15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. (John 14:15-17, New Revised Standard Version)
It would be an understatement to say that in the winter of 1778 things were going really badly for the ragtag Continental army led by General George Washington. For anyone who gambled, who had any sense at all, they were putting their bets on the British, who were living the good life in Philadelphia while the American revolutionaries were freezing in Valley Forge. The event that turned the tide happened on the other side of the Atlantic in Paris, on February 6, 1778, when Silas Dean and his team of negotiators worked out a treaty of alliance between the fledgling United States of America and France. Communications being what it was in those days, they didn’t have email, fax machines, cell phones capable of text messaging, or even a telegraph which was still a few decades away, it took three months for the document to cross the ocean. It arrived in York, Pennsylvania, on May 2, 1778, giving it over to the Continental Congress who approved it on May 4, and one day later it reached General Washington. Recognizing the importance of the alliance, Washington declared May 6 a day of celebration. In those early years of our history, it ranked almost as high as July 4 on the list of important holidays. Listen to part of Washington’s proclamation. It having pleased the Almighty Ruler of the Universe propitiously to defend the cause of the United States of America and finally by raising us up a powerful friend, among the Princes of the Earth, to Establish Our Liberty and Independence upon lasting foundations; it becomes us to set apart a day, for fully acknowledging the Divine Goodness, and celebrating the important even which we owe to his Benign interposition.
Were it not for the assistance of a “powerful friend,” the American cause might easily have been lost, and today we might still be singing, “God Save the Queen.”
In the fascinating twists of history, the time came when Winston Churchill called upon the United States to be that same kind of “powerful friend” for the British as they held the line against Hitler in World War II. Often the victory – and sometimes our survival – depends on receiving help from a powerful friend. “Jesus promises a Helper, a powerful Friend, who is none other than the Spirit of God.”
With this image in mind, come back with me to an upper room in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus’ disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover. John sets the scene in somber shades of human emotion. He tells the reader that Jesus knew it was his time to leave, and “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” When we read this section of John’s Gospel it is easy at this point to read in defeat, darkness, despair, pain, separation, and death. But, Jesus then shines some light into this darkness, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever…I will not leave you orphaned…But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”
Today we continue our look at the Apostle’s Creed. We began this blog series earlier this week and we will continue it into next week. We began a couple of days ago with the first words of the creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We talked about how God created the world and all that is in it and how there are some around us who believe that this all just happened by accident.
Last week we picked up where we left off the week before when we read and looked at, “…and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord…” and continued through several more words that followed. We talked about how Jesus, the Son, the second person of the Trinity, was both fully human and fully divine.
Today we move on to the third person of the Trinity. The Apostle’s Creed continues saying, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” In our lesson this morning Jesus is promising that if His disciples love Him, He will ask and the Father will give another, a helper, the Greek says, a Paraclete, to be with you forever.” It is the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit for those who love and follow Jesus Christ.
Biblical translators have struggled to find the appropriate word to capture the meaning of the Greek word Paraclete. Some use comforter, which is fine if you can set aside memories of the soft comforter on your grandmother’s bed and remember the root meaning of the word is “with strength.” Others have used the word advocate, lifting the term out of its origin in the courts, where the “paraclete” would stand up for the accused. But when we get down to where we really live, it’s hard to beat the identification of the Holy Spirit as the “helper.” Jesus promised a Helper, a powerful Friend, who is none other than the Spirit of God.
The same Spirit who brooded over the chaos of nothingness and brought forth creation; the same Spirit who let the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage; the same Spirit who healed the sick and liberated the oppressed through the ministry of Jesus; the same Spirit who strengthened Jesus in Gethsemane; the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the death; the same Spirit who invaded the lives of the first disciples in Pentecost; the living, loving laughing, life-giving Spirit of God that we saw in Jesus is now our Helper, our powerful Friend. In the hour of darkness, under the shadow of death, when it feels for all the world as if we are going down for the last time, isn’t it good to know we are not alone, that the Helper is on the way.
