First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost

William Loader

Pentecost: 27 May John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

What a wonderful word for describing the Spirit: parakletos! It has a range of meaning which includes: advocate, encourager, comforter, helper. It appears to belong primarily to legal imagery. We see this in 15:26, where it is used beside the language of testifying, and in 16:8-11, where the activity of the Paraclete is to lay down evidence sufficient to win a case on a number of issues at judgement.

Probably it was a way of describing the Spirit’s help when Christians were hauled before courts. In Mark 13:11 Jesus is reported as promising: ‘And when they put you under arrest, do not worry what you should say. For you are not the ones who are speaking, but the Holy Spirit.’ An apparently independent version of the same saying occurs in Luke 12:11-12 (Q material): ‘When they bring you before synagogues and rulers and authorities, do not worry how or what you should respond or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in the same hour what you must say.’ The Spirit will be like a prompt, or, to stay with the imagery of the court: the Spirit will be your defence counsel. The same imagery is once applied to Jesus. 1 John 2:1 describes him as our parakletos with the Father when we sin. The image is of Jesus making a case for our forgiveness on the basis of his act of atonement (2:2). John 14:16 even calls the Spirit ‘another parakletos’. Jesus is one; the Spirit is another.

Images are images, even if they originate in real situations, as, here, in the courts before which Christians were prosecuted. Those who translate parakletos with ‘comforter’, ‘encourager’ or ‘helper’, are responding to the way the image is used in our passages. In 15:26-27 much of the legal image remains intact. Here the Spirit is the advocate employed by the Father to advocate on behalf of the Son. Even the language of ‘sending’ is legal, since one of the major avenues of communication in the ancient world was through one’s legal agent or apostolos, ‘sent one’. The Spirit accompanies us as we make the case for Jesus to the world, our helper, encourager, comforter.

14:26 indicates that part of the Spirit’s role is to make sure the disciples remember what Jesus taught. This makes them the vital link in the chain between Jesus and future generations. John’s freedom in writing his gospel tells us that this is not about literal memory, but about a substantial grasp of what Jesus was about. 16:13-15 says much the same thing, but broadens it. The Spirit will enable the disciples to grasp what matters in the past, the present and the future, leading them into all truth. It looks like an ambit claim which could be used to justify every new inspiration and quirk (and later was), but John defines it somewhat: the Spirit takes what is the Son’s and makes it known. And what is the Son’s is ultimately the Father’s, as Jesus also reminds us in his prayer (17:10).

The Spirit is therefore a way of talking about God as our companion. John does not want to hail Jesus as the way to God, only to have to declare that that was history and is no longer accessible. Using the image of the courts and drawing upon the rich reflection of believers before him, he portrays the Spirit as making the way always accessible and, in one sense, bringing Jesus to life for all time and for all people. But notice that this is not just a way of speaking of the risen Jesus. It is still a way of talking about the Jesus of history. 16:8-11 tells us that the Spirit will make a case about this Jesus and that case redefines spiritual truth.

The first element in the case is sin. Sin consists in rejecting Jesus. The cross is a revelation of human sin, the killing of love. The second element in the case is righteousness or justice. Righteousness was what Jesus lived and died. His ascent to the Father confirmed this. God vindicated him. The cross, therefore, also reveals righteousness, goodness, love. Jesus’ return to the Father functions in the same way as his resurrection: it confirms that God was saying yes to Jesus: yes, this is my son; this is my way. The third element in the case is judgement. It flows naturally out of the first two elements. The effect of revealing what sin and righteousness are is to expose evil and overcome it. It is to disempower ‘the ruler of this world’ (see also 12:31). What mythology pictured as the slaying of the beast or dragon at the climax of history happens, according to John, already on the cross. Notice that we are still in the realm of legal language: judgement.

So the role of the Spirit is to make a case for Jesus in the court of the world and to help us to do so. That is our task in mission. It entails exposing sin as the killing of love, God in Christ, or wherever it occurs. It entails exposing the way of Jesus as the right way, the truth and the life - wherever it occurs. It entails setting this up as an option against rival power systems that kill love. Spirituality is advocating for the life of God in the world. Ask John and he will define that life not by lots of commandments, not by many beliefs, not even primarily by scripture, but by the story of Jesus, and then not by many stories, but by one over-all story: God so loved the world. Human beings did not recognise that love. They killed it. God reaffirmed it. We can receive it, share it, and ourselves become advocates for that same love and life in the world, accompanied and inspired by the Spirit.

We can now see why John uses the other apparently traditional designation for the Spirit: ‘the Spirit of truth’ (15:26; 16:13; 14:16-17, 26). We find it already in use among the scrolls of the Dead Sea sect at Qumran. But in John, ‘truth’ means something like: ‘the truth about life’. Jesus is ‘the truth about life’, the way to the Father.

In our liturgical calendar we celebrate the coming of the Spirit as an event that happened at the great festival of ingathering, Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, following Luke’s symbolic timing. In John it is the gift of Jesus’ resurrection, on resurrection day (20:21-22). Both are true. Jesus is not left behind that we might soar into spiritual fantasy and relish the prospects of more magic and more religion. John promises no such flights and is silent about future miracles. The task of the disciples and disciples after them is to bear fruit, to let the seed sown in death rise to new life. Transitional events are minimised. What matters is life and love. This is the wisdom of those who want to see Jesus even breathing out the Spirit to his followers from the cross (19:30). At least we can see that for John the cross defines both Jesus and the Spirit - and ultimately, God. Ultimately the various agencies (Son of Father, Spirit of Son and Father) serve the immediacy of encounter with God, now and then, and tell us that God is love and sin, its opposite.

Epistle: Pentecost: 27 May  Acts 2:1-21

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