The first century AD was a time of what one might call apocalyptic expectation. Many people during this time were expecting the end of the world. They were expecting God to do something big in the world. Because of this, all these supposed prophets showed up in Palestine who predicted God’s imminent judgment, and we have records that talk about these prophets. For instance, there was this guy named Thuddus who, in the book of Acts, we read had 400 followers. There was a guy named Athrongies, there was a mysterious character named the Egyptian, and another named the Samaritan. There was a guy named Simon son of Gyora, and I could go on. And all these prophets had messianic ambitions and loyal followers, and all of them were eventually captured by the Roman state and killed. Now, I’m going to guess, you’ve never heard of half of these supposed prophets, the only one you likely have heard of – otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be here today – is a guy named Jesus of Nazareth the son of Joseph. Of all these messianic figured who showed up during this time, why do most, if not all of us, only know his name, Jesus’ name? You ever think about that?
By the way, no one today really doubts that Jesus was a real historical figure. In the mid-20th century, many scholars were trying to discredit that Jesus walked on this earth but there was just too much evidence to say otherwise. Today, together with the gospel books themselves, we have other accounts from historians like Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the younger. These guys all wrote about Jesus. We actually have more historical evidence that Jesus walked on this earth than say that guys like Socrates existed – and everyone believes he existed.
So, today very few question that a person named Jesus lived, but the question is how has the name of Jesus survived while those other messianic figures I mentioned to you earlier fizzled? How did Christianity against the odds survive? How did this happen? How did some obscure movement on the edge of the Roman empire, that had no political, financial, or educational advantage, how did this group dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith in western civilization? I mean, the message of Christianity was offensive to both the Jews and the Greeks. And furthermore, think of religions like Islam and Buddhism, where their leaders died old and rich, and their followers thrived from being a part of the movement. Now, think of Christianity, its leader, Jesus, died young and violently, and his followers were cast aside, hunted, and many were killed. So, how does Christianity survive all of this?
It’s not because Jesus sends out a ragtag group of fishermen with a great sales pitch, no, it’s because of what Jesus promised would come to, and work through, that ragtag group of followers: the Holy Spirit. Let’s talk about the Holy Spirit today.
We’re in John 14. Jesus is in the upper room with his disciples, so it’s Maundy Thursday. Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples during these last hours before his death and resurrection, and one of the things he specifically wants them to understand is that, soon, he would be gone from the earth. Yet, at the same time, they would not be alone. His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, would come and not just be with them, but dwell in them.
In verse 26 of our lesson, Jesus says this about that Spirit, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” If you were looking at different translations of this verse, you would find that almost all the English translations would read the same way with one exception, sometimes instead of the Holy Spirit being an “Advocate” he’s described as a comforter, or encourager, or strengthener, or something similar. What that tells us is that, in the original Greek, the word that is used here to describe the Holy Spirit is so deep and rich that no one English word can completely encapsulate the meaning of the Greek.
The Greek word by the way is παράκλητος (9:00) and means to call to someone while alongside them. We don’t really talk like that which is why you get these varied translations. Here in the NIV 2011, we get the word Advocate, which I think is a good translation. An advocate is someone right there with you, and they’re for you, and here the Holy Spirit, the Advocate will be right there to teach and to remind Jesus’ followers of everything he said and taught. Now, why is this important? Why did Jesus think his disciples would need this Advocate, the Spirit?
Well, remember, soon Jesus would be on trial. Soon, Jesus would be crucified; he would die. Then he’d rise and 40 days after that he ascend. He was leaving them, leaving his disciples. And, as counterintuitive as it sounds, Jesus leaving, ascending into heaven, was a great thing for the ministry of the gospel. Look what it did. When that Spirit, the Advocate, came he made his dwelling in those eleven disciples and they changed from followers who listened to leaders who acted. They were inspired to share Jesus, to love him and his teaching, and to bear his name. That changed them for the better, and it also benefited the world at large.
You see Jesus – right? – he was perfect. He couldn’t get any better. His disciples and future followers, however, could. I mean think of Saul. Saul was this legalistic jerk of a Pharisee who wanted all of Jesus’ followers to be rounded up, but then Jesus came to him, and the Spirit entered him, and Saul became Paul, this missionary who was willing to endure pretty much anything to share Jesus and his love with the world. And the world saw this, and I’m sure wondered, “What changed? What happened to this guy?” The Holy Spirit. That’s what happened.
