Pentecost 2015 …it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you;
When the Advocate 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. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 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. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 15:26 – 16:15
With the experience of the Ascension of Jesus, which we explored last week, and now contemplating the story of Pentecost from the pen of John the Evangelist we have to come to grips with the idea that Jesus has left the building. John reports Jesus saying “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
How can that be? You probably want to protest and exclaim “Wait! Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. Isn’t he present with his church? Isn’t he here, present in our hearts?” Well that may be a comforting thing to think and a consoling thing to say. But how dare we say it? To take John’s gospel seriously it’s more the case that we’ve lost a loved one from the very center of our lives, the source of our joy. According to what we’ve just read, the fundamental crisis of the early church was the departure of Jesus. He is the source of our lives, like the vine that pumped life into the branches. We did not choose Jesus; he chose us, and appointed us to be faithful followers. Yet he is gone. It started with the Easter message: “He is risen!” Remember, the angel saying, “he is not here.” It continued with the story of Jesus’ ascension and now with Pentecost faith seeks to make sense of that absence. Our Christian faith is an attempt to answer the question “How are we going to live without Jesus?
In the fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks at length with his disciples before his death and resurrection. He washes their feet on his last night with them. He tells them at length that he is leaving them. He prays for them before he returns to the Father. Then comes the actual departure. Fred Craddock wrote in his commentary on John, “Before the departing Christ, the disciples had been as children playing on the floor, only to look up and see the parents putting on coats and hats. The questions are three (and they have not changed): Where are you going? Can we go? Then who is going to stay with us?”
Where are you going? “I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer” (John 16:10). Can we go? “Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). Then who will stay with us? “When the Advocate 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” (John 15:26).
According to the Gospel of John the answer to the question “How are we going to live without Jesus?” lies in the presence of the Holy Spirit. John calls that presence the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, the Paraclete. The word Paraclete refers to someone called in to help. In the absence of Jesus, his presence draws near to his followers. Since Jesus has departed, once and for all, the Holy Spirit comes now to dwell with us.
It’s a hard truth to accept: for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. If he had not left us, the Spirit could not have come. We find it hard to talk about much less embrace what John tells us. Everything we know of the physical universe argues against the possibility of a self aware yet disembodied life. It’s easier to try and hold onto a physical Jesus and keep telling ourselves that Jesus hasn’t left us if we just follow his directions. There was this young couple I met in the hospital when their long awaited infant was still borne. I recall allowing them to hold the child, to keep the child as long as they needed too. It’s so understandable. We want to hold onto Jesus in that same way. But, of course, over time and with changing conditions and shifts in social conventions that doesn’t necessarily mean we hold his values or extend his impact. Albert Frederick Arthur George, the second son of King George the Fifth, at the abdication of his brother, accedes to the British throne as George the VI. The movie ‘The Kings Speech’ is about the fact that King George the VIth is a stutterer. At the urging of his wife he starts working with an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Logue teaches his patient relaxation and breathing techniques while probing at the underlying roots of the stuttering. Eventually the King tells how his nanny preferred his brother over him and would pinch him to get him to cry at the daily presentation to his parents and he would be sent away, that she wouldn’t feed him which resulted in him not being a healthy child and that they forced him, a lefty, to write with his right hand.
We struggle in the church to wait for the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit who has many things to tell us that we cannot yet bear to hear. It is difficult to wait for a Spirit whom we can neither touch nor see. No wonder, then, that sometimes in our impatience we turn to flesh and blood. One of the things we have done is we’ve created a Nanny Church to look after us and to whom we give extraordinary authority. And in response our Nanny provides us a list of what we should and should not do. It fills the vacuum we feel when we don’t embrace the gift we’ve been given in the Holy Spirit. We allow the institution to fill the absence of Jesus with its own false certainties and pretention that it has all the answers. And not unlike Prince Albert’s nanny this very human institution, driven robotically to protect it’s status quo, is given to pinch into tears and even starve the very ones for whom it has been charged to nurture.
I read an interesting story about a pastor who while looking for a Bible commentary in a religious book store was approached by an earnest faced man. “How are you doing, sister? Isn’t this a beautiful day the Lord has made? Praise the Lord! Let’s say Amen together.” She ignored him. Unfortunately that made things worse. He said, “Maybe you didn’t hear me when I said, ‘Praise the Lord!’ Listen, sister, I want to hear you say a good word for Jesus.” He continued to annoy her. Finally she turned to him and said, “I’m a pastor. I’m shopping for a Bible commentary. When I find the book I’m looking for, I will use it to write a sermon in which I will say a lot of good words for Jesus. In the meantime, please leave me alone.” “You can’t be a pastor,” he said. “My Bible won’t allow women to be pastors.” She reached into her wallet, pulled out a business card, and handed it to him. Then she turned back to her shopping. “No, listen,” he said, “the Bible doesn’t say anything about women becoming preachers. You’re wrong. Your whole life is a sin.” “Well,” she replied, “why don’t we let the Holy Spirit decide, since it was the Holy Spirit who called me into the ministry? In the meantime, I found my book and I’m going to pay for it now. Good-bye.” “I can’t let you go yet,” he said. “Your salvation is at stake. You’re a woman and you don’t know your place. Worse than that, you don’t know the Bible. I’m worried about your soul. If you should die tonight, you would go to hell. I would be held accountable if I didn’t tell you the truth.”
Somehow she found the strength to speak to him. She said, “If you’re so concerned with truth, let me tell you what I know. In life and death, I belong to God. God called me to serve him, regardless of whether or not that’s written down in your Bible. My ‘place’ was choosing to obey him. I believe the Holy Spirit led me into this truth, and I trust the Holy Spirit will sort it out.” Then she added, “As far as hell is concerned, that is God’s decision, not mine nor yours. If it were up to me, hell would be full of people who cling to a Bible they never think about, and heaven would be full of people who trust in a God they cannot see.” Christian faith is just that: faith in Christ. We trust what we have heard him say through nature and the scriptures, yet we remain open to hear him still speak through the Holy Spirit. In the end, we trust God will sort everything out, for the primary role of the Spirit is to point to Jesus’ revelation to us of God and to guide us into his truth. The Spirit of Christ will lead us into the life that Christ has come to give. The Spirit will teach us; the question is whether we are willing to learn.
What is required is a new openness to the Spirit. God is free to speak, even if the words are not yet written down in our ancient Bibles. God is able to save the world, far beyond our capacity to manage the bureaucratic inconsequentialities. Faith requires us to remain open to any act of God. That, it seems to me, is how we live without Jesus. That is how we live by the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, the Spirit blows when and where it wills. We have no control over what God is doing in the world. But if we open our arms like a cross-mast, if we set our sails and wait for the Spirit to blow and propel us, we find ourselves directed into the deep waters of grace.
It is difficult to trust God like that. Sometimes it is easier to look elsewhere for our security and approval. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” said Jesus, “he will guide you into all the truth.” That is the instruction we need, and that is what Christ promises. It is in that light Quakers hold that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” The institutional church is vested in the social conventions of previous generations and is unable, without dependence on Christ’s spirit to do what followers of the way have always been challenged to do – make the gospel accessible to each new generation. At some point it’s necessary to discharge the Nanny church when she decides who are her preferred charges and who it’s her duty to pinch or starve.
…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 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.