Sunday, May 5, 2013

(Easter 6) On whose side is the Holy Spirit?

John 14:23-29

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Two weeks from today is Pentecost.
That’s when we officially wrap-up the 50-day Easter season,
in our Christian calendar,
and celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit
on all believers,
from all peoples and tribes and nations.
I always look forward to Pentecost—
a day to celebrate unity within our diversity
made possible by the Holy Spirit . . .
a day to celebrate the wild and raw and untamed power of life
the Holy Spirit represents—
the breath of God, blowing where it will.

We can’t talk too much about the Spirit in this Easter season,
because after Jesus’ death and resurrection,
the Spirit is what we have,
as God’s real presence among us in the world.
We don’t have the man from Nazareth with us, literally,
but we have the presence of the Risen Christ with us,
in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Today’s scriptures are a preview of Pentecost.
Jesus speaks to his disciples about his departure,
but reassures them he will not abandon them.
The Holy Spirit will be sent by his Father,
and the Spirit will be “the Advocate.”
No worries that they’ll forget how to walk the way of Jesus,
or forget Jesus’ wise teachings.
Because . . . Jesus said . . . (and I’m quoting John 14)
the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything,
and remind you of all that I have said to you.
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.
You heard me say to you,
‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’”

This is one of the clearest statements we have from Jesus
about the role and purpose of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.
The Spirit is being sent,
to continue the incarnational ministry of Jesus,
to be, as Jesus was, “God with Us,” Immanuel . . .
not in the same way and same form as Jesus of Nazareth,
but still, God with us, really.
The Spirit is God’s gift to Jesus’ followers,
to ensure there is a continuity of mission.
To make sure Jesus’ good work doesn’t end.
But goes on with the same, and even greater,
power and purpose and impact.

It’s crucial we understand that,
because of how often we Christians take this great gift—
the Holy Spirit of God in Christ—
and misunderstand it,
and reduce it to be for our own small purposes.
We sometimes give credit to the Holy Spirit,
for thoughts and feelings and actions and circumstances,
that really are our own, or worse,
might even be blamed on the enemies of God.
It’s gets dicey when we start assigning
our thoughts and feelings and decisions
to the Holy Spirit,
without some larger guide or template
or means of discernment.

So, I take us back to this Gospel text from John 14,
and I give us this question to ponder—
“On whose side is the Holy Spirit?”
Who is the Holy Spirit working on behalf of?
It seems like that should be obvious, in a way.
Jesus promised us, his followers, the Holy Spirit,
he said his father would send us the Holy Spirit,
to be poured out on us.
The Spirit is called the Advocate,
or sometimes translated, Comforter,
and is promised to be with us,
and dwell within us.
So it’s our Holy Spirit, working on our behalf, right?
Since Jesus can no longer visibly stand at our side,
as our friend and defender,
we have the Holy Spirit on our side.
Our Advocate.

It sounds right. But it’s oh, so wrong.

We so easily and quickly come to the wrong conclusion.
The Holy Spirit is an Advocate, a strong Advocate,
and it’s comforting to have such an Advocate with us.
But the Spirit is not our Advocate, personally.
The Spirit is an Advocate for Jesus Christ,
and the Gospel of the Kingdom.
And that’s a huge difference.

I searched carefully all the biblical references to the Spirit as Advocate,
and nowhere could I find any indication
that the Spirit was being sent to us to be our Advocate.

One time, in 1 John 2:1-2, the writer encourages the church,
saying when we sinners face God the righteous judge,
we have an Advocate on our side—
Jesus Christ, the righteous one—
who has atoned for our sins,
and advocates to God the Father for our forgiveness.

So yes, in terms of our basic salvation,
and our standing with God,
Jesus Christ advocates for us,
represents us before God.

But as for the Holy Spirit,
and its continuing work in the world, and in our lives . . .
no, the Spirit is not standing in on our behalf,
as an advocate for our agenda.
The Spirit stands in for Christ and the Gospel.

