A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Easter 6 ~ John 14:15-21
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
That’s Genesis 1:1-2.
Right there, in the second verse of our Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit is present. In the beginning God created. That’s the first movement of God in the universe, through the eyes of spirituality.
First, God created. Second? What happened second?
A wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Swept. The Hebrew word means to hover, to gently flow. And what is this wind? The Hebrew word is ruach. It means wind, but it’s also the word for spirit, and a word for breath. I’ll come back to that!
We’re not talking science here. Science is not the point of the book of Genesis (or any book of the bible, for that matter). We’re talking theology. Spirituality. And spiritually speaking, in the midst of God’s creative flow the thing we have come to know as the Holy Spirit was moving. Hovering. Flowing quietly in the darkness.
Why mention that? I mean, it doesn’t say that the Spirit accomplished anything. It just says that the Spirit was present, and moving. For me, that gives the impression that God’s vision, God’s dream, God’s desire for the world is somehow put into motion and animated by this wind, this breath, this Holy Spirit.
I’m fascinated by the character of the Holy Spirit.
Wind has the capacity to be characterized in all kinds of ways. This wind of God, this Spirit could easily have been introduced as a powerful gale force wind capable of splitting rocks and uprooting trees – and indeed, those characteristics of the power of the Spirit may well emerge through the story of God’s people.
But here at the start, in the beginning, when the main players are being first introduced (and we all know that first impressions are quickly formed and deeply lasting) – in the beginning the Spirit we meet is a gentle, flowing, hovering (as a mother bird over her chicks), calming, yet animating movement of the heart of the Creator.
Instantly, and forever, the association, the connection, is made. Wherever God is (and we affirm that God is everywhere!), the Holy Spirit is present and gently moving as God’s desire and life-force.
Another brilliant thing about this initial description of the Holy Spirit is that by describing it as ‘wind’ it not only encapsulates movement but also mystery.
You can’t see wind, but you can feel it.
Wind kind of emerges from somewhere, and then blows through where you are, and then kind of blows on through – but it doesn’t really start or stop.
I can see the effects of the wind, and see and feel that it’s present and impacting me, but beyond that it’s all pretty mysterious.
I can’t grab it, hold it, or control it. But I can definitely work with it for my benefit.
I can adjust my sails and have the wind power my boat.
I can build vanes that can rotate in the wind and produce energy.
I can hang my wet clothes in its path and they’ll become fresh and dry.
In warm weather I can open my windows in my house and allow the wind to blow through bringing clean air and comfort.
And I can just place myself in the flow of the breeze and have it blow through my hair (and God knows there’s a bit more of it these days than usual!) and bring calmness and comfort, and I can breathe it in deeply and it brings peace to my…spirit.
Why am I waxing poetic about the wind?
Why am I going on and on about the Holy Spirit?
Why am I starting with Genesis 1 when today’s reading is from John 14?
Well, frankly it’s because I think that we as good mainline United Church people tend to have an underdeveloped theology of and appreciation for the Holy Spirit in general, and the mystical, spiritual aspects of Christianity in specific. And today’s reading from John 14:15-21 is all about this, and without that grounding in how deeply integral to our faith the Holy Spirit really is I’m not sure we can grasp just how wonderful this message from Jesus can be for us. Especially today, in the midst of uncertain and fearful times.
To approach this reading in John 14 we need to remind ourselves to listen with two sets of ears.
One set is hearing Jesus speak to his disciples in their time. He’s still with them, but he knows that he’s kicked enough powerful shins with his theological reinterpretations that he will inevitably pay the price and it won’t be pretty. Scholars call these chapters in John’s gospel Jesus’ ‘farewell discourse’ because he’s saying goodbye to his followers and trying to help them know how to go on without his physical presence. So we hear it as Jesus saying goodbye and talking about the future.
But we also hear it as the audience of John’s gospel would have – decades (or in our case centuries) into that promised future that Jesus names. So when he says to his disciples “you will receive” the future audience – including us – have already received, if you follow what I mean.
John 14:15-17 Jesus says, “(Those who) love me, (naturally) 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.”
We’re in the future. We have already received this other Advocate. In Greek the word is ‘paraclete’ – it means an intercessor, a consoler, a comforter. It refers to one who walks alongside you and helps you. This concept of ‘alongside-ness’ is vital to understanding the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Remember the story of the road to Emmaus that we use in our communion service each month? Jesus is walking alongside his disciples, but they do not recognize him – until their eyes are opened to his presence.
