Sunday, May 9, 2010

(Easter 6) The Holy Spirit is not your Advocate, and why that’s good news

Easter 6: John 14:23-29

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This is the sixth Sunday of Easter, two Sundays before Pentecost.
Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church,
and empowered Jesus’ disciples for ministry.
So a couple weeks ahead of time,
in the calendar of the Christian year,
we are given a glimpse of what’s coming—
a sort of preview of Pentecost.
The lectionary calls for us to read from the Gospel of John,
where Jesus, in a sense, predicted Pentecost.

Toward the end of his ministry,
when Jesus spoke to his disciples
he repeatedly talked about two things that would happen.
One was, he was about to leave them.
He was about to enter a period of great humiliation and suffering,
after which he would die, then rise again,
then go to be with his Father in heaven.
The second thing Jesus predicted,
was that the disciples would not be left alone.
He would be sending someone to be with them.
He would send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.

The Advocate.
The word also gets translated “Comforter.”
Or sometimes “Counselor.”
But what is meant, exactly, by the Holy Spirit as Advocate?

You may have noticed my intentionally provocative sermon title.
Which reads, “The Holy Spirit is not your Advocate,
and why that’s good news.”
Perhaps you fear I am going off the deep end,
since we all know that the Holy Spirit is frequently referred to
as an Advocate that Jesus sends to us.
I could right now read 4 or 5 scriptures that say so,
including today’s Gospel reading.
I could refer to dozens of hymns
the church has sung through the ages,
that say so.

So why would I say something so heretical,
as to suggest the Holy Spirit is not our Advocate?

Well, let’s take a closer look.
The original word in Greek is παράκλητος (parakletos).
It’s sometimes just transliterated, Paraclete.
Apparently, the meaning of this word can be fairly broad,
which explains why the King James
translates it Comforter,
and some others, Counselor.
But given the context here,
it is most likely used in the sense of advocacy.
Paraclete is the noun form of the
Greek verb παρακαλέω (parakaleo) which means literally,
to “call to one’s side.”
So a paraclete is the one who is called to stand beside,
like an attorney who represents someone in court.
An advocate.
One who “steps in” and stands alongside
and makes my case before judge and jury.
Of course, having an expert and articulate advocate on one’s side,
is a great comfort . . .
an Advocate is a much-needed Comforter
to someone who is threatened.
But it’s a different kind of comfort than say,
having someone’s grandmother
give them a hug or hold their hand.
Being an advocate is not just about giving emotional comfort
and solace.
It’s about having someone stand beside,
who is knowledgeable and loyal and trustworthy,
who will tell it like it is,
even when the truth is hard to hear.

I would like to disabuse us of the notion
that the Holy Spirit’s main job is to hold us close
and squeeze our hands.
The Holy Spirit is not our grandmother.
As wonderful as grandmothers are.
And on this Mother’s Day, I must also say, if you’ll pardon me,
the Holy Spirit is not our mother, either.
Yes, a good mother is loyal and trustworthy and
will always be a loving truth-teller.
If a child is blessed with a good mother,
there will never be a stronger and more tenacious Advocate
than Mom.

But that does not describe the relationship
between the Holy Spirit and us.
Yes, without question.
The Holy Spirit is an Advocate.
A loyal and persistent and skillful Advocate.
Just happens not to be OUR Advocate.
The Holy Spirit is an advocate for Jesus and the Gospel.

Remember what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading in John 14?
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything, and remind you
of all that I have said to you.”
God is sending the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name,
on behalf of Jesus,
to teach everything Jesus taught,
and to remind the disciples of everything Jesus said.
You see, once Jesus has departed the earth,
a certain danger will set in.
The disciples’ memory will be selective.
Once the church gets established,
and if the movement gains traction,
there will be all sorts of temptations
to veer away from the radical path that Jesus put them on.
They will be more likely to opt for safety and security,
as opposed to “taking up their cross” and following.
They will be sorely tempted to minimize the teachings of Jesus
that aren’t convenient for them,
or that don’t seem to serve their agenda and purposes.
And Jesus knew all this.
So one is being sent to Advocate for the Jesus way,
to remind and reinforce the radical Gospel message.

And in the next chapter, Jesus mentions the Advocate again.
Listen to John 15:26.
“When the Advocate comes,
the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father,
he will testify on my behalf.”
On my behalf, Jesus said.
The Holy Spirit is an Advocate for Jesus, first and foremost.
The Holy Spirit is an Advocate for the truth of the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit is an Advocate for God’s agenda,
for the larger mission of God in this world,
that Jesus engaged in during his time on earth,
and then passed on to his disciples to complete.
It is that mission of God
for which the Holy Spirit has come to Advocate.

In all these scriptures that promise us the Holy Spirit,
nowhere do we get the idea that the Spirit is being sent,
to be on our side no matter what,
to speak up for our own interests,
to take a stand against anything that threatens us,
to protect us from any and all harm.
That’s what mothers do.
No . . . the Holy Spirit is sent to defend the name of Jesus,
to articulate the message of Jesus,
to stand up on behalf of the Gospel.
That is the primary work of the Holy Spirit.

The ministry of Jesus
and the ministry of the Holy Spirit
are always and intimately connected to each other.
We cannot separate them.
In fact, we might well refer to the Holy Spirit,
as the Spirit of Jesus,
as scripture does on several occasions.

