Jesus Promises the Holy Spirit

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John 14:23-29
6th Sunday of Easter (10.30am service)
(5-5-13)

How would people describe us? What one word would people use to characterise Christians? These are the two questions that Janette started her talk with last week. I don't know what came to your mind, but the answers that I came up with were not very complementary: weird, judgemental, outdated, irrelevant, boring, arrogant, hypocritical.

If my answers to these questions are an accurate reflection of people's view of Christians, then this begs the question: why on earth did God choose to do it this way? Why did he leave the treasure of the Gospel in the hands of a rather ragged bunch of disciples who clearly didn't understand half of what Jesus had been teaching them? Would it not be far easier if God simply revealed himself directly to the world?

Our Gospel reading today starts with the following words: "Jesus replied: 'If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching." But what was the question that Jesus was replying to?

This passage is part of a wider conversation between Jesus and the disciples which took place at the last supper, just before they crossed the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane where Jesus was then arrested. Jesus has washed the disciples feet and they are eating the Passover meal. Judas Iscariot has already left to betray him. Jesus is effectively giving the disciples his last testament. This is his last opportunity to teach them. The disciples are asking him many questions which reveal that they really have little understanding of what is about to happen: Lord, where are you going? Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way? Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us? And then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) asks: But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?

This question is not so very different from the question that I have just asked - why did Jesus entrust the gospel to his disciples? Why does he reach out to the world through an apparently fragmented church? Jesus doesn't really give a direct answer to Judas. Instead, he tells him what he needs to hear. This is what he says: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home in him."

This was truly revolutionary. Jesus' disciples were Jews, God was majestic and almighty, but he was remote and could only be known through formal ceremonies in the temple, through sacrifices carried out by priests and by following a complicated set of rules. The disciples are now on the brink of a new age where they will know God the Almighty as 'Father' and they will be loved by God, as 'Father'. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had revealed God to the disciples through his words and actions. Now he promises that, as he leaves them, their relationship with God will become like his: they will know God personally, as their father.

This new relationship with God is inseparable with the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit coming to dwell in us which enables us to know God in a new and intimate way, it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which enables us to experience the love of our Heavenly Father.

But the disciples were also on the brink of a revolution in another way. They were about to be propelled into the world beyond the land of Israel, preaching the Gospel and making disciples of all nations. The Church was about to be born. A new community that was marked by love, and the birth of this new community was also inseparable with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

It can be tempting to see the early church through rose-tinted glasses - the perfect Church where everybody lived in perfect harmony, the ideal community. In reality, the early Church was probably very similar to the Church today. In John's 1st and 2nd letters we get a picture of a community with all the tensions of opposing schools of thought, a diversity of doctrinal and ethical opinions. They faced difficult questions about their identity and their mission.

But this disorganised and disparate community were not alone, trying to make their own way in the world. Jesus said: "But the counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you". They had the guiding presence of God, in the Holy Spirit, which taught them how to live and reminded them of the words of Jesus and his calling upon their lives. The presence of God, in the Holy Spirit, not only enables them to have a new and personal relationship with God, but he also brings unity to the Church, by enabling them to fulfil their purpose, to carry out their calling to witness to the revelation of God in Jesus.

Of course the disciples who were with Jesus at the last supper had no idea that all of this was going to happen. Even though Jesus was telling them about the coming of the Holy Spirit, at the time, they could not comprehend what this meant for them. I wonder whether it was also impossible for them to grasp what Jesus meant when he said: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid".

These are comforting words and nice to hear...when all is going well! But really? What about when your world is falling apart around you? One of the authors of the Bible reading notes that I am reading at the moment wrote about how vulnerable he felt when he was told that he had cancer. His confidence in the promise of eternal life ebbed away, but, although he did not have the faith to pray for healing, he made time to praise God each day for the time that he had. The chemotherapy and radiation treatment took its toll, he underwent three major operations and then his father died. Shortly after, his wife said to him: "This must have been the worst year of your life?". But then he realised that throughout those difficult days, he had been comforted by a profound sense of Christ's presence. He replied: "You know it may have been my best!".

God does not promise us a trouble free life, but he does promise his peace and a calmness of spirit which the world cannot give. This ability to face the conflict that lies ahead is inseparable with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

So why, if we have the promise that the Holy Spirit will come and dwell in us, will teach us and remind us of what Jesus said to us and will give us peace, why were the answers that I gave to Janette's questions so negative? Like Jesus with Judas, I am not going to directly answer that question. But, perhaps, all we need to know is that when we live our lives with the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, strange things begin to happen. Experiencing the love of God, we become more loving; we experience joy and peace; we become kinder and more patient; we become more faithful, gentle and self-controlled. And when our Church communities are guided by the presence of God they become more united. The differences between us become less important, as our calling to establish the Kingdom of God in the world becomes paramount.

This can be seen throughout our history. Whenever people have experienced the presence of God, through the Holy Spirit, or whenever the Church has been taught and guided by the Holy Spirit, transformation takes place. People's lives are transformed, the Church is transformed and the world is transformed. People begin to experience the compassion of God. They begin to understand that God hates injustice, that he is against the powerful who abuse their power by oppressing the weak; they see that God is offended when the wealthy take from the poor instead of using their wealth to protect the vulnerable; they feel the hurt that God feels when children are traded and treated as a commodity, to be used and disposed of at will.

And so history bears witness to followers of Jesus, transformed by God, building hospitals and schools, standing up against poverty, fighting for the reform of prisons and for the abolition of slavery. We have St. Francis of Assisi rebuilding God's Church, Martin Luther King Jr speaking out in support of fair and equal treatment for African Americans. The list is endless, but the common thread is that all these things have sprung from the commitment of faithful Christians guided by the presence of God.

So what do these words of Jesus say to us today here in Willingham? Has God made his home in us? Is our Church, and that means us as individuals too, is our Church open to the guiding presence of God? Do we have his peace?

We are now going to have an opportunity to respond to God's promise of the Holy Spirit. So, we are going to have a few minutes of silence in which we can welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives and into our Church. We will then finish with a song from the Taizé community in France. The words are very easy to pick up, so you may want to join and sing this simple prayer. Equally, you may want to sit and listen.

Let us pray...

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the promise of your Holy Spirit. We welcome you now into our hearts and into our Church. We ask for your peace. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon written and presented by Mark Osborne