First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost

William Loader

Pentecost: 15 May John 14:8-17

With this passage we return to Jesus’ last words to his disciples. The Sunday before last we considered 14:23-29. It had strong echoes of 14:1-3. It is common in John’s style for the last statement of a segment to suggest the theme of the next. Thus in14:4 Jesus speaks of the way. This provokes Thomas’s question and Jesus’ famous answer about being the way in 14:6. Similarly in 14:7 Jesus introduces the idea of knowing the Father. This evokes Philip’s question in 14:8.

14:8-11 is about reinforcing how we know the Father. We know the Father, God, because of what we hear and see in Jesus, the Son. This is a standard explanation in John’s gospel. 14:10 speaks of an intimate relationship where the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son. It is not a relationship of equality of the kind that we could reverse and say that the Father speaks the Son’s words and does his deeds. Rather it is a claim about the Son.

Jesus is the place where we have recognised God. This need not mean we have not recognised God elsewhere, despite 14:6. But it is a claim which makes Jesus the starting point for thinking about God and the measure for all God-talk. There are two ways of understanding this: the God we see in Jesus is the true God and we may recognise God on that basis in many places, even in other cultures and religions; or: God is only to be seen and known in Jesus and nowhere else; there is no other way. John’s interpretation would be the latter.

Yet the passage shows some appreciation of the problem. For those who do not accept Jesus’ claims to be God’s envoy and unique Son, they should at least recognise the works Jesus does as works of God. For John such belief should lead to belief in who Jesus is, so the two ideas are not in contradiction. They are nevertheless an indication that for John the main thing is always theo-logy, not christ-ology, important as the latter is. In our multi-cultural, multi-religious world this may be an important pointer. It is not a surrender of christ-ology, what we affirm about Christ, but a way of affirming which may not be as a exclusive as 14:6 is often read and, probably, also originally intended.

14:11, ‘Otherwise, believe because of the works themselves’, provides the link to what follows in 14:12-17. It is all about action, ‘God-action’. The ‘God-action’ we see in Jesus is also to be seen among Jesus’ disciples. Their ‘God-actions’ will be even greater than those of Jesus. Why? More stupendous miracles? No. Rather, the disciples will do ‘God-actions’ in many different places, extending their ministry far beyond Jesus’ limited range of action. As Jesus made the Father known, so they will make the Father known and make known who Jesus was.

14:12 explains that this will be possible because Jesus goes to the Father. This is the major theme of the context: Jesus is going away. We are being told that it was a good thing that Jesus was going away (to death) because it would mean his return to the Father. Why? As John pictures it, it is because Jesus will do what  heroes of the Old Testament, though of much lower status than Jesus, had already done. Moses and Elijah were praying for the people. So also, as John pictures the situation, one of the things which Jesus will do on his return is pray for the disciples. What will he pray for? The success of their mission, that they may glorify God as they do deeds in Jesus’ name, just as he had glorified God.

14:13 and 14 need to be taken closely with what follows. They are about seeking help in the context of glorifying God, of doing ‘God-actions’. As they do so, they should pray. 14:15 does not introduce a new idea. it simply enunciates what is presupposed in what has been said thus far: the disciples will be keeping Jesus’ commandments, because they love him. Jesus’ commandments are that they should go out and do ‘God-actions’, as he had done.

14:16 tells us explicitly that Jesus, himself will pray for them. His prayer will be that God will send a replacement, another ‘paraclete’. Jesus was the first ‘paraclete’; the second is the Spirit of truth. The word, ‘paraclete’, is describing an advocacy role which leads to encouragement and comfort. Jesus’ last words in Mark 13 promised the Spirit would stand by the disciples when they were hauled before authorities. The Spirit would help support them. In John the support is especially directed towards their mission. In 20:19-23, where Jesus sends the disciples out, as he was sent, he first breathes the Spirit into them. That is the fulfilment. Here in this passage is the promise.

While the Spirit replaces Jesus, there is no sense here of the beginning of a different revelation. Rather the Spirit, as 14:26 shows, is simply there to reinforce what the Son had already said and done. ‘God-actions’, actions which enable people to see and experience what God is like, remain the primary agenda. The Spirit will help the disciples reproduce such actions. They are not left to their own devices. Jesus is no longer with them, but the Spirit is and will be forever. In fact, John will go on to explain that really the Spirit makes it possible to say that Jesus himself is again present with the disciples, as God is.

These complicated thoughts about how Jesus wants his mission continued and will succeed in his request to have the Spirit sent to make that possible, are ways of saying: when we recognise ‘God-action’ in Jesus, we are invited become part of the ‘God-action’ ourselves. Whether in the company of Jesus or, in his absence, in the company of the Spirit, what ultimately matters is recognising God’s action and becoming part of it. All else is subordinate to that. Jesus is not setting himself up to be independent of God; the Spirit is not independent of Jesus or of God. Jesus’ way is to lead to the Father. It is no different with the Spirit.

When we recognise ‘God-actions’ in Jesus, that is, believe because of the works themselves, we will normally want to go on to acclaim Jesus with titles of honour and divinity. That is certainly John’s hope in the gospel. But John keeps us grounded in what ultimately matters and will not allow our christology to become a separate cult of Jesus. God remains God and ‘God-action’ remains the sign of God’s presence. To expand that we need also the input of the other gospels with their stories of compassion and the wisdom of Paul who insisted the mark of the Spirit’s presence is above all else: love.

First Reading (or Epistle Alternative) Pentecost: 15 May  Acts 2:1-21
Epistle: Pentecost: 15 May  Romans 8:14-17

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