Deeper, longer-lasting Pentecost, a gift from John’s point of view

Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2007. Gospel reflection and communion with Bob Cramer,
First Congregational United Church of Christ (Open and Affirming), Santa Rosa, California.

“If you love me, you’ll hold me near and dear to you.
… The Father will provide you with … the authentic spirit,
who will be with you forever.”
Adapted from John 14:15-16.

All the rest of this day we shall be celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit to animate – breathe fresh life into – Jesus’ followers. Some call it the birth of the church. And as Acts of the Apostles describes Pentecost, it sounds very much like resurrection. A dispirited Body of Christ danced, and “Babel-ed,” into Life.

Well, that’s Acts. That’s the Pentecost everybody knows. That account may be literally true, historically, or it more than likely is “true fiction,” as some say.

I am sharing a different text this morning, also from today’s lectionary. The theologian whom we call John may have been writing even before Acts was written, and he is assuring us that although Jesus is preparing to leave Earth, he will remain in a miraculous kind of way. He says the Father will continue to live in us, as he has in Jesus. The true spirit of God will continue to teach us as Jesus did – will guide us into doing even more on Earth than Jesus did.

John is telling us this right after Jesus has said he leaves Earth, now, in order to prepare a place for us. It’s an unusual Christian memorial service that doesn’t read that passage as if it is speaking of a future someplace else, in an afterlife.

But is it?

Continue to “hold me near and dear to you” – John sees Jesus comforting us in the present. He hardly ever really spoke of the future; here, in John, he is not looking ahead. While we still live, in the only sense we have of what it means to be alive, we can be fully-fulfilled human beings if we embrace the true spirit of God that was created within us but which unbelievers don’t recognize.

In the rest of the 14th chapter of John, Jesus speaks of his coming and going, going and coming again. I cannot see this as thinking of a Second Coming at the end of Time. Instead, I share with you the way scripture interpreter Brian Stoffregen writes about John 14:28, where Jesus says, “You have heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I’m going to return to you’.”

“Going” and “coming” in the Greek text are present-tense words.

“We might expect,” Stoffregen writes to preachers preparing for today’s worship, “that if Jesus were speaking to the disciples in the upper room, he would have used the future tense – that he will go away and he will [return].

“However, the present tense, I think, places these words after the ascension. John’s readers, and we, experience Jesus sometimes going away from us and sometimes coming to us.

“I’ve already talked about Jesus being present to us through the word and the authentic spirit who teaches and reminds us of that word. Sometimes the Presence can seem very close and at other times we may feel forsaken.

“It is to be noted that our feelings do not determine the reality of the Presence in our lives, but they do affect our perception of reality.”

The heartfelt wish of Christians through all time has been that when we speak in the language of our hearts, all would understand. Even if it is true that at Pentecost, people ecstatically experienced something like that, it also seems likely that John gets it right when he writes about believers holding dear the Jesus they know, living life in community as embodiments of the Father, as Jesus did.

The Spirit, the Advocate, the Presence of Jesus and the Father – all are with us, individually and together. Tongues of fire and ecstatic speech are not everyday phenomena, but the presence of the Father is. If we have learned that, we then must teach it, probably done better in deed than in word, but why not both?