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Promise of the Paraclete

Sixth Sunday of Easter: 9th May, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

John 14:23 – 29

In a new book written by the Romanian theologian, Miroslav Volf, there is a chapter that was written at the time of the election of Pope Benedict XVI. In it, Volf wonders what kind of a pope the rigid guardian of the faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would make. He asks, 'As a pope, will he be wise enough to differentiate between the self-same substance of the faith while finding ever new ways to express it? ... Can a stern watchdog morph into an embracing shepherd?'

They are good questions and they are not questions that should be confined to a new pope. They concern every Christian, for as Volf rightly says, 'the church must hold on to the substance of the faith while finding ever new ways to express it.' All of us are called to live the 'changeless Gospel in ever-changing circumstances'.

In the long Upper Room discourse in John 14–16, Jesus promises to his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, precisely in order to assist the church to identify the permanent tradition of Jesus and apply it to the kaleidoscopic change of our culture. The promised Paraclete, Jesus says, will have three roles in relation to the church:

1. The Spirit will have a Reminding Ministry

'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'. (John 14:26).

It is important to understand that this promise was addressed first and foremost to those present in the Upper Room with Jesus. The context makes this clear, especially from a study of the pronoun 'you'. 'But the Advocate ... will teach you everything, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you'. Clearly, the 'you' whom the Spirit will remind of Jesus' teaching are the 'you' to whom Jesus had spoken while he was still with them.

The fulfilment of this great promise is to be seen in the writing of the New Testament, and in particular of the Gospels. Whatever may be said about the human authorship of the Gospels — and much can and has been said for example about the custom of the Jewish rabbis to get their disciples to learn their instruction by heart and the tenacious Middle Eastern memory — nevertheless, Jesus makes it clear in this discourse that we owe the Gospels ultimately to the work of the Holy Spirit in recalling Jesus teaching to the mind and memory of the original hearers, and indeed interpreting them.

This is, if you like the conservation role of the Spirit, conserving the teaching tradition of Jesus for future generations. When you stop and think about it, it would be surprising if God didn't make provision for his revelation to be preserved for future generations and instead left it all to fate! But he didn't. Through the reminding ministry of the Spirit, God has ensured that all generations have the great benefit of the Gospels.

But conserving the tradition of Jesus' teaching must not be thought of as if it was limited to a regurgitating of past teaching. Traditionalism must never be allowed to become archaism and that is why it is important for us to take account of the second role of the Spirit that Jesus promised:

2. The Spirit's Supplementing Ministry

'I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you' (John 16:12-14).

As in the Holy Spirit's reminding ministry (in chapter 14), so in his teaching ministry (in chapter 16) it is essential to see that the primary reference is to those present in the Upper Room. Many liberal scholars appear to fail to notice the clear identity of the 'you' in this paragraph also. The 'you' whom the Spirit will 'guide into all truth' (16:13) is the very same 'you' to whom Jesus had 'many things to say' but who could not 'bear them now' (16:12).

Putting these two promises together we can see that the Spirit had both a conservative role and an innovative role. According to chapter 14, Jesus had spoken certain things to the disciples, and the Spirit would bring these things to their remembrance. According to chapter 16, Jesus had more things to speak to his disciples that they could not then bear, and the Spirit would lead them into all truth. In other words, the Spirit's ministry to the disciples would be both a reminding and a supplementing ministry. He would remind them of what Christ had said to them and supplement it with what Christ had not been able to say.

Both promises were fulfilled in the writing of the New Testament, the Gospels being the product of the Spirit's reminding ministry and the Epistles the product of the Spirit's supplementing ministry.

None of this is to say that the Holy Spirit has been idle in the subsequent, post-apostolic history of the church, but rather that his ministry has changed. He has been leading his followers into 'all truth'. Derivatively, we may speak of the Spirit's continuing work in the disciples of Jesus today — not just the first generation of Jesus' disciples. The divine author of Scripture is not dead. Since the closing of the canon of Scripture, the Spirit has been leading the church (often through the cut and thrust of debate) into an understanding of the truth into which he led his original followers, making it relevant to ever changing situations. We do not simply look back to a fossilised tradition.

No. The Spirit illuminates what Professor John Macquarrie calls the 'primordial revelation' in the Scriptures so that they become a living voice through which God speaks anew to each generation and situation. So for instance, the early church was led by the Spirit, on the basis of the Scriptures, to develop the early Creeds and define God in Trinitarian terms. And the Spirit has continued to enlighten every generation with new insights from the Scriptures, revealing the injustice of slavery; the equality before God of all races and both sexes; the possibility of a fresh start after the breakdown of a marriage; the true nature and purpose of sexuality and many other issues, particularly ethical issues, that were never on the radar screen of the original biblical writers.

