The Comforter Is Not All That Comforting When You Get Down To It
You know, I wish I could translate the Gospel the wrong way.
Or rather, I wish the Bible translation we read in church used the word that I like and makes me feel comfortable to describe the Holy Spirit.
But it doesn’t, and I think I’m finally beginning to understand why.
Today is the great Feast of Pentecost. In the Book of Acts, we read of the tongues of fire lighting on the disciples and enabling them to proclaim the Good News in many languages simultaneously, just like we had in worship here this morning.
And it felt as unexpected to them as it might have to you. That’s precisely why we didn’t warn you that was going to happen.
If it caught you off guard and you wondered what was happening, you had a very authentic apostolic experience of Pentecost.
And that ties into what I wish our translation says, but doesn’t.
The word Jesus uses in John for the Holy Spirit is paraclete, which can be translated as it is in the NRSV that we read in church, as Advocate.
That is by far the most accurate translation. It comes from Greek roots meaning “to call alongside,” and it meant having a friend show up with you in court to help you defend yourself against charges, like having a lawyer only with a closer relationship.
Paraclete has been translated as Intercessor, and also the word I want to use: Comforter.
(Side note: my seminary had a soccer team that played against the other professional schools at Yale—the Div School vs. the Law School vs. the Med School, etc.—and they were called the Paracleats. Get it? Like soccer cleats? The Paracleats? That will never not be funny to me.)
So anyway, I like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, because frankly, I really am in need of some comfort every now and then.
I know I’m not the only one.
And while I certainly believe the Holy Spirit does bring us comfort and solace, I really don’t see that happening in our texts this morning.
In the gospel, Jesus is basically saying, “You all need to remember to love each other, because I’m leaving, so get it together.”
And Acts! No one is getting comforted in Acts.
They’re being bombarded by what is called a “violent wind” and then their heads are being set on fire, literally.
I mean, presumably it didn’t hurt, but that is not a moment of comfort. More like sheer panic.
Then suddenly words are coming out of their mouths that they’ve never spoken before, a language different from their own, and they’re out in the streets proclaiming the gospel to the nations.
Again: exciting, but not comforting.
What I had to grapple with this time around with these texts is that the descent of the Holy Spirit is all about change.
It’s about breaking the status quo wide open.
It’s about upending our assumptions about who’s in and who’s out.
It’s about speaking a new language to people we assumed we couldn’t communicate with.
Wow. That’s intense. Am I ready for that?
When I go through a season of great change, I’m looking for stability.
I need somewhere to hang my hat. I need something to rely on.
I want the Comforter.
But what I get is the Advocate.
And who is the Advocate?
Someone who shows up when you’re in trouble and helps you walk directly into the crisis.
Someone who stands with you when you’re scared to open your mouth and helps you speak the truth.
I’ve just been through a season of great change.
I left my congregation in Indiana whom I loved deeply, left all my clergy friends and my dance friends, said goodbye to my diocese of ten years, packed up my apartment and moved to Missouri.
And I’m so glad I did.
I have felt so welcomed by the people of Emmanuel, I love being part of a clergy team with Mother Jenny, and I’m so enjoying living closer to my family.
But I’m not going to lie, it’s been a hard season of change.
And that’s exactly why I’m grateful to be at Emmanuel, because Emmanuel has also just been through a season of change, and there have been some real struggles in that season.
You said goodbye to a former rector, you worked with an interim, you called a gifted new rector, and you’ve walked the peaks and valleys of living into your new ministry together.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stop and take a nice deep breath? Get a breather? Take a pause?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but the Holy Spirit is rubbing her hands with glee, because this kind of moment is exactly when she loves to strike.
She’s going to come crashing in here with fire and wind and languages and baptism and God knows what all, and we’re going to be off to the races with new ministry and spiritual growth.
Mother Jenny pointed exactly to this dynamic in her Rector’s Letter for this month. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read it, it’s in your email, so check it out.
She talks about how hard it is to hang in there and keep working through change when it’s felt like a long process.
But what Jesus is saying to us is that we’re not alone in this journey.
