On a day when I was dealing with a vexatious situation, I spent some time talking about it with my sweetheart. Gary is a great thinking partner, adept at asking questions and offering insights (in a non-advicey kind of fashion) that help me find a path through the muddle at hand, whether it’s a tangle of words in something I’m writing, a stuck place I’ve gotten to in a piece of artwork, or the challenges that come up in having a ministry that doesn’t fit a specific mold. I don’t remember precisely what was vexing me on this particular day—I have some recollection I was struggling with an institutional system, which means it was probably either the church or the publishing industry—but I do remember some words that Gary offered as we finished our conversation. “The thing to remember here, Jan,” he said, “is that I am on your side.”
Having somebody on our side, somebody whose sidefulness doesn’t require that we always agree with them or bend ourselves to their agenda, is a remarkable gift. My experience of this with my sweetheart provides something of a glimpse into what Jesus is offering to his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel lection, John 14.15-21. Jesus’ words in this passage immediately follow our Gospel lection from last week. He and the disciples are still at the table, lingering as Jesus speaks the crucial words he feels pressed to offer his friends before he is taken from them. We see again the depth of Jesus’ desire for them to understand how he means for them to abide with him after he is gone. In this passage he tells them that he “will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This,” he continues, “is the Spirit of truth….”
In his commentary on John’s Gospel, D. Moody Smith notes that parakletos, the Greek word commonly translated as Advocate (the New Revised Standard Version offers “Helper” as an alternative), “means literally one called to the side of, an advocate or an attorney.” As Smith suggests, however, the context of this passage indicates that this parakletos—often called the Paraclete in English—“does not function so much to advocate the disciples’ cause before God as to mediate the presence of Jesus to the disciples.” This Paraclete will do more than help out the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ death; the Paraclete will sustain and make possible their ongoing relationship with him.
Jesus tells them that they will know this Advocate because “he abides with you, and he will be in you.” There it is again, that word abides—from the Greek meno, as we noted last week. Jesus is at pains to impress upon them the fact of this abiding, and how it will happen: he tells them not only that the Paraclete will be in them, but also that he will be in the Father, the disciples will be in him, and he will be in them.
That’s a whole lot of shared indwelling going on, a plethora of mutual meno-ing. It’s this kind of passage that has made John’s Gospel so appealing to mystics across the ages. With John’s intensely spiritual style, it sometimes becomes a challenge, in reading his Gospel, to keep one’s feet on the ground, or one’s head above water—pick your own metaphor, John offers a host of his own. John’s Gospel is a wonder in part for this very reason, that he drenches us with words that draw us into spiritual depths. He always means for us to see, however, the bedrock beneath it all, the response that a life in the Spirit calls us to make.
As any good mystic knows, being in relationship with Christ does not mean forever wallowing around in this mutual, mystical indwelling that takes place among God, Jesus, the Spirit, and us. Abiding with Christ is a wonder and a gift of grace, but it’s not a perpetual feel-good fest. There at the table, Jesus emphasizes that being in relationship with him, and receiving the Advocate, compels us to a concrete response in the world; in fact, we can take Jesus’ words to mean that his sending of the Advocate is contingent upon the disciples’ actions. “If you love me,” Jesus says at the outset of this passage, “keep my commandments.” He will say it again in a similar fashion at the end of the text: “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.”
When it comes to Jesus giving commandments in the Gospel of John, this is what he has to say:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (13.34, 35)
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you…. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (15.12-14, 17)
Living with Jesus challenges us to love not only him but also those whom he sends to us. And perhaps this is the real gift and intent of the Spirit, the Helper and Advocate whom he promised to send to the disciples: that the Spirit will sustain us as we live into the love to which Christ calls us, even when, and especially when, it means abiding with those whom we’d rather build walls against.
Jesus’ words this week have me wondering who might need me to say the words that Gary offered me on that vexatious day: I am on your side. Who might need to hear those words from you?
May you know the challenging peace of the One who is on your side and who is within you.