Now, here is the cool thing, and this is what we’ve been building to today. That same Spirit, that Jesus promised to those disciples, that same Spirit that has kept Christianity alive in this world for centuries, now rests on each of you. You have the Spirit of God dwelling in you, and sometimes I don’t think we realize just how much he’s changed us too.
Let me give you one example. Say, you do something wrong – you sin! – and you confess that sin to someone and they forgive you, and you know God says in his Word that he forgives you through Christ, and that’s great! Except, there is a part of you that doesn’t feel forgiven. There is a part of you that can’t forgive yourself. You see a lot of us know that Jesus died for our sins. You know that! God says that to you in his Word! But at the same time, we often keep living like we have to be perfect, and we beat ourselves up over our sins, and we’re afraid. God scares me. I have to meet his crazy high standards.
And so we go back to verse 23– the beginning of our lesson – and we hear Jesus say, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” And those words just kill us. I don’t do that. I can’t do that. Now, it’s true, some of us live the opposite way and we figure I love Jesus enough and obey him enough, so I can do what I want. He will forgive me either way; it’s fine. And we don’t take Jesus seriously when he says “If you love me, you will obey my teaching…all of it!”
Finally, both of those views, the beating yourself up or the thinking you’re just fine, do what? It’s you making yourself your own advocate. It’s you calling the shots, trying to be, in a sense, your own God. This is a threat. It’s a threat to your faith and your relationship with your Lord, because either you feel like you never have peace with God – and you tell yourself that – or you think you have peace with God, but really, he’s not happy with you, you’re abusing his patience and his love. Both attitudes are sin – one a lack of trust in God, the other an arrogant trust in yourself
This is where that promised advocate, the Holy Spirit, becomes a game-changer. Remember what Jesus said the Spirit will do? “He will teach you and remind you of everything” So, say you’re that person who thinks you’re just fine with God. To you, your Advocate comes and says, “Well, hold on. I got a list of ten commandments here and you’re not doing so well. You’re not living up to God’s standard. And that Spirit, your advocate, will actually rob you of peace. He will make you feel terrible. Why? Why would the Spirit want to do this to you?
Well, in order for the Holy Spirit to liberate you from your guilty conscience, your sin, your hell. He’s gotta show you the impossible standard that you and I won’t ever live up to. You have to see your need. Once you see it, your advocate – who has never left you by the way – turns around and says, “Jesus took care of it. Jesus paid for it. Jesus saved you from your sin and in so doing fulfilled what he promised when he said, “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.” “
Now, maybe you’re that other person, the one whose heart is filled with doubts, and guilt, and fears, and regrets. To you the Spirit comes in very calmly and collectively and says, “Shhhh, quiet.” You don’t get to feel that way about yourself anymore. You don’t get to be scared. You don’t get to punish yourself anymore. Jesus bought your life and deemed you adequate, and valuable, and, no offense, your opinion of yourself doesn’t count anymore. God bought your life. He is at peace with you.
Here is what that peace does for you. It allows you to look at Jesus’ same words in verses 23 and 24, words that maybe gave you pause and maybe made you question whether you truly love Jesus, and you realize, “I don’t have to do this, but I get to; I want to. Do you see the difference? Forced obedience isn’t love. Doing something out of fear of condemnation is not love.
Love for God only begins when we realize how free, how willing, and how complete God loved us first, and it’s the Holy Spirit who reveals that love to your spirit. It’s the Advocate who breathlessly runs alongside you through Word and sacrament to remind you and teach you that you are secure in God’s grace and forgiveness. It’s only when that happens that you can finally begin to respond to your God freely, willingly, without guilt, and without fear because you are at peace with him.
And this is a peace that – of all other religions – only Christianity offers. A peace found not in here, not in anything I do, but there on a cross. After all, sinners living happily ever after in heaven because God was willing to die…for us? That’s a story only the Spirit can lead us to believe, and that’s the Spirit that dwells in you. Just think of how that Spirit has changed you! You can believe. You can love. You can live the teaching of Jesus but, above all, you can see the real peace you have right now with God, and the eternal peace you will have with him forever in heaven. Amen.