Someone standing beside you, giving support, guidance, help and comfort
Christopher Seaman, 9 June 2019
Acts 2: 1–21; John 14: 8–17, 25–27
They didn’t want Jesus to go away. For three years, the twelve disciples had been loved, taught, comforted, challenged, supported and guided by Jesus, the Son of God. But now, he’s told them he will be leaving them. Imagine how they must have felt – about to be deserted by their leader.
But we heard in today’s gospel reading that Jesus promised ‘another Advocate’ – the Holy Spirit. Some Bible translations use the word ‘advocate’, others ‘comforter’ or ‘counsellor’; the idea is of someone standing beside you, someone who is on your side, giving support, guidance, help and comfort – the very things the twelve disciples feared they’d be losing when Jesus went away.
The key word here is ‘another’ – another advocate, another comforter – not a different comforter, but another of the same kind as Jesus. You may know the story of the man who’d bought a CD of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. When he got it home he found there was a fault on the disc, so he went back to the record shop and asked the assistant to replace it. The assistant went away to look, came back and said, ‘We don’t have a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but we do have the same thing by Tchaikovsky. Will that do?’ ‘No’, replied the man, ‘I want another of the same’.
So Jesus is telling the disciples that God the Holy Spirit is another of the same, just like him. It would almost be as if Jesus was still around.
Have you noticed that nowhere in the New Testament do any of the disciples say how much they missed Jesus? There is no nostalgia, no talk about ‘the good old days’ by Lake Galilee. Why? Because they had God the Holy Spirit, another of the same. He was standing by them, just as Jesus did.
You and I have all been in painful or difficult situations when we’ve longed to have Jesus standing beside us: a difficult interview, going to get our test results, the funeral of a loved one, a big operation, and so on. But you’ll remember the famous parable in Luke chapter 11 where Jesus says, ‘If a child asks his father for bread, will he give him a stone? Of course not!’ Then Jesus adds, ‘How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’.
But in some ways, all believers have the Holy Spirit within them. St Paul wrote these encouraging words, ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’. Our faith, says Paul, is due to the work of the Holy Spirit within us. So if we say the Creed in this service, and if we mean it, the faith we express is due to the Holy Spirit within us.
What else does the Holy Spirit do for us? When Jesus met people, he met them ‘where they were’, usually at their point of greatest need – their illness, their grief, their trouble, their sin. He wanted people to be all they could be. In the same way, the Holy Spirit, another comforter, meets us where we are, and wants us to be all we could be.
We are all painfully aware of what we might have been, but have failed to be: love we did not show, unkindness we did show, laziness that held us back, selfishness that drove us on – we can all travel together down that miserable path of self-recrimination! But there’s a wonderful saying, attributed to my favourite novelist, George Eliot: ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been’.
Reading the gospels, there is no doubt that Jesus thought that way. Look at the penitent thief on the cross next to Jesus – never too late. And here are some more encouraging words of St Paul, writing to the Philippians: ‘He who has begun a good work in you will continue it’. It’s as if the Holy Spirit would say, ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’.
But we do have free will. The Holy Spirit won’t push us around like robots. He may make us aware of who we are, what we’re not (ouch!) and what we could be. With our free will, we can respond in different ways. St Stephen, just before he was stoned to death, said to his Jewish persecutors (including St Paul, standing by), ‘You resist the Holy Spirit’. Well, we’ve all done that. ‘No, Lord, I don’t want to face up to that.’ ‘No, Lord, I don’t want to do that.’ ‘No, Lord, I don’t want to change.’
The Holy Spirit won’t push us around like robots, but may make us aware of who we are, what we’re not (ouch!) and what we could be.
St Paul also asks Christians not to quench the Spirit – not to pour cold water on what he may be wanting to do in your life, or in someone else’s life, or in your church. And he asks Christians not to grieve the Spirit; God loves us enough actually to find it hurtful if we fall short in some way.
But above all, Paul encourages us to be filled with the Spirit, to be open, not closed, to what he can do in our lives. Which brings us to our final prayer.
We ask, Lord, for a fuller experience of your Holy Spirit. Help us to be open. Help us to be ready: to be surprised, encouraged or even challenged. But help us also to know that in your great love you can enable us to become a little more of what we might have been. We ask this for the sake of him who makes all things new, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.