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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Spirit’s Presence—John 14:23-29 (Mark Davis)

The question of the status and authority of the church after Jesus’ bodily departure looms large over the Farewell Discourse, manifesting both the concerns of the disciples and concerns of a later Johannine community. On account of the Spirit’s presence, the church is empowered to speak with a fresh yet authoritative voice to new challenges.

23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 ”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Chapters 14-16 of John’s gospel are often referred to as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” They are situated within the room where Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet after sharing a last meal with them. Following this discourse, Jesus will offer a prayer in chapter 17, before going out of the room with the disciples to the place where he is betrayed into the hands of soldiers and arrested.

The uniqueness of the 14th chapter is that Jesus engages in questions posed by three of the disciples—Thomas, Philip, and Judas (the other Judas, not Judas Iscariot the betrayer). The question posed by Judas, in fact, is what prompts verses 23-29 above. The curious uses of verb tenses throughout this discourse suggest that, while the conversations are between Jesus and the disciples prior to the crucifixion and resurrection, the teaching is likewise aimed at the questions pestering those who are reading the gospel—often referred to as “the Johannine Community”—for whom the absence of the physical presence of Jesus might be seen as a disadvantage. That same kind of dual audience is clearly at play in the post-resurrection conversation between Jesus and Thomas in John 21.

One thing that seems to be troubling the Johannine community is the dynamic interplay between the Spirit, which empowers and instructs the disciples after Jesus is departed from them, and the gospel’s rootedness in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself. The questions might have been posed this way: Do the apostles have greater insight than later disciples, since they actually heard the teachings of Jesus themselves? Is it possible to have the same kind of conviction as those who actually were able to see the bodily presence of the risen Christ, nail prints and all? Or, if the Spirit is sent to believers, might someone who follows after the disciples have as great insight as they did? Might that someone have even greater insight than they did?

If the Johannine community were anything like other religious communities that are rooted in past revelations and yet are still empowered by ongoing revelatory power, these questions were bound to arise. And if the current church is rooted in past revelations—now promulgated by the written texts of Scriptures—and still empowered by ongoing revelatory power, these kinds of questions are still bound to arise.

These questions—I would argue—do not arise simply because someone is failing to believe adequately or because someone is filled with hubris about their own insights. They arise because they belong to the nature of the case. The uniqueness in time and space of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection gives special authority to those who actually witnessed his ministry. That authority was invoked directly when the apostles limited the candidates to replace Judas Iscariot as one of the twelve to those “who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). It was also in play when the early church was forming the canon and considered books that had connection to apostolic authority more valid than books that did not. At the same time, for the church to continue being the community of Christ after the apostles were aging and dying—and not just a society memorializing a past event—the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit was also a necessary ingredient. That left the church open to the possibility that the Spirit-empowered church might (or even must) be able to speak a word to any new situation of time and place that goes beyond what Jesus had spoken to his particular time and space.

It is easy for armchair theologians to look back at the Johannine community and speculate about who was not believing sufficiently in the risen Christ or who was arrogantly speculating in ways beyond what the actual teachings and life of Christ allowed. That kind of historical occupation might be a way of avoiding the genuine problem that the church continues to face between the uniqueness of the Christ event and the reality of the empowering presence of the Spirit. The scandal of John’s gospel, as it pertains to the church after the time of the apostles, is that the empowering insightful presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is one and the same as the presence of the Christ who lived and walked and ate and taught among the apostles.

A church that honors the scandal of John’s gospel has two qualities. It is a humble church, ever engaged in critical study of its originating story, constantly abiding in the ontological relevance of the life of Christ; the Old Testament roots of all that Jesus said, did, and represents; as well as the multiple ways that Christ was understood among the writings of the earliest believers. This kind of humility is what it means to “keep Jesus’ word” (14:23), a safeguard against misrepresentation, misappropriation, and the ongoing temptation to take God’s name in vain by placing the divine imprimatur on one’s own puffed up opinion. At the same time, the church that honors the scandal of John’s gospel is a bold church, genuinely believing that the empowering Spirit within is the Spirit of Christ, enabling the church to speak truth to power in expressions that are ever new for times and challenges that present themselves anew. This is the church that has not been left as an orphan (14:18), but is living in the presence of Christ.

D. Mark Davis is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Theology, Ethics and Culture. The author of two books, Talking About Evangelism and Left Behind and Loving It, Mark exegetes the RCL Gospel reading each week at leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.org.

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