Exposed by the Spirit — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read John 15:26-16:15

Which “flavor” of the Holy Spirit shall we taste on the Day of Pentecost, 2021? Will it be the Birthday Candle Spirit of Acts 2 with a tongue of flame on every apostolic head and a mandate to witness to the ends of the earth? Or will it be the “Lord and Giver of life” of Psalm 104 who brooded over the waters of Creation and stirs up the waters of our baptism? Perhaps you will experience the heart-searching Intercessor of Romans 8. Or you may go with the alternative text and feel with bone-rattling Wind of Ezekiel 37.

The one thing we dare not do, I think, is to toss all the texts into a theological blender and produce a Holy Spirit puree. As our friends at the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast remind us, the task is to preach the text and let the day get its due in the liturgy. By the way, have you made your contribution yet to during their May fundraiser?

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I find the Steadfast Spirit of John 16 to be the theological “flavor of the month” for 2021. In particular, I’m focusing on verses eight through eleven. When the promised Holy Spirit comes, that Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (NRSV).

The writer of the Fourth Gospel is the master of multiple meanings. Mark makes a good effort on occasion. Paul has his clever moments, especially when he uses a word that means both “justification” and “justice.” But when it comes to the dance of the double entendre, no one outdoes John, the Evangelist. We have a clear example in today’s text.

It’s the word “elegcho.” Yes, I routinely violate preaching rule about including Greek words in the message. So, what do you want for free anyway? The NRSV translates the word as “prove” in verse eight. That’s fine. The first listed meaning, however, is to “bring to light, expose, set forth.” So, the sense of “prove” has to do with presenting evidence previously unseen.

 The second definition is to “convince or convict someone” or to “point out something to someone.” Again, the word is about evidence uncovered. That leads to the third meaning, “to reprove or correct” and even the fourth meaning, to “punish or discipline” someone.

The Steadfast Spirit exposes the Truth.

That sounds like anything but good news to me. I hope I am not the only person who lives with memories of events and actions, large and small, that I hope others have forgotten. I hope others have forgotten the moments when I was a bully and a braggart. I hope people have lost track of the number of times I have been capricious and cruel. I hope people have let go of memories of my selfishness and stupidity.

Well, a person can hope, right? But even fading recollections don’t erase the facts of history. And there are no rose-colored glasses so thick as to wipe the realities of the past.

I think that the only people who live without regret and remorse are dead. Not only do I hope others don’t remember significant swaths of my past. I also work hard unconsciously to remember the past as a far better time than it perhaps actually was. I’m told that’s a natural function of aging. I’m grateful for that, but I know it’s just a survival skill, not a way to hide or change what’s come before.

The Steadfast Spirit exposes the Truth.

Yet, I know that this work of the Steadfast Spirit is necessary for the health of my spirit. In Lutheran terms, the Law must do its work before the Gospel can have its effect. Exposing my truth leaves me uncovered and without defense before God. There’s no more dismissal or denial, no more explaining and excusing, no more winking and nodding. I am revealed and convicted – not because God is vengeful, but because God is truthful.

That exposure, however, is the beginning of the story – not the end. In a few days, the Risen Lord and Messiah comes to the cowering crowd of disciples behind locked doors. He says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds and breathes the Steadfast Spirit into their lives. The Spirit works through them to pass on the gifts of healing, forgiveness, and new life to all.

“All” includes me – just as I am, here and now. “All” includes you – just as you are, here and now. The Living Breath of Jesus blows through the Church to offer healing, forgiveness, and new life to all – and to keep offering as long as there is need.

The Steadfast Spirit exposes the Truth.

It should be clear from our text that this work is about more than my individual conscience and spiritual welfare. The Steadfast Spirit exposes the “world” (the Greek is “cosmos”) in terms of sin, justice, and judgment. The “world” doesn’t like exposure any more than I do.

History is all about remembering. What we remember as American “history” is hotly contested territory in this cultural moment. There is so much of that history we white Americans wish everyone would ignore and/or forget. I’d prefer, if I could get away with it, a lovely myth about my personal innocence, goodness, and courage. Many white Americans wish we could sustain the same kind of myth about our national story.

But we know that if wishes were Cadillacs, then beggars would drive. Myths may be comforting to some. But that comfort always costs others – sometimes their lives.

May is a challenging month for remembering the history of race in America. Well, who am I kidding? Every month is a challenging month for remembering the history of race in America. But since it’s May, that’s where I’ll focus.

May 31st is the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. For over eighteen hours, from May 31st to June 1st, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes, and businesses in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This mostly-Black neighborhood was known as the “Black Wall Street,” among other titles. It was a place and a symbol of Black enterprise, effort, and success.

