Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Jesus never stopped talking, in case you were wondering.

St. Paul preaching in Athens
"St. Paul preaching in Athens," St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

May 25, 2014

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Commentary on John 14:15-21

Jesus never stopped talking, in case you were wondering.

While the lectionary came to a halt at 14:14 last week, Jesus didn’t and so we pick up where we left off. This section of text first introduces the Holy Spirit as the Advocate in John’s Gospel. It is important to note that a sustained discussion of the Holy Spirit first occurs at this juncture in the Gospel and not earlier in the narrative.

While there have been references to the Spirit up until this point, this specific understanding and portrait of the Holy Spirit are reserved for the Farewell Discourse. Why is that? As a reminder, the Farewell Discourse, or chapters 13-17, is Jesus’ words of good-bye to his disciples, aware of his imminent arrest, but more so, sets forth the larger theological trajectory of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

One entry into this text is to ask, what is it that the disciples need to hear from Jesus about the function and purpose of the Holy Spirit in this moment? Answering this question will get at the heart of any kind of meaningful understanding of what difference the Holy Spirit actually makes for our lives.

In hindsight, the work of the Holy Spirit makes sense of how Jesus can say what he did in the opening verses of this chapter. 14:12 should seem virtually impossible unless the Holy Spirit was and is present. In fact, 14:12 foreshadows how Jesus first describes the Holy Spirit as “another advocate.” If the Holy Spirit is another Advocate then that means there has been an Advocate already, Jesus.

As a result, we are invited to imagine that one way of understanding the role of the Holy Spirit is to reread the Gospel up until this point and notice what Jesus has done. To have seen Jesus at work is to anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit. That the imagination for the presentation of the Holy Spirit is first grounded in the experiences of and encounters with Jesus provides a grounding and tangibility to what is otherwise a rather ethereal tenet of Trinitarian belief.

There are reasons why we rarely hear sermons on the Holy Spirit unless it is Pentecost Sunday or there is direct mention of the third person of the Trinity in the text itself. If we are honest, a lot of us have a rather dysfunctional pneumatology. We don’t quite know what to do with or think about the “shy member” of the Trinity. Perhaps this is the year to change that.

There are several important clues to what the Holy Spirit does that gain a fuller meaning when the larger context of the Fourth Gospel is brought into play. First, this is the Spirit of truth. Jesus has just revealed himself as the way, the truth, and the life (14:6) and in the trial before Pilate, the concept of truth will play a major role (18:37-38).

In the trial narrative, the truth is to which Jesus testifies and “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” The truth is synonymous with Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Later in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus promises, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (16:13).

Second, the disciples know the Spirit, and to “know” in the Gospel of John is to be in relationship. The Spirit abides with you and will be in you, abiding also being one and the same as relationship in the Fourth Gospel. The Spirit will also be in you, a foreshadowing of Jesus breathing into the disciples the Spirit in 20:22. Third, the coming of the Spirit, the promise of the Spirit, means that the disciples will not be orphaned (14:18), a particularly poignant claim.

This specific assurance of not being abandoned, without a parent, calls to mind the strong parental theme across the entirety of this Gospel, between Jesus and the Father, but also between the Father and those who believe. The Prologue asserted that “all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12). In this section of chapter 14 we find the fulfillment of that promise.

What if you preach the coming gift of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost, just like this passage from John anticipates that you will? Lay the groundwork for Pentecost rather than dumping the entirety of the Spirit into one Sunday. And when you get to the Day of Pentecost, preach John’s Spirit rather than the one portrayed in Numbers, Psalms, 1 Corinthians, or Acts. In other words, start suggesting that there’s life beyond Easter Sunday and it has everything to do with the Spirit.

That this text is located in the Sundays after Easter promises that the presence and power of Jesus will extend beyond the empty tomb, beyond Easter, and well into this next season we call Pentecost. All too often, the resurrection is preached as a culmination rather than an inauguration, the ultimate believer’s reality rather than the penultimate promise, especially for the Gospel of John.

A primary theological assumption throughout the Farewell Discourse is that there’s more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead. The crucifixion will indeed bring to an end the incarnation, but the resurrection is not the end all of eternal life. For the Gospel of John, the ascension is the final surety that secures every single claim about abundant life.

To preach the promise of the Spirit and the assurance of Jesus’ ascension in the middle of the Easter season may very well get us out of our resurrection ruts, that the resurrection is all that God has in store for us. In fact, it isn’t and it could very well sound like an empty platitude. I have a feeling there will be people in the pews asking, so what exactly am I supposed to do with Easter anyway? I’m still here. So, get them ready for Pentecost. Preach that there’s Christian life beyond a discovery of an empty tomb. Help them imagine that resurrection is a matter of death and life, even life right here and now.