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The “Parakeet”

May 2, 2016

“The ‘Parakeet’” John 14:23-29 © 5.1.16 Easter 6C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Last week we listened in on a conversation Jesus had with his disciples on his last night with them before his betrayal and crucifixion. He gave them what he called a “new commandment,” that they love one another as he had loved them. We learned that such love is the distinctive mark, the badge, of a true follower of Christ.

Today we’re still with Jesus and his friends as our Lord’s farewell speech continues. In the morning’s text, the focus shifts away from how members of the community of faith regard each other to how they show their love for Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus keep his word or words, which in fact come from God the Father.

But there’s another theme even more prominent here. Jesus, this One who has been present with them for three years, is leaving his friends. How will they cope? Who will be their companion in their anxiety and loneliness and doubt? With so much more to learn, so much they don’t yet understand, where will they turn for answers, for help, for guidance along their journeys of faith?

For John, Jesus is aware of everything, and he certainly realizes how his friends are feeling. So he promises them “another” to be with them so, as our Lord put it, they wouldn’t be “orphaned.” This will be one who will be by their side. That’s what the Greek word the writer uses means. Translations have it variously as “Advocate,” “Helper,” “Counselor,” “Comforter.” The term is so rich it’s probably best simply not to translate it and say the “Paraclete.” If you have difficulty with such a strange word, just remember “parakeet.” Jesus promises the holy parakeet.

Our Lord identifies this new Paraclete as the Holy Spirit. He has been the first Paraclete, the one with the disciples. But now that he’s going away, the Spirit will be their teacher. The Spirit will help them keep Jesus’ word by continual reminders of what he said and did.

Jesus talks about the Paraclete in very personal terms, as a “someone” not a “something.” That makes pronouns referring to the Spirit even trickier than usual when talking about God in general. We may be used to thinking of a spirit or the Spirit as a force like a mighty rushing wind or an inner compulsion to testify. Maybe we speak of inspiration for a song or a piece of art, even the creative power that gives life. The prophets, along with Luke and Acts and even John lead us in that direction. So, we speak of the Spirit as “it.” And that’s fine when we use those metaphors. But the Paraclete is like a good friend sitting beside your bed in the hospital, comforting you; like a lawyer who defends you in court, reassuring you of a good outcome for your case; like the pastor or the therapist or the trusted family member you seek out for advice and counsel; like the fearless classmate or co-worker who speaks up for you when you’re bullied or criticized, who would go to bat for you, testify to your character; like anyone who gives you needed help, who rushes to you when called. Your or I can’t help but think of particular people who fill or have filled all those roles. So we want to label the Spirit as “he” or “she.” And that’s fine, too. The Paraclete is of indeterminate gender, as is fitting for the complexity of God’s reality, which is beyond our understanding and our language. For example, the Spirit gives birth, according to John, but also fathers children. In the morning’s text, the Spirit comes from the Father representing the Son, both masculine images. Further complicating matters is that the word “spirit” in Aramaic and Hebrew is feminine, while in Greek, it’s neuter. “Paraclete,” on the other hand, in Greek is masculine. So throughout this sermon, I’m going to use various pronouns referring to the Counselor, Comforter, Advocate sent by God.

With that out of the way, then, let me invite you to notice three things about the Paraclete. First, he’s sent by the Father. The Spirit comes as gracious gift. There is no technique we can learn for getting the Spirit, no step-by-step instruction manual to follow. Of course, there are spiritual practices which can help us increase our sensitivity to God, to get more in touch with our inner lives, but we can’t get the Spirit the way we purchase an item from a store. It’s not inherited or gained by osmosis from standing next to somebody endowed with it. As the late preacher Fred Craddock once said: “That God gives the Spirit is a natural corollary to salvation by grace; that there is a way we can get it is blasphemous arrogance.”

So the Spirit is not the exclusive possession of those Christians who claim to have “gotten” him, as demonstrated by spectacular displays. The promise of Jesus is that the Father will send the Paraclete to Christians in every age. The common ideas about the Spirit have tended to be drawn from 1 Corinthians or maybe from some of the stories in Acts, and everything has been made to fit that mold. The John tradition, though, asks us to see the Spirit in another light. As one writer has it: “Advocate is an adult name. The Spirit, though, is most often presented to us by the church as a child or as a bird—one who blesses, refreshes, enlivens, excites, inspires, runs free. But none of these qualities belong to the name Advocate, a serious, mature, intense worker. An advocate speaks, pleads, argues in favor, supports by argument, urges support . . . these are the definitions of advocate, and though we can make the connection between them and blessing, between them and enlivening, the connection is not automatic, and does not flow on the wings of emotional association” (Nancy Rockwell, “The Advocate,” www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/the-advocate/).

So the Spirit, the holy parakeet, is present and active when people help each other. She is among and in us when we courageously confront injustice. He is here whenever we share our goods, shelter the stranger, feed the hungry, comfort the sick and dying, tell the good news of God’s love in Jesus. She is at work whenever we gather in community to hear God’s Word and are challenged to be reconciled to and understand each other. The Spirit is present whenever we give evidence that the same divine light shines in us that glowed in Jesus of Nazareth (suggested by Rachel Henderlite, “The Call to Faith,” The Presbyterian Outlook, 2.3.86: 21).

