May 17, 2020

“You Are Not Alone”


Yesterday morning my wife Paula and I went and did something we haven’t done for months. We went out to eat at our favorite breakfast stop, Brother’s Restaurant. The last time we were there was on March 14th, right before things began to shut down due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Going back yesterday was weird and exciting at the same time. When we got into the restaurant, I will say there was a different kind of spirit in the air. The familiar wait staff was there, but they were wearing masks and obviously a bit nervous. In addition, normally on a Saturday morning, the place is packed. Yesterday, there was only one other couple in the place beside us. The spirit of that place, normally festive, exuberant was replaced by a more hesitant, tentative one.


The spirit of a place is something we are all familiar with. Spirit in one sense equates to a certain feeling about a particular place. For example, the Spirit of the sanctuary is different now than when it is full of people. The Spirit of Ashland right now is markedly different than it was before the pandemic. Rather than a lively, bustling downtown, the streets are for the most part empty.


So the concept of spirit is something we can experience and are familiar with. What about the Holy Spirit? I think, especially for us as Presbyterians, the Holy Spirit is a bit uncomfortable - it is more than a feeling about place, but other than that, we’re not sure what to think about it and how it works. Truthfully I rarely preach upon this 3rd person of the Trinity. Theologian Karoline Lewis says, “There are reasons why we rarely hear sermons on the Holy Spirit unless it is Pentecost Sunday or there is direct mention of the third person of the Trinity in the text itself. If we are honest, a lot of us have a rather dysfunctional pneumatology. We don’t quite know what to do with or think about the ‘shy member’ of the Trinity.”


In today’s passage from John, however, Jesus speaks of the importance of the Holy Spirit, gives this shy member of the Trinity a name, paraclete, “Paraclete” in Greek, and tells us it will be with us forever. Are we content in keeping the Spirit at arm’s length, as just a vague presence of something we cannot explain? Let us see if we can explore this divine gift from God so that we can perhaps know and understand a bit more the unknowable, unfathomable Creator of us all.


First, the setting for today’s passage is important, helps put things into context. This is part of Jesus’ farewell address to the disciples and takes place in the Upper Room. Jesus is giving the disciples His final instructions about life and faith before he goes to the cross. He has told them to believe in God and in him as well, that he goes to prepare a place for them as he defeats death through his resurrection, and that if they have seen and known him, they have seen and known God as well. Then comes today’s passage, where Jesus begins with love. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments." What are Jesus’ commandments in the gospel of John? Jesus gives only a single commandment in John and it occurs in the chapter just before ours: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (13.34-35). He reiterates this in the chapter just after ours: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:12-13). We see, then, this overwhelming, repetitive, circular emphasis on love.


Then Jesus tells them he will ask God for another advocate to be with the disciples forever. Theologian Jaime Clark- Soles writes, “What appeared to be bad news to the disciples, namely Jesus' departure from them, turned out to be the best of news for both them and us. While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited to one locale and one person, himself. Upon his departure, his disciples are given the Spirit and moved from apprentices to full, mature revealers of God's love. And this happens not just to the first disciples, but all those who would come later, those who never saw the historical Jesus." Just what is this Advocate, this good news for the disciples and for all of us who have followed Jesus since?


First, it wasn’t some new way to think of God. God’s Spirit was not just given at this time toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. God’s Spirit was present as the divine wind, the Ruach of God stirring the waters of creation at the beginning of the world. It was in the Shekinah of God in the glowing face of Moses. It was present in the divine Sophia, the wisdom of God as expressed to the prophets. So it is an ancient manifestation of God. In today’s passage, Jesus tells them a new manifestation of God’s spirit will come.


What does John’s gospel say about this new manifestation? The Holy Spirit is specifically said to do the following: teach, remind (14:26), abide (14:16), and testify about Jesus (15:26) in John’s gospel. Like Jesus, who was an Advocate for love, and an advocate for how God wanted the world to be, the Holy Spirit becomes the new advocate for us - teaching us, reminding us, and testifying to us the ways of Christ. What specifically can we say about the nature of the Spirit?