The white rampage was ostensibly in response to a report of a sexual assault by a black man on a white woman. Later, the charges against the man were dropped. The report led to a possible lynching at the courthouse. Some members of the Black community attempted to defend the courthouse, but they were met by an armed white mob that numbered well over a thousand men.

Shots were fired, and the defenders retreated to Greenwood. Rumors of a Black insurrection led to the full-scale assault on Greenwood. Well over a thousand private homes were looted and burned. Black-owned businesses were destroyed. Public buildings were demolished. As many as 300 Black residents may have been killed.

Despite efforts to rebuild, the neighborhood never recovered from the Massacre. Government and media cooperated to cover up the details of the Massacre for over fifty years. It was only in 2001 that the 1921 Race Riot Commission was established. In 2018, it was renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.*

Efforts continue, however, both to expose the truth and to cover it up. This past Wednesday, three survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre testified before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives. “They murdered people. We were told they just dumped the dead bodies into the river,” said Lessie Benningfield Randle, age 106. “I remember running outside of our house, I just passed dead bodies. It wasn’t a pretty sight,” Randle continued. “I still see it today in my mind, 100 years later.”**

The Steadfast Spirit exposes the Truth.

I think of the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in post-Apartheid South Africa in this regard. There is, as he wrote, “no future without forgiveness.” But he knew there is also no reconciliation without truth. And there is no repentance without repair. That’s true for me as a person, for the ELCA as a denomination, and for the United States as a nation.

It’s no accident that the testimony of the Tulsa survivors is happening in the context of a reparations lawsuit. Exposing the history may lead to an honest reckoning and meaningful repair. The jury is still out, as they say.

On the other hand, efforts to stuff history back in the hamper continue. There will be no going forward without a full reckoning of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. But the chances that will happen are decreasing by the day. Nicole Hannah Jones has been denied tenure at UNC because powerful people want the mythology of 1776 rather than the real history of 1619.

There is still a need to expose sin, work for justice, and demand judgment, before moving forward together. The Steadfast Spirit is working in and through those efforts.

The Steadfast Spirit exposes the Truth.

I can’t imagine you’ll hear a message like this in most white churches this weekend. I understand why. It’s just too hard in most places to handle the Truth. I doubt that I would have written in this way were I still serving in a parish. I’m not proud of my lack of courage, but it’s another piece of truth to be exposed.

But the Steadfast Spirit is working among us. And you may hear something like this in more white churches than before. That’s my hope and prayer for this Pentecost. Dear God, send us the Steadfast Spirit to expose our truth to your healing and transforming grace. Amen.



Text Study for John 15:26-16:15 (Pt. 4); Day of Pentecost B, 2021

4. Bearing Up

“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus continues in John 16:12, “but you are not able to bear [them] at the present time” (my translation). We continue to remember that this verse is part of the Farewell Discourse. Jesus has given the disciples more than enough to manage at this point. He is leaving them, and they cannot follow him. They don’t yet know where he’s going. At some point, opponents will expel them from synagogues and consider their executions as acts of faithfulness to God (see John 16:1-4a). Anything else while you’re at it, Jesus?

Since you asked, he seems to reply, there is quite a bit more. But I’m not going there at the present time. “You are not able to carry that load for now,” he tells them. The word for “to bear” (Greek = bastazein) is worth examining for a bit. The basic meaning is to pick up or lift up something with your hands, like stones in John 10:31. It can also mean “to steal” or “pilfer” and is used to describe the light-fingered fraud of which Judas is accused in John 12:6. It can also describe how a body is carried away, as in John 20:15.

Bearing is also the verb used to describe how Jesus carries the cross in John 19:17. “Then, they took Jesus away,” the gospel writer narrates, “and bearing the cross himself, he went out toward what is called ‘The Place of the Skull,’ which in Hebrew is called ‘Golgotha’” (my translation).


Cross-bearing is a primary mark of discipleship in each and all of the gospel accounts. It is in clear in the Fourth Gospel, however, that Jesus always goes first. Unless he bears the cross himself, we will not have the power to bear it as well. It is not the case, however, that his cross-bearing removes the necessity of cross-bearing for disciples. In fact, we can see in John 21 that crucifixion is precisely what awaits Peter after his restoration and re-commissioning as one of Jesus’ followers. For disciples, the cross may be delayed but cannot be denied.

Buchsel notes that bearing something in this fashion requires both power and choice. Jesus makes clear that the coming Defender will provide the power to bear more of what Jesus needs to tell disciples. And the coming Defender will equip disciples to choose bearing over fleeing (although not until after Jesus is glorified). There is more to hear, more to know, and then more to do. Remember that Jesus has promised the disciples they will do greater works than Jesus did in his earthly ministry (John 14:12).

One of the irritating half-truths of popular spirituality is that God won’t give you more than you can handle. That assertion is loosely based on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (NRSV).

