Day of Pentecost (Year B)

For the early Christian communities, Pentecost marked a liminal moment when people’s gaze shifted from looking back at their memories of Jesus,

May 31, 2009

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Commentary on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

For the early Christian communities, Pentecost marked a liminal moment when people’s gaze shifted from looking back at their memories of Jesus,

to looking ahead to what they must trust to sustain their life after his death and resurrection had passed into history and memory. That same sense of being on the boundary between phases of life is a recurring feeling through the life of the church, as we are pushed by the experiences we encounter to reaffirm the basis of our faith and confidence. At its heart is the experience of the Holy Spirit.

Only the Author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts writes of a specific day in the life of the Jerusalem community when the spirit is given. The other New Testament writers are less specific about the timing of that experience. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is said to interpret the Spirit for the disciples prior to his death, namely, in the long discourse after dinner on the night of his arrest (13:31-17:26). No tongues of fire or rushing wind are promised as the accompaniment of the Spirit’s arrival in this story. No unexpected languages will prompt snickered charges of drunkenness in mid-morning. Instead, the Spirit in John is identified by two terms that fit with the somber judicial tone of “witness” and “testimony” characterizing this Gospel from the beginning (see for example 1:6-7, 19-23; 3:11; 4:39, etc., as well as 15:26-27). The first is the “Spirit of truth” and the second the “Paraclete” (paraklētos) or “Advocate.” 

The first of these terms links the Spirit and Jesus, who identifies himself as the truth (14:6). The latter term, “Paraclete” (paraklētos) or “Advocate,” has always challenged translators. In English, it has been read as “Comforter” (KJV), “Helper” (NKJV), “Counselor” (RSV, NIV, New Living Bible), “Advocate” (NRSV), or simply transliterated as “Paraclete” (NJB). Other modern Western languages show a similar range of choices. The Greek word is made up of the participial form of the verb “to call” and the preposition “beside” and thus means one who has been summoned or called to the side of another–literally, an “advocate,” or, by extension, a helper or legal representative in a trial or other arena of judgment.

The Holy Spirit is mentioned only five times in the Gospel of John, and three of them are in today’s passage. Previously, the Spirit is introduced in 14:16, where the Spirit is called both the Spirit of truth and “another Advocate,” which begs the question of the identity of the first. If we have been following the unfolding picture of Jesus’ role in John, however, we recognize that this is how Jesus has been described, namely, as one who stands like a defense attorney beside his followers, accompanying them in moments of joy as well as of trial.

Losing that presence had to be a grief-laden prospect for Jesus’ followers and a grief-laden reality in the community he left behind. The good news of the gift of the Spirit, though, was that the same help and assurance continued in their new reality: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The Spirit would be a teacher who would complete the teaching begun by Jesus. She would remind them of Jesus’ teaching when time, grief, fear, or simple human forgetfulness takes it away. The Spirit would be sent by “the Father” in Jesus’ name. We must be careful not to read into this passage the later creedal discussions about relationships among the persons of the Holy Trinity, for those came long after this Gospel was written. This initial promise is simply a word of assurance that the presence of the Holy Spirit will continue to know God’s presence as they did when Jesus himself was with them.

The courtroom setting and language also frames the introductory verses of today’s lection. In 15:26, we are told that Jesus will send this Advocate from the Father, in a picture of the seamless collaboration between Jesus/Son/Word/Sent One and God the Father/Creator/Sender. Both the Advocate and the followers have the duty to testify–presumably to the world beyond the community of believers–on Jesus’ behalf, just as Jesus has made God known. The community’s witness thus incarnates the witness of the Paraclete. Similarly, Jesus himself was the Word made flesh (1:14). There is a temporal separation between them–he must “go” so that the other can “come” (16:7)–but an integrated witness to God’s will and ways.

The language and tone of these portions of Jesus’ farewell discourse suggest that for John’s community, the transition from being a band of Jesus’ followers to being a community with its own responsibility to witness to all that Jesus has been was not easy. However, this Spirit/attorney, while being a reassuring support to Jesus’ followers and accompanying them in their times of trial, shows another side in 16:8-11. This defense attorney becomes at the same time the prosecutor who exposes the errors in the world’s versions of sin, righteousness, and judgment that are not viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ. In this way the Holy Spirit, through the faithful witness of the community, continues and completes Jesus’ “lawsuit” against the values of the world that he has been waging from the beginning of the Gospel (for example, 3:19; 8:26; 9:39; 15:26-27). Jesus’ words and deeds have made visible the identity of God. So also the Spirit will continue to make God visible in the life of the church.