Listen to what John’s Gospel says—
John 15: “When the Advocate comes,
whom I will send to you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father,
he will testify on my behalf.”
Or John 16: “It is to your advantage that I go away,
for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you;
but if I go, I will send him to you . . .
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 . . .
He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine
and declare it to you.”
“Take what is mine, and declare it to you . . .”
That’s pretty clear who the Spirit is representing.

The whole issue here is that Jesus knows our leanings.
Left on our own, we will lean inward, to our own inclinations.
We will incline ourselves toward our own desires,
and ambitions, and perspectives.

In Jesus’ mind, the test of whether his disciples really loved him,
was whether they oriented themselves
toward his teachings, his commandments, his ways . . .
toward the Kingdom of God he came to usher in.
John 14, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

The way of Jesus, the life of a disciple,
citizenship in the Kingdom of God,
is just as difficult and daunting today,
as it was when Jesus led his disciples
on the road toward the cross.

It would be silly to say Jesus spent much time and energy
during his earthly ministry,
standing up for his twelve disciples,
being on their side,
being their Advocate.
Oh, he loved them.
He was with them.
He ultimately gave himself up for them.
But . . . his goal was not to support the direction of their lives,
it was to turn their lives around in a new direction.
Jesus was an Advocate for God’s mission.
Jesus was an Advocate for the Kingdom of God.
And he was training up future Advocates for that Kingdom.

So yes, on occasion, he was soft and tender toward them,
when they were beaten down, and really needed tenderness.
But far more often . . .
He pushed them where they did not want to go.
He sent them out on mission trips, on their own, without supplies.
He let them try their hand at healing, and fail miserably.
And then confronted them for their anemic, feeble faith.
He once called Peter Satan, and ordered him to be quiet.
He led them into places of danger.
He said take up your cross.

If this was how Jesus shaped his disciples for the Kingdom,
and he sent his Holy Spirit to continue the same work—
shaping us disciples for the Kingdom—
why should we think the Holy Spirit is here primarily,
to be on our side?

Jesus invites us on an exhilarating road that leads to life,
but it’s a road that goes against the traffic.

The way of Jesus is still, as in the first century,
contrary to the dominant culture,
contrary to the powers that be,
and contrary to our sinful, self-oriented tendencies.

We need an Advocate to be with us—
an Advocate for the way of truth,
an Advocate for Jesus Christ and the Gospel,
an Advocate for the Kingdom of God—
for without One to Advocate for that larger good,
we will fall captive to our own small-minded agenda.

In fact, in some ways,
we need the Holy Spirit as the Advocate for the Gospel,
now, even more than the first disciples did.

They had the benefit of direct and recent memory,
of walking with Jesus.
They had clarity of mission,
doing church as it came to them, on the fly,
without 2,000 years of added
cultural and religious and institutional baggage.

We have so many layers that have come between the Gospel core,
and what we have come to understand as “church” today.
We have invested ourselves so deeply in the way things are,
in getting our spiritual needs met in ways that suit us,
that our vision is obscured.
We need the Spirit to Advocate for the radical way of the Gospel—
saying to us, “No, come this way, here is the way of Jesus!”

You know, given what I know about my tendencies,
given what I know about the tendencies of groups and institutions,
like the church,
I’m glad the Holy Spirit is not my Advocate,
or even the church’s Advocate.
I don’t trust me to get it right.
I don’t trust my church to get it right all the time.
I know us too well.

I know we are prone to make decisions based on fear.
When we’re being called to take some risky step of faith,
and turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance,
I don’t think it would be a good thing
for the Holy Spirit to just take our side,
as our Comforter,
as if our Holy Spirit is some doting grandmother,
to gave her precious grand-babies whatever they want.

No, when God is calling us, and we resist, out of fear,
how would it serve God’s purposes
for the Holy Spirit to pat us on the back like Grandma,
and say, “That’s okay, church.
I know it’s frightening.
You can do it whenever you’re ready.
Maybe some day when you’re stronger.”

