The spirit of truth

21 May 2017
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Easter 6A (RCL)
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

An odd theme runs through all three readings (and even the psalm). Each of them uses the setting of a trial to advance its point: Paul is brought to the Areopagus, for a trial much like Socrates'; 1 Peter exhorts us always to be ready to give a defense of the hope that is in us; and in John, Jesus promises us another Advocate (defense attorney), the spirit of truth. I suppose if we are not living our Christianity in a way that brings us at least into implicit conflict with the values of the surrounding culture, we’re not doing it right.

The passage from 1 Peter in particular envisions the hearers of the sermon being maligned for their good conduct in Christ. There are some translation issues in this passage. In the NRSV, the hearers are exhorted to keep their consciences clear, so that when they are maligned, it is their adversaries who will be shamed. It is not obvious to me how a clear conscience (as we understand it) will shame anyone. The word suneidesis, which is here translated “conscience” means something closer to “awareness” or “consciousness.” And the word translated clear is agathos, which can only mean “good.” So, this opening phrase might be translated, “Keep your awareness good.” Maybe, keep an awareness of the good. And at the end of the passage, baptism is not a washing away of dirt from the body, but an appeal to God from or for an awareness of the good. If we see the good in everything and are then maligned for our good conduct in Christ, that would be shame on our maligners. And that good, like the hope referred to, resides in us, not as individuals, but as a community. That’s the connection between the court-room defense and Noah’s ark — Noah kept a perception of the good, and was in the end proved right.

Paul likewise is brought up on trial for preaching foreign deities (Jesus and the Resurrection). He makes his defense by pointing out the Athenians own willingness to worship unknown deities. He uses a Stoic argument (that the deity has appointed the times and boundaries of the various kingdoms) in defense of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. He adduces this argument to show that there will be a judgment (rather than simply a disintegration of the cosmos). This is his account of the Christian hope.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises another Advocate (which can mean something like defense attorney), who will take our part, indeed the Spirit of Truth. John’s Gospel works by linking one saying to another. This is the first instance of the word Paraclete (translated Advocate or Comforter), and in this instance, it is associated with the Spirit of Truth. At Jesus’ own trial, Pilate will ask, “What is truth?” Jesus is giving a completely different understanding here of truth. For Pilate, truth was forensic — what could count in a trial. For us, it is a spirit that makes its dwelling with us. Jesus begins this passage with the statement, “If (since) you love me, you will keep my commandments.” He has just given the new commandment, that we are to love one another as he loved us, entrusting our lives to (laying down our lives for) another. The Spirit of Truth is this spirit of mutual trust, just as Jesus has entrusted his life to us.

And when John finally narrates the gift of the Spirit, it is in the closed room, when Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them that the sins of whoever they forgive are forgiven them. The spirit of truth and mutual self-entrusting allows us to forgive sins. Pilate’s truth demands that we prove our worth and righteousness to the world in order to be acquitted. Jesus’ truth asks to risk entrusting ourselves to one another. And if we do, then on that day, we will see that Jesus is in the Father and we are in him and he is in us. We will recognize that we are participating in the divine life.

This is the way of living that should be constantly bringing us into conflict with the righteousness of the world. The world wants forensic truth; the world demands that we prove our worth. Living as Christians invites us to love one another to the point of entrusting our lives to one another, because that is precisely what God is doing in Christ, entrusting the divine self to us. The world’s gods do not live this way.

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