Week of Sunday May 25 – Easter 6
Gospel: John 14:15-21
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This 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.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But 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.27Peace 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. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.
It has been a rich few weeks despite stress and struggle. I find myself thrilled by the life of our little church. We hold precious things in frail human hands, knowing we do not comprehend the depth of what we are talking about, and that we barely perceive the reality in which we live, and yet sensing a presence which far transcends us.
Is this what John is talking about? Like us, he lived in hard and uncertain times.
Although many of us still seem to live in the mind space of "one of the better suburbs," Australia is continuing its cultural disintegration into selfish cynicism, amplified and brought into sharp focus by the recent federal budget. Our local budget is frightening. We are old and few; indeed, to be hopeful for the future of our congregation sometimes seems perverse.
I despair over aspects of our denominational life. I grieve the loss of my country; Australia is a different place. I suspect the apparently inevitable "collapse of the giant West Antarctic ice sheet ... with only the timing of the melting and resulting sea-level rise of at least three metres uncertain," still understates the enormity of the climate crisis; the survival of our civilisation is uncertain. Perhaps more than anything I grieve my secret that I will not live long enough to see the worst of this, and that I leave behind my children who may not survive it.
Despite this, I have not felt more "at home" in this Faith to which I have committed myself. I am settled, even confident.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 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.
John did not write with an eye to his denominational authorities and the Doctrine of the Trinity. He wrote the experience of his community, which was that in Jesus they felt they had been in the presence of very-God. It was a man; it could not have been God, for to look upon the face of God is to die. But in Jesus there was a son, who in John's culture had the authority of his father.
In our culture, if the Prime Minister sends the Deputy Prime Minister to a meeting, it is a delegation of responsibility. Discussions and decisions are often still contingent upon his approval. In the language of diplomacy and politics we know that the attendance of only the Deputy may signal a slight, or a hint of other priorities. But in John's metaphor, when the King sent his son people knew they were in the presence of the full authority and reality of the King. The son was the father. If you know me, you will know my father...
John's physical reality was that Jesus was no longer present. Yet the community still felt the same presence of very-God. Although alone, they knew very clearly that they were not. I think there is more to this presence— a deeper reality— than I ever imagined.
It is not mere reminder and inspiration. It is much more than comforting presence.
Twelve months after my father died I found his watch, still correct to the minute, and though I had not worn a watch for twenty years, I now wear it daily. Sometimes I watch the sweep hand and think about Dad, that "old incorruptible," as my sister once called him. I draw strength from his memory and example, but there is not one iota of presence in that reminder and inspiration. If anything there is the sharpness of his absence, and the regret that I knew him so poorly. John is not speaking of this.
Once or twice, I think God— something outside me— has spoken to me. There has been a startling, intrusive, timeless-moment of supra-reality. I think John knew this sort of experience. I think he knew it was for the church and not just his own private comfort; the "you" in John 14 is overwhelmingly plural. But he is not speaking only of this when he speaks of the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.
Gil Bailie says
The Greek term parakletos is variously translated "the Counselor," "the Advocate." More straightforwardly, it meant the lawyer for the defense, the one who stood in the place of the accused and argued his/her case. The Paraclete always has, as Raymond Brown points out, a forensic role. It argues on behalf of its client. It turns that accusation back on the accusatory institution or agent, to cause the accusation to rebound on the accusers.
The experience John reflects has something to do with being under pressure, under attack, and yet being able to answer or, equally important, able to live and suffer through things, as though Jesus were with us. It's like being in the temple and having Jesus physically alongside to answer our accusers and persecutors.
There are times when we have answers, and comprehension of what is going on, which are supplied by our theology. There are times when we have answers and understandings which we didn't know we knew. (Mark 13:11)
And there are times when there is no answering to be done or had and we must live without answers; where we simply suffer persecution or victimisation and must survive it. Perhaps only in hindsight do we discover that we have survived. Some Christians don't survive. The Martyrdom of Stephen is not ancient history but contemporary experience. Yet he "saw the glory of God," even as he was being murdered. (Acts 7:55)
Bailie then says
"Spirit of Truth": aletheia means literally to "stop forgetting." The reason the accusatory system lives on is because we always forget the truth. We carry around a myth, which the Spirit will no longer let us do. The world has to exclude the Paraclete in order to carry on in its ordinary way. Conventional culture exists by periodically re-convening its social consensus at the expense of its victim. And that world can only exist if it can misrecognize the arbitrariness of its selection of victims, and all the rest of it. So when the Paraclete comes and makes that misrecognition increasingly difficult, the world begins to deconstruct. The cultural structures begin to come apart. [cf TDNT Vol 1 pp238, and also: a-lanqan “to escape notice, to be unknown, unseen, hidden, concealed.”]
One way of interpreting the revisionist policies of the current Australian government, and especially its recent budget is simply this:
Conventional culture exists by periodically re-convening its social consensus at the expense of its victim.
Let me spell this out in detail, for it is not "just politics," but goes to the heart of our human condition and current situation.
Abbott has signed on wholeheartedly to his treasurer’s prescription for this recast version of Australian society. Delivered under the rubric of repair – a necessary corrective for Labor’s budgetary mess – it is in fact a clear-headed and deliberate essay in creating a new sort of Australia."
And the victims are the poor in particular....