It is conducive to clear thinking when we distinguish between the two ministries of the Holy Spirit and refer to them as 'revelation' and 'illumination' respectively. The Spirit's work through his original followers was one of revelation; his work in the church through the centuries is one of illumination, enlightening our minds to grasp the meaning and relevance of what God has revealed for our own time. The ongoing teaching ministry of the Spirit builds on and develops the teaching ministry of Jesus, not by changing the essential gospel message from one generation to another but by changing human beings in every generation. God does indeed have more light to break from his holy Word. At the same time, we need to be careful that what we receive does in fact come from his Word, and not from the false fires of our own fancy.

3. Jesus promises that the Spirit will have a Floodlight Ministry

I was consecrated as a bishop in Newcastle cathedral, one of the most magnificent cathedrals in this country. It stands high above the city and from just outside its main doors the visitor has a panoramic view of the coastal sea waters and the port of Newcastle. At any time of the day it is a breathtaking spectacle but at night when it is floodlit, it is spectacular. Of course, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them. You are not meant to see where the light is coming from. What you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained. The intended effect is to make it visible when otherwise it would not be seen for the darkness, and to maximize its dignity by throwing all its details into relief so that you see it properly.

Such is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Saviour. He is self-effacing. He does not call attention to himself or present himself to us for direct fellowship as the Father and the Son do; his role is to further our fellowship with them both by glorifying the Son and witnessing to our adoption through the Son into the Father's family.

We shouldn't be asking people, 'do you know the Holy Spirit?' Instead, we should be asking: 'do you know Jesus Christ?' This is the question that the Spirit himself desires us to ask. The Spirit's ministry is always Christocentric, focussed on bringing glory to Jesus. In that sense the Spirit's task does not change. It is always to glorify Jesus. We misunderstand the Spirit's role if we focus on feelings and experiences that are not related to Christ.

In commenting on the so-called Toronto Blessing, a charismatic experience in which people fell down on the floor, supposedly under the influence of the Spirit, the British theologian, Tom Smail asks some pertinent questions, 'do you just lie on your back and have a nice time? What happens when you get up? What does this experience do to your relationship to Christ? Does it stir up your curiosity to get further into the knowledge of the gospels? What happens to your prayer life? Things of that kind don't necessarily entail a feel-good factor.'

The promises about the Paraclete given in the Upper Room impose a discipline upon us in thinking about the Holy Spirit. Someone has likened this discipline to golf, describing it as 'keeping your eye on the ball'. It means asking of any alleged experience of the Holy Spirit, 'how has it enabled me to see Jesus more clearly, love Jesus more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly?'

The Spirit's message to us is never, 'Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me'. But always, 'look at him and see his glory; listen to him and hear his word; get to know him and taste his gift of joy and peace.' The Spirit is the hidden floodlight shining on the Saviour. The second Paraclete, the Spirit, leads us constantly to the original Paraclete, Jesus.

In convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962, Pope John XXIII declared that he was opening the windows of the Catholic Church to the fresh wind of the Spirit. Some commentators say that Benedict XVI has been busy slamming the windows shut since he became pope! But the more important question for us to ask is, 'are we open to the Spirit's ministry such that we seek to live authentically, a changeless Gospel in an ever-changing world'. We can only do this by:

  1. By prayerfully opening our lives to the Spirit's reminding ministry to prevent us from becoming trendy and voguish and domesticating the Gospel to suit our own ideologies with the result that we end up worshiping an idol instead of the true God.

  2. By prayerfully opening our lives to the Spirit's supplementing ministry to stop us from self-righteously using the Bible as a ready made blue-print, completely ignoring both the original and the contemporary cultural contexts. For all its revelatory character, the Bible contains a culturally situated message and needs to be carefully applied to the ever-changing shopping mall of life.

  3. By prayerfully opening our lives to the Spirit's hidden floodlight ministry that demands that we keep our eye on the ball. Asking ourselves frequently as we read our Bibles, 'does our interpretation glorify the Lord Jesus and exalt him as pre-eminent?' Jesus promises that the Spirit will lead us into 'all truth' — not in this context, 'all scientific truth' or 'all philosophical truth', but the truth of Jesus. We can be certain that in all the Spirit does, the Spirit glorifies Christ.

May our church's windows always be open to the fresh breezes of the Paraclete, the promised Spirit of truth.


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