Ps 68 / John 14:
This term we are following the lectionary readings as the basis for our evening sermons. The lectionary is simply a divinely ordained universally applicable system used to determine which bible readings are appropriate for which Sundays – across all denominations and countries: a sign of the church’s unity.
The theme that emerges from the readings set for Sunday evenings this term, seems to be the question of what it means for God to be with us. We hear words like ‘Emmanuel’ at Christmas – God with us – but what does it mean?
In the Gospel reading from John this evening, Jesus warns his disciples that he will soon disappear from the space time order – but he will be replaced by the Holy Spirit, whom he describes as a someone called alongside to come and help. The original Greek word para-clete has proven a nightmare for translators – the various options conjuring up images of battlefields, law-courts, or the chaise-longue of a supernatural psycho-therapist.
If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry V, you’ll know how a diseased, exhausted and hungry British army had been trudging around French soil declaring – this land is ours don’t you know. Outnumbered five-to-one Henry V rouses the English with a speech about the glory they are about to earn themselves – the battle begins – and the French are slaughtered. And at the end of it – Good king Henry, being godly and humble, reminds those around him – that ‘God-fought-for-us’! I’m not sure if English literature contains a finer example of false humility and blasphemy rolled into one. Sure we won a fine victory – sure, any Englishman that wasn’t here should hold their manhoods cheap, but it wasn’t our doing – God won this battle for us, you know – why else would we have won? God-with-us, in this light, means, God on our side!
It is only natural, of course, to want God to be on our side. You learn this in the playground. When you fall out with your friend – you want to surround yourself with people who will agree with you! Not with people who are going to question your behaviour or your motives or your morals. No – much better to have a friend who will take your side. And of course, if God is the best friend you could ever have – he must be really on your side. As one seventeenth century writer declared, I had rather see coming before me, a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist convinced he’s doing the will of God. God with us.
The Law Court
The word paraclete is often translated as Advocate. An advocate, being someone who speaks on your behalf in court – defending you against your accuser. Here – it would seem – is the biblical proof that whatever else God is, he is a lawyer! And as Lionel Hutz says, if there’s one thing the world needs – it’s more lawyers… Unfortunately, before pressing that analogy too far – the satan of scripture is also a lawyer – the one whose job it is to point the finger at you in accusation. And sadly, the picture we have in all this, is as God as the Judge. Within the context of John’s Gospel however, that does not seem to be the court room drama. The legal context is a little more down-to-earth.
Those living in the Roman empire in the first century, and particularly towards the end of the first century – were expected to recognise Caesar as Lord. It was the inscription on many of their coins, it was broadcast through art and architecture: it was the public religion of the day. So when these subversive pockets of resistance spring up across the empire – announcing that it was not Ceasar but Jesus who was Lord – there was always going to be trouble. Christians would often find themselves in real trouble, simply because they worshipped Jesus and would not acknowledge that Caesar was their saviour, the ultimate source of peace, whose presence was Good news and who was widely considered the Son of God. Being a follower of Jesus meant being dragged into court and the promise of the Paraclete – of an Advocate – is the promise of divine aid in being able to speak for oneself. The paraclete teaches, reminds the disciples to grasp the real identity of Jesus.
The paraclete then, is not a supernatural defence lawyer – with a monstrous hourly fee. His job is not to convince God the judge to overlook your sins and grant you eternity in a realm beyond anyone’s jurisdiction. It is rather – the ability to show that Christianity did not threaten the empire, but would make the empire stronger – both by Giving Caesar what is due to Caesar and God what is due to God. The result would be a peace that runs far deeper than the pax romana.
So there is the battlefield, the law court – and the armchair of the psychotherapist. The word for paraclete is sometimes translated using the ambiguous term, counsellor. Again, one who draws alongside you, offering comfort and consolation. The trouble is, there are so many different kinds of counsellors – many of them offering something called, ‘unconditional positive regard’ – which is fine in certain contexts. But I guess, a good counsellor does what a good friend does – and it is uncomfortable and it hurts. They hold a mirror up to you – helping you to see who you really are in relation to others, what you are really like. Not taking your side against the rest of the world who are clearly all idiots. But allowing you to see for yourself who you really are – and not having to offer counsel – because when you see who you really are in relation to others, you don’t need counsel. So there you are – three images of the paraclete.
It is worth reflecting again then, upon what it means for God to be with us. For most Christian theologians, the Holy Spirit is the dynamic within God’s being – that enables us to experience the presence of God, and the presence of other people. This is, as John V. Taylor used to say, the Spirit of Communication – the one who draws us ever more fully into relation with others. If that sounds a bit general or trite, then it is worth remembering why the Holy Spirit is called the Holy Spirit – not the holier-than-though spirit, or the morally-perfect spirit, or the righteously-pure spirit, or the perfection-isn’t-possible-but-you’ll-burn-in-hell-if-you-don’t-attain-it spirit.
Holiness is not simply some form of moral separateness, whatever is left in life once you take all the fun out of it. Holiness entails what one theologian called, ‘Holy otherness’. The otherness of another person. A person whose mere existence hangs a question mark over our certainties and convictions and beliefs. Otherness is an alternative view of the world. Otherness is a disruptive, disturbing presence that lies beyond the boundaries of all that is familiar, and safe and secure. Otherness threatens all the we treasure, all for which we strive, everything for which we hope.
So to experience the Holy Spirit – is to engage with the other people and with the world beyond me, in such a way as to be changed by it. To be full of the Holy Spirit is to be genuinely open to that which is genuinely other. To worship in the Holy Spirit, is to be open in the most radical way.
God with us? This is not a god who simply secures our position in the world. Instead, this is a God whose being is expressed in a man who had no position in the world. What does it mean for that God to be with us?
Ascension and Pentecost should go a long way to answering that question.