Commentary on John 14:8-17 [25-27]
The Gospel text for today offers us an alternative approach to experiencing the Spirit this Pentecost Sunday, not in roaring wind and tongues of flame followed by dynamic preaching to an international audience, but in Jesus’ final promises to his friends of comfort and guidance to come, shortly before they step out into the darkness of his arrest and crucifixion.
Philip’s question, with which this text begins, is a response to Jesus’ reassurance that the way to the place where he is going, which is a source of fear and anxiety as they sense the impending crisis, is already accessible. Jesus himself, their friend and the one who is the embodiment of God’s love for the world from before time, is the way to the heart of God. That promise comes shortly after Peter’s insistence that he will follow Jesus to death, which he will not do, and that in turn has followed on the threefold commandment to love, which seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
The promise of the Spirit does not come to completely faithful, courageous people, already loving one another and the world boldly, already worshiping in spirit and truth. It comes in the midst of confusion and fear, which has made them unable to grasp what he is saying, and it is the answer to that. Jesus makes the promise of the Spirit, emerging from the mutual love of the Father and Son for one another and for us, into which they and we are invited, at the very moment when such grace seems most beyond their grasp and ours. In this text Jesus tells them that simply in their love for this person they know, they are opening their hearts to the presence of God in them in the form of another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who will guide them and embolden them for love.
A trial motif moves through this Gospel from the testimony of the witness John, whose story begins in the prologue alongside the story of the pre-existent creative Word being made flesh, through Jesus’ own testimony to his unity with God, and finally on to Jesus’ trial, where Pilate asks Jesus, the one who is not only the way but also the truth, what truth is. The term Advocate (or Paraclete, which is an English transliteration of the Greek) in 14:16 and 26 picks up this motif and underscores how the Spirit of truth dwelling in Jesus’ own (the ones on the final night, 13:1, and us now, 17:20) comes alongside us to bear witness in us to all we need to know, as we are ready to receive it, and through us to the love of God in the world. These are the first of four uses of the term in John (see also 15:26; 16:13), all in these five chapters when the narrative pace slows as Jesus comforts and instructs them and us for life in the world, which is both threatening and beloved. It appears elsewhere only in 1 John 2:1, where it refers to Christ. The Spirit is another Advocate who dwells in us as the Father dwells in the Son and Jesus dwelled in the world. When the physical presence of Jesus is no longer available, still the way, the truth, and the life are in us.
Jesus and the Father will make us know their presence in us, Jesus says, because when we love Jesus, we will follow his commandments, and the only explicit commandment Jesus gives us in John is the new commandment given threefold in 13:34-35: love one another, love one another, love one another. Jesus repeats and elaborates on the commandment in 15:9-17. When we love Jesus, we will live in love, and the Spirit will then be available to guide us in that life of love.
Jesus in John shows us what living love looks like in his own life of making God’s love for the world known. He enacts love, and says we also will do this (14:12-14), in words and works: in dangerously truthful testimony to political and religious authorities; in a ministry of boundary-breaking healing and of feeding the physically and spiritually hungry; and in a life of humility (including Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet), friendship, and prayer. He tells us that we are to follow his example (13:14-17), and he also gives us additional instruction on what loving God and one another looks like for the rest of us, who are not the vine or the shepherd but branches and friends of the one who is those things. As Peter responds three times to Jesus’ threefold love question in 21:15-17, Jesus responds to him: feed, tend, feed. Then he says, “Follow me.” And he adds not to get too excited about how our neighbor’s life of service looks but to do our own following, the love that we can do.
These things, this alternative good news of Pentecost suggests, are ways we can live into fullness of life in the Spirit, who is breathed over us, dwells in us, advocates for us, and flows through us to the world in witnessing love.
The peace Jesus then gives, not as the world gives, is the very presence of God in them and us. So when he tells them again not to let their hearts be troubled (14:27) as he said it before, immediately following Peter’s dashed hopes for heroism, it is now in light of the Spirit in them and us, who makes an untroubled peaceful heart possible when our own efforts fail utterly.
The Spirit moves, blows, and flies from John’s testimony to the descent of the dove, who remains on Jesus in the first chapter of this Gospel, to Jesus’ encounter with the disciples cowering behind locked doors for fear of the religious authorities after the resurrection. There Jesus breathes the Spirit over them as he speaks it here in comfort and courage. They and we, he promises, are never orphaned (14:18). We are sons and daughters of God (1:12). As Jesus was God With Us in the flesh, now the Spirit dwells in us making us God With One Another, loving as Jesus commanded us to do.