Last Sunday, we looked at Jesus’ controversial words that he was (and is) the way to the Father and “no one comes to the Father except through [him].” I proposed that these words were not about insisting that other ‘ways’ are false, but about comforting his disciples with the knowledge that they already know the way to the Father, because it is nothing other than his way and if they do as he does and speak as he speaks, they will find God. I also hinted that this message is supported by the fact that directly after his speech about being the way, the truth, and the light, he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to help them. As it happens, that second half of Jesus’ teaching is assigned as today’s Gospel reading, so I’d like to take today’s post to reflect on it more fully.
To situate ourselves in the text again, last week’s reading ends with the startling claim that those who follow Jesus will accomplish even greater things than he has and that he will answer their prayers. Today’s reading picks up from here:
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (John 14.15-17)
Right from the start, Jesus repeats the basic message that following him means becoming like him. But now it’s associated with a promise: God will send them “another Advocate,” “the Spirit of truth.” This is a unique, and perhaps a little odd, way of talking about the Holy Spirit and so it deserves some comment. First, the Spirit is referred to as being ‘another’; from the context of the passage — about how the disciples will fare when Jesus leaves them — it’s clear that he means that the Spirit will function in a way similar to how Jesus himself has functioned for them. The particular role Jesus has in mind is here translated as ‘Advocate’. This is again not a common expression in the New Testament; the only other time it’s used is in another part of the writings attributed to John, 1 John 2.1 There it says: “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The two references match really well. But what exactly does it mean for Jesus, and then the Spirit, to be our ‘advocate’? The Greek word underlying the expression is Parakletos, which in theological discourse is often simply transliterated as ‘Paraklete’ (or Paraclete with a c — it just depends on whether the person has the Greek or Latin alphabet foremost in their mind!). It generally refers to anyone who has been called along side another person to support them — hence common translations such as ‘advocate’, ‘intercessor’, ‘comforter,’ and ‘helper.’ In this sense, the idea is that Jesus and the Spirit both function as intermediaries of sorts between the faithful and the Father, interceding for us, speaking on our behalf, and acting in our defense. This idea fits the context of 1 John 2 really well, but isn’t as helpful for John 14, where such external, primarily legal ideas are not as much in play. But there’s a second dimension of Parakletos that I think rounds the picture out: We might say that if the ‘advocate’ idea is the external dimension of the word, there is also an internal dimension, which we might translate as ‘empowerer,’ ‘exhorter,’ or even ‘coach’. Not only does the Paraklete help us in the face of external challenges, but internal ones too. The sense is that Christ and the Holy Spirit call us out of ourselves — our weakness, hurts, defensiveness — so that we might become like him, and most fully ourselves in the process.
‘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. 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. (John 14.18-21)
As adopted siblings of Christ, we become caught up in the mystery of the divine life, woven together in God in Christ like the lines of chorus dancers. Once again, we see the ancient Christian dictum that we become by grace all that Christ was by nature, living as he lived and loving as he loved, and thereby knowing and seeing Christ within our lives such that others are known and can see Christ in us.
So then, this teaching in today’s Gospel lesson rounds out last week’s. How can we find the way to God? By following the way demonstrated by Jesus: by living as Jesus lived and becoming ‘as Christ’ to those around us. This is challenging teaching to be sure, but we are not alone in it. Just as Jesus is our advocate and coach before the heavenly Father, so too is the Holy Spirit with us and within us, advocating for us and inspiring us to overcome our fears and weaknesses and to love the world as Christ loved us.
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