John 14:15-27; John 20:19-23
June 1, 2014
The first passage we heard this morning, from John 14, is part of what is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper is a fairly short episode, but in John, we have an extended scene. Before the meal, only in John, Jesus washes his disciples feet. And after the meal, only in John, we have this farewell discourse. Jesus talks to his disciples. He talks. And talks. And talks. And talks. For four chapters.
The part we heard is from the beginning of this discourse. Jesus tells his friends that he will have to leave them, but promises that the Father will send the Advocate–the Spirit. While Jesus must leave, the Spirit will be with them forever. The Spirit will live with them and in them. The Advocate will remind them of everything they have experienced with Jesus. And so, in a way, Jesus promises that he will continue to be present with his friends even after he is gone.
That’s what we all want, isn’t it? For those we love to continue on with us. To still have Grandma in the kitchen, showing you how to roll out the dough. To still have Grandpa there beside you in the boat. To still be able to call Mom up and ask for advice when you don’t know what to do. We want that aching absence we feel when someone we love dies to be replaced by a living presence. Somehow. Any way we can manage. We want the emptiness to be filled.
I officiated the wedding of Hannah Wittmer and Micah Jost yesterday. They were married on a beautiful piece of land owned by Hannah’s family. Hannah and Micah said their vows a stone’s throw away of the place where Hannah’s father is buried. She wears the ring that belonged to her great grandmother–a slim gold band with the date of her great grandmother’s wedding inscribed inside: June 1, 1914. One hundred years ago today. We seek the presence of people we love even in their absence.
I thought of my own dad on Friday night after the wedding rehearsal when Micah’s uncle told me, “It’s really nice to have a professional here. You know, someone who knows what they’re doing.” I remembered the first wedding I ever officiated. Dad, also a pastor, was there during the rehearsal. I was so nervous. I had no idea what I was doing, and my dad told me, “You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just have to act like you know what you’re doing.” So I did. And everything worked out fine.
Yesterday at the wedding I wore this necklace; it contains some of my dad’s ashes. I wanted Dad to be there, still encouraging me–because, honestly, I still don’t know what I’m doing. I watched Micah walk down the aisle with both of his parents, and then Hannah came with just her mom. And my dad and her dad were both somehow painfully absent and comfortingly close all at the same time.
When someone loves us, mentors us, walks with us through life, the thought of their leaving us–the thought of them not being with us any more–is heartbreaking. So we can understand that during the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples are distraught. Jesus is saying that he must leave them, and they do not want to lose their dear friend and mentor; they do not want to be without the one who called them; the one who loves them; the one they love. They long for his presence; they fear his absence.
And so Jesus’ promise of the Advocate, the Spirit, is a source of comfort for the disciples during a difficult time. This passage ends with the familiar words: “Do not let your heart be troubled and do not be afraid.” Even though Jesus is leaving them, his presence will continue with them. They do not need to fear.
In the second scripture passage you heard this morning, the promise that Jesus made at the Last Supper is fulfilled. This passage from John 20 recounts one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. Now he is alive again and has come to see his friends.
In the first passage Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. The second passage opens with the disciples scared for their lives, hiding behind locked doors. In both passages, Jesus offers them peace in the midst of their fear.
And then Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (For those of you interested in the languages, the Greek term for “spirit” is pneuma which, like the Hebrew ruach, can mean spirit or breath.)
Next week we will celebrate Pentecost, and we will hear a very different story about how the Holy Spirit came to the earliest believers. In Luke’s version, from the book of Acts, a large group of believers are gathered in Jerusalem waiting expectantly when there is a sound like a mighty wind and something like tongues of fire descend upon them. It’s very public, very dramatic. And I can understand why Luke’s version is the one we celebrate as a holy day in the church. That is Pentecost! It is exciting and amazing!
Still, there is something compelling to me about this more quiet, more private version of the giving of the Spirit in John’s Gospel. It is a touching fulfillment of Jesus’ earlier promise to be with his friends even when he can no longer be with them physically. Jesus’ breath is like the gentle breeze, the singing bird, the engraved headstone, the piece of jewelry that suggest to us that the one who is gone is not quite gone; Jesus’ breath is that reminder that our relationship with the one we love will continue despite distance, despite death.
No mighty winds here. No tongues of fire. Simply this: Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This is the comfort that Jesus had promised them. His presence with them–around them and inside them–forever.
But this, you will notice, is not a warm and snugly kind of comfort. Just as Jesus says that he does not give peace the way the world gives peace, we see here that he also does not give comfort the way the world gives comfort.
Because, here’s the thing: if I were in a situation like that of the disciples, scared and lonely and sad, I would want a Comforter to come with a good security system and a warm blanket and some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. My idea of comfort would be to make sure those doors were locked tight and then snuggle on the couch with a good book.
But this is not the kind of comfort Jesus offers. Jesus prefaces the giving of the Spirit by saying, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”
The Spirit is a source of comfort, yes. But not comfort for comfort’s sake; comfort as a source of empowerment. The Spirit will not keep the disciples protected inside their locked room, but will fling them out into the world. The Spirit does not give them warm cookies and a good book–it gives them a message to deliver to people who don’t necessarily want to hear it.
The Spirit is, indeed, Jesus’ continuing presence with the disciples–and it turns out that the Spirit can manage to get them in just as much trouble as the embodied Jesus did.
Perhaps you noticed something troubling about Jesus’ words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Think about what happened when God sent Jesus. From a worldly, I’d-rather-not-die-an-excruciatingly-painful-public-death, perspective, the Father sending Jesus did not turn out so well. And, sure enough, most of the disciples will be executed by authorities when they go out into the world proclaiming the message Jesus gave them.
This is some kind of comfort–this odd, breathy presence of the absent Christ; this sending out into a hostile world.
Last week you might remember that I talked about how the Spirit treats Ezekiel–picking him up by his hair and throwing him around from one miserable location to another. And now this week it is the disciples who have the Holy Spirit breathed onto them by Jesus himself and are then thrust out into the murderous world.
These stories made me think that maybe we should invoke the Spirit’s presence with a little more caution.
In a little while we will sing “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” I know you all are good, upstanding, rule-following folks. I know if a song title is listed in the bulletin, you will sing it. You will sing the words printed on the page because the song leader said to and you want to be nice and cooperative.
But maybe, this morning, you want to think a little harder about it. Maybe you want to sing “Memory of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” Or, “Spirit of the comfortable, tame, status-quo God, fall afresh on me.” Or perhaps, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on someone else.”
I know. I know. I’m a pastor. I shouldn’t be suggesting that you avoid the Holy Spirit. And it’s not that I want you to avoid the Spirit. I don’t. I just want you to realize that inviting the Holy Spirit to fall on us will likely not result in a lifetime of safely snuggling on the couch eating chocolate chip cookies.
The Spirit comforts us, yes. But that comfort’s purpose in to empower us to go; to be sent by God the way that Jesus was sent: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, release to the oppressed.
Just as Jesus breathed the Spirit onto his disciples behind those locked doors, Jesus offers the Spirit to us today. He offers it as a gift–as a way for us to know his presence even in the midst of his absence; a way for us to participate in God’s holy work of peace and love in the world. The Spirit may not be a calm and comfortable gift; but it is a comforting gift; an empowering gift; a beautiful, life-giving gift. And we are blessed if we receive it.