Paul writes these words to remind the Corinthian Christians of the dangers of being over-confident in one’s own gifts, powers, and abilities to deal with adversity in the life of faith. It is not addressed to people who are uncertain of their capacity to bear up but rather to people who are far too confident in their own abilities. That over-confidence will lead to a fall from faithfulness (as it has for at least some of the Corinthian Christians). Paul is addressing people who are so arrogantly confident in their own capacities that they are falling into the worship of idols because they believe they are beyond such temptations.

That is not, however, the way the irritating half-truth is used. In addition, the “you’s” in Paul’s letter are “you all’s.” I have been handed any number of things that I could not bear on my own. No amount of happy talk or positive thinking was going to change that. Part of my problem was that I tried with all my might to handle things by myself rather than taking advantage of the resources and support of the community of faith. I think that we do not receive challenges that are beyond the capacity of that community if we can find ways to access that capacity.

Paul reminds the Galatian Christians of this reality as he uses the verb in chapter 6. When we find one another in transgressions (not “if”), we who have the Spirit (that is, all the baptized) are called to restore one another in “the spirit of gentleness” (verse 1). In and of itself, that behavior would revolutionize life in contemporary congregations. “Continue bearing one another’s burdens,” Paul writes in verse 2, “and in this way you will again fulfill the law of Christ” (my translation).

What we are called to bear is the cross of life together. Bearing that cross can only be done with the gentleness that comes from the Spirit who is the Defender, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Counselor, the One who walks alongside us in our journeys of faithfulness. That Spirit of gentleness is sorely needed in American Christian congregations at the present moment. And this connection will be a good reason to sing James Manley’s “Spirit of Gentleness” in worship on Sunday (or whenever).

But that takes us far beyond the folk wisdom of the irritating half-truth.

Jesus addresses the disciple community in John 16 (and throughout the Farewell Discourse) in the second person plural, the “you all’s.” It is clear in the Gospel of John that there is more for us to hear after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. “The Gospel makes explicit that through the community’s later reflection on the life of Jesus and the Scripture, the disciples learned things that they were not able to understand during Jesus’ life,” write O’Day and Hylen. “This promise also extends beyond the limits of the Gospel story, as it points to the power and possibility of ongoing revelation” (Kindle Location 3350).

What new understandings and insights are being given to the Church at the present time? That’s a good Pentecost pondering for congregations, judicatories, denominations, and Christians the world over. It is certainly an opportunity for us ELCA folks coming out of Covid-tide. For example, you might want to read, if you haven’t already, Daubert and Jorgensen’s book called Becoming a Hybrid Church. You can order it directly from Daubert’s business page. In the book, the authors examine and explore what churches have learned about becoming both online and in-person (not just one or the other), during the pandemic experience.

They note that congregations have learned much about their capacity for adaptation, change, and growth during Covid-tide. Changes that were considered unthinkable sixteen months ago were implemented in days and weeks rather than in months and years. The learning curve was very steep but not impossible. Many of us did far more than we thought we could. And many of us know that the doing was not based on our own capacities.

I have learned over and over that I can bear more than I thought I could. That is one of the lessons of grief and loss in this life. I have learned that I can bear exponentially more than I thought I could when I share that burden with the faith community (something I am often, unfortunately, reluctant to do). Being able to bear a burden, being willing to bear that burden, and being willing to share that burden are quite different things.

What burdens are we as Church being called to bear at the present time? While the insights and understandings of antiracism work should not be new to white Christians in America, they appear to be so. It is painful to watch as the “Evangelical” community twists itself in knots and tears itself apart over not only white supremacy in the churches but also the role of women as pastors and in other church leadership positions. In this case, the burden is not the change itself, I think. The burden is rather the unwillingness to take up what is being handed to the church. The power is there, but the choice is not (yet).

I am tempted at times to cluck in sympathy for “Evangelical” white Christians of the “progressive” stripe who seem like fish discovering the water in which some of us have been swimming for a generation or two. Then I am reminded that we ELCA folks have listened to some of the new information from the Spirit and closed our ears to other input from the Spirit. We may talk a good game when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and equity in the Church. Our implementation continues to be woefully inadequate in every expression of the ELCA.

Bearing what the Spirit brings is a dual process phenomenon, just like everything else in human experience. For every social statement rejecting white supremacy, we have congregational members who wonder what’s so bad about white supremacy anyway? For every transgender bishop elected in our denomination (well, one so far), we have pastors and congregations preparing to depart for less flexible pastures. For every food pantry operating in and through our churches, we have congregations putting financial survival ahead of community engagement.

There is much for us to hear, but we also are unwilling to bear it all at the present time. Yet, the Defender remains patient, present, and persistent. “In the cosmos, you have tribulation,” Jesus concludes, “but in spite of that, take courage; I have conquered the cosmos” (John 16:33, my translation).

