Sermon - 1st May 2016
Scripture - John 14:23-29
[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 longer 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 language is tremendously rich in imagery; it is very deep with many subtleties; and it plays on many levels.
It is possible to re-imagine an earlier part of this farewell sequence in terms of a conversation with questions which the disciples might ask:
"Where are you going?"
"I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also."
"Can we go with you?"
"Where I am going you cannot come.”
"How long will you be gone?"
"A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me."
"Who will take care of us?"
"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever."
The questions and answers are clearly those of departure and farewell - appropriate in the gospel setting just hours before Jesus’s death, but also appropriate on this Sunday before the Ascension. Jesus is leaving again, and like children we want to know "who will take care of us."
There is no direct account of the Ascension in John’s Gospel, no story of Jesus rising into the sky while angels ask, "People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?" (Acts 1:11).
There is only a hint in John 20:17, whispered to Mary Magdalene: "Go to my disciples and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God"’.
Still, 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.
And then it dawns on them: they are remembering the things he told them as if he were standing right there, whispering the words in their ears! And in that same moment they realise, with joy and relief, that they are not alone, that the promises of Jesus to them are promises that have already been kept.
Clearly we need to know more about this Helper who restores the very essence of Jesus into the lives of his disciples.
The Greek word for "advocate" is paraclete, formed from a verb that means "to call alongside." In one bible class that I’ve read about, the tutor tells his students that a paraclete is 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. Jesus has done that for his disciples while he was with them, but now another paraclete - another Helper or Advocate - will serve that function.
The Paraclete compensates for the departure of Jesus; it keeps the words of Jesus "fresh." It empowers believers to be witnesses for Jesus; it judges the world and demonstrates its wrongs and its failings; and it leads believers into all truth. With that in mind, we should certainly "rejoice" as Jesus suggests. As contemporary disciples we are in good hands.
In the gospel translation we used today, that Greek word paraclete is translated as ‘helper’. You will find it sometimes translated as ‘comforter’, occasionally as ‘counsellor’, sometimes as ‘defender’ – again reflecting the use of the word for someone who pleads our case or intercedes for us. Often it is translated as ‘advocate’.
But Jesus’s statements about the coming Spirit of Truth teaching the disciples, reminding them, revealing things to them, and abiding in them, still goes beyond these meanings and calls for a broader interpretation. It needs to reflect a 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.
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 teaching, to revisit the message, drawing out its significance for them in an ever deepening and strengthening 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 new, or see more deeply, or are more fully grasped by the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us and for the world around us. That is an expression of the work of the Spirit in us.
When the Spirit 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 know as prejudices!), and slowly – with some collisions, and mistakes, 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 which gives life to our discipleship, it is all too easy to find ourselves stuck in a faith which has lost its vitality: bogged down a belief system which is frozen in time and trapped between the pages of a sacred text; chasing a relationship with God which is impersonal, judgmental and threatening; or taking an approach to our fellow human beings which is sectarian, exclusive, and defies 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.
We are called to be people who serve as dwelling places for God. The image is not of dwelling places huddled away in seclusion away from danger, being a city for themselves, but of dwellings in the midst of life. After all, the God who lives 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 take on the challenges of healing and liberation in the world - a life which leads us also to rest and a peace which the world cannot give.
The challenge for us today is to open ourselves fully to the Spirit within each of us; to let go of the prejudices and simple ignorance of an older age; to call upon the help and strengthening of the Spirit of Truth in what we say and do in the name of Christ’s community.
The Spirit calls each one of us to embrace today’s world and today’s issues with a contemporary, vibrant and maturing faith - just as Jesus would do, and just as his Spirit challenges us to do, because we are disciples who are blessed with his gift and therefore share the responsibility for his message.
The disciples ask: "Who will take care of us?"
Jesus answers: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever."
And for now:
“Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you.”