A primary task of this Spirit who comes as gift “in Jesus’ name,” as his representative and presence, is to remind us of all Jesus said. The Paraclete Spirit testifies in our hearts and minds to Jesus, the historical person, the Jewish man, who lived in a particular town in a country occupied by a foreign, oppressive power; who lived among and taught many kinds of people—poor and rich, pariah and insider, radicals and conservatives. He traveled with and made friends with men and women whom he taught during his lifetime and who tried to pass on his words, variously remembered and interpreted, to new generations.

So the Paraclete’s ministry in part is to keep before the church its story. For some people, faith is radically ahistorical. Nothing matters except “me and Jesus” in the present moment. As one writer observes: “We elevate private experience of Christ over a shared experience among fellow believers” (Joel Miller, “The Trouble with Me-and-Jesus Christianity,” https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/joeljmiller/me-and-jesus-christianity/). Two thousand plus years of church history, and centuries of the experience of the people of God before Christ are dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant. The art, architecture, and music of the church over the years, the theological enterprises of Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Barth, and so many others, are disdained for a pop Christianity as ephemeral as the secular culture it copies. Ignorance of the history of one’s own church and of the church at large is almost made into a virtue, all in the name of a quest for an immediate experience of Jesus in an historical vacuum.

But Christian experience, especially that celebrated in the Eucharist, is an exercise in memory. We remember, and that memory empowers and renews us. For all our different spins on it, going all the way back to the Bible itself, we share a common story, in which the Spirit of God has been active. The classic theologian H. Richard Niebuhr made clear the importance of a common memory, which John says is given by the Paraclete. Niebuhr wrote: “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share the same past, there can be no real community, and where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” A more contemporary observer notes: “We grasp what we can and gain the rest from the witness and memory of the larger community. It’s the cumulative insight of the church that gives us the best picture of Christ, a picture that reflects not only a diversity of contemporary opinion but those of centuries upon centuries.

“That’s how God designed it. Our access comes through each other.

“We live and worship God in community because we can’t see enough of him on our own. Christians who isolate themselves from the body, whatever its defects and deficiencies, are consigning themselves to a peculiarly distorted and limited view of God: their own.

“The Christian faith isn’t about Jesus and me. By necessity it’s about Jesus and us” (Miller, loc. cit.).

Beware, then, those who claim to have the Spirit of Christ, but disdain the story of God with the church. Do not follow those who work to divide the Christian community or who devalue it.

Third, notice that the Paraclete will teach the disciples “all things.” The Spirit keeps teaching because the church is always facing new situations in which it needs to hear afresh the word of Christ. Even with eyewitnesses gone, with Jesus physically gone, the church has a link to him through the Spirit. The first century church had to face situations for which there was no specific word of Jesus. One of those is described in Acts, namely, the Jerusalem council gathered to decide how to include Gentiles in the faith. What did Jesus say about the terms on which Gentiles were to be accepted? Answer: nothing. The church had to debate and resolve the issue guided by the presence of Christ through the Paraclete, the Counselor who gave them wisdom, the Advocate who spoke for the outsiders seeking inclusion. The Spirit was there in a creative, contemporizing way, leading the church into its future.

In the same way, she is with us in today’s church, as we face the thorny issues of our time. To be sure, people still ask the basic human questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? But there are also new questions raised by all the possibilities and problems of our day. All who live into and face tomorrow need the guidance of the Spirit to help them face new challenges posed by technologies and ways of living that would have been unimaginable and utterly alien to people in the tenth century BC or the first century AD. There is so much we would like Jesus to have spoken specifically about, but he’s silent. Even if he had had opportunity to teach everything he had to say, which he didn’t, there are issues of our time which were not even remotely on the horizon in his day. That’s why we need the Paraclete. He teaches us “everything,” and the word we hear is the word of our Lord. As A Declaration of Faith puts it: “In Christ God’s Word of demand is lived out: to love God and neighbor as he did is what God requires of us. The Spirit adds no different Word from God, but leads us deeper into the truth of God uttered in Jesus Christ.” The Church, responsibly and prayerfully, has to seek the guidance of the Paraclete as we try to address the issues of the world we are called to serve and the concerns that arise with the community of faith itself. That such help will be given is the promise of Jesus to his own in every time and place.

There’s so much to learn and even more to do. We want to know someone is standing with us, beside us. God’s promise, his gift, is precisely such a person. We can’t see the Holy Spirit, but we know he is at work, she is present, it is moving. We don’t need to seek out or court the spectacular to experience the Paraclete. He is there when people take the Bible seriously and try to live out a reflective and responsible theology. She’s offering counsel when two people in a relationship or a conference of leaders facing a crisis must decide what to do to bring reconciliation and peace. He is in the midst of us when we offer or receive love and comfort, when we know peace of mind that only God can give, when we want to jump for joy, so full is our heart. There is the Spirit. We need look no farther than right beside us, here among us.

You may remember from back in the day a button or a poster which said “Please be patient; God is not finished with me yet.” How true, both of individual believers and the Church. And indeed, of the world. The work of God in church and world and in our personal lives is not over. He is always moving to reform, renew, refresh. He continues to teach, to guide, to sit beside us in the holy parakeet. And the Spirit will not rest until she has finished all that she has been commissioned to do, when peace comes to our hearts and on earth, peace which only God can give.

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