May 24, 2020
William G. Carter
Jesus says, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” 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.”
In the weeks after Easter, we are considering the evidence that the resurrection continues. We have heard the testimony that Christ is alive. The evidence is all around us. Let me offer a quick review:
· We heard from the first letter of Peter, who announces how Easter speaks the word of hope. We see signs that human brokenness has been broken. They bear the seeds of resurrection hope.
· From the Gospel of Luke, we listen for the continuing preaching of the Gospel. The Risen Christ comes as a stranger to open the scriptures. In his voice, we hear continuity between what God said back then and what God says here and now.
· In the book of Acts, we hear of the formation of a remarkable community of Christians. The church cares for one another, feeds one another, heals one another, and thus continues what Jesus did for others.
· John’s Gospel promises a home with Christ. It is not a condominium on a cloud, but a way of life which continues to abide in God’s eternal realm.
· Last week, we heard the primary human question: “What is God like?” The answer comes by studying Jesus. He reveals the identity and purpose of the hidden Creator.
Today, the evidence continues through a most extraordinary gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the text, Jesus prepares to return to the Father, but he loves us so much to send us the Spirit. As Jesus prepares to go, he says. “I will ask the Father and he will send you another Advocate to be with you forever.”
What does he mean, an Advocate? From the legal world, an advocate is somebody who takes your side, stands up for you, supports you, and stays with you. As one Bible scholar translates the word, the Spirit is a Holy Friend.
Well, where is this advocate? Jesus says, “The world will not see him, but you will see him. The world cannot receive him because the world cannot see him and does not know him.”
So who is this Advocate? And Jesus says, “I am coming to you. I will not leave you as orphans.” Our Holy Friend is the invisible Presence of Jesus himself. There is nothing spooky about the Holy Ghost.
And how do we welcome this Advocate? Christ says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and the Father and I will come and make our home with them.” In other words, the way to welcome the Holy Spirit is through love, the same love we have heard before. Love God - the God we have seen in Jesus - and love one another. This is the sum of the commandments. “Trust this,” says Jesus, for this is a commandment, too. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” – you will trust and you will love.
Are we following this so far? Just one more question: does the Advocate have a name? Yes. He says, “This is the Spirit of Truth.”
I checked the reference books. The writer of John’s Gospel is the only one to refer to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. Every other biblical writer speaks of the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit. But three times here, and once in a letter, John names the gift as the Spirit of Truth.
That’s probably because Truth is one of John’s special words. John has a small bag full of words that he repeats in telling the story of Jesus. Life is one of those words. Another favorite word is dwell, sometimes translated as abide. One of John’s all-time favorite words is love, which appears eight times in today’s text!
One more favorite word is truth. The Greek word is “aletheia,” which pops up over twenty times in this Gospel. Truth comes on the very first page. “The Word became flesh, full of grace and truth.” Just to reinforce the point, John repeats it a few verses later: “The law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
What Jesus requests for us, and what Jesus and the Father give us as a gift of love, is the Spirit of Truth.
In the ancient world, truth was a big deal. All the philosophers sat around and discussed the virtues. They dialogued. They debated. They sought to move closer to the truth. They would have perked up if they ever heard Jesus say, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” (8:12).
In the Mediterranean world, the philosophers believed a catchphrase from the old TV show, The X-Files. The truth is out there. You have to look for it. I know this first hand; against their better judgment, my parents paid for me to get a college degree in philosophy.
But not everybody is interested in the search. Maybe you remember that Good Friday moment when Pontius Pilate looked over a beaten-up Galilean with a crown of thorns on his head. Jesus says to him, “I was born to witness to the truth. Everybody who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate lights up a cigarette and sneers, “What is truth?” He does not wait for an answer because he doesn’t really care.
In that moment, the truth about Pilate is been revealed. This is how the Gospel of John understands Truth. It is more than a fact or a series of facts. Truth is not obvious, like the mask on your face. Truth is what lies underneath the mask. It must be revealed.
I don’t know how you spend your Friday nights. I spent mine observing an internet squabble. As Memorial Day weekend breaks and the weather turns nice, several people are pushing to go back to something they thought was normal. So the topic was returning to church. Or as one woman said, “If we can go to Walmart, we can go to church.”
Somebody else replied, “I hate going to Walmart, just on general principle, but I would love to go to church. The problem is, neither one is safe. Not now.”