I am both fascinated and frustrated with “doom and gloom” Christians who are always warning that the “end is near.” Listed to some and you will get the idea the whole world has fallen so far all we can do is hold on for the downhill slide and wait for God to shut down the roller coaster. This is the religion of the helpless and hopeless, those who prepare for the worst. But that isn’t the way Jesus tells disciples to live. “In the crucible of suffering we hear the sound of laughter, the song of gladness, the voice of hope, because we know Christ has overcome the power of evil and is present with us through the Holy Spirit.”
Try to put yourself in the place of the first readers of John’s Gospel. Try to imagine how it felt to live under the oppressive heel of Roman occupation, with all the power of the emperor stacked up against you, the hungry lions growling for their dinner in the arena. Imagine how it felt to be politically and economically powerless, shut out because you refused to say, “Caesar is lord.” Imagine what it is like to have no legal right of appeal, no freedom of speech, no recourse from the fury of armed might. Imagine how it feels to live in North Korea with a leader who has proclaimed himself “President for eternity.” Imagine what it feels like to be a Christian living in the Middle East where a minority of the population would like to remove your head just because you proclaim Jesus as Lord. Or, stand in solidarity, if you can, with the poor and oppressed of South America. If you can truly place yourself in any of these conditions, you can understand the realism of Jesus’ words: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you… In the world you face persecution.”
That’s realism; that’s just how this world is. For the first followers of Jesus, the phrase “comfortable Christian” would have been on oxymoron, a contradiction of terms. Given the circumstances, you might expect this Gospel to be filled with gloom and doom. But listen to this: “You will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy… I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you… In the world you will face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
There’s no denying the tough realities of human experience, no avoiding the pain of suffering, no hiding from the persecution. But in the midst of suffering we hear the sound of laughter, the song of gladness, the voice of hope, because we know Christ has overcome the power of evil and is present with us through the Holy Spirit. The Helper comes to empower us to live victoriously in this world, not to help us pack our bags for the next world. The Holy Spirit is Christ present among us, saying, and “Be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.”
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul describes the way we experience the help of God. “Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… the God from whom all help comes! He helps us in all our troubles, so we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help we ourselves have received from God. Just as we have a share in Christ’s many sufferings, so also through Christ we share in God’s great help… We know that just as you share in our sufferings, you also share in the help we receive.” Paul describes a marvelous chain reaction in which we receive God’s help in our trouble and are enabled to help others with the same kind of help we receive. But this help comes only to those who share in the suffering of others. The miracle of grace is that the Helper helps us in our own trouble when we help others in theirs.
Rev. James Harnish tells the story of having shared in the ministry of Central Methodist Mission in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa in the summer of 1990. He visited and worked with men and women whose faith was forged in the furnace of apartheid, people who had faced detention, imprisonment, ridicule, and persecution because of their prophetic stand for justice, equality, and non-violence. They were black Christians who had suffered the violence of racism and white Christians who had entered into the suffering of the black people around them. They continued to face very difficult times. But when Harnish remembered their faces, he said he saw their smiles. When he listened for their voices, he heard laughter as well as tears.
When you visit with people like those you can find yourself asking, “Why are they smiling? Where do they find such joy?” The answer is clear” their joy comes from the same place as their pain; it comes in knowing suffering can result in new life. Their laughter emerges from the same place as their tears. Their gladness is found only through sorrow – it is, Jesus said, the kind of gladness a woman feels when she experiences the very real pain of childbirth – and this gladness comes in knowing we have a powerful Friend. And their hope comes from knowing the Helper has come.
In the days when we as a nation are tempted to think we are invincible, all-powerful, and able to stand on our own, it is good to remember that if the fledgling United States of America had not had a powerful friend in France, the odds are good the cause would have been lost. Isn’t it good to know that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, attempting to be his body in the world, we have a powerful Friend in the Holy Spirit, who comes to stand with us? Be of Good cheer! The Helper is on the way! “…I believe in the Holy Spirit…