The Feast of Pentecost | By the Rev. Larry Carden
Poor Philip. In our Gospel reading, I'm afraid that he's become a casualty of the "dumb disciple motif." It's an old teaching device found in many traditions. You portray a disciple asking an obviously dumb question or, in this case, making a request that shows a misunderstanding of an important teaching. Philip says, "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied." The request is off the mark, but that's alright because it allows the teacher, in this case, Jesus, to set things right. So Jesus says to Philip, "After all this time with me, how can you have missed the point. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
Philip's off the mark request probably represents the frustration of some members within the late 1st century community where the Gospel of John originated. These people are probably tired of all this abstract talk of the Father dwelling within the incarnate son. And they've heard enough of this intangible Spirit, the Advocate. Incarnate divine presence is a fine idea, but they would like to see some action - a direct powerful manifestation of divine presence. They want Pentecostal fire to rain down from heaven and scorch their foes and persecutors.
But, of course, the point of the exchange between Jesus and Philip is that a direct divine self-manifestation has already been given. Jesus is God's self-manifestation in full - "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." And, moreover, all of Jesus' works and words are full manifestations of God. However, this time of direct manifestation is over. Jesus is leaving the world. But that doesn't mean that Jesus will abandon his followers. He promises a continuation of his presence through the coming of a figure called the Advocate, a personal, abiding spiritual presence who guides and instructs. Actually the text (John 14:16) speaks of this figure as "another Advocate." Presumably Jesus himself is the first Advocate. The second Advocate carries on the work of Jesus in his absence.
This promise of abiding spiritual presence offers assurance and inspires confidence in Christians whether in the 1st or the 21st century. But there's also a problem there. The passage in John 14 that we're looking at insists that the world can't receive, see or know of the Advocate, whose reality is grasped only through faith. But isn't faith always lived out in this blinded world that can't know the Advocate? This is the world we all know, the world of our loves, decisions, commitments, responsibilities, and acts. By faith we may cleave to the Advocate, but even so, we can't deny our citizenship in a world where this Advocacy is unseen and unknown.
The world in which we are citizens is given imagistic expression in our Old Testament reading - the old tale of the Tower of Babel. This is a place where people are chiefly involved with "making a name for themselves," by building towers that reach to the heavens. And these efforts as often as not end in confusion that degenerates into violence. And so we have a deluded autocrat who is trying to make a name for himself, by attacking and ravaging a sovereign neighboring country, savagely slaughtering its citizens and destroying its cities. And then there are those whose way of making their name known, is to dawn body-armor, arm themselves with readily available assault-rifles, and then massacre shoppers in a supermarket or children and their teachers in their classrooms.
We live in this world of Babel. We're touched by it despite ourselves. And we can't deny this world except by self-deception. So if we seek the abiding presence of God, we may find ourselves voicing Philip's request (maybe not so dumb after all): Show us your presence and we will be satisfied. Where is our Advocate? How do we know him/her amid this Babel?
Of course these pleading questions about God's presence seldom receive clear answers. Yet we raise them over and over again. They stem not only from our rage against the cruelty and violence of our world, but also from our longing for a different order of things, an order not dominated by towers of Babel, but by the peace which the world cannot give.
Philip claimed that if he were shown the Father, then he would be satisfied. Maybe, but maybe not. One particular manifestation tends always to want another one. Maybe what really matters is the dissatisfaction with a world that is always building towers of Babel - monuments constructed on confusion and violence. Maybe our dissatisfaction, rage, and longing are themselves signs of the Spirit, the Advocate who kindles the Pentecostal flame within us so that we may be strengthened and emboldened to do whatever we can to bring healing and hope to our sorrowing world.