As we near Pentecost we start to tune ourselves into one of the mysteries of faith — this thing, this energy presence that the New Testament calls the Holy Spirit and the Hebrew Scriptures refer to as the Breath of God, the Wind of God, the glory of God, or the Presence. At Pentecost this…Presence…is portrayed as the tongues and fire and swirling wind that gets poured out on everybody present in that Acts 2 scene and empowers all of them to live lives characterized as good news, gospel. The readings leading up to Pentecost begin to prepare us for this spirit-shower and what it might mean for us.
Last week I mentioned the thought of this passage in John 14 being similar to a Last Lecture series that some universities have in which a professor has the chance to give the speech they would give if it was the very last one of their life, passing on their wisdom and life lessons to the next generation. Along with giving his one commandment – that the disciples love each other in the way that he has loved them, and inviting them into the spacious world of faith, Jesus speaks at length about a Spirit that will be present in the world as a result of him going to his death. Of all the metaphors for the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture, this part of John has a unique way of characterizing this Spirit.
Let me read again from portions of John 14. The words of Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither see him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you…v. 23 “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love the, and we will come to them and make our (dwelling place) with them…v.25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
Jesus’ name for this Divine breath, wind, glory, presence, spirit, is “The Advocate.”
A little over a week ago a few of us went up to Columbus to one of the evenings of the Justice Revival that Sojourners organized. There was plenty of singing, some praying, Jim Wallis was the main speaker and even gave an altar call after his speech for people who wanted to commit or re-commit their lives to a life of promoting justice. But one of the highlights for me was hearing from the current Superintendent of Columbus Public Schools, Gene Harris. If I remember the numbers correctly, when she began as superintendent seven years ago Columbus had a graduation rate of around 55%. In her time there she has helped raise the graduation rate to 70%, and she has a goal of raising that to 90% by the year 2012. She spoke passionately about the need for the entire Columbus community to get behind their children and for people to consider the children of the city as part of their extended family, children who matter and who deserve the best that the schools have to offer. Her method of achieving the 90% graduation rate is a city wide initiative to recruit 10,000 mentors who commit to spending an hour a week with a student, beginning in Jr. High and staying with the same student until they graduate. She herself is mentoring a student and she said that she told her mentee that she is going to be with her every week and that the only way she can get rid of her is if she graduates. The school leadership is partnering with the business community and the faith community to recruit mentors for the schools. Ms. Harris said that the business community has already provided her with 1,000 mentors and she’s now asking churches to recruit members for this movement. This was part of the altar call at the end of the evening. Come forward, recommit your life to Christ, and commit to helping a child in Columbus progress successfully through the public schools.
She was an Advocate. A strong advocate speaking, working, acting on behalf of the students of Columbus. She was for them. She was helping other people see that they should be for them also and that there were concrete things they could do to be for them. In Jesus’ way of seeing things that he was passing on to his followers, this was an example of the Holy Spirit at work. The Spirit of truth, speaking on behalf of students who may otherwise be invisible in people’s world, not on the radar screen.
Shift now from this local present day scene to this strange and fascinating scene in the book of the prophet Zechariah that seems to be taking place on some spiritual plane, almost like a divine courtroom setting. Joshua, the name of the high priest, is standing before the angel of the Lord wearing filthy clothes. Aside from Joshua and the angel of the Lord there is another character which in Hebrew is Ha-saTAN, which means, the accuser, or the adversary. The adversary is standing at the right hand of Joshua, ready to accuse him in the Divine court. With Joshua wearing these filthy clothes, symbolic of the uncleanness of injustice and unrigheousness, it looks like the accuser may have a case against this high priest who is supposed to represent a whole people before God. But the angel of the Lord gets the first word. “The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser.” The angel then commands that Joshua’s filthy clothes be taken off of him and clean ceremonial clothes be put on – a fine new turban for his head and a priestly robe. The Adversary’s case is not heard. He gets outmaneuvered by the angel of the Lord.
The story is similar to the story of Job, where this same spirit, the accuser, goes before God to accuse the righteous man Job of being probably-not-so-righteous since he’s had a pretty easy life and anyone can be thankful to God when things have gone well for them. The adversary comes against Job to accuse him.
In Zechariah and Job, the NRSV doesn’t translate the Hebrew word for Accuser. It leaves it in it’s Hebrew form of the saTAN, otherwise know as Satan. The saTAN gets one other mention in the Hebrew Scriptures and in each of the three cases it is an adversarial spirit that sets itself up against someone or a community, the children of Israel. Like an obsessed prosecutor convinced of the guilt of an adversary, bringing up it’s case against the defendant.
