The promised helper – the Paraclete
We have been living in hard times. I hardly need to tell you that. In many ways we have been taken out of our ordinary lives and placed somewhere quite different. For some the change has been extraordinary and for others it has been more subtle.
We have had to be like the disciples. Following Jesus after his resurrection and assentation and searching for a way to follow him now that many of our usual paths, routines and systems have been removed or changed beyond recognition.
Some of us will react like Thomas in that upper room – ‘I won’t believe it until I can touch His wounds’. Some of us will be like Philip ‘Lord give us a sign!’. Others of us may be like Peter and at first deny the truth, our association with Jesus, and try to push it away when questioned by others.
But over Eastertide – over lockdown – perhaps we’ve all had a chance to go on a journey with Jesus in a way we have never done before.
Nearly 2000 years after it was written scripture continues to inspire and guide us.
How can Jesus speak to us so directly across this space and time?
Let’s start with the Gospel of John which contains todays reading. For John, there is only one test of Love – and that is obedience. For John – love is not some silly fleeting thing that causes butterflies in our tummy, it is not something that can be summed up in a Hallmark card on valentine’s day. No. Love, for John, is an all-encompassing thing whose outward working and sign is obedience. We have heard many times over the last few weeks:
“If you love me, keep my commandments;”
I think we all know people who say they love us; whose love is a fleeting thing. We’ve all been teenagers and have experienced that wave of love that seems utterly overwhelming – but ultimately has no depth.
It is only in marriage where love truly blossoms – where a true dedication to each other’s lives and obedience to one another and to God – takes hold of that love and builds it up into the kind of love that John talks of.
A love that will result in sacrifice for the other, a love that will result in hardship and depravation if that is what is needed to sustain the family, a love that will excel and build to a level you never thought possible when times are good.
Love is not an easy thing, but it is most clearly demonstrated in obedience – and this is what Jesus was teaching us. He knows that we are going to find this obedience difficult.
We all know this kind of obedience is difficult. It is the reason we pray, the reason we come to church, the reason we share this life of following Jesus because we know that if we want to experience and share that love we need help.
And it is why Jesus sends us a helper – and we see that helper arriving today at Pentecost.
Jesus is telling us this week that we don’t have to try to achieve this love, this obedience to his commandments on our own. We do not have to struggle with being without Him on our own. We do not have to endure this hardship, this depravation on our own.
He is sending us the Paraclete.
That’s an odd word.
We only really hear it at this time of year and although I’m not normally a fan of Greek lessons in sermons this word demands it because the meaning behind it is the meaning of what Jesus is telling us in sending us this ‘helper’
The word in Greek is paraklētos – it’s pretty much untranslatable because it’s a word that contains a great deal of meaning. John Wyclif translated it as the ‘Comforter’ – but that word has changed its meaning so much that it no longer quite does the job. Another translation has it as ‘helper’ – that’s better – but perhaps the best way to translate it is not as a word but a series of uses…
Paraklētos can perhaps best be translated as ‘someone who is called in’. But what gives paraklētos its distinctives is not these translations but the reasons WHY somebody may be ‘called in’.
A paraklētos may be a person called in to testify in court in somebody’s defence. Or perhaps an advocate called in to plead the cause of someone who is in very serious trouble. It was used to describe the person called in to give expert advice when people found themselves in a particularly difficult situation or an officer called in when a company of soldiers were depressed and dispirited.
In every use we see of this word in Greek it is always about somebody called in to help in a time of trouble or need.
This is why perhaps the word comforter has lost some of its meaning. Comforter suggests that this is a person who only comes in in time of sorrow, and comforts with an arm across the shoulders and utters heart-warming words. In many ways of course that is exactly what the Paraclete does, but we are missing so much if we limit it to that. In its original use paraklētos was much more than that. The paraklētos was called in not just to comfort us but also to help us cope.
That is the work of the Holy Spirit – the Paraclete. He takes away what is weak and unworthy in us and enables and empowers us to cope with life.
So Jesus is telling his disciples the paraclete will be His witness and they will be doing His work – not on their own – but will be doing it with the Holy Spirit who is being called in to guide and enable them to do it.
Jesus is still telling us that.
The Holy Spirit has worked through scripture to tell us right here and right now that as we leave this latest lockdown, which has felt endless and hard and almost impossible, that we can call in the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit we will come to know the Father and the Son with a greater understanding of the depth of love that he demands of us – of the obedience to his commandments that love demands of us.
He is telling us that the world won’t recognise this. He is telling us that we will recognise it because we are fitted to do so – we are fitted because we read scripture, because we pray, because we call in the Holy Spirit – AND THERE’S THE LESSON!
We CALL IN the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not come into our hearts uninvited. He waits to be received.
So perhaps. As we enter come to the end of Eastertide and experience through the disciples the coming of the Holy Spirit – we can think how we can call in the Holy Spirit, how we can be ready to receive him into our hearts and by doing so be strengthened in love and obedience to Jesus.
(this sermon is heavily influenced by William Barclay’s commentary – John, Vol 2, P193-195)