Sunday, 25 May 2014

All of Life's a Trial

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
25th May 2014, 11.00

John 14.15-21   "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  18 ¶ "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

Acts 17.22-31   Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him-- though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'  29 ¶ Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

Today's reading from John's Gospel
            offers us an account of the imparting of the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
Which is fine, except...
            I continue to find the whole language, and indeed concept, of 'Holy Spirit'
            to be the point at which Christianity starts to get a bit ‘weird’.

I mean, my oh-so-rational, post-enlightenment mind-set
            can cope with the concept of God as love,
            the one in whom there is no darkness at all.
It can even cope with the concept of Jesus as God made flesh;
            a human being in whom is embodied all the fullness of divine love.

But when we get to the third person of the Trinity,
            and start talking in terms of the Holy Spirit as present with, and indeed within,
                        the faithful followers of Jesus,
            it all starts to get a bit close to home,
                        a bit upfront and personal.
A bit, as I have said, ‘weird’!

‘Who’, I find myself asking, or ‘what’, is this 'Spirit '.
            Is the Holy Spirit an idea?
                        Is it a concept? Is it a ghost?
                                    Is it a he, or a she? 

There seems to me to be no two ways about it:
            the language of God as Spirit,
                        this idea of God as being in some way present with his people,
                        and being so in a way that is tangible,
            is, well, a bit ‘weird’!

Now don't get me wrong here;
            I'm not wanting to express any great or profound doubts
                        about the existence or presence of the Holy Spirit.
However, I am admitting to the fact
            that I find it quite hard to understand.

John's Gospel offers us two related images for the Holy Spirit,
            which may help to shed some light
on how we might understand what Jesus is doing,
            when he gives the gift of his Spirit to his disciples.

Firstly, John's Gospel speaks of the Spirit
            as the 'Spirit of truth' (14.17; 15.26; 16.13; cf. 1 Jn 4.6).
But the gospel also uses another word to describe the Holy Spirit,
            and this is the word best translated into English as ‘advocate’
                        (14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7; cf. 1 Jn 2.1).

The Greek word in view here is one which crops up from time to time in sermons,
            so I'm afraid you're going to get it again briefly this morning.
                        It is the word Paraclete.

When preparing this sermon, I did take a moment to chuckle to myself
            about the fact that my spellchecker insisted
            on automatically replacing the word Paraclete with parakeet.
And although it may be true that the Spirit of God is a wind that blows where it pleases,
            I think the analogy with members of the parrot family
                        is probably not one that I shall pursue too far! 

This Greek word Paraclete has been variously translated into English,
            with the word ‘counsellor’ sometimes being used.
However, I think that the best way of understanding the meaning of Paraclete correctly
            is to translate it as ‘advocate’.

So, in our reading this morning from John's Gospel,
            Jesus says that he will ask the Father,
            and the father will give to the disciples a Paraclete, an ‘advocate’,
                        who will be with them for ever.
And Jesus tells them that this advocate is the Spirit of truth.

The thing that strikes me about these two images,
            of the Spirit as ‘truth’, and of the Spirit as ‘advocate’,
is that this language of truth and advocacy
            takes us into the realm of the law courts;
truth and advocacy are legal terms.

It’s no coincidence that one way of thinking
            about the overall structure of John's Gospel,
            is to picture it as a legal drama, as a courtroom drama.
It begins with a mystery,
            with the tantalising hypothesis that the divine ‘word’ has become ‘flesh’ (1.14).
Then, as it proceeds, slowly the Gospel narrative
            presents the reader with mounting evidence, clue upon clue,
                        and the witnesses build up one upon another,
            to the point where the trial itself is ready to begin,
                        and the truth is ready to be revealed.

John’s gospel is in many ways a detective mystery, based around truth,
            and at stake in the trial at the end, is the question summed up
                        by Pilate’s final statement to Jesus, as he hands him over to be crucified.
            ‘What is truth?’ says Pilate, posing the central question of the gospel (18.38).

Our passage today, from chapter 14,
            comes at the turning point of the gospel.
We are moving from evidence and witnesses towards the trial itself.
            It won't be long now before Jesus finds himself before Pilate,
                        presenting the accumulated evidence of his life and ministry,
                                    as the trial to establish truth begins.

However, one of the greats ambiguities of the trial of Jesus in John's Gospel,
            is that it is never quite clear exactly who is on trial.
Is it Jesus himself?
            Or is it rather the ‘world’;
                        is the trial really about unmasking that complex interplay
                                    of systems and structures
                        that distorts and demeans humanity,
                                    obscuring truth and replacing it with deception.

It is in this context that Jesus calls on God the Father
            to give the gift of the Spirit of Truth to those who would follow his example.
It is in this context, of a legal battle over the nature of truth itself,
            that Jesus secures for his disciples an advocate for the truth.

The legal role of ‘advocate’ was well known in the ancient world,
            and the function of an advocate
                        was to ‘stand up in a court of law
                                    and explain to the judge or jury
                                    how things are from his or her client’s point of view.’
            In other words,
                        ‘the advocate pleads the case’.[1]

The Jews well understood this role of advocate
            from their own religious and legal tradition.
But in addition to human advocates,
                        and the role they played in normal legal processes,
            the Jews often used the image of a lawcourt
                        to depict their understanding
                        of what was going on in the heavenly realm.

