(Acts 17, 22-31; John 14, 15-21)
Can you remember having a something which you used to comfort yourself when you were a baby or a small child? Or something your children had?
For some children it’s a dummy, for some it’s their thumb, while other children have a toy, and still others a piece of material like a sheet or a blanket, that they carry everywhere with them. It can be a real disaster, not just for the child, but for the whole family if the ‘comfort object’ gets lost. Families with foresight have a spare one (I know of one family who surreptitiously cut bits off the comfort blanket so that they would always have a spare). But even adults have ‘comfort objects’ that they rely on in times of stress – cigarettes, alcohol or food are common ones.
The Authorised Version translation of today’s Gospel passage from John has Jesus promising to ask the Father to send the disciples a “Comforter”, and perhaps, hearing those words, some of you, like me, have a picture of God sending down a teddy, or a piece of blanket to help Christian believers through the hard times ahead.
The original Greek in John’s Gospel, parakletos (παρακλητος) has always been a difficult word to translate; many of the Church Fathers struggled to find an appropriate word in their languages. The Authorised Version copied Tyndale and Wyclif’s earlier English versions in using ‘comforter’. But that choice shows how unwise it is to continue to use a version of the Bible in old-fashioned language, since the meaning of ‘comfort’ in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries was almost diametrically opposite to what it means now.
When Wyclif and the translators working for James 1 used the word, it meant something that empowered you or made you stronger (as you can guess from its Latin roots which mean ‘with strength’). This makes sense of its use in Psalm 23, where the rod and staff of the shepherd give strength and confidence to the sheep. A comforter in this sense prepares a person for action and danger. In modern English, however, a comforter is understood as something that gives consolation to the weak, and particularly to children. It is inward looking rather than outward looking.
Paraclete is a favourite word in the writings of John. In the 1st Epistle of John it is used of Jesus , who as ‘paraclete’ pleads our case with the Father. In John’s Gospel it is used several times of the Holy Spirt. So, it is important that we try to understand what the write is trying to convey by the word.
Originally, in secular Greek a paraclete was someone who was called in to perform a public duty; later it was used of someone who was called in to stand alongside a person in a court of justice (in a similar way to the provision that you can have a ‘friend’ with you at an employment tribunal or disciplinary hearing).
The paraclete is not just called in to stand there, though; they are called in to do something to change things for the better for you. So it came to mean a lawyer, and advocate, a counsellor (in the American sense of a counsellor at law). More modern translations than the Authorised Version have used a number of different words and phrases to try to convey this: advocate, strength, helper, counsellor, one who befriends, one who stands with you.
So, the function of the paraclete is to stand alongside us, plead our case with God, and to empower us to do God’s work on earth, when we cannot cope in our own strength. When Jesus is no longer physically present, according to John, then the Holy Spirit does the same work in and through the disciples as Jesus did during his life. The paraclete as Holy Spirit is Jesus alongside us and Jesus working for us and through us. The Spirit and Jesus share the same character and do the same work in the world, revealing God and God’s purposes.
Now this may not necessarily be a ‘comfortable’ experience for Jesus’s disciples in the way which we now understand the word. Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for his followers and opened their minds to God’s call. He demonstrated what it was possible to achieve in a life dedicated completely to love and obedience to God.
But according to the Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark, he was often quite hard on the disciples, and told them very plainly when they had got things wrong or had misunderstood his mission. This is also a task which the Holy Spirit fulfils, as it leads believers into the truth. The paraclete is not just alongside as helper, but as a ‘critical friend’ (a phrase that will be familiar to anyone involved in education, especially as a school governor), who supports, but also is honest with criticism, asks leading questions and challenges actions, in the drive to achieve the best possible outcome.
There’s no time limit given for the action of the paraclete. Its influence is not limited to the apostolic age, or the time before the New Testament was written. The Holy Spirit continues to advise, strengthen and challenge believers in the present age.
Nor is the paraclete’s action limited to a particular place or a particular organisation. The Holy Spirit may work through the Church, but is also at work outside the Church. As Paul told the Athenians, God is at work in the world even when unrecognised and unacknowledged.
With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s disciples will know in a concrete way the reality of the Trinity – that the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one in character and purpose and operate through love. This is not, however, a sentimental sort of love. It is love which is shown by keeping Jesus’s commandments.
Again, this is not a case of keeping a list of rules; the overriding commandment is to love – love God, love one another, love neighbour. A clear indication of what that means in reality comes from Jesus’ example, especially his humble and sacrificial service, even to those who despised, betrayed or denied him.
The Spirit is given to those who love and obey Jesus – and those who love and obey Jesus will show the fruits of the Spirit.
This passage also prepares the disciples (and the Church) for the fact that the powers that control the world will not understand this sort of love and obedience. Jesus was opposed and eventually killed by the political and religious authorities of his time. If the Church is being obedient to Jesus, it is likely to find itself frequently at odds with the state; and if it is too cosy with the state, or if its structure becomes too much like that of the political authorities, it is not likely to be being obedient to Jesus.
The Holy Spirit comes as a free gift from the Father to those who love and obey Jesus. It is not something they earn by believing the right things, or belonging to the right congregation, or worshipping in a particular way. Nor is it up to those who have received it to say who else may or may not receive it. That is up to God alone.
The Holy Spirit comes so that we may be empowered to do the work God has given us to do in obedience to Christ. It’s not a comfort blanket – it’s our spur to action.