Job security for preachers, eh?

References and Resources

Behm, TDNT V:800-814.

Bennema, Cornelius. “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Forth Gospel.” Biblica 86 (2005), 35-38.

Buchsel, TDNT I:596.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail.  “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching”’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Rensberger, D. (1984). The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 103(3), 395-411. doi:10.2307/3260780

Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16).

Tops, Thomas. “The Orientation of the Teaching of the Paraclete in the Gospel of John: Retrospective or Prospective?” New Testament Studies (2020) 66, pp. 68-86. doi:10.1017/S002868851900033X.

Text Study for John 15:26-16:15 (Pt. 3); Day of Pentecost B, 2021

3. Convincing and Convicting

I have been a mild to moderate “Trekkie” for over fifty years. So, I am reminded of the first two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “Encounter at Farpoint.” There is much to commend those episodes, but in the context of our reading from the Gospel of John, I am focusing on one element.

The framework of the episodes is a trial – the ongoing trial of humanity, staged by the victims of humanity’s cruelties. The charge is that humanity is essentially evil, regardless the veneer of civilization we may lay over the top of that perverse nature. The burden of proving the opposite rests with the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise (D). Through a combination of wit, empathy, courage, and compassion, they make the case and escape oblivion.

For the present. The story ends with the warning from “Q,” who acts as judge and Lord High Executioner, that the trial is not over. In fact, the trial never ends – not as long as humanity continues to grow and explore. That idea of the unending trial reappears at periodic intervals and frames the seven-year run of the Next Generation series. The verdict of the trial is often questioned, but in the end the outcome is not in doubt.

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The trial continues. I think that’s part of the framework of the Gospel of John as well. Just as the world believes it is putting Jesus on trial in the court of Pilate, so the world continues to believe it is putting the followers of Jesus on trial, according to the Johannine perspective. Just as the real trial has Jesus as the judge and the world as the “defendant,” so the real trial continues to have the world in the dock and disciples offering testimony in the case. The ironic reversal of the obvious is central to the Johannine style.

In fact, defending the disciples and prosecuting the ongoing trial is part of the task of the Holy Spirit, in the Gospel of John. “And when that One is coming, that One shall expose the world concerning sin and justice and judgment” we read in John 16:8 (my translation). The writer explains what this means – “concerning sin, because they are not putting their faith in me, concerning justice as well, because I am going to the Father and you are no longer perceiving me, and concerning judgment, because the Ruler of this cosmos has been judged” (John 16:9-11, my translation).

The verb the NRSV translates as “prove wrong” can also be translated as “expose” or “convince” or even “convict.” The Defender now becomes the Prosecutor – laying out the facts of the case in such a way that the conclusion is unavoidable. “Sin” in John is always about refusing to put one’s trust in Jesus. “Judgment” is the word we have reviewed often in the past – “krisis” – which can be translated as “crisis,” or “decision point” or “judgment.” The “Ruler of this world” is represented most clearly in the Fourth Gospel by Pilate in the trial scenes upcoming.

The word the NRSV translates as “righteousness” is the familiar one Paul uses often. However, I don’t think it’s all that helpful to translate it in the same way here. It is another question whether Paul might intend us to use the word “justice” rather than “righteousness.” But in our current reading, a different translation can keep us from confusing Paul’s usage with that in the Gospel of John. This gospel is not talking about forensic justification but rather about setting the world right under the rule of the Messiah who is Jesus.

More on that notion in a bit. But first, let’s look at the political background of the Gospel of John as we think about the work of the Defender, aka the Holy Spirit.

Scholars have framed and understood the Gospel of John as an extended trial, rooted in Jesus’ trial before Pilate during John’s passion narrative. In particular we should read Andrew Lincoln’s Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (which is, unfortunately, currently out of print). Paul Ricoeur approached this topic from the perspective of philosophy and it worth reading on the topic (if one has hours to devote to wading through the dense prose).

Scholars have also noted the overtly political and polemical nature of John’s gospel in contrast to the traditional view that the Gospel of John is the most “spiritual” of the canonical gospels and therefore the least concerned with issues and events in the “real” world of the first-century Mediterranean. The fact that the trial narrative in John’s gospel is almost exclusively in the courtroom of Pilate, the Roman governor, should push against this view.

In “The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” David Resenberger outlines the political awareness and concerns one can read between the lines in the Gospel of John. He reviews C. H. Dodd’s work in this regard.

The desire to make Jesus a “bread king” in John 6 describes the social and economic disruption and unrest in the Roman province of Palestine prior to 70 C.E. The worries in the Sanhedrin that the Jesus movement could activate a large-scale violent response by the Romans reflects the ferment in Jerusalem regarding the continuing foreign occupation and Gentile control of the Temple complex.

