Happy Pentecost! It is time for the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Often we explore this day through the lens of Acts 2 with its dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit on the first believers with tongues of fire and strange languages.
This year, let’s hear John’s take on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been called the “shy member of the Trinity.” We know who God the Father is and what God does. God is the Creator, the one who fashioned heaven and earth out of nothing. We know God the Son, the divine Incarnation, God-with-us as Jesus Christ who taught and healed, suffered and died.
But God the Holy Spirit? What does the Spirit do? Well, that’s answered in our text this morning.
You can’t be in any kind of relationship with someone whom you don’t even know. Want to be friends with someone? Step one is get to know the person. For example, let’s say you are here this morning because you want to get to know God. But that sort of personal knowledge is tough because God is God and you’re not. John says it up front, “No one has ever seen God.” “God is Spirit,” we say, “Invisible and intangible.”
Which means it’s tough to know God. We often say “seeing is believing.” It’s difficult to believe in the reality of something you can’t see. That means it’s difficult to believe in God, because sure knowledge about God the Invisible One is difficult.
So John also says, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The main point of Jesus, the Word made flesh, is to make God fully known.
How many times does Jesus say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…: a woman making bread, a father waiting for a child to return, a farmer finding buried treasure…” You can almost feel Jesus struggling to find the right story, just the right words in order to reveal God to us. That’s what any good teacher does: find just the right analogy or insight that will enable students to understand and know.
Jesus the teacher enables us, to become friends with God by making God known. The parables, the sermons, his actions, at every turn, Jesus was busy revealing God to us. All the way to the very last day, Jesus revealed the true nature of God.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work! No matter how hard Jesus tried to show us who God really is and what God is really up to in the world, we didn’t get all that he had to teach. And even then, there was still more to be said about God, even after all Jesus has said and done. At least that’s the impression we get from John.
Here Jesus is coming to the end of the road, the road that will end, at the cross. So the night before he gathers with the disciples for a meal. During this last meal, he gives them his last will and testament. In his last lecture he says what he has said before, the most important things he can say. Philip blurts out, “Lord, show us the Father, that will be enough for us. All we want to know is who God really is and what God means for us. Show us that, and this whole trip with you will be worthwhile!”
You can almost see Jesus slapping his hand on his forehead and you can almost hear his exasperation, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time?” It’s the night before the final exam and you are still clueless?
Then Jesus says, reassuringly, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘show us the Father? Don’t you believe that I am the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
As a teacher, Jesus, isn’t just conveying facts and figures to his students. Jesus is not just conveying subject matter; Jesus is the subject matter. He is God. Jesus, the Son of God is one with God the Father. “I am the Father and the Father is me.”
Philip, if you want to see God, to know God as God really is? Take a look! Take a listen!
That is good news. It means, in the words of theologian Thomas Torrance, that “there’s no God hiding behind Jesus.”
When Torrance was attempting to offer pastoral care to a grieving woman whose son had been killed in the war, and in her grief asked her pastor, “Where is my son now? What can I hope for after his death?” Torrance replied that whatever she knew about Jesus, she knows about God. Jesus never turned anyone away. Jesus embodied, in word and deed, pure love. Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him: he sought them out and welcomed and invited them to come to him in their need. It isn’t like you have Jesus talking about God and then somewhere else there’s God, lurking behind Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see God.
“I spent my first forty years of life thinking God was mad at me, thinking I was on probation with God,” a woman in church once said. “The I met Jesus and thereby discovered the truth about God. God is in Christ therefore, God is love.”
So Philip’s comment is rather startling. Here are the ones who have been with Jesus every step of the way, have heard his teaching, have seen him in action and yet, even after all that, here at the end, they say, “Come on Jesus! Don’t hold anything back. Show us the Father.
Philip’s incomprehension is typical of Jesus’ followers in John. Everyone around Jesus in the fourth gospel seems, well dumb! Jesus teaches and teaches, but nobody ever gets the point.
