Weekly Seeds: In the World

Sunday, May 19, 2024
Day of Pentecost | Year B

Focus Theme:
In the World

Focus Prayer:
Holy Spirit, descend on us in the world, empower us in the world, counsel us in the world. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14 • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b • Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21 • John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Focus Questions:
What is the world like?
In what ways are you immersed in the world?
How and when do you retreat from the world?
How is the church similar and dissimilar from the world?
In what ways should the church provide a counter witness to the world?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

The tension of the gospel message is the call to be in the world while not being worldly. In other words, we live in community with neighbors, siblings, and enemies while adopting the culture of the beloved community that transcends societal norms. When the values, behaviors, and traditions of the world align with the gospel, Christians should feel no conflict in embracing them. Full retreat is certainly not the mission or example of Jesus. At the same time, Jesus was known for retreating from the crowds and even his trusted, chosen companions when he needed to center and commune with the other members of the Godhead. Temporary and purposeful isolation serves a specific role in his life and ministry. While it is not an aberration, it is a consistent spiritual practice that Jesus adopts. In many ways, for Jesus, it was a means of returning to himself. At best, when we engage spiritual practices, we too return to who, at essence, we have been created to be. It is an opportunity to recharge, renew, and restore.

In the gospel narrative, Jesus does not speak of a temporary departure. This will not be forty days in the wilderness. He is not traveling to Samaria, or another part of the world, to spread the good news there. His days of doing that work near conclusion, and he informs the disciples of that impending reality. Jesus will leave them. For the original disciples, this message must have been both confusing and discouraging. For the original hearers of this gospel account, the message must have been encouraging and a reminder. Some may have had a memory of Jesus being physically present on earth or have heard stories from those in their circle about their experience with him.

Think about significant events in human history and the opportunity we sometimes have to speak to those involved. I have had the privilege of speaking to Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., who worked alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. It’s one thing to read an account or analysis of that time and quite another to hear one of the participants speak about the strategy and experience of the movement in specific terms and personal reflection. I have read accounts of the Vietnam War, but nothing impacted me more than when I gave the closing prayer at a ceremony of the traveling memorial wall. I heard the direct accounts of Vietnam veterans, including the pain they could not conceal in their voice, posture, and countenance. I remember being shocked when listening to my mother and aunt reminisce when my mother casually mentioned a memory of their childhood when she referred to cousins who had been enslaved. I’ve always known that I had enslaved ancestors, but the knowledge that my mother knew and remembered them brought slavery closer to me than I could have imagined.

Imagine then what it would have been like at the end of the first century. Many of the members of the church at that time had no direct contact with Jesus the human, but they have heard the stories from those who have. They are facing persecution and would surely be tempted to retreat from the world. The gospel writer remembers, first or second hand, these words from Jesus. They are words of comfort, promise, and strong encouragement around the mission of being sent in the world.

Jesus is leaving, but he will not leave them alone. The place he has held in the lives of this burgeoning community will be filled by One who is of the same essence as Jesus. They are distinct yet the same. In fact, Jesus insists, it will benefit the disciples–and the world–for Jesus to depart and the Spirit to come. While that may have been a source of true comfort to the early church that the gospel writer addresses, the apostles and other first disciples were likely not as encouraged:

Jesus reverts to the “present” situation of his disciples, that is before his crucifixion, speaking of the things he has said to them from the beginning, while he was with them. The going away of which he speaks is his approaching death and the end of his ordinary presence and discourse with the disciples. Even the resurrection appearances do not restore the old relationship. But already in 16:7, Jesus begins to speak of the new state of affairs which has begun with his death and exaltation. He will send the Paraclete (RSV: Counselor) to his disciples. In 16:8-11 he describes the situation that is immediately affected, although not concluded, with his death and departure to the Father. Of course, the activity of the Paraclete continues into the Evangelist’s present. Thus in 16:12-15 Jesus predicts what the work of the Spirit-Paraclete in the church will be.
D. Moody Smith

This is, after all, a message to the church. Jesus speaks directly to those who will be involved in its start, which we commemorate on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel writer addresses those who are part of a faith community encountering both growth and opposition. The church is still new and has reached a point of reckoning with its central mission and survival.

In that message from Jesus, he emphasizes “sin and righteousness and judgment,” insisting the Advocate will prove the world incorrect about these things. It’s interesting that the audience for this message is the church and not the world. Jesus does not speak to a crowd of the curious and John does not write this for non-believers. The Spirit, as promised, comes with intention (not necessarily exclusively) to the community of faith. This is an inside conversation that challenges the church to consider herself in terms of these things.

Importantly, contemporary audiences should remember that the original audiences had a communal, not individual, worldview. Sin was not only what separates me as an individual from the will and pleasure of God, it impacts my community, family, and descendants. When the Bible Study class I lead hears about God’s judgment impacting generations, there’s always some push back about how harsh that seems from the One we associate with grace. Yet, those cultures of the Old and New Testament would have understood that what happens in one era ripples beyond their time. Many of us live within a culture that limits the concept of inheritance to what material possessions may be passed from one generation to the next, yet that is a relatively new, narrow, and particularly western view. Many other cultures in the world (and subcultures within dominant western cultures) affirm generational connection and impact. In addition, psychologists assert the truth of generational trauma.