We have the Advocate, what he calls the Spirit of Truth, to help us keep honing in on our call and our mission.
We do not have to equip ourselves for the great work ahead of us.
The Holy Spirit descends upon us to empower us for this adventure, just like in our story from Acts.
I think the other reality we’re grappling with is that change is happening in the church not just at the congregational level, but at the global level.
Christianity cannot, and frankly should not, survive in its old incarnation.
Church attendance in the U.S. has been declining for fifty years, and for good reason when we look at the dark side of the legacy of the institutional church.
Evangelism for naked self-interest, conversion at the point of a gun that was thinly veiled colonialism and imperialism, churches upholding structures of racism and oppression—that version of the church needs to die, so that something new can rise in its place.
The Holy Spirit demands change, in the Bible, and in our lives here and now.
Which ties right back into the journey of the disciples as they arrived on the Day of Pentecost.
They had just been through the rollercoaster of emotions seeing Jesus crucified, then risen from the dead, and then ascending to heaven and leaving them behind.
The last thing they wanted was more change.
But that very place of being profoundly destabilized, off balance, reeling from change after change, was where God knew they were ripe for new inspiration and direction.
Change helps us let go of our assumptions.
It tears down our carefully built walls of predictability and control.
And the Holy Spirit loves that.
All those knocked down walls of “this is how we’ve always done it” and “we tried that once and it didn’t work” are like kindling to the Holy Spirit.
And she is ready to set our hearts on fire.
As I think about the changing church and how hard it is to be brave in the call to change, I’ve had one group of folks on my mind and heart a lot.
And that’s European Christians at the eve of the Protestant Reformation, when multiple communities led by people like Martin Luther and John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.
They had to have seen the change coming.
It was ramping up, just like it is now.
Everyone could see the old systems becoming unsustainable, the need to reroot the church in the fundamentals of scripture and spiritual practice and relationship with God.
Everyone could see the political and economic dynamics changing right along with the church.
What was that like for them?
The clergy—how did they decide whether or not to jump ship?
Some of them said, “I see the possibilities of the future of this reform and it’s scary but I’m on board. There’s got to be a better way to bring people to God.”
Others said, “I get some of what the Reformers are saying but I’m sticking with the church that ordained me. I promised God that I would be obedient and faithful to my bishop, and I will.”
And lay leaders. Some of them said, “A Bible I can read in my own language? Getting to receive communion more than once a year? A relationship with God without having to go through a priest? That’s awesome! I don’t care if I do get burned at the stake, count me in!”
And then there were lay leaders thinking, “Maybe some things do need to change, but this is the church that has nurtured me my whole life. These are the prayers of my heart. I was married in this church, my children were baptized here, my parents were buried here. How can they want to change it? They’ll destroy it! I’m staying loyal. I love my church the way it is, and I’m going to stand up for it.”
I bet everyone in this room would privately admit to identifying with some of the feelings on both sides of that struggle.
Change is hard.
And some of the folks who went all in with the Protestant Reformation became as bloodthirsty and dogmatic as any Roman Catholic had ever been.
Not all change is good, but some change is almost always necessary for growth and new life.
That seems to be the message of the scriptures today.
There is a world of possibility out there for the ministry of this congregation, but only if we ask for the courage to say yes to change.
And if you’re like me and you sometimes wish the translation for paraclete was Comforter rather than Advocate, take comfort in this: generations of the faithful before us, from the Reformation all the way back to the Apostles themselves, struggled to be brave through upheavals.
And we reap the benefits of their courage today in the beautiful faith tradition we are committed to carrying forward to the next generation.
Christians of the 22nd century, the 30th century, the 50th century, for whom we will be distant ancestors, are depending on us.
They are depending on our being brave enough to say yes to holy change.
Being flattened by a violent wind and then having your head set on fire.
It seems like rather an extreme way of God pushing us out of the nest into ministry, but you have to admit, it is exciting.
And I’ll tell you this: there’s no one I’d rather get knocked over and set on fire with than you.
If you liked, please share!