Saturday, May 07, 2005

can you hear me now?

in John 14, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure. Call it his transition plan. Did you read the wonderful little book Tuesday With Morrie? It sold a few copies. I have written a couple of books, actually three, none of them have sold as many copies as Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays With Morrie, at least not yet. I do have an idea for a book, however. I haven’t written it, but the title is Left Behind on Tuesdays with Harry Potter.

At any rate, each Tuesday Mitch, the author would meet with his mentor, Morrie, and Morrie would talk about life. That is what is happening here. The teacher is leaving, and the students are wondering: what’s going to happen to us?

The master is direct and to the point: if you love me you will keep my commandments. He had given them a new commandment in the 13th chapter of John: love one another, just as I have loved you. The heart of Christianity has always been love, and the test of Christianity has always been how we live in love, it has been, at its core “faith working through love” (Galatians 5. 6), a favorite scripture of John Wesley’s.

Continue in my teachings, Jesus says. Continue to love one another. And then there is promise: The Father will give you an Advocate, to be with you forever. The New Testament was written in the Greek language, and I want to spend some time with this one Greek word this morning, because it is so important. In verse 16, the word is paraclete. The Father will give you a paraclete, to be with you forever.

This word is so rich that it has multiple meanings, and we need to grasp them all. Our English Bibles are translations of the Greek, and there are four common renderings of this one Greek word: The King James translates the word as “comforter”. The New Revised Standard Version has it as “advocate”. And the New International Version has it as “Counselor”. The Message translates the word paraclete as “Friend”.

Jesus is leaving the disciples, but the Paraclete—Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, Friend---will be with them forever. The fullness of this Greek word is worth exploring.

When we think of comfort we may think of the Peanuts cartoon where Linus carries around his blanket, and that is a part of the meaning: we need someone who will be with us, like that blanket was with Linus. If you have ever had a child who became attached to some object, something that comforted them, you know how important this is…you may know how miserable they can become, and you can become, when they didn’t have that comforter. Life could become pretty uncomfortable!

But the word comfort points to something more. The second part of that wonderful word, comfort, is the word “fort”. A comforter is one who strengthens, who builds a fortress, who gives courage, sustaining us in situations that we never thought we could make it through.

The Holy Spirit as advocate is a sign that God is not only with us, God is for us. The spirit intercedes with us, even when we don’t know how to praythe Apostle Paul writes. An advocate is one who works on our behalf, seeking the best for us, steering us from danger, guiding us to safety. And that is the work of the Spirit. If God is for us, Paul asks in Romans 8, who can be against us?

Sometimes it helps to know that someone is on our side! I love going to high school volleyball games and watching ACC basketball games and sometimes Braves baseball games. And I have to admit: I am not bi-partisan. I am not objective. I am for my team. I want them to win!

Jesus says the Father will give you another Advocate. Interesting word there: another, meaning, most scholars insist, that Jesus also is their advocate. Meaning, the Spirit is pulling for us, cheering for us, encouraging us. If God is for us, who can be against us?

What a wonderful concept. God is not some detached, objective observer. God is an advocate, who will be with us forever, through the Holy Spirit.

Paraclete is also translated counselor. For me, this points to the still, small voice of God, to the wisdom of God that is there, that will guide us toward the truth , if we will listen, to the convicting power of conscience, to the peace that comes when we have settled on the correct decision and begun to walk in the right path.

I have known some wonderful counselors over the years. Many of them are men and women of deep Christian faith. The best counselors are people who listen to us, and because they are such great listeners they force us to say things that express the depths of our hearts. And when we have said these things---gotten them out before another person---there is often a clarity and even a freedom. Sometimes we are in bondage to powers that should have no control over us. And sometimes we make assumptions about life that aren’t necessarily helpful to us.

The Holy Spirit as counselor guides us into the truth that God sees for us, and about us.

