Back in the years of mandatory military service in South Africa, I was conscripted into the Air Force as a chaplain. Part of our training was compulsory participation in the officers’ course which began with an infamous, three day training camp consisting of extended marches, fitness training, psychological testing and sleep disruption. At the start we were instructed to hand all valuables over to the commanding officer. As I handed over my watch, he looked at my hand and asked, “What about your wedding ring?” When I asked if I could keep it on, and he responded, “It’ll get damaged.” I thought about it briefly and replied, “I’ll take that chance.” Over the next few days, as things got tougher and I felt more fatigued in my mind and my body, I kept my a part of my awareness always connected with the band of gold around my finger. It reminded me of the life I would be going back to when all of this was over. It helped me to remember who I really was, and what I valued. It helped me to draw strength from the connection with my wife that even the miles could not sever. It was not about the metal. It was about what the metal meant, about the relationship that the metal represented, and about the life that continued to pulse within me because the metal kept me aware of it.
I am often reminded of this experience when I read John 14. The disciples must have been feeling deeply fearful and bewildered as they heard Jesus speaking about death and about leaving them. Although he promised that he would return, the idea of resurrection was foreign to their frame of reference, and the promise of the Holy Spirit must have sounded very strange and other-worldly. Yet, Jesus knew that they would need a connection – something to keep their awareness on his presence and his teaching and to strengthen and carry them, not just through the next few days, but through the rest of their lives and ministries as they would take over the work from him and become God’s agents of liberation, grace and justice in the world.
While the Holy Spirit is far more than a gold band around a finger, the metaphor is not completely irrelevant. The Spirit Jesus offered was a guarantee, a seal, that the life and relationship they had known with Jesus would continue no matter what the world may throw at them. God’s Spirit was the deposit that assured them of Christ’s presence then, and of the eternal life which they were experiencing and would continue to enjoy beyond the grave. Their connection to, and awareness of, the Spirit was what would keep them connected with Jesus. The book of Acts testifies to the extent to which this became the experience of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
It is easy to forget that the setting for this discourse is the Last Supper, where Jesus is giving, as was common for teachers and leaders of his day, his farewell speech. The triumphal entry has happened in John 12, and in Chapter 13, Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet and has predicted both Judas’ betrayal – sending him out into the night to do the deed – and Peter’s denial. The Lectionary then divides Chapter 14 up, with this week being the second of the two sections. The whole chapter forms a unit, though, and this discourse cannot be understood without reference to what has come before.
Two significant statements stand out in the first part of this chapter that form the foundation for what Jesus is saying in this week’s Lectionary reading (John 14:15-21). The first comes from 14:6 – “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and the second comes from 14:12 – “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in Me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” These two statements are connected, although they must have been frightening for the disciples to hear. Jesus, in whom God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life are revealed and found, is going away, but he expects his disciples to do his work – to, in some way, become for others “the way, the truth and the life”, and to do this in a greater way, to carry this work further than Jesus himself could. How were they to begin to understand this?
But, this is where this week’s reading becomes so significant. The expectation that Jesus expresses in the first part of chapter 14 is explained in this next part. Jesus does not require them to somehow find their own way to fulfil his call. He assures them that he will continue to be with them, and will continue to empower, guide and connect with them in order that they are able to do what he asks. It’s a challenging message, but an encouraging one.
To begin with Jesus explains exactly what his “way” is – the way that they are called both to follow (to obey) and ultimately to embody, as he has done. It is the way of love: “If you love me, obey my commandments”. What was the commandment they are to obey? He gave it to them in 13:34 – “Love each another. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” To love Jesus is to obey him. To obey him is to love each other, and to love each other is to love Jesus. Jesus is the way of love, and he calls them into this way, to follow this way and to become, in themselves and in the community they are becoming together, the embodiment of the way. And to make this possible, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit (vs. 16).
The Spirit Jesus offers, who is to empower them to live in this way of love, is also the one who will lead them into truth. He is the “Spirit of Truth” and so will reveal to them the truth that Jesus taught and is. The gift of the Spirit, then, will also empower them to know and to become, as Jesus was, the truth. Clearly, this is not an issue of doctrine or of having the right ideas. Truth, in this sense, is “being true” as in being faithful, full of integrity, and remaining committed and “true to” the person and the way of Jesus. It’s not the cold truth of fact, but the warm truth of faithful, vulnerable and experiential intimacy.
But, who is this Spirit that Jesus promises? The word he uses to describe the Spirit (parakletos) is pretty much untranslatable, but the closest we can come is this: “one who comes alongside” or, as William Barclay puts it, “someone called in”. The implication is of a legal advocate or counsellor, who supports, defends and comforts. This Spirit will never leave the disciples, Jesus promises, but will be with them. The life that they have found in Jesus, that they have begun to experience and know in him, will continue to be available to them through the Spirit, but because he will be “in” them, they will, like Christ, become embodiments of this life in themselves. They won’t just “have life” but they will “become life” to the world.
“I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus. Now, as events are set in motion that will ultimately mean that he would leave them, the disciples are to continue his work – to do even greater work. This would require that they become the way, the truth and the life to the world. And for this to happen, they would need one who comes alongside, and who would be in them – the Holy Spirit – who would make it possible for them to continue the work of the kingdom.
This farewell speech was given with little expectation that the disciples would understand it right away, I am sure. But, as Jesus was arrested, crucified and then resurrected, the penny must have begun to drop. When, in John 20:19-23, Jesus appeared to the disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you,” and as he breathed and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” they may just have recognised this as the fulfilment of these words spoken before all the tumultuous events of the previous few days.
And now, as we read these words, centuries later, they still ring true. The call is still active, and the Spirit is still seeking to come alongside us and be in us. We are still invited to do the works of Jesus – to become to our world the embodiment of his way, his truth and his life. And we are still called to proclaim, in word and action, the reign of God that opens blind eyes, shines light into the darkness and pours out living water to a thirsty world.
It’s much easier to make these words of Jesus about a personal experience of euphoria. It’s much easier to turn this discourse into a test of who is “in” and who is “out” in some exclusive faith club. It is far more comfortable to think of the Spirit as a personal power source that ensures that life goes the way we want it to. But, to read Jesus like this is to miss his point entirely. There is work to be done and the Gospels reveal what that work looks like: forgiving, liberating, serving, welcoming, including and loving all people, especially the least, the outcast, the marginalised and the rejected (think of the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and the blind beggar for starters). There is strength, commitment, faithfulness, integrity, connectedness and vibrancy that is required to do this work, and it is not to be found in our own resources. But, Jesus has promised that we can and will continue his work, and that he will always be available to us to equip us for it. And so we too can know and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But, be warned – if we accept this gift, we will be changed and slowly, but surely, God will transform us into the embodiment of God’s way of love, God’s intimate, relational truth, and God’s death-defying life. It’s not an easy call. But it is one heck of a ride!