The Farewell Discourse: The Holy Spirit as the presence of Jesus
St. Nicholas, Winsley 3rd May 2015 8.00 am BCP
John 16: 5-15; James 1: 17-21
On Tuesday I’m having coffee with Becky, the head of our local primary school. Becky wants to talk about the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. We can teach children about God and Jesus she says, but how do we teach little children about the Trinity, three in one, the Holy Spirit without frightening them for example, with images of ghosts.
And that relates nicely to our readings this morning. Let’s just forget for a moment that we are here in church in May 2015 and imagine ourselves as part of the believing community at the time of Jesus’s death.
What do we think it was actually like for those early Christians? Surely they must have been in crisis. If we look back at chapter 6 in John’s gospel we find Jesus asking the twelve disciples whether they too wanted to leave him because of the difficulty of his teachings. And we hear Peter reply “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”.
Here Peter recognises the life-giving power Jesus has. And then Jesus is killed – he’s left them and Peter’s question is even more poignant “Lord, to whom can we go?” Does the death of Jesus mean the end of the eternal life promised?
In John’s gospel, Jesus is the incarnate Son of God. He’s not some general, abstract revelation of the character of God; through Jesus, believers can come to know who God is. The incarnation, Word becoming flesh, has brought believers into a new relationship with God and opens up the possibility of their becoming children of God.
Jesus’ death and his departure doesn’t just represent the loss of the believers’ teacher and friend. Jesus’s death and return to God marked the end of the incarnation. If God revealed himself in the incarnation – what happens when Jesus is gone? Was Jesus’s revelation of God possible for only the first generation of believers – only available to those who had physical contact with Jesus and his ministry? Was Jesus’ revelation of God limited to one particular moment in history of does it have a future?
The Holy Spirit is, as we know - the solution to this crisis. This is the one who will continue Jesus’ work after his absence. This is the one who will make it possible for the experience of God made known and available in the incarnation, to be known after Jesus’ death.
This is the one who is described as speaking the words of Jesus and reminding the disciples of Jesus’ teaching. The Holy Spirit is this link between the historical ministry of Jesus and the future life of the church after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension is not the end but the beginning of a new era for the early believers.
Jesus even goes so far as to say that his departure is for the disciples’ good. Future generations of believers like us are not left alone, because the Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus, extending it beyond the limits of Jesus’ life and death.
Although Jesus is physically absent, the Holy Spirit makes Jesus present to us, to our community of believers. Jesus’ abiding presence is still with us – he’s still that good shepherd who loves and cares for us beyond his physical death.
Jesus’ teachings in what we now call his Farewell Discourse consistently depict the Holy Spirit as witness and teacher. The Holy Spirit as witness, reminds us of all Jesus said to his early disciples but in verses 12 and 13 in the passage we heard this morning Jesus says “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth”.
These words are crucial to us as what Jesus is saying is that we will have fresh encounters with Jesus at the time we need them, not in advance and it will be through the medium of the Holy Spirit that we encounter Jesus.
This is really important for us today. The description of the Holy Spirit is pivotal for us as a contemporary Christian community as it enables the words of Jesus to be heard afresh in our ever-changing circumstances. In one way, the Holy Spirit reaches back to the past to the teachings of Jesus and helps us ‘remember’ his teachings but in another way the Holy Spirit’s role as teacher enables the words of Jesus to move forward and influence the present life of the church. The Holy Spirit gives new meanings to the teachings of Jesus as our circumstances change.
The church doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We, the church exist within a context of changing and social economic factors (with the general election coming up we are only too aware of the social and economic context within which we are voting) and John’s gospel portrays the Holy Spirit as the guarantee that the words of Jesus will always be available as fresh words for any and every future, for any and every generation.
The Holy Spirit therefore ensures that there is an ongoing communication between Jesus and our Christian communities. The Holy Spirit as witness and teacher both honours the historical ministry of Jesus and at the same time recognises that Jesus’ ministry must always be interpreted in the context of today, in the context in which we find ourselves in order to keep its offer of God alive.
The Holy Spirit reminds us of Jesus’ teachings – brings the past forward into the present but in that reminding the Holy Spirit places those words of Jesus into conversation with the circumstances within which we live, into our present so we are able to hear Jesus’ words as if he were speaking into our own lives and needs.
On a personal level we know that to be true, don’t we. We know that as Christians we experience Jesus as Holy Spirit working in and through our lives – when we pray, when we join together in worship, and often we are most aware of this when things go wrong in life – when we’re at our lowest ebb and it’s then, when life is tough that we so clearly feel and experience the Holy Spirit working in and through us.
You may have heard the story about a little girl in Sunday school drawing a picture with her crayons. Her teacher asked her what we was drawing. “I’m drawing a picture of God,” the little girl responded. “But nobody knows what God looks like,” her teacher responded. To which the little girl replied, “They will when I’m finished.”
There’s some sense in what that little girl was doing isn’t there. To draw a picture of God, to know what Jesus looks like, to experience what the Holy Spirit is all about; isn’t that what we hope for and expect, as Jesus’ followers, as the Church of God.
And isn’t it that knowledge and experience we long to share with others. That knowledge of the things of God. That experience of the good shepherd who still loves and cares for us today, and every day.
Let’s hope that between us, Becky and I can find ways of explaining how amazing and wonderful it is that today, those little ones in school can still experience Jesus through the Holy Spirit, loving them and caring for them, living and working in and through their lives.