Resenberg observes that this background is always incorporated into the Gospel’s Christological concerns. “Nevertheless,” he writes, “the possibility is raised that Christology and politics were not necessarily unrelated for the Fourth Evangelist” (page 396). Resenberg observes that the Gospel of John uses the Greek term for “king” twice as often as do the Synoptics in reporting Jesus’ passion. The Gospel of John may not be quite so “spiritual” as many interpreters have concluded.

He concludes that the politics in the Gospel of John has two emphases. Jesus’ trial shows that a confrontation with Empire is not to be avoided. Instead, as he quotes Wayne Meeks, disciples will always have to decide “whether Jesus is his king or whether Caesar is” (page 410). In terms of our gospel reading, disciples must discern whether the “ruler of this world” has been judged or not.

On the other hand, disciples must discern whether the violence of Barabbas is preferable to the love of the Good Shepherd (John 10), the friend of the disciples (John 15) – the one who lays down His life for those he loves. The questions posed in the trial, then are, “Who is the real King?” and “what does the real King do?” Notice that in each of those questions, the issue is about “truth” as being authentic, genuine, and steadfast.

Resenberg sums up his evidence and argument in these words. “The Fourth Gospel thus confronts the issue of Israel’s freedom in the late first-century Roman Empire with an alternative both to Zealotry and collaboration, by calling for an adherence to the king who is not of this world, whose servants do not fight, but remain in the world bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of both synagogue and Empire” (page 411).

In “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Fourth Gospel,” Cornelius Bennema suggests that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is “depicted as a messianic liberator who will set people free from” social oppression (the Samaritan woman), physical oppression (healings), and spiritual oppression. Jesus judges and conquers the “world” in this liberating work and establishes a new era of justice and peace. He carries out this justice work through the sword of the Word made flesh, rather than any sword of violence.

In our reading, we see, according to Bennema, that Jesus passes that work on to the disciple community through the agency of the Paraclete. “As ‘the Spirit of truth,’” Bennema writes, “the Paraclete will mediate the liberating truth present in Jesus’ words to the disciples to inform and empower their liberating witness to the world” (page 54). It is the witness of the disciples that is the vehicle through which the Paraclete will expose sin, enact justice, and deliver judgment against the Ruler(s) of this world. Just as Jesus carries out this campaign by his Word(s), so the disciple community continues the world through witness – testimony which may result in suffering and even death (the Greek meaning of marturia in our texts).

“Therefore,” Bennema concludes, “liberation in the Fourth Gospel should be seen as holistic. Jesus liberates people from oppression primarily by means of his Spirit-imbued word of truth, which is double-edged in that it liberates and gives life to those who accept it, but it results in (immediate) judgment, continued oppression and eventually death for those who reject it” (page 55).

If I had known more of this about the Gospel of John, I might not have avoided it for so long.

Lewis agrees with this assessment. “Righteousness is both God’s revelation of God’s very self, but also the ability to witness this revelation,” she writes. “The Spirit’s role will be to continue to bring to light what we have seen about God in Jesus. At the same time, reclaiming the translation ‘justice’ for this term may be helpful in this circumstance, especially as Jesus invites manifestations of justice and condemnation in light of his own ministry” (page 205).

It should not be surprising that the downplaying of “justice” in the Fourth Gospel coincides approximately with the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nor should it be surprising that this downplaying of justice continues to fit with the imperial accommodation of Christendom with empire. We need to be aware of this interpretive tendency.

The trial continues.

References and Resources

Behm, TDNT V:800-814.

Bennema, Cornelius. “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Forth Gospel.” Biblica 86 (2005), 35-38.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail.  “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching”’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Rensberger, D. (1984). The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 103(3), 395-411. doi:10.2307/3260780

Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16).

Text Study for John 15:26-16:15 (Pt. 2); Day of Pentecost B, 2021

2. The Steadfast Spirit

What does the writer of John’s Gospel mean by the title, “The Spirit of Truth” (John 15:26, 16:13)? This is the Gospel of John’s unique designation for the Holy Spirit. But what does it signify? Like the term “paraclete,” we can just leave it alone and settle for a simple translation of the Greek, but that leaves us to our own guesses. Deeper exploration is in order here.

We begin with the grammar. The title includes a genitive, a possessive, as represented by the English word “of.” In some sense, “truth” belongs to the Spirit. What is that sense of belonging?

The genitive in the phrase is an “attributive” genitive. That is, “truth” (whatever the Gospel of John means by that) is an attribute of the Spirit. “If the noun in the genitive can be converted into an attributive adjective,” Daniel Wallace writes, “modifying the noun to which the genitive stands related, then the genitive is very likely an attributive genitive” (page 87). The noun in the phrase is “Spirit,” and the genitive attribute is “truth” (just to leave no doubt).

