The Well-Remembered Word: Remembering the Promise of the Spirit

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Dr. Jim Somerville

5/14/2023

John 14:15-21

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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 forever.

            This is the last sermon in a series called the Well-Remembered Word and I’m almost sorry to see it come to an end.  I have enjoyed thinking about how some of these biblical characters might have shared their memories of Jesus long after his ascension.  We’ve heard from Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas, those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the Apostle John—twice.  We’re actually going to hear from him one last time because he has something to say that may prepare us perfectly for the Day of Pentecost, two weeks from now.  And so, to close out the series, let’s welcome back the Beloved Disciple!

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            Thank you.  And thank you for staying until the very end of this conference.  We’ve heard moving testimonies of Jesus’ resurrection and meaningful remembrances of his famous last words.  We could leave right now.  But I hope you will stay, because in closing I want to share with you one of the very last things Jesus said to us in that upper room.  He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” although for him there was always ever only one.  There were the Ten Commandments, of course, and all the other commandments that came along later.  There was Jesus’ insistence that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets could be summed up in the command to love God and love others.  But there was only one commandment that Jesus, himself, gave us, and you know which one it was: it was the command to love one another as he had loved us.  “If you love me,” he said, “you will love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” 

            “Do that,” he said.  It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a commandment.  But he also said, “If you do that, then I will do this: I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”  Another Advocate.  Those are the words I clung to on that night when Jesus was telling us goodbye, words I want us to look at a little more closely today, beginning with that second one.

            Advocate is not a bad translation.  If you were going to court you might want to have an advocate—a lawyer—who would stand beside you and plead your case.  But the English word advocate doesn’t begin to touch the depth and meaning of the Greek word Paraclete.  That’s the one I used when I wrote my Gospel, and it was only the closest word I could find to what Jesus implied in that promise.  Because Paraclete comes from the verb kaleo, which means “to call.”  Parakaleo means “to call alongside.”  And Paraclete is the noun form of the verb:  it’s the person you call alongside yourself in a time of need. 

Think about it like this.  When you were a child and had a bad dream that woke you up in the middle of the night, who did you call?  Your mother, right?  And when you were older, and some bully was picking on you on at school, who did you call?  Your teacher, right?  But now, now that you are an adult, who do you call when you are in trouble, when you are lonely, or sad, or afraid?  You may not know who to call and maybe that’s why Jesus said, “I’m going to ask the Father to give you a Paraclete: someone you can call alongside yourself when you are in trouble, when you need some help.”  But get this: Jesus didn’t only say he was going to ask the Father to give us a Paraclete; he said he was going to ask him to give us another Paraclete, and that requires further explanation.

There are two Greek words for “other.”  One is allos and the other is heteros.  Allos means another of the same kind; heteros means another of a different kind.  When Jesus said he would ask the Father to send us another Advocate he used an Aramaic word that had the same meaning as allos.  I don’t know what that says to you, but what it said to me on that night was that Jesus was the first Paraclete, and that if we would love him and love one another he would ask the Father to send us another Paraclete of the same kind!  In other words, whatever Jesus had been to us this new Paraclete would also be, but this time it wasn’t going to be temporary; this Paraclete wasn’t going to stay with us a few years and then disappear; this Paraclete was going to be with us forever. 

He was talking about the Holy Spirit.

If I can be honest, we were a little disappointed at first, because we had gotten used to having Jesus with us, and Jesus was God-in-the-flesh.  We could see him, we could touch him, we could hear his voice.  You can’t do that with a spirit.  But, as we would learn in the next 24 hours, you also can’t kill a spirit.  You can’t strip it and beat it and nail it to a cross.  That’s what they did to Jesus and I was right there when it happened.  I was standing at the foot of the cross.  I saw the whole thing, which means that I watched him die.  In my Gospel I described it like this: “[Jesus] said, ‘It is finished.’  Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”  All I meant when I wrote it was that he let out his final breath, because in Greek the word for “spirit” and “breath” is the same word.  But since then I have wondered if there was something more going on: if when he let out his last breath he was actually letting out the Holy Spirit, as if that’s what had filled him up throughout his earthly ministry and given him his extraordinary wisdom and power.  I’ve wondered if that Spirit roamed the earth over the next couple of days, no longer contained in the person of Jesus, until early on the first day of the week the Father roused his only begotten Son from the deep sleep of death and filled his lungs once more with that life-giving Spirit, so that he could get up, and unwind the cloth from around his head, and strip off his grave clothes, and roll back the stone and step out into the cool, damp darkness of the garden.

