Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
John 14:23-29 (There is also a Voice Bible Study on John 13:31-14:31)
This reading seems rather oddly divided since it begins by breaking into a conversation between Judas (not Iscariot) and Jesus, and ends two verses short of the end of the chapter that concludes the thought begun in verse one. Since this passage is a Pentecost reading in the RCL (vv. 23b-26 are Roman Catholic Lectionary readings for Pentecost Sunday), the selection is obviously topical. Ordinarily, when readings are so selected, it requires even greater effort and care to understand their significance in the context of the passage before moving too quickly to proclamation. While that is still true here, the fact that these readings come from John's Gospel, and in a particular place in the Fourth Gospel, makes the selection more understandable. (Since we do not know which John, if any, of those by this name in the NT wrote this material, "John" is as good a way as any to refer to the author or authors.)
One stylistic element of the Johannine literature is its deliberate but repetitive structure. John tends to tackle large themes and then illustrate them with specific events and collected (and often elaborated) sayings from the Jesus traditions. Often in so doing, he circles back over the same material more than once, saying the same thing in slightly different ways.
That feature is especially evident in the chapters of the Farewell Discourse, as the section in which this reading occurs is commonly known (chs. 14-17, see Outline of the Book of John). He repeats the same ideas, words, phrases, and even whole verses. This can make reading this material tedious if it is not done carefully with an eye to the sometimes subtle nuances John gives to the material, or without understanding the didactic nature of much of the book. So, while on one level these verses are disconnected from their context, it does not take much effort to reattach them to the flow of thought here.
This section of John is sometimes known as the Great Discourse or the Supper Discourse, but is generally known as the Farewell Discourse. It begins with Jesus answering Peter's question, "Lord, where are you going?" (13:36). It concludes with Jesus' High Priestly Prayer (ch. 17) that serves not only as a Last Testament to his ministry (vv. 1-5), but also as a commissioning of the disciples (vv. 6-19) and the later church that would arise around them (20-26). Just before this section, Judas has just left the company to carry out his betrayal (13:21-30), and immediately following, Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane (ch. 18). It is in this atmosphere of uncertainty, darkened by an ominous future (note John's characteristic use of light/darkness in 13:30), that Jesus brings his final words to the disciples. This narrative setting also gives us some clues to how John wants us to hear this material.
The internal structure of these chapters and their relationship to each other may have some significance in hearing this text adequately. While it is pointless to speculate very far as to composition of this material, especially in trying to recreate an "original" form of the text, it is interesting to note two possible ways of reading the chapters.
On the one hand it is possible to read them sequentially, as if they are unfolding discourse, with the seemingly innocent questions of the disciples leading to ever more detailed answers from Jesus, finally leading to the climax of the prayer. The fact that John has structured the narrative in this way leads us to see a group of disciples who have little sense of what is unfolding in the life of Jesus, seemingly unable to grasp even the simplest concepts that Jesus has spent three years trying to teach them (note 14:9). They are confused (13:36-37) and uncertain about what to do next or the path that they will need to travel (13:5). They have heard Jesus talk about leaving, and they seem unable to comprehend that reality, and so unable to formulate any response. Jesus attempts to teach them, but as the chapters unfold here, there is a growing realization that they will not understand until after Jesus is gone.
This opens the opportunity for Jesus to talk about the coming of a new Teacher who will help them remember and understand what he has taught. This leads to the final prayer of Jesus that is clearly future oriented, as he prays for the disciples who will remain in the world, and for those who will come to believe because of them.
On the other hand, a second way to read this material is to take seriously both the literary style of John, and the perspective from which he is writing, and so his purpose in writing. From this perspective, chapter 17 is the heart of this section, the climax of Jesus' instructions to the church. The previous three chapters, then, actually work backwards from there serving as a commentary on that chapter. Chapter 14 is the summary of this commentary, with chapters 15 and 16 expanding and clarifying the implications of both 14 and 17.