In Australia, the top 20 per cent of households control 62 per cent of the wealth, while the bottom 20 per cent have less than 1 per cent. ...
... people on benefits suffer far more from the budget than those on high incomes. The worst off is an unemployed 23-year-old whose income will slide to be 18.3 per cent worse off as a result of the budget. A single parent on the parenting payment with one child aged six will be 10.2 per cent worse off. In contrast, someone earning three times the average wage will lose just 0.9 per cent of their take-home income. A high-income childless couple earning $360,000 a year will lose nothing whatsoever. "These calculations are conservative..." [and noticeably absent from the government's budget papers.]
Bailie's words express the conviction that Jesus is the final revelatory scapegoat who lets us see how the world works and says, "No! Not this way!" But the victimisation that is writ large "in the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah" (Matt 23:35) and finally, in the murder of Jesus, is also the underwriting of the federal budget. And... it is the underwriting of the extending of the right foot of fellowship from a congregation who exclude those who are troublesome, difficult, or simply other. The murder of the prophets was because they exposed the federal budgets of their day, and too often, the different and troublesome expose and mirror our own shortcomings.
The Spirit of Truthalso re-minds us of Jesus. (John 14:26) We are unable, in good conscience, to exclude or victimise because he would not do that, and neither can we, knowing and feeling his presence continue to do it. It would be like kicking Mary Magdalene out, and not taking Zacchaeus into dinner when were going out to a restaurant with Jesus physically present as our guest. To use Bailie's words, the presence of the Spirit turns certain accusations back on us, too! The Spirit stops us forgetting, too.
My use of the colloquial "right foot of fellowship" would seem to give the lie to this. We are, in fact, un-mindful of Jesus far too often! Sadly, churches are too often a place to learn about scapegoats and victims in absolutely the wrong way.
This is where those who want to find words of exclusivism in John 14 should pay attention. It is not that salvation is only possible through Jesus. In John 10:16 "the other sheep not of this fold" show us that. The exclusive nature of John 14 is here: In the church no one comes to the Father except by Jesus! If you do not come to Jesus, if he is not your way and truth to life, if you do not know him (7:14) then you will not know the Father. No one comes to the Father except my me is achallenge to us, and perhaps a judgement against us, not the unchurched.
But how do we know we know, and how would we know we do not know, and have excluded ourselves? John 14:15 begins, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.... [and]... you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." (14:20) We already know the commandment, "a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." (13:34)
When we enter into that kind of trust of God and each other two things happen. The Advocate comes to us, making us even more sensitive to each other and the nature of the love of God, and then, we see the truth of Matthew 25 in the great parable of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Christ is in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the sick, and the imprisoned. No doubt, had Jesus read René Girard, he would have added, and the victims.
If we do not follow his commandments, then for all his grace, there is a sense in which we are excluded. We exclude ourselves from the blessing of his presence. We impudently blame God for not giving us enough. Like Phillip we are unsatisfied.
But when we follow his commandment, seriously, painfully and radically, rather than with trendy uncritiqued WWJD sloganeering, we experience the fullness of grace. So little faithfulness on our part, and yet such (literally) tremendous presence. He abides with us and in us.
This section of John begins to close with the words
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. (14:27)
In the original version of John it looks very much like the end of our Chapter 14, Rise, let us be on our way, leads directly into our Chapter 18: After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley... In the original narrative the leaving is beginning. (What we appear to have in our chapters 15-17 are the added reflections of a "second edition.") For John's listeners and readers the leaving and the fear are not the foreboding we might imagine into the drama; they are historical, and are present in the disintegration of their world.
Stephen Pinker famously claims in a TED talk that there is a "surprising decline in violence" in our time. (His thesis has been sharply criticised; eg Herman.) I would love to believe him. My sense is that the opposite is true. There is a sense in which our demythologising of the world, our loss of the invisible scapegoats who were the heatsinks for our violence, really is destabilising culture world wide. In Bailie's words,
Conventional culture exists by periodically re-convening its social consensus at the expense of its victim. And that world can only exist if it can misrecognize the arbitrariness of its selection of victims, and all the rest of it. So when the Paraclete comes and makes that misrecognition increasingly difficult, the world begins to deconstruct. The cultural structures begin to come apart.
I struggle to understand how this destabilisation works, and how much the Girardian framework of Bailie best describes it, but it makes sense. The experience of Jesus' liberation destroys other world views, and leads to outrage. Who are the accusers of Stephen "who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia," (Acts 6:9) if not "tradies" like Demetrius who cried "there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her." (Acts 19:9-29)
There is monetary self interest here, but also an honest, fearful bafflement. "What will happen to Artemis?" What will happen to my God? How will I live? I have seen three responses. Despair. Rage. Buy more and drink up.
In all this, Jesus says, "Trust me. Trust the presence. Go against the grain. Proclaim a new reality where things and Gods are not the answer. Live it. The world will not see that reality, but you will. You will know it. It will be in you."
... and then concludes, "Rise, let us be on our way."The way is to the place of betrayal where everyone from the silversmiths to the king will be against us... and yet "Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."
Whichever Christian thinks they are something special because they know something the world does not, has surely not understood the presence which offers itself to us, much less the cost and consequence. But sometimes when I stand in the congregation I sense it is this treasure that I hold, and of which I speak; a presence of very God which deigns to grace me. May I in some small way be worthy in my responding.
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