Spirit. May 17, 2020
The gospel for the sixth Sunday of Easter (John 14:15-21) recasts and reflects themes that initially appeared in the evangelist’s first chapter. In addition to the reminder of things that had already occurred, the gospel looks forward to Jesus’ departure but also the coming of the Spirit.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel we read, John (the Baptist) testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (Jesus). I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
In these words, the Spirit descended and remained on Jesus. That same Spirit animated Jesus’ life, first sending him to the desert, then to a public ministry of teaching, healing and forgiving. The Spirit remained with Jesus throughout his ministry.
This Sunday’s gospel is lifted from the extended narrative of the Last Supper. Jesus had upset his disciples, earlier, when he told them, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? (John 13:36-37)
As part of his response to Peter’s question Jesus spoke the words that are used in the gospel for this Sunday, I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth … he abides with you, and he will be in you.
The same Spirit of truth that filled Jesus at the beginning of John’s gospel, would become the guiding force for Jesus’ disciples, forever. Jesus identifies this Spirit as an Advocate, or counsellor, someone who represents them to the Father, as Jesus had. Moreover, Jesus promised that this Spirit would remain forever.
Years ago, when I taught the youth, I asked them to imagine that Jesus was telling the disciples that he was leaving but that he was sending his twin (the Spirit) to be with them. The Spirit would be distinct, but the relationship would be so close that Jesus and the Spirit would seem to be identical in the ways they spoke and thought and in all the signature inflections and actions. They shared the same parent and their lives had been entwined since the beginning, so they knew one another intimately. I still think the metaphor works.
Next Jesus reassured the disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.” Cyril of Alexandria, the fifth Century patriarch, thought that Jesus’ words referred to the coming of the Spirit, which Jesus had just promised in the previous verses. A paraphrase of his interpretation might be, “I’m going to go away for a short while, but I…or someone you recognize as having the same spirit… will be right back.” Contemporary scholars, on the other hand, believe that Jesus was referring to his post-resurrection appearances. They note that Jesus’ next words were, In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, which is consistent with disciples’ experience of Jesus, post-resurrection. Another way of looking at it is that both interpretations can be true: Jesus knew that he would come back after his death and that the Spirit would come.
Next Jesus told his disciples, because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. When he said because, Jesus made their lives conditional on his. He was not just speaking of their lives in the moment, but eternal life. In addition, they would know, in a deep way, that Jesus was in the Father, whom the disciples had never seen nor met but whom they knew was Jesus’ prime reference.
Finally, they would be in Jesus and Jesus in them. This use of in signals a profound intimacey. It conjures up the kind of close relationship that one experiences in marriage when lovers unite. Jesus was telling them that they would be united with his understanding and his passion for both the Father and for all of creation.
Sharing in this intimacy would be dynamic. It would mean sharing in creating the kingdom of God. Each individual follower of Jesus would also realize a potential within themselves that he or she hadn’t even known existed.
The concluding statement mirrors what has gone before: They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Jesus’ commandment is love, as he would tell them momentarily… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
Jesus told them that the relationship with him would grow to include the Father if they kept Jesus’ commandments.
· The Spirit appears throughout John’s gospel and is intimately related to Jesus. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, He breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:22) Jesus shared his Spirit with them, his breath of life. Try to think of the Spirit in another way, perhaps as the mirror image of Jesus (present when Jesus is)? As a twin? As a shadow? Something else? you fail, and relying on God’s mercy? Do you worry that this approach allows you to rationalize you
· Keeping the commandments is hard to do perfectly, all the time. By that measure of perpetual perfection probably no one succeeds in keeping the commandments. Jesus allowed for this when he told his disciples, whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven, (John 20:23) What, then, do you think that keeping the commandments means? Does it mean striving to live your life, oriented to God’s commandment of love as best you can, returning to right relationship to God? Do you worry that this approach allows you to rationalize your failings and lower God’s high standard? Or does the fact that someone, acting independently, in God’s name and Spirit, forgives you alter this concern?
· Call to mind one of the people in your life that is easy to love. Recall all the things about that person that makes it easy. Now think about someone in your life who is difficult to love and think about the things that make them lovable. Spend time considering them in light of those qualities.