Have you ever wondered why, if Christianity is true, churches are not filled every week? Should Jesus have stayed around longer after his resurrection, or made a personal appearance once every hundred years or so?
As the Easter Season with its focus on the resurrection draws to a close it’s worth considering Jesus’ promise found in the Gospel reading this Sunday – from John 14:15ff. It forms part of the record of Jesus’ final hours before his arrest and crucifixion. He had told his disciples he was ‘going away’ (John 14:3), and they were frightened.
We see in John 14:15ff a tenderness not seen elsewhere as Jesus tells his disciples he would not leave them bereft: “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 and will be in you…” (John 14:15ff).
This reference to the Spirit might initially give us the impression that Jesus is speaking about some impersonal power or force – as in Star Wars. Indeed, Acts 8:18f tells us Simon Magus thought the Holy Spirit was a force he could buy.
But with the personal pronouns ‘him’ and ‘he’, referring to the Spirit, we see that Jesus is saying the Spirit is not a force but a person. In the Greek, ‘Spirit’ is a neuter noun – an ‘it’ word. But John breaks the rules of grammar. The ‘hims’ and the ‘he’ of John 14:17 are strongly emphasized pronouns: He dwells with you…
But if we think of the Holy Spirit as an ‘it’ we miss Jesus’ promise. He says that with his going away he is to be replaced, not by an ‘it’, but by a ‘he’ – the Spirit, the ‘Helper’.
The word Helper translates two words – the preposition, alongside, and the verb, called. With his approaching physical absence Jesus promises the Spirit who would perfectly match the need for a Helper, a Comforter.
And this Helper or Comforter is not just ‘a comforter’ like Linus’s blanket, nor simply a hot water bottle for cold, hard times. The Spirit comes to strengthen us – to put strength into our hearts, into the backbone of our lives, especially when we are challenged.
Significantly Jesus says, ‘The Spirit of truth is not known by the world, but ‘you know him…’ (14:17). With his physical going, the age of the Holy Spirit will come. Jesus is now at work in the world through his Spirit.
This is very encouraging. When we go back to the Old Testament we read that God’s people dearly wanted God to live with them. But they found this concept hard to grasp. King Solomon asked: ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you;…’ (1 Kings 8:27).
The answer to Solomon’s question was, ‘Yes’. The Temple in Jerusalem was not only a place of worship. It symbolized God’s dwelling with his people – his special relationship with them.
Furthermore, in Ezekiel 37:27 God says: ‘My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…’ What Solomon thought God was too big for, God said he would do. He would dwell with his people.
This was something that bothered Stephen Hawking in his Brief History of Time where he wrote: ‘We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburb of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that could care about us or even notice our existence.’
However, Dr Henry Schaefer, one of the world’s leading quantum computational chemists writes: ‘I take a different position… There is no compelling evidence to date that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Human beings, thus far, appear to be the most advanced species in the universe. Maybe God does care about us! Stephen Hawking surveys the cosmos and concludes that the principal characteristic of humankind is obscurity. I consider the same data and conclude that humankind is special. I must be quick to add that a Christian worldview does not exclude the possibility of life, even sentient life elsewhere in the universe…’ (HF Schaefer, III, Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence? 2003, p.66.)
The amazing thing is that God notices us and cares for us more than we can begin to imagine. At the beginning of his Gospel, John tells us that God came among us: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
These matters and more we will be taking up at the June Anglican Connection conference. Here is a link you may want to check out: Effective_GospelCentered_Chuches_Invite
Prayer. O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us desolate, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to where our Savior Christ has gone before, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore. Amen. (BCP, Sunday after Ascension)