John 14: 15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 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.
Seven weeks before the events of Pentecost that we celebrate today, the semester was almost over. Jesus’ class on discipleship is about to finish. The stakes are nothing less than the salvation of the world. But so far all twelve of his students have failed most of their pop quizes; they don’t seem to be getting the subject at all. What’s more, they’re just an hour or less away from the final exam that Passover night, when the mob comes to the Garden of Gethsemane, to take the teacher away, and the students will fail that final exam miserably. What’s more, the teacher knows how badly they’ll do.He’s even told them so. And yet, instead of scolding them or threatening them, its as though Jesus is talking fondly with them about their caps and gowns, their diplomas, their careers to come, and the graduation gift he is going to give them seven weeks later, at commencement, on Pentecost Day.
In Jesus’ school of discipleship, failure is not an option; its part of the plan, a necessary piece of the curriculum. The students can get their graduation gift only after they have utterly failed and know it, when they can’t help but recognize that they have come to the end of themselves, and have faced up to the abject poverty of all the riches, resources, wisdom and wealth, talents and powers upon which they have usually relied to make their way in the world, on the world’s own terms. Then they’ll be ready to accept the graduation gift that Jesus has in mind for them, because they’ll know how much they need it: the gift of the Advocate, the Comforter or the Helper. Also known as the Holy Spirit.
That gift is what, or who, we celebrate today, on Pentecost Sunday. Now, we don’t often name nor claim the Holy Spirit in mainline and Anabaptist churches because of fear. Fear that the Spirit and his work are so mysterious and unknowable; or fear that his work will be dramatic, theatrical and uncontrollable, like it appeared to be on that Pentecost Day when the disciples were speaking in languages for which they had never even bought the Rosetta Stone CD’s. It doesn’t help when some Christians tell us that the Holy Spirit still always and only show up in such dramatic, seemingly magical ways, and make us speak in other tongues or produce faith healings. I’m not saying that the Spirit never does such things anymore. Bu if there’s no regular and incontrovertible evidence of such things in our lives, just what kind of lousy Christians are we? Where is the Holy Spirit, then?
But to limit the Holy Spirit’s work only to the dramatic, block-buster effects of Pentecost is like saying that once we finish our classes in high school or college and graduate, every day afterward should be a commencement ceremony. Its like saying that we should spend the rest of our lives in our caps and gowns marching around to the strains of “Pomp And Circumstance,” receiving our diplomas again and again and tossing our caps up in the air about once every hour. But in John 14, the words we just heard today, Jesus tells his disciples what life will be like after they have graduated from his school of the open road, once they will have received their graduation gift. In those same words he has also de-mystified the Holy Spirit and made him more relevant and accessible to us. No, the Spirit is still not entirely predictable; certainly not under our control, at our beck and call. He still surprises us with perspectives and insights that challenge our limited and divisive ways of thinking.
But in today’s gospel passage, Jesus takes much of the mystery and confusion out of the subject of the Holy Spirit and his work in us. Yes, he is a person of the Trinity, the three-fold community within the absolute unity of God. The Son of God asks God the Father to send God the Spirit into the church, so that he who was with us can now be in us. That in itself is so mysterious that I’m already way in over my head.
The first thing I would point out from today’s passage is that the Holy Spirit is simply the way in which Jesus is still present with us, but now also in us. On one hand, it sounds like there’s another person coming to our aid when Jesus says, “I will ask the Father and he will send you another advocate.” This advocate is “The Spirit of truth,” Jesus says, one of many biblical names for the Holy Spirit. But in the very next breath Jesus says, “You know him [already], he lives with you.” Who lives with them already? Jesus. But he will no longer be Jesus outside of us, alongside us, other than us. “He will be in you,” Jesus says.
There is a movement here, from Jesus alongside his disciples, with them for a few short years, to Jesus inside and among his disciples, forever, at the intimate depths of our spirits, through his Holy Spirit. That still doesn’t take all the mystery away from the subject of the Holy Spirit. But hopefully it brings the mystery down to a more personal and relational level. For consider the mystery of why we have faith in Christ in a world with so many competing faiths. Consider the mystery of why we would care about being faithful and obedient to Christ’s commands in a world that celebrates rebellion and which justifies domination. Or why would we have the assurance of God’s love in a world of death and devastation?
Its certainly not because we are any more wise or worthy of such things than were the twelve disciples. Its because the Holy Spirit does the second thing that this passage explains: He leads us in the direction of love, obedience and the truth. For he is “the Spirit of truth.” That’s another trinity in this passage, a simple, three-fold test by which we can recognize the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit, by which we can discern how the Spirit is leading us: always in the direction love. Yes, its really as simple as love.
But not just love as a feeling or desire. “If you love me, then keep my commandments,” Jesus says. So, for Jesus, love is not just about desire or feelings. Obedience is the proof of such love. Care and concern for truth is also proof of this love. We declare our love for God in worship and prayer, but such love is only as true as our obedient choices outside of worship, and after prayer, with care and concern for truth.
A high and strenuous calling. Again, failure is not an option; its a reality. If you’re wondering how we could ever possibly manage such obedient love, given the failures of the disciples, given our own as well, that again, is what the Advocate is for, “the Spirit of truth,” the Holy Spirit. Such obedience is possible only by the power of the Spirit of truth, alive and working within us and among us.
The practical value of this for us is two-fold: one thing is that we see more clearly the evidence of the Spirit’s work in us, and know more clearly where he is leading us. He works in us love, obedience and truth, and always leads us in the direction of love, bedience and truth,
The other practical matter is that we now know what it takes to deepen and strengthen the life and work of the Holy Spirit within ourselves. Scripture tells us not to quench the fire of the Holy Spirit, and to stir up the gift that was given us, as we would a fire. If we wish to stoke a fire and fan it up, we don’t pour anything on it that is contrary to it, like water, ice or dirt. Instead we feed the fire with more of what already keeps it going: air, fuel and heat. So, if we wish to fan the flames of the Holy Spirit in our lives and congregation, then we must feed this fire more of what it craves, consumes and produces: again, love, obedience and truth.
I hope I have done a little bit of what Jesus did with his disciples regarding the Holy Spirit: taking some of the mystery out of his person and his work. Yes, the Spirit can be mysterious in that he is sovereign, we are not in control of his work; he prefers to guide us. But we need not be afraid of him, nor mired in confusion about him forever. Jesus is still present with us in the person of his Holy Spirit. Because he is in us, and not just with us, we can have the power and the will to follow him even today, and learn where he is leading us, always to the intersection of love, obedience and truth. In a world such as ours, signs like those are dramatic enough.