The Spirit of Truth Is in You - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Year C)
John 14:8-17, 25-27 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Pentecost has finally arrived. Since Jesus has been resurrected and ascended, it is time to move on to the next phase of the story. Jesus promised the disciples in John not to leave them as orphans. Instead, he offered them the Spirit as the means by which he would continue to be present with them. Our vision of Pentecost is formed by the story in Acts 2, where the Spirit falls on the gathered community, empowering them for service in God’s kingdom. The subject of the Holy Spirit comes up in the Gospel of John as well, as is seen in this reading from John 14.
In Acts 2 the people have gathered in an upper room near the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re waiting for the Spirit to come upon them so they can fulfill their calling as outlined by Jesus in Acts 1:8. According to Acts 2, when the Spirit falls with great power, the good news of Jesus explodes among the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for the spring harvest festival. John’s version of Pentecost is much quieter than Luke’s. In John 20, Jesus breathes the Spirit into the disciples, and sends them into the world with the power of forgiveness (John 20:19-23). Our reading for the day comes from the Farewell Address found in John 14-16. In this section of John, Jesus introduces us to the Spirit of Truth, also known as the Paraclete.
Contextually, Jesus has shared a meal with his disciples and has washed their feet as a reminder of the vision of ministry he wants to pass on to them (John 13). His disciples, having heard and seen this, want to know more about God. Show us the Father, Philip demands of Jesus on the night before his death on the cross. We want to see God. We want evidence that demands a verdict. Jesus responds to this question by pointing to himself, because he is in the Father and the Father is in him. You see Jesus, you see the Father. His message to them: If you believe, and for John belief involves trust, you will do great things. Indeed, you will do greater things. What does John’s Jesus mean by this? How can the disciples do greater things than Jesus? As followers of Jesus, we must ask the same questions: Are we to be miracle workers? Are we to offer signs of the kingdom of the magnitude that John records of Jesus? Perhaps, but perhaps that’s not the point.
In this section of John, when Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, he uses the term parakletos (paraclete). In the NRSV the word is translated as Advocate, though it also can be translated as helper, counselor, or tutor. The last being the least used, but in context quite appropriate. It is by and through the Spirit that the people of God do greater things. It’s not that we are more powerful than Jesus. It is simply that empowered by God’s Spirit the work of God in the world becomes universalized rather than localized. As the incarnate one Jesus is limited to time and place, but the people of God, in whom the Advocate dwells, are not limited by time and place. This is important, because as the Spirit indwells us, not only as individuals, but as a community of faith, we are able to express the truth that is God’s through our lives and our words.
So, here in John 14 Jesus speaks of the Spirit of Truth, who will indwell his disciples. This is an important point not to be missed. In a world that is filled with half-truths and falsehoods, to be a people of truth is absolutely important. In a few chapters further in, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come into the world to testify to the truth, and those who know the truth will listen to him. Pilate then famously asks Jesus: what is truth? In asking this question Pilate demonstrates that he does not know the truth. He has placed his trust in something other than truth. He has placed his trust in the power of the Empire, but the power of the Empire is not necessarily the same as truth. Indeed, power is often accumulated through a lack of truth. Even those who claim to speak truth often are found out to be less than truthful. But unless we’re discerning of the spirits of the age we will fall victim to falsehood. Indeed, down through the ages we have fallen victim to what is often called populism. Populism often leads to authoritarianism. There is a spirit of falsehood at work in the world. Some call this spirit Satan or the devil, but whatever we call it there is a spirit that seeks to overturn the truth.
We are, you might say, in that place of being unable to handle the truth, as Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, Col. Jessup, reminded the prosecuting attorney who demands the truth from him. Of course, Jessup responds: “You can’t handle the truth.” There is truth in these words. Too often we can’t handle truth. We’re more comfortable with half-truths and lies. We enjoy having our ears tickled. But Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit of Truth will indwell them. They will be, as a community, signs of God’s truth in the world.
John McClure points out that “because it is organically connected to Christ, the church is a community of truth that lives in the world in new ways and works within an eschatological vision of love” [PreachingGod’s Transforming Justice, Year C, p. 252]. How do we do this? McClure suggests that the key is to be found in intercessory prayer. To do these greater works, we must become “go-betweens.” Thus, McClure writes: “We are intercessory people—a community of go-betweens, fellow advocates with the Holy Spirit, bringing the suffering of the world to God, and bringing God’s healing balm to the world. Both aspects of intercession are crucial to our identity and mission” [Preaching, p. 252].
This Spirit of Truth, who indwells us, will teach us what we need to know to engage in the work of God in the World. There is no need to fear, because we are not alone. God remains with us, encouraging us to live out the Truth that is God. This teaching of truth is a living word built upon the foundation of an earlier word. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew quite well about the power of the spirit of falsehood, put it in a Pentecost sermon from around 1940, teaching is joined to remembrance:
If there were only remembrance in the church, it would fall prey to a dead past; if there were only teaching without remembrance, the truth would fall prey to Enthusiasm. Thus, the Holy Spirit, as the proper assistant of the church-community does both: it leads the church forward and at the same time holds it fast to Jesus (cf. Matt. 13:52). [Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, 15:555].
God is still speaking truth to the World, and as go-betweens, engaged in intercessory prayer for the world, we are harbingers of the is truth. While God continues to speak, there is also continuity with what has already been revealed. Jesus challenged structures and visions of his day. He spoke a new word, but it was a word rooted in previously revealed words. There was a connection between the two. We, the body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit who is moving throughout God’s realm, are called upon and empowered to bring a word of truth into a realm that is too often less than truth. There is a great need for this truth in our current situation! Thus, need for the message of Pentecost!