Scripture: John 14:16-17
When I was a kid, growing up in church, I learned how to pray to God – Our Father who art in heaven – who I learned to picture somewhere along the way as an old white man with long white hair. To be fair, I’m not sure that my church actually presented me with that image directly; that’s one of those things that it’s easy to pick up along the way, even though it’s wrong. I also learned, though, that this God was the one who had made the world and everything in it, that God was love, that this God had sent Jesus to earth to teach us and to die for our sins.
When I was a kid growing up in church, I learned the stories of Jesus, and for this I give special credit to Mrs. Allender, my Sunday School teacher, and to Mrs. Lau, who always gave the children’s sermon. I knew that Jesus healed people who were sick and forgave people’s sins. I knew that he called fishermen to fish for people, and that he calmed storms and told stories and multiplied loaves of bread, and of course I knew that he died on a cross and rose again.
I could tell you about God, our Father, and I could tell you about God’s Son Jesus, and, if you had asked me, as a kid growing up in church, about the Holy Spirit, I could have told you that yes, there was definitely one of those too. I was the kind of kid who paid attention in church, so maybe I could have sung you a line of one hymn or another: Praise the Spirit, Holy Spirit, Alleluia; God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.
And if you had asked me any more than that, I would have been a little harder pressed to answer.
My sense is that I am not alone in that. There are some Christian traditions that talk a lot about the Holy Spirit, but mainline Protestant traditions do not really tend to be among them. We talk about God, by whom we usually mean God the Father, the first person of the Trinity; and we talk about Jesus; and when it comes to the Holy Spirit we’re often left in this place of yes, we know there is one of those, too, but what exactly we mean by that is kind of up in the air.
And, actually, you can hardly blame us, because the Holy Spirit has been a bit of a head-scratcher for Christians almost since the beginning. Listen to this first version of the Nicene Creed adopted in 325 CE:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
Later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, some stuff was added to the end there, to kind of fill things out a little. In this later version of the creed we say that that Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. And still, I suspect there’s room for us to say more about just who and what the Holy Spirit really is.
In a few weeks it will be Pentecost, the one Sunday of the year when we do reliably pay attention to the Holy Spirit in mainline Protestant churches, and so in these weeks leading up to Pentecost, we’re going to be talking about just that.
In the Scripture passage we read today, Jesus is in the middle of his farewell speech to his disciples, just before his arrest. He tells them to love one another; he tells them that they will do works even greater than his and he tells them to keep his commandments. And he tells them he is leaving, but that someone else will come to be with them forever.
The word Jesus uses for this new arrival is parakletos, a Greek word that doesn’t just have one good English translation. In the KJV it’s Comforter, in the NRSV it’s Advocate, in the CEB Companion; the World English Bible uses Counselor. We can think of this parakletos as all of these things. The one whose arrival Jesus promises is one who helps, who encourages, who appeals on our behalf. Later in his speech (14:26), Jesus makes it clear that this parakletos is in fact the Holy Spirit – who has not been absent from Scripture up until this point, but will now be present with Jesus’ followers in a new way.
These images take us in some different directions: a friend who wraps us in a comforting hug is different from a lawyer who is literally our advocate or counsel in court, and that’s different from being a high-profile person who advocates for a good cause. But what all of these senses of the world parakletos have in common is that this is someone who is for us: someone who helps us, strengthens us, guides us in the direction of truth, someone who is on our side. If (at Christmas, especially) we talk about Jesus as “God with us,” maybe then we can talk about the Holy Spirit as God For Us.
Paul fills out this image a little more for us in his letter to the Romans. There in chapter 8 he describes the Spirit not only as the one who gives us assurance of our status as God’s children, but who also prays for us when we don’t have the words. And I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of times that I don’t have the words. I think of when my dad was fighting cancer, and all I wanted, of course, was for him to be well; but at some point it became clear that he wasn’t going to be well in the way that I wanted, and how, anyway, could I claim to know what was good or what he needed. It meant a lot to me during that time to have friends and others who could pray for me when I didn’t really know what to say, and it made a difference too to know that God understood: that all my jumbled emotions were getting translated somehow to the one who I needed to hear them. That, Paul tells us, is the work of the Spirit: God For Us.
I don’t actually mean to talk about Jesus as God With Us and the Spirit as God For Us as if it’s as simple and divisible as that. Here in John Jesus is clear that this is another parakletos who comes to be with the disciples in the way the Jesus has been during his life but won’t be after his death. The Spirit, as Jesus says later in his speech, will both teach the disciples and remind them of all that Jesus has already taught them. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so Jesus and the Spirit are one: Jesus has been and will continue to be God For Us, and the Spirit is and will be God With Us.
Sometimes I do have to stop and wonder what it really means to follow Jesus when Jesus isn’t physically here in front of me. How can I follow someone I can’t see? I may know what Jesus said a long time ago, but how do I know what he would say and think about certain things today? What about when all those things mean doubt gets the better of me?
Well, this is the work of the Holy Spirit: to help us discern what Jesus’ words from so long ago mean for us today; to help us know what following Jesus means in our lives now; to strengthen us when times get tough and stand beside us when we face resistance from ourselves or the world around us along the way. The Holy Spirit makes God the Father and Jesus the Son in heaven real to us here and now.
This coming week, I hope you will have the chance to experience and reflect on how God is present in your life and in the world as the Holy Spirit with us and for us.
We may not understand who or what the Holy Spirit exactly is, and that’s OK. It’s not as important to fully understand as it is to be able to recognize her work in and around us. And when all the theology of it is jumbled in our mind, and we don’t always know the right words to use, we still have a God who knows our joy and our pain, who helps us and teaches us and guides us and strengthens us: a God who in everything is for us.