Uniform 03.15.2015: A Presence in Absence

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John 16:4b-15

It started with a beautiful white dog, sprinkled with a spot or two of black. She had black ears, too, and we called her “Princess.” I was probably nine or ten the morning my father asked my siblings and me to sit on the couch. He told us that Princess had died during the night. The day before, she’d jumped and wagged and barked. Today, she was gone. There were other dogs after that, and we loved them and then lost them as well—to accidents on the road, to sickness, or to old age. It’s hard to put to words the feeling you get when something you’re used to is suddenly gone.

Loss is a part of life. As I grew older and faced the deaths of a great-grandmother and two grandparents, I spent a lot of time processing the shock of absence after long years of presence. Thus far, I feel fortunate to have experienced losses that were, for the most part, expected. Others endure losses beyond what I can fathom and must face the daily absence of someone they don’t know how to live without.

The disciples—Jesus’ friends who kept close enough quarters with him to see the most intimate parts of his life on earth—expected to lose Jesus. He told them often that the time was coming when he would be gone from their lives, at least as they knew him. It must have been terribly hard for them to listen to what he says in John 16. He was speaking in the “before time,” the time when they might take steps to prevent the horrible thing he said must happen. It was the time when things could go either way. It was the time for hope.

As Jesus told them over and over again that he must go, these friends must have looked at each other, their brows furrowed in concern. “Where are you going?” they asked him. And dear Jesus recognized the depth of their sadness (v. 6). He realized that it was pointless to keep talking to them about his leaving; they’d had all they could take at that point (v. 12).

But he still had something to offer them: the promise of his presence even in his absence. We wonder, as the disciples must have wondered, how can that be? If we try, we can begin to understand what Jesus meant. If you’ve lost someone—whether a pet, a friend, or a family member—maybe you know what it’s like to feel their presence in their absence.

I was going through the music in my piano bench when I discovered three small spiral-bound notebooks. Opening one of them, I saw my grandmother’s handwriting. She passed away suddenly in 2012, but here were her words, written by her own hand—notes about family gatherings, grocery lists, dates to remember. Her physical being is absent from my life, but I felt her presence strongly in that moment and recalled what she meant to me. I’ve had many other moments like these, when someone (or some animal) who is no longer present as a living being shows up mightily in spiritual form.

To his disciples and to us, Jesus promised an even grander presence in his absence: the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who will connect us directly to Jesus because it is a manifestation of him. When we look around, we can’t see Jesus Christ. He’s not walking beside us, preaching to us, teaching us, eating with us, or putting a hand of encouragement on our shoulders. At least not physically. But when we grow quiet and reach within our hearts, we can feel his presence in powerful ways, reminding us that we are never alone and keeping our minds on the things of God. Jesus walked the earth and was able to be extremely close to a very few. Now the Holy Spirit lives within every person who follows Christ, giving us all an intimate connection with our Savior.

Discussion

1. What losses have made a big impression on your life?
2. Have you ever felt someone’s presence even though they are absent? What was that like?
3. What do you think Jesus’ words in John 16 meant to the disciples as they faced the inevitability of his physical death? Has anyone ever spoken such words of assurance to you as you approached a difficult time?
4. Who is the Holy Spirit to you?
5. When have you felt Jesus’ presence most powerfully? How can you share that presence with other people?

Reference Shelf

16:4b-15, returns once again to the topic of the Paraclete. An inclusion holds the unit together: vv. 4b-7 (“I did not say these things to you from the beginning. . . . I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”) and vv. 12-15 (“I have yet many things to say to you. . . . When the Spirit of truth comes”). Jesus sends the Paraclete after his glorification. His coming will be to the disciples’ advantage. Two Paraclete sayings comprise this section (vv. 7-11; vv. 13-15). One deals with the Spirit’s relation to the world (vv. 7-11; as 15:26-27), the other with the Spirit’s role in the believing community (vv. 13-15). Together they define the benefits of the Spirit’s coming.

John 16:7-11 portrays the Paraclete as a prosecuting counsel in a cosmic trial involving Jesus and the unbelieving world:

When he [the Paraclete] comes, he will convict [elegksei ; cf. 8:46; 1 Cor 14:24; 2 Tim 4:21 the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment: of sin because they do not believe in me; of righteousness because I go to the Father and you see me no longer; of judgment because the ruler of this
world has been judged.

The prosecuting counsel will convict the world on three counts: sin, righteousness, and judgment. The explanation given of the three counts offers not the content of sin, righteousness, and judgment (e.g., of sin in that they do not believe) but rather the ground of conviction (e.g., of sin because they do not believe). Read in this way, the world is convicted by the Spirit of prophecy: (a) of sin because the world does not believe in Jesus and that is the essence of sin in John; (b) of righteousness because, being glorified, Jesus’ righteousness is vindicated by God (cf. 1 John 2:29; 3:7; 1 Tim 3:16); (c) of judgment because the ruler of this world has already been judged, making judgment of his domain, the world, certain (cf. 12:31; 1 John 2:13-14; 5:18). The situation presupposed is much like that reflected in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25. The whole church has assembled and outsiders and unbelievers enter; the prophesying that is taking place results in conviction of unbelievers, who then fall on their faces and worship God. In this role, the Paraclete confronts the world (as in 15:26-27).

Reference

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005) 226-27.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.

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