Sixth Sunday of Easter
TEXT: John 14:15-23
“This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:17).
Have you ever seen the Holy Spirit? The best pictures we get in the Bible are descriptions of tongues of fire (Acts 2:3) or a freely-blowing wind (John 3:8). We don’t know what the Spirit looks like.
Or do we? In today’s gospel lesson, we get two extremely helpful clues. Two clues that—taken together—paint a pretty good picture of just what the Holy Spirit looks like. And they’re both found in verse 16, where Jesus says: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
Here’s clue number one: the Holy Spirit looks like an Advocate. The Greek word used here is parakletos, and other English translations render it as “Comforter” or “Counsellor” or “Helper.”
No matter. It means someone who stands up for you when you need it—the one who speaks on your behalf; the one who lends you a helping hand, who takes your side, and won’t leave you while you’re in trouble.
O.K. Here’s clue number two: the Holy Spirit looks like Jesus. The Spirit is “another Advocate” because Jesus is the first one. The Spirit, Jesus goes on to say, will abide with us just as Jesus “the Word made flesh” has abided with us. The Spirit is sent in Jesus’ name and reminds us of what he taught (14:26). In other words, the Spirit mediates Jesus’ presence. The Spirit is given to us in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphaned and will come to us (14:18).
In summary, then: the Holy Spirit is an Advocate that looks a whole lot like Jesus ... which means that we’ve actually seen the Spirit lots of times. Yes, we have. Anytime someone stands up for a weaker person; anytime somebody acts like Jesus; anytime someone bears the love of Christ to another; we are seeing the Holy Spirit.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus says we know him: “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (14:17).
You know him. You do! Because, as it turns out, the Holy Spirit at one time or another has probably looked a lot like you … even a lot like me … and definitely a lot like each and all of us when we do the works of Jesus, like we heard about last Sunday.
This morning’ gospel passage really does pick up where last week’s reading left off. If you read my previous post, I’m sure you’ll remember it. Jesus said that the one who believes in him will do the works that he does “and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (14:12).
How is it possible for us to do greater works than Jesus did? Well, it’s because his works—his miracles—were not about showing off. No. What were Jesus’ miracles really all about?
They were about love.
When Jesus healed somebody—when he made the blind to see and the lame to walk, or when he raised the dead—it was all about love. What he did, he did not to demonstrate his power, but to express his love. And we are capable of doing the same thing. Each one of us is capable of expressing love to another person. And we can do it in a greater way because there are more of us. When Jesus was on the earth, he could only love one person at a time, face-to-face. But there are millions of us, now! In fact, as of this date—May 17, 2020—there are some 2.3 billion Christians on planet earth. And each and every one of them can at any given moment love someone intimately and powerfully in Jesus’ name. That is the tremendous potential contained in the Church of Jesus Christ.
So, in today’s brief but powerful gospel passage, Jesus returns to his favourite theme, which is love. The gospel lesson begins and ends with love. In verse 15, Jesus declares that if his disciples love him, they will keep his commandments.
“What commandments,” you ask? Well, unlike the other Gospels—as, for example, Matthew—nowhere in John does Jesus command us to “go the second mile” or “turn the other cheek” or “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” No. In John, Jesus gives only a single commandment—and it occurs in the chapter just before this one: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35).
And he reiterates this in the chapter just after this one. He says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (15:12-13).”
In John’s Gospel, this is the overwhelming, repetitive, circular emphasis: love. The apostle John would have heartily agreed with the statement of William Sloane Coffin,* who said: “If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”
What does the Holy Spirit look like? He looks like love. He looks a lot like Jesus, and he looks a lot like you and me. The Holy Spirit looks like love.
If you’re interested in learning a theological term, here’s one: pneumatology. Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit. It’s from the Greek word pneuma, which means “wind” or “breath” or “spirit.”
Now, the pneumatology of John is rather different from other New Testament writings. For example—from the beginning of his Gospel right through until the end of the Book of Acts—Luke depicts the Holy Spirit as being heavily active in the lives of characters. John, in contrast, insists that the Holy Spirit will come only after Jesus himself departs.
Why is that? Well, remember clue number two: Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit not as the Advocate, but rather as another Advocate. Jesus was the first one. For the Spirit to be active in the world while Jesus was still there would have been redundant, since they each serve the same revelatory function. But once he left, well …
What looked like bad news for the disciples—namely, Jesus’ departure from them—turned out to be the best of news, for both them and us. While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited to one locale and one person: himself. But, upon his departure, his disciples are given the Holy Spirit. They go from being apprentices to being journeymen—full, mature revealers of God’s love. And this happens not just to those first disciples, but to all those who would come after them—even those who never saw the historical Jesus.
John the evangelist insists that present believers have no disadvantage in comparison to the first believers. Everything they were taught—everything they experienced—is available to us, as well.
This is perhaps the most stunning feature of the Fourth Gospel. In John, Jesus declares that the intimate relationship that exists between him, God, and the Spirit also includes us! That’s what he’s getting at in verse 23, when he says: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
If God and Christ have made their home with us, how can we imagine there to be any distance between us and God? Ultimate intimacy with God and Christ—everything that matters—is available to us now.
What could we hope for beyond that? God is not currently holding out on us in any way. Life, abundant life, is available to us now—available for living, from this moment into eternity.
Hallelujah! Thanks be to God.
* William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (1924-2006) was an American Protestant clergyman and peace activist, and longtime pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.