This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on May 1, 2016.
This text touches on several themes, not all of them clearly connected, so the first challenge for a preacher is deciding which part(s) of it to preach. The farewell discourse (John 13-17), like other extended speeches of Jesus in John’s Gospel, does not always move with a linear logic but in something more like a spiral. Various themes are repeated in different places, and as the text circles back to them, they do not always seem directly related to what immediately precedes or follows. So here in quick succession we find the themes of loving Jesus and keeping his words, Jesus and the Father abiding with disciples, the role of the Advocate, the peace that Jesus gives, the counsel to have no anxiety or fear, the departure and return of Jesus, his relation to the Father, and a call to rejoice and believe. Connections can certainly be found among these verses, but any attempt to treat them all in a single sermon would likely fail to give any of them its due. The text’s assigned parameters in the lectionary seem arbitrary, and we will likely need to be selective, choosing smaller portions of the text to explore.
A helpful device for understanding the farewell discourse was offered by Fred Craddock, who once compared the disciples here to children playing on the floor and looking up to see their parent putting on hat and coat. The children ask anxious questions: Where are you going? Can we go, too? What will we do while you are gone? Who will stay with us? Jesus answers the first question: “I go to prepare a place for you.” (14:2) He answers the second: “Where I am going you cannot come, but you will come later.” (13:33, 36) He answers the third, “Love each other as I have loved you.” (13:34) The fourth question—“Who will stay with us?”—he addresses no fewer than five times. The text before us includes the second of these. He had already said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… he abides with you and will be in (or among) you.” (14:16) Now he adds in 14:26: “But 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.” These words are arresting, and may have useful connections to other parts of our text.
The word translated “Advocate” by the NRSV is paraklētos, and no single English word can convey its meaning. It literally means, “the one who calls from beside” or “the one called to the side of.” There are multiple ways to imagine what such a figure does. One who speaks at our side can be an advocate, pleading our case, but could also be beside us to give comfort or encouragement or instruction or counsel or other kinds of help. So in various translations the word is rendered, “Comforter,” “Counselor,” “Advocate,” “Companion,” or “Helper,”—each of them correct and none of them complete, which is why other translations simply opt for transliteration: “Paraclete.” Needless to say, translated or not, the word—like the work of the Spirit it seeks to describe—is rich with intriguing possibility.
The function of the Spirit given here by Jesus is of one who will teach and remind. What will be taught? Everything! And of what will the Spirit remind us? All that Jesus has said to us! These two overlapping functions, to teach and to remind, make the vital connection between memory and new understanding. We have not yet learned all that the Spirit would teach us, yet all of it will connect to fresh remembrance of Jesus’ word.
A sermon making this point can join it to other portions of the text. Jesus says, for example, that he will give us peace in a way that the world does not. What does it mean? The Spirit reminds us and continues to teach us its meaning. The peace Jesus gives is of a different order than the peace our society proposes, which often amounts to material security, conformity, private serenity, indifference, and denial of conflict and suffering. Such “peace” is a vanishing illusion, while his peace has depth and the solid realism of self-giving love and abiding in God. In such a world, it is easy to forget this alternative, but if we are attentive to our Advocate/Counselor/Helper, we will be reminded and taught new ways to practice such peace.
Likewise the Spirit will remind us of Jesus’ word that we are not to be troubled or afraid, and will teach us what new forms of fearlessness might look like in our present context. In the same way, we may often need reminding of Jesus’ word that we are to rejoice and believe even when his Presence is not evident. But if we remain open to the promptings of our Helper/Comforter/Advocate, our joy and our faith will return, perhaps deeper and wiser than before.
Our text begins with Jesus’ declaration that to love him is to keep his word. To “keep” his word means two things: to keep it in the sense of retaining it, and to keep it in the sense of ongoing, obedient expression. Given our weakness, our forgetfulness, and our lack of imagination, we need help in both kinds of keeping. Thankfully, Jesus gives us more than his word; he gives us the living Spirit, who continues to remind and to teach. There is much to be remembered, and there is more to be revealed. To both these ends, we are given the promise that we will never be without help rising among us in new life, an ongoing Easter, again and again.
Dr. Paul Simpson Duke
First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tags: Advocate, Holy Spirit, memory, Paraclete, peace