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Sunday Worship 14 May | The Spirit is Promised

Updated: Jan 18

John 14:15-21
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

This passage follows directly on from last week’s reading, so we are back with the farewell or supper discourse, the teaching and prayer Jesus shared with his disciples at their last meal before his death, and it might help to briefly remind ourselves of what has brought us to this point. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem ready for the festival and is sharing supper with his disciples. He has washed their feet and told them they must do likewise and they must love one another. He has also declared that one of them will betray him and that he is going somewhere they cannot follow. This has then set the scene for a conversation in which he has declared that there is much room in his Father’s house, that he is the way and the truth and the life, and that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. It is a wonderful invitation to dwell with God by following Christ, made possible because Christ is in God and God is in Christ.


And so we come to the reading we have heard this morning. Some Bibles print the words of Jesus in red, and this passage is all in red. As a teenager I was a big fan of the band dc Talk, who have a song called ‘Red Letters’ which has the chorus “There is love in the red letters / There is truth in the red letters / There is hope for the hopeless / Peace and forgiveness / There is life in the red letters”. I certainly think we find plenty of all of those things in this supper discourse.


We begin with love. When I first wrote that sentence I meant quite literally that this passage begins with Jesus saying “if you love me”, but when I looked back at it I realised that it is something much more profound. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son” (John 3:16) tells us that the whole story of incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection began with love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39) makes love our primary calling. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) and “these three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13) because love comes first and even when it is named last it is still the greatest. We begin with love.


Going back to the passage before us, Jesus says “if you love me you will obey my commands”, and the second half of that sentence only takes us deeper into love, because love is the essence of his commands. I timed myself reading from “a new command I give you: love one another” to this verse, and it is less than two and a half minutes of conversation. The command to love one another would have been so fresh in the minds of the disciples that they surely heard this as “if you love me you will love one another”, which calls to mind the double love commandment but binds love of God and love of neighbour even more tightly. There are of course other things that Jesus taught his followers - if we look across the gospels we see calls to repent and to pray and to witness - but all are consistent with love and grounded in love.


It is sometimes suggested that the command to love one another is only about loving fellow believers, but I don’t find that particularly convincing. The command may have been given in the context of the gathered community of his disciples, and I’m sure in that moment Jesus did have a particular concern for making sure this group of followers and friends would care for one another once he was gone, but we have to understand this command within the context of everything else Jesus says about love. When he talks in other gospels about loving our neighbour, he is quite clear that we are to take a generous and expansive view of who our neighbour is, and so I think we should likewise take a generous and expansive view of who is meant by one another. In fact I think we should take the most generous and expansive view possible and simply love everyone.


Here we might remember that love is not just an emotion but is always an action. We are not going to like everyone, but we can treat everyone with dignity and respect, we can do all that is in our power to care for everyone and seek the best for them. The civil rights activist Cornel West said that “justice is what love looks like in public”, and I love that idea of love being made visible through our work for a fairer and kinder world. I also think the sense of love in public brings us back to Jesus saying that the world would know his disciples by their love, which again emphasises that love is not just to be practised behind the closed doors of the community, but is to be lived out in the world as our greatest form of witness.


We’ve not got past the first sentence yet, but I want to offer one last reflection on love before we turn our attention to the promise of the Spirit. The final verse says that “the one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them”. Does this mean that God only loves those who love God? I don’t think so, because we have to balance this against the declaration we recalled earlier that “God so loved the world”, recognising that “the world” is used throughout the gospel to refer to all that is opposed to God. And so it seems to me that this verse isn’t reserving God’s love for the disciples, but is simply reassuring them of it. I think we also get a suggestion that those who love God will continue to see Christ, and so we might reasonably take from that those who love God will experience God’s love differently, but that should serve as encouragement for us to reveal God’s love to others not to deny it.


So Jesus calls the disciples to obey his commands, and then he says that he will ask the Father who will send a paraclete who will help them and be with them forever. You won’t have heard the word paraclete in the reading earlier because it’s the original Greek, but I use it here because it’s a really tricky word to translate well, largely because there are so few uses of it. Each version of the Bible has to plump for something, but we narrow the word if we only hear one possibility, and so I want us to take a closer look at it.


The word comes from para, meaning ‘alongside’, and kalein, meaning ‘to call’. There is then a sense that the paraclete is one who is called to be alongside us. From there it is variously translated as advocate, counsellor, helper, comforter, and companion. There is a whole span there from a formal legal representative to one who offers guidance and support to one who is simply there as a friend. It can be frustrating when we can’t pin a word down to a precise definition, but I think there is a richness in that diversity of meaning that we should embrace. The paraclete that Jesus promised is all of these things, and perhaps more. Because I think it’s also worth noting that Jesus says the Father will send another paraclete, which is generally taken to mean that he was the first paraclete, and therefore that we may find other aspects of Jesus this second paraclete.


Jesus further explains this paraclete as the Spirit of truth who “lives with you and will be in you”. We might suggest from the shift from ‘with’ to ‘in’ that there will be change in the way the disciples experience the Spirit, and we do see a new and profound encounter in the opening chapters of Acts. I think there is something here of the language of ‘now and not yet’ that we find in relation to the kingdom in other gospels, a sense that something is already happening but is yet to be fulfilled. Because the Spirit is not new. In the Hebrew scriptures we find the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2), and inspiring the decoration of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:3), and speaking to the prophets (Ezekiel 2:2). And God had long promised that the Spirit would be poured out on all people (Joel 2:28). The Spirit of God has always been at home and at work in the world, but I think Jesus is encouraging a greater recognition of and openness to that presence and activity.


Scripture does not explicitly describe or even name the Trinity, and the mystery of it is such that I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to speak if it without accidentally veering into one heresy or another, so I will tread carefully here, but in this passage we see Jesus talking about both the Father and the Spirit, and so there is a sense of the commitment of the whole of the Trinity to us. Just pause with that for a moment. The entire nature and essence of God is committed to us. That is just one part of the mystery of the Trinity, another being the relationship between its different aspects, a relationship that we are invited into. Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus, but then Jesus is also in us and we are in Jesus, and the Spirit in us and the Spirit comes from the Father. Please don’t worry if you struggled to keep track of all of that, because theologians have spent two millennia trying to describe it. 


Such mystery can feel overwhelming, but I think we are invited to rest in it and even to rejoice in it. The poet John Keats talked about negative capability, a willingness to let what is mysterious or doubtful remain just that without striving after reason or certainty, and I find that helpful here. I can’t comprehend the Trinity, but I can be amazed by it and I can experience it. One of the ways that theologians have tried to speak of the Trinity is perichoresis, a mutual indwelling that also implies movement, and the Catholic priest Richard Rohr has built on that to speak rather poetically of the divine dance or divine flow. It is a dance that Jesus calls us to join, so perhaps we can do no better than to step up and go with the flow.

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