Scripture - John 14:12-21
“If only we had been there when Jesus was around,” some believers say. “It would have been so much easier. He would have explained everything to us, & told us what to do. And he would have been so encouraging. Whatever we were doing, he would be positive about it,
& we would want to go on & do even better.”
It is a common perception, but it is wrong on 2 counts.
First, the evidence of the 4 gospels suggests that the people who were around in Jesus’ day didn’t see it like that themselves. His closest friends betrayed & denied him. Even the beloved disciple ran away in the garden. Most people really couldn’t figure him out. He was compelling but puzzling. Many thought he was mentally unstable.
Second, in this passage & several others in John 15 & 16, we find Jesus has promised to be ‘around’ with his people – from that day right up to today. In fact, he has promised that it will be easier, not harder, in this new age. His people will be able to do things they couldn’t do when he was physically present.
But how is he ‘around’ today?
He promised to send his own spirit, his own breath, his own inner life. Here, & for the next 2 chapters, he uses a special word to describe this spirit. In verse 16 he says the Father will give us the Companion. This Companion is the Holy Spirit.
But the word translated Companion is rich & many-sided – in Greek, paraclete. It doesn’t simply mean someone who comes to lend assistance in our various tasks. It certainly does mean that as well: the Spirit, as we shall see, comes to give God’s people the strength & energy to do what they have to do, to live for God & witness to his love in the world. But it means at least 2 other things as well.
One word sometimes used is Comforter. Comfort is a strange & wonderful thing. Have you noticed how, when we are deeply distressed, after a death or a tragedy, the fact of having other people with us, hugging us & being alongside us, gives us strength for the next moment, then the one after that, & then the one after that? Outwardly, nothing has changed. The tragedy is still a tragedy. The deceased person won’t be coming back. But other human support changes our ability to cope with disaster. It gives us strength. When the Spirit is spoken of as the Comforter, this kind of extra strength to meet our special need is what is in mind.
But there is something quite different as well. An equally good translation for the word paraclete is Advocate. An advocate stands up in a court of law & explains to the judge or jury how things are from his or her client’s point of view. The advocate pleads the case. Jesus assumes that his followers will often find themselves, as he found himself, on the wrong side of official persecution. He saw the situation, as centuries of Jewish tradition had done before him, in terms of the heavenly court of law with God as the judge. In that court, his people can rest assured that their case will be heard, & that God will constantly be reminded of their plight, because the Spirit will plead on their behalf. Paul says much the same thing in Romans 8:26-27.
As a result of this promised Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus himself, Christians now, remarkable as it may be, are in a better situation even than the followers of Jesus during his lifetime. They were sometimes able to do remarkable things even then; Jesus gave them power, the gospels tell us, to perform healings like his own. But mostly they were following him in some perplexity, & when he wasn’t there they couldn’t do very much.
But now, by the Spirit, Jesus’ followers are able to do all kinds of things. When Jesus went to the Father – in other words, when he defeated the power of death through his own death & resurrection – then all sorts of new possibilities opened in front of them & us. The works he has been doing, as he says again & again, are the evidence that the Father is at work in him. Now he says that the disciples can do even greater works than these!
It is in that setting, too, that he makes the first of several remarkable promises about prayer. I will do whatever you ask for in my name. That all important phrase, in my name does not, of course, just mean adding “in the name of Jesus” to anything we might think of, however stupid, selfish or hurtful. The name, after all, as in many cultures, is supposed to reveal the character. Yesterday I saw on TV some demonstrators protesting against something the government was doing. “Not in my name!” their posters said. What they meant was: “You are claiming to represent this country, but I am dissociating myself from what you are doing! You are not doing it in my name!”
Praying in Jesus’ name, then, means that, as we get to know who Jesus is, we also find ourselves drawn into his life & love & sense of purpose. We will begin to see what needs doing, what we should be aiming at within our sphere of possibilities, & what resources we need to do it. When we then ask, it will be in Jesus’ name, & to his glory; & through that, to the glory of the Father himself. But, when all of this is understood, we should not go soft on that marvelous word anything. Jesus said it, & he means it!
The last 3 verses of our reading present a wonderful circle of promises that are ours because of Jesus’ being with us by the Spirit. We can see him, plain to the eyes of faith. We will live with his new life. We can know the deepest theological knowledge of all: that he & the Father are in each other, & that we are in him & he in us. And we can be joined to Jesus & the Father by an unbreakable bond of love. This, in turn, leads us back to where the sequence began. He will show himself to us. All the main themes of the gospel are now revealed for what they are: truths about the inner life of the Father & the Son.
As retired Bishop Wil Willimon put it in his book, This We Believe: At Pentecost they gathered, Jews from every nation on earth, to remember the gift of the first 5 books of the Bible to Israel – thus the name for the festival, penta, meaning 5. No sooner had they gathered to look back in memory then there was the howling of a fierce wind that came suddenly… from heaven, & they found their foundations shaken, disrupted, & the Holy Spirit descending, moving them forward. Everybody began to testify to what God was doing in their midst; everybody understood one another in spite of their national differences.
We too have gathered, many of us to simply remember the past, only to have the Holy Spirit thrust us into a new, unexpected future.