The first woman said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. This pandemic is a bunch of nonsense.” To which the second person retorted, “There are over a million cases of Covid-19, and almost a hundred thousand Americans have died.” And the first person said, “That’s not true. Nobody knows the true facts on the numbers.”
The second person was wise enough to not engage any further. There are some conflicts you can’t win. And there are some people you can’t convince. Some people refuse to look at facts. When confronted, they come up with “alternative facts.” When pushed, they change the subject. They have convinced themselves of something less than the truth; and this is the truth.
Here is the Gospel of John can teach us: the truth is not a series of facts, like the “sky is blue” or “up is that way.” The truth is what’s going on in the person who ignores what is really going on, or uses the data selectively, or twists it for their own purposes. This is why the Jesus of John’s Gospel declares the world cannot receive the Spirit of Truth. The world resists the very thing that can make it well.
For instance, maybe you will remember the unfortunate case of Colonel Nathan Jessup. When we meet him in the movie, “A Few Good Men,” he is a strong, forceful Marine, the base commander at Guantanamo. Called to testify at a murder trial, he defiantly declares it is a waste of his important time. When the inexperienced trial attorney catches him in a lie and demands the truth, Colonel Jessup bellows, “You can’t handle the truth.”
As it turns out, he can’t handle it, either. He has covered it up. He ordered the crime, the “code red,” and now he has now entrapped himself in his own arrogance. That is the truth. It comes out. The truth always comes out. As Jesus says somewhere else, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered.” (Matthew 10:26).
We live in a world that cannot handle the truth. White people don’t want to hear that black teenagers risk their lives when they go jogging in Georgia. Those who have the means to escape a virus in their second home ignore those back in the city, some of whom get sick because three generations are crammed in a one-toilet apartment. Those who have the courage to recover from an addiction know first-hand how they hid the bottle in the toolbox and wrapped their illness in lies. It wasn’t only the gin that was doing them in. The cover-up consumed them.
The world can’t handle the truth. The wife says the marriage is going well when it’s not. The husband hides the credit card statement to avoid scrutiny. Together they tell the backyard barbeque bunch the kids are doing better than they are. The world spins to the left and spins to the right, all because it can’t handle the truth.
So here is the Good News: Jesus asks the Father, and the Father sends the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. Christ does this because he loves us. He does this because he wants to unmask all the lies. He does this because we cannot completely live with him, in the life of eternity, if we are hiding something, or distorting something, or bending something in our own direction.
Do you know how to tell that Jesus is alive and the Spirit is among us? The evidence is complete honesty. Empowered by the Spirit, the church is the community that tells the truth. We tell the truth about ourselves, which is not always pleasant. And we tell the greater truth about Jesus, who reveals a God of grace. In short, grace and truth, truth and grace.
Thanks to the grace of God, we dare to tell the truth. When we confess it, it opens to us to healing. God already sees who we truly are and can redeem our brokenness through love. This is how God makes a home among us. This is how we create a home for others. Love and truth are woven together, in the grace of Father, Son, and Spirit.
I like the translation I mentioned at the outset, that the Advocate is our “Holy Friend.” Can you think of somebody who has been a true friend to you? I don’t mean the kind of person who tells you only what you want to hear. Neither do I mean the person who always criticizes. We are talking about a friend.
Think of somebody who loves you enough to whisper that you spilled mustard on your shirt and there’s a bit of spinach in your teeth. The true friend sees the foolishness that you cannot see in yourself and loves you until you move beyond it. Think of a name. Who would you call at three in the morning if you were in trouble? Who knows your greatest weakness yet gives you the greatest encouragement? Who is the one who could save your life? In the greatest sense, this is what Jesus promises.
“This is the Spirit of truth,” he says, “whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But all of you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in all of you.”
What great love God has for us! God will not abandon us nor give us up to our worst impulses! It would have been enough for Christ to give his life on the cross to take away the sin of the world. But now comes the continuing gift. Christ asks the Father to send the Holy Friend, the Spirit of Truth, to stay with us, to work with us, to polish out the splinters until we love as widely as Christ loves us.
For in the end, the truth is all about love – the love of God that promises to unmask all lies and heal a broken world. And we can live deeply in his truth as we keep Christ’s two commandments: to trust him as the way, the truth, and the life; and to love one another as he has first loved us.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.