John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
Jesus does not hide the truth. Yes, your life will change, I will be leaving you, and you will be sad and sorrowful. But, I will not leave you on your own, like orphans. ‘I will ask the Father, and he will send you another “parakletos” (the Greek word John uses here) to be with you forever.’ Who is this ‘parakletos’ whom he promises? The word literally means someone ‘called in’, and in Classical Greek this person was often an expert ‘called in’ to give you advice when in trouble – like the Church Pension Fund experts called in to advise on coping with stress. But they could also be a kind of advocate, standing by you publicly to support and guide you when you were in trouble. A parakletos would also be called in when a company of soldiers was dispirited or depressed to inspire them and put new courage into their hearts and minds: to cheer them on. So, in Scripture, this Greek word has usually been translated into English in ways which try to pick up all these different senses of the word. So, in our Gospel reading today from St John, the word is most commonly translated as ‘advocate’: ‘I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate’. This person will be sent to stand by the disciples, to support them in their distress, and to work on their behalf. Another favorite translation is that used in the King James Version, where the Father ‘will give you another Comforter’. This person will ‘comfort’ you, in the sense of ‘fortifying’ you, helping to make you strong and brave, to ‘cheer you on’.
But for John, there is much more. The Advocate/Comforter whom the Father will send us will not just pay us a visit to advise us, stand by us, strengthen us and cheer us on. No, John promises us three extraordinary things about this person. First, once you have called in and received the Spirit, he will be with you forever. Second, the Spirit will ‘abide with you’; that is, will always be very, very close to you. The Spirit will dwell with you, closer than your breath, attentive to your every thought, your every fear. Then third, and most wonderfully and mysteriously, John says, ‘He will be in you.’ He will be in you. The Advocate whom Jesus promises us, if invited, will come into our very hearts and live there forever. And so, a few verses later, John will, for the first time, call the Advocate by another name – the ‘Holy Spirit’. At our baptism we received this same Holy Spirit into our lives, to ‘abide and live in us forever.’ And what is characteristic of the Spirit is that he is always calling us to larger life – to ‘live life in abundance’ – to glorify God every moment by being fully alive. ‘The Spirit gives life’!
And that, I believe, directly challenges us during this season of ‘lock down’ when we are isolated and maybe not working. It is an extremely stressful time, but the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who lives in us, and is always calling us to live abundantly, is I believe saying to us during this time, ‘Don’t put your life on hold!’ Don’t say, ‘Well, once this is all over, then I can start living again.’ No, the Spirit is always trying to bring us back to the present moment, and saying to us,’ NOW is the time to become more fully alive. Now, today. I love the words of advice given by the elderly man in Henry James’ “The Ambassadors”, when reflecting with some regret on his life. He says, ‘Live’, ‘live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.’ Maybe this challenging time we are living through now, with all its stress and strangeness and confinement, may actually be a spiritual gift for us. Because we don’t have our usual distractions and we are ‘stuck’ at home, maybe the invitation from the Spirit within us is to see this time as a precious opportunity to discover a new and larger life; to go deeper, to discover a rich and wondrous world within us, to be explored, with the Spirit as our guide.
I remember a few years ago, we brothers went to Emery House in August for our annual retreat. For several weeks I had been feeling very low: I was bored and listless. I just couldn’t get going. I felt like a ship that had been becalmed. No wind. Going nowhere. Just stuck. I didn’t know what to do, and I rather dreaded the ten days of silence ahead. But the image of the ship was one which I prayed with. I asked God to send me the wind to blow in my sails, and bring me to life again. Nothing happened, so I went for a long walk in the Maudsley State Park. It was very hot and still, and as I walked I said to God, ‘Come on, send me the wind, send me the Spirit.’ I eventually sat down on a knoll overlooking the Merrimac. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the leaves of the trees started rustling, and this strange ‘wind’ blew down the hillside. I couldn’t believe it, and I just jumped up and down. And I took off!
I share this experience because these things can happen. But I have discovered that you do have to ask for them. So, if the present time is making you feel stir crazy, bored, or listless, don’t put your life on hold! Instead, consider whether this might be an invitation to you from the Spirit, to live life abundantly: now… today. However dull or becalmed we may feel during these days, the Holy Spirit is powerful, and can pound us back to life. But the Spirit is also gentle and courteous, and will not ‘gate-crash’ our hearts. The Spirit longs to be asked.
Don’t put your life on hold. But rather, today, at home, pray for the gift of the Spirit. ‘Come Holy Spirit, my soul inspire’. ‘Breathe on me breath of God’. Then wait in silence and expectancy for the Spirit’s coming and for power. And then… maybe…raise your sails… to catch the wind, and take off!
‘Live, all you can. It’s a mistake not to.’
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