This suggests that, as in other places in John, the disciples are really representatives of the early church and the questions on their lips are the questions that John's church is facing. This does not at all suggest that this is fictitious material, only that John, like the other Gospel writers, is shaping the Gospel traditions to address the needs of his community. It is on that level that we can read over his shoulder and hear how the same Gospel traditions might speak to the church today.
John was writing from a time toward the end of the first century in which the early church was coming into its own. And yet, that maturing church was facing challenges both externally in the form of Roman persecutions and internally in the form of those who were perverting the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (cf. 1 John 2:18 ff). The threat facing the community was internal bickering that would weaken the community's ability not only to face external pressures but also to fulfill its mission in the world.
From this perspective, John presents here both a theology of community and a theology of mission, centered around the overarching category of love. It is this love that will bind the community together as followers of Jesus. But he also understands that they cannot do this in their own effort and without developing an understanding of what Jesus meant when he spoke of loving one another.
John's concern is with what the church is becoming, and, looking into the future, what the church will become in the face of these pressures. His encouragement is that even though Jesus is absent, they are still bound together in relation to God through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community. While Luke focuses on the power of the Holy Spirit in terms of the spread of the Gospel, John focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of the community itself, as he teaches and guides the community in the face of threats and temptations. It is in that light that John brings the Gospel traditions to bear upon a community under siege, yet a community that is becoming. And he is committed to helping that community become the loving, nurturing, proclaiming fellowship that he understands to be the embodiment of the teachings of Jesus.
Because of the style of writing here, the internal structure of chapter 14 is not easily outlined. There are interlocking sections marked by repeated key words or phrases ("let not your heart be troubled," vv. 1, 27; the "Advocate," vv. 16, 26; "home," vv. 2, 23; "go" and "come," vv. 2-3, 12, 18, 28; "you know," vv. 4, 7, 17, 20, 31; "keep," vv. 15, 21, 23, 24). Likewise, the theme of love carried from the previous chapter, and the more immediate concern with the presence (or absence) of Jesus and the coming of the Advocate to the disciples are interwoven throughout the chapter. This suggests, as already noted, that the significance here more likely lies in these repeated elements than in any specific structure or flow of the narrative.
The beginning of this reading is Jesus' answer to Judas' question about how Jesus would reveal himself to the disciples and not to the world (v. 22). This question arose from Jesus' first mention of the Advocate (v. 15-17), which he explained could not be received by the world but only by "those who love me" (v. 21). All of this is in the context of Jesus' announcement that he would be "with you only a little longer" (13:33). He assured the disciples that even though he was going away, his departure would not be an ending. It would actually be a new beginning of an even more important work in the world that his disciples and even those to follow later would continue (14:12; cf. v. 28).
Jesus' answer to Judas' question was not direct, because it seems obvious that Judas had misunderstood the nature of the revealing that Jesus has just mentioned (v. 21). Judas seemed to have in mind an extraordinary manifestation of Jesus to the world, which he could not conceptualize in terms of the disciples only. This recalls the misunderstanding of the crowds after the feeding of the 5,000 in which they were willing to proclaim Jesus king because of his miracles, yet which Jesus rejected as being an inappropriate means to the Kingdom (6:15, 26).
Jesus' answer here was very similar to his answer to the crowds in that instance. He returned to three interwoven themes that are the heart of this section: love, faithfulness in keeping Jesus' word, and the presence of God in an assuring way with the disciples. The relationship of these three concepts here, as elsewhere in John, is that those who truly love God (Jesus, in this case) will keep the commandment (word) of God, which has already been summarized as "love one another" (13:34), and that God's presence will abide (or "dwell" in the metaphor of "home") with those who do love God and one another even in Jesus' absence.
This response clearly sets the reassurance to the disciples who are facing an uncertain future in the context of faithfulness to the teachings of the Father through Jesus (v. 24). And that faithfulness ("keep") will work out in love toward both God and each other (vv. 15, 23; cf. 13:35). Even though at this point they may not understand what all that entails, it is clear that faithfulness expressed in love is a crucial factor in their future. For them to experience the love of God, they must keep the words of Jesus. And there is some sense that the revelation of God only comes to those who love him and keep his words (v. 21).
