Each of the four Gospels tells the story of Jesus through its own theological lens. For Matthew, it’s Jesus as the new Law-Giver; for Mark, it’s the apocalyptic Messiah who will usher in a new day for God’s people; for Luke, it’s a prophetic concern for women, the poor, and social outcasts. In contrast to these Gospels, John frames the story in a more reflective, theological, and mystical way. We see this particular theme come out in today’s Gospel reading, John 14.23-29.
The passage is part of John’s “Farewell Discourse”, a four-chapter-long conversation Jesus has with his disciples after the Last Supper. This heightened context makes this discourse the climax of Jesus’ teaching in John’s Gospel. In the immediate context for this passage, Jesus has been comforting the disciples by telling them that, while he is leaving them, he will send the Holy Spirit to be with them. He says:
On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
Here we see the mystical orientation of John’s Gospel. The coming of the Holy Spirit provides experiential knowledge of a mutual indwelling: Just as Jesus is ‘within’ the Father, Jesus’ followers are ‘within’ him and he is ‘within’ them. Through the good fruit the Spirit produces, the faithful demonstrate their love for Jesus and are loved by the Father and therein receive a revelation of Jesus. But the disciples are not exactly a ‘mystical’ bunch. One of the disciples asks, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” It’s an interesting question: Why not send the Holy Spirit upon the whole world and let God’s Kingdom be known everywhere and to everyone?
Today’s reading is Jesus’ answer, which doubles down on the more ‘spiritual’ or mystical aspect of his teaching. He begins by repeating his original statement in different words:
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. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
Once again, he connects love to living out his teachings. For those who do this, “we” — from the immediate context, the Father and the Son, but, as will become clear, this will be through the Holy Spirit, so there’s a Trinitarian dimension to this teaching — “will come to them and make our home with them.” It’s an odd expression in Greek, but it’s one that evokes the language from John 1, which describes the Incarnation as “The Word became flesh and dwelt [literally, “encamped”] among us,” and which itself evokes the presence of God with the Hebrews in the Tabernacle, the tent which functioned as a portable temple. There’s a series of moves here of increasing intimacy between God and the faithful: from the presence of God’s “glory” in the Temple, to Jesus walking alongside them as one of them, to, now, the promise of God dwelling within them.
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, 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.
Here we see that the divine presence Jesus promised is to be accomplished through the coming of the Holy Spirit. The manifestation of the Spirit will reinforce Jesus’ message in the hearts and minds of the disciples and inspire them to even greater acts of love and compassion. In our increasingly fraught historical moment, mysticism is often derided as being inaction, and therefore complicit in the perpetuation of injustice in the world. And certainly, a mystical sensibility often involves a kind of silence and withdrawal from the world. But, in any genuine mysticism, this is only half of the equation. For, the Spirit always longs to bear good fruit in and for the world, and so it always pushes us back out of ourselves and into the fray for the cause of goodness and justice. As James Alison put it, the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promises here is not “simply a substitute presence, acting instead of Jesus, but rather it is … that all Jesus’ creative activity will be made alive in the creative activity of his disciples.” He continues:
The memory of Jesus here (“he will bring to your remembrance”) is thus not in the first place the cure for the absence of the teacher, but the bringing to mind, and thus to the possibility of creative practice, in dependence on Jesus, of Jesus’ creative activity. (The Joy of Being Wrong, 190)
This sense of mysticism in and for the world is reinforced in v.27, where Jesus says:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
This is the flip side of passages like Matthew 10.34 or Luke 12.51, where Jesus says he has come not to bring peace. Jesus gives peace, but not the world’s peace: There is an inherent conflict between God’s vision of peace, which is the presence of healed and whole relationships in the world, and the world’s peace, which is an absence of violence — a wobbly cease-fire at best that often reinforces an unjust status quo. The Spirit leads us to understand the difference between these two visions of peace, and to insist that the second is not good enough.
Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John is infamous for its often confusing arrays of interconnected pronouns: I in him and him in me in you and us. But the more time I spend with it, the more I am convinced this confusion is the whole point. Jesus’ teaching here is about our lives being entirely caught up in his life, which is entirely caught up in the life of his Father — all of which is accomplished in and through the Holy Spirit. This is profoundly mystical (and mysterious!) but it is also profoundly practical. The gift of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Advocate’ promised in today’s Gospel, is not just about our personal assurance, warm and cozy spiritual feelings, or inner peace. Rather, it is about that personal transformation from deep within that wakes us up to the wonders of God’s peace and all of the ways this world’s ways fall short of it.
We have three weeks left before Pentecost, the feast when we celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that this is a perfect season to set aside some time in sacred practices, such as the Ignatian Examen or this Examination of Conscience based on the Fruit of the Spirit, to reflect on where we might benefit from renewal in the Spirit. And, then, to pray the prayers invoking the Holy Spirit and await with expectation for the feast.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.
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