John 14:15-21 Easter 6, May 21, 2017
If I were to ask for an image or mental picture that comes to mind when thinking of God the Father, what image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s Michaelangelo’s famous painting, the Creation of Adam, where God is clothed in white robes reaching down to animate the newly formed human. Perhaps your image comes from the classic Cecil B DeMille movie, The Ten Commandments, when God speaks through the burning bush. Perhaps if you have been well versed in those very Commandments, you are hesitant to form an image of God the Father because of the expressed command by God not to do exactly that, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” Ex 20:4
Although we have no actual pictures or paintings of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Lord Jesus, during his earthly life, many painters have attempted to capture his essence over the years. Perhaps some of the most famous are Davinci’s painting of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper, or William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World”, where Jesus is standing by the door amidst the vines and branches preparing to knock. Perhaps it’s Heinrich Hofmann’s famous painting of “Christ in the Garden” (one that I see every Sunday as it hangs in our sanctuary balcony), or the one of Jesus you see in just about every church hall or basement: the picture of Jesus looking off in the distance called “Head of Christ”. Add to these any number of movies that have come out about Jesus, and of course Ted Neely and the famous 70’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, there are no shortages of images of Jesus in our culture.
Ask that same question for God the Holy Spirit, and the images are not so forthcoming. Perhaps a dove comes to mind, or the wind (and the wind itself isn’t much of an image to visualize, for as W.O Mitchell so famously penned, “Who Has Seen the Wind”.) The harder we try, and the longer we think, human images are far and few between. Tongues of fire perhaps (although that’s a pretty hard one for me to imagine). Why is it that we have such a hard time to imagine the person of the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit a who, or a what?
The fact that the Bible (and human culture) has not given us many (if any) concrete images of the person of the Holy Spirit, has caused some Christian sects to assume that the Holy Spirit is in fact not a “who”, a person of the Holy Trinity, but rather a “what”, a kind of “force” (like electricity, or the power that emanates from the Jedi knights on the Star Wars movies). Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to such a notion). In today’s NT reading from the gospel of John we continue on from last Sunday with Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples before his death the following day. As one can imagine, the disciples are afraid, and pondering their future existence without their friend and master in their midst. As we heard last Sunday, Jesus comforts them and bids them not to fear, for he is going to prepare a place for them in the Father’s House (heaven), and where he is, they will one day be also. That’s no small mercy and comfort to be sure, but there still exists the small problem…”what about now…today…this minute”? How are we to manage until you return, or until we all die? Today we get that question answered.
Jesus promises not to leave his disciples as orphan’s (we don’t usually think of full grown men as being orphans), but that he will send “another” “helper/counselor/comforter” (the Greek word paracletos is translated differently in English versions of the NT), the Holy Spirit. This is by no means the first time the Holy Spirit has been mentioned in the Bible (or even the gospel of John), but rather it is here that the promise of the Holy Spirit would become a more encompassing reality in the lives of the disciples, and would give assurance and comfort and actual “help” to carry out the ministry of Jesus once He had ascended to the Father.
We actually encounter the Third Person the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, in the very first verses of the Bible as we meet him (although referred to by the male gender pronoun, the Bible also uses descriptors that are feminine in nature, and as such the Holy Spirit is not really engendered in the same way as Jesus the Son…perhaps another sermon for another time) “hovering over the face of the waters in Genesis 2. Although this doesn’t evoke particularly human traits (as not many people I know literally “hover over the waters” (unassisted at least), He is present along with God the Father and the Eternal Son at the dawn of creation. We see him animating the first human Adam in Genesis 2:7 ‘Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” We meet him again in the book of Exodus, chapter 31, as he gifts certain individuals with particular abilities for worship and service unto God, “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.” We find something similar in Judges 6 and 15 where He calls and equips Gideon and Samson for leadership and strength, and later in Isaiah where he equips the prophet to proclaim the mighty acts of God. In the OT we meet him primarily coming to individuals, and either breathing life or ability in that particular person for a particular purpose.
In the NT after the ascension of Jesus, that is all about to change. Here (and later, particularly in the book of Acts beginning in chapter 2) we see that same Spirit coming to do much the same work Jesus has always been doing, but the scope is now broadened. As odd as it might sound to his disciples (and perhaps even to us), it will somehow be beneficial to the disciples that Jesus returns to the Father, and sends another “helper/comforter”, for as Jesus during his earthly ministry was more-or-less limited to one place at one time (although we do read of him healing the centurion’s servant from a distance in Luke 7), when the Holy Spirit comes he will continue to work in and through these very same disciples much has Jesus has done, and His influence will be experienced exponentially. Now rather than Jesus alone doing the teaching and preaching and healing, the disciples would themselves take up that role. Three thousand alone came to faith as Peter preached his first sermon. Soon those who heard and believed this gospel message began to share it with others and they came to faith, and they then brought the message to others. You can see what Jesus meant in saying the “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. Jn 14:2.
One of the reasons we have a hard time imagining what the Holy Spirit looks like, is because that seems to be the way He prefers it. The Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to like the limelight. In a way, He’s much like those who like to work behinds the scenes, never too eager to get their picture in the newspaper, or be front-and-center at events. Perhaps the best personal image I have in my mind regarding the Holy Spirit is the famous icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the 15th C depicting the 3 angelic visitors that came to visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18. In this painting the three angels (often interpreted to be the three members of the Holy Trinity), bodies form a complete circle, with each taking a submissive pose in regards to the other. The Holy Spirit’s gaze is directed to the Second Person, the Divine Eternal Son, Jesus, and He in turn gazes submissively to the Father.
The Holy Spirit has been referred to by some as the “shy member of the Trinity” always pointing to Jesus, always equipping people to tell about the mighty works of Jesus and calling others to faith in Jesus”, always coming both in the sacred texts of the Bible, and the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion to initiate faith, and sustain it.
Whether we can form a mental image of the Holy Spirit or not may not be all that important. What is important however, is that Jesus promised that the Spirit would come, and come He did. Because He did, you and I are believers today, and are called and equipped to share that very message of Jesus and his love to the world. Amen