Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 13th May 2007
The Two Hands of God (John 14:23-9)
The early Christian writer Irenaeus speaks of the Word and the Spirit as 'the two hands of God' (Contra Haereses IV, Praefatio). Throughout the whole of the Bible, Word and Spirit go together. It is by Word and Spirit acting together that the Father relates to the world. One of the key passages on which this idea is based is the passage we heard for our Gospel reading this morning.
There is nothing quite like this in the first three Gospels. Only in the Fourth Gospel, which is a sustained reflection on who Jesus is and what he has done, does he speak in this way. The passage we heard is taken from what Jesus says to his disciples on the night he is taken from them. Jesus is preparing them for his departure. He tells them that, 'Those who love me will keep my word.' Keep, of course, has two meanings. 'Those who love me will treasure what I have said', and 'Those who love me will obey what I have said'. The words of Jesus are to be treasured and obeyed because, as he tells them, they truly come from the Father. They are God's words. Jesus goes on to say that the Holy Spirit will bring his words to their memory. They will be able to gather them up, like the fragments after the feeding of the five thousand, and use them to feed many others. This is what John's Gospel is: a gathering up of the words of Jesus.
In this way Jesus associates the memory of his words with the coming of the Holy Spirit. He says that when he goes away the Advocate (the original word Paracletos means one who is called to stand with you, as an advocate does in court) will come. He actually says it is better for his disciples that he is going away because then the Father will send the Holy Spirit to them and the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth (16:13).
What we heard this morning is just a snippet, but a snippet in which it is made very clear that in the Fourth Gospel Word and Spirit are intimately linked. But this is clear throughout the Bible and the Christian life, even though I can only sketch how this morning.
It is clear at the beginning of the Bible in the story of the creation. When the earth is without form and void the spirit of God moves on the face of the waters (Gen 1:2). And then creation is uttered by God. God 'speaks' the creation from the moment God says 'Let there be light' (Gen 1:3). Again and again we hear 'And God said ...' but when it comes to making a human being we are told that 'God breathed into his nostrils the breath - or spirit - of life; and man became a living being.'(Gen 2:7). It is by word and spirit acting together that God brings creation into being.
It is by word and spirit acting together that the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures is formed. Suffice it to say that God's greatest gift to his people is the Law, which is to be found in the first five books of the Bible, and especially in the written tablets of the commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But he also gives to his people prophets who are filled with the spirit of God and who recall Israel to the word of the Law. The Law, which is fundamentally God's written word, and the Prophets, who speak with the power of God's spirit, work together to keep God's people on the right track.
The same is true in the ministry of Jesus. The Fourth Gospel begins by identifying Jesus with the Word of God. Jesus is himself God' living Word to us. In the Prologue, echoing the story of creation, the writer says, 'In the beginning as the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (John 1::1) and then the whole Prologue builds towards the climax where he says, 'And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth' (John 1:14). It is clear that when he is talking about God's Word to humanity he is talking about Jesus. Then, when, in the same chapter, the author comes to tell the story of the ministry of Jesus he begins with his baptism, where, as John the Baptist bears witness, the Spirit descends upon Jesus, the living Word, and remains with him (John 1:32).
This coming together of Word and Spirit is a major theme throughout John's Gospel. We mirror it in the way we celebrate the eucharist this morning. In the first part we concentrate on the Word, which we hear in Scripture and on which we reflect through the preaching (praying that God's Spirit will enable us to understand what we hear). But then we move to the eucharistic prayer, where we remember the words of Jesus 'This is my body' and 'This is my blood' as we pray for the Spirit to descend on both the bread and the wine and on us, so that in the eucharist word and spirit come together to draw us into sharing in the very life of God.
But our celebration of the eucharist mirrors this passage in one more way. The passage we heard moves from word to spirit, and then moves on to Jesus' promise of peace: 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.' Just as the passage brings together an emphasis on the presence of Jesus through his words, and then an emphasis on the presence of Jesus through the spirit, and then on the gift of peace, so does our liturgy - though we celebrate the peace in preparation for sharing in the bread and the wine, not as the result of this sharing. In obedience to the word, we offer Christ's peace to one another. Trusting in the spirit, we experience the gift of peace among us.
This brings us very close to the identity of the Church, to what we are as Church. Our life together in the Church is a life of word and spirit, never one without the other. Only as we hold on to these two ways in which God relates to the world can we experience the two hands of God enfolding us in God's peace; only through the power of God's word and God's spirit can we share in the new creation of God's peace. And that peace is of course to be shared with others. In our prayers, as a community of peace, we reach out to those we know to be in need of God's peace today. We need think only of Alan Johnston, missing for 62 days in Gaza now, and of his family; of little Madeleine McCann, missing for ten days, and her family; of all those who will be supported through our gifts this Christian Aid week. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is God's living Word, and the love of God, and the peace that is God's gift to us through his Holy Spirit be with them, and with us all (cf. 2 Cor 13:14). Amen