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In other words, a simple rendering of the literal “the Spirit of truth” could be “the truthful Spirit.” Let’s continue to delay for the moment the decision on how to translate “truth” here. The construction, according to Wallace, reflects a Hebrew linguistic background and “Semitic style” of expression. The attributive genitive is common in the Christian scriptures because of that Hebrew linguistic background – far more common than it is in classical Greek writing.

Wallace suggests that this construction is used because it “is more emphatic than an adjective would have been” (page 84). He observes that for the writer “the Spirit of truth” conveys a stronger emphasis than “truthful Spirit” would to the Greek reader. If that is the case, then that emphasis needs to come through in translation and interpretation. I suspect that the writer of John’s gospel wants to convey more than the idea that the Spirit gives an accurate representation of the facts.

I imagine that the genitive here could be one of content – the Spirit full of truth like the net was full of fish in John 21:8. It could be a genitive of apposition – the Spirit, which is the Truth, like the temple which is Christ’s body in John 2:21. It might even be the genitive of production – the Spirit that produces truth. But the attributive genitive seems the most likely and informative construction.

We return, therefore, to what the Gospel of John means by “truth.” Karoline Lewis notes that a major premise of the Gospel is that Jesus himself is the truth. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus describes himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life.” I’m inclined to translate that as “the true and living way,” but that’s another story. Lewis observes that this statement “is important because it is Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Farewell Discourse that anticipate his absence. The truth of Jesus’ words, Jesus as the truth,” she concludes, “is dependable even without Jesus present…” (pages 71-72).

Therefore, part of the role of the Spirit is to remind the disciples of the truth of Jesus after he has gone to the Father and to exegete that truth for their current situation. The Spirit will guide disciples in all truth (John 16:13). “To say that what Jesus says is true does not mean he speaks verifiable facts,” Lewis suggests. “The concept of truth has to be situated in the theological premises of the Fourth Gospel, the primary one being that, in Jesus, God is made known in such a way that there is an intimate, abiding relationship with God” (page 72).

So, truth in John’s gospel is not about “verifiable facts,” Lewis concludes. Instead, it is about dependability and trust – what we might describe as faithfulness. “Jesus is truth because he is the one on whom we can be utterly dependent,” Lewis argues. “Jesus’ words are true because there is a correlation between what he says and what he does and who he is” (page 72).

I am reminded of Luther’s definition of what it means to have a “god” – to depend on something or someone in life and in death. This dependability, then, must be the “truth” which is the attribute of the Spirit, aka “the Protector.” And, just to finish the thought, “faith” is a relationship of trusting dependence on the one we name as “God.”

“The truthful Spirit” is probably not an adequate translation of the phrase in question. What might we suggest instead? One English word will not suffice, as is so often the case in the Gospel of John. The Spirit of truth is faithful, reliable, and dependable because that’s who Jesus is. The Spirit of truth is authentic, real, and genuine because that’s who Jesus is. And the Spirit is accurate in rendering both the words Jesus has spoken to the disciples and in the further revelation that will take place when Jesus has returned to the Father.

I want to suggest that we might translate the title as “the Steadfast Spirit.” That translation can remind us, for example, of the steadfast love of God which is reported often in the Hebrew Scriptures. Steadfastness is one of the primary characteristics of God in those scriptures. We can find that description, for example, offered by the Lord about the Lord in Exodus 34:6 – “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…

The connection between the Spirit and steadfastness is strengthened by the location of the mentions of the Protector in the Farewell Discourse in John. “The first mention of the Paraclete,” O’Day and Hylen write, “is found within the context of Jesus’ words about keeping his command to love” (Kindle Location 3071). In John 14:18-24, the promise that the disciples will not be left orphaned is followed by the promise of love and revelation for the disciples as they are keeping Jesus’ commands.

In verse 25, the Protector is directly identified as the Holy Spirit. The first two functions of the Protector are identified there – to remind the disciples (then and now) of what Jesus taught and to continue Jesus’ teaching in and through the community. Thomas Tops points out that these functions are both retrospective and prospective. That is, the Protector brings to mind what Jesus taught during his ministry. And the Protector continues to reveal and unfold Jesus’ teaching in the life of the church here and now.

“Was the revelation of God in Jesus available only for those who had firsthand experience of the historical Jesus and his ministry?” O’Day and Hylen ask. “Is Jesus’ revelation of God limited to one moment in history, or does it have a future beyond its particular historical moment?” (Kindle Location 3078). Tops answers yes to the clause of the second question, and O’Day and Hylen agree.