Isn’t that our greatest desire? To have the Spirit of God alongside us wherever we are – helping us?
Like in this season of pandemic.
Jesus plainly says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”
Just like the wind – you can’t see it or really know it – you just have to become aware of it and allow it to have an affect on you.
Jesus says, “You know (the Spirit), because (it) abides with you, and (it) will be in you.”
Abides with you.
And not just alongside but even more intimate than that – it will be in you.
Not only do we have the promise of alongside-ness; we have the promise of within-ness!
John 14:18 Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
Or as our ears hear it, “I am with you.”
Verse 19 “In a little while the world will no longer see me (physically), but you will see me (spiritually); because I live, you also will live.”
Because I live on in Spirit, you also will live on in the Spirit, or, with the Spirit within.
And then we get that beautiful, mystical, interpersonal, interconnectedness, interrelatedness, mutual indwelling, language of John 14:20
[In] that (time) – (when I’m physically gone but spiritually present) – you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Verse 21 “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me (are) loved by my Father, and I love them and reveal myself to them.”
And then I added on John 14:26 to sum it all up:
“And 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.”
“I may be gone, but you are not alone. The Holy Spirit is with you. The Holy Spirit has always been with you.”
The Holy Spirit has been present since the beginning of creation – gently moving in God’s ways – enlivening and animating anyone who would receive the Spirit.
And like wind, like breath, the Spirit lives and moves within us.
Not just alongside, but also within.
Always present, yet still mysterious.
Totally ignorable with our conscious minds – but once you become aware of it becomes a vital sense of our aliveness.
Take a deep breath right now.
Now, you’ve been breathing (I hope) for this whole hour we’ve been together in worship, but you may not have noticed that breath until that moment I drew it to your attention.
Such is the Holy Spirit.
Always present, but not always acknowledged.
I discovered a beautiful image for this when I was preparing for this sermon.
It said that the Holy Spirit is the ‘shy member’ of the Trinity.
I just love that.
The Holy Spirit is shy.
As opposed to domineering, or in your face, or dictatorial, or demanding.
No, shy. Needing to be coaxed into action.
Needing to know that you really want them around and you want to be their friend.
The Spirit is not going to barge into your life and take over and start barking out orders.
Sometimes when a kid is introduced to an adult we describe the kid as ‘playing shy’. The implication is that the kid’s usual personality is more gregarious, but when meeting this strange new person the child retreats into safety, unsure what the new encounter might bring. Once they’re through the introductions and become comfortable with the adult they may well be their usual energetic and enthusiastic self. But at the start they play shy.
You might say that we are in relationship with an elusive God who hides in the trickiest spot imaginable – in plain sight, right smack dab in the middle of your day-to-day life, where we often forget to look.
Right there in the most intimate place one could imagine – in your very breath.
Not just alongside, but within.
This is the promise that Jesus made to his disciples.
This is the spiritual reality that was being embraced by the community of faith that received John’s gospel 65 years later.
This is our spiritual reality too – if we’re open to it – if we can awaken to it – if we are vulnerable enough to trust, to let down our guard, and to breathe-in the Spirit of Christ.
But don’t expect that Spirit to just jump up and demand your attention.
It prefers to play shy.
We, on the other hand, would prefer it the other way – except we wouldn’t.
We say we want the Spirit to jump up and down so we could recognize it more easily – but then we don’t really want to breathe it in too deeply, because then maybe it might actually change some stuff in us while it’s blowing around in there!
Last week we talked about how we’re all – “We want you to show us the Way! Tell us the steps to do.”
And Jesus is all, “I’ll do better than show you; I’ll indwell!”
And today he goes further – “I’ll do better than show you; I’ll walk alongside you. Well, not me exactly, but the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit I’ll walk alongside you, but I will do so covertly. You’re still the boss. You get to decide. You get to choose to notice. Or not. I’ll be over here playing shy until you invite me into the conversation – then you’ll see me become the life of the party!”
I pray that we can all, not just once but day after day after day, find the courage, and openness, and vulnerability to invite Jesus into that ongoing conversation.
And isn’t this what we want?
A comforter, an advocate, a helper, the Holy Spirit – more than just alongside us but within us…
The only thing stopping us from breathing in and being transformed by God’s gentle, holy, hovering, animating breath is us.
Friends, now is no time for playing shy!