He wasn’t there when I got there.  You may remember that part of the story: how Mary went to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, and when she didn’t find Jesus she came running back to tell us the news.  She thought that someone had stolen his body.  Peter and I jumped up and ran to the tomb, and when we got there I looked inside, but all I saw was his empty grave clothes and the cloth that had been wrapped around his head, rolled up and lying in a separate place by itself.  Peter pushed past me and went on in, headstrong as ever, and then I went in, and as soon as I was inside I knew what had happened: I knew that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Or maybe I should say I believed he had risen, but my belief was so strong you could not have convinced me otherwise.  I knew, in my heart, that the Spirit of Love was alive in this world, and that Jesus was no longer dead.

Mary saw him.  Later that day, after Peter and I had gone back to the upper room, she saw him, in the garden, and came running back to tell us.  I wasn’t even surprised.  Overjoyed, yes, and vindicated, in one of those “I told you so!” kind of ways, but not surprised.  And then that night he came through locked doors to be with us.  One minute he wasn’t there and the next minute he was.  He held up one nail-scarred hand and said, “Shalom,” and that’s all it took.  That’s when we knew it was really him.  We were so relieved and happy!  Some of us were jumping up and down so that he had to say, “Peace!” again, this time almost laughing.  But then he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  It was a commission, and it held the hint of danger.  We saw what they had done to him.  If he sent us as the Father had sent him, and if they did to us to what they had done to him, none of us was going to make it out alive.  I think he saw the anxious looks on our faces.  I think he could tell we needed help.  So, he breathed on us and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  But this time he didn’t give it up, he didn’t even give it away.  He simply shared the Holy Spirit with us.  And if you’re thinking that makes us special, you’re right.  Others have received the Spirit in other ways.  You may have received it in another way.  But we received it from Jesus himself, and even as we did we could tell how much like him it was, as if all the things he had been to us his Spirit would now be.

The prologue of my Gospel says that in the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God, that he was in the beginning with God and all things were made through him, but a few verses later it says the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Some people have said it this way: that Jesus was “God with skin on.”  Well, this is what I want you to know, and what I hope you will be able to hear: that if Jesus was God with skin on, the Holy Spirit is Jesus with skin off.  I don’t know how that makes you feel.  It may sound a little spooky.  It may be why some people refer to the Spirit as the “Holy Ghost.”  But in my experience it has been anything but spooky; it has been enormously comforting.  That’s one possible translation of the word Paraclete, you know: comforter.  Like one of those big, fluffy blankets you people pull up over yourselves on a cold night.  That’s what it’s been like for me in those moments when I was missing Jesus the most, when I was feeling his absence.  Suddenly, there was this presence.  I can’t explain it.  These kinds of things rarely make sense.  But I could feel his presence with me through the Holy Spirit, just as he had promised. 

And that’s not all.  Jesus promised that the Paraclete would be a friend, a counselor, a comforter, an encourager, a teacher—in other words, all the things that Jesus was to us when he was with us.  But he also said it would be the “Spirit of truth,” which reminded me of something else he had said, that we would know the truth and the truth would set us free (John 8:32).  Do you remember when Philip asked Jesus to show us the Father, and Jesus said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father”?  Well, I think he would say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Spirit.”  Because when he first told us about the Spirit of truth he said the world could not receive him because it couldn’t see him or know him, but then he said, “You know him,” and I think he meant that we knew the Spirit because we had known Jesus, that the same Spirit that was in him would now be in us.  In fact, that’s what he said: “You know him because he abides with you, and will be in you.” 

Jesus said all of that before he was crucified, before he rose from the dead and came to that upper room and breathed on us, but when he did we felt it: we felt that the Spirit that had been in him was now in us, and that it would teach us, comfort us, and encourage us, even on the hardest of days.  I have to tell you, those days came for me just after Jesus ascended.  I don’t think anyone has ever felt more alone than I felt.  But has this ever happened to you?  Have you ever loved someone and lost them and then, sometime later, thought about what they would say in a certain situation and found that you could almost hear their voice?  That’s how it was for me.  At first I thought it was just the memory of Jesus, but then this voice—this whispered voice—began to tell me things Jesus had never said.  And that’s when I remembered something he did say, at that last supper.  He said, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-13).  Well, that’s just how it felt: like the Spirit was picking up where Jesus left off, and teaching us things that Jesus could no longer teach.

And that’s a good thing.  Because there are so many things that Jesus didn’t teach us: things he didn’t mention, maybe because they hadn’t happened yet, or maybe because we weren’t ready for them yet.  But the Paraclete is still with us, and the Paraclete sees everything that is happening in the world and whispers in our ears.  The Paraclete tells us the truth.  I’ll tell you the truth: sometimes that whispered voice sounds so much like Jesus that I sit straight up in bed and look around in the darkness.  I say, “Jesus?  Is that you?”  But then I remember that he isn’t with us anymore, and I remember what he said: that he was going to send us another Paraclete to be with us forever.  And that’s a comfort.  That’s the Comforter.  And so I lie down again, and pull the covers up to my chin, and fall asleep with a smile on my face knowing that I am not alone, and never will be,  And neither will you.

—Jim Somerville © 2023