An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C, John 14:23-29, Year C, May 5, 2013
THAT WITH THE death of Mao Zedong in 1976, there was a struggle between the left wing and right wing over the control of China, the former advocating the continuation of revolutionary mass mobilization, the latter the overhauling of Chinese economy—this quite illustrates a normal feature in transition periods. One of the problems that a country, community, company or movement faces in the process of institutionalization is the prospect of the death of the founder. Sometimes it happens that the original vision of the founder is lost once a new one is installed. What he said and did is barely recalled and hardly influences the direction the community takes in a new situation. In China, the Gang of Four suffered defeat, while the reformers under Deng Xiaoping prevailed. Usually, though, this does not happen to a democratic nation, because the Supreme Court is there to interpret the original vision enshrined in the constitution, but this does not prevent the new leader from revising the constitution. But this cannot happen in the Christian community that Jesus founded; or it would be divided and lose it continuity with the divine source. Today’s Gospel shows us how it cannot.
Like the previous Sunday’s, today’s Gospel forms part of Jesus’ farewell discourses placed by John in the context of the last supper. Though, historically, these discourses could be understood in a situation wherein the community of John was expelled from the synagogue, yet they are meant to answer the problems spawned by Jesus’ physical departure from the disciples. Once Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, who will continue his teaching and work? Like any other historical person, Jesus could not have taught everything to his disciples, nor could he have, considering the circumstances of his death, done it completely. And even without adverting to Mark’s portrait of the disciples who frequently misunderstood Jesus, it was simply impossible for them, as historical persons, to understand everything he taught them. And there are other related problems. For instance, who will sustain the disciples in the aftermath of the shattering experience of Jesus’ death? Will his departure spell the end of the community?
It is on account of these problems that in John the supper discourses look beyond Jesus’ death to the resurrection. After his physical departure, Jesus will remain with the community of disciples through his spiritual presence: “I will ask the Father to give you another Paraclete—to be with you always” (John 14:16). The Spirit is thus none other than the spiritual presence of Jesus. Jesus is the first paraclete, and the Holy Spirit is another. Jesus and the Spirit resemble each other: both are sent by the Father (3:17, 4:26) both remain with the disciples (14:20; 14:17), and both guide them (14:16; 16:13). Moreover, even if the world of men and sin hates the community, they are assured of not falling into the lie and the devil, because the Spirit is a Spirit of Truth (14:17), who will guide them into all truth (16:13). Of the functions of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel mentions two of them: to teach all things, and to bring remembrance: “The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you” (14:26).
Since Jesus is the once-and-for-all revelation of God (Heb 1:1), the Holy Spirit will not make any new revelations. That is not his work. Nothing is to be added to what has been revealed by God in the life and person of Jesus. Rather, it belongs to him to help—Paraclete means helper—the community understands the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus that up to the time of his death were obscure to the disciples. Thus, for example, it was only after the resurrection that they were able to understand the saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (1:19). In addition, what Jesus spoke of implicitly, the Spirit will make it explicit. He will enable the community to perceive the deeper meaning of Jesus’ teaching. Moreover, he will unfold new interpretations of what the early Jesus revealed to the community.
However, the Spirit uncovers not only new understanding and interpretation, but even application of God’s revelation in Jesus. In the community’s encounter with new problems that arise when faith is confronted with various situations, the Spirit will make a creative application of the gospel. That way, the community perceives the relevance of Jesus’ teaching to contemporary life. When the early Church, as related in the 1st Reading (Acts 7:55-60), faced the problem of circumcision vis-à-vis the admission of the Gentiles to the community, the resolution reached by the disputing parties at the Council of Jerusalem reflects the workings of the Holy Spirit: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours, too, not to lay on you any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary” (Acts 15:28). As a great Johannine commentator, Hoskyns, puts it, “the Spirit’s work is more than a reminiscence of the ipsissima verba of the Son of God; it is a living representation of all that he had spoken to his disciples, a creative exploitation of the gospel.”
By fulfilling his teaching function, the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus: “When the Paraclete comes… he will bear witness on my behalf” (John 15:26). He ensures, in other words, that, even if conditions and circumstances change, the identity and continuity of the truth that Jesus revealed to the first community is assured. What Jesus said, the Holy Spirit recreates and perpetuates. Hence, when the Church speaks on such issues as militarization, globalization, migration, etc. from ethical and doctrinal perspectives, one is assured that it is the same truth the disciples had heard that is being preached today. Through the Holy Spirit, the Church is guaranteed with the continuity of Jesus words and works, even without his physical presence.