In our text we read that the Spirit comes to “testify” or “to bear witness.” This is a mark of the faithfulness and reliability of the Spirit. Because the testimony of the Spirit is faithful and reliable, the testimony of the disciples and the community will also be faithful and reliable. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus is talking to “you all” rather than “you singular.” Truth, in John’s Gospel, is always a community reality rather than an individual possession. “It is a gift to all the disciples,” write O’Day and Hylen, “witnessing to the life of Jesus and continuing to speak his word” (Kindle Location 3086).

Like Jesus, who teaches and is the “way” to God (John 6:45; 14:6), the Spirit carries on the work of instructing the disciples in God’s truth. The Steadfast Spirit will enable them (and us) to hear afresh the teachings of Jesus even after Jesus’ departure. The teachings of the Spirit are both old and new: the Spirit “will not speak on his own” (v. 13), and yet the implication is also that the Spirit speaks the “many things” that Jesus does not say during his life (v. 12). (see O’Day and Hylen, Kindle Location 3345).

“The promise of these verses keeps the teachings of Jesus fresh and names how the good news can and will be available to successive generations of believers,” O’Day and Hylen write. “There are things that none of us can bear now, but fresh words of Jesus will be there when we need them and can bear them.” (Kindle Location 3353). If there was ever a time to hear fresh words from Jesus, now is that time. The real question is whether we can bear them.

Is this a way to talk about developments in Christian doctrine and practice over the centuries – as the continuing work of the Steadfast Spirit? I would argue that this is the case. We can point to changes in how Christians view enslavement of other human beings, how we treat the role of women in church leadership, how we view sexual orientation and identity, and (currently) how we must repent of and repair our historic and systemic racism. All of these changes are the result of fresh words from Jesus given to us by the Steadfast Spirit.

The image of the Steadfast Spirit in the Gospel of John would lead us to expect that some of the things we could not “bear” formerly may be revealed and explained at some future time. And this image should certainly lead us to understand that what we know now is not everything there is to know.

Next: Convincing and Convicting.

References and Resources

Behm, TDNT V:800-814.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail.  “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching”’Day.pdf.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16).

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.

Text Study for John 15:26-16:16 (Pt. 1); Day of Pentecost B 2021

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1. The Paraclete – What’s in a Name?

“Whenever the Paraclete comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Genuine Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, that one shall bear witness concerning me; and you also shall bear witness, because from the beginning, you were with me” (John 15:26-27, my translation).

In the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John, we encounter the “Paraclete,” John’s take on the Holy Spirit. How shall we translate that title or name or office or, whatever it is? Shall we translate the word at all, or just leave it transliterated as the English version of the Greek word? That’s the fashion for translators these days, but that seems to me like punting the issue rather than dealing with it.

I can understand the rationale for this decision. The word lends itself to a variety of English translations, just in John 15:26 – Advocate, Friend, Comforter, Helper, Counselor, Companion, and Encourager. Some translations include additional terms in parentheses to clarify and amplify the potential range of meanings and connotations for the word. No one English term covers the necessary ground, so perhaps sticking with a transliteration and assuming an explanation by the preacher makes some sense (even if it’s of little help to said preacher).

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on

Luther translates the Greek into the German “Troester,” which means “comforter” or even something like “security blanket” (but more on that below). The Kiswahili translation is msaidizi, which means “helper” or “assistant.” So, there’s not much insight from those translation attempts, at least for now.

What’s in a name?

I went to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament for more information (see Behm’s article in Volume V:800-814). Outside the New Testament, the word means a legal advisor or helper or advocate in court. The Paraclete can be someone who actively speaks on behalf of another before a tribunal (page 803). The fact that the context in chapter sixteen has the atmosphere of a courtroom is worth noticing here.

In the New Testament, the title shows up only in the Gospel of John and the First Letter. “The only thing one can say for certain,” Behm writes, “is that the sense of ‘comforter,’ favored by, e.g., Wycliffe, Luther, and the A.V. in John’s Gospel, does not fit any of the New Testament passages” (page 804). In a footnote, he argues that the sense of “convincer” favored by a few scholars won’t work either.

In an additional footnote, Behm tracks down Luther’s translation in a bit more detail. Modern German usage is rooted in Luther’s German, but has developed and changed in the last 500 years. When Luther chose “Troester,” he was using a word that conveyed “one who gives protection, help, or security, with concrete reference to an act or intervention for someone” (page 804).

We can think about Luther’s love for Psalm 46 – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” Behm notes that Luther often combined “Troest” and “Trotz,” words meaning confidence and strength, as found in Psalm 46. So, Luther’s translation seems to have much more the sense of “protector” than that of “helper” or “comforter.” I want to stick with that sense of “Protector,” or “Defender” (contained in the translation as “Advocate”) as we reflect on the person and work of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

“The Paraclete’s return in 15:26,” Karoline Lewis writes, “is a direct response to Jesus’ words in 15:25, ‘They hated me without a cause’” (page 201). The context is that of threat and persecution. That context continues in the verses which the lectionary committee has omitted in the Pentecost gospel reading. “‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them” (John 16:1-4a, NRSV).

