A few weeks ago, Lesley and I made our way over to the Art Gallery of Ontario, one Wednesday evening. As many of you might know, the Art Gallery is free on Wednesday evenings, and though the gallery is certainly worth the price of admission at any time, “free” is also a rather lovely way to experience it as well.
For a couple of hours, we simply wandered through its beautiful collection, pausing from time to time to pay attention to a particular painting, or portrait, or sculpture. We walked past dozens of renditions of the various artist’s glimpses of reality, past dozens of painted scenes.
As closing time approached, we entered one of the rooms, and came across a tour group that was standing in front of an impressionist painting, and the guide was speaking about the beautiful piece of art that they were considering.
He was one of those great tour guides who was passionately interested in the art, but also incredibly well-informed about it. I paused to listen, for a while, to his description, and was actually disappointed to hear him announce that the tour was just coming to an end and that this was the last piece that they were going to be considering.
And the reason for my disappointment was simply that it was both wonderful and helpful to listen to him – his knowledge of the artist, of the historical context for it, of the techniques that had been used, even of possible ways to view and experience the painting – all added a great deal to an awareness and appreciation of the painting.
It would have, of course, been absolutely possible to view the painting without knowing any of those extra details – we had walked past dozens of paintings already, and had appreciated many of them. Great art always transcends even the best tour guide’s descriptions and interpretations — but there was no doubt that the experience of that painting was greatly enhanced and enriched by the fact that the tour guide knew what he was talking about, and by the fact that he was able to share his understanding with those who were willing to listen.
And this enhanced, enriched experience can also be true of those pieces of art – which we have all likely seen – that defy our initial ability to understand the artist’s intent or purpose. How many of us have found ourselves shaking our heads or casually dismissing some work of art that seems to us, at first, not much more than splotches on a wall – but then, we have a great tour guide stand alongside us, and help us to see things that we might otherwise have missed, perhaps even to invite us to see the entire painting from a different perspective. There are even times when the words of a good tour guide can make a painting that we initially might have dismissed become one in which we find ourselves truly amazed and astounded.
Having a good guide can make all the difference in the world.
Today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of John may seem, at first, to be a strange text to read on Pentecost Sunday. After all, we are far more familiar with the story of Pentecost that is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles – how the gathered followers of Jesus were huddled in a room in Jerusalem, how the Spirit rushed through like a great wind, how flames danced on their heads and inspired them to burst out of the room and spill onto the city streets with a strange ability to proclaim, in many different languages, the good news about Jesus of Nazareth. That is the story that most of us tend to associate with the Pentecost story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus.
But that is not the only description that the Bible offers about the role and presence of the Spirit. The Bible offers many different claims and insights about the Spirit’s role and power – as an agent of creation, hovering over the primordial waters, drawing order and beauty out of chaos; as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, offering consolation, accompaniment and guidance as the people wandered in the wilderness; as the animating power behind the visions of the ancient prophets; as the mysterious force which propelled the life, work and teachings of Jesus; as the source of amazing virtues and characteristics in the lives of Jesus’ followers, manifested in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There are so many different ways that the Spirit’s work is described in the pages of Scripture.
In today’s suggested text from John’s Gospel, a passage which is set before Jesus’ death and resurrection, we hear words that Jesus spoke to his disciples about the promised advent of the Spirit and the effect that the Spirit would have upon them.
In chapter 16, verse 12, we read words that are placed on the lips of Jesus – “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into al 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.”
They are interesting words – Jesus was clearly telling his followers that they did not yet have all of the truth, they did not yet know everything, they could not yet see the whole picture, they were not even fully ready to understand the whole story – but there would come a Spirit that would be poured out upon them that would continue to guide them, continue to inspire them, continue to lead them towards truth.
It was as if his followers were a group of visitors to an art gallery, standing in front of a monumental piece of art, but who could not really understand it all. They certainly appreciated and understood little bits of the truth that Jesus had come to reveal – but they did not, and could not comprehend it all. But, like those art gallery visitors, their comprehension of that great and marvelous truth would be greatly enriched and enhanced if they had a guide who was standing alongside them, helping them to better comprehend what they were seeing.
And that is precisely what Jesus was promising to send to his followers. One who would be right with them, helping them to see the big picture, guiding them to the truth.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
Even as we read these words about the Spirit’s role in guiding us into truth, it is important to keep them within the wider context of this passage. That is, these words are not about some abstract concept of “truth” as it relates to human understanding or some existential vision of what the meaning and purpose of life might be. Those, too, are dimensions of truth that are worth pursuing and pondering – but these are not the specific topic that Jesus is addressing in this passage.
Rather, Jesus’ words in this passage are set within a larger discourse about the potential difficulties, controversies and conflicts that Jesus’ followers were likely to encounter as they set out to do his work in the world.
In chapter 15, verse 18, which precedes the beginning of today’s suggested Gospel text, Jesus had stated this in no uncertain terms. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.”
They were not, in themselves, particularly cheery or inspiring words. And his words, drawn from today’s suggested verses, also acknowledge this challenge in no uncertain terms. “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.”
Yes, there were challenges; yes, he was departing from them; and yes, they might very well feel upset, alone, uncertain, vulnerable, afraid.
But they were not to lose heart. After all, there was comfort to be found in the words that he continued to speak to them.
Yes, times might be tough, but you will never be alone; yes, there are going to be struggles when I have departed from you, but rest assured that there will be another manifestation of God, another powerful presence who will be with you and dwell with you and lead you; and yes, there are going to be times when you simply do not know what the right answer, or the right response, or the right position to take might be. There might be dilemmas amongst you, and between my ways and the ways of this world. There will be debates and disagreements, controversies and conflicts – varying and conflicting truth claims being made, and this lack of clarity and certainty about what truth is or how you are supposed to think and believe and act will be challenging.
We can all see the truth of his words. Each and every day, we are confronted with different claims about truth – about what to think, what to buy, how to vote, who to believe, how to live, what priorities to live by, what decisions we should make for ourselves, for our children, for one another, for our planet. And sometimes, what faith invites us to believe and do will — and does — collide with the messages that we receive from so many other voices in this world, just as Jesus promised. There can, in this life, be times of discouragement, confusion, frustration, uncertainty, fear.
Such times come to all of us. Times when we find ourselves wandering, drifting from one scene in our lives to another, not sure of what we should be seeking or perhaps even what we are looking at. In such times, it can be good and wise for us to simply slow down and try to listen – to let go of our fears and anxieties, to seek to be at peace, even in the midst of frustration and discouragement. Because there will be a guide standing there, with us, and if we listen for the voice of that guide, things will begin to make sense, and we may in fact come to realize that a scene that we found chaotic and troubling – when we are led to view it differently — may become the situation that truly fills us with inspiration, with hope, with vision, with amazement.
So listen for the voice of that guide, said Jesus. Pay attention.
Because “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
The picture will become clear. We will know the truth, and the truth shall set us free – free of the frustrations and discouragement, free of the anxieties, free of the confusion, free to once again live in faith, and hope, and love.
And for that wondrous promise, all that we can say is, thanks be to God.