Passing the Baton - Lectionary reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Year B)
John15:26-27; 16:4b-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15:26 “When the Advocate[a] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
16:4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate[a] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about[b] sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
In a relay race, each member of the team has a purpose. The goal is, of course, to win the race, and winning requires team work. While it’s important to have fast runners, it’s also important that the four runners have the ability to pass the baton effectively from one to the next. If the baton is dropped or the runners aren’t in sync requiring the next runner to delay or slow their motion so as to get the baton passed, then it’s likely the race will be lost. Since most races are decided by a few hundredths of a second there is no room for error.
You might call Pentecost Sunday a passing of the baton moment. Although the conversation shared in John takes place just prior to Jesus’ arrest and execution, it has a Pentecost quality to it. The focus of the conversation is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus calls the Advocate (paraclete). While Jesus is about to leave them, he’s not leaving them alone. This word paraclete can be translated a number of ways, including comforter, but in this particular portion of the conversation Advocate seems the right translation. Jesus tells the disciples that the Advocate will come and do three things: prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgement. This vocation of proving the world wrong does suggest the idea that the Spirit is a prosecuting attorney (or perhaps a defense attorney). Each of these elements is important to the work that the Spirit is about to undertake, and the description lends itself to thinking of the ways in which God works for justice in the world.
In this reflection I want to focus on the ministry of witness undertaken by the Spirit. Jesus speaks of the “Spirit of Truth” who will testify on his behalf. This witness will take place as through the ministry of recollection or remembrance. Jesus has much more to teach the disciples, but the time is both growing short and they do not have the ability to comprehend what it is that they need to know. All along the way Jesus has been teaching them, and he continues this teaching role right up to the end. But he’s going to pass the baton on to the Advocate, who will continue to work with them so they can effectively minister to the world. The Advocate will do this by reminding the disciples of what Jesus did and said during his sojourn with them. They can’t bear to hear this information or understand it at that moment because they are too caught up in their grief. They don’t want to let go of Jesus (who would?). They want the cup to pass him by. They have more to learn. They’re not mature enough to go out on their own. Won’t you stay Jesus? We can understand their unwillingness to let go, but according to Jesus (John), it’s necessary.
Sometimes we need the benefit of hindsight, which they say is 20/20. As a pastor I know this to be true. Had I only known then what I know now then I would have made a different decision. Of course, we go on and deal with the realities that are present to us, but we always wish we had been more informed. More often than not we had the information before us, but we just didn’t see it. We were caught up in the moment and couldn’t see all the ramifications of the decision. So, once the decision is made you have to live with it. There’s really no going back. What we have to do is adapt, creating a new pathway. In this, life is a bit like a GPS system. It will set a course for us, as long as we give it the proper coordinates. If, as often happens, we take a different turn, it has to adapt and reset the course. Had we known better we might have saved ourselves a few headaches, but that’s the way life works.
The job of the Spirit, then is to remind us of what Jesus said and did during his life, bringing to memory the message that the disciples weren’t able to comprehend until after Easter. Some speak of a pre-Easter Jesus and a post-Easter Jesus. What they usually mean is that Christians prefer the Risen Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father to the teacher from Nazareth. But, we all live post Easter, and that includes the Gospel writers. They form their narrative according to the needs of their community. What John seems to be telling us is that the Spirit is involved in helping form this witness by bringing to memory the teachings of Jesus so we might understand what it was he intended for us to know.
With regard to this activity on the part of the Spirit (paraclete), Jack Levison notes that the Spirit is not in the job of predicting, but recollecting.
The spirit within will faithfully draw the disciples back to Jesus, particularly to those events that are soon to take place following their last night together. The nature of this peculiar vocation of recollection is clear in what Jesus says in the second promise about the paraclete in the farewell discourses. The holy spirit “will teach you all and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The all that the holy spirit will teach is the all that Jesus himself has said and accomplished. The holy spirit, in brief, will teach by reminding.” [Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith, p. 150].
What Jesus said in the fourteenth chapter of John is reaffirmed here as the conversation continues. The Spirit will take what Jesus has been teaching and bring it to their attention at the right time and place. That time and place has not yet appeared. They don’t have enough context to make sense of what Jesus has been teaching them. They will have to go through the time of trial, which involves watching Jesus die on a cross, be buried in a tomb, and then rise (somewhat unexpectedly) from the dead. It’s not that Jesus hadn’t been tell them about his destination all along the way, but they just didn’t get it. Of course that’s true of us all. There signs all around us, suggesting that there is something challenging ahead of us, but we keep plowing on, oblivious to the signs. It’s only afterwards, looking back, that we can see all the signs.
With Pentecost the baton has been passed. The Spirit is bearing witness, drawing out new and wondrous teachings that will inform and inspire us. Taking this a step further, might we take this as an invitation to invite the Spirit to be involved in guiding us as we read and study Scripture? While we can affirm that God still speaks, on what basis is God still speaking? Where do we turn for a basis of this conversation? Yes, experience and tradition and reason have their place, but surely Scripture does as well. In this regard Levison writes:
This is the well from which Jesus draws so deeply in the Fourth Gospel, not least when he promises that the spirit of truth will be a teacher who reminds disciples, a coterie of select students, about the deepest meaning of what Jesus has already taught. [Levison, Inspired, p. 151]
As Pentecost once again comes into focus, may we embrace the guidance of the Spirit so that we might share in the glory that is Jesus’, and which the Spirit lifts up!