Those verses describe the threat under which John’s community stood – that they would be identified as heterodox Jews, subjected to the judgment of some type of tribunal and expelled from their synagogues (or perhaps even stoned for the crime of blasphemy). This threat is in response to their testimony that the Messiah is Jesus, and that Abundant Life is to be found in him. The images of protector, defender, and advocate make sense in such a context (and would, not coincidentally, provide some measure of comfort for those who were under such a threat).

Lewis walks us through the descriptions of the Paraclete in John’s gospel, beginning in chapter 14. She notes that the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit – has not appeared in the gospel account until the Farewell Discourse. Jesus notes that he will send “another” Paraclete to the disciples. This means, of course, that during his time with the disciples, he was the Paraclete for them.

That’s important to keep in mind as we seek to understand what’s happening in our text. “If the Holy Spirit is another Advocate, then that means there has been an Advocate already, Jesus,” Lewis writes. “As a result, we are invited to conceive of the fact that one way of understanding the role of the Holy Spirit is to reread the Gospel up to this point and notice what Jesus has done” (page 192).

“Paraclete” comes from the Greek verb which in its most basic form means “to call alongside.” Lewis writes, “The Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us. This unique interpretation of the Spirit alone is worth a sermon or ten” (page 191). She suggests that the title should be translated in different ways within the Gospel of John, depending on the immediate context. “How the term is translated in each circumstance,” she argues, “has everything to do with the function of the Paraclete in that moment” (pages 191-192).

I certainly understand the value of Lewis’ proposal in this regard. I am concerned, however, that it can produce confusion in both the interpreter and the listeners. I think that as a translator I need to pick a consistent term and live with its limitations. I lean, in John’s Gospel, toward “the Protector,” given the fraught circumstances of the first listeners to that gospel. Jesus has served as the Protector for the disciples to this point. And he will continue in that role both in his Farewell Prayer and in his actions during his arrest.

Lewis lists the multiple aspects of the work of the Paraclete in the Gospel of John. The Paraclete reveals and bears witness to the Truth (the focus of another post this week). The Paraclete abides in the disciples as Jesus breathes his Spirit into them in chapter 20. Therefore, the Paraclete ensures that the disciples (then and now) will not be alone or abandoned (pages 192-193). These aspects can certainly be meaningful to Christians just coming out of the isolation and anxiety of Covid-tide.

John’s Gospel can remind us that Easter is the beginning of the New Life rather than the conclusion of something old. “All too often, the resurrection is preached as a culmination rather than an inauguration,” Lewis notes, “the believer’s ultimate reality rather than the penultimate promise, especially for the Gospel of John. A primary theological assumption throughout the Farewell Discourse is that there is more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead” (page 194).

This is the case in all the gospels, although it is not as visible in Mark and Matthew. Luke produces a second volume, Acts, in order to make this point. In Acts, Jesus is present by the power of the Holy Spirit in everything the nascent Church does. Sometimes, as Matt Skinner notes in a recent “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, the Book of Acts is portrayed as everything the Church does after Jesus leaves. But that’s not helpful. The Spirit, the Protector, is the abiding and life-giving presence and power of Jesus, always with the Church.

Even though that is true, however, let’s remember that we are in the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is preparing his disciples for when he will not be with them. For that reason, Lewis argues, the translation of “Comforter” might be most appropriate in some of our verses – especially in verses 4-6. Of course, the function changes a bit in verses 7-19, where Lewis suggests we use “Advocate.”

How might the preacher find the Good News here? In this time of isolation and alienation, of anguish, angst, and anger, the promise that we will not be abandoned can have some particular resonance. It may be easier to contemplate the losses and transformations called forth in our time if we know we can count on the abiding presence of the Protector – the loving and lifegiving presence of Jesus in us and among us. We can be comforted and strengthened knowing that we are accompanied on the journey.

More than that, however, the Paraclete “calls us alongside.” We will hear more about the Paraclete’s mission in the world, but we should know that we are part of that mission. It is a mission that will involve naming sin, seeking justice, and calling the “rulers of this world” to account. Parenthetically, that’s a good description of what advocacy looks like when dealing with white supremacy — naming it as sin, seeking the justice of repentance and repair, and calling the institutions and systems of white supremacy to account.

That mission, both then and now, will often result in risk and even danger. We may be cast out of our own “synagogues” – our places of privilege, position, and power. Whenever (by the way, that’s how verse 26 should start) that happens, we can be sure Jesus sends us the Protector who proceeds from the Father into our hearts and into our communities.

Next – “The Spirit of Truth.”

References and Resources

Behm, TDNT V:800-814.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail.  “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching”’Day.pdf.

Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16).