A Sermon on John 14:15-21 by Joe Ellis, May 17, 2020
The promises contained in this passage are filled with power, hope, and intimacy. Every time I read this passage I’m inspired. How could you not be inspired when you hear Jesus say, “Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you!” It sounds as if we were being welcomed into the inner life of God. It sounds as though Jesus were welcoming us to be the fourth member of the Trinity. What an honour. What a privilege. What a mystery. I wrestle with this passage also. When I hear Jesus say that we will realize “you are in me and I am in you”, I wonder how I should experience that reality. The language leads me to expect that I should have an ongoing, ever present mystical experience. This passage brings me to wonder if having the Spirit should feel like I’m functioning on an altogether different level. This passage invites me wonder what to make of the majority of times when life feels pretty normal? Shouldn’t I feel His Spirit all the time? The goal of my sermon is to wrestle through that question and ask: ‘given that this is true, that the Spirit of God dwells within us. How should we experience life?” Given that Jesus says that being filled with the Spirit will be our permanent reality, I’d like to know how this is true not just during our mountain top experiences, but also in our most mundane moments as well.
I’ve spoken a number of times about how the Greek and Hebrew word for Spirit can refer to a number of different things — God’s Spirit, a human’s spirit, wind, and breath. Throughout this sermon I’d like to make an analogy for how we can experience our own process of breathing to how we experience God’s Spirit within us. Most of the time we are unaware of our breath, but nobody needs to convince you that breath is crucial to living. We need to breathe every second of the day. Generally speaking, after one minute without oxygen, brain cells begin to die. After three minutes, brain damage gets more and more likely. After five minutes, death becomes imminent. (Side note, that’s just like life without the Spirit, the degenerative onset appears slightly more delayed). Breath is so crucial to life itself, yet what percentage of the day are you actually aware that you are breathing? We are made not to have to pay attention. I can breathe in my sleep. Literally. This is true for all of us, except those with sleep apnea. My hope with this analogy is that it can help us see how, just like our breath, God’s Spirit is always present and does not require us to continually be aware of this reality. The fact that we are at times unaware of His Spirit does not for a moment suggest that His Spirit is not at work, or that He is absent. God’s Spirit is not dependent on our awareness to do His work. In fact, God sometimes deliberately blinds us to His presence so He can work more deeply. Much of the Spirit’s work lies beneath our conscious awareness. Yet, just as our breath never leaves us as long as we live, Jesus' promises His Spirit will never leave us.
In the passage we read, notice that the only thing we need to receive the Spirit is that we should love Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say that we get the Spirit only when we pray, or when we read Scripture, or when we serve the poor, or when we witness to people, or when we love our brother and sister. He doesn’t say when we do those things, then my Spirit will be with you. Jesus says that when we love Him, He will ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to us. When we have the Spirit, doing those other things comes more naturally, because the Spirit of Jesus is living in us. When we first love Jesus, the Spirit comes and makes a permanent home and never leaves us. Just like we only need a set of lungs to breathe, the only thing that we need to receive the Spirit is a love for Jesus — even that is a gift.