The reassurance to the disciples is underscored by a shift in the use of "home" here. The beginning of the chapter had described Jesus leaving to prepare homes ("dwelling places") for the disciples. He would then come back and take them to that home. This has clearly has future and even eschatological overtones of the Parousia or Second Coming.
However, here (v. 23) the "home" is where the disciples are now, as God ("we") comes to them and makes his home among them. The emphasis here is just as clearly on the present, and God's work among the disciples now as they remain in the world even as Jesus leaves (cf. 17:15). While this passage expects a future "homecoming," the emphasis here clearly falls on real life living in the world between now and then.
There is also implied in the use of "we" here (v. 23), as well as other features, a developed Christology that emphasizes the unity of Jesus with the Father. To love Jesus is to love the Father. Not to keep Jesus' words is to disobey the Father (v. 24). This continues the thought from earlier in the chapter that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father (v. 9; cf. 5:23, 6:38-40, 8:28-29, 10:30). This lays the groundwork for the close relationship of Jesus with the Advocate. As God has sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus has asked that the Advocate be sent into the world (v. 16) to continue his work after his ministry has ended.
Verse 25 returns to the topic of the Advocate or Paraclete. This is the second of five Paraclete sayings in John (14:16, 15:26, 16:7-11, 12-15). The Greek term parakletos means "one called alongside" or "an advocate." The term has overtones of a legal advocate, such as we might think associated with courtroom procedures today. However, it should not be seen in narrowly legal categories, since the basic idea is to aid, either by assisting or by defending. (Neither the old KJV rendering of "Comforter" nor the RSV rendering of "Counselor" are adequate translations of this term.)
In the earlier reference (v. 16), "another" is used with the advocate that God will send at the departure of Jesus so that the disciples would not be left "orphaned." This suggests that the advocate is to continue in some dimension the work of Jesus, who is also seen as an advocate. Also, in that first reference, the advocate is called the "spirit of truth" (v. 16). In our passage, the Advocate is clearly identified as the Holy Spirit.
The role of the Holy Spirit here is twofold: to "teach" the disciples, and to "remind" them of what Jesus had already taught them (v. 26). John has already made it clear that the disciples do not understand what Jesus has been trying to tell them, even though they have been with him "all this time" (v. 9). And yet, to face the future securely and with a clear sense of purpose, and to prevent fragmentation of the community, they need to know, to understand. John affirms here that even though Jesus will no longer be with them, God will continue to be present among them. As Jesus has been with them, they will not be left alone in their misunderstanding. He will continue to be with them in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will continue teaching them and helping them understand and build on what Jesus has already taught them. The Advocate will bring no new revelation; God has already revealed Himself in Jesus. But the advocate will deepen their understanding of that revelation of God in Jesus.
It is in this sense that they are not to be troubled (v. 27). This is not the cliché tourist ads that blithely proclaim, "Don't worry, Be happy!" It is not that unrealistic; in fact, it is in the face of a very real threat that this call comes. The ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in this community will bring a security of God's presence as he unfolds to them the implications of what God has done in Jesus. That is not a security in the sense of physical safety, but a security of calling and purpose. And if they have that security, they will be able to meet the threats.
It is this teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit that allays the troubled hearts that cannot see a future without Jesus. This is the "peace" with which Jesus leaves them. Here "peace" is not just the absence of conflict, but the far wider concept of shalom, the total wellbeing of the person and community. The promise of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will bring a peace that will quell their fears of the unfolding darkness ahead.
In this context Jesus can tell them not only that they should not fear his departure, but that they should actually rejoice at the prospect (v. 28). His departure would open up a whole new future for them, as well as allow Jesus to return to the Father. Again, there are subtle eschatological overtones here as the first part of the chapter is recalled. The return of Jesus to the Father means that the future unfolding of God's purposes are in process, the "home" is being prepared, and the return of Jesus can take place.
