Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Spirit of Truth” John 14:15-21
Mother’s Day became a national holiday in 1914 after decades of advocacy and letter writing by West Virginian Anna Jarvis. Anna wanted to honor the unsung love and hard work of mothers everywhere. She was especially inspired by her own mother Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, a lifelong advocate for peace, healthcare, and compassion for vulnerable people.
Ann Maria had eleven children, but only four lived to adulthood. The others died of communicable diseases, like typhoid and scarlet fever, that were prevalent in her Appalachian homeland. In the mid-1850s, Ann Maria organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs to combat the unsanitary living conditions that bred disease. When the Civil War broke out, her community straddled the border of North and South, with local families supporting both the Union and Confederate causes. When solders at a nearby prisoner of war camp began to die from the same diseases that had taken the lives of her children, Jarvis and her volunteers took action. Work parties were organized to address the unsanitary conditions and women were urged to care for all prisoners, regardless of their national sympathies. After the war, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis’s work turned to peacemaking as she organized mothers of former Union and Confederate soldiers to celebrate “Mothers’ Friendship Day” to mollify ongoing Union-Confederate rivalries.
After Ann Maria’s death in 1907, her daughter Anna organized a campaign to establish a national day to honor mothers, like her own. She urged supporters to wear a white carnation (her mother’s favorite flower), dine with family, take their mothers to church, or write letters to their mothers. Anna launched the first Mother’s Day celebration on May 10, 1908 at the St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, WV. Within a few short years, many churches, towns, and even states had started celebrating Mother’s Day. Six years later, President Wilson signed a proclamation, establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day forever.
When it comes to God, we often refer to God as Father (like Jesus did) and we also refer to Jesus as the Son. Some people have long argued that the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is feminine. Indeed, faithful people have been debating the question of the gender of the Holy Spirit for eons.
Our Jewish ancestors in the faith used feminine language for the Spirit. The wind from God that hovered over the waters of chaos in creation—Ruach in Hebrew—is definitely feminine. So is the Spirit of Wisdom—Ruach Khodesh. She is described in Proverbs 3, standing in the marketplace and calling us to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. Likewise, the Shekinah, the glory and presence of God that was seen in the Tabernacle and the Temple, is feminine.
The jury is out on whether Jesus characterized the Spirit as having gender. He sometimes used the male term Parakletos – meaning Advocate or Counselor – to describe the Spirit as he did in today’s scripture reading. But Jesus more often used the term Pneuma for Spirit, which is gender-neutral.
The earliest churches, the Eastern Orthodox and Syriac, taught that the Spirit is feminine. Early church fathers like Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus led that charge. The feminine understanding of the Spirit persists in those branches of Christianity today.
It wasn’t until relatively late, with the emergence of the Roman church, that the Holy Spirit became in their understanding, officially male, perhaps coinciding with the movement to limit the leadership of women as evangelists and pastors. The question seemed settled for the western church until the Reformation when our cousins in the Moravian Brethren, led by Count von Zinzendorf, reasserted the principle that the Spirit was decidedly feminine.
The debate rages on today. That titan of twentieth century biblical studies Jürgen Moltmann argued for the feminine Spirit. Messianic Jews, so well-grounded in the Hebrew scriptures, see the Spirit as their Jewish ancestors did—feminine. Our Presbyterian confessions use plenty of male language for that third person of the Trinity, yet our seminaries are always careful to point out the differing opinions of scripture and tradition. Even Vatican II couldn’t shift the Catholics away from their masculine understanding of the Spirit. And if you read William P. Young’s bestseller The Shack, or watched the blockbuster film version of the book, then you would have seen the Holy Spirit portrayed as a semi-transparent Asian woman named Sarayu, a Hindu name meaning refreshing wind. Lord, have mercy. What do you think about the Holy Spirit?
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus promised his friends that although he would soon be leaving them, he would send the Holy Spirit to abide with them always. It was the night of the Last Supper. Feet had been washed, the Passover supper dishes had been cleared away, and Judas had departed to betray his friend. Jesus shared a final discourse, speaking important words to help the disciples face the crisis that would soon be upon them. We, who know what it is like to lose a beloved parent or mentor or friend, can imagine the distress and worry that gripped Jesus’ listeners as they imagined a world without him in their midst.
