Today’s reading from the Gospel of John contains words that Jesus spoke to his disciples in the hours that preceded his arrest and eventual trial and execution. Yet these words are about something that is yet to happen, the coming of the Holy Ghost, which we will celebrate here in a few weeks on Pentecost Sunday. Because we read them from the perspective of the church, which is instituted at Pentecost by the coming of the Holy Ghost, we should pay special attention, since we are living now a reality that Jesus was talking about then.
“I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”
The Holy Ghost is certainly the least understood of the persons of the Trinity. Poor old Holy Ghost. The third wheel. Who invited him anyway? Nobody pays attention to the Holy Ghost at all.
For starters, there is that weird name. The word “ghost” of course sounds strange to us now, but when the King James Bible was translated it simply meant a spirit or breath, which is exactly what the Greek and Hebrew terms in the Bible mean.
These terms are constantly associated, both in the Old and New Testaments, with God’s communication of his own nature to humanity. We call the spirit of God “holy” because holiness is God’s nature, and it is holiness that God’s spirit communicates pre-eminently.
In fact I want to hold on to this word “communication” for a bit, because it seems to me that communication and its related concepts are at the heart of the Holy Ghost’s ministry. I will refer in fact to three related terms that concern the Holy Ghost: communication, community, and communion.
First of all, the very coming of the Holy Ghost is the result of an act of communication. Jesus promises his disciples that very shortly the world will see him no more. This is a reference to his imminent ascension back to the right hand of the Father.
Jesus will no longer appear in a worldly way; he will be bodily absent. But he will appeal to his heavenly Father to send “another Counselor” who will be with us “for ever.” So the Holy Ghost or Counselor comes to us as a result of communication between the Son and the Father. The Son appeals to the Father to send the Spirit. The Spirit then communicates the divine nature that he shares with the Father and the Son to us.
What this means is that the Holy Ghost communicates to us the fundamental and indivisible unity of the Father and the Son to all those who believe in Jesus, love him, and keep his commandments. Just as the Father and Son are one, so too will Jesus be one with his obedient followers. In verse 18 Jesus promises that “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.”
The word “desolate” is literally “orphaned.” So what Jesus is saying is that even though he goes to the Father and will no longer be seen in the world, we are not orphans. We are not orphans because we have a Father. Because in the Holy Ghost Jesus Christ’s Father is our Father. We are the children of God thanks to the Holy Ghost. Notice too Jesus says, “I will come to you.” I suspect he means in the first instance that he will be resurrected and see them again, which is true, but I think he also is saying that when the Holy Ghost comes—because the Holy Ghost shares the same nature as he and his Father, with whom he is one—that the Holy Ghost living among us and in us will be essentially the same as having Jesus Christ himself and his Father among us.
And that is why the Holy Ghost is instrumental in founding the church. The Holy Ghost communicates the divine nature to human beings, and in so doing he also establishes community with human beings. The nature of God himself is communal, three persons in perfect unity. If the Holy Ghost communicates that nature to us, then he makes of us a community as well.
That community is the church, which is built around the word and the sacraments. We see this truth illustrated in the story from Acts of Philip and the Ethiopian treasurer. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers Philip for ministry, for reaching out to a brother who is obviously seeking God, having just worshiped in Jerusalem. Likewise it is the Holy Spirit that opens the minds of the spiritually searching to understand the words of Scripture. This Easter season we have heard some stirring examples of apostolic preaching recorded in the book of Acts. Apostolic preaching shows how the Scriptures point to Jesus, which Jesus himself did on the road to Emmaus. The Holy Ghost opens the ears and hearts of those who study Scripture to recognize how sacred Scripture points to Jesus as its meaning and fulfillment. And that is exactly what Philip does, guided by the Holy Ghost. The Ethiopian treasurer asks about whom Isaiah is speaking, himself, or someone else. The answer is someone else, Jesus Christ, the one who was led as a sheep to the slaughter.
This opening of Scripture in turn leads to the second great task of the church, the administration of the sacraments. Way back at the beginning of the Gospel of John John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize not with water but with the Holy Ghost. So too the Holy Ghost is the one who makes communion between Philip and the Ethiopian treasurer, two different men who have never met until this moment. And yet Acts tells us that “they both went down into the water,” and together “they came up out of the water,” sharing in one baptism that unites them in the brotherhood of the church. The Holy Ghost here is at work as well, inspiring the sacramental activity of the church. We see this in baptism certainly but even more obviously in the Eucharist, which means that not only does the Holy Ghost communicate the divine nature, not only does the Holy Ghost form the community that is the church, the Holy Ghost also presides over sacramental communion with God and with all the church’s members.
The reason that the Holy Ghost can do all this is the boldest and most radical teaching in today’s Gospel reading. That bold teaching is that we know all this for ourselves. We know all this because as Jesus says in verse 17 the Holy Ghost “dwells with you, and will be in you.”
Generally speaking I would imagine for most of us, most of the time, God feels far away. This is not so. If you are baptized into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, then God dwells not far away, and not just near to you, but indeed in you, because the Holy Ghost dwells in you and will continue to dwell with the faithful for ever, as Christ himself promised.
To be indwelt by the Holy Ghost is to be on the way to holiness, and sinful people can only be made holy in one way: We must be changed by the God whose entire nature is holiness, who communicates that holiness to us. That communication happens by way of the Holy Ghost’s influence not just upon us but indeed in us, as a community, and in us individually, in communion with God and with one another.
We know this not intellectually, not in our heads, but in our hearts and in our very bones. We know this every time we hear Christ speaking to us in the word. We know this every time we show love or forgiveness or mercy for someone else or they for us. We know it by taste and by touch, every time we receive the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the altar. This is the work of the Holy Ghost alive in us, dwelling in us, making us holy.
Just a few verses after today’s Gospel reading Jesus is still speaking of the Holy Ghost, and there he says that “he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Remember too that Jesus called the Holy Ghost the spirit of truth. It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus calls himself the way, the truth, and the life, so the Holy Ghost teaches nothing but the truth that is Jesus himself.
The Holy Ghost sanctifies us by pointing us constantly back to Jesus Christ, who is of one nature with the Holy Ghost and with the Father. The Holy Ghost teaches us all things, not by way of introducing novelties, but by way of simply reminding the church of our founder’s teaching. Reminding us that we are a community bound together in Christ as Christ himself is bound in unity with the Father. Reminding us that the Scriptures point to him. Reminding us that in the sacraments of the church he is with us for ever. Reminding us that we are not orphans but a family, under one Father, redeemed by one Savior, and made holy by one Spirit, who indeed lives with us and in us. Amen.