In part, the incarnational ministry of Jesus results from a commitment to correct generational disconnection, a curse passed down from the first humans and their willful disobedience stripping them and us of the proximate and intimate relationship they first enjoyed in the garden.

The Paraclete convicts the world of its righteousness because Jesus is going to the Father….the reason why the Paraclete convicts the world of its righteousness is that Jesus is going to the Father. During the days of his earthly ministry, one of Jesus’ functions was, as we have seen, to expose the so-called righteousness of the world. This was accomplished not only by Jesus’ more dramatic works, like the cleansing of the temple, but by the purity of his life (cf. 8:46) and the witness of his signs. So focal has been this aspect of his ministry that Jesus can say, just a few verses before the passage under study, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. … If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father” (15:22,24). By his words and deeds, Jesus has set the world’s self-vaunted righteousness against the backdrop of his own matchless righteousness and thereby brought home to the world the inadequacy of its own righteousness. Jesus has convicted the world of its righteousness. Now, however, he is departing to his Father’s presence: who will continue this particular ministry? Our passage provides the answer: the coming Paraclete will convict the world of its righteousness because Jesus is going away to the Father.
Donald A. Carson

Jesus comes in the flesh with proximity and intimacy to forge relationships with human creatures. His very being embodies the connection between human and divine. The death and resurrection of Jesus promise new life for all humanity with the God who has embraced full solidarity with their creation. Now, the Spirit comes so that that relationship may be magnified throughout the church, which will no longer be limited by those Jesus may encounter directly through his teaching and touch. By the power and unlimited reach of the Spirit, the church will grow through people who commit themselves to be the Body of Christ in the world as Jesus returns and remains enthroned in the heavens.

The first disciples spread the good news from that first day with the Holy Spirit’s demonstration of empowered understanding through the speaking in tongues and the presence in the flames of fire to Peter’s sermon to the gathered crowd. They continued the ministry of healing, liberating, and loving to the ends of their known earth. The church of the late first century overcame the obstacles to their ministry and flourished in their own way. As we consider the state of the Body of Christ today, we often frame it in discouraging terms of decline of participation, resources, and influence. We do so in comparison, not to the early church, but to the church of our memory–either first or second hand experience.

Jesus shared this message of hope and encouragement before his death so that the disciples would know that his plan held a long view. I suggest that the church of today, as we look toward our future, would do well to adopt a much longer view of God’s acts in human history. In this passage, Jesus isn’t emphasizing the resurrection, which is the immediate correction to the issue of his death. He speaks of the issue of his ascension and how he has already accounted for the challenges that will cause. The words of Jeremiah 29:11-14 inform us: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.”

The church calls, and the Spirit comes. The church prays, and Christ hears. The Holy One plans for a hopeful future and invites the Body of Christ to trust.

The disciples heard the promise and so after the ascension, they waited for the Spirit to come. They were celebrating the Feast of Weeks during this time. They continued to gather. They remained committed and lived their lives in hopeful expectation of Jesus to fulfill his promise. They were ready to move once he did. This is the example for us in the promise, hope, and commitment of Pentecost for how to be the church in the world.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

What a sermon! Have you ever preached a sermon shorter than your text? And then they engaged in a brief dialogue. I think it was after the sermon. And he started talking about some things. And before the dialogue was over, we would call it a fellowship, he almost got killed just talking about the sermon.

How often have our lives, as representatives of the gospel of Jesus Christ, been threatened for having dialogue about the sermon we had just delivered? We are not in particular danger because we have too often adjusted to this anti-prophetic age. There is no danger in the sermons we preach, no challenge, and no threat to anybody in particular.

But Jesus almost got killed on his first public sermon–perhaps, his first public sermon. And let me say, we ought to remember that the community, the world does not like prophets, and neither does the church. The world does not like prophets. Prophets disturb us. They shake us out of our dogmatic slumber. So we prefer comfort to commitment. The world does not like prophets. Prophets override our creeds and our half-truths. Prophets expose our injustices and our contradictions and put to shame our mediocrity. The world does not like prophets and the church often refuses to celebrate them.
— Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr.

For Further Reflection
“Don’t trade your conscience for entertainment. The more you ignore your conscience, the quieter it gets. Then someday, you might cease to hear it. And that is a dangerous place to be.” ― Jennifer Spredemann
“Until you are clear nothing will be. The moment you are clear everything will be.” ― Rasheed Ogunlaru
“Your god, sir, is the World. In my eyes, you, too, if not an infidel, are an idolater. I conceive that you ignorantly worship: in all things you appear to me too superstitious. Sir, your god, your great Bel, your fish-tailed Dagon, rises before me as a demon. You, and such as you, have raised him to a throne, put on him a crown, given him a sceptre. … In his dominions, children grow unloving between parents who have never loved: infants are nursed on deception from their very birth: they are reared in an atmosphere corrupt with lies … All that surrounds him hastens to decay: all declines and degenerates under his sceptre. Your god is a masked Death.” ― Charlotte Brontë

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.