When I was teaching confirmation class, I would quiz the students on various aspects of Christianity. One of my questions was, “Who are the three persons of the Trinity?” One of my favorite students, Nicky, answered, “God, Jesus, and that Ghost Guy.” I had to bite my cheeks to keep for laughing out loud.
One Greek word for Holy Spirit is the Greek word, paraclete. My students thought it was either a bird or some kind of athletic shoe. The word paraclete is used only five times in all of the Gospel of John and most often it is used to mean “counselor.” Perhaps you can think of a time when life seemed hopeless and you were given help and wisdom that you didn’t know you had.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is talking to his disciples using the English translation, “Advocate”, for the Holy Spirit. He is trying to tell them that they will not be abandoned but rather will have the Holy Spirit to help them after he is gone.
We too aren’t always sure about the identity of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps don’t call upon this member of the trinity to help us in times of need. So today I want to share three particular aspects of the Holy Spirit that we can call upon. The Holy Spirit can give us wisdom, courage, and love.
First, a story about wisdom. A pilot, a business executive, a pastor and a Boy Scout were flying together on a small private plane when they suddenly experienced engine trouble. Within a matter of minutes, the pilot said, “This plane is going down. Furthermore, I have noticed that we have only three parachutes on board. I have a wife and children at home. They are expecting me for dinner.” With that, the pilot took a parachute and jumped. Immediately the business executive spoke up and said, “Some people think I am the smartest person on earth. If I should perish in this plane, it would be a great loss, not just to my company, but to the world.” With that, he grabbed for a parachute and jumped. That’s when the pastor turned to the Boy Scout and said, “Son, you are young and I am old. You have your life ahead of you. I’ve finished mine. Take the remaining parachute and jump.” But the Boy Scout said, “Relax, Reverend. The smartest man in the world just took my backpack thinking it was a parachute.”
This is a made-up story, of course, but it makes the point that the Holy Spirit will teach you what you need to know. Wisdom is more than information. Wisdom is discernment, common sense, and truth. In times like these, we can ask for wisdom in our decision-making.
The second aspect of the Holy Spirit is courage. The Holy Spirit can help you face situations that seem impossible.
There was a nature show on television about a black bear that gave birth to two cubs. One cub died right away. Three weeks later the mother bear died and the remaining cub was left to fend for itself. An orphaned cub in that condition is like a walking buffet for predators and of course the camera immediately showed a hungry-looking mountain lion.
One day the orphan cub encountered a giant male black bear. The little cub cowered at the bear’s sheer mass. The larger bear peered around and seemed to realize that the mother bear wasn’t anywhere to be found. He gave the little cub a friendly nudge. The camera then showed the little bear happily trailing along after the larger one. The older bear proceeded to show the cub how to grub for insects and how to catch fish and how to scratch his back against a tree.
One day the two bears became separated. The cub began to cry and looked frantically for his adopted father, but couldn’t find him anywhere. The cub approached a stream where he’d learned to fish and something caught his attention. He looked up to see a mountain lion ready to pounce: That same mountain lion that had stalked the cub for the entire show. There was no way that mountain lion would’ve gone for that cub with Papa bear around, but now…
The camera zoomed in on the cub. He automatically mimicked the posture of his adopted father when threatened. He stood on his hind legs and bared his teeth. Then, in exactly the same way his father would have done, this cub let loose a growl that should have reverberated through the forest. But only a tiny bear cub squeak came out.
Well, you know what was coming. But, to his surprise the mountain lion lowered his head, and ran off in the opposite direction. The camera panned back to the proud little cub still standing tall on his hind legs. And then all the viewers saw what the little cub could not, a few yards behind him, at full, ferocious height, his sharp white teeth bared in a snarl, stood Daddy bear. He may not have made a sound, but he was there.
And even though the cub couldn’t see his father, his father stood guard, protecting his young. The little cub had power available greater than anything he could produce on his own. He found courage backed up by the greater power watching over him. Courage is a strong gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe you can recall a time when you were courageous and you had no idea where that courage came from. It was probably the Holy Spirt guiding you.
Finally, we come to the heart of the Holy Spirit, the love shared between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John’s gospel was written in an age of empire, for the people were surrounded by agents, images of imposed dominion and the weapons to enforce that imperial power. But we find in John’s gospel this strikingly different claim about the power and order that love brings to life and relationships. Jesus assures his followers they will not be alone in their efforts to live a life shaped by love.
Jesus not only claims that God’s love is true; he also claims that God’s love is the source of life. This love is both the source of life and the goal of our lives.
Alan Paton, in his novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, pictures a scene that may illustrate this life-giving power of love. He describes a situation in South Africa during Apartheid in the 1990’s, when laws prevented black South Africans from mixing with whites. At the death of a white South African official who had worked within the system to humanize life for the oppressed, the backs were turned away from his funeral, despite the wishes of the family. But a black pastor, Isaiah Buti, visited the white Chief Justice and asked the judge to participate in the Good Friday service which would observe Jesus’ practice of washing the disciples’ feet. He asked the Chief Justice to wash the feet for a black woman who had been a servant in the judge’s home. The Chief Justice agreed to participate in the service, despite the consequences for his career.
When the time came for the judge to wash Martha Foruin’s feet, the judge came forward and washed and dried her feet. Before he rose to return to his seat, he took her feet and gently kissed them both. It was a gesture that set healing in motion, because in that simple expression of care he disclosed the life-giving power of God’s love and God’s equal regard for all of humanity.
And so today in this tender passage we recall some of Jesus’ gentle farewell words to his disciples. We too, like the disciples, need the Holy Spirit to understand and put God’s love in our hearts with wisdom, courage and love. Let us pray that we may truly love God and others, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, keep God’s commandments.
Dear God, let us remember Jesus’ promise, not to leave us orphaned, but to let the Holy Spirit abide with and in us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.