St. John 14:15-21
“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.”
In this morning's Gospel lesson, we have a continuation of the Gospel from last week. The text is part of the farewell discourse, the final teaching of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest, trial and execution, contained in chapters 13 to 17 of St. John's Gospel. In this particular section of it, Jesus consoles the disciples that though they will lose his physical presence yet he will send them another comforter. The disciples are distraught. They are sorrowful. They are in anguish. Their attachment to Jesus is more than just an attachment to an idea like a person who is rabidly attached to a particular social or political cause. No, they are attached to a real man; they love this human being, not least because he has opened their eyes to the truth regarding God and the truth concerning their human situation. In an earlier passage in John's Gospel, Jesus—not surprisingly—makes some controversial remarks. The Evangelist reports that he lost some disciples on account of those remarks. Jesus then questions the twelve, will you also leave? Peter's response is quite wonderful. It speaks to what the disciples felt about their teacher and master. Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” Undoubtedly that question was rolling through their heads—to whom shall we go?--on the night of last supper. It goes without saying that the disciples’ encounter with Jesus changed every aspect of their lives. They gave up their professions; they gave up a settled lifestyle to follow a traveling preacher; mostly importantly, they experienced a spiritual transformation as a result of their encounter with Jesus. I suspect the mere thought of his departure from them would provoke a sense of dismay and revulsion. Deep in them a shudder would rise up at the mere hint of his being taken from them. They did not want their time of earthly fellowship to come to an end.
The man Jesus however was bound by time, and like everything in time, there is a finite end to life and human relationships. This is part of the pain and sorrow and frustration of human existence. But of course, our Lord is more than a mere man. We believe he is the eternal Son of God. In his person, then, both eternity and time are united together. This is part of the mystery of the incarnation. We live in a world of change and decay, a world of time. God does not just perceive this from afar. The Christian story is not that God is only touched remotely by a feeling of sympathy for our time-bound existence. Rather, God takes that existence into himself in the man Jesus. He knows directly the cycles of time: the circle of hunger and satiation; the annual cycle of seasons and harvests; the reality that in the days given to a man to live, he will be preceded by many in death; he will witness some born; and finally he himself will leave others behind at his death. Our Lord, the Son of God, takes all this to himself. He doesn't turn away from the frustration and anguish that time can wreck on us. His embracing of our finite existence reaches a climax in his crucifixion and death. The Apostles' Creed states that our Lord “descended into hell.” In the original Latin of the Creed, the word for “hell” is infernos, literally the place of the dead. In other words, Jesus did not just appear to die. Upon death, he didn't have the after-death equivalent of the presidential suite to ride out his stay. He plunged into the uncertainty of death, about which on this side of the grave we know so little.
Our Lord's resurrection is a triumph over the ravages of time. He, in the words of the Orthodox hymn, tramples down death by death. In these events, he takes away from us the burden of sin; in the words of St. Paul, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The disciples can and will know a degree of this resurrected life in this world, but it will only be a taste of the full transformation that is yet to come. They are still in this world. We are still in this world. Jesus tells his disciples that are living in time, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” Jesus comes to the twelve and us not in the physical reality of his resurrected body. Rather, he sends the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Now we tend to think of comforting as that which assuages pain, sorrow or disappointment. However, the older meaning of comfort is to strengthen. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, is sent by our Lord to strengthen us. He comes to give us strength to live in this world as witnesses to the light and love of God. It is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who today communicates to us the reality of our Lord Jesus and leads us into the fellowship of the Father and Son. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is a source of joy that is not overcome by the vicissitudes of life. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is the power to love in the way that our Lord loved us, a self-less, self-offering love. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is a peace and faith that knows our Lord is aboard the ship with us, and we need not fear the tempest of even the fiercest storms: he will see us safely to shore. This is the Comforter from the Father, he that will abide with us forever.