First, let’s begin by using the Greek word itself, paraclete, "Paraclete" the term in part comes from the Roman Army-Roman soldiers used to have a companion, a rearguard when going into war. They would fight in pairs on the field of battle. So the paraclete is in a sense our rearguard, a presence to protect and work with us.


Early English translations of scripture such as the King James version use the term “Comforter." How does the Spirit of God function in this way, as a comfort to us? I often experience the comfort of the Spirit of God through a positive voice in my mind. For example, this past week was a tough one for me - the 2nd anniversary of my mother’s death, was this past Wednesday, May 13th.  I tend to try to find comfort in such times with crunchy snacks, yummy desserts, and some wine. I remember going to bed after overindulging. I was beating myself up for eating and drinking too much. Yet, as I quieted down, there was this positive voice telling me, “It's ok. You’ll do better tomorrow." The voice was correct - it was and I did.  I believe that was an example of the Spirit comforting me. Jesus says the Spirit of truth is not understood by the world, (meaning those outside of faith).  It isn’t just my conscience, something every being has in this world. It is something different, a gift connected to God, apart from conscience.


There is, however, another military example using the word, “Comforter," and it comes from around the time the King James Bible was put together in 1611.  The comforter in the army was the guy at the end of the marching line in the British military, who carried a big stick. If you got out of line while marching somewhere, the comforter would whack you with the big stick until you got back in line. In looking back over the entirety of my life, I think I have been comforted on occasion by God’s spirit in that way…


More current translations such as the NRSV give us the word "Advocate" in describing the Spirit. In modern contexts, someone may serve as an advocate in the court system, in the health care network, or in an educational institution. I received a phone call from the Jackson County Courts last week, who described herself as a Victim’s Advocate. She was calling me due to the fire we had on the church office deck a few weeks ago. She wanted to advocate upon my behalf for justice to be done regarding the person who accidentally lit the fire. I saw no reason to seek any form of monetary restitution. That, in my mind, serves no purpose - to seek money from a homeless person, which we would never see and would further burden this person with unmet and unattainable responsibility. It also lacks God’s grace. I asked her to ask the judge to sentence him to treatment for alcohol addiction and to be seen regularly by the counselor/navigators at the OHRA community center. She promised to convey my thoughts to the prosecuting attorney.


The Spirit in classical theology can be seen similarly, as one who advocates on behalf of us to God for justice, mercy, etc. I think of it more in this way - The Spirit Advocates God’s desires for us, reminding us of Christ’s teachings, encouraging us to follow God and to make this world, “on earth as it is in heaven." That constant advocating to us of God’s desires regenerates our spirits through a series of constant endless, progressive interactions.  It is the Spirit that brings about change within us so that we draw nearer to God’s intent for our lives.


Other more recent translations of this passage, such as the NLV, New Life Version, translate this word for God’s spirit as “Helper." I think of the Spirit of God as a helper every time I get together for a church gathering, committee meeting, deacon, or session meeting on Zoom. I pray for the Spirit to help us, to guide us and be with us, to give us wisdom as we seek to do God’s work in our church and in the world.


I also think of the Spirit as a helper when I look at the world in which we live right now - one of social distancing, of uncomfortableness around our neighbors, one where somehow the wearing of a mask is becoming a political statement rather than showing we care about other people’s health, one where there appears to be a disregard for the value of life, particularly the aged. I ask the Spirit for help to figure out how to show the love Jesus commanded me to show in such a crazy mixed-up world such as this.


So, is this an exhaustive list? By no means. Do we fully understand this gift from God which Jesus mentioned in his farewell speech? Doubtful. There is a divine mystery in God’s Spirit. As it says in John 3:8, "The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going..."  


The Paraclete is complex, varied, and blows where it will. I think we experience this shy version of the Trinity best and understand it most when we follow Jesus’ command to love one another as Christ loved us, with selfless, grace-filled love. The Spirit becomes more visible, more present, more real to us when we love in this way.


So give thanks this day that you are not alone. God has sent us the Paraclete, comforting us in times of difficulty, advocating God’s desires to us, molding and shaping us more and more in Christ’s image, helping us with wisdom and direction, and helping us to share God’s love in a difficult world. Alleluia. Amen.

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