But this still is not escapism. While the eschatological dimension is there, the emphasis still falls on the present realities of living as God's people, as the church, in an uncertain world of conflict and apostasy. Jesus has constantly told them of that future (v. 29), but they simply cannot comprehend it. Yet, with the presence of the Holy Spirit filling the void in the community left by Jesus' departure, John is convinced that the community will endure, will be faithful in its witness (cf. 21:24), and will be able to withstand the attacks of false teachers. From this conviction, John records that one of the last acts of the resurrected Christ was to impart to the disciples the Holy Spirit (20:22).
The nature of the text here with its interlocking themes allows a great deal of diversity in preaching from this passage. In general, however, the preaching paths from this text will lead in two general directions.
A Preaching Path closer to the setting of the passage in John's Gospel and in the Johannine community would lead to hearing the passage from the perspective of the needs of the church. Since John is using the disciples as a way to address the needs of his later community through the Jesus traditions, John himself has already laid the basis for moving this direction. While this focus should not be divorced from the main topic of the text, the promise and work of the Holy Spirit in the community, it may still provide an opportunity to address very contemporary issues from the perspective of the early church.
This does not mean that the passage here can be applied as "proof text" answers to these issues. But it can provide a point of view, a way to see the situation in relation to Jesus as understood by the Johannine community. While most church communities today are not faced with external persecution, in many cases they are faced with questions of identity and mission, often in relation to the diversity of opinions relating to theological, doctrinal, or ethical issues facing them. And often this escalates to the level of crisis growing from a sense of uncertainty as to the "correct" interpretation or application of Scripture or church doctrine. That is invariably expressed in tensions between opposing camps or schools of thought or opinions that have the potential of creating havoc in Christian fellowship. That is almost exactly the situation that faced the Johannine community as expressed in the first Johannine Epistle (1 John 2). While that situation is not obviously in view here, there is enough subtle polemic against false teachers in John for us to realize that it lies in the background of the Fourth Gospel.
John's perspective should probably not be seen in terms of a mystical solution as is sometimes proposed by some groups today. That is, the passage here does not speak of God through the Holy Spirit simply giving an answer to someone through a vision or a "word" or a special revelation, who then declares that truth to others as authoritative with a pronouncement "God told me" or "The Holy Spirit revealed it to me." It is this approach that often creates or precipitates some of the very problems John seems to be aimed at countering. And this goes contrary to the work of the Holy Spirit in community as described here (see below).
Rather, the emphasis is on the communal dimension of love and fellowship that is centered around a commitment to love God and to love each other. And there is emphasis on the unity of the community as they are bound together in Christ through the Holy Spirit (cf. 17:22). In fact, as he has already declared and now is elaborating, the very mark of being disciples of Jesus, the very nature of this community that claims to follow Jesus and keep his words, is defined as love for one another that is an expression of love for the Father through the son (cf. v. 35).
There are other places where more narrowly defined issues of church order and organization are at the center. Those cannot be discounted, since love is not so abstract that it cannot be expressed in concrete forms and structure. Yet here, John is not addressing church structure or organization, but the very essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
And while this should not drift too far into mystical revelation, since the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, gives no new revelation here, there is clearly a dimension of community that is governed by the Holy Spirit. That is, this community is not just a collection of people who share common beliefs or common efforts. There is a unity among them that is reinforced by the presence of the Holy Spirit among them who teaches and calls to remembrance who they are as Jesus' followers. They are not alone trying to make their own way the best way they can, they are not orphans. They are guided by the presence of God in the Advocate just as they were taught by God in the presence of Jesus. And if they receive the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, they will experience the peace of God that will go far beyond lack of conflict.
