The lectionary helps us to focus on the Holy Spirit in this passage by assigning this text to Pentecost Sunday, the Sunday in which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost we remember and express gratitude for yet another one of God’s promises fulfilled: the promise of a “True Friend” (Dale Bruner’s translation), for “The Truster” (Martin Luther’s translation), or “another Advocate” (the English translation for the John’s Paraclete); of God-with-us-still. Jesus kept the word of God: the Holy Spirit descended in order to lead us in all truth.
Without this focus, there are so many directions one can go when preaching this text—mainly because it raises so many questions, and its bold seemingly-blanket statements feel out of touch with reality. Ask anything in Jesus’ name and you’ll get it? Yet in reality, we all have prayers that have gone unfulfilled. We’ll do greater works than Jesus? But in reality, is there a greater work than creating, sustaining, and redeeming all existence? I think not!
The Greek word for “greater” has a few different nuanced meanings—many of which relate to an expansion of scope (time and space, quantity); but it can also mean superior in quality, so the word itself doesn’t unlock Jesus’ meaning for us.
I wonder if by calling what’s to come “greater,” Jesus is trying to describe the power of the Holy Spirit that is about to be unleashed upon his beloved people.
Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, but also as “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive” because the Spirit is unknowable and unseeable to the world. (v 17) And yet, we know the Spirit, Jesus says, because the Spirit is abiding with us, and will be in/among us FOREVER. It’s the first remarkable, greater thing: people who have no business understanding and being part of the mystery of the Godhead are given a very member of that Godhead.
And when Jesus speaks of the Spirit being in us, he means the kind of fellowship and union he has with the Father. In fact, Jesus set up the picture of this sort of dwelling at the beginning of our passage: the Father and the Son are one, in one another. (v 10-11) As they are in each other, the Spirit is in believers. (v 17)
Without getting too bogged down in Christology and the two natures of Christ and how his humanity and divinity shaped his union with the Father, I think it is safe for us to theologically say that our union with the Triune God is different than the union that the incarnate Jesus Christ had/has with the Godhead. We are fundamentally a different kind of being than Jesus was with his two natures. Yes, Jesus was fully human, but he was also fully divine; we’re just human.
So we might even go so far as to say that perhaps God finds the act of eternally giving us—sinful and imperfect beings—the Holy Spirit a “greater” work. The Spirit’s indwelling in us is fundamentally different than it was in Jesus because they are both members of the Trinity, in union for eternity. Yet it is also somehow the same as the kind of indwelling we have because Jesus was also human! It is not a reality out of reach, but a reality given to us for our transformation. The Spirit in us has an impact that crosses time and space, it reaches through the numerous—unquantifiable—lives of those who are called by Christ’s name. It is by this indwelling work of the Holy Spirit that the atoning and mediating work of Jesus Christ is given to the world. What has been accomplished is made manifest and real in the lives of ordinary human beings.
It’s one thing for God to come and be incarnate and minister in the world, it’s totally another for God to use ordinary things (us ordinary humans) to carry on Jesus’ ministry. Maybe when Jesus says that his people will do “greater” things than him, he means that it’s all the more impressive when we live the Jesus way and obey his commandments, when we live at peace and without fear, when we pray for God the Father to be glorified and his will to be done, because of how unlike our nature it is to seek the kingdom of God in our world marred by sin, shame, self-service and struggle.
The Holy Spirit is incredible at making the unknowable, knowable—even it if remains unexplainable. The Holy Spirit is the power that raised Jesus from the dead, a rather great act! And, that same Spirit of Truth is powerfully alive and in us.
To what end? Notice how the passage begins with Philip asking to see the Father in order to be satisfied. Jesus tells Philip he already has because Jesus and the Father are one. Then Jesus says, “If you can’t believe my words, look at what I have done…” implying that his own obedience is a witness to the Spirit of Truth before calling upon his disciples to be obedient as well.
Greater than being “satisfied,” then, is obediently carrying out the unending ministry of reconciliation of Jesus Christ out of love for God. The Holy Spirit’s ability to transform our hearts into kingdom and shalom seekers is a great work of God, to whom all glory is due.
I find it interesting that Jesus leaves out any mention of being able to “see” in verse 17. He says that the world cannot see nor know the Spirit of Truth and therefore cannot receive the Holy Spirit, but that we who believe know the Spirit because the Spirit abides in and among us. It’s as though Jesus is pointing to something he will say after he is resurrected: in the Spirit and the Spirit in us, we are able to fully make the leap of living by faith and not by sight. This is another “greater” thing as disciples of Christ follow on earth a God whose physical body is in heaven, praying and working for his kingdom to come.
Because, truthfully, these are not our lives or our ministries: they are the work of God in us. They are the greater work of the Holy Spirit, God-still-with-us, continuing the redemption restoration of all that God has created and loves. These “greater works” that we participate in are part of the great, glorying and delighting work of God’s transformative love.
Notice how the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit is first and foremost a plural, or communal, gift. In verses 14-17, every time Jesus uses the word “you,” it is plural. Same goes for his words in verses 25-27: each instance of “you” is plural.
Further, we can know that we are included in that plural you because Jesus describes believing as a continuous-present activity in verse 12 (indicated by the use of an active present tense participle).
On the idea of the unseeable nature of the Spirit’s work, we only need to look to our sacraments: tangible things of this world that become extraordinary means of grace by which we know God. Further, the sacraments also remind us of the call to obedience to the kingdom work of Christ. At baptism we are reminded that we have been called by name to a vocation of discipleship. At the Lord’s Supper, we remember Jesus’ words and trust and believe that for freedom, Christ has set us free to be agents of reconciliation in the world.
I wonder if we might also think about the idea of “greater” as a sense of how we come to appreciate the presence and work of the Holy Spirit through experience. For instance, it’s one thing for me to appreciate the handiwork of a well-knit garment, and it’s a completely different, fuller appreciation, when I understand what went into making it. (I’m a knitter, so maybe you can use an example of one of your own hobbies…) There are so many things that go into making a sweater that most people simply don’t know. Some designs are more intricate and challenging to accomplish; plus, the material you are using is likely not the same material as what the original pattern used, and the fiber can act differently, resulting in a lot of trial and error with needle sizes and swatches. And, people always underestimate the hours it takes to knit something by hand and how often a knitter “frogs” their project and starts over—let alone the math involved to modify or write a pattern from scratch! The more you come to know what’s in that garment, the greater it becomes: a good sweater becomes an amazing feat!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 5, 2022
John 14:8-17 (25-27) Commentary