“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (St. John 14:15-18).
Being a clergyman in uniform, people of all types tend to seek me out for an opportunity to talk about what they think of Christianity. A common feature of these conversations is that most people imagine that if they could have a personal audience with the Son of God, everything would simply fall into place, and they would then believe. Armed with this eye-witness, special revelation, they assume trusting God would be easier, and then their faith would flourish.
Unfortunately, every piece of evidence we have regarding the reactions Jesus draws from the men and women who actually do hear and see Him during His earthly ministry shows just the opposite. For three years, everyone around Jesus is either completely confused about who He is, or they are actively trying to destroy Him for fear that He might actually be who He says He is. Friends betray and abandon Him; enemies slander and murder Him. The people of Earth, represented by these 1st century Galileans and Judeans, had three years to examine Jesus Christ: to see His love and righteousness on constant display, and they came to the conclusion, despite all the evidence that was before them, that this man was dangerous to the way of life they had chosen for themselves, and so He needed to die. In one sense, they were right: Jesus was actively working to destroy the evil and sin we humans cling to like a mad addict. And so, our forebears simply said, “No thank you Jesus, we will keep this corrupt and dirty world because we know it, and we are terrified of what this dangerous love you describe will look like. Instead of loving and trusting you, we will make you bloody and dirty like us; we will destroy your love at its source.” And then, of course, they crucified Him. A hard question: would we have done better?
Looking back at our lives and counting the number of times we have chosen to follow anything other than God will show us the answer is, “No.” What would we do if Jesus came right now and asked us to give up something we think we need so that we might know true love? Wouldn’t it just be easier to join the mob calling for Him to die or to run away to hold closer and closer the sin we worship instead? What would Jesus need to say before we said, “I can’t believe in a God who would ask that of me. He can’t be God. Kill Him.” If we are honest, we know it wouldn’t take much. Maybe it would be when He mentioned money or sex or violence, or how we humans will take good things, like our families and hobbies, and worship them rather than the living God. Jesus, who knows our hearts because He created them, would not be impressed by our various layers of self-righteousness or correct political opinions, and that would inevitably lead many people to storm off on a quest for something that “meets our needs.” No, we would not do well if Jesus had come to Fleming Island to begin His campaign to save creation. We would not do well because we would be the monsters the creation needs to be saved from.
So then, if we have ever asked ourselves, “Why did Jesus have to ascend to heaven, and why did the Father and the Son then send the Holy Spirit? Why did it have to be this way?” Here, in our ancestors and ourselves, we find the answer. It simply isn’t enough for us to hear the mighty commandments of God and decide to follow them: we won’t. The Old Testament is the grim chronicle of this reality as the people of God were gifted with a revelation of God’s providence and love, and chose instead to sacrifice their children to their neighbors’ idols. Nor is it simply enough to observe the natural world and come to a saving faith: we won’t. A man may certainly find ample evidence for God in creation, but that does not mean he will perfectly love God and His neighbor. We need something more than laws and rules and observations, laws and rules and observations are powerless without a heart made willing to follow them.
In truth, we could be standing right in front of Jesus Christ as he restored a blind man’s sight, be amazed at what we saw, and go home unchanged by the experience— most did that exact thing. Just as many people hear the Word of God or experience being in the real sacramental presence of Christ in our Eucharistic feast and go, “Eh” or “That was great, but not so great that I would give all of myself for this pearl of great price.” Those reactions do not change reality—God is working in the world whether we “feel” it or not—but they do reveal a blindness much more debilitating than the loss of physical sight. When we sing, “Come, Holy Spirit” we aren’t summoning a friendly ghost or engaging our more spiritual side; no, we are pleading for eyes that can see, ears that can hear, and hearts that can love. We are asking to be made alive, and we need the only being who can recreate us: we need God; we need the Holy Spirit.
