Many of us may well feel orphaned these days, sheltering at home. This is especially true, perhaps, for those who live alone, and who do not have regular, face-to-face contact with other people. I have now entered into this reality of living alone again. Having spent the last six months, 24-7, under one roof with my son in Phoenix, I am now in Arlington in the solitude of a wonderful parsonage. But there is a new poignancy to this solitude, being as I am without Nathan on a daily basis.
There are other ways we may feel orphaned these days given the disappearance of so many routines that gave our lives structure and meaning. We may feel more alone spending so much time in front of computer screens. Not being able to socialize at restaurants and other venues may make us feel somehow orphaned. We certainly miss our weekly gatherings at church and may feel bereft without them. And more. You, no doubt, have your own lists of what grieves you during these days.
Once again, Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned.” What does he mean by this? How will he not abandon us by his ascent to the Father in heaven? In short, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. It is here in John’s Gospel that Jesus announces the coming of the Spirit who will keep us from being alone.
Just who or what is the Holy Spirit, this third person of the Trinity? In common parlance, there is perhaps something vague or ephemeral about the Holy Spirit, a divine reality whom we cannot see, but whose effects may be palpable.
Lutherans, historically and traditionally, have had some tendency to be wary of the Holy Spirit, or at least wary of those who readily claim to possess the effects and gifts of the Spirit.
In popular understanding and practice, the Holy Spirit is most often described in terms of feelings. “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirt,” many will commonly say. But feelings come and go and can be unpredictable, and unreliable.
That said, we Lutherans would do well to deepen our understanding of the third person of the Trinity, and not give over to other Christians the voice to monopolize understandings of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, we have been living in the epoch of the Holy Spirit ever since the original Pentecost event two millennia ago. How can we not explore more precisely the dynamics of the ecclesial age in which we live and engage in mission?
So, again, just who or what is the Holy Spirit? There is no way that we can get to the bottom of the mysteries of the Holy Spirit in just one sermon. So, I will limit my focus to one aspect or feature of the Holy Spirit in today’s reading from John.
The Spirit is the one whom Jesus refers to as “another Advocate” – at least that is how the Greek word is rendered in English in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
The Holy Spirit is the Advocate. Other ways of translating the Greek might be consoler, counselor, comforter, helper, intercessor. The Greek word is “paraclete,” that is, one called alongside or beside us. Advocate, from the Latin, has this same sense – to call to one’s aid.
It strikes me that perhaps a good way to understand the biblical Advocate is to reflect on its opposite. And for that I need to return to my sermon to you on March 1st, the First Sunday in Lent, the day when you voted to call me to be your pastor.
The story that day, you may recall, was Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness when Satan, the devil, the tempter came to visit. This figure was the one who delivered false messages, messages of groundless accusation.
The Advocate is exactly the opposite of this, namely, the one who delivers messages of truth, of support, of advocacy. In short, the tempter tears down; the Advocate builds up.
There is another, more technical sense of what it is to be an Advocate, and that’s the juridical or legal sense. An Advocate, perhaps, is a defense attorney – in contrast to the attorney who prosecutes. The Advocate will aid us when we endure trials in the name of Jesus.
This Advocate, the Spirit of truth, is promised to be with us forever. Moreover, the Spirit dwells within and among us. As Jesus said, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:17b)
But the Spirit, the Advocate, is no amorphous, ephemeral being. The Spirit is not just feelings, though the Spirit’s presence is felt and stirs our emotions. No, there is specificity to the identity of the Spirit as Advocate. Let us go back to the etymology of both the Greek for paraclete and the Latin for Advocate: “to call beside or alongside,” to “call to aid.” Thus, the Spirit as Advocate has to do with that which we hear, calling out beside us – we hear speech, and we hear messages.
In this way, the Advocate connects importantly with another feature in today’s passage, namely, Jesus’ emphasis on his commandments, that is, his directions, precepts, his teachings. He says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) And further, Jesus says, “They 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.” (John 15:21)
So, the Spirit as Advocate is intimately and inseparably related to Jesus’ word, he who is the Word of God made flesh. Again, the Spirit as Advocate is not reduced only to affect, to feelings which come and go. The Spirit is part and parcel of God’s word which consistently and reliably abides forever.
I know this is all quite abstract and perhaps as mind-bending as Jesus’ original teaching in John. But I hope you have a better sense of the Holy Spirit as Advocate.
Let me leave you with this thought. How do we know the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and among us? That is, how can we be confident that the voice calling to us is from God’s Spirit and not some other source? In brief, and very simply, voices which advocate for us, which call forth messages that encourage and build up are more reliably of the Holy Spirit than messages which discourage us and tear us down and apart.
In terms of how this plays out in our own current society, and in preaching and teaching in the church, I will let you do the math on that one….
But it is precisely the messages that tear us down and discourage us that can leave us feeling orphaned, alone, bereft of aid. And there are many such messages being communicated today in many circles around the world.
In contrast, the proclamation that encourages and builds us up give us the experience of being accompanied, advocated for, that we are not alone to fend for ourselves.
So, I exhort you: cling to the messages you hear that advocate for you and for humanity, especially the very words of Jesus which continue to echo in our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Resist and counter those messages which serve to tear us down and tear us apart, thus, leaving us feeling orphaned.
And remember, the Advocate is ever present to help us in this work which we cannot do by ourselves. For we are not left orphaned.
This good news will help us get through these calamitous times.