So we get the picture of the heavenly courtroom
            occurring in a number of places throughout the Hebrew scriptures,
            with God seated where the king would sit in an earthly court,
                        dispensing justice and adjudicating righteousness.

And within this ‘heavenly court’, there was a structural role for advocates, or intercessors,
            for those persons or angelic beings
            whose role was to plead the cause of the righteous.

These intercessors were the heavenly advocates,
            and the idea of intercessory prayer finds its origins in this process,
                        with the advocate, or intercessor, speaking to the heavenly court
                        in favour of one who is unable to speak for themselves.

And so Jesus calls for an advocate,
            for one who will remain with his disciples,
                        speaking in favour of his cause,
                        interceding for him in his absence;
            offering ongoing witness testimony,
                        to the truth that has been revealed in his life and ministry.

Within the courtroom drama of John’s gospel,
            the time is coming when Jesus will no longer be able to speak for himself.
He will offer his final testimony before the Roman court,
            and Pilate will hand him over to be crucified,
            silencing the one in whom God’s truth has been revealed.

At this point, the role of the advocate, the Spirit of Truth,
            is to remain with the disciples,
            continuing Jesus mission of testifying to the truth.

Jesus actually describes the Spirit as ‘another’ advocate (14.16),
            recognising that he himself was the first advocate to the truth (cf. 1 Jn 2.1);
anointed by the Spirit at his baptism
            for a life dedicated to the revelation of truth
            and the unmasking of deception (1.32).

The brute fact of the existence of Jesus,
                        this moment in history when the word of God become flesh,
            had put the world on trial,
                        revealing and exposing the terrible depths of the human capacity
                                    for deception, deceit, and dishonesty,
                        whist pointing the way to a new way of being human,
                                    where pretences are stripped away,
                        and new life is encountered in the light of God’s revealed truth.

So the ongoing role of the Spirit of advocacy
            is to ensure that this testimony to the truth,
                        that came into being with Jesus,
                        as the divine word became human flesh,
            is not lost to a world that
                        continually conspires to ensure its silence.

So the trial and execution of Jesus,
            becomes the trial and conviction of the world.
It is the moment of terrible unmasking,
            the moment of horrific revelation,
            as the truth of the nature of reality without God becomes inescapable.

There is nowhere to hide as the world without God reveals its hand,
            putting to death the very one
            in whom divine life-giving truth had taken tangible form.

In the handing over of Jesus to be crucified,
            Pilate, on behalf of all empires everywhere,
            secures a guilty verdict on the world without God.
The truth that is revealed in the trial of Jesus,
            is the truth that without God, the world stands condemned.

Not even the Jewish legal system is let off the hook here,
            with the religious leaders of the Jews conspiring with the Romans
            in the execution of the divine word.
It seems that even the law of Moses,
            based on the God-given ten commandments,
            is found to be ineffective in revealing truth to the hearts of humans.

So it is that Jesus invites those who would live in love
            to do so not by keeping to the ten commandments,
                        but by believing his own testimony to the truth (14.1),
            and by living according to his own commandments
                        of mutual love (13.34) and mutual service (13.14-15).

He says:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 
16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,
            to be with you forever. 
17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive,
            because it neither sees him nor knows him.
You know him, because he abides with you,
            and he will be in you. (14:15-17).

There is a saying that ‘all of life’s a trial’,
            and it seems that, certainly the way John’s gospel pictures it,
                        this is the nature of reality.

Not in terms of life being difficult,
            although that certainly is true for some.
And not necessarily in terms of the inevitability of persecution,
            although it remains a very real possibility for many
            that they will be dragged before the courts, and worse,
                        for their testimony to the truth of Christ.

But ‘all of life’s a trial’,
            because the truth that came into being in Christ
            continues to put the world itself on trial.
The world continues to be called to account as the truth of Christ,
                        testified to by his advocate,
                        and witnessed to by his disciples,
            offers its persistent challenge the human tendency
                        to construct power systems and structures
                        based on self-deception and self-interest.

Just as the truth of the word-become-flesh
            challenged the legalism of the Jewish religious system,
            and the domination of the Roman imperial system,
So the truth to which the advocate bears witness in our own time
            continues to challenge those human behaviours and power systems
                        which derive from self-righteous legalism
                        and self-interested imperial domination.

Just as Paul, standing in the Areopagus in Athens,
            pointed the Athenians to the truth of God revealed in Christ,
            through their altar to the unknown God.
So those of us, in whom and through whom the Advocate continues to speak,
            are called to engage with the cultures, systems, and powers of our own time,
pointing to the truth that casts out fear,
            and releasing people from deceptions
            that distort, demean, and divide humanity.

The courtroom drama of John’s gospel does not, of course,
            end with the death of the innocent man.
It ends, much as it began, with a mystery.
            It ends with an empty tomb,
                        and with Jesus once more present with his disciples,
                                    testifying to them the glorious truth
                        that even death itself does not get the final word on human life.

And so, we who live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus
            are called to a politics of truth, compassion, and justice;

We are called to build communities of inclusion,
            where the unlovely discover that they are loved,
            and the isolated find themselves no longer alone.

We are called to obedience to the command of Christ
            that we must live lives of mutual service, and mutual love.

And we are called to live lives of truth,
            as the Advocate within us bears witness to the truth
            that in Christ Jesus, the word has become flesh,
                        and continues to dwells among us.

[1] Tom Wright, John For Everyone, Part 2.

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