First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary


Trinity: 22 May  John 16:12-15

Last week’s passage, 14:8-17, also spoke of the coming of the ‘Spirit of Truth’. The theme is reworked in John 16 but with different emphases. In 14:26 Jesus promised that the ‘paraclete’, the Spirit, would teach the disciples all things and remind them of everything Jesus had taught. Now the promise is broadened: the Spirit will lead the disciples into all truth, will speak what it will hear and announce to the disciples what is to come. This sounds like ‘carte blanche’ for future disciples to claim almost anything as warranted by the Spirit. It no longer had to have a link with memory of what the historical Jesus had said. In 1 John we find the writer having to counter such claims to the Spirit and urging that his hearers learn to develop criteria to test for the Spirit (1 John 4:1).

From history and probably from our own experience we can identify such wayward claims. We meet them pastorally when inner voices lead people to destructive attitudes and behaviour. We meet them in bizarre claims to truth, sometimes quaint and funny, sometimes harmful and misleading. The words of our passage invite such deviance when taken in isolation. They are there because the church came to learn (and acknowledge) that it had to face new situations not addressed by the earthly Jesus or the figure creatively remembered in the stories. This was after all a community which celebrated a risen Christ and were still interested in what was going on.

John would not have envisaged a ‘free-for-all’ in this expanded promise. Notice the way what the Spirit teaches is derived from Jesus. It is not independent. There is a loophole in saying that the Spirit will speak what he shall hear. Coming centuries claimed many new words of the risen Christ mediated by the Spirit, many of them in the form of gospels. John seems aware of the danger when he seeks to close the circle: ‘he shall glorify me, because he shall take what is mine and declare it to you.’ John does not envisage a personality change between the earthly Jesus of his gospel and the risen Christ. There is an absolute consistency and therefore a sense of control.

Notice that the circle is only really complete when Jesus points to his oneness with the Father in 16:15. Just as the Spirit is not independent of the Son, but speaks of what he has heard from him, so the Son is not independent of the Father, but speaks what he has heard from the Father. It is a trinity of consistency. It is also a trinity of control, so that we can use it as a criterion for measuring whether what is claimed about the Spirit is true. To be truth, it must be consistent with the Son and with the Father. While there is a hierarchy here, with the God the Father supreme, it is in the Son, according to John, that we receive the vital information. The Son has made the Father known (1:18). In Jesus we hear and see God (14:8-9).

John’s favourite model is that of the envoy or representative. Jesus is the envoy, the sent one. In John’s scheme of things, the Spirit is also a sent one, but not with the same independence as the Son or, at least, always consistent with the Son. There are two paracletes, the Son and the Spirit, but there is a sense in which the Spirit, in John, serves the Son and the Father in a way that cannot be said of the Father or the Son. Untangling the interrelationships led to complex debates about relations in the Trinity. The church needed to go beyond John.

At one level John is helping us to see why his gospel is so different from the others. It both remembers what the earthly Jesus said and creates what he is saying, often set within the framework of the historical Jesus like these last discourses. The result is a wonderful merging of past and present, where time matters, but where the historical Jesus carries the persona we know elsewhere as characteristic of the risen Christ of faith. Using symbols and images employed in Judaism to describe Torah the author and people before him have put together a remarkable icon of faith. With clever irony and word plays the author sets Jesus upon the stage larger than life. Scene after scene celebrates not so much an incident in history as the whole event of Jesus’ coming. For John’s community, this gospel is a product of the Spirit, the proof of what is promised in our passage.

The principle at work here applies also on a broader scale. A truly Christian theology also works within such a circle, where the substance is defined by what we see in Jesus. All claims to the spiritual are measured by the image of God we see in Jesus. Using the resources of all the gospels enables us to recognise the implications of that claim more easily than simply by using John. Jesus is the bread, the light, the life, as John says, because in him we celebrate the God we know in the parables and in the compassion of Jesus of which we read in the other gospels. The poured-out life upon which we feed in the eucharist, the vision of radical inclusiveness which it foreshadows and the community and communion which it creates represent the substance of our affirmation about the Son and become the measure for identifying the life of the Spirit in the world.

In some sense John also helps us to free the Spirit, or, better, to free ourselves to hear the whispers of the Spirit where no formal christology is espoused but where the God of Jesus outflanks us. The Christ icon prompts our identification of cruciform spirituality sometimes where we least expect it. The way, the truth, and life, sometimes go beyond our maps.

John’s openness, however, is appropriately cautious. Not everything which masquerades in garments of light brings light. To affirm this Spirit, this Christ of John, is to deny counterfeits and to encounter popular spiritualities inside and outside the church critically. One of the key roles of those commissioned to bear and interpret the tradition is to help people engage in such discernment amid the competing claims in church and wider community to voice the Spirit’s values. For some people salvation will come only if they are helped to do theology.

Epistle: Trinity: 22 May  Romans 5:1-5