21th of May 2017 Nijmegen 5.00 p.m.
Psychologists talk of our bodies preparing for ‘fight or flight’ when we are confronted with stress. Our bodies produce adrenalin which gets us ready to do either. In a recent tv-programme on stress a neuroscientist outlined a strategy to help us to cope. He said adrenalin produces the emotions of danger and excitement. They both feel the same. So he told the tv reporter, who was faced with going down a long zip-wire just to say to herself, ’I am excited’ just before jumping off. This simple trick enabled her not to feel afraid but rather to make the descent feel exciting!
I think the disciples – here in the passage from John 14 – found themselves in a situation that we might be able to identify with. They were tense, nervous, and anxious. It had just begun to sink in that Jesus could well be departing this earth, leaving the task of church building, gift giving, Spirit filling, in their hands. Anxiety started to eat away at their confidence when confronted with the probable absence of Jesus.
So the passage speaks loudest to me about the fact that God does not make our lives stress free, but rather when we encounter anxiety he has provided an advocate, a helper, a companion, a comforter, a friend – the Spirit of truth. So maybe rather that say ‘I am afraid’ we should say to ourselves ‘I have the Holy Spirit with me’ in order to cope.
So we have Jesus’ promise that the Paralclete, Advocate, Spirit of Truth comes to our help. But what sort of Truth is the Spirit mediating?
We may think of truth in a number of ways. Commonly we use it to mean that something is right or correct, maybe like in arithmetic. Or we speak of a story being true, in that it equates with what we already believe; it matches up with our view. Or we might talk of a true match, when two people are really suited to each other. Or we might talk of a true alignment or fit; something which I never seemed to be able to do when I was making joints in woodwork classes at school. Maybe that is why I took music instead; I could sing in tune, hit the true note !
There is another way of understanding the concept of truth.The underlying Greek word which is translated into English as “truth” is alethea. “Lethe” is one of the five rivers in the underworld of Greek mythology. It is from this river in Hades that the dead drank in order to forget their past. It leads to oblivion.
In 137 BC a Roman army involved in the conquest of Spain had to cross the River Limia on the border with present day Portugal. The superstitious soldiers believed this to be the mythical river Lethe and they refused to cross for fear of oblivion of forgetting. Their general Decimus Junius Brutus crossed over before them and then called to them by name to show he had not forgotten them. They then crossed in confidence.
The myth of the river Lethe occurs again in the Divine Comedy by Dante. In Purgatory Chapter XXXI he is immersed in the river Lethe so that he may wipe out the memory of sin.
Later in the20th century, the philosopher Heidigger reflects on the word lethe and speaks of it as ‘concealment of being’. He then goes on to talk about the opposite a-letheia. In Greek, an initial letter “a” is like our English “un.” And so “alethea” – truth – has the sense of: waking up; remembering; overcoming oblivion and stupor; being alive and vital; not being deceived by false ideas or desires or scams; SEEING what is as it actually is. Heidegger speaks of it revealing the deepest truths about ourselves and of the world. Surely that is what Jesus is telling us when he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, The Spirit of Truth.
Jesus leaves, but we stay to continue the work God first entrusted to him. We are not abandoned; we know that his promises are true. They match up to our experience of him as revealed in scripture. He is with us showing us how we can become more true to him in how we live. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
Jesus leaves, but we stay. So when I become anxious about how my sermon will be received, or tense at how the move will go, or just get a bit unsure about what the future holds in Walsall, I am greatly reassured that my Comforter walks with me. He is my Advocate – he believes in me, he gives me a glowing character reference, he speaks up for me, he breathes life into my humble efforts to serve God – and because of the Spirit of truth I begin to believe in myself. So may it be for you in this congregation and community. Amen.