“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16: 7).
“It’s better for you that I go”
Hmmm. Jesus or the Spirit? Which would we rather have, I wonder? How would we feel if we heard those words? Comforted? Excited? Would our reaction be to say, “Okay, Jesus – you be getting along now. Hurry up – not that we want rid of you, you understand, but seeing as you’ll send the Spirit …” Personally, I don’t think so. I’d want to open negotiations: “Right, Jesus: that’s one option. Now if I understand you correctly, we can’t have both – so what about you staying and we do without the Spirit? Do we get another choice here?” I’d be unconvinced that what was on offer was to my advantage. Jesus wasn’t. This isn’t “spin” – Jesus trying to make the disciples feel better about something bad (his imminent departure to the Father). He’s quite genuinely clear here: “It’s to your advantage that I go away and the Spirit comes”. Why?
The priority of Jesus’ mission
One obvious reason is that Jesus’ priority is his mission, not about making deep personal friendships with the disciples. Let’s be clear: that is not the same thing as saying those personal relationships were unimportant for Jesus. Here in John’s gospel, in the farewell discourse, Jesus has talked constantly of his love for them. He has told them that they are no longer servants, but friends. He has prayed earnestly for them, focusing his entire attention on this very special group of people. So this isn’t about lack of affection – it’s about the priority of his mission that Jesus assumes his disciples share.
And the clear implication in John’s gospel is that they do. Look at the preceding verses: “None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things, sorrow has filled your hearts”. The disciples, in other words, know both that Jesus is going to the Father and that he must. They don’t try to argue him out of it, or protest, or break down at the prospect. They have shared his life and love, and so they share his priority. They have learned to look at the world through Jesus’ eyes, and share his breadth of vision. They have already learned from Jesus that they have a task – to carry on what Jesus started with them. Only now, they move from being learners to centre stage. The next scene is theirs! They understand that.
“Me, Jesus … and the whole world!”
There is a widespread Christian spirituality that finds it incredibly difficult to move from the comfort and celebration of a personal relationship with Jesus to a shared passion for the world. It’s the “me and Jesus” theology of a great deal of evangelical piety. “Me and Jesus” is not a problem – in fact, it’s vital! One of the difficulties I have with a great deal of liberal theology and piety that is strong on involvement in the world is that it is woefully short on individual relating to God in Jesus Christ. God is embarrassingly intimate! That’s no clearer than in John’s gospel. While we might find it inappropriate to imagine that God would want to get as up close and personal to the point of being concerned about each of us as individuals, the God revealed by Jesus has no such qualms. I find myself getting incredibly impatient and frustrated with the “either/or” choices forced on us by the classic liberal/evangelical divide. Why should it be that passion for the world should be separable from passionate relationship with God? And how can it be that passionate relating to God slips so easily into a privatised, individualised selfishness that shuts out the world that is crying out for salvation and transformation?
Paul echoes the cry of the universe in Romans 8: 22: “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now”. He plays with two images: creation in bondage to decay, and as a mother in labour, straining to give birth to a new creation that is all God intends for it. God’s saving grace is a response to the world’s need. The scope of salvation is as great as creation – it is global! Just as the slaves “groaned” in the brick-pits of Egypt and their cry reached Yahweh’s ears, creation “groans” and God hears and responds. There is an aching at the heart of the universe for God, even when that aching finds no echo in rebellious human hearts.
There are those lines in one of the hymns that are both true but dangerously open to misinterpretation: “Was it the nails, O Saviour/that bound Thee to the Tree?/Nay, ‘twas Thy love – Thy wondrous love/Thy love for me … for me!” That is true. Jesus loves each of us with that same passionate commitment. Karl Barth was asked near the end of his life what the greatest truth he had discovered was. The interviewer was expecting some typically Barthian profound piece of theology – and he got it! Barth answered, “Jesus loves me, this I know/for the Bible tells me so”! But Barth would never have bought into the notion that the whole scope and plan of salvation could be reduced to “me”. Jesus loves “me” because he loves the world. I am saved because salvation is for the whole world! That is Barth’s theology, Paul’s theology, and John’s theology. And, Barth says, “I” am saved, not for my own personal enjoyment of salvation (important and wonderful though that is), but in order to become part of God’s mission of transforming all of created reality into the kingdom.
