Don’t you love receiving a gift?
Someone hands you a package and first you notice its shape and feel how heavy it is. You admire the gift’s packaging and if you’re polite, you read the card, which expresses the giver’s intent and affection. Finally, after an appropriate period of time has passed, you begin untying bows, and tearing through paper to discover the mysterious object you can now call your own. When you’re done admiring the gift, you thank the giver, completing the exchange.
Gifts are a symbol of relationship, affection, love, or obligation. We give gifts to welcome, to celebrate, to honor and occasionally to assuage guilt. We also give gifts to mark thresholds in people’s lives. Matt and I get married in roughly. . .27 days and many people have been honoring this transition through gifts. This tradition is so formalized now, our society even codifies it through registries where the engaged couple goes to a store and tells the store what they want people to buy for them!
Thankfully, even though the disciples are entering a new threshold of their lives, they do not get to register for which gift they’d like to receive. Our Gospel reading today is John’s record of Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus makes a long speech at the last supper, trying to prepare his disciples for his death. In the section we read today, Jesus is reassuring his followers that they will still be in relationship with him after he leaves. He says they will receive two gifts: Jesus will give them his peace, and the Father will send them an Advocate-the Holy Spirit.
We don’t always know what gifts are good for us. Matt and I recently went through our registries, taking out some of the excessive stuff that we registered for during a greedy binge. For instance, we realized that just because we thought a Kitchen Aid mixer was cool didn’t mean we would ever use it or even have the space for it in a kitchen. Sometimes the gifts you think you want, are not the wisest choices. If the disciples got to choose their gift, they would choose to have Jesus stay with them, in bodily form, forever. Like most of us, the idea of change makes them a little nervous and the idea of losing a dear friend makes them incredibly sad.
But Jesus has better things in store. Jesus knows that his death is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new relationship between his Father and humanity. Jesus knows that the gifts he and the Father are giving will nourish God’s followers for the next two thousand years.
The first gift Jesus tells his listeners about is the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he describes as our Advocate. We’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost at the end of May. But before the Holy Spirit came rushing down upon those disciples waiting in the upper room, Jesus told his disciples about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God, and a gift from the Father. The Holy Spirit’s role in our lives is twofold: to teach us and to help us remember what Jesus has already told us.
The word Advocate can also mean helper. The Holy Spirit is sent to help us, specifically in terms of our relationship with the Father. Jesus told us about the Father, and lived a life in complete union with the Father and through his death and resurrection united us with the Father.
Remembering these things about Jesus is not easy, especially once Jesus ascends and no longer present to remind us. God knows we humans need daily reminders. Moses had only ascended to the mountain a few days before the Israelites started worshiping Golden calves! We do not have a good track record with keeping God in our mind.
So, to help us remember Jesus and follow Jesus, the Father sends the Holy Spirit to be our helper. Not our nagger, not our judger, but our helper. We can pray to the Holy Spirit to help us understand scripture. We can pray to the Holy Spirit to help us know how to follow Jesus in our lives. We can pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance when the church tries to sort out what Scripture means in relation to our modern society. The Holy Spirit is a living, moving part of God that interacts with us directly
Today, [at the 11:00 o’clock service] we, with Greer’s parents and godparents will reaffirm our baptismal vows. We make vows that are very profound and very difficult. By saying our baptismal vows together, we remind ourselves that we have promised to turn away from Satan, evil, and our own sin and turn towards Jesus. These promises are profoundly difficult to keep! You should see the way Matt and I lick our chops as we check out the status of our registries online. You can almost see the greed pouring out our ears. As we turn away from Jesus and towards material things or other temptations, it is the Holy Spirit that can help us get back on the right track.
Whatever temptations Greer may face, she can know that the Holy Spirit is her Advocate. The Holy Spirit is for her and with her and will help her to follow Jesus.
The second gift is one Jesus leaves us. Jesus gives us the gift of his peace. Worshiping a God for whom we have very little tangible experience is an anxiety producing experience at times! Remember the golden calf. Thankfully, we have access to Jesus’ peace, so we don’t need to create any golden calves. Remember that Jesus was in complete union with his Father, so his peace is a peace beyond anything we can imagine. His peace is the peace of God.
I have a friend of mine who is job hunting at the moment and she tells me she is waiting to feel God’s peace to know she has found the right job. The peace of God can be an indicator of a right path, but it can also be a spiritual soothing in a time of unrest. One of the reasons we do healing prayer once a month here is to invite the peace of God to rest on people who are in some way in pain. The peace of God is mysterious and can be elusive, but Jesus has given this peace to us as gift.
Just like Matt and I can take back unwanted gifts to the store, we can refuse God’s gifts to us. We can decide that we have enough of our own resources and we don’t really need the Holy Spirit or Jesus’s peace. We can decide that we know absolutely what the Bible says and don’t need the Holy Spirit to gude us. We can decide we need to be anxious and uptight and driven in order to succeed rather than inviting Jesus’ peace to rule our lives. It is possible to reject the Father and Jesus’ gifts.
But why would we? Why would we want to reject these wonderful gifts of relationship and connection. Why would we not want to learn more about God, or feel a touch of the peace God feels when he looks upon us. In these confusing and anxious times, why would we refuse these gifts?
God’s gifts for us are good gifts. They may not be gifts we would register for or dream up for ourselves, but ultimately we don’t have really great taste. The gifts we would register for are misguided. Like the disciples, we want concrete answers. We want to pin God down. We want to pin our own lives down. We want to know what will happen to us. We want to know whether we’ll always be healthy or whether our children will do well for themselves. We would register for the gifts of certainty, of uneventful lives.
But God’s gifts-the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ peace-are exactly the gifts we need to navigate the choppy waters of our lives. They comfort us in times of trouble and give us deep joy when times are good. They connect us when we are feeling lonely, and enter our relationships when we are surrounded by loved ones.
Jesus and the Father are handing us to fantastic packages, that contain gifts beyond our wildest imagination. Are we going to open them?