It is for this reason that we ask, "What might the author have meant by this?" rather than, "What might Jesus have meant by this?" when we read the gospel narratives. Jesus is a character in a story, and we have imagined for our examination of John that Jesus is an exemplar, a representative of an idealized version of ourselves. There are some instances, however, in which it is obvious that the author is writing about something specific to his own community of persecuted believers. John 16 is one such instance.
We have just read the bit about the world hating the disciples. The author follows this by indicating that the followers of Jesus will be ostracized from Jewish places of worship and community, and that they will be killed by people who think they are being righteous. These things had already happened to the author's community by the time the gospel was written. Placing these predictions in Jesus' mouth helped to legitimize the experience of the author's community as part of a divine plan. "If Jesus knew about all of this terror ahead of time, then we can trust that he knew we would survive."
These words, then, are not really to Jesus' disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. They are to a community of people struggling to survive in a world that seemed highly committed to harming them.
There have always been these people, and the descendants of the gospel writer's community have sometimes been on the side doing the persecuting. Africans were brought to the United States as slaves and treated as less than human, and some of the people in power justified it by their Christian scriptures. Even today, the educational and justice systems in place in the U.S. seem orchestrated to persecute people with darker skin tones. And many people think they are being righteous in perpetuating injustice. Some of those people are Christian. The author of John might suggest that such people have never known God or Jesus.
The LGBT community is another group facing constant persecution in many parts of the world, including the United States. Progress has been made, but there are still places of worship and community where LGBT folks are ostracized. There are still people who inflict harm on LGBT people and think they are doing God's work. The author of John might suggest that such people have never really known God or Jesus, else they would never be able to hate so intensely.
The author of John also provides an answer, and surprisingly the answer is that people do not need Jesus. In fact, in this passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he must be out of the picture so that they will learn to trust an "Advocate" or "Helper" within themselves. The author of John suggests that this internal guidance system cannot function if Jesus remains, perhaps because the disciples would never learn to trust their own sense of what it is to love radically, to live with purpose and integrity to their own principles, to be agents of transformation.
Whether there was ever an actual Jesus or not, the example set by the gospel narrative is not that far off from the guidance of our deepest, most noble selves. We know what fear looks like, and we know what love looks like. We know what it is to be guided by our anxiety, and we know what it looks like to be guided by solid values. We lift up people who live with purpose and intention because we think of them as extraordinary, but the truth is that it could be very ordinary human behavior to live with a sense of purpose, in impeccable alignment with a clear set of guiding principles.
Integrity need not seem so extraordinary.
Our human fears do not have to carry more influence than our human connection.
Our anxiety need not be more powerful than our ability to love and thrive together.
We do not need a messiah.
We need to pay attention to our own selves, our internal sense of what is ultimately true about ourselves and others, once we have cleared away all of the irrational fear and anxiety.
We are so accustomed to listening to our anxiety that many of us have forgotten what the voice of actual truth sounds like.
We don't need a savior.
We just need to learn to listen to ourselves better.
And that takes courage.
Integrity seems so extraordinary now because living by clear principles is counter-cultural. In many ways we are addicted to anxious reactivity.
It takes courage to stand for something besides fear.
It takes courage to establish values in our lives that acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
It takes courage to recognize that violence and entitlement always come from a place of fear.
It takes courage to stand calmly in the midst of reactive people and not be swayed by their anxiety.
And no one else can be courageous for you.
No one else can dismantle your fear for you.
No one else can have integrity for you.
This is the human work of human beings, not work to entrust to a supernatural.
Others can support and encourage and empower you, but the work is yours to do.
It's what human beings do when they are ready to be fully human.
So, are you ready?