Day of Pentecost

The Holy Spirit is a first responder

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May 19, 2024

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

In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday is always from the Gospel of John. The selected Gospel passages for Pentecost in Year B are the third, fourth, and fifth promises from Jesus of the Holy Spirit in the Farewell Discourse. The first and second promises of the Holy Spirit are in Year C (14:16–17; 14:26). Year A is the actual giving of the Holy Spirit in John (John 20:19–23). If deciding to preach on John this Pentecost Sunday, a first homiletical move would be to step back and get a balcony view of John’s pneumatology. 

Only in John is the Holy Spirit called the Paraclete—literally, the one called to be alongside you, just as Jesus has been (14:16). Any sermon on one of these Paraclete promises should take the other promises into consideration. As the Paraclete narratively “accompanies” the disciples throughout the Farewell Discourse, what the “alongsideness” of the Paraclete entails depends on what Jesus has just said. That is, the Holy Spirit is a first responder—coming alongside acute senses of need, particularly the anxiety, fear, and even grief of the disciples as they begin to realize the immediacy of Jesus’ departure. 

Furthermore, the disciples have already experienced the abandonment of one of their own, Judas, who has left them and Jesus and has gone into the night (13:30), and Jesus has also foretold Peter’s denial (13:36–38). Rather than a uniform translation of the Paraclete (typically, the “Advocate”), give the Holy Spirit the name embodied in the moment—comforter, aide, intercessor, companion, witness, guide, teacher, and so on. The specificity of the Spirit’s roles acknowledges the many levels of loss expressed in the Farewell Discourse and theologically underscores the assurance of the incarnation.

John 15:26–27 narrates the third promise of the Spirit and introduces a new function of the Paraclete—to testify. Jesus has just shared with his disciples that the world will hate them (15:18–25), a striking contrast to his commandment to love in the previous verses (15:12–17). In conjunction with the role of the Spirit as witness, the disciples themselves will be asked to do the same—“You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27)—to and in a world that will hate them and resist, even reject, their testimony. Without the love the disciples have for and show to each other, and without the Paraclete as witness alongside them, the disciples cannot be the witnesses Jesus will ask them to be in his absence. 

To be a witness is a primary display of discipleship in the Gospel of John. The disciples are called to carry on the role of witness already seen in John the Baptist (John 1:7, 19, 32, 34; 5:33), the Samaritan woman at the well (4:40), the scriptures (5:39), Jesus’ words and works (5:35; 8:14, 18; 10:25), and even God (5:36). Only because of and with the presence and promise of the Holy Spirit can the disciples, believers, testify to God’s glory revealed in Jesus. In the Gospel of John, the disciples are not sent into the world until they have been given the Holy Spirit by the resurrected Jesus (20:19–23). In the Paraclete as witness, “For God so loved the world” is at stake.

The fourth promise of the Paraclete given in 16:7b–11 is in response to Jesus’ troubling words spoken to the disciples just before: “I have said these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (16:1–2). 

As Jesus’ last night with his disciples comes closer to its end, what’s ahead for the disciples is stated plainly. There is every possibility that they will fall away (skandalizō), abandoning the relationship with Jesus just as Judas has. They will be thrown out of their synagogue for their belief in and witness to Jesus (see 9:22; 12:42). Needed at this moment is the Exposer. The Paraclete will lay bare the self-judgment that occurs when one chooses the darkness over the light (3:17–21). In this role, the Paraclete affirms and confirms the disciples’ decision to follow Jesus in contrast to those unwilling to believe God’s revelation in Jesus.

In 16:9, the Paraclete will expose the truth of sin, which in John is a theological and not moral category. The opposite of abiding in Jesus is sin. The Paraclete will bring to light God’s righteousness in that Jesus’ death is not the end but victory over death (16:33), fully realized in Jesus’ ascension. And the Paraclete will uncover the evil one as having no power over Jesus (14:30) because of God’s love for the world.

The fifth and final promise of the Paraclete (16:12–15) is a response to Jesus’ words “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (16:11). With so much more to come—in the resurrection appearances, the promise of the ascension (20:17), and a new summons to disciples (John 21)—the Spirit as Guide will make it possible for the disciples to hear Jesus’ future words as declarations and fulfillment of his being the Truth. And finally, the Paraclete, in glorifying Jesus, will confirm that in Jesus the very presence of God is visible and experienced (1:14; 13:31–33; 17:26).

The message that the preacher chooses to proclaim, given these multiple promises of the Paraclete, is a pastoral decision. What pastoral needs noted above do you see your congregation experiencing and into which the First Responder will bring comfort and peace? In answering this question, the distinctiveness of John’s pneumatology will be preached from its true heart—Jesus at his pastoral best.