Sermon on John 14:23-29 for Easter 6 C, May 1, 2016
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, 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.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
I remember as a young person puzzling over the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make any sound?” Or this one, “Do colors exist, or is my experience of a color just the interpretations my brain makes on the basis of the rods and cones in my eyes as they receive part of the light spectrum reflected in different wavelengths by different objects?
Understanding Science – really?
Recently I heard a professor who asked the question, “Would a glass of water exist if I were not looking at it?” Apparently, the answer, from modern physics, is only “potentially so.” The reason for that involves quantum mechanics and is so complex I will not even attempt it. I am quite certain I do not understand it.
If the physical universe is so difficult to adequately comprehend, how much more so the non-material world? Think of all the great minds that have struggled, over the years, with questions like: What is love? What is freedom? What makes life meaningful? What is my purpose in life? As difficult to understand and talk about as they are, these are the kinds of abstractions that people live for, and are willing to die for.
If these non-material concepts are challenging, how much more so is the concept of God? I was listening to the Science Mike podcast in which he was answering a question about the different dimensions, besides space and time, that modern scientists speak of. In his explanation he said that there is no way our brains can conceptualize these other dimensions, even if mathematical models indicate their presence. Our brains just cannot conceive of them. The only world we experience is the world of three dimensional space and forward moving linear time.
How much more difficult is it for our brains to conceptualize God? We use words like “infinite,” but that does not go too far to help. Infinite is a negative, meaning not finite. We say “immortal,” but that too only means not mortal, not subject to death. We say “invisible,” but again, it only means that we cannot see God with human eyes.
In spite of this challenge, throughout the world, and from our earliest origins as humans, we have been attempting to speak of the Divine – the gods, or of one God. To speak of God is to use human concepts expressed in human language.
God-Language is Symbolic
This means that all of our language about God is symbolic. This is a hugely significant thing to say: all of our language of God is symbolic. At the core of our tradition as Christians, and at the core of Judaism is the essential mystery of God.
The closest we can come to naming God is found in the story of Moses at the burning bush. God’s voice, in the story, says God’s name is Yahweh, or “I am that I am” which is either pure being or, probably more accurately, pure becoming – being, in process. Well, that may be a name, but what does it mean?
So, every serious theologian and every religious tradition speaks of the ineffability of the Divine. So when we speak of God, we speak symbolically. We try to speak truthfully, but it is the truth of symbol. We use terms like, “the Ground of Being,” or “the Depth dimension of life.” John Calvin used the words “O depth” to speak of God as mystery, which I quoted not too long ago here.
Rejecting Inadequate God-conceptions
I believe that one of the biggest reasons we see a rise in atheism now is that many people are simply rejecting conceptions of God that are totally inadequate.
For example, if God is conceived of like a Superman, a being, apart from the world, who has unlimited power to act on the world, and sometimes does, but most of time just stands idly by, as evil and tragedy cause suffering and harm, then that God would be a moral monster.
Of course that kind of conception of God must be rejected. I guess if that were the only possible way of conceiving God, then rejecting that concept might make you an atheist. But perhaps it simply means that a new way of thinking about God is needed, which of course, is the case.
So, for me, calling God “the Ground of Being” or “the Depth dimension of life” is an attempt at being more adequate than the idle Superman concept, but these phrases have a severe limitation. They are impersonal.
God as Personal – at least
Whatever God is, God must be at least as sophisticated and complex as we humans are, but of course, much more. Just as plants are more complex than rocks, and animals more than plants, so we humans are complex enough to have consciousness. We know ourselves as persons. We have will and purpose. We can communicate and have relationships. God must at least have these personal capacities. God must at least be personal, though much more so, at a level we cannot imagine.
The Symbol of Spirit as Personal Advocate
I say all of that because we need to have that background when we read texts like the gospel of John. John’s community was a mystical community. Remember it is in John’s gospel alone that we hear Jesus saying, flat out, “God is Spirit.” So how do you speak of Spirit in human language? You must speak symbolically.
So in John we hear Jesus speaking symbolically of God, of himself, and of the Spirit. Jesus’ favorite symbol for God is to call him Father – very personal, very relational, even intimate. Jesus speaks of himself as mystics do, as being one with the Father. He understands himself as a vehicle for God the Father’s message.
