The Best Joke Ever

Passage: Psalm 133; 1 John 1, 2; John 20:19-29
Date: April 8, 2018
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey

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The sermon we usually hear for this passage is about Thomas—his doubting or not. But the preaching theme at Westminster this Eastertide until Pentecost is “Who is the Holy Spirit?” So I’m a tiny bit smug about getting to preach this Second Sunday of Easter, because the traditional gospel lesson for this day is this one—John’s Pentecost—the event through which the Church is formed as Jesus’ disciples “receive” the Holy Spirit. I put “receive” in quotation marks, because the joke for me this Sunday (which is traditionally Holy Humor Sunday) is that so many people think Holy Spirit didn’t show up until after Jesus was resurrected. But since Spirit is one of the three Persons of the Trinity (which has always existed), we do a theological disservice to tell ourselves this is the first time God’s people have seen her. Maybe that’s today’s joke. This story gives the impression that Holy Spirit is more like quarks. You know quarks—those subatomic particles, so small we can only hypothesize about them, but which (because of how they interact) everyone is willing to say they exist. There was no such thing in science textbooks when I was in school, but that doesn’t mean quarks didn’t exist until the late 20th century. It just means humans didn’t have the technology for measuring or even hypothesizing quarks until then. Spirit, previously the exclusive realm of prophets, is now accessible to everyone, available to be used by everyone.

That business of Jesus blowing in his disciples’ faces in the locked room—it’s kind of weird, but that’s happened before. Remember the second creation story in Genesis? The one in chapter 2, where God takes topsoil—rich humus—and shapes it into a human? God brings that dirt-boy to life by blowing into its nostrils. What happens next is that God plants a garden and gives humans the job of caring for it. It just tickles me that Jesus reenacts the story eons later, only this time it’s a communal Body that is brought to life. Instead of a garden to care for, this Body, the Church, is sent out to forgive and reconcile and hold onto each other. What Jesus says in Biblish about forgiving and retaining is quite simply, “Remind each other of God’s grace.” That’s the job of the Church. It must just crack God up to see the committees and task forces and Books of Order we invent to simply “Remind each other of God’s grace.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the Church do that for you, but for me, that’s pretty much “who” I think the Holy Spirit is (to answer the preaching question for today). Let me give you one of the more powerful examples of when that happened for me. In a nutshell, my life had fallen apart—divorced, single mom, just trying to make ends meet. And living with what I felt to be a deep shame for having apparently squandered my life. Everything I had previously thought about myself was called into question, and then I stumbled into a congregation that thought its primary purpose was to remind each other of God’s grace. The preaching was good, but the best way this congregation knew how to do their job was to form communities of people who got together on Sunday mornings to study the Bible and wrestle with what it meant to them, and then during the week to do volunteer work together and play. I didn’t have many gifts, but I did know how to work in construction, so that’s how I ended up on mission trips. Best of all, we told each other our faith stories. I discovered I wasn’t the only divorced woman in the world. By watching other people use the rear-view mirror to see God’s activity in their lives, I learned how to use my own rear-view mirror. God was and always had been active in my life.

One day, a man I’d thought of as a model of faith told his story—rock ’n’ roll musician with all the drugs, sex, and alcohol that went with it. The worst thing he did, he said, was that he wrote a song about Jesus for the most cynical of reasons, and it was picked up by Christian radio stations. It filled him with such shame, he said. And that’s when I heard my story in his. Not the details—the shame. And in the midst of that—and this is where Spirit blew in my face—in the midst of all that was grace. Another chance. The best joke God ever told (if you ask me). If this guy could be forgiven, so could I. Community meant that I was just like him—even if we were totally different. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” We need each other to know that grace applies to us. And that’s who Holy Spirit is to me. That’s why Jesus blew in the collective faces of his disciples. I could not have heard that man’s story if my congregation had not taken the time to nurture community. He would not have entrusted to me the precious gift of his story, nor could I have heard it personally, without that context of communal intimacy.

If we read only today’s text to answer our question about the Holy Spirit, we might get the impression that Spirit comes only to people in a locked room and solely for the sake of forgiving sins with each other. Jesus prefaces the breath work with a reminder that just as he has been sent by the Father, he is sending us. He is clearly evoking that other story that begins the human story and our job of caring for and tending creation. Another sermon might find this a convenient place to wonder about the locked rooms of 21st century churches. That sermon would be sure to quote Martin Luther King Jr., who said the 11:00 hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. That sermon might wonder what it is we’re afraid of, that we need to be locked up so carefully. That sermon would remember that Holy Spirit’s work transcends time and place, uniting us with those who have gone before us.

But that’s not today’s sermon. We’re talking Holy Spirit and, bad exegetical technique or not, I’ve never been able to answer who God is without also wondering what. What Jesus was sent to do is to reveal the image of God. He sends us to do the same—to reveal God. And we do that every time we remind each other of God’s grace. Who Holy Spirit is (at least in this text) is the One who builds community in which we do that, the One who gives us power to overcome our fears and live into—really liveinto—that “send” that Jesus claims for us.