Rev. Rebecca Heilman
(John 14: 15-31)
The Holy Spirit is the lesser-known being of the Trinity. It’s the quieter being that moves and flows, often without us even noticing it. It’s the being that can move us to tears and then push the church in bold directions. It’s the being that can surprise us to our soul. I remember as a child learning about the Trinity. There were all sorts of examples used to help children, and let’s be honest, adults as well to understand the strange theological concept of three beings into one God. As a child, I heard metaphors such as, the Trinity is like the different forms of water – liquid, ice, and vapor. The Trinity is like an egg – there’s the yolk, the egg whites, and the shell, all in one egg. This next metaphor might go over some of your heads. The Trinity is like a boom box – it can play the radio, a CD, and a cassette tape. While these metaphors don’t REALLY grasp the mystery of the Holy Trinity, they at least give an idea. The Trinity is three in one, all equal, all interrelated, but not REALLY the same. No one being is above or more powerful than the other. And yet they are all God. But even with these fun metaphors as a child, I still didn’t quite understand the Holy Spirit to its fullness. We didn’t really talk about it in church or Sunday school unless it was Pentecost or Trinity Sunday.
And so the Holy Spirit was overlooked in my life, never really lifted up as having much significance in the presence of faith. Until my Christian Education professor in College taught us the Greek for the Holy Spirit. John, the Gospel writer’s word for the Holy Spirit is paraklētos, translated as advocate, comforter, helper, or intercessor. It is “a compound word merging the preposition, para, which means ‘with’ or ‘alongside,’ with the verb kaleō, [which means] ‘to call.’ [Essentially,] the Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us.” Why don’t we talk about the Spirit in this way more?
In our passage today, Jesus is informing the disciples that he is about to leave them. That he will not be there forever. Jesus knows that he is about to be killed by the Roman Empire. And in full Jesus fashion, he can’t leave his disciples without giving them some comfort. And that comfort, while listening to the text, might sound overwhelming, repetitive, and confusing, the bottom line of it is Jesus leaves them with the biggest commandment, to love and Jesus does not leave them to love alone. Listen again to what Jesus tells the disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them. Know that 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.”Jesus is reassuring the disciples that they will never be alone. Although they may not be able to see Jesus, they will be able to feel the Holy Spirit – the advocate, the comforter. I imagine the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’s words any more than we do now. They didn’t understand his death was creeping in as the Roman Empire circled them. They didn’t understand that they, too, would fear for their lives. They didn’t understand the loneliness that would engulf their every being. I imagine that when Jesus died and had been dead for those three days before his resurrection that the disciples leaned heavily into the arms of the Holy Spirit, for where else could they turn in those lonely and traumatic days?
How many times have you turned to the Holy Spirit when you don’t know where else to turn? Or how many times when you were lost and lonely, you felt some sort of presence, a sort of comfort, maybe you can’t explain it or put words to it. This translation of the Holy Spirit as the one who is called to be alongside us can be especially profound when faced with anxiety, when suffering from a loss, when wondering about the uncertainties in the future. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, a theologian, invites us to consider in difficult times that “just as Jesus warns the disciples that he will leave them soon and offers the Holy Spirit as a consoler to be ‘in’… or ‘among’” them so does Christ offer the Comforter to be with us as people “suffering from loss, separation, and broken human relationships.”
These last few weeks have felt like dejavu. The pandemic is raging again, where in Mecklenburg County alone, the infection rate of Covid has bounced up to 10%. We are once again hearing disturbing and scary stories all over the place, including from members within our own congregation. The taste of some sort of relief for vaccinated individuals was delicious, to say the least. We could hug each other, enjoy a party with little concern, share a meal that we didn’t have to cook, and worship in the space we love so much with little concern of harming our friends. That taste of relief this week is dissolving into a belly ache of disappointment. A sort of dejavu for where we were over a year ago or even last Christmas.
This virus, this hideous virus, is creeping back into our lives and reminding us of the loneliness of being at home, the loss of community, the loss of lives, the fear of who can I trust, the anger of our world being taken away from us. We’ve endured so much this past year and half. We have been in our own exile and we thought we were free, at least free enough and on the holy path home. And yet, for some of us, we are questioning if we can endure this new stage of the pandemic where children who have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated are at real risk and where nursing homes are taking precautions again to keep all those with other illnesses, safe. Can we endure another stage in this pandemic?
Just like the disciples, Jesus had to leave them and they were forced into that scary, unclear, nearly unmanageable time. BUT Jesus did not leave them alone. Jesus left them with the commandment to love (the simplest and most difficult challenge we know) and Jesus left them with the Comforter to love with them. That’s the hope we can pull from this story and that’s the hope we can pull from the world we are in right now. We love and we know that the one who is called alongside us loves with us. We love the children of this congregation, doing all we can do to protect them, and we know that the one who is called alongside us is facing the fears of this world, weeping with us. We care for the most vulnerable in our community and we know that the one who is a helper and advocator teaches us every day how to care with full hearts. We respect the wishes of those around us and we know that the one who is called to be alongside us will settle peace in our hearts and into the community in distress. Jesus left his disciples with the commandment to love and Jesus did not leave them alone to figure it out on their own. As Steve says, “love, it’s all that simple and it’s all that hard.”