John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
There are a lot of things in the air at the Saint Paul Farmers Market in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nestled downtown among the high rises of that smaller of the Twin Cities, the farmers market boasts local produce grown within 50 miles of St. Paul. Floating on the air are the typical city smells like car exhaust, hot asphalt, and yesterday’s trash; but at the market you can also smell fresh brewed coffee, fresh baked donuts, frying eggs, cut flowers, and kettle corn. Through the air you can hear the sounds of live music: acoustic guitars, fiddles, and mandolins; you can hear friends, couples, and families all out to do some morning browsing and shopping; you can hear languages from around the world: English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali. Every week in the spring and summer, Isabel and I would go to the St. Paul Farmers Market to get our weekly groceries. We experienced all these things in the air at the farmers market. But there was something else floating in the air that we didn’t expect and rarely noticed: the Holy Spirit.
So who, exactly is the Holy Spirit? We don’t talk about her very much (by the way, there’s a ancient tradition of referring to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms, so I’m going to do that here). But maybe “who” is the wrong question to ask about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit seems to be less a noun and more a verb. The Holy Spirit is action, movement, change. The Father and the Son are defined by their status. But the Holy Spirit is defined by her action. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus calls her the Advocate. That comes from the Greek word, parakletos, which can be translated as the one who pleads before a judge, an advocate, a comforter, a helper, a teacher, a guide, an assistant, an intercessor, a companion. The word comes from two Greek words: parawhich means to come along side, and kletos which means to call. So the Holy Spirit is the one who is called to come along side. The Holy Spirit is the one who comes along side you in your time of need.
We see the most classic example of this today in our reading from Acts. The disciples all are suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire spring up from out of their heads, and they’re able to preach the gospel to an international crowd of people they wouldn’t have been able to communicate with before. The events of that Pentecost 2000 years ago are miraculous, but they illustrate well what the Spirit does for the believer. The Spirit comes to rest on or in the believer, offering a host of things: comfort, guidance, and companionship to name a few.
In our gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples what it looks like when the Spirit shows up. It seems that the Spirit’s main job is to testify to Jesus. Toward the middle of the reading, Jesus starts unpacking what that testimony will look like. He says this, “And when [the Spirit] comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” Now if Jesus had left it there, it might have been pretty easy to understand. But then he goes on to explain what he means and his explanations are…not so helpful. He says, “about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
Say what now? When I first read through that list I had no idea what any of those things had to do with any of those things. What does sin have to do with belief? What does righteousness have to do with not seeing Jesus anymore? What does judgment have to do with the ruler of this world? And what does the Holy Spirit have to do with any of that?
Here’s how I see it. I think that Jesus is trying to show the disciples what it’s going to look like when the Spirit starts testifying. In John’s gospel, sin is understood as a lack of relationship with God. So when Jesus says that the Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin because the world doesn’t believe in him, he’s saying that the Spirit will come and testify to a relationship with Jesus, ending sin by helping the world come to believe in, or better yet, have a relationship with Jesus.
Next, the Spirit will prove the world wrong about righteousness. And she will do this, Jesus says, because Jesus is going to the Father and the disciples will see him no longer. This is the toughest one to understand—what does righteousness have to do with Jesus going back to the Father? The word “righteousness” shows up only twice in John’s gospel, both times in this passage, and he’s not using it in the typical sense of the word. Jesus links righteousness to his return to the Father. Another way to understand the word “righteousness” here might be “vindication”. If Jesus is to be received back into the arms of the Father through his death, resurrection, and ascension, then that means that Jesus is vindicated or justified or proved right in all that he said and did. If the Father accepts Jesus, then that means that Jesus is really who he said he is.
So what does all this have to do with the Holy Spirit? Well, the Holy Spirit testifies to who Jesus is. The Holy Spirit reveals to us this vindicated Jesus, this Jesus who was and is everything that he claimed to be. Even though we may be inclined to doubt that Jesus is who he said he is, the work of the Holy Spirit is to prove us wrong about that doubt and show us that Jesus is exactly who he said he is.
Finally, we hear that the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about judgment because the ruler of this world has been condemned. Essentially I think Jesus is saying here that the Holy Spirit will help to expose what Jesus is not. There are things in this world that are of God (things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control) and there are things in this world that are not of God (like unfaithfulness, idolatry, hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, violence, abuse, and division). The Holy Spirit helps us to discern what is of God and what is not.
