By Dr. Keith Wagner
Today at St. Paul’s we are honoring our graduates. That is because the church recognizes that in life there are many “rites of passage”, such as baptism, confirmation, marriage etc. Graduation is also significant since it means change, both for the graduate and their family. Most of the graduates will be leaving home soon, or at least beginning to spread their wings. Some of you are ready, but others are afraid of what the future may bring.
Such was the case in the gospel of John. Jesus was reminding his disciples that he would no longer be with them as he was in the past. They were accustomed to his daily teachings, his preaching and his acts of ministry. They were used to the daily intimate relationship. But, that would all change. They would be on their own.
To comfort them he promises that they will not be without spiritual guidance in the future. The Holy Spirit will be there to guide them. The “Spirit of Truth” will be their link to Jesus. They need not be afraid nor will they experience a void in their lives since the Spirit of Truth will be with them.
What Jesus promises is quite different from the routine graduation speeches we hear. You know the sayings, “Work hard, be good citizens, further your education, be persons of character, push yourselves beyond your limits, pursue your dreams….” He knows we will be tested in the future in ways we can’t anticipate. In other words, the future is full of surprises, both joy and disappointment. The Spirit of truth is not one who will predict the future or explain it. The Spirit of truth enables us to look to the future in faith.
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Leaving home was never a problem for me. As a child and youth I was encouraged to spend weeks away in the summer with my grandparents or at camp. When it came time to go to college, I couldn’t wait to move. Homesickness was not something I could relate too. There was, however a time when I was in the Navy and had orders to Vietnam. I was ordered to fly to the Philippines and meet my ship there. It was a journey that took me 10,000 miles away from home. Flying from Norfolk to San Francisco wasn’t so bad. It was the last leg of that trip, the flight over the Pacific Ocean that really intimidated me.
As a young Ensign I was ready to meet the challenge. Outside I was confident and self-assured. Inside I was nervous and afraid. That’s when I encountered the Spirit of truth. He was in the form of an old salty Navy Chief. It was his 5th trip to the Gulf of Tonkin. He told me what life was like on the ship and what I could expect. What he gave me most was comfort and assurance.
We have no idea where our life will take us. I believe, that God does in fact surround us with the Spirit of truth just as Jesus proclaimed. For me in that situation it was an experienced Navy Chief. But, it could be anyone or any “spirit” that guides us through the difficult stages of life. As I look back I now realize that the Spirit of truth was always near by in every circumstance. The Spirit was there in my college dorm, during my time overseas, in every time of change or struggle that I have endured. And the Spirit of truth will be there for you in your times of change and struggle too.
Many think that since Jesus lived so long ago he is no longer relevant. But, the life of Jesus earth is not locked into a historical setting. His words are timeless. What he taught and most importantly how he lived his life are as significant to us now as they were to his original audience.
When we think of the “truth” we generally think of saying the right words, or not telling a lie. The word truth in Hebrew means to sustain, to support. It means being firm, solid and reliable. We have to remember that in John’s time he was competing with mythology, philosophy and mysticism. Therefore, the truth, according to John meant not telling the truth but living it. In other words, it meant, complying with the will of God. And the Spirit of truth helps us to do just that.
For me, living by the truth is to be our authentic selves. Although we all carry our parents genes and are influenced by the people we grow up with we are still unique. We are truthful when we live our lives with the gifts we have been given. We are truly free when we are faithful to our own aspirations and life ambitions.
One person who has learned to be his authentic self is Michael J. Fox. Many of you know him as the leading actor on “Spin City.” He is better known from his movie, “Back to the Future”. He says that his life really became meaningful after he had become a famous actor. He is now married and he and his wife, Tracy, have two children. He realized that being a husband and father was what he really enjoyed the most. He didn’t want to spend all of his life in acting. With the advice of his wife he now only accepts limited roles he is comfortable with. He has learned that the most important thing in life is to be his authentic self. He says, “What I have now, I know no army can take from me. I have myself.” (The Miracle of Change, Dennis Wholey, page l68)
But, the Spirit of truth is also helping Michael Fox. He knows that in difficult times, like raising children and balancing his career and family he can fall backwards and know there is someone there to give him support. Fox passes by a church every day on his way to work. One day the sign on the billboard read, “When you pray, don’t ask God for a lighter load, ask for broader shoulders.” Michael Fox had a special relationship with his family, especially his father. They gave him a “spiritual faith” that has carried him through life. He knows he can always fall backwards on that faith in times of change or struggle.
I could have made a career in the Navy. It was a good life. I liked the adventure, the challenge and the travel. But, had I continued on that track I would have been unfaithful to the truth. For God called me to a different path. I have learned that the most fulfilling thing in life is to be who God made us to be, not what others want us to be. And John is saying that when we are authentic the Spirit of truth will be with us on our life’s journey.
One last thing needs to be said. The Spirit of Truth is not a private possession. It is a spirit that Jesus gave to the community of faith. Wherever we go in life, no matter what our activities, even if they only take us a short distance, we need to stay connected to the community of faith. The spirit of truth exists in community. It is revealed to us when we are open about our own faith. We find comfort and understanding when we are willing to share our innermost fears and thoughts. It is arrogant to think that we can live apart from the church. By remaining in the community of faith we will receive support and be able to withstand all that life delivers.
When I made my annual pilgrimage to the Chesapeake Bay in late May, we had a new colleague on board. He had never experienced a sailing adventure of that magnitude. He told me that every time we entered a new area or visited a new place he was comforted by our stories from the past. They assured him since he had no idea of what to expect. There was a Spirit of truth speaking to his fears and anxieties. More than that, I believe there was an assuring presence guiding him on his new journey.
That same spirit is with you wherever you go. It is the one promised to us by Jesus. It is not just words, but a comforting presence that we will experience in times of struggle or despair. It will be there to sustain you as you proceed on your life’s journey. It is one that is embodied in the ever lasting community of faith.
Copyright 1998, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.