Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday May 29, 2011 Easter 6A
Text: John 14: 15-21
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: The Lord the Giver of Life
When I went away to college I was scared. For the first week of school I hid out in my dorm room, ate my meals off-campus, managed to miss the school activity fair and otherwise was rather unsocial. It was a bad situation. I really didn’t know a soul and I had only one piece of advice from an older friend that, by God’s grace, I eventually acted upon. He had said, “Look up InterVarsity Christian fellowship when you get to campus.” Somehow in my misery I managed to call the campus activities office, get the number of the leader and make contact. A few hours later Clyde Ohta the InterVarsity minister, a kind of college chaplain, knocked on the door of a very lonely and isolated freshman and it was the work of the Holy Spirit.
So when Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to send them another advocate so that they will not be orphaned and alone in this world, I remember the moment that smiling, friendly, welcoming person of Clyde Ohta walked through my door and invited me to go get a coffee at the campus Bistro. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a moment of God’s deep provision in my life, a crossing over to safety. For Clyde became a mentor and friend a confidant, counselor, coach, and evangelist in my life, nurturing my faith, thoughtfully nudging me into maturity, listening deeply and challenging me to grow in so many ways. And through that discipling relationship I discovered a deep community of other Christian students and found my own interest in ministry.
I believe this is what our passage today is actually talking about. Jesus promises his disciples his own continuing presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, who will be with them without fail if they are open and follow in his ways. This advocate is an incredible and intimate gift. Jesus describes the relationship as abiding within us, linked to our very person. So, if you’ve ever thought you were alone in the world this passage intends to challenge that understanding in a rather mystical way.
Every week we proclaim our faith in the Holy Spirit in the words of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in the Holy Spirit the Lord the giver of life.
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.
It’s a powerful bit of proclamation but when I look at the 4 lines I’m tempted to say, “It that it?” Is that all we believe about the Holy Spirit? It seems to me that the Spirit might have gotten the gooey end of the stick at the council of Nicea. Only four lines about the great gift that Jesus promises his followers: The Advocate, The Comforter, The Helper, The Spirit of the living God available to each of us at all times, just four little lines? Perhaps the Holy Spirit needed a better PR agent who would really celebrate his accomplishments and praise his skills? I’m sure the Holy Spirit has a better resume than that.
I’m not sure if you feel the same way but too often the Holy Spirit seems like the forgotten member of the Trinity: a kind of third wheel that we don’t really pay attention to. As a child I learned that the Greek word for this special helper was Parakletos, from which we get our word Paraclete not to be confused with parakeet. This of course caused me quite a lot of confusion in my childhood, the dove of the spirit and the parakeet, I’m meant they were both birds. We like many Bible translators talked about the Holy Spirit as The Comforter or Helper which is a very attractive job description.
But I have to confess that Comforter while it is a welcome title also sounds a little mamby pamby, to me. I’m not sure about you but I’ve been guilty of associating comfort almost entirely with sorrow and helping us to cope with loss and to be sure the Holy Spirit does comfort us in our affliction, but to limit the scope of work to this is a deep misunderstanding. The Holy Spirit is a gift for all of life. One way to say it is that the Spirit helps us to cope with all of life and to thrive instead of becoming cynical or dispirited or discouraged which are such easy temptations in our world.
The Greek word parakletos is really difficult to translate. The truth is that the word Comforter that is often used is really not an adequate translation. Others have translated it as Helper or Advocate. But we need to look more deeply into the meaning of the word to catch a glimpse of what kind of assistance Christ is really promising those who love him.
Parakletos really means someone who is called in – but it is the reason why the person is called in which gives the word it distinctive associations. The Greeks used this word in a wide variety of ways. Parakletos might be someone called in to give witness in a law court in someone’s favor. One might be an advocate to come in and plead on behalf of one in a serious case; he might be an expert called into give advice in a difficult situation; he might be someone called in to speak and work with a company of soldiers or a team who are depressed, dispirited and perhaps unable to continue, the parakletos was one who could heal and instill bravery within the group again.