But John’s community lived at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, and he was no longer present to speak with them about God.
Nevertheless, they still experienced God. And their experience of God had a distinctively Jesus flavor. The Spirit of Christ was still present for them. So what symbol could they use to speak of this in human language?
In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus calling the Spirit, the Advocate. In this symbolic language, Jesus speaks of the Father, sending the Spirit to us as an Advocate. Advocate was a term that was relevant to their culture. It just means someone that shows up to give you exactly the help you need in that moment.
Reminding and Teaching Further
What kind of help? Here we learn that the Spirit helps by reminding the Christian community of what Jesus taught. But more than that alone; the Spirit continues the teaching process further.
“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (14:26)
So, if the Spirit both reminds and teaches, then our task is to remain teachable. Our goal, as we try to follow Jesus in our culture, in our generation, is to keep open to the Spirit of Christ as he schools us. Mature Christians practice the spirituality of teachability.
What have we learned?
And, over the years, we have, indeed, been taught. We believe that the Spirit has taught us, after thousands of years of being unteachable, that slavery must not be tolerated. Jesus never said that, but we have been taught that by the Spirit.
The Spirit has also led us to open the doors of the church to the ministry of women, after all these years. And finally, we have concluded that there is no basis for discrimination that finds any justification for the community that follows Jesus. We are all and equally loved by God. God’s grace is the one and only basis for our spiritual lives. We have been taught to practice radical hospitality.
So the Christ Spirit is the Advocate who shows up teaching us what it means to follow Jesus in our generation. There is also a deeply personal aspect of the Spirit’s work as well. By the Spirit, God is not just an external presence, but an internal reality. The symbolic concept here is a home: God’s Spirit takes up residence inside us.
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
We live and move in God, so we could say that our home is in God, and here, we discover that God’s home is in us. Some call this a “mutual indwelling.” This is where even symbolic language utterly breaks down. It ends in a paradox. God in us, us in God. But how else can human language say it?
What does this symbolic language mean? It means, at least, that God is intimately involved in the moment-by-moment life we live. God is living God’s life in the lives of each of us. It means, at least, that God is there for us, as an Advocate, in every moment. It means, at least, that God is for us, not against us. It means, at least, that God is the name we give to that force in us, luring us towards love, towards the good, towards beauty and towards truth. It means, at least, that the trajectory of compassion that Jesus set in motion, can continue in us.
And of course the personal effect of knowing that as we live in God, God lives, by the Spirit of Christ, in us, as an Advocate, a teacher and guide, can only be one thing: peace.
“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.”
Peace, the opposite of anxiety and fear, is the product of a life of trust. We trust that God is with us, spiritually, in us, helping us, and that we are not abandoned as orphans, nor merely the little people, running around like ants, observed by the idle, distant Superman.
This is the peace that continues even in times of suffering and pain. Knowing that if God is at home in us, God is there, in fact suffering with us. Not as an external observer of our suffering, but one with us as an Advocate in our sufferings, assuring us that we are not abandoned. We will be alright.
How do we experience this peace? We experience this peace only as we are mindfully awake to the present moment. If God is in us by the Spirit, living our lives in us, this can only be about the present moment we are living.
We do not live in the past; it is over. We do not live in the future that has not yet happened in our experience. We can only live in the present; in the moment. So God’s Spirit is in the present moment. It is in the present moment that we come to experience the peace that the Spirit gives.
How do we become more mindfully present in the moment? Mindfulness is one of the fruits of practices like meditation. This important and historic Christian practice almost dropped out of use by Protestants after the theological battles of the Reformation, but thankfully, meditation is being rediscovered by many today.
A regular practice of contemplative prayer, or mindfulness meditation, and other mindfulness practices such as yoga or mindful walking, produces the fruit of mindfulness in us, allowing us to experience the peace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.
Fingers pointing at the moon
Yes, all these words are symbolic. And, as symbols, they are inadequate. We acknowledge that fact. But as symbols, they point to a reality, like fingers pointing at the moon. The fingers pointing are not the moon, but all we can do from here is point, and give gratitude.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,”
because, as we can only express symbolically, we have the Spirit, the Advocate, sent by the Father, at home in us, teaching us to follow the Jesus path, giving us peace.