Imagine an alien had arrived last Sunday, Mother's Day. Now imagine that this alien was a clone grown in an artificial womb and raised by the otherwordly equivalent of worker bees. Now imagine you are trying to make it understand what we humans mean by the word “mother.” It might initially have problems with the whole concept of one being giving birth to another. But even if you could get that across to it, what about all the other things that come under the term of mother. Mothers feed their young from their own bodies. They comfort them. They protect them. They teach them facts. They teach them social ettiquette. They teach them morality. They act as role models. They encourage them. They make themselves available to their offspring, even when their childen are adults and supposedly don't need them anymore. And then there's the fact that some mothers aren't the biological giver of life. They can adopt childen, informally as well as legally. And what if there wasn't a single word in that alien's language that encompassed all that the word “mother” means.
That's the problem we have with the key word used in John's gospel for the Holy Spirit. The Greek word is parakletos and there is no equivalent word in English. The King James version translates it as “comforter.” The RSV renders it “counselor.” The New RSV gives it as “advocate.” Still others translate it as “helper,” “someone to stand by you,” and “he who is to befriend you.” They are all correct and they are all insufficient to explain everything that the original Greek word means. So let's look at what this word reveals to us about God's Holy Spirit. (And I want to thank William Barclay's book New Testament Words for much of what follows.)
Parakletos literally means “one who is called in.” The question is “called in to do what?” So we need to look at what it meant in ordinary speech at the time of the New Testament. What kind of person would you call in to help you? If you needed advice, a counsellor . The Spirit is called the Spirit of truth by Jesus. He will guide us into all truth. (John 16:13) Specifically, he will reveal truth about Jesus and remind us what he taught. When we ask ourselves about specific situations “What would Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus have me do?” we need to listen to the Spirit. (Yes, Jesus drove the corrupt moneychangers out of the temple but that stands out precisely because it is so different from how Jesus usually acted. We are not God. We are forbidden by Jesus himself from passing a final verdict on someone else or acting aggressively towards others.) We need to listen to the Spirit who, through Paul, says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
What other kind of person would you call in to help you? If you were undertaking a hard task or battling an adversary, an ally. In the Old Testament the Spirit of the Lord enables the judges and kings of Israel to rule and protect the nation. The Spirit inspired the prophets to reveal God's will and perform mighty acts in his name. It was by the power of the Spirit that Jesus did his acts of healing (Matthew 12:28), routing the spiritual forces that oppressed and inflicted suffering upon people.
The verb form of the word was used for rallying the troops about to go into battle, urging them on. And this is where we get to the translation “comforter.” While parakletos was on rare occasions used to mean “one who consoles,” when the translators of the King James version picked “comforter” that word had a different meaning. It comes from the Latin and means to fill with fortitude. This reflects the meaning of parakletos as encourager, literally “one who gives others courage.” The Spirit cheers us on when we need to be brave.
What other kind of person would you call in to help you? If you needed someone to plead your case in court, an advocate. A very common use of parakletos at that time was as a character witness when a person was being tried. He is the opposite of an accuser, which is what the devil is called. (Revelation 12:10) The Spirit speaks up for us, intercedes for us, defends us. In times of persecution, the Spirit will give us the right words at the right time. (Mark 13:11)
We have another intercessor and that is Jesus. In Hebrews 7:25, it says that, as our High Priest, he intercedes for us. 1 John 2:1 says, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One....” The word translated “advocate” is again parakletos. And indeed in today's gospel Jesus refers to the Spirit as another parakletos, whom the Father will send in his place to be with us forever. (John 14:16). William Barclay wrote, “In the Gospel, as Dr. G.H.C. Macgregor finely puts it, the Spirit is Christ's alter ego. The parakletos, the Spirit, is the constant, illuminating, strengthening, enabling presence of Jesus.” And in Acts 16:7, the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Jesus.”
But doesn't this confuse the persons of the Trinity? Not really. If, as Jesus says, the Spirit does not speak on his own but relays what he hears, recalling what Jesus said and did and bringing it to remembrance, he is like an ambassador. He is the voice of the one who sent him. (John 16:13; 14:26) The persons of the Triune God who is Love are one, so united that what one does or says is the will of all. When we deal with the Spirit it is the same as if we were dealing with Jesus. There is perfect harmony there.
And that is the harmony that Jesus wants us to have with one another. We are the body of Christ, filled with the same Spirit that empowered him. And on the night he was betrayed after Jesus prayed for the disciples, he said, “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one—I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
We see couples and families that love each other, or say they do, but are fractious and frequently at odds with each other. And we know that this is not how love should be. Love should unite. Those in love should be a unified front. It should be “all for one and one for all.” That's what we should strive for. We may not always achieve perfect unity but we should always aspire to it.
