Comments and Observations:
Well before Jesus ever preached his first sermon, there was John the Baptist. Long before Jesus ever uttered a parable or healed a blind person, there was John. John had come to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus. And when John preached about this great and coming One, he talked a lot about the Holy Spirit. Everybody who came out to see John knew that chief among the spectacles they would witness would be baptisms. They hadn’t nicknamed John “the Baptist” for nothing, after all. Baptizing was to John what making bread is to a baker: it was the most common thing he did each day when he went to work.
But John always downplayed his baptisms in favor of the vastly more powerful baptism Jesus would do. Hopping up and down with great verve, John said over and again that the real fireworks would start as soon as Jesus showed up to baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit. For all the publicity he had garnered, John’s self-assessment of his own ministry boiled down to “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” And indeed, when one day Jesus showed up to be baptized, John saw the heavenly dove of the Holy Spirit land squarely on Jesus’ head. Clearly, everything John had predicted about Jesus would come true.
But then a funny thing happened: in his ministry Jesus hardly ever talked about the Holy Spirit. Nor did he baptize anyone. Go through any one of the four gospels and you can count on one hand the number of times Jesus mentions the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t what John had anticipated at all, and so in a startling passage (cf. Matthew 11 and Luke 7), John at one point sends Jesus a message to ask, “Are you the One who was to come, or should we be on the lookout for somebody else?” John was looking for more Spirit, more fire.
But in this Pentecost Year B lection from John 16 we encounter what is hands-down the longest single section about the Holy Spirit in all the gospels. Here we discover that John the Baptist had been right, except for the timing of it all. Jesus was going to send forth a powerful Holy Spirit. But the surprise comes from the fact that before he would do this, Jesus himself would go away. Call it a kind of Trinitarian tag-team approach. The Father dispatched the Son to this world to teach, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Then the Son returned to the Father so that he could send the Holy Spirit to his followers on this earth.
Jesus makes clear that the Holy Spirit would become the conduit through which would flow all the energy and riches of God. The Spirit would become the jumper cables to re-infuse us with the Father’s energy whenever the Church’s batteries ran down. The Spirit would become the cosmic water main through which the cleansing tide of baptism would flow to wash away sin. The Spirit would become the ultimate radio beacon who would broadcast the truths of Jesus, letting all of us who have been fitted with the right antennae learn on a constant basis the implications of the gospel for our lives. Use whatever image you want, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been the Church’s living connection to God ever since the great day of Pentecost.
But this tends to be the limit of our thinking about the role of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, we quietly restrict the Spirit’s primary work to the interior life of the Church and of its members. That’s why John 16 is so arresting. Because here when Jesus talked about the Spirit’s work, he focused as much on the Spirit’s work in the wider world as he did on the Spirit’s work in the church. In fact, in verse 8 the very first thing Jesus says has to do with what the Spirit would reveal not to the church but to the world.
As Dale Bruner has noted, the Spirit, according to Jesus, would tell the world three related things:
And please notice that any one of those teachings without the other two would be not just incomplete, it would be wrong. Take away or forget about any one, and the other two dissolve into confusion.
First, the Spirit reveals what’s wrong. The Spirit needs to convict the world of guilt with regard to sin, Jesus says. Just talking about the fact that this world has problems is not enough. In fact, it has never been too difficult to convince the world that something is fundamentally amiss. The key is to underscore not just that something is awry with life but why that is so. After all, it is sickeningly easy simply to note the horrors of this world. The underlying message that needs to be revealed by God’s Spirit is that the source of all that wrongness is sin. There’s a cause behind hunger and terrorism, behind corporate greed and pornography, behind drive-by shootings and cynicism, and that cause stems from the fact that this world has fallen away from what God wanted. There’s something wrong with this world all right, and the reason is sin. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost reminds us of this.
But secondly Jesus says the Spirit comes to convict the world of something else: righteousness. At first glance, that seems like an odd thing to say. These verses are a bit difficult to translate or understand, but it seems that Jesus is saying that he himself is the Righteous One, the source of all that is good and beautiful and proper. The Spirit reveals this Christ to the world. Jesus is going to return to the Father and so will not be on display, will not be visible, in the usual way a person can be seen. He’s not going to be available for any interviews with Larry King and won’t be making any guest appearances on the Hour of Power, either. But despite that physical unavailability, this Jesus must be taught to the world and also brought to the world through us. We are the Body of Christ. When filled with the Holy Spirit, we are the ongoing presence of Jesus on this earth.
That much we know, but here’s what I take away from Jesus’ close linking up of the Spirit’s message about sin and the Spirit’s subsequent message about righteousness: what I take away from this is that we dare never talk about what’s wrong in this world unless we do so in a hope-filled context. It’s altogether too easy to talk about what’s wrong. Op-Ed writers in the newspapers and the talking heads on all those 24-hour cable TV news channels do this every single day. In fact, bad news is better for ratings than good news could ever be. In the television industry a so-called “slow news day” is any day when no disaster happens. Most of us don’t watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox News on those days, but if you ever have turned to those channels on a quiet day, you soon realize they are crashingly boring. The news anchors cast about for things to say but they mostly dissolve into an inane blather that can make your skin crawl.
