Posted April 30, 2020
Today, the sixth Sunday of Easter, the Church is beginning to prepare us for Pentecost by giving us a passage from St John’s Gospel that speaks of Jesus’ promise of the Spirit of Truth that he will send to his disciples when he returns to the Father (Jn 14: 15-21).
I suppose when we think of Pentecost we instinctively think of the narrative in St Luke where the Spirit comes down with fire and a mighty wind and the visitors to Jerusalem of many different nations and languages hear the apostles preaching in their own language. It is St Luke’s technicolour description of the beginnings of the Church’s universal mission. And in many places in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is associated with miracles, ‘mighty signs and wonders’, as St Paul puts it. Even nowadays there are many Christian groups and movements that focus on miracles attributed to the Holy Spirit and extraordinary religious phenomena. You can Google for yourselves many interesting articles about present-day miracles of the Holy Spirit. Try, for example, the Holy Spirit Miracle Crusade in Romania, or join the swooning crowds in Mexico City to witness wonderful healing miracles worked by the preachers in the power of the Spirit; and of course you don’t need to go that far, for you can find many a group in your neighbourhood for which that kind of thing lies at the centre of Christianity. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not decrying it. There are places in the New Testament that would seem to justify it and I’m sure there are lots of good Christians who find it meaningful. I am not sure, though, that we must put extraordinary religious phenomena at the centre of Christianity, or that we must always think of them when we think of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit; and indeed today’s Gospel reading gives us quite a different take on the coming of the Spirit. Jesus is consoling his disciples with the assurance that his death will not be the end of their relationship. He will not leave them orphans. He will send them the ‘Spirit of Truth’, which he calls the ‘Paraclete’.
No one knows what exactly the word Paraclete means or how to translate it. Comforter? Consoler? Counselor? Advocate? Intercessor? Some translators, wisely, have given up trying and instead have made do with ‘Paraclete’. But rather than get hung up on the title, we do better to concentrate instead on the Paraclete’s role as St John describes it in this section of his Gospel. When we do that I think we may find an interpretation of the Holy Spirit that goes to the heart of St John’s very deep reflection on the reality of Christ and on Christ’s relationship with his disciples; and one that has greater claim to be placed at the heart of our religion.
An excellent summary of what St John says about the Paraclete’s role is this: The Paraclete is the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent. Although the Paraclete is certainly a distinct person from Jesus, he nevertheless appears to be Jesus’ double. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus calls the Paraclete ‘another Paraclete’, as if Jesus himself were already a Paraclete. This ‘other Paraclete’ will have no input of his own. He will ‘take from what is mine and declare it to you’. He will bring home to the disciples all that Jesus has taught them. He will lead them ‘into all truth’. (And what is this truth if not Jesus himself?) From one point of view, the Paraclete’s role after Jesus’ departure is exactly the same as Jesus’ role in his ministry: to reveal the Father and to bring us home to him.
But in spite of the near identity in function between Jesus and the Paraclete, we miss the whole point if we fail to see that the Paraclete brings something completely new to the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. What is new about Jesus’ relationship with the disciples when the Paraclete is sent to them as compared with Jesus’ relationship with them during his earthly ministry?
The answer to this is that through the work of the Paraclete, Jesus, the teacher and revealer, is interiorized in the hearts of his disciples. He is no longer just a teacher out there, however wise; no longer just a friend next to us, however close and loving; no longer just a historical personage, however revered and influential. He becomes, instead, the source of our personality: He in us and we in him. It is true that in St John’s Gospel Jesus often speaks as if already in his earthly ministry he is the inward source of life for the disciples, but this is surely the result of St John and his community projecting backwards upon the earthly Jesus their vivid personal experience of Jesus after his resurrection. In reality, Jesus’ indwelling of the disciples is an absolute novelty consequent upon his return to the Father and the coming of the Paraclete.
St John uses some striking images to express this new relationship, as when he has Jesus say: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ Jesus himself, through the Paraclete, is the sap that nourishes and invigorates us; or, in another image, Jesus, through the Paraclete, is the fountain of water within us, leaping up into eternal life. God imparts to us the capacity to love with Jesus’ own love. This is the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s ancient promise of a new covenant. God would write his law deep within us; he would put his Spirit in us. This is the essential novelty of our religion: the presence and activity of God in the believer’s personality. It’s what St Paul means when he says: ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’; and when he says: ‘God’s love has been poured out in our hearts by the holy Spirit given to us.’
I wonder if St John’s take on the Paraclete will be more useful to us in preparing for Pentecost than mighty winds and tongues of fire. It is vital for us as Christians to give primacy to the inwardness of our religion. We lose sight of that inwardness when we experience our religion as a list of commandments chiselled on tablets of stone, instead of a person enfleshed in our hearts. When that happens, it’s a small step to imagining that being religious means being busy with religion. It’s what Pope Francis meant when he spoke of a Church ‘caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations’. Or else we distract ourselves from the heart of the matter through preoccupation with personalities, with controversies in the Church, with this or that interest group, with this or that form of liturgy.
May no part of our religious practice ever distract us from God. May all that we do and say be an expression of profound communion with him: an effect of Pentecost, and not just so many strategies for distracting us from the single fundamental imperative of allowing God, through the Paraclete, to reproduce in us the character of Jesus.
St Paul offers the Galatians a criterion by which to recognize true religion when he speaks to them about the holy Spirit, and describes what he calls the ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. ‘The fruit of the Spirit’, he says, ‘is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ Now that’s the point. No miracle crusades. No swooning. Just Jesus, clothing us with his character; communicating to us his instincts. He in us and we in him.
May the coming feast of Pentecost make this fruit of the Spirit ever more plentiful in our hearts, and may nothing distract us from the task of cultivating it in our persons and in our communities.
Fr Tom Deidun