But before we condemn the disciples for being impossibly thick headed about not seeing God through Jesus, perhaps the problem is that they thought they already knew about God. They knew for sure that God is all powerful, all knowing, unlimited, high and mighty. Then came Jesus saying, “I and the Father are one,” and “when you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
The problem is that what they have seen of Jesus, as he is condemned and criticized by the scripture experts, as he is rejected by many of his hearers, and now as he goes to suffer and die- is that Jesus doesn’t match up with their preconception of God.
Maybe what Philip is really saying is “Okay Jesus, stop holding back. Come on. Act more like the God we expected. Give us the all-powerful stuff.”
Jesus responds to Philip by saying, “Philip, the good news is that when you have seen me, you have seen God. When you have been addressed by me, inviting you to follow me, you have been spoken to by God. When you have been loved by me, all the way to the end, all the way to the cross, you have been loved by God. There’s no God yet to be revealed, no God hiding behind me waiting to jump you later. I and the Father are one.”
And then Jesus makes an astounding comment, particularly surprising considering Philip’s incomprehension, “I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than mine. I will do whatever you ask for in my name.”
It’s odd to hear Jesus make this statement. Some interpreters say that when Jesus promises “greater works” he is talking about quantity rather than quality. Jesus has had, due to rejection, only about three but now he is giving his followers, us, until the end of time to do good work.
Jesus has brought his disciples into the sheepfold but there are still “other sheep” to be brought in and so he is giving them the time to do that work. The work of Christ in the world has only begun. The work will be continued, expanded beyond the bounds of Judea. There will be millions more in the future who “believe through their word.”
Still, it is a bit of a jolt to hear Jesus say, “I will do whatever you ask” because, if we’re honest, we know some of the ridiculous requests we might make of Jesus like, “Give me prosperity. Give me lots of money, in a Swiss bank account. Give me a big car.” Or, “Jesus, hand me a pain-free, happy life without risk of sadness or difficulty.”
Perhaps Jesus is saying, “You can do as great or even greater good work than I can do. If you need any help—doing good on behalf of others, or in loving others as I have commanded- all you’ve got to do is ask. I’ll give you help with the heavy lifting. Just ask.”
He says that he has done his good work and that we will be able to do his work too.
Maybe Jesus adds, “You know that I know you and love you. I don’t expect you to be a courageous, truthful witness, an unrestrained and generous giver, a forgiving, loving person on your own. All you’ve got to do is ask. Anything!”
And perhaps seeing that there’s still some work to be done among his own disciples like Philip, Jesus says, “I’m getting ready to depart, to return to my Father who sent me. I’ve tried to teach you all about the Father, but now I’ll send another teacher, the Advocate, who will continue to work with you, to explain things to you, and keep trying to show you the Father.”
Jesus promises to send “another Advocate.” Jesus, Son of God, has already been speaking with his Father, advocating for his disciples. Now Jesus says, as he leaves, that he will send “another Advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.”
And that just may be the most wonderful aspect of this Pentecost gospel. Jesus commands us to love. He says that through him we can know, really know, the truth about God. Yet he doesn’t expect us to do anything by ourselves.
“God helps those who help themselves,” was not said by Jesus. It’s not in the Bible. Rather, Jesus loves us enough to leave us, not alone, not as orphans, but rather gives us his Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit, that “Advocate,” will continue Jesus’ teaching among us. There’s so much to know about God, so many of our misconceptions about God, our confusion about just how it stands with us in God, that Jesus couldn’t tell us everything in the three years he’s had with us. So Jesus sends the Advocate to teach us.
What does the Holy Spirit do? That question finds its answer in the text. The Holy Spirit teaches. And that’s good news. When you are confronted with some difficult decision in which you ask, “What path does God want me to take?” or the old WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” ask the Holy Spirit for help with the lifting.
When you come to some crossroads and ask, “Where is God now? What is the most loving thing for me to do in this case?” Remember, you are not in this alone.
It’s Pentecost. We don’t have to live, obey, or serve God on our own! Thanks be to God for the gift of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who’ll teach us everything we need to know.