Benediction Online

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Holy Spirit

Several times this past week, I’ve been in conversations with long-time Episcopalians who say they heard very little about the Holy Spirit when they were growing up. (In those days, of course, the Holy Spirit was called the Holy Ghost, which made sense in the days of the first Prayer Book of 1549, but to 20th century children sounded something like the mythical ghosts of Halloween.)

When we were older and learning the Creed, it was much easier for us to understand the nature of Jesus – and the nature of God the Father – than to understand the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Creed told us that the Spirit is the giver of life; yes, the Creed told us that before Jesus the Spirit spoke through the prophets, and after Jesus the Spirit built up the church; and yes, the Creed also told us that the Spirit comes to everyone in baptism. But who is the Spirit, and how does the Spirit speak to us and give us life?

Today I’d like to look at what Jesus himself says about the Spirit – everything he said, not just the words in today’s Gospel reading. (Part of our problem in understanding the Spirit is that we hear Jesus’ words about the Spirit in bits and pieces, in separate readings on separate Sundays of the church year.) To connect the dots, we will all need our Bibles, beginning with the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John.

John 14:1 - Conversation after supper

Here John remembers the Last Supper, and a long conversation Jesus had with his disciples after supper. It’s a late-night conversation that covered many topics, and now fills several chapters of John’s Gospel. Let’s imagine that we are in the room with those first disciples, listening, questioning, and trying to understand.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places... I go to prepare a place for you... And you know the way to the place where I am going...” Thomas asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life...” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father... Trust me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me...”

So Jesus is about to die, but he says he will not abandon them. No wonder they are asking questions: How will he possibly still be with them after he has left them?

John 14:15 - How will Jesus still be present with his disciples when he has left them?

Jesus now begins to tell his disciples about the Holy Spirit, which he calls the Paraclete – a word that literally means “the One who calls alongside”. In the Greek, Paraclete gives us an image of a constant companion, One who never leaves us - walking with us, talking to us and guiding us. In English, this word has been translated with many different words: the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. All of those words help us to understand what the Spirit does, but it’s most important to listen to all the words Jesus uses to describe the Spirit. (Please note, as we go along, that although your English translation says the Spirit is masculine, the original Greek is neuter – and in the Hebrew, “spirit” is feminine.)

Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you.” “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live....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... I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Paraclete, 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... Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you... Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You have heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you...’”

The Paraclete – the One who calls alongside – will live with them and in them. The Paraclete will guide them into the truth, teach them everything they need to know, and remind them of what Jesus taught them. But most important, the Paraclete will be the Spirit of Jesus – that is, through the coming of the Paraclete, Jesus himself will be coming to them and abiding with them. Jesus says, “the Father will give you another Paraclete...” – all along, Jesus has been their Paraclete, the One who calls alongside them, who walked with them, taught them, guided them, and gave them peace. Now another Paraclete is coming, One who will never leave them.

John 15:1 - What does Jesus mean when he talks about “abiding”?

Jesus said, I am the true vine... Abide in me as I abide in you... I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Jesus gives his disciples the image of the vine and the branches, a visual metaphor to help us understand how he is connected to the Father, and how we are connected to God through Jesus. No branch can stay alive if it is cut off from the vine; no vine can live if it is cut off from the roots; no grapes will be produced unless the whole plant is connected – and it is the Spirit living in the vine which keeps the juice flowing through the roots, the vine, and the branches.

John 15:26 - What will the abiding Spirit do?

Jesus said: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, that one will testify on my behalf...”

Once again, Jesus tells his disciples that the Paraclete will be speaking to them, telling the truth about Jesus, guiding them through all the future decisions they will need to make.

John 16:6 - If Jesus does not leave, the Spirit cannot come

In spite of Jesus’ words of reassurance about the coming of the Spirit, the disciples do not want him to leave them. But Jesus tells them if he does not go away, the Spirit cannot come.

Jesus said: “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 Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send that one to you. And when that one comes, it will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.... I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear to hear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for it will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and it will declare to you the things that are to come...”

When the Paraclete comes, it will show the truth to them and to the world. The world, Jesus says, does not understand about sin and righteousness, judgment and forgiveness; but the Spirit will point to the truth, again and again, working in many disciples and not just through Jesus, until the truth is finally seen and understood.

And now John’s Gospel points ahead to Pentecost, to the day when the Spirit is poured out on all Jesus’ disciples – those who followed him through Galilee and Judea, and those who will follow him down through the centuries.

John 20:19 - The Holy Spirit comes

It is now after the crucifixion, and the disciples are hiding in a locked room, full of fear. Mary Magdalene has come to them, telling them that she has seen the Risen Jesus. After hearing Mary’s story, Peter and John have run to the tomb, which is now empty. Outside the tomb, Mary sees the Risen Jesus, who tells her go to the other disciples to tell them he has risen. But they are still afraid, and still unbelieving. Wouldn’t we also have wanted more than Mary’s story of seeing him in the garden?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear... Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

And so the Risen Christ came, bringing peace. The Risen Christ brought forgiveness to the disciples who betrayed him, who ran away in their fear. The Risen Christ brought the Holy Spirit to them – the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of forgiveness, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit who guides, the Spirit who teaches, the Spirit who calls alongside them, the Spirit of Jesus – living with them and in them, never to leave them again.

And how does that same Holy Spirit work in us today, twenty centuries later? The Day of Pentecost is now only two Sundays away, and the lessons on that day will tell more of the story, helping us to understand that what happened to the first disciples can also happened to us.



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