That is why Jesus is able to say what he does to the disciples here in John’s gospel. The disciples have work to do, and they cannot do it without the Spirit, if they are to move from being disciples into their new role as apostles (cf John 15: 27, 16: 8-11). He knows that, and so do they. Unlike me, the disciples do not carp, complain or cajole – they believe Jesus when he tells them his going will be to their advantage.
The triumph of the Kingdom
The second reason for Jesus saying that it is better if he goes and sends the Spirit has to do with the importance of the Kingdom. This is not a category used by John, although it was undoubtedly Jesus’ primary category. In John, the Kingdom is transposed into something identical in meaning: the Reign of God. He doesn’t do this by talking about the Reign of God, but via the purpose of the cross. John, you remember, portrays the crucifixion as Jesus’ coronation and enthronement. His “lifting up” (complete with crown of thorns and declaration, “This is the King of the Jews” in all the known languages of the world) is the means by which Jesus “will draw all people to himself”. The crucified Christ in John’s gospel is the visible sign of what Timothy Rees captures so beautifully eloquently in his hymn: “God is Love, so Love forever/o’er the universe must reign”!
If Love is to reign over the universe, then the present powers and order must be defeated and destroyed. Jesus tells us what that order is: sin, righteousness and judgement (16: 8-11). The world is disordered because of sin. Human beings were created as children of the Light. The true Light has come into the world in Jesus, but “people love the darkness rather than the Light”. Sin cuts us off from our nature and heritage as children of God. The role of the Spirit is to bring the Light that exposes darkness for what it is, and to win and woo people into the Light where Life is to be found. The present order – the world as we have made it – is an order of retribution and deserts. There is no room for grace in it. The extravagant love of God that is shown in giving the Son for the world is seen through distorted eyes. Instead of being received joyfully as a gift, Jesus is crucified. In this sense, Jesus can define sin as “They did not believe in me” (v9). It is not a point about Christianity vs Islam (for example): it is about the wilful inability of sinful human beings to recognise God when God walks among us.
Sin likewise distorts notions of righteousness. In a world of retribution and just deserts, grace is a major stumbling block – “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence”, as Paul puts it. On a “just deserts” reading, Jesus cannot be righteous. “Righteous” in John’s theological lexicon means “from God/God-like”. John presents Jesus as the one who makes God known because he has come from the Father. Look again at John’s programmatic 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”.
In other words, Jesus here is making a similar point about righteousness as he does about sin. If it is true that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, the challenge of Jesus is to look at him and to recognise, “God’s like that!” Or, as David Jenkins puts it, “God is. He is as he is in Jesus; therefore there is hope”. And how is God portrayed in Jesus? As grace! As Love! But the eyes distorted by sin see him on the cross as “stricken by God and accursed”. This cannot be righteousness! This cannot be what God is like! Hence Jesus says, “I am going to the Father” – in other words, God is vindicating Jesus’ claim to be the manifestation of God on earth. Jesus’ ascension is God’s testimony: “I am who I am in this man!” It is the work of the Spirit to cure blindness: to open people’s eyes to look at Jesus and see God as Love and Life.
The sentence of death by crucifixion was judgement upon the so-called King of the Universe. However, it wasn’t the judgement that people thought they were passing! They thought they were passing judgement on Jesus. Ironically, they were lifting up the King of the Universe for all to see, and in so doing, passing judgement on the Pretender to the throne. The cross was Jesus’ coronation, and therefore the condemnation of the ruler of the world – the one to whom human beings have handed control. Here is John’s equivalent of the Markan Jesus who plunders the house of the Strong Man (Satan). The things that we put in place of God do not free us – they bind us. These are the things of darkness and death. The Spirit is the Spirit of resurrection – the power of God over death itself. She is the Spirit of Life. The condemnation of the ruler of the world makes possible the freedom to be found in the reign of the risen and glorified Jesus – Life in all its fullness.