And besides our fears, I don’t trust our thinking enough
to want the Holy Spirit to just reinforce our thought patterns.
We need the Spirit of truth,
who is an Advocate for the complete Gospel,
who will pierce through
all our incomplete versions of the gospel,
all our partial perceptions of the truth,
and bring to light the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thank God, the Holy Spirit is not our Advocate.
The Holy Spirit has been sent to us as an Advocate
for the Jesus Way,
for the kingdom of God,
for the mission of God in this world.
Sometimes we human beings get in the way of that,
and muck things up,
and the mission of God gets suppressed.
God’s mission needs an Advocate.
Jesus needs someone to stand up for the cause of the Gospel,
even an inconvenient Gospel.

We would love for Christ and the Gospel to be convenient.
We would love to create God in our image.
We would love to have Jesus reinforce what we already
decided or wanted or believed or . . .
So in the wisdom of God, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit,
not to pat our backs and hold our hands.
But to keep us from forgetting what Jesus was all about.
To keep us from distorting his message into something
he wouldn’t even recognize.

So we need to be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit,
who is among us,
and who is standing up, as an Advocate, for the Gospel.
We need to be able to recognize what we see and hear.
We need a way to discern whether some thought or feeling or ambition
is the Holy Spirit speaking,
or something we ate,
or something more sinister.
There is a test question . . . “Does it look like Jesus?”

When some person claims to hear from the Holy Spirit,
about this or that or the other thing . . .
does it look like Jesus?

When the church claims God’s Spirit is leading it,
as it moves to retake some position of power,
or to protect its institutional interests,
while it neglects the poor,
or those suffering outside its doors . . .
we can ask ourselves,
does that look like Jesus?

If some person says, “God told me to do this or that . . .”
Or if the church says, “God is leading us to go here, or go there . . .”
We have a right to ask, “Does it look like Jesus?
Or does it look like something we wanted to do anyway?”

Without even trying,
we can make the Holy Spirit say whatever is convenient.
We can distort the gospel message to say what we want it to say.

But there is an unbroken line that connects
the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth
and the ministry of the Holy Spirit today.

The job of the Holy Spirit,
is to be the loyal, persistent, undeterred, and expert Advocate
for the Jesus Way.
The job of the Holy Spirit is to stand up for,
to stand alongside, like an attorney,
whenever the life and teachings and meaning of Jesus are threatened
whenever they get distorted or misshapen
or used in ways that don’t honor Jesus.

And our job is to watch and listen . . . together . . . as the church,
and do the hard work of discerning . . . together . . . as the church,
so that we hopefully get it right, more often than we get it wrong.
There is no fail-safe way to know
that we correctly discerned the Spirit.
So we must be humble.
We must not fall into the mode of manage and control.
Because the breath of God, the Spirit,
is wild and raw and untamed.
It will blow where it will.

But the good news is that we have been sent the Advocate.
The Holy Spirit, even today,
is all about representing the Gospel of Jesus,
against our attempts to bend it to our advantage.
That is good news, for me, for the church, for the world.

So let’s thank God for sending the Spirit to be the Gospel Advocate.
That should comfort us.
That should help us stay grounded.
That should keep us, and the church,
from drowning in a sea of self-interest.

We know and love the old hymn about the Spirit,
“Breathe on me, breath of God.”
There is a newer version of that hymn in Sing the Journey #46
“O breathe on me, O breath of God.”

So let’s sing this song together,
remembering that the word for spirit and breath are same.
We’re asking the Spirit of God to breathe on us,
to fill us with life anew,
that we may love the things you love,
and do what you would do.
It’s a prayer for alignment.
That our will gets aligned with the purposes and will of God.

Let’s sing this on our own behalf,
and on behalf of the church.

So let me suggest that we sing the first two verses, as written,
in the first-person singular—me and I.
And in verses 3 and 4, we change it to first-person plural—we and us.
“O breathe on us, O breath of God, our will to yours incline,
until this selfish part of us glows with your fire divine.”
Same with verse 4.

God is still breathing the Spirit in us, around us, and beyond us.
Thanks be to God!
Discerning the God-breath among us is hard work,
but we are in this together.

—Phil Kniss, May 5, 2013

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