Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

The Spirit plays an essential role in Christian faith and yet is something many find hard to deal with in preaching.

May 29, 2011

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Commentary on John 14:15-21

The Spirit plays an essential role in Christian faith and yet is something many find hard to deal with in preaching.

The art in our churches pictures episodes from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the Spirit is more challenging to portray. The Spirit’s dove may hover above Jesus on stained glass windows, but the Spirit often remains on the margins when it comes to proclamation. And this is a problem.

On the one hand, some people equate the work of the Spirit with a particular kind of experience, such as excitement in worship or speaking in tongues. Others are content with a kind of vague spirituality that seems to be mainly a sense that there is something “out there” that we cannot name. So what might the gospel say about the work of God’s Spirit?

At the last supper Jesus has been telling the disciples about his coming departure, which raises the disturbing prospect of separation (John 13:33, 36; 14:2, 5). In years to come he knows that the disciples will feel like “orphans.” Easter will be a joyous reunion, but the resurrection appearances will not continue indefinitely. As the years pass, people will be called to believe in a Jesus they have never seen or heard. Jesus’ words and actions will be conveyed to them through the tradition of the church in a world that may seem indifferent at best and hostile at worst to the message about a crucified Messiah.

In this passage Jesus anticipates the Easter moment when he says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” and “because I live, you also will live” (14:18-19). The Easter message is that life rather than death has the final word, and this is crucial for faith. In John’s gospel, faith is a relationship with a living being. For there to be authentic faith in Jesus, people must be able to relate to the living Jesus–a Jesus who is not absent but present. Otherwise faith is reduced to the memory of a Jesus who died long ago.

But here is the conundrum: Why would anyone believe that authentic life comes from a Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Jesus whom they cannot see? The honest answer is that no one would believe it–apart from the work of the Spirit. For it is the Spirit who makes the presence of the living Jesus and his Father known.

Coming to faith is analogous to falling in love. One cannot fall in love in the abstract. Love comes through an encounter with another person. The same is true of faith. If faith is a relationship with the living Christ and the living God who sent him, then faith can only come through an encounter with them. And the Spirit is the one who makes this presence known.

John’s gospel calls the Spirit the paraklētos or Advocate, a term for someone who is called to one’s side as a source of help. In modern contexts someone may serve as an advocate in the court system, in the health care network, or in an educational institution, while other advocates may press the legislature to act on behalf of a certain cause. A quick reading of John may give the impression that the Spirit is the Advocate who brings our case up before God in the hope that God will do something merciful for us. But here the direction is the opposite. God has already given the gift of love unstintingly through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and such love is what creates genuine life. The Spirit is the Advocate who brings the truth of that love and life to people in this time after Easter, which makes faith possible.

Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate, which assumes that Jesus also was an Advocate (14:16). Jesus and the Spirit have some similar functions. For example, Jesus and the Spirit both come from the Father and are sent into the world. Jesus communicates what he has received from his Father and the Spirit declares what he has received from Jesus (7:17; 16:13). If Jesus glorifies God, the Spirit glorifies Jesus (16:14; 17:1). Both of them teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world (3:20; 7:14; 14:26; 15:26; 16:8; 18:37). And in both cases, the reaction is the same: the world refuses to recognize and receive Jesus or the Spirit (1:11; 14:17).

Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” does not mean he is “another Jesus.” The Spirit continues Jesus’ work without taking Jesus’ place. As the Word made flesh, Jesus reveals God through the life he lives and the death he dies. But the Spirit does not become incarnate and is not crucified for the sin of the world.

The Spirit will disclose the truth about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but will not replicate these events. After Jesus’ return to the Father, the Spirit remains with the disciples; but this does not mean the Spirit replaces Jesus. Rather, the Spirit discloses the presence of the risen Jesus and his Father to the community of faith.

Jesus also says that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees nor recognizes it (14:17). Here he refers to “the world” as the realm where people are alienated from God. “The world” consists of those who are hostile to Jesus and his followers (15:18). Saying that the world cannot receive the Spirit does not mean that an unbeliever cannot become a believer.

Rather, it means that “the world” estranged from God cannot receive the Spirit while remaining unchanged. For the world to receive the Spirit means that it is no longer “the world” in the Johannine sense. It loses its identity as “the world,” for it is no longer alienated from God.