The paraclete is also a friend. To me this is one of the underappreciated dimensions of Christianity: the importance of friendship. Friends are people who support us and who hold us accountable, who have seen us at our best and at our worst, who are there for us before we even have to call them. Sometimes they live near us, sometimes a great distance away, and yet, when we need them, they are there.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in just this way: supportive when we need it---hang in there!---and accountable when we need that too---you’re really about to mess up! In the next chapter of John, Jesus says something that is truly remarkable:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends. (John 15. 14-15)

Jesus is about to leave the disciples, but he is making them aware of a wonderful gift: The paraclete is a comforter. Blessed are those who mourn, he had taught in the sermon on the mount, for they will be comforted. The paraclete is also an advocate, speaking on behalf of a person in a trial, interceding to the judge on his or her behalf. A counselor is one who guides us toward the truth, and away from falsehood. A friend is someone who is there, and that is close to the literal meaning of paraclete: to stand alongside. A friend stands alongside us.

The promise to the disciples, and to us, is that in times of uncertainty, confusion, loss, and grief, we will have the presence of a comforter and advocate, a counselor and friend. This is the Holy Spirit, a gift of God to us, who not only stands alongside us but, Jesus says in verse 17, lives in us.

I will not leave you comfortless, he says to them. That was the great promise of Jesus to his disciples, and to us. I will not leave you orphaned, comfortless, desolate.

I will be with you, Jesus is saying. I will be with you forever.

I am still trying to decide whether cell phones are a good thing or a bad thing. I am driving down Providence Road, and I’m watching the person in front of me juggle eyeliner, a cigarette, and a cell phone, not to mention the steering wheel, and I wonder: are cell phones a good thing? I am minding my own business, drinking coffee in a restaurant in the early morning, and the guy next to me is taking calls about purchase orders and chronically troubled employees, and I wonder: are cell phones a good thing?

Cell phones are changing our lives. Can you hear me now? I am aware of the positive contributions of cell phones. I do imagine that there was a time when a young person went off to college, and perhaps they spoke on the phone with their parents once a week, maybe, or wrote letters once or twice during the semester. Now, with cell phones, you might talk several times a day. Of course, I know that they have assigned us parents particular ring tones, which helps them to screen us out, but there are ways around that, too. We are much more in touch through cell phones. And I can imagine that, in my lifetime, we will probably have something like a cell phone surgically implanted in our ears, a little tone will chime, our own little technological still, small voice. It will become a part of us.

That is the point that Jesus is making. The spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the friend will abide with you, and will be in you. And that is our hope and prayer. That Christianity is not just something out there, but that is also something in here. It is always a part of us. I will be with you, even to the ends of the earth, Jesus says. This is the blessed assurance, but it is also a clear threat.

Once this Christianity gets into our bloodstream, it leads us to do all kinds of things that the world deems absurd: love our enemies, forgive those who harm us, be patient with those who exasperate us, see people not for who they are or for what they own but for who, in God’s image, they might become.

I will not leave you, he says; I am coming to you. If you are a parent, and if you have a child, you have implanted something in them, whether you know it or not. Your child is going to grow up and move away from you, either geographically or spiritually or perhaps both. But they are going to need you. We need to know where we are in the world, we need some kind of global positioning device. Jesus says: I will not leave you, I will be with you. You’re not getting away from me.

John 14. 15-21 is framed by a reminder to keep the commandments (verses 15, 21). God is with those who keep his commandments. Those who keep the commandments love God. Those who keep the commandments are called friends by Jesus. Authentic Christianity is always gift and demand. Parents call it tough love. God is with us, God is never going to leave us, but God is going to require something of us, and that is that we keep the commandments. The new commandment that Jesus had given in John 13 was to love one another.

We know that we love Jesus if we follow his example and love one another. To live in this kind of way, to be loving people, we are going to need some help.

A comforter, because we are going to get bruised.

An advocate, because we are going to get discouraged.

A counselor, because we are going to become confused.

A friend, because we cannot do this alone.

So the teacher prepared his disciples, his friends, for a future that would be very different. Rooted in commandments that are 2000 years old, and yet related to a presence that was as near to them as their next breaths, they were getting ready for what would come next. They had no idea what that would be.

Morrie was helping his student Mitch to adjust with whatever would happen next, and along the way he was passing along his vision of life to Mitch , who had become his friend.

Jesus is passing along his vision of life to his friends, the disciples. And whenever we gather, to break the bread and tell the story, we are passing a long a vision of life. Do this in remembance of me, he says.

Love one another. Keep the commandments. And remember that you are not alone. You have a comforter, an advocate, a counselor, a friend, who will be with you.



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