“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of Truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth…He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.”
Here is the situation. The Last Discourse presents us with the Beloved Disciple’s account of Jesus’ last evening with his disciples. John continues putting before the reader the overwhelming sadness in the room, Jesus’ constant references to returning to his Father, and this new information that once he returned to his Father, he would send the Paraclete. “Your hearts are full of sadness.” They hardly understood anything Jesus was saying and it would be sometime down the road before the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit would give them insight into what Jesus calls “the way of all truth.”
For a moment let us examine the meaning of the word “Comforter.” The Greek word in the text is Paraclete. Literally it means “one called alongside to help” and so we get English translations like Advocate and Comforter. The identity of the Comforter is the Holy Spirit. If we look at how the Paraclete functions in this passage this is what we get: Beginning sometime soon after the events described in the Farwell Discourse, He will essentially stand in for Jesus till the General Resurrection. He will bring back to the Apostles’ memory the words of Jesus and he will give them insight into their meaning. He will enable the apostolic eyewitnesses to function as Apostles. But it appears that the overarching work of the Paraclete will be to act as the defense witness for Jesus in the context of his trail before his enemies. Furthermore it is as though Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and Pilate (which from their point-of-view is only hours away) will not be over when Pilate delivers his verdict, but when God delivers his final verdict.
Furthermore, our participation in Christ is to be so through going – note his prayer in John 17 “I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them… “ And again, “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.” Our identity is so radically altered by our participation in Christ that his trial is our trial and our trial before the world is his trial. It is as though we stand accused alongside Jesus and he stands accused alongside us in the world so that the allegations brought against us in this world are tantamount to re-trying Jesus. But we have nothing to fear. Because the Holy Spirit will defend us just as Jesus had said: “When they haul you into court do not worry about defending yourself for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that same hour what to say.” It is not enough that the Holy Spirit will act as our Advocate; He will also turn the tables and prosecute those who brought charges against Jesus and those who presumed to judge his disciples. In his defense of Jesus and in his defense of Jesus’ disciples, the Holy Spirit will shine a light on this world’s bankruptcy of truth and legitimacy.
So first, the Accuser of the World, the Holy Spirit
“will prove that the world is in sin…”
The Paraclete will show the disciples that the enemies of Jesus are all guilty of the sin of deliberate disbelief in Jesus. Our Lord himself said,
“The Light has come into the world, but men have preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil.”
These evil deeds are specifically the refusal to believe in Jesus and the collateral damage that entails that disbelief. That sin reaches its sickening conclusion in the Cross. But further the Paraclete will show that the sin of unbelief is not limited to that historic circle of evil men who put Jesus on trial. No! That very sin of unbelief is the sin of the world today. We may think that is a bit harsh. After all we may reason, “Just because a person does not believe in Jesus doesn’t mean they are hostile toward him.” If they are not hostile it is because they think it silly to believe in such nonsense or they do not know the historic Jesus.
“(He will prove) the world is not righteous, because I go to my Father”
The Paraclete reveals that the world’s sense of justice is in fact immoral because Jesus is innocent of the charges laid against him. Before and during his trial he was accused of blasphemy for claiming to be equal with God. “I and my Father are one.” He was guilty not only of astonishing arrogance, but he was a sinner, a deceiver and blasphemer according to his enemies. They were sure he was not God’s son and sentenced him to death. But in fact, he tells his disciples repeatedly that he is returning to his Father. The Paraclete will come to the disciples only after he has returned to this Father. And that is what happened. On Pentecost Peter and the other Apostles took it to the street in Jerusalem and proclaimed Jesus’ as the Saviour of the World. Only a few months later St. Stephen himself, full of the Holy Spirit, as he was about to be stoned to death in Jerusalem, bore witness to Jesus’ innocence and victory:
“I see the glory of God, and Jesus standing right next to his Father.”
Finally the Paraclete will prove that in judging Jesus guilty and not believing in him, the world’s judgment has recoiled upon itself.
“(He will show that) the world is judged, because the prince of this world is judged…”
His enemies thought they had victory. But in the Cross Jesus confronted the prince of this world and Jesus now stands justified before his Father. In his Resurrection he has conquered death and hell and it is the world that is found guilty.
Now with all three of these actions, the Paraclete infuses courage into the disciples in those critical early days after our Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension and especially after the persecutions began. But I want to underline this: the courage, the resilience, the strength Jesus promised in the Paraclete was meant for the whole Church in time and space and not just the disciples who were with him that evening.
Imagine what it was like for these little parishes scattered all over the world when the last of the apostolic eyewitnesses died. The Apostle was a living cord joining the Church to Jesus of Nazareth. As long as they were present these apostolic eyewitnesses could interpret the meaning of the gospel narrative, the meaning of Jesus’ very word and deed for every situation the Church faced. For example, these apostolic eyewitnesses would have to interpret the meaning of the persecution of the Church after the deaths of James and Stephen. They gave voice to what Jesus would have said about the existential realities and exigencies they were facing, many of which were horrible.
Imaginatively place yourself in one of these tiny parishes that had grown up around the apostolic eyewitnesses. What do you think would happen when these eyewitnesses began to die? James died in Jerusalem in 62 AD. Stephen too. Paul was beheaded in Rome around 66 – 67 AD. Around the same time St. Peter was crucified. It is the universal testimony of the Church that last Apostle to die was the Beloved Disciple, John. He was a very old man and he died around the year 100 AD. Now that is amazing since that date is within a handful of years backward or forward for the ministry of St. Polycarp who had spent a good deal of time with John. That would also be contemporaneous with the life of St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose letters we have.
Now when the Beloved Disciple finally died I imagine it was a major crisis for his churches, not unlike what he and the other disciples had experienced when Jesus informed them that he was returning to his Father. As long as Jesus was with them they were safe. In the same way, as long as John was alive he was a sure interpreter of everything Jesus said and did. John’s own disciples – the deacons, priests and bishops he had ordained could return to him time and again to asked questions and obtain his directions. They could hang out with him like Polycarp did. John had been a companion of Jesus. When John laid his hands upon you, you knew that those very hands had touched and had been touched by the hands of Jesus Christ.
What got these little parishes through the crisis of the death of the Beloved Disciple? I will tell you what got them through. It was that document he had written and re-written, and rewritten which final form we know as the Gospel of John. And in particular the Farwell Discourse. Yes, these apostolic eyewitnesses were the Pillars of the Church, living links between Jesus of Nazareth and the baptized. But it was not merely their own memories or even their own personal experiences that made them the trustworthy interpreters of all that Jesus did or said. No, it was not merely their personal experiences, it was the gift of the Holy Spirit that not only quickened their memories of the words of Jesus, but also gave them, as it were, Jesus’ own interpretation of his words and deeds – that made them reliable. The Church at first probably placed her confidence in the personal experiences of the Apostles, but in time Holy Mother Church came to place all her confidence the gift of the Holy Spirit. She came to understand that the Paraclete guided the eyewitnesses, like the Beloved Disciple, and he would continue to guide the Church and her members after the death of the Beloved Disciple. The Paraclete indwells Church and all her members. And because of that, those men and women who buried the Beloved Apostle and Ignatius and Polycarp, and those of us here today who believe in Jesus and kneel to receive his Body and Blood are as close to Jesus as were the apostolic eyewitnesses themselves. That is what the Church believes.