Sunday 15th May 2016, Pentecost, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
St John’s Gospel is mystifying. At least for those who want logic and clear statements. And today’s reading comes high on my list of mystifying parts of John’s Gospel. Especially three verses that I’ve generally avoided preaching on or even trying to understand.
But those verses come in today’s Gospel reading, and I thought the struggle to make some sense of them might be enlightening. These are the verses:
'When the advocate comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 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 judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.’
What’s obvious is that the passage is laden with court room imagery: the ‘advocate’; the word for ‘prove wrong’ is a legal word, ‘righteousness’ could just as easily be translated ‘justice’; ‘judgement’ and ‘condemned’ are obvious.
So I hope you’ll let me play for a bit, and imagine a courtroom. You’ll have to excuse any mistakes; I’ve hardly ever been in a court room, and make no claims to be an expert about their processes. But I want you to imagine that the Holy Spirit is the defence attorney, and he’s trying to win the case by demolishing the prosecutions case. And I’m adding one thing to the mix. I’m translating the word sin as crime. In the original this isn’t part of the court room language, but we can recruit it.
'Now, m’ Lord, the prosecution is working with an entirely out of date definition of crime. They allege that there’s some list of misdemeanours and that so long as you avoid them you’re innocent, and anyone who falls into these faults is a criminal. But you’ll remember that our new constitution, criminal behaviour got redefined. There was a test case of a Pharisee who stood there and listed his own good qualities, whilst some swindler just hung his head, admitted his guilt and asked for the court’s mercy. Only the judge ended up condemning the Pharisee for the crime of self-congratulation, and acquitted and swindler despite everything. Well, m’ Lord, the point being that the only crime recognised by the court is the arrogant assumption of innocence. Anyone ready to throw themselves on the mercy of the court with faith and trust – that person gets to go free.
'Then, m’ Lord, the prosecution also has an outdated account of justice – particularly in relying on the trial and punishment of Jesus of Nazareth as an example of justice done. In fact under the new constitution, the case was judged to be a miscarriage of justice, and Jesus is now liberated from death row and living out of sight with his Father, where the lynch mob that the prosecution represents can no longer find him.
'Finally, m’ Lord, the prosecution also has a faulty view of judgement. Because what they’re failing to tell you is that after that business with Jesus, the Ruler of this world was himself the subject of legal action, and was condemned by the court of the new constitution as an impostor, a liar, and a fraud. And yet here you are still trying to mount cases against the innocent of the new constitution, when it’s you who are the guilty one.'
Well, you get the picture. And as a picture of what’s going on in this passage it might be somewhat engaging – or maybe not! But so what? What’s it got to do with us and today.
What I think is clear from John’s Gospel is that God’s judgement, which strands of Christian theology reserve until the end of time, also is happening day by day and now, through the work of the Holy Spirit. And it’s a judgement that runs not only through our time, but also through out hearts. The scene which I described is going on within each of us. There are aspects of us that are still ready to listen to the Ruler of this World – the impulses that justify us putting the pursuit of wealth, comfort, or rectitude before anything else. But at our deepest level we belong to Christ, we are grafted into Jesus, who calls us to the renunciation of privilege, ease, and the right to be admired. And without the Holy Spirit, the battle between these two Kingdoms, authorities, standards, would be a soulless attempt at self-improvement through willpower; almost always a recipe for disaster and shipwreck on the rocks of sin.
It is the Holy Spirit that rescues us from this pointless struggle, this attempt at doing the right thing by hanging on to goodness every more tightly, in the hope that we’ll just about have enough strength to keep clinging on til the end.
The Holy Spirit rescues us from this, by speaking for us and in us, by speaking words that liberate us from the account of badness and goodness and criticism that we have internalised – that is proving us wrong about sin, and righteousness and judgement. We need to hear in our hearts that the only badness is thinking we’re just so great, and the only goodness is admitting our faults and crying for God’s mercy, and the only judgement is one that says you are free, you are forgiven, you are loved, you are my delight.
When we truly hear those words, the words of Jesus spoken by the Spirit in our hearts, then we can start to listen less to the words that tell us, you’re not good enough, work harder in order be worthy, make sure you blow your own trumpet, and take easy pot shots at everybody else’s reputation along the way, O and make sure you keep score – of every slight you’ve ever endured, and every good thing you’ve ever done – you’re going to need it as evidence one day.
But God says, ‘you are free, you are forgiven, you are loved, you are my delight’. More than that, God says, the things you’ve done wrong – they are the opportunity to experience the joy of forgiveness. Every time you’ve suffered injury, that you’re chance to join in sharing God’s forgiveness. Every moment you’ve felt out of control, that’s a moment to trust and learn to rely on God – to know that you can’t manipulate or order the world to your will – but that’s OK. And every time you’ve lacked words, well then the Spirit speak our articulacy beyond words in the depth of your being, ‘You are God’s beloved child’.
You see, even though we started with a court room – the metaphor is only of limited value. What’s really being spoken of is the deeper wisdom of relationship – of belonging, where the only sin is estrangement from God, the only righteousness love of God, and the only judgement is that God loves us without reserve.