Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 15, 2016
John 14:8-17 (25-27) Commentary
This is our Pentecost text, of course, but the setting in John 14 takes us back to that last night before Jesus died.
What that means is that even though this text ends up talking about peace and of Jesus telling the disciples “do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:27), let’s just state the merely obvious that in the next 48-72 or so hours of their lives, the eleven disciples still with Jesus in that room that night would have plenty of occasions to be very, very afraid, frightened, disoriented. Feeling “at peace” about anything would shortly for these disciples feel like the remotest of all possibilities.
Maybe that’s why in John 14:1 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled . . .”) and in verse 27 (“Do not be afraid . . .”), I imagine that Jesus’ voice is choked with emotion and that just maybe there was something a little desperate about the way he urged his friends to be calm. It’s the tone of voice you’d expect to hear right after the bus had slid off a snowy highway and landed perilously on its side in a ditch near a ravine: someone might stand up and with real fear in his voice and with eyes widened by fright might shout out to everyone on the bus, “OK, everybody, now DON’T PANIC!!!!”
The truth is that in my life—and probably in your life—every time someone has told me to not be afraid or to not panic it was because all things being equal, fear and panic were live possibilities at the moment.
You had just fled to the basement because the news said a tornado was roaring toward your neighborhood. “Don’t be scared,” your Dad says. Yeah, right. The doctor sits down with you with a grave look in his eyes and says, “Now, I don’t want you to go to pieces but the lab results show . . .” Well, maybe it’s the time to go to pieces. Maybe.
The fact is that we take Jesus’ calming words in John 14 and we transfer them to pretty Hallmark-like Christian greetings cards or we decorate the den with a counted-cross-stitch version of it and we thereby make it a calming word for quiet afternoons whilst we sip a nice cup of chamomile tea or something. What we forget in so doing is that Jesus HAD TO say these things precisely because the world in which we live seems calculated more days than not to knock the holy stuffing out of us.
And perhaps this leads to a much-needed Pentecost reminder, too. Too often we envision Pentecost—at least the original event—as being ever and only about events that were both novel and quite literally earth-shattering. Whatever happened on that original Day of Pentecost, we think, is most decidedly VERY different than my average Tuesday morning or Friday afternoon. But maybe this causes us to miss the everyday nature of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we can detect here in these Lectionary verses from John 14.
You see, Philip asked, “Show us the Father. Show us the Father and it will be enough for us.” Jesus seemed taken aback by the question. “What do you mean? Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me? You’ve been seeing the Father all along. If you’ve seen me, then you have seen the Father.” This, in turn, leads Jesus to talking about the upcoming abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and how that Spirit will revel truths and show the disciples things that the world neither sees nor knows but that they will see and know.
But what if what that means is that we will sense the Spirit and our not being alone in the most ordinary moments of life? After all, just when had the disciples failed to see the Father in and through Jesus? Well, probably most all the time! Probably they had a hard time seeing the Father when recently Jesus had bawled his eyes out at the grave of Lazarus. Or they hadn’t guessed they were seeing—and so were in a real way in the presence of—the Father all those times when Jesus got sleepy and nodded off in the back of a boat or when after dinner Jesus used a small stick to work out that chive that had gotten lodged between his incisors.
They hadn’t realize that the Father was there in all that and so maybe in the context of John 14—a troubling, frightening context that would soon turn into a nightmare of fright and terror for the disciples—what Jesus is really saying is that when life gets tough, when the bottom falls out, the Father (via the Holy Spirit after Pentecost) would as surely be there in those (ordinary) circumstances as well.
When the doctor steps out of surgery with bad news . . .
When the boss ushers you into a room where the Director of Human Resources is sitting there with a letter for you to read . . .
When you are huddled under a desk in the basement while a twister shatters the glass in the house above you . . .
When you sit at your desk and feel such overwhelming boredom with your work that you discover tears have started to run down your cheeks . . .
. . . in all these times the Father (via the Spirit of Pentecost) will as surely be there as on all those other days of Jesus’ ministry even though the disciples did not typically have the eyes to see or the ears to hear. But by the Spirit one day they will and so in a world that constantly tries to steal peace from us and in times when our hearts really do become troubled and for powerfully good reasons at that, this is the good news to which we cling.
There really can be a peace that passes all understanding. There really can be a way for troubled hearts to become calm again. It may not come through tongues of flame or roaring winds or earthquakes such as you can read about in that other Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2 but it can come. It does come.
That may be the best message of all for Pentecost. And the main reason that’s such Good Gospel News is because it is by no means a truth for just that 50th day after Easter: this is a truth that goes home with you and moves in with you and stays with you, even to the end of the age.
The word often translated as “Counselor” in John 14:16 and again in John 14:26 is the Greek word PARAKLETOS, which literally means “the one called alongside.” A Paraclete (don’t let your spellchecker convert that to “parakeet” by the way!!!) was the one who stood along side the accused person in court—an attorney, a counselor in that sense—but in John 14 it is clear that what the Holy Spirit does for believers by coming alongside of them is to open their eyes, to prod them in the ribs to recall the things Jesus said, and to remind them of the larger truth that in Jesus, God the Father really had been revealed to this world in a way never before true. With the Holy Spirit of Pentecost at our side, all of life is transformed—some of those transformations may be very subtle but that in no ways undercuts their almighty power!
In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we see a vignette of what peace from the Holy Spirit in troubled times may look like for those who know the true Lord and the true Spirit of the Lord. Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see deeper, farther than just those nasty girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything. And she knew all that and could see all that because the Spirit of the Lord was with her whispering “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .”
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