There is no guarantee that the presence of the Holy Spirit will eliminate disagreements among those in the church. But there is a clear sense here that if a community is not governed by love through the work of the Holy Spirit in midst, there will be no peace of the kind that Jesus gives. And in view of some of the conflicts raging in some churches, on both denominational and local levels, the call for peace through community and the work of the Holy Spirit in that community seems entirely appropriate. While there certainly needs to be diligence against false teachings in the church, the nearly paranoiac fear that leads to hostility against any form of disagreement among Christians is simply alien to the work of the Holy Spirit in the community. As the same Johannine community expressed on another occasion, in the context of dealing with "false prophets," "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
The second Preaching Path for this text tracks closer to the theological communication of the passage relating to the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. The temptation here will be to move into systematic categories that go far beyond the text itself. If that temptation is resisted, this text can provide some points of reflection on the impact of this theology on the life of the church.
A way into this reflection might be to compare and contrast the different perspectives on the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts with the Johannine literature, especially in this text. While in Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit is often presented in terms of power (e.g., Luke 1:35, 4:1, 14, Acts 1:8, 8:19, 10:38, etc.), here the emphasis is on calling to remembrance and teaching. This should raise tremendous cautions against blending the Lukan perspective with this chapter and conclude that the "greater works" of which Jesus speaks are works of power, that is greater miracles. That had been the perspective of Judas (v. 21) that Jesus had rejected, just as he had earlier rejected miracles as the means to call people to belief in him and his mission to the world (ch. 6). Yet here, the "greater works" are tied both in what precedes and what follows in this passage to the love of God and others that defines the community of Faith.
And here is where the two perspectives of Luke and John actually come very close together. While the points of emphasis and the language are different, what each conceives as the work of the Holy Spirit is nearly identical. Both see the work of the Holy Spirit enabling people to carry out the purposes of God in the world, especially in the community that would come to be called the church. The Holy Spirit's work in the world, whether conceived in terms of power or in terms of teaching and guiding, is to enable the church to carry out its calling as witnesses to the revelation of God in Jesus the Christ.
From John's perspective, the coming of Jesus means that now knowledge of God comes only through the person, words, and works of Jesus (14:8-11). And now that Jesus would be gone, that knowledge of God would be revealed through the Holy Spirit as he teaches and reveals through calling to mind the life and teachings of Jesus.
For us, now nearly two millennia removed from Jesus, part of that teaching of Jesus is passed to us through the community in Scripture. It is this sense that Paul Achtemeier can speak of the "inspiration" (in-Spirit-ed) of the Scripture as an ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit continuing to work in the community just as John has declared here. That is, the work of the Holy Spirit in calling to remembrance is not limited to inspiring the words of Scripture at a point in the past when they were written, but extends to inspiring the readers and hearers of the message of Scripture. He says that the inspiration of Scripture should be seen as "the continuing presence of the Spirit with the community of faith as it preserved and renewed its traditions in response to the new situations into which God led it." (The Inspiration of Scripture, p. 141). And that activity continues even to the proclamation of the message in preaching and teaching.
That should be no excuse for spiritual pride or arrogance, whereby interpretations of Scripture or doctrine are used as clubs with which to beat others into submission. The work of the Holy Spirit is in the context of love for God and others, and it brings the Peace of Jesus into the community. That seems to imply the reverse, that if a community is not marked by love and the peace of Jesus that the Holy Spirit is not being allowed to work (cf. 13:45).
Yet there should also be some confidence among those who keep the words of Jesus and who are committed to the love of God through Christ, that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, will indeed lead into all truth (16:13). That does not mean that every belief a person holds is inspired by God, nor does it mean that it will all come at once in a mystical encounter (note "lead," which implies growth over time). But at the very least it should mean that the proclamation of the testimony to Jesus the Christ is not governed by techniques of delivery or strategies for growth, or by the depth of insight of the speaker, or even by trying to construct precisely defined theological systems, as important as all that might be. Finally, the proclamation is governed by the active presence of the Holy Spirit who will help apply the teachings into the lives of people who are willing to hear. And his faithfulness in doing that, and the people allowing him to do it, will lead to a community marked by love and shalom.
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