The first fruits of the new creation (Acts 2: 1-21/Romans 8: 22-27)
The Spirit-fired apostles burst on the Jerusalem scene that first Pentecost with the startling announcement that the Good News is not just good news for the Jews. First century Jewish messianic hopes are exposed by the resurrection as hopelessly parochial and self-centred. The announcement is to be heard everywhere and by everyone. And they all hear it – in their own languages! The resurrection is a gigantic stone heaved by God into the world, and its ripples are beginning to spread “from Jerusalem, through Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost ends of the earth”. God isn’t just interested in sorting out the Jewish people’s problems – God is in the business of transforming the world! God is not the tribal god of a small, insignificant nation, but is God of all the nations. The God who broke the power of Pharaoh is the God who will smash all systems that enslave, oppress and kill. And how should we know this? Because the Spirit is being poured out … on all flesh. These are the Last Days. This is salvation time!
Look at how the Spirit smashes boundaries. Sons, daughters, young people, old people, slaves, men and women: these are all ancient categories of divisions in society. Each had different worth in a hierarchical structure, with men at the top and female slaves at the very bottom. Resurrection is about a new world order. That’s the content of the “dreams and visions”! I’ve often heard it said that young men see visions because they look ahead to the future, whereas old men dream dreams because they look back to the past. Not so! Dreams and visions here are synonymous. The prophet Joel goes on to talk about “portents and signs” – apocalyptic language denoting an event of cosmic significance. “Turning the sun into darkness and the moon into blood” are symbolic of the death of the old order, which gives way to a new order of salvation in which “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2: 21). The pouring out of the Spirit is a sign of the universal salvation that God has brought about in Jesus. This is the Good News – the new creation!
The Spirit is described by Paul as “the first fruits” of the new creation – creation liberated from bondage to decay and death (to futility). That is the content of hope and of “the glory that is about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). The Christian hope is not about escape from earth to “heaven”, but of a transformed earth – heaven on earth. Salvation is life for a world of death. Resurrection, personal salvation and a transformed creation all belong here together in Paul’s thinking, and the key is the Spirit. Look at vv 9-11. Whoever has the Spirit dwelling in them, says Paul, belongs to Christ, because the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. Furthermore, it is by the Spirit that God raised Jesus from the dead. Therefore be assured, says Paul: if this is the Spirit of Life who raised Christ from the dead, then you will have the very life of God in your mortal bodies! It is through the Spirit of Christ that we share in Jesus’ relationship to God as adopted children (vv 14ff). Our experience of the global order of sin and death is a personal reality. We experience it in our bodies. Resurrection and salvation are equally to be personal realities, experienced through our mortal bodies.
The staying power of the “old creation”
Yet our experience, however personal and individual, is not unique. It is the experience of the whole of creation (Romans 8:19ff). The presence of the Spirit, therefore, is a sign – a “down-payment” or “first-fruit” of the promise that this world is to be transformed. That is important. It gives us reason to hope. It prevents the proclamation of a new world from being merely a utopian pipe-dream. The Good News of the salvation for the world that God has effected in Jesus is not just optimistic nonsense. God has started something in Jesus that God intends to bring to completion. But life’s a bitch! If we are honest, the evidence for a new world is not in our favour. It’s been 2,000 years since Paul wrote. We have never had global poverty, starvation and despair on the scale that we do today. Money, unaccountable power, sophisticated means of mass-slaughter and oppression have probably seldom been stronger. The shocking truth is that, for most people on this planet, life is a living hell, and we need to recognise that if it isn’t so for us, that has more to do with accidents of birth and geography than it has to do with the saving power of God!
In the face of these kinds of odds and intractable realities, we are called to have faith and keep faith. Faith is different from certainty. We believe against the odds. We are called to have hope in the face of apparent hopelessness – not because Christians are meant to be incurable optimists, or because they are somehow blind to harsh realities, but because God raised Jesus from the dead by the Spirit, and the Spirit is afoot!
