Parting from someone we love is never easy. The lump in our throat, the tears welling up in our eyes, bear witness to the pain of separation. Even when there is good cause for the separation, when our friend or family member is going off to do something very worthwhile, something we agree is right for them, we still find it hard to say good-bye. We know that there will be an empty space in our hearts and in our lives that will not be easy to fill.
Imagine the emotion with which the words of our gospel lesson were spoken. Jesus, gathered with his closest friends, tells them that he will soon be separated from them. “I am going away,” he says, “I am going to the Father…” He has loved each one of them; they have left all to follow him. And now they face together the end towards which this path is leading them. As he has said to them, he is about to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies, and put to death. Imagine their anguish! How will they carry on without him? What has this time with him meant if it is to end this way? How will they fill the terrible void that his leaving will cause? They are filled with anxiety and fear– for him, for themselves, for all who have believed in him.
Jesus sees the fear in their eyes. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them, “and do not let them be afraid.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Do not be afraid. I am leaving you to return to the Father, but you will not be abandoned, you will not be left alone. One who is called “the Advocate” is coming, the “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit – the One who will teach you everything you need to know, the One who will remind you of all that I have said to you and who will guide you into all truth.
Perhaps you need to hear those words spoken to you this day. Perhaps you need to hear the steady, calming voice of the Savior saying to you, “Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let yourself be afraid. You have an Advocate, a Comforter, a teacher and guide, a companion and friend, who will never leave your side. Do not fear.”
“Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.”
Who is this Holy Spirit of which Jesus speaks? Of what does the Spirit remind us? How, and for what purpose, does the Spirit inspire and empower us? Here are three things:
First, the Spirit empowers us to become children of God. “To all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name,” John’s gospel tells us, “he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). In Christ we have been given a new identity: We are sons and daughters of the Most High God, children deeply cherished and unconditionally loved by our heavenly Father. Our status and significance in life derives not from our performance, but from our position in Christ. Who we are and what we are, is grounded in the truth that we now belong to God. We are God’s children by adoption and heirs of God’s promises. This new identity offers us a sense of value that does not come from anything that we have done for God, but rather from what God has done for us. No longer are we preoccupied with the way others see us. Our worth comes from how God sees us. No longer are we seeking the approval of others. We are seeking only to comprehend and embrace the wonder of being children of God!
When the Enemy depreciates us, recalling to us the failures and deficiencies of the old self, we have only to assert the truth about our new self:
I have been given power to become a child of God! (Jn 1:12)
I am no longer a slave, but a friend of Christ! (Jn 15:15)
I have bought with a price. I belong to God! (I Cor 6:20)
I am a child of God by adoption! (Rom 8:15)
I am no longer under condemnation! (Rom 8:1)
I have been redeemed and forgiven! (Col 1:14)
I know that nothing can separate me from the love of God! (Rom 8:28)
I am a brand new person in Christ Jesus! (II Cor 5:17)
I am a citizen of heaven! (Phil 3:20)
This is the first gift of the Spirit that is given to us: a new identity that is undeniable and that can never be taken away from us. We are God’s children by adoption, joint heirs with Christ! This is who and what we are now, and will be forevermore. “See what love the Father has given us,” the author of I John exclaims, “that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!” (I Jn 3:1) We need to be reminded of this truth every day, and that is the role of the Spirit, to recall in us the Truth about ourselves and about others, that we are precious in God’s sight and that we belong to God.
Second, and closely related to the first, the Spirit empowers us to approach God as “Abba.” “When the fullness of time had come,” the apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” “And because [we] are children,” he reminds us, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal.4:4-7).
“Abba.” “Papa.” When God claims us as his own and adopts us as his children, he welcomes us into a relationship of the deepest intimacy and union with himself. Our status as adopted children means that God loves us just as he loves his only-begotten Son. It means that God has made us joint-heirs with Christ of all that he possesses and promises. It means that the glory that has been given to Christ is given to us as well.
The Spirit draws us into this intimate union with God and with his Son, Jesus Christ, by giving us the gift of prayer. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). In prayer God offers us the gift of divine love. In prayer God carries us out of the place of fear and shame and into the place of freedom and joy. In prayer God teaches us to call him “Abba,” and to bring to him our every need. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, to inspire us and empower us to draw close to God and to live in intimate union with the Divine.
Third, the Spirit empowers us to live and speak the truth boldly. When we were adopted into God’s family, Paul tells us, we “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear”; but we “received a spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:15) that sets us free from all fear and anxiety. We are God’s children, and we are encouraged to live with the freedom and joy of children who know they are forever loved, and who trust that they will receive all the care and provision that they need. Such is the freedom of the children of God!
The Spirit empowers us to live for God. But the power God gives us, writes Henri Nouwen, “is not the power that controls, dictates, and commands; (rather) it is the power that heals, reconciles, and unites.”[i] We receive this power – the power to heal, reconcile and unite – through our union with God. The Spirit empowers us to be healing presences in the world, to be channels of God’s compassion and blessing and peace to all whom we meet.
The Spirit that Jesus gives empowers us to speak the truth, and to speak it boldly. Witness the fearlessness of the disciples after they receive the power of the Spirit. They cannot be shut up! They cannot be intimidated by threats of punishment or death. Their hearts are burning within them and they cannot keep silent. They know that, no matter how intimidating their audience, they need not fear, for Jesus has given them his promise: “When they bring you before… the authorities,” he told them, “do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say: for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Lk 12:11-12). “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus tells the disciples in John’s gospel, “he will guide you into all truth…because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13,14). The Spirit leads us into truth, and then empowers us to speak it boldly to others.
Knowing that such an Advocate will come enables Jesus and his disciples – and us – to face the future without fear. Their separation from one another will be painful, but it is not the final word. The Spirit will come as an Advocate, a Teacher, a Guide, to be with them – and us – to remind us who we areand to whom we belong, to strengthen us for the task of living as God’s people in the world. It is for this reason that Jesus can offer his disciples – and us – this peace that the world cannot produce or understand, and it is for this reason that he can encourage them – and us – to let go of fear and anxiety.
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
[i]Nouwen, Henri; Bread for the Journey; (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997); entry for June 7.
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