So the Holy Spirit’s ultimate job is to testify to Jesus and to help us testify to Jesus. And she does this by doing three things: drawing us into a deeper relationship with Jesus, showing us who Jesus is, and then helping us discern what is godly and what is not.
As Isabel and I walked the two blocks from our car to the St. Paul Farmers market, we passed a homeless man. We’d been to the market many times before but we hadn’t seen him. The first time, we walked past him, doing our best to avoid eye contact with him. With each passing week, that became harder and harder. We would pass him and then experience a sense of guilt for not having done something, anything at all. So finally, one time, we gave him some change. But again we were left feeling like we could do more. I felt reasonably confident that he was not taking advantage of people. After all, I had seen him eat produce off the sidewalk that someone had just dropped. Eventually, Isabel and I decided to go a step farther. We stopped and asked him if he liked coffee. And, in addition to our change, we brought him a cup of coffee from the market, too. The week after that we brought him not only coffee, but a sandwich. But not long after that, he stopped showing up. I don’t know what happened to him.
I don’t tell you this story to give myself a pat on the back or to say that Isabel and I are worthy of the Nobel Prize. In the grand scheme of things, we did basically nothing for this unfortunate man. But I do think the Holy Spirit was at work in our interactions with him.
At first, as we walked right on past him, we felt a sense of guilt. There was even a time when I crossed the street and passed him on the other side so that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not giving him anything. But of course, I just felt guilty about crossing to the other side of the street. You see, in avoiding this man, I could avoid the realization that he is a human being; if I were to walk past him, look him in the eye, talk to him, I wouldn’t be able to deny his humanity any longer; and then I’d become responsible for his well-being; and then, I would have to do something. That’s exactly what I didn’t want; and that’s exactly what the Spirit wanted for me.
I believe the guilt that we felt as we walked by that man was a gentle nudge from the Holy Spirit. It was that third action of the Holy Spirit, the one that testifies to what is and what is not of God. The Spirit was telling us, “Hey, this is one of God’s beloved children, worthy of God’s love and therefore worthy of your love.” The guilt that we felt was a reminder that this wasn’t just “some homeless guy.” He was a man with a name and a history, maybe with a family, with kids, and he was hurting and in need of our help. Passing him by without paying him any notice was an ungodly act.
After we were willing to acknowledge our guilt and work to change our behavior, the Spirit drew us into that second action, revealing to us that Jesus is who he claimed to be. And in that particular moment, Jesus was that homeless man. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to him. Surely this man was among the least. And so whatever we did to him, we were doing to Jesus. If we ignored him, we ignored Jesus. If we cared for him, we cared for Jesus. In our case, we brought Jesus black coffee and a bagel sandwich. But we could have done more. We could have stayed. Sat with him. Drank coffee with him. Learned more about his story. Saw him as a real human being and not just some stereotype of the cityscape. Even still, however, for a brief moment, the Holy Spirit was able to show us the face of Christ in this man.
This whole experience, I think drew us into a closer relationship with Jesus because it showed us a little bit more of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That’s the first function of the Holy Spirit, to draw us into a deeper relationship with Jesus. I won’t go so far as to presume that our minimal ministry to this man drew him into a deeper relationship with Jesus, but maybe it did. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.
The Spirit’s ultimate job is to testify to Jesus. The Spirit spends all of her time pointing to Jesus and getting us to point to Jesus. That’s what she did for Isabel and me on that sidewalk in St. Paul. She pointed to Jesus. She showed us Jesus standing cold and hungry on that street corner. She gently nudged us to step in, not just to give him cash or food, but acknowledge him as a beautiful child of God. She urged us to treat him with love, to see him as a whole person, not just some homeless guy.
On this Pentecost, know that the Spirit is out there on the air. You can’t always see what she’s doing. You won’t always see her coming, but she’s there, always pointing you toward Jesus, always prodding you into a deeper relationship with Jesus, always showing you what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So when you feel that gentle prod, when you feel the urge to step in and act, when you get the sense that there’s something bigger than yourself happening: stop. Listen. It just might be the Spirit pointing you toward Jesus.