New life for dead, dry bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14/Psalm 104: 24-34, 35b)
The Spirit is the breath of God’s life, breathed into all creation. Everything that lives does so because of God’s Spirit. That is what the psalmist says in this psalm of praise to God as creator and provider : “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30).
The link between the Spirit and renewed life for dead things is made in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The historical context is that of Judah’s exile and this is a vision in startling language of homecoming. It is a beautiful Old Testament parallel to Pentecost with its resonances of wind (breath), new life and resurrection, isn’t it? Yet I want to focus on its historical context, rather than to make it into an Old Testament version of a New Testament theme. Although the image is of resurrected bodies, it is about the promise of return from exile, not a passage about resurrection! Perhaps surprisingly, most Old Testament scholars agree that the belief in resurrection came very late in the Old Testament period, and that only two passages in the entire Old Testament speak explicitly about resurrection: Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2!
Why focus on this difference, you night ask? The point here is that this is a passage that speaks not about life that endures beyond death, but about life that resumes in the midst of death. Exile was experienced as a living death. The prophetic promise here is that the exile has a time limit: the people’s destiny is to return to the land. That will feel like being dead and living again. And that is an important emphasis for the Church in our postmodern world.
Commentators like Brueggemann have accurately cast the Church situation today in terms of exile. We’re a shrinking, aging community whose best years are in the past. We’re no longer at “home” in the world – and that’s not meant positively! We feel lost. The things we once knew have disappeared. The old answers do not work any more. Vibrancy and confidence are ebbing away. The Church is alive – but it feels as though we are living in an alien land and, in many ways, as though we’re the “living dead”. Ask most young people today what they think of the Church and they’ll describe it in precisely those same terms: “the living dead”. We’re seen as an institution past its sell-by date, inhabited by people equally past their sell-by date. Our buildings, hymns and practices are monuments to a past that has long gone: we just haven’t realised it!
Pentecost is a word of prophecy and promise to the Church in a postmodern age. The Church lives by the Spirit, and the Spirit is irrepressibly the source of Life and renewal. If we are in exile, that exile has a time limit. It is time actively to reconnect with God’s Spirit. The message of hope – the Good News of what God has done in Jesus to save the world – still needs to be heard. It has no sell-by date! The message of a world that needs transforming is as fresh and needed as ever it was – perhaps more so than at any time in living or recent memory. There is still a missionary task to be completed, and that means that God still has need of a faithful community of witnesses.
Yet to be effective, we need to let go of the past and find new ways. Just as the exile forced the people to rethink their faith from the ground up, so our own exile requires a similar, courageous and faithful act of re-imagination. That sort of re-imagination is impossible without the Spirit. And it is exceedingly possible through the Spirit! It is time to heed God’s words to Ezekiel: these dead, dry bones can live! We are the people into whom the Spirit can breathe new life. We can live again – now! We need to ask ourselves, though, what our dreams and visions are about. If they are simply a hankering after the past, and dreams about a Church “restored to former glory”, we can forget it! The world has changed, and we are in exile because we have not changed along with it. We are an irrelevance at present – and deservedly so. The world has got the measure of the powerful possibilities of change and of a new future (however much we might want to criticise the content of that vision). The Church, meanwhile, behaves as all venerable human institutions do: it changes only by being dragged kicking and screaming into a new reality, and always remains reactionary and several years out of date.
Dreaming God’s dreams
Perhaps the greatest challenge we still face is of finding the courage and resources to let go of our obsession with making the world in our own image. When our “visions” and “dreams” become something other than “getting in large crowds to make them like us”, then we will have begun dreaming God’s dreams! We are not creaking and dying on our feet for lack of people: we have fewer and fewer people because we are dead and dry. Exile didn’t create the dead dryness: exile happened because of it! It’s time we faced up to our situation as God’s judgement on what we had become long before we started declining and decaying. God’s judgement, however, isn’t meant as a sentence of death. It’s a time of preparation – of pruning, and paring down to the point where we are prepared to take the risk of calling on the Spirit to come and breathe new life into us – however scary, unfamiliar and uncomfortable that might be. But that’s where Life is to be found. That’s our Pentecost.