Herb Montgomery | May 12, 2023
Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:15-21*)
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I grew up hearing Christians interpret the Spirit as Advocate as an intermediary interposing between sinful humans and a holy God. Today, I reject any interpretation of this language that places humanity and divinity on polar opposites and a mediator in between. I experienced that bearing bad fruit in my own life and I believe it produces bad fruit societally as well.
This reading is from the Johannine community’s version of the Jesus story, and we should remember that as we consider this language. Repeatedly over the past few weeks, we have seen how the Johannine community characterized the Pharisees and Jewish leaders. We have also noted the tensions between Pharisaical Judaism and the early Gnosticism that the Johannine community was part of.
Consider the following passages in John, where being removed from the synagogue is a penalty for Jewish people who follow the Johannine Jesus.
“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Anointed would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)
“Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 12:42)
John’s Jesus also repeats the warning in John 12, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (John 16:2).
In this context, characterizing the Spirit as an Advocate would have meant something to this community. The Spirit would not have mediated between them and God but between them and other members of their own religious communities. We must hold all of these references in John in tension with the fact that most of the history between Judaism and Christianity is not characterized by Jews persecuting Christians but by Christians persecuting Jews. The gospel of John was also written when Gentile Christians wanted to distance themselves from their Jewish siblings under the Roman Empire.
We find a different nuance in the synoptic gospels. We’ll consider that, next.