My strongest memory of this week’s first Gospel passage is from a pastoral moment gone awry.
I was praying with a group of seminarians before they started a very long day of ordination exams. I decided it would be encouraging, comforting in the midst of stress, to quote Jesus:
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.” (John 14:27 NRSV)
After all, when Jesus spoke these words he was trying to comfort his anxious disciples.
But as I prayed those sweet words, one trembling Presbyterian burst out,
Oh no! It’s the funeral passage!
I suppose these verses really are heard most often at funerals. And for the same reason. Pastors want to comfort the grieving, so we have woven Jesus’ promise of peace into our liturgies and prayers.
But when you read with just a bit of context, say the whole of John 14:23-29 as assigned for the 6th Sunday of Easter in Year C of the lectionary, the passage presents us some larger, and really interesting, theological themes.
(Actually the lectionary gives two Gospel texts for the 6th Sunday of Easter. You can find my meditation on the other one, John 5:1-9, here.)
A Trinitarian passage
More than a funeral passage, I see this as a Trinitarian passage.
Much of the “Upper Room Discourse” or “Farewell Discourse” in John could be described that way. Jesus discusses each of the Persons of the Trinity — the Father of the Son, the Son of the Father (aka, himself), and the Holy Spirit.
He emphasizes the relations between the Persons.
He details the work of the Persons in relation to us.
And along the way he presents the radical good news that we human beings are drawn up into relationship and even union with the Trinity.
Here in this section
- the Father’s love is given to the followers of the Son,
- the words of the Son are said to be from the Father,
- the Spirit is promised as our advocate and to teach us of the Son,
- Jesus is going to the Father…
The trinitarian nature of God turns out to be crucial to everything Jesus does on our behalf — and that’s worth considering very deeply.
A Mysticism passage
All this good Trinitarian stuff, however, is spoken in the context of Jesus anticipating the disciples’ coming grief. It is part of his attempt to provide some comfort.
The comfort Jesus offers is about something very mysterious: the ongoing and very real presence of God in their lives.
Jesus says that he and his Father will do several things for those who love him:
…my Father will love them,
and we will come to them
and make our home with them.” (John 14:23 NRSV)
He also says that the Spirit will be on the scene to support and teach, thanks to the Father and the Son (cf. John 14:26).
All of this is direct. It is God’s presence with the believer, unmediated by anything.
And that, my friend, is a prominent definition of “mysticism.”
Bernard McGinn, in his extraordinary multivolume history of Christian mysticism in the West talks about how slippery the concept of mysticism is. But McGinn’s scholarly definition attempts to distill what is really being described when the term is used historically and theologically: mysticism is a direct, unmediated encounter with God.
I know: to a lot of Christians “mysticism” is a bad word. We act as if it is inherently non-Christians, or contrary to a the life of faith as revealed in Scripture.
Personally I’ve always thought this was either rather sad or rather funny. Why? Because the same parts of Christianity that complain that mysticism is a problem will tell you that Christianity, boiled down to its essence, is “a personal relationship with God.”
Our logic, combined with McGinn’s scholarship, goes something like this:
- We think mysticism is bad.
- Instead we think real Christianity itself is a personal relationship with God.
- But a personal relationship is, pretty much, a “direct, unmediated encounter” with God.
- And a direct unmediated encounter with God is the actual definition of mysticism.
- So… our sense of real Christianity sounds a lot like mysticism.
But I’ll leave behind my personal polemic against the illogic of Christians on this matter.
I’ll simply emphasize that in this Gospel passage, Jesus promises each of us a direct, unmediated encounter with each of the three Persons of the Trinity.
And I think that is very good news.
The measure of love
A third important theological issue here is pretty straightforward. Jesus gives us a measure by which to tell whether we really love him or not.
That may seem unnecessary. After all, don’t I know whether I love someone?
Maybe or maybe not.
On the one hand, people’s feelings can be a muddle. Where would the romantic comedy genre be if people in books and movies always knew whether they were in love?
But on the other hand love is a behavioral issue — and that’s what Jesus points us to.
Those who love me
will keep my word,
Whoever does not love me
does not keep my words… ” (John 14:23-24 NRSV)
The thing is, love is not solely a noun — something you have, a state you are in.
Love is, in many more important ways, a verb — it is something you do.
Jesus does want our love. He’s quite clear that the key to all the commandments is to love God with all of your being.
But no matter how strong our “noun love” — our feelings — he really insists on our “verb love.”
He is quite clear here that the measure of whether we love him is whether we do what he has told us to do.
So it’s important that we do some ongoing self-examination. We need to look at the lives we live, especially what we do in Jesus’ name, and ask whether we are doing what he said.
And if our so-called Christian actions increase the amount of misery, poverty, hatred, and division in the world then we may need to make a fresh start.
That includes what we do and say on social media.
(If you want some good approaches to the Christian practice of self-examination, see the chapters on St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Puritans in my book Kneeling with Giants.)
The work of the Spirit
The fourth fascinating theological theme in this passage is the work of the Spirit.
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.” (John 14:26 NRSV)
There is a lot more about the Spirit in the Farewell Discourses, but this bit is worth noticing.
In the 21st century, after a hundred years of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, we tend to assume certain things about the Holy Spirit — especially that the Spirit’s work is giving gifts, like tongues and healing.
Biblical as that emphasis is, it is not the whole picture.
When Jesus describes the Spirit’s work (and he ought to know) his emphasis is different.
The Spirit comes as an Advocate. We need help in the trials of this life. The Spirit’s work is to stand beside us, like our attorney, defending us from the enemy’s accusation and arguing our case with the Judge.
And the Spirit comes as a Teacher, quietly, inwardly, helping us learn what God wants to teach us.
- That may be helping us see what God is trying to get across in Scripture.
- Or it may be reminding us, at just the right time, which word spoken by Jesus matters most in a given situation.
- Or it may be opening our eyes to see what God is doing around us in the world.
But the Spirit comes to teach us everything — everything we need to know and understand and follow the Jesus we love.
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