The Greek understanding of the word parakletos had within it not just comfort in times of sorrow but also inspiration, encouragement, the remaking of vision and re-energizing of people for the work or life in front of them. This to me is a much more powerful understanding of the role of the Spirit than a mere comforter in sorrow and gives new meaning to the line of the Creed describing the Spirit as, “The Lord the giver of Life.”
We may not want to admit it, but we often see only what we are prepared to see. I suspect that the reason we do not always recognize the Spirit at work in the world or in our lives is because we have not nurtured the capacity to recognize the Spirit. We’ve allowed the world around us to tell us that God does not care, that God is silent, that God is just watching from a distance. I remember when I took my first architectural history class. I had really hardly noticed the architecture around me. But suddenly I was fitted for noticing it. I had categories for understanding it, talking about it, appreciating it and I began to find the world of buildings so much more interesting and alive. Botanists see a whole different world walking through the open space than we might. It is the same with the Spirit. The friends of Jesus, receive a gift, an awareness, of the Spirit alive and at work in our lives and the world around us.
How do we recognize the Spirit? Our capacity for the Spirit is developed through worship, sharing of faith stories, study of scripture, time in prayer, and our reaching out in love and compassion to those who are in pain or need. What we see and experience is shaped by what we bring to the experience, how we are sighted. And what this Gospel is telling us is that the community around Jesus is infused with the Spirit, gifted with Spirit-sight, Spirit-awareness, Spirit-sensitivity, Spirit-nudging, Spirit-encouraging, Spirit-convicting, Spirit-filledness. All of this is true to the degree that we open ourselves to the Spirit, realizing that to live the Christian life is not to do so under our own steam alone but to be rather gifted, filled, empowered, directed by the very presence of God in our lives.
For us I think that means that the degree to which we are open in prayer and acceptance of God’s movement in our lives it the degree that we like Jesus become Spirit-people. As one commentator said, “The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no one’s heart.” The Spirit is always available always ready to be received and this is truly important work for each of us.
The sign of the Spirit at work according to John is very simple, loving obedience. For John the evidence of the Spirit at work in the lives of Jesus’ friends was obedience to God’s ways. Love is shown in being faithful to the ways of forgiveness, compassion, acceptance of others, nurturing the young, caring for the sick and needy, living simply, sharing what you have, giving even when it is difficult, remaining hopeful, speaking truth in love, walking with others through their pain and loss. Love for John is never some cozy sentiment or nice idea it is always an action, a self-giving movement, a way of stretching the soul into a God-like shape.
We all know and experience people who say they love us or their families but they are forever acting in ways that are incredibly hurtful and damaging. For Jesus the hallmark of love was acting in faithful obedience to the ways of God.
The Creed also reminds us that the “Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets” giving us Holy Wisdom throughout the ages. Interestingly the figure of wisdom is feminine in scripture. And what is it that the prophets do so well? They remind us of what it means to be faithful. They call us back to our best selves, our core values, our covenant way of life. They remind us that being in relationship with the living God requires our own best efforts and the word of our own deepest self. The prophets were forever reminding the people of God that they had been strangers in the strange land so don’t treat the undocumented in harsh or unloving ways. They reminded them that it is easy to lose everything and become poor or widowed or unemployed, so don’t forget that God loves mercy and cheers for the compassionate, those who can suffer with others.
The Good News in all of this is that we are not alone in trying to please God or attempting to walk in the ways of Christ. No, we have an advocate, a helper, a coach, a prophet, a Holy kick in the pants to do the right thing, to show our love through obedience because in the end it is not just our kind and moral thoughts that matter, it is our actions our Orthopraxis if you will our right living. For too long we’ve allowed Christianity to be defined in our tradition as Orthodoxy – right belief but John’s teaching on the Spirit this day reminds us that without the obedience of love our faith doesn’t really amount to much, our proclamations of faith don’t impress the world, it is our love in action, our Orthopraxis our right action that really changes things that really demonstrates to the world that the Spirit is alive and well and active within each of us holding us in life and offering new life to the world.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, “The Lord the giver of life” who is not only a comfort in our sorrow but wisdom, vision, energy and the urging of God in our life, moving us forward in a Godward direction, into fullness of life. The real question is “Where is the Spirit at work in your life?” for that is Christ’s promise to each of us.