This meditation is based on
Scholars believe that the book of John, one of four in the bible that tells the story of Jesus, was written a generation after Jesus was gone, around 90 AD. If Jesus was crucified around 33 AD, this would mean that most of the people that actually saw Jesus, walked with him, were taught by him would be dead sixty years later when the book of John would have been completed. In fact, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four books of the bible devoted solely to the story of Jesus, were all written around the time that the first generation of believers were dying. These stories were put down on paper because there were fewer and fewer people who could share their first hand knowledge with others.
We know from various writers, this transition in the early church was difficult. In a time and place that valued community and the support of family, Christians did not play well with others. Gentiles who became Christian were thought of as crazy by their family and friends. No Roman would join a cult where being servant was seen as a good thing. Jews by 90 AD would have nothing to do with Christians, even barring them from entering synagogues by 70 AD. If you became Christian you were basically dead to your family, whether Gentile or Jew.
What made it even more difficult by 90 AD was one of the central beliefs of early Christians wasn’t coming true. The earliest Christians thought Jesus was coming right back. He died, was resurrected, ascended to heaven and would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of God. This is likely why Paul advised people not to get married. Why spend energy in relationships when soon and very soon, Jesus would return and everything would change anyway?
As the years wore on, it became apparent this was not happening. The early church had been a temporary thing, a weigh station until the Kingdom of God came. People had to figure out if Jesus was not coming back right away, how were they to continue? What was their purpose now? If Jesus were not here to teach them, lead them, who would?
Knowing the history around when the book of John was written, allows us to hear the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples with different ears. In John 6, Jesus asks the disciples if they want to leave him because of the difficult ministry ahead. Peter says Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. It is a cool statement about their sole reliance on Jesus. They have no other options but to stick by him. The words of Peter are the words of this second generation church, too. Things are tough, but what other choice do we have? We will stay with Jesus.
Hearing the declaration of Peter in John 6 helps us hear the teaching of Jesus in today’s lesson better, too. Remember, Peter said we will stay with you because you bring life to us. Now, at the end, Jesus is telling them that he is going and where he is going they cannot follow. If Jesus brings life, what happens to the disciples after Jesus is gone? Their life purpose was found in following Jesus. Now, what was their purpose without Jesus? Similarly, the next generation Christians was asking the same questions. We thought Jesus would return to us any day now, what are we to do while waiting for him to return?
Jesus assures the disciples in the room with him, the disciples hearing the story as it was written sixty years later in the book of John, and even the disciples in our room today in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, that even though he is going away, he is not leaving any of us alone. A spirit of God will come alongside to help. The word paraclete that is used meant helper. The first part of verse 13 says “guide you in the truth”. A literal translation is, lead you along the way. The way is an early name for the church. The helper will lead the church.
Jesus predicts that the future will bear burdens that they will not and cannot know right now. Jesus didn’t teach Peter how to get along with his mother in law or Matthew how to be an honest tax collector. Jesus is not a life coach for these guys. The limits of time also do not allow him to prepare future believers for the burdens they will encounter. Why would Jesus, a Jewish rabbi with Jewish followers living in Palestine, teach these eleven how to live faithfully in Rome? Yet, that is the lesson the first hearers of this story from John wished Jesus had taught. Or imagine how Jesus could teach these twelve a lesson around the ethics of genetics? They could not comprehend what a cell is, let alone a gene. There are limits to the historical ministry of Jesus in Palestine 30 AD.
Jesus tells the disciples what is obvious to us, they don’t know all there is to know yet. They can’t. They have more to learn and they will learn it when the time is right. How? This helper, the paraclete will come alongside them to teach them. The Holy Spirit will help the Church understand their new and always changing circumstances.
These were comforting words for the first disciples to hear. Jesus was going away, but he would stay with them in a very real sense through the Holy Spirit. These were comforting words for the second generation Christians that wrote the book of John to hear. Though we thought Jesus would be returning to us in body soon, Jesus has remained with us as Spirit always. Jesus knew there would be burdens, like our families and friends not talking to us, and therefore has given us God’s Spirit for comfort.
These are important words for us to hear 2000 years later, too. Jesus’ teachings are not locked in the past, restricted to a particular moment. Nor does the absence of the physical Jesus rob us of a chance to have Jesus speak to the particulars of our life. Through the Holy Spirit, we can have the mind of Jesus speak to the church about things the earliest Christians would have never considered, the morality of germ warfare, the ethics of stem cell research, the possibility of remarriage after divorce, Christ like capitalism, considering homosexuality a part of creation.
We don’t worship the historical Jesus. We worship the God revealed by the historical Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is available to us now. Everything we know about God, we know through the prism of Jesus. Everything we know about Jesus, we know through the power of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the community will ensure that all believers’ futures are open to fresh proclamations of Jesus’ words. Through the Spirit filled church, Jesus speaks to us in the midst of our burdens.
The Spirit, Jesus’ promises will gather the disciples and help them be church together. The Spirit will teach the earliest disciples how to live life fully without their master, Rabbi Jesus walking next to them. The Spirit will comfort Christians in 90 AD who have to leave entirely their old life to follow Jesus. The Spirit will help us use the teachings of a first century rabbi to resolve issues today, whether they be evolution, birth control, the death penalty or strip mining. For each generation, Jesus speaks a new word through the Holy Spirit that bears the image of God. For each of us the paraclete comes alongside to help us on the way. Amen