Acts 2.1-21; John 15.26-27, 16.4b-15
Come, thou holy Paraclete,
and from thy celestial seat
send thy light and brilliancy:
Father of the poor, draw near;
giver of all gifts, be here;
come, the soul’s true radiancy. Amen.
What is the point of the Holy Spirit?!
We are confronted foursquare by this question on Pentecost, the third most important festival in the Christian year.
What is the point of the Holy Spirit?
This question is intended more in the sense of challenge than disrespect, but just consider for a minute how hard it is to articulate what we know about the nature and the activity of God’s Spirit…
There are a number of reasons why we find to describe the Spirit.
Firstly, the Spirit is that aspect of God which gets talked about last. Here we are at Pentecost, halfway through the Church year. We have recounted the birth, the mission, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the Son of God – but only now are we getting around to discussing the Holy Spirit.
Next, the Spirit is that aspect of God which gets thought about last. We term Her the Third Person of the Trinity, don’t we? This is language which has led some to suppose that the Spirit is subordinate to the Father and the Son, or that her activity is successive to that of the Father and Son. (Both these ideas are heresies by the way: the Church maintains that the Persons of the Trinity are equally and fully God, and that their outward actions are one – they have always been at work together, and are still at work together in the world today. This means that the Spirit is neither subordinate nor successive.)
Thirdly, the Spirit remains that aspect of God which seems the most amorphous. He’s hard to pin down, trickier than the herding of cats or the nailing of jellies.
The portion of the New Testament on which we usually dwell at this festival is the famous account of the first Pentecost from Acts Chapter 2. But, from what I’ve just said, there are other load-bearing passages too. These include that section which we heard in the second reading from the gospel of John:
Jesus said, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father – he will testify on my behalf.’
There are five famous occasions in Jesus’ farewell discourse, in John chapters 14 to 16, in which a John uses a unique term for the Holy Spirit. Behind that English word which I just used, ‘Advocate’ is one of those Greek terms designed to frustrate and illuminate in equal measure. That word is ‘Paraclete’. The Paraclete has nothing to do with Paraquat for the poisoning of weeds, nor cleats for the fixing of ropes. Paraclete is a compound noun, literally meaning ‘beside-called’. A Paraclete is one who is called-to-be-beside another. That is how John understood the Holy Spirit, and what he thinks the Holy Spirit does for us.
In ancient Greece before the time of Jesus, a Paraclete was a legal advisor, an intercessor or an agent who gave guidance, support and encouragement to someone who was accused in a court of law. A Paraclete was a go-between, mediating between the defendant and the judge, a helper in time of trial. I think we can now see how this might start to feed into Christian ideas about the Spirit…
In addition to this Greek legal background, the use of Paraclete in John will have been informed by more religious ideas of advocacy, ideas originating in Jesus’ Jewish heritage. Peering into the Hebrew Scriptures we read about Moses, a leader who stood in the breach between God’s anger and the wayward people, successfully imploring the Almighty to turn aside his intended wrath [that’s Exodus 32.11-14]. And we encounter Samuel, a Judge sought out by the people to, quote, ‘cry out to the Lord our God for us, [praying] that he may save us from the hands of the Philistines’ [that’s I Samuel 7.8]. And then there were prophets like Jeremiah who beseeched Yahweh for the rescue of Jerusalem from the besieging forces of her enemies [Jeremiah 14].
All this is serving to shape our understanding of the Spirit as Paraclete, an advocate in trials and a helper from God in other senses too. Given this breadth of role, the English Bible tradition can’t make up its mind about the best English word for that Greek ‘Paraclete’. Early Protestant versions of the Bible such as the King James talked about a ‘Comforter’. The Revised Standard Version talks about the ‘Counsellor’, the New Revised Standard refers to the ‘Advocate’– and other Bibles translate the Greek simply as ‘Helper’. Some Bibles find the choice just too difficult to make and retain the original word ‘Paraclete’ – but that to me seems a bit of a cop-out.
Whatever the semantics, across those five references to Paraclete in John chapters 14 to 16 we discover at least three things about God’s Holy Spirit.
We need a bit of all that: authoritative teacher, witness to revelation, and companion in trials – God’s Spirit standing beside us. To that end, let’s join our prayers with seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick in his Litany to the Holy Spirit, recalling that Herrick would have known the Paraclete through the King James term as ‘Comforter’: