Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sermon: “The Paraclete Sandwich”, John 14:15-21 (May 17, 2020)


This week’s reading from John follows directly after the passage that we read last week. Last week, we learned that there’s no “magic feather” that we need in order to do ministry, that we already have all the knowledge and skills we need to share the gospel. But just because we don’t need anything outside of ourselves to follow God’s call doesn’t mean that we’re on our own. This week, Jesus assures us that he’ll send a companion to be with us forever: the Holy Spirit.

We mainline protestants are notorious for neglecting our study and worship of the Holy Spirit, to our detriment. We often refrain from talking about her until Pentecost (at which point we don’t really have a choice). Pentecost this year is still two weeks away, but we’re going to follow Jesus’ lead and discuss her today anyway. After all, being 1/3 of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit has been around since before creation and is active throughout human history. So why shouldn’t we talk about her now?

Before we dive in, though, I want to explain one thing about my choice of language so that it doesn’t distract anyone from the message of the sermon: I’ll be referring to the Holy Spirit using the feminine pronoun, “she”. There are a few reasons for this: first of all, it helps avoid pronoun confusion between the persons of the Trinity (I refer to the Holy Spirit as “she”, Jesus as “he”, and “God the Father” as “God”). There are biblical reasons for this choice, as well. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Aramaic that Jesus would have spoken, the word for “Spirit” is grammatically feminine, and in the Greek of the New Testament, the word is grammatically neutral. Unless we want to go with the impersonal “it,” “she” makes the most sense. Finally, if we’re all created in God’s image, that includes women, too. So the use of the feminine pronoun in a discussion of God helps us to remember the fullness of God’s being.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, onto the biblical exegesis. The discussion of the Holy Spirit in this passage is different than in other parts of scripture. Whenever the Spirit is mentioned elsewhere, scripture uses the literal words for “spirit”: “ruach” in Hebrew or “pneuma” in Greek. But here, Jesus uses a new word to describe her: “Paraclete”. This descriptive word conveys two ideas: “para” means “beside” or “alongside”, and “clete” comes from the word that means “to call”. In the space of three syllables, we’ve already learned a lot about the nature of the Holy Spirit—she dwells alongside us and calls to us. Whereas the priority in other parts of scripture is simple identification, Jesus seems to be going out of his way to help us understand who the Holy Spirit is.

In the rest of these seven short verses, Jesus teaches us more about the Holy Spirit than we learn anywhere else in Scripture. Aside from the informative new nickname he gives her, he also manages to make it abundantly clear that the Father, himself, and the Holy Spirit are intricately connected and inseparable. The paraclete’s arrival is directly tied to the Son’s request and the Father’s action. And yet, by calling her “another” companion, he indicates that she is in no way subordinate to himself. The paraclete isn’t an aspect of Jesus or a product of God; she’s a continuation, an extension, an ongoing way for us to personally encounter the divine. Insofar as it’s even possible to explain the nature of the Trinity, this one sentence goes a long way in helping us to understand it.

Jesus furthermore insists that the giving of the Holy Spirit doesn’t have conditions attached to it. He says, “I WILL ask the father, and he WILL send another companion, who WILL be with you forever.” It’s going to happen. The Holy Spirit will be with us forever, at all times, not because we’ve done something to deserve it, but because that’s just how it is. We learn that we’re not alone, because it’s the nature of the Holy Spirit to be with us.

There’s a lot of information to unpack here about the Holy Spirit. But you notice, I hope, that this passage is more than just a description of her. Jesus has carefully bookended his explanation of the Paraclete’s purpose with two seemingly unrelated statements: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me.” You know what a compliment sandwich is, right? It’s a technique that mangers use to soften the blow of criticism by both beginning and ending the conversation with positive feedback. It seems to me that Jesus is offering us a version of this, a “paraclete sandwich”.

Except that unlike a compliment sandwich, the paraclete sandwich isn’t meant to lessen the impact of the middle part. On the contrary, the statements that serve as the “bread” of Jesus’ sandwich lend substance to the “meat.” They transform this passage from a simple explanation of the Holy Spirit (well—maybe not THAT simple) into a challenge to all who call themselves followers of Christ.

In order to explain how this works, I’m gonna go on a bit of a tangent and do something that none of us ever thought we’d have to do: bust out high school math. Not calculus or statistics, but formal logic. Fortunately, it was the one math class that I actually enjoyed. Twenty years ago, we used it for geometry, but it’s apparently equally useful in evaluating theological statements. So let’s see what I can remember…

Notice that each piece of “bread” contain two simple assertions—“You love me” and “You will keep my commandments”—in a conditional statement (“if/then”). The statement at the end is a reflection of the one at the beginning: “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments,” versus “If you keep my commandments, then you love me.” Logically speaking, this makes each of them the “converse” of the another. All this means that the two basic assertions switch positions within a conditional statement. It’s kind of like using one bun for the top of the sandwich, then taking another one and flipping it upside down for the bottom of the sandwich. The content is the same, but the order is different.

Now, if we assume that both of Jesus’ conditional statements are true (which we do), we can create what’s called a “biconditional statement” from the independent premises: “You love me IF AND ONLY IF you follow my commandments.” Furthermore, the opposite is true: “You follow my commandments IF AND ONLY IF you love me.” You may be starting to feel like you’re drowning in all of these crazy math terms, so we’ll stop there, but the point is this: logic dictates that the truth of the original two assertions are materially equivalent. In other words, either you both love Jesus and follow his commandments OR you do neither. There’s no in between. And that’s not just theology—that’s logic!

Now, before you begin panicking and thinking that you love Jesus, but there’s NO way that you’ve managed to keep all 613 commandments in the Torah, let me remind you that just a moment before this passage begins, Jesus had given the disciples a new commandment, HIS commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” (John 13:34, CEB) And so now we arrive at the full meaning of the statements that bookend this passage: If you love Jesus, then you will love each other. If you love each other, then you love Jesus. A relationship with God and love for your neighbor go hand in hand. You either do both, or you do neither.

Thus ends the tangent. So what does this have to do with the Holy Spirit? Why are these statements the bread of the paraclete sandwich? Because this is how we make sure that we don’t fail to see the Holy Spirit. While she may abide with us unconditionally, that doesn’t mean that we’re always aware of it. We need to recognize and welcome her. Verse 17 says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees [her] nor knows [her].” (NRSV) The “bread” of the paraclete sandwich is Jesus’ instructions to us as to how to avoid this fate.

The key, as it always is, is love. The Holy Spirit is here, she always has been, but we won’t truly be able to comprehend this unless and until we’re able to love others. I’m reminded of a line from “The Little Prince,” a novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” We don’t experience the Holy Spirit through our sense of sight, or our sense of her presence, or even through our impeccable sense of logic. We experience her through our hearts, through our love for Jesus and for one another, and through the choices that we make because of that love.

The paraclete abides even now, although the world neither sees nor knows her—do you? Do you look for her with your eyes, or with your heart? Do you seek her through your choice to love others—friend and enemy alike? Are you always following Christ’s new commandment to love one another fiercely, bravely, and indiscriminately? Even when it’s the last thing you want to do? If we do that, WHEN we do that, we’ll know that we’re not alone, even when we no longer see Jesus, even when we can’t be with one another—because in our holy love, we’ll finally be able to recognize the divine companion who’s been with us all along. Amen.

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