Come Holy Spirit

John 16:13 - "When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come."

When we come to a text such as this, we must be prepared to wrestle with it, as Jacob wrestled with an angel, until we receive our blessing. On its face the text is clear. Jesus is going to be killed and his disciples are filled with grief and fear. Jesus tells them that the Holy Spirit of God will come and guide them, and will tell them what is to come. The Spirit has not yet come, because Jesus is still with them; but Jesus assures them that they will not be left alone for long.

This promise is transmitted to all who have faith through the gospels recorded within the early church. For those in the sacramental tradition of the Christian community, the presence of the Spirit is identified with the elements of the mass and icons of the Lord. For Protestants, the presence is in the preaching of the Word. Martin Luther wrote: "Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or have faith in him, or love him for our Lord, except as this is offered to us by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel." (Weimar Ausgabe 30:188 in Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, 98)

For Paul Tillich, the Spirit is the presence of God "in communities and personalities, grasping them, inspiring them, and transforming them." ("Spiritual Presence," The Eternal Now, 84) The Spirit is not the presence of God as Creator in all things, nor the presence of God as Lord, guiding and entering into history through the incarnation; but "God present to our spirit." This view does not contradict either the emphasis on sacrament or sermon, for these are both ways that the Spirit of God inspires the human spirit. However, Tillich's focus is the person — you and me and all those who seek to be faithful, such as the disciples in our text.

In this view the presence of the Spirit in us and our faith communities gives us courage, calls us to fellowship, leads us to pray and worship, comforts us in our suffering, gives us hope when we despair, makes us feel guilty when we are unfaithful, and offers us forgiveness when we repent. All this, and much more, might be described as gifts of the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah speaks of seven gifts — wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and the fear of God, which came to be depicted in the life of the church as seven doves, or seven lamps, or seven flames-signs of hope and inspiration. (Isaiah 11:2) The apostle Paul enumerates still more gifts in his letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth (Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12-13).

Of course, all these gifts of the Spirit might be ascribed today to other causes: one's genes or early childhood experiences, the love of parents and siblings, the positive role models of teachers, and other social and psychological circumstances. In this modern way of talking about human experience, we readily attribute our feelings and convictions to causes other than the Spirit of God.

Paul Tillich suggests that our modern experience of the absence of God, at least in our way of thinking if not in our hopes and our dreams, is also the work of the Spirit. We are not the cause of God's absence, he argues, but "the Spirit of God hides God from our sight. No resistance against the Spirit, no indifference, no doubt can drive the Spirit away. But the Spirit that always remains present to us can hide itself, and this means that it can hide God." ("Spiritual Presence," 88)

It may seem strange to say that our modern way of conceiving life, without God, might be God's will. Nonetheless, there is truth in the old saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Might it not be that in our time the Spirit of God is hiding God from us, so that we might experience the empty space within us which belongs to God? Might it not be that, like the disciples in our text, we must miss God before we can respond to the Spirit and let it guide us?

The cross, the most profound symbol of the absence of God in the Christian tradition, is the work of the Spirit. "My God, my God," Jesus cried on the cross, "why have you forsaken me." (Mark 15:34) From the perspective of Easter, we know that the day of crucifixion is Good Friday, not "Bad Friday." It is not simply a day of death and injustice, but an icon of God's absence that directs us to God's presence. The gospel message is that we must die to be born again, that we must shoulder the cross if we would find new life in Christ. This is what the Spirit of Truth declares, but we will not respond until we have missed the presence of God. This is the key to understanding the things that are to come, the key to the kingdom of heaven, the way to the eternal now.

In our time, the things that are to come are described to us constantly by social scientists and other commentators on public affairs. It is not far-fetched to compare them to fortune-tellers, for with the same self-assurance they dazzle us with their predictions. Yet, like fortune-tellers, they see only what they are able to see, only what their crystal ball reveals, only what their research methodology makes clear. They do not see the cross, and so they do not see the kingdom of God and new life in the Spirit. They have not the ears to hear, nor the eyes to see.

Are Christians any more able than social scientists to declare the things that are to come? Can we read the signs of the times? Do we have words that convey the Spirit of Truth? 

Paul Tillich suggests: "The Spirit must give us new words, or revitalize old words to express true life. We must wait for them; we must pray for them; we cannot force them. But we know, in some moments of our lives, what life is. We know that it is great and holy, deep and abundant, ecstatic and sober, limited and distorted by time, fulfilled by eternity. And if the right words fail us in the absence of God, we may look without words at the image of him in whom the Spirit and the Life are manifest without limits." ("Spiritual Presence," 91)

With all people of faith we declare that the things that are to come will not be determined by the social and political events of our time, that the crises of our world are not the last word, and that the destruction of peoples and the degradation of nature are not the final act of creation's play. Let us rather lift up the cross, so that we might make our way from death to life. 

We confess that we miss God, that we need healing, and that we long for the peace of Christ. We would be guided by the Spirit of God into all truth. © Robert Traer 2016