Did you notice that Jesus pointed out a big reason why the world does not believe in him? “I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.... that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me....” If God is love and Jesus is God and we are followers of Jesus, we should display that love in all we think, say and do. But we don't. We called by one Spirit to be one body of Christ. But when we fight and maintain our rigid distinctions from other Christians, when we let our differences become divisions, when we are more concerned with what separates us rather than with all that we have in common, we deny that we belong to the God who is Love. We deny the ministry of reconciliation he has given us. We deny Christ because he said the world would know that we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35) and our actions make him out to be a liar. The world should look at us and say, “That's how people should act. That's how the world should be.” Instead, we don't look any different than anyone else in the world.
There are a lot of analyses of why the church is shrinking, why people, especially young people, are leaving. I think it is because we are not listening to or being guided by the Spirit. As someone once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” And that's because we often do not resemble him in what we say or what we do.
Jesus kicked off his ministry by proclaiming “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor....” A lot of American Christians haven't gotten that message. 56% of Evangelicals favor cutting economic aid to the poor around the world. 40% support cutting government assistance to the unemployed. More are in favor of decreasing funding to poor in the U.S. than the average non-Evangelical American is. Lest we pat ourselves on the back, a Pew Research Center survey found that 39% of Episcopalians and 47% of those in the ELCA said government aid to the poor does more harm than good. So helping the poor is bad? Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?
Jesus said we are to love our neighbors and our enemies and he sent us out to preach the gospel to all nations. The first Gentile convert was an Ethiopian eunuch. Paul said that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Yet the church is racially divided. 86% of mainline Protestants are white. That's more than the 76% of Evangelicals who are white. And it shows in our attitudes. When asked if the police generally treat blacks and minorities the same as whites, 62% of white Evangelical Protestants and 47% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics agree. But 75% of minority Protestants disagree. Obviously, we don't believe the experiences of our minority brothers and sisters in Christ. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?
Jesus welcomed and healed Gentiles, who, since he never left the Holy Land, were either occupying Roman soldiers or immigrants. A recent survey of Evangelicals found that only 1 in 10 says the Bible influences their views on immigration. 1 in 5 say immigrants are a threat to law and order, a threat to the safety of our citizens, and a threat to traditional American customs and culture. 48% said recent immigrants are a drain on our economic resources. Only 40% saw this as an opportunity to show them love. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?
In the prayer Jesus taught us, we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us. Yet in a Fetzer Institute survey, 58% of Americans feel there are instances where a person should never be forgiven. 41% put murder in that category, which rules out Moses and Paul being forgiven. 26% say abuse or sexual crimes should never be forgiven, so that excludes David. 22% say those who intentionally commit any crime should not be forgiven, which means Jesus was wrong to forgive the thief on the cross next to him. 71% of the respondents in this survey were Christian. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?
God is love. Jesus is the God who is Love Incarnate. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of that Divine Love. If we do not reflect that same love, that same care for the disadvantaged, that same forgiveness for fellow sinners, it's because we have replaced his Spirit with beliefs and rules that are dead. Dead things don't respond to people or to the world around them. Dead things eventually smell and people stay away from them. Maybe that's why people are staying away from the church?
The great thing about God is that giving life is his specialty and bringing what is dead back to life is no problem for him. In fact, he brings spiritually dead people back to life in Christ everyday, every time someone realizes their condition and sincerely asks him to change them. As a church, we need to realize that we are dying and in some places, already dead and we need to ask God's Spirit, the giver of life, to resurrect us. We need to ask him to make us responsive to the world he loves so much and wants to save from all the things which deaden our spirits. We need to ask him to breathe new life into us and revive our love of Jesus and renew our desire to follow him and reignite our passion to tell others about him.
Any organization can stray from the spirit in which it was created. The NRA was founded by 2 Civil War veterans as a club to improve people's marksmanship with rifles, not as a Washington lobbying group, nor to endorse or oppose political candidates. The Red Cross, originally a humanitarian movement to care for wounded soldiers, promised to build houses in Haiti after the earthquake and failed spectacularly to accomplish what had never been their purpose. The church was founded to live out the Kingdom principles taught by and demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ and to spread the good news of God's love and grace. It was not intended to be a clique or a club or a cult or a political party or a “get rich quick” scheme. It was intended to be the community of God's people carrying out God's mission to reconcile all people to himself out of love. We tend to forget that. We need someone to remind us of what Jesus taught us about the church, someone to counsel us, someone to guide us, someone to help us, someone to act as an ally, someone to act as an advocate, someone to fill us with courage, someone to make sure we never lose the constant, illuminating, strengthening, enabling Spirit of Jesus.