my confirmation students need to be half-carried into the church to attend her father’s funeral after he died in a single-vehicle rollover accident, would I have accepted the call to ministry, or, like Jonah, would I have looked for the next boat out of town. If someone had told me how much heartache there would be, how heavy the burden of the stole would be at times, would I have let it be placed around my neck?
Or I wonder, if I had known that one day I would have TV crews in the church parking lot and a pushy TV reporter in my office asking about a youth worker who had committed a terrible crime, or that I would spend two exhausting years navigating a congregation through the frustrations and the fears and the hobbling restrictions of a pandemic, would I have ever wanted the title and the responsibility of “Lead Pastor?”
I wondered: if I had known how much the church would be in conflict over politics and compromised by the culture, would I have dedicated my life to it?
I wasn’t naïve going into pastoral ministry, and there are many wonderful things about being a pastor, but I think if I were told in any detail about all the hard stuff up front, it might have seemed unbearable. I don’t know if I would have taken the vows I took.
In our gospel reading for this morning, we hear Jesus preparing his disciples for ministry. He is preparing them for the next phase in their lives as Christians. He is preparing them for what lies ahead. Jesus hints that the road ahead of them will be difficult. Throughout this section of John’s gospel, called “The Farewell Discourses,” Jesus has been dropping hints about the challenges they would face, the difficulties they would encounter. He tells them that the future will test them in ways that can’t even begin to imagine. There are some things he knows are coming that he won’t even tell them about.
“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells them, “but you cannot bear them now.” The burdens they would face as his followers would be heavy indeed – too heavy for them to bear all at once, too heavy for them to know about ahead of time.
But while Jesus doesn’t disclose all that his disciples would face in the months and years and decades and centuries to come, he does make them a promise. He promises to send them the Spirit.
Jesus promises them that the Spirit would guide them in their mission. He promises them that the Spirit of truth would lead them into all the truth. The Spirit would give them the knowledge they need, supplying the knowledge they lacked.
Jesus promises them that this Spirit will declare to his disciples all that is to come. That is to say, the Spirit will continually point them to the future he has in store for them, a future beyond their struggles and difficulties, a future of resurrection, a future of new life.
Finally, Jesus promises that the Spirit will take what belongs to him and declare it to them. The Spirit will impute to them Jesus’ righteousness, his holiness, his status before God. The Spirit will impart to them his power and his peace. The Spirit will hand over to them his undying love, his victory over sin and death, his intimate relationship with the Father. All of these things that belong to Jesus will be given to them by the Spirit!
This gospel reading is in the lectionary for today because it gives us a portrait of the Holy Trinity. It is perhaps a faint sketch in broad strokes, but all three of them are there! This passage speaks of what the Father has done through the Son, which is then delivered to us by the Spirit. God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
And it is this blessed Trinity which makes the unbearable bearable for us. It is the ongoing work of the Holy Trinity which continues to strengthen and sustain the church. It is the ongoing work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which carries us through the unbearable as individual Christians.
In our reading from Romans for today, St Paul makes the bold claim that we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Boasting in our suffering is not the same thing as our modern habit of fetishizing victimhood. Instead, it is the acknowledgement that when we face the unbearable, when we are in over our heads, when our strength gives out, it is then that conditions are ripe for the Holy Spirit to enter in and go to work. It is when we despair of ourselves that we find true hope in Christ. It is when we are empty and powerless that God the Father pours his love into our hearts.
I have not kept going in ordained ministry for 22 years because I am particularly strong or smart or spiritually gifted in some way. Please believe that it is not false modesty when I say I am not any of those things. What has kept me going is the Holy Spirt, who comes along time after time, just as Jesus has promised, leading me, guiding me, strengthening me, teaching me, assuring me of the future Christ Jesus has in store for us. Every time I have faced something unbearable, God has carried me through, equipping me through his Word, surrounding me by the people I need in order to carry on, people like you.
And what is true for me is true for the whole church. The church in all its various expressions always seem to be coming up with new ways to screw things up, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we continue in our mission of sharing the gospel with the world. If we believe what scripture tells us about how God spoke through Balaam’s ass, there will always be hope for the church – not because it is clever or daring or innovative, but because the power of the Holy Trinity continues to be at work through the gifts of Word and Sacrament.
And what is true for the church is also true for you as individual Christians. I know that so many of you are going through things that seem to be unbearable. Some of it is deeply personal and painful. Some of it is what we’re all going through as this broken world continues to spin, seemingly out of control. Some of it is the burden of your vocations, your callings in the world as workers and providers and citizens and family members, which are your ministries.
This weekend is graduation weekend, which for parents and graduates alike is a bittersweet and emotionally exhausting time, full of both joy and melancholy. There is so much about the future that is unknown, which is both thrilling and terrifying.
I can’t tell any of you what lies ahead, in your personal lives or on the world stage. But I can tell you that when things start to feel unbearable, Christ Jesus will not leave you alone to fend for yourself. Jesus will send you the Spirit, just as he promised.
In a world plagued by lies, Christ sends the Spirit to lead us into all the truth.
In a world with so much heartache, the Spirit comes to declare to us all that is to come, assuring us that sin, death, and the devil will not have the last word.
In a world with so much uncertainty and instability, the Spirit takes what is Christ’s and declares it to us, so that we would know his power, his presence, and his peace.
This Spirit is at work in your life even now, for it is the Spirit that has called you here today to be strengthened and sustained through the gifts of Word and Sacrament.
It is the Holy Trinity which makes the unbearable bearable, as God the Father delivers to us the gifts of the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit.
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church