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Focus text – John 14: 23-29 (Jesus promises the Paraclete)

            There are few topics in our tradition more awkward than talking about the Holy Spirit. The literature, and often our own experiences, are studies of awkward extremes.  On the one hand many say our subjective experiences cannot be trusted and our only valid experience of God is that mediated by a priest or sanctioned as a sacrament.  We have a wonderful correction of this awkwardness in the Pentecostal traditions; however, extremes here have been all too common.  TV and radio are filled with examples of people a bit too confident about what the Holy Spirit is saying and doing.

            In today’s gospel from John, Jesus’ introduction of the Holy Spirit provides an antidote for these extremes.  In response to the disciples angst that Jesus was leaving, Jesus introduces them anew to the Holy Spirit who will be with them.  The Greek word used to describe the Spirit is “Parakletos,” which is very difficult to define.  Various translations of the Bible use words like Advocate, Comforter or Helper.  The scholar, Raymond Brown, said the word is so unique we are justified making up a new English word – “Paraclete.”  It is one of those words that seems to be a noun and a verb at the same time.  Tonight we explore what it might mean to be filled with Paraclete energy.

To “Walk Alongside”

            The literal definition of paraclete is to “walk alongside.”  It is not a passive companionship as it speaks to supporting, giving strength to another or giving encouragement. The picture Jesus is painting is “God with us” in an intimate and active way.  Recall the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” where an African American defendant in a rape case was friendless in a southern town.  His attorney, played by Gregory Peck, was a paraclete who came to walk alongside the defendant.  The Paraclete is a companion that points to and gives strength to that fragile diamond of light within us that came from God and is returning to God.

            The story of Paul’s conversion provides a picture of Paraclete energy.  Recall that Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians with blood on his hands.  After his “aha” experience of being knocked off his horse, he traveled to join up with the leaders of the early church (see Acts 9 for all the details).  But nobody would see him.  They were afraid.  Who could blame them. Then a man named Barnabas, all by himself, went to stand by Paul.  He “walked alongside” Paul and he saw in Paul the grace of God.  He took Paul to the other leaders and made his case.  Later when Paul was finally ready to be put to work for the gospel, Barnabas went to him again and helped Paul get started.  Barnabas believed in Paul and he gave Paul strength and courage.

            This was not an isolated incident of Paraclete energy by Barnabas.  Jesus and the early church were fond of renaming folks and when we meet Barnabas for the first time his name is Joseph.  The church renamed him the “son of the Paraclete” which is translated as Barnabas.  In drafting Acts of the Apostles, Luke as a rule does not give biographical information about the main characters.  He makes an exception about Barnabas.  Later in Acts 15, Luke writes that Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”  There is no mistake that being “filled with the Spirit” really means at its core: while I hope for every experience of God for you and for us, the indispensable marker of being filled with the Spirit is to be one who walks alongside another.

Be Filled, Be a Paraclete

            We know this to be true from our own experience.  Very few things in life are more moving than witnessing two partners making vows to “walk alongside” each other for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.  When the connection is healthy and mutual it can promote a spiritual and creative energy.  Look around the room and you see partnered folks that you know as individuals, but we also know the breath of life and the Spirit that is the two of them together.  Similarly, the creative power of this community is based in large part on members saying to each with their actions and their words that we choose to “walk alongside” each other in our spiritual lives when it is easy and when it is hard, when it is successful and when it is not. The Spirit, the Paraclete, is unleashed through these choices and promises.

            I was at a meeting here a month or so ago on the issue of discerning a collective work of service for Sts. Clare & Francis.  A dozen or more good ideas were on the table.  As the discussion evolved, I was struck by several comments that it mattered less which service was ultimately selected – what mattered the most is how the service was to be performed.  People spoke about “companioning” and being “in relationship” with others in whatever we choose to do.  There is an instinct here about the primacy of Paraclete energy.

            We have heard many times that, whatever else we can say about God, we know God as Love and in the act of loving we encounter God.  Today we have a refinement to meditate on. God as Spirit is “walking along side” and we connect with God as Spirit when we “walk along side” each other and the world.  May this Eucharist inspire even more Paraclete energy among us.


George von Stamwitz
Liturgy for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Saturday Evening, May 4, 2013