Jesus assured his friends that they would not be orphaned. Another Advocate – the Holy Spirit – would come to lead them in understanding, obedience, and love. The Spirit would be the love and wisdom of Jesus that dwelled with them, helping them to obey his command to love God and one another. I would imagine that Jesus’ words sounded both consoling and puzzling to disciples who still struggled to understand that the Messiah would soon die.
In two weeks on Pentecost Sunday, we’ll gather before worship in the Great Hall to celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit. We’ll wear red and brandish our dry and brittle palms, left over from Palm Sunday. As our Pentecost fire consumes the palms, we’ll imagine the transformation of the disciples. Then we’ll process with singing into the sanctuary. It’s our Presbyterian nod to the Spirit, well-orchestrated and conducted decently and in order.
As Presbyterians, the Spirit may be our least-appreciated member of the Trinity. One Sunday while I was a seminarian, I was attending a Presbyterian church on the southside of Chicago that was experiencing an outpouring of the Spirit. I was intrigued to see what might transpire in worship until a young woman stood up in the middle of a good sermon and began to prophesy. Her eyes rolled back. She uttered strange words in a harsh voice and spoke in incomprehensible tongues until she fell over in the pew. I wasn’t sure if what I saw was the Spirit or mental illness. It was deeply uncomfortable, eerie, and puzzling. I suspect that the first disciples were equally ill-at-ease with this promise of a mysterious advocate that would come to them and live in them. Perhaps we share some of that discomfort this morning.
Jaime Clark-Soles, a New Testament scholar at the Perkins School of Theology, reminds us that Jesus’s words to his disciples regarding the coming Spirit were intended to be deeply pastoral and consoling—perhaps even a little bit mothering. She points out that Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate. Implied in this statement is the fact that Jesus is the first Advocate, so filled with love for us that he was willing to suffer death to reconcile us to God. Because the Spirit is another Advocate, we can trust that the Spirit also comes with the love of Jesus, with gifts of healing and peace, forgiveness and mercy. Because the Spirit transcends the limits of time and physicality, the Spirit grants us the same advantages that it granted to those first disciples. They were able to live and learn from Jesus first hand. We, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to hear and know the will and the way of Christ, here and now.
Perhaps on this Mothers’ Day, some of our Presbyterian discomfort with the Holy Spirit can be bridged if we embrace the feminine. I’m with Jesus; I think God and the Holy Spirit are beyond gender. But I also think the Holy Spirit is a lot like a good mother. The disciples probably would have felt a lot less worried about this coming Spirit if their thoughts turned to their own mothers or to other women of their day who were a lot like Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis, the inspiration for our first Mother’s Day.
We, too, can feel a little more at home with the Holy Spirit if we remember the love not only of Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis but also of the exceptional mothers that we have known. They have deeply loved their vulnerable children. They have worked for the health and wholeness of their local communities. They have reached out across social and political divides to simply help and heal and care. They have sought the peace and reconciliation of people alienated and estranged from one another. In the good mothering that we have known from our own mothers, grandmothers, big sisters, and those who have been like mothers to us, there is a taste of the Spirit’s work to bring blessing to our lives. Thank you, Jesus.
Maybe the Holy Spirit isn’t so scary after all. Happy Mother’s Day, my friends, Amen.
Craig R. Koester. “Commentary on John 14:15-21” in Preaching This Week, May 17, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Samuel Cruz. “Commentary on John 14:15-21” in Preaching This Week, May 21, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Jaime Clark-Soles. “Commentary on John 14:15-21” in Preaching This Week, May 27, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Amanda Onion. “Mother’s Day 2023” in History, April 29, 2011. Accessed online at https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/mothers-day
Heidi Stonehill. “The Forgotten History of Mother’s Day” in The Old Farmer’s Almanac, May 4, 2023. Accessed online at https://www.almanac.com/content/history-mothers-day
15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And 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.
18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
The inspiration for the first Mother’s Day Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis.
By Unknown author – http://explorepahistory.com/displayimage.php?imgId=1-2-1593, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40096292