But just because we can survive unaware of God’s presence within us, doesn’t mean we should. Let’s go back to our breathing analogy. The way we breathe directly impacts the way we experience life. Ask someone with asthma. How we breathe impacts the way we think, feel and function. When we are anxious and scared, we are likely to breathe in short, shallow breathes — which in itself can perpetuate anxiety and panic. Yet we can alter our mental, emotional and physical state simply by becoming mindful of our breath. When we move our breath from the upper regions of our lungs and begin to breathe out of our diaphragm, taking long, slow deep breaths — peace begins to replace anxiety. Let’s try it together. Becoming aware of your breath can be a powerful practice of growing in peace and calm. In the same way, just because a Christian can survive without being aware of the presence of God, does not mean that they should. Just as we can become mindfully present to our breath, we can become mindfully present to God. That’s where the Christian Tradition of Spiritual practices acts as a guide to help us become more aware of God’s Spirit within us. Meditation is one such way — where we become still and silent, attend to our breath, and become mindful of the presence of God within us. Contemplation is similar, but involves using a passage of Scripture to guide us into God’s presence. Prayer, worship, walking in creation are all ways of helping us become aware of the reality that the Spirit of Jesus dwells within us. And here is where the analogy about breath breaks down. Breath is not living. Yet Jesus gives the Holy Spirit a name, the Paraclete. The word Paraclete can mean — Advocate, Helper, Counsellor, Coach. Engaging in Spiritual practices helps us to actually hear and respond to what the Paraclete saying to us. And then the Spirit helps us actually do what He says — hence Jesus saying that bit about “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
We certainly can go through life unconscious of the Spirit within us, but why on Earth would we want to! Through the Spirit, God is present to us as our Advocate, Counsellor, Helper and Coach. Let’s not take such a gift for granted. I’ve found that developing practices that help me become aware of the Spirit takes a lot of conversations with other people. I need help in figuring this stuff out, regularly. The last time I asked someone for advice on my spiritual practices was on May 5th. Actually, it was last Tuesday, I asked my small group their advice. Its an ongoing conversation — life circumstances change, what we need changes, what the Spirit is doing changes, our energy levels change. I value feedback on whether I’m being lazy or overzealous, legalistic or indulgent. Finding out what works takes help, or it could be that I’m just spiritually high maintenance. , if you want to talk about the spiritual rhythms you have or want in your life, I’d love to talk.
Let’s draw one more analogy between Spirit and breath. There are times when the breath takes over. Think of when you are on a run, out for a hike, or working really hard — your breath takes over. You can’t help but breathe deeply. You can’t help but fill your lungs. If you stopped, you’d collapse. Sometimes the Spirit takes over. Sometimes during intense grief or heartache the Spirit comes and takes over. Sometimes during a deep time of prayer and/or fasting, the Spirit will come and take over. Sometimes, simply for no reason at all, the Spirit of God comes and take over, filling you with love, with joy, with peace. Sometimes the Spirit comes and takes over, He overcomes your body, your mind and your spirit. Paul talks about one moment where the Spirit transported Him into heaven, he didn’t know if he was still in his body or not. In those intense moments of the Spirit, one realizes the humour of normal life — that it’s possible for us to feel normal when the very Spirit of God is living with us. When these times of ecstasy come upon a believer, they confirm for all of us the full impact of Jesus words in this passage. That through the Spirit, Jesus and the Father are within us. Those moments are a powerful testimony for the Christian community that Jesus’ Words are true when He says: “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The Spirit does take over, but not everyone has this experience. I’ve had experiences with the Spirit, but I’m not sure that I can say I’ve experienced the Spirit take over. And it’s not that those Christians who’ve had the Spirit take over are in a special class, its not that God loves them more, its not that they will be able to do greater works for God. They are just able to give a gift to the rest of us by confirming that Jesus is powerfully present, whether or not we are aware. For those Christians who haven’t had such a powerful encounter with the Spirit, we can take comfort in Jesus’ words to Thomas, who refused to believe unless he put his fingers in the wounds of the risen Christ: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and het have come to believe.” I’m naming a tension, some Christians will experience powerful revelations, for others they encounter Jesus in ways that are more gentle and quiet. I can’t explain the difference. Jesus does say he will reveal Himself, and He seems to do so in different ways to each of us. Yet we can be sure, that when day we shall all together see Him face to face.
This morning we heard Jesus speak to His continual, abiding presence within our lives. Its like our breath, never leaves us. The Spirit of Jesus is present whether we are going about our normal lives, unconscious of his presence, taking time to be aware of his presence, or completely overcome by His powerful presence. In all of life — Jesus is with us — His words are true. Let’s again listen to what Jesus says:
“I will not abandon you as orphans, I will come to you. In a little while the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too. You will know at that time that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you. The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him.” Everything about this passage speaks to constant abiding presence of God. His presence is there regardless of whether your doing the dishes unaware of his presence, or whether you are practicing mindfulness while doing the dishes, or whether you’ve set the dishes aside because your simply overwhelmed by His presence and cannot go on. No matter what, He is there.