One doesn’t have to believe in a literal being that goes by the name of Satan to recognize what the Hebrew Scriptures recognize, that there is a certain accusatory and adversarial spirit present in the world that sets itself up against us. We experience this energy within us, and we experience this energy around us coming from all different sources. The accusatory voice, force, spirit, that is against the well-being of us and our human community.
In John 14, Jesus speaks of another voice, force, spirit whose presence he is celebrating and whose continuing presence is his representative after he’s gone. The Advocate, “who will be with you forever.” “The spirit of truth.” And while we’re paying attention to the original language of the scriptures, it’s interesting to note the Greek word for Advocate, paraclete. A word that had a secular useage at the writing of the New Testament which meant “lawyer for the defense.” The paraclete is the one who defended the one being accused and spoke on their behalf.
Jesus goes on to say that “the world cannot receive the paraclete, because it neither sees it nor knows it. Why isn’t the Advocate seen – completely invisible to the world. The Advocate lives in the invisible places. Places that are forgotten and passed over. The Advocate sees the world in a way that others can’t see it. The world doesn’t even see that Advocate. And you won’t see it if you’re concerned about your own self preservation and purposefully or inadvertently marginalizing others who get in your way or who you don’t believe matter. Setting yourself up as an adversary to others. The Advocate lives in those invisible margins, advocating for people that others don’t even see.
Everyone needs an Advocate and everyone can be an Advocate. I’ve had advocates in my life who have helped shape me.
It makes all the difference to know that someone is for you. That they are standing up for you, speaking out for you, promoting your wellbeing, speaking well of you to others, encouraging you face to face, letting you know that they believe in you. An Advocate. Sometimes as the inner voice advocating for us to ourselves. Speaking a better word than that accusing adversarial spirit that also inhabits our inner world. Sometimes the Advocate speaks for us through the voice of another – a mentor, a parent, a teacher, a friend. We all need to know we have an Advocate before we can be an Advocate. 1 John 4:19 says “we love because God first loved us.” Or, we could say, “we advocate because God has first Advocated for us.” For us.
It was encouraging for me to see one of the notes that was written for one of our youth when we had the coming of age celebration back in January when we were writing about the good qualities that we see in our youth. The note said something like this: “You will always be there for people who cannot defend themselves, even though you will learn that this is not always a very popular thing to do.” This is a description of an Advocate. Someone who is showing signs of being filled with this Spirit that Jesus is describing. Someone who is learning that they can be for another person when others may be setting themselves up as an adversary to that person just to give themselves meaning and a feeling of superiority. A young person who is seeing glimpses of the truth that we are partners with the great Advocate. And that they can be for others, even if the other sits in the margins, outside the circle of popularity. I would imagine that this youth was able to be an advocate because they knew that they had advocates in their own life who were for them.
Being an advocate is holy work, Holy Spirit work.
These last two springs CMF has been involved as a supporting congregation with the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Building relationships with those who are currently without permanent housing is actually pretty basic work. As basic as sitting down to a meal together and sharing each other’s stories. But it goes a long way in teaching us how to be better advocates. How to position ourselves in those places that are often invisible to others and be for homeless families. Even if it’s as simple as speaking up in a conversation when people are talking about homelessness and we get a chance to share about some friends we’re making with people who have been temporarily homeless.
I’m also so glad that CMF is an advocate for the arts. Unfortunately, part of the church’s historical relationship with art has been adversarial. Accusing it of being worldly or unrighteous. So this congregation has positioned itself as a strong Advocate of the arts in the Mennonite world. We’re for art and creative artistic expression. We get people together to celebrate the arts. We’re known in the Mennonite church as art advocates and that’s a very Holy Spirit inspired mission and one I hope can continue for many years to come.
It’s a tragedy of religion that many people imagine God as the one who is against them. Ready to accuse and condemn and point out faults and shortcomings and pronounce guilty. In other words, God as the the Satan. It’s not that the Creative Spirit of the Universe isn’t aware of our shortcomings, that we’ve all got some dirty laundry that we keep wearing around. But it’s that the Holy Spirit is for us, not against us. “If God is for us, who can be against us,” the Apostle Paul said. An advocate. In our corner. On our side. Advocating for us. And advocating for the most vulnerable among us. The invisible ones that are easily forgotten. What the scriptures call the poor, the widow and the orphan and what we might call the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the orphan, the prisoner who is locked away. The Jr. High student in the failing city school. The most vulnerable. The advocate comes to their defense and speaks a good word for them. And always will. Jesus said the Advocate will be with you forever. Always on the side of the loser, the loner, the poor, and the marginalized. Always for us. “This is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees it nor knows it. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you.”