Sermon - 21st May 2017
Scripture - John 14:15-21
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today’s reading from John’s Gospel is part of a sequence in which Jesus is preparing his disciples for a future without his physical presence among them. He is planting seeds of understanding in their minds which will empower and support the disciples once he has gone to another place.
The conversation is clearly one of departure and farewell - appropriate in the gospel setting just hours before Jesus’s death, but also appropriate on this Sunday before the Ascension. We are approaching that time in the gospel story when Jesus is leaving again, and like children we want to know "who will take care of us."
We know that there came a time when Jesus did leave his disciples, when they found themselves alone. How did they react to that realisation?
Perhaps it went something like this:
Wherever the disciples are - in an upper room, on the shores of Galilee, on the Mount of Olives - they look at each other in surprise, even shock. At first they are speechless, and then one of them blurts out, "Who will take care of us now?
They begin to look to Peter for answers. He is, after all, the one Jesus has commissioned as shepherd of the sheep (John 21:17). But it is that other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, who remembers.
"Wait," he says. "He told us that he was going away, but that he would be coming back to us, remember? He said he was going to the Father, and that he wanted to tell us beforehand so that when it happened we would believe. Well, now it has happened, and we don’t need to be fearful; we need to believe."
The others start nodding their heads. Yes, he had said something like that. They remember now, remember clearly.
"In fact," says this disciple, "he said that we would remember because the. . . what was it? The Helper! The Holy Spirit would teach us everything, and remind us of all the things the Lord told us while he was still with us.”
Clearly we need to know more about this Helper who restores the very essence of Jesus into the lives of his disciples.
In the gospel translation we heard today, the word ‘helper’ is used for the original Greek word paraclete. You will find paraclete sometimes translated as ‘comforter’, occasionally as ‘counsellor’, sometimes as ‘defender’. Often it is translated as ‘helper’.
The Greek word is formed from a verb that means "to call alongside." You might use it to describe the one whose name you call when you are hauled into court on false charges, or when the school bully is beating you up in the playground, or when you wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night. A paraclete is the one who comes to your defence, your rescue, your comfort.
These are roles which Jesus undertook for his disciples while he was with them. But now another helper will serve that function. It keeps the words of Jesus "fresh." It will empower believers to be witnesses for Jesus; it will shine a light of truth on the wrongs and failings of the world; and it has the power to lead believers into all truth.
Then there is the sense of putting courage into someone’s heart; of fortifying someone by standing back-to-back with them through trials. This is how that original Greek word was used in other contexts, and this is what the Spirit of Truth was destined to achieve for the disciples.
But the Helper does not strengthen disciples with its own values: it locates those strengthening, supporting, teaching and guiding roles deep within the truth at the core of Jesus’s message. It points us to Jesus and to Christ-centred teaching. It reveals truth to disciples who love Jesus and seek to keep his word.
And it does it today among contemporary disciples, just as it did among those first followers of Jesus.
Throughout John’s Gospel the disciples never quite seem to get what Jesus tells them—or shows them—the first time round. It is the Spirit’s function to teach and remind the believers of Jesus’s original revelation and saving action, to revisit the message, to repaint the picture, drawing out its significance for them in an ever deepening and empowering way.
Very often for us, deeper understanding comes when we look back and reflect on experience. At a new time and in a new place we often see something differently, or see more deeply, or are more fully aware of the significance of Jesus’s death and resurrection for us and for the world around us. That is the working of the Spirit of Truth in us.
And when the Helper is truly at work in us, we change. At the Spirit’s prompting, we challenge, we question, we open ourselves to new insights, we abandon prejudgments (also known as prejudices!), and slowly – with some mistakes, misunderstandings and false starts - we grow in faith and in spiritual maturity towards the person Jesus calls us to be.
And we do this by trusting in, and drawing upon, Jesus’s gift of his Spirit in our lives.
If we are not in touch with the Spirit in our lives, it is all too easy to find ourselves stuck in a faith which has lost its vitality: drifting in a belief system which is frozen in time and trapped between the pages of a sacred text; or in a relationship with God which is impersonal, judgmental and threatening; or taking an approach to our fellow human beings which is selective, exclusive, and contrary to natural justice.
The whole purpose of Jesus’s gift of his Spirit to those first disciples was that they would be empowered to continue his work. It was to drive them forward with his word of truth as their benchmark; it was to remove their limitations, to teach and guide and enable them to discern his mind; it was to continue the process of continual change which he began while among them, always in the context of his new commandment that they should love one another in the way that he had loved.
Yes, the Spirit of Truth was to be a gift to them. It was to satisfy their need for a foster parent when he went away. But it also brought responsibilities to engage with the world around them and to continue what he had started; and to bring about change in the world, and change within themselves.
At this time and in this place, we are called to be people who serve as dwelling places for God - but not as dwelling places huddled away in seclusion away from the dangers of the world we are called to serve. On the contrary, the God who dwells in us is the guest who refreshes and renews us, encourages us to come out of ourselves and join in the adventure of creation, and to take on the challenges of healing and liberation in the world.
The challenge for us today is to open ourselves fully to the Spirit of Christ within each of us; to let go of the social and cultural prejudices and simple ignorance of an older age; to call upon the help of the Spirit of Truth in what we say and do in the name of Christ’s community.
That Spirit calls each one of us to embrace today’s world and today’s issues with a contemporary vibrant faith - just as Jesus would do - because we are disciples who are blessed with his gift, called into his community, and therefore share the responsibility for his message. Amen.