Anybody can talk about what’s wrong with the world. Christians are good at it, too, and we do it a lot. But the key item to check is whether or not we do this with hope ever and always lurking behind even the worst and most difficult things we must say to the world. Are we just lamenting what’s bad for the sake of lamenting it? Are we merely wringing our hands and shaking our heads and wagging our fingers in order, by contrast, to highlight our own moral integrity? Or are we letting the Holy Spirit inject even our critical words with a strong dose of the hope that comes through Jesus the Christ?
It’s the difference between screaming at someone “That’s wrong!” and then walking away in disgust as opposed to saying instead, “That’s wrong but now let me come along side you to spend however much time it takes to introduce you to the Righteous Jesus who right this very minute loves you despite the mess you’ve made.” It’s the difference between saying only “You’re a sinner!” and saying “You’re a sinner, but it was while we were all still sinners that God in Christ loved us, so let’s talk about that, too!” Sometimes convincing people of this may take a very long time indeed. But if we cannot find a way to present the gospel even at the same moment when we confront the world with its faults, then we’re missing not just one piece of the Spirit’s work in the world, we’re missing the whole thing.
But that’s not to say that we never arrive at a conclusion of judgment, because that is the third thing Jesus says the Spirit must do. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is here also to reveal to the world that the prince of darkness is done for. It will be the goodness, grace, and beauty of the Righteous One that will rule the cosmic day in the end. That’s the good news of the gospel. The bad news, however, is that if any person refuses to be on the side of that Holy One named Jesus, then that person will forever be on the wrong side of history.
So as people of Pentecost, we need to let the Spirit use us to tell the world what’s wrong but we do this ever and only with hope in our voices. There is much that is wrong but because it is not random wrong but a systemic problem that can be traced back to sin, it is possible for a powerful God to fix that systemic wrongness, and in Christ Jesus the Lord God has already done so!
The NIV of John 16:11 translates the Greek to say “prince of this world.” I’m not certain why they used “prince” here because the Greek is archon, which quite straightforwardly means “ruler,” which is the translation in the NRSV. But maybe for some people calling the devil the “ruler of the world” sounded too scary and so they made him a prince, which seems less threatening. But John has Jesus saying that the evil one has been a ruler of this world, and the long, sordid run of history certainly lends credence to the idea that someone pretty awful has been calling some shots in this world. But the really good news is that even if there is some sense in which the devil really has been a “ruler” of this world, he has even so gone down to defeat at the hands of God’s Christ!
Some years back I watched the movie, When Harry Met Sally. In one scene we witness something that is at once somber and yet funny. In the scene Harry and his best friend are seated in the stands at a New York Giants NFL football game. But they are not really watching the game because Harry is deeply sad since his wife had left him the day before. With a crestfallen expression on his face, he tells his friend all about the events that had led up to this tragedy in his life. It is a very serious, unhappy conversation.
The funny part of this otherwise somber scene is that while these two men are talking, “the wave” is sweeping through the stadium–this is that phenomenon that cropped up about twenty or so years ago whereby all the people in a stadium sequentially stand up, raise their arms, and give a yell, and then quickly sit back down so that as you look across the stadium, it looks like a human wave is rippling through the stands. So in this scene, although the conversation between these two friends is so dark that they really are paying no attention to the people around them, nevertheless each time the wave reached their part of the stadium, both men stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, never missing a beat in their conversation about the one man’s sorrows!
Being in a crowd can make you do funny things–stuff you would not do or say otherwise. Have you ever been to a basketball game only to find yourself screaming like a banshee? (Or have you ever been to a game where you saw someone you know—someone who is ordinarly rather shy and retiring in nature—screaming like a banshee!!?) There seems to be a certain spirit or power in many situations in life–an influence in which you can get “caught up” and so motivated to do things which are not called for in other situations. On a darker note, some of the same dynamics that can make us jump up and down like everyone else at an exciting basketball game can also lead people to get carried away at post-game parties which turn into out-of-control riots.
There are influences on all of us which are not visible but which are very powerful nonetheless. Parents have strong reasons for warning their children to stay away from “the wrong crowd.” Most of us at one time or another have experienced what can happen when we get caught up in peer pressure. On the other hand, there are good community spirits which can mold people in positive ways. Just think of how the spirit of neighborliness draws the Amish together. There are few spectacles as startling or as moving as an Amish “barn raising” when neighbors from a region come together to build a barn in just one day.
There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something. Interestingly, the New Testament tells us in many places that the Holy Spirit of God–the living fire that just is Pentecost–is also something in which believers need to get caught up. The Spirit carries us away and so leads us to say things and to do things that we would not do were we not in the zone of the Spirit’s influence.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 24, 2015
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 Commentary