But who is this “Helper,” Jesus promises today? Many attempts have been made to translate this difficult Greek word ranging from Comforter to Advocate to Helper to Friend. I would humbly suggest we translate this word as our “friend in court.” The imagery being used by Jesus here is of a person who advocates for us in a court of law while also being a close and loyal friend; in fact, a friend who will be with us “forever.” A friend who will reach into the darkness, and pull us back into the light.
The Holy Spirit, then, is not a phantasm or an ethereal force or whatever New Age nonsense people mean when they say “spirit.” Almost exclusively, when people say “spirit” they mean “not real” but that gloss is completely backwards, for everything that is real in this world comes from the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a personal being whose special purpose in the Godhead is to transform created spaces into covenantal spaces—to create a place for communion between the Creator and His creatures. The Holy Spirit was there when the world was created; the Holy Spirit was there when the waters receded after the flood; the Holy Spirit was there when the Red Sea parted to preserve the Israelite people; the Holy Spirit was there leading that same people through the desert with fire and cloud; the Holy Spirit was there in the tabernacle and the temple whenever the High Priest pleaded for reconciliation; the Holy Spirit was there when the Blessed Virgin Mary’s womb was made a new tabernacle for bearing the Second Person of the Trinity; the Holy Spirit was there when Jesus walked out of the tomb in which humanity placed Him. And amazingly, the Holy Spirit was there when you and I were reborn in the waters of baptism; the Holy Spirit is here now, in our hearts, preparing us to be the new covenant people we were created to be, and the Holy Spirit will be there on the day all men will be resurrected from their tombs for judgment and glory. This Holy Spirit is the great and mighty friend Christians may always trust in all our troubles and adversities—this Holy Spirit is the great and mighty friend by which all things are created and made new.
So what then is so special about Pentecost? If the Holy Spirit has been actively working in the world from the beginning, what makes this day we call Whitsunday so important? Today’s Gospel reading sheds some light on this question. Jesus states, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (St. John 14:26-28). We must remember, Jesus is saying these words to men who will be executed for the truth of the gospel. Jesus, himself, will be executed in mere hours. What peace then can our Lord possibly be referring to? What change in the nature of all reality could fill men with peace as they walked to their grim deaths? Surely, it is this peace we must better understand.
In our culture, and the culture of the Greeks and Romans, peace generally means an absence of war. When I was a serviceman, we could simultaneously say we were “at peace” with Iran while they were distributing weapons and aid to terrorists murdering our comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan. This peace is a kind of peace but not the kind Jesus means here. Similarly, people will say that our nation is at domestic peace while totally ignoring the day in and day out war between the forces of good and evil that is ultimately much more important than any other struggle. Even the violence in our cities over the past few days is merely a minor skirmish in this great war for the soul of your neighbors and enemies. So, what great peace then is Jesus talking about today? Our Lord can declare that He is the one bringing a new kind of peace into the world, not as a naked hope—like every person who raises two fingers with a goofy look on their face—but peace as a real change in the nature of humanity through which God and Mankind are reconciled. For Satan’s dark victory in the Garden of Eden was to drive a wedge between Mankind and the God who loves us—that wedge being the self-destructive sin which can only bring us shame and guilt and death. Jesus casts aside this enormous wedge by dying in our place, carrying the shame and guilt and death to the cross, thus Christ has created an eternal peace treaty between God and man: a new testament, a new covenant through which the dying world is being renewed. And incredibly, it is in the hearts of all God’s people that this new world is beginning. A new beginning created by the same Holy Spirit who was there at the first beginning. It is this new divinely created, indwelling reality which changes everything about who we are and who we will be. God within us, healing us, transforming us, uniting us to the perfect love of Christ.
As St. Paul so beautifully puts it: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:5). That peace treaty between God and man was written on the human heart for the first time on Pentecost morning, and it was written by the Holy Spirit. Let us never tire of honoring that Spirit who has brought us to the truth and united us with real peace forever. Let us treasure this peace even as the world burns, even as we march to our deaths.