This Sunday we continue our readings from the gospel of John. Like our reading about love last week, this morning’s text is part of what scholars have come to think of as Jesus’ final discourse. Typical of the writing in the gospel of John, this text can be difficult to dig through.
When I read the gospel of John, I often end up feeling dizzy. Like someone spinning me around over and over, the sentence structure in this gospel often sends my head reeling. I feel like I meet myself coming and going in these speeches of Jesus, and it can be hard to discern the meaning of the text, let alone apply it to our own lives today. There’s a reason I’ve been in the pulpit for ten years, yet have never preached this text before.
In these situations it is often helpful to look at the setting of the text to begin to tease out some meaning. First, we can look at the level of the text itself. In the story that the writer of John is telling, Jesus is sharing his last night with his disciples. He knows that the time of his death is imminent and he is willingly headed in that direction. It is interesting to note that in the gospel of John, there is no agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Rather, Jesus simply goes to the garden to meet Judas and his fate.
Jesus knows he is leaving and he is seeking to comfort the disciples. He tells them that his time to leave will be coming soon. He knows that they will feel abandoned and afraid. He tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit to comfort them. The Spirit will stand in as his presence while he is gone, and the Spirit will bring the gift of his peace. The Spirit will act as a teacher for the disciples, and will remind them of the things Jesus said and did even after he is gone. Like Jesus, the disciples are facing a period of imminent suffering and sadness, but the Spirit of God will be present to comfort them and give them hope.
When we read the Scriptures, another place to look for meaning is the history behind the text. We know that the Johannine community, the community that the writer of this gospel was writing it for, were also in a period of suffering and sadness. Of the gospels in our Bible, this is the last one written. Scholars think it was composed over 50 years after Jesus’ death. By this time the early church community had experienced much suffering and hardship. In particular the community of John had been in great conflict with the synagogues. Basically, they had been kicked out of their churches and out of their communities for their beliefs about Jesus. Just like the disciples in the story itself, they are in a period of suffering, and are looking to the Spirit of God for hope, comfort, and peace.
When we look at the text in this fashion, we begin to find a way in for ourselves. None of us will experience a life without suffering. None of us will avoid hardship and pain. All of us will live through periods of grief, anxiety, and fear. Like the disciples in the text itself, like the people of the early Johannine community, we are a people in need of comfort.
Jesus’ speech in this text, is given in reply to the question Judas asks; “How is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” We could rephrase this any number of ways: How is it that we are different? How is it that we know Jesus and others do not? How is it that Christians uniquely survive the trials and tribulations of this life? The answer for us is the same as it was for Judas, the Holy Spirit.
The work of the Spirit is the invisible force in our lives. It draws us closer to God and it gives us help and comfort in times of suffering. Jesus says that the Spirit is a teacher, it is one that reminds us of things Jesus has taught. I see this work being twofold.
First, it is the practice of daily discipline. While some may see faith as a gift that is given, I see it as something that a person has to nurture over time. Just like any other practice in life, faith is something you have to work at. If you play an instrument or practice a craft, then you know that the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Faith is like that. The more you practice it the more it grows in your heart. This is the Holy Spirit as teacher. The work of the Spirit draws you deeper into faith. The deeper you are drawn into faith, the stronger you are in times of trial.
Jesus says that the Spirit is also a reminder. I see this as the habit that faith can become. If you are a person who regularly brushes your teeth, (and I certainly hope that you are) then you might have an idea of what I am talking about. I have certain points in my day every day when I brush my teeth. I don’t think about it, I just do it. It is such a habit that it becomes its own reminder. Faith can be practiced in this way as well. I have certain times of day when I turn to God in prayer. I don’t think about it, I just do it. The Holy Spirit calls me to prayer as a reminder. Faith has become a habit for me.
The work that the Holy Spirit does in these situations is to give us the gift of peace. This is the peace of Jesus Christ, which is different from the peace that the world offers us. As I mentioned before, we will all experience periods of suffering and sadness. We will all experience times of fear and anxiety. We will all find ourselves seeking peace at some point in our lives.
The peace that the world offers us can be found in numbing behaviors. We have been talking about this in Brown Bag with our book by Brené Brown. Brené points out that when we don’t want to feel vulnerable, when we don’t want to feel pain, then we numb ourselves. We do this through the use and abuse of things like drugs and alcohol. We also do it in more seemingly innocent ways through television and the internet. Another way we numb ourselves is to make ourselves so busy that we don’t have time to think about anything or to be vulnerable. Sound familiar?
Brené points out that we can’t engage in numbing behaviors and selectively numb. If I am stressed about my marriage or about my job, or if I am sad because one of my friends has cancer, or if I am worried about how to help my children, then I may be tempted to numb myself using one of these behaviors. But I can’t just numb the bad stuff, I also end up numbing the good. I may seek to numb fear, anxiety, and grief and I also end up numbing joy, hope, and love in the process.
The peace that the world gives us is not true peace, it is simply numbing all our emotions. It is avoidance behavior and not the path to a true and productive life. The peace that Jesus Christ offers is different from this. It is a peace that comes from the Holy Spirit, a peace that the world cannot give.
Jesus doesn’t promise us that we won’t feel pain, sorrow, or fear. He doesn’t promise the disciples that they will not feel vulnerable, or that they will not suffer. Rather, he promises that the presence of God will be with them in their suffering. In the midst of their suffering, they will know the peace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.
This connects to those roles of the Spirit as teacher and reminder. If we have practiced our faith, if we have let the Spirit teach us and lead us deeper into relationship with God, then when suffering comes we can rely on that practice. We have the faith skills needed to move through it. If the Spirit has served as a reminder for us, if prayer has become a habit, then the habit of faith will continue when the road is rocky. The foundation will be there when we need it.
Like the disciples in the gospel of John, and like the people of the early Johannine community that this gospel was written for, we are a people who suffer. Although our daily struggles look different, and the threats to us have changed over time, the emotions we feel are the same emotions they felt. Fear, anxiety, worry, despair, and grief are an inevitable part of human existence.
The gift of faith, what makes us different as Christians, is that the Holy Spirit is with us in our times of need. We have the peace that only faith in Jesus Christ can bestow. When the world around us calls us to avoid suffering at all cost and to numb ourselves until we can feel nothing, Jesus calls us to another path. Jesus tells us to face suffering head on, to move through it with honesty and integrity, and to know that God is with us.
The Holy Spirit is our teacher and our guide. The practice of faith will lead us through this life. And we will know the peace of Jesus Christ, a true peace that the world cannot give. Thanks be to God. Amen.