I hope you are not let down this morning,
by this realization that the Holy Spirit is not really your Advocate.
Don’t be disappointed.
This is Good News!
What would our faith be like,
if one of the main tenets of our faith,
was that God, through the Holy Spirit,
was always on our side?
Maybe you trust yourself more than I trust me.
But I frankly don’t trust myself to get it right all the time.
Even most of the time.
I am too prone to make decisions based on my own fears.
When I’m being called to take some risky step of faith,
and I turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance,
I don’t think it would be a good thing
for the Holy Spirit to just take my side,
like my mother probably would.
When I resist something, out of fear,
I don’t think it would do God any favors
for the Holy Spirit just to pat me on the back,
and say, “That’s okay, Phil.”
(or as my mother would say, “That’s okay, Philip”)
It’s not in the interest of Jesus or the Kingdom of God,
for the Holy Spirit to just comfort me,
and say, “I know this must be frightening.
You can do it when you’re ready.
Maybe some other day when you’re stronger.”

And besides my fears, and other emotions that might drive me,
I don’t trust my thinking well enough
to believe that it would be helpful
for the Holy Spirit to always reinforce my thinking patterns.
I’m too self-oriented.
Too protective.
Sometimes, perhaps, too logical.
If God wanted me to do what Peter was asked to do,
in our scripture last week—
when Peter had that vision of unclean animals
coming down from heaven,
a sign that he should cross this huge social and religious
barrier, and enter into the Gentile world—
if I’d have been in Peter’s sandals,
I wouldn’t have made it to Cornelius’ house
if the Holy Spirit just reinforced my way of thinking.
If the Holy Spirit had stood by me, as my Advocate, and said,
“Yes, Phil, you make a good point.
That does go completely against your tradition and teaching.
Just forget it. Bad idea.”

But the Holy Spirit is not our Advocate.
The Holy Spirit has been sent to us as an Advocate
for the Jesus Way,
for the kingdom of God,
for the mission of God in this world.
Sometimes we human beings get in the way of that.
God needs an Advocate.
Jesus needs someone to stand up for the cause of the Gospel,
even an inconvenient Gospel.

There is a constant tendency to make Christ and the Gospel convenient.
We are tempted, continually, to create God in our image.
We want Jesus to reinforce what we have already
decided or wanted or believed or . . .
So Jesus sent the Holy Spirit,
not to pat our backs and hold our hands.
But to keep us from forgetting what Jesus was all about.
To keep us from distorting his message into something
he wouldn’t even recognize.

So whenever people claim today that the Holy Spirit
is saying this or doing that,
there is a built-in test, a measuring stick:
Does it look like Jesus?

Many Christians these days claim to be hearing from the Holy Spirit,
about this or that or the other thing.
But does it look like Jesus?

If people claim that the Holy Spirit is blessing them,
leading them to accumulate all manner of wealth and possessions
and gather earthly comforts all around them,
as evidence of God’s blessing on them . . .
well . . . does that look like Jesus?

If people credit the Spirit of God with leading them into battle,
into taking up weapons of violence against their earthly enemies,
and giving them victory by force . . .
well . . . does that look like Jesus?

If people believe the Holy Spirit is on their side,
as they wield their power over others in coercive ways,
manipulating others toward their own advantage . . .
well . . . does that look like Jesus?

If people say, “God told me to do this or that . . .”
We have a right to ask, “Does it look like Jesus?
Or does it look like something they wanted to do anyway?

Of course, I’m not saying God isn’t doing new things today.
Certainly some things God is up to today
would not have a precise parallel to what God did
in Jesus’ life and ministry 2,000 years ago
in a very different culture and context.
So we need to carefully and prayerfully discern.

God is doing new things,
and the Holy Spirit is part of these new things.
But the Holy Spirit is most certainly not
our personal, private, spiritual genie
that gives us three wishes and more.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ,
the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus, and represents Jesus.
We cannot separate the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus.
There is an unbroken line connecting
the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth
and the ministry of the Holy Spirit today.

With very little effort, we can make the Holy Spirit say
whatever we want the Holy Spirit to say.
We can distort the gospel message of Jesus
to say whatever we want it to say.
The job of the Holy Spirit, as the “Paraclete,”
is to be the loyal, persistent, undeterred, and expert Advocate
for the Jesus Way.
The job of the Holy Spirit is to stand up for,
to stand alongside, like an attorney,
whenever the life and teachings and meaning of Jesus are threatened
whenever they get distorted or misshapen
or used in ways that don’t honor Jesus.

And this is good news.
Preserving the core of the Gospel of Jesus,
even against my own attempts to bend it to my advantage,
is good news,
for me and for the world.
I thank God for sending the Holy Spirit to be Jesus’ Advocate.
That is a comfort to me.
That helps me stay grounded.
It keeps me from drowning in a sea of self-interest.
It keeps me on the journey for which God made me.

Let’s sing together, in response, Sing the Journey #46
“O breathe on me, O breath of God.”

This is based on the more familiar, “Breathe on me, breath of God.”
Remember, the word for spirit and breath are same,
so when I sing this,
I’m asking the Spirit of God to breathe on me,
“fill me with life anew,
that I may love the things you love,
and do what you would do.”
And, “breathe on me, O breath of God . . .
until my will is one with yours . . .
breathe, my will to yours incline,
until this selfish part of me glows with your fire divine.”

Let’s make this our fervent prayer,
as we sing together.

—Phil Kniss, May 9, 2010

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