Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Paracletos


John 20:19-23

Pentecost Sunday / Year A

“The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the authorities.”

Most of us here are old enough to remember when people did not lock the doors of their homes, even when you went on vacation!  We recall a simpler time when church doors were never locked.  Now they are locked almost all of the time.  In fact, on Sundays, the Vestry usher goes through an elaborate process of unlocking only the most necessary doors before the service starts and then relocking them once it has begun.       

In his first inaugural address Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…. fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  In the throes of the Great Depression, with Nazism and Communism on the rise, Roosevelt took office in a pretty scary time.  We also live in a scary time, what with Covid and mass shootings and political unrest.  Some of our fear is unreasoning, unjustified terror, still there is much to give us pause.

The disciples had good reason to be afraid.  Were the authorities going to come and arrest them, as they did Jesus?  Would they stand trial, as Jesus did?  Would they undergo a horrible execution, as Jesus did?  Cowering behind those locked doors, in no way, shape, or form do they appear to be a small band of believers about to set the world of fire for Jesus Christ.

The Greek word for Holy Spirit is “paracletos”.  It has a double meaning.  The better known of the two is advocate or counselor; a defense attorney who stands by your side when you are accused of a crime.  Less well known is the military role of the paracletos.  In the ancient world, when an army is preparing for a decisive battle, especially if the outcome is in doubt, the commander summoned a person called ‘the paracletos.’  This person is an orator exceptionally gifted in encouragement and morale building.  A trumpeter sounds a call and the army gathers and the paracletos speaks.  If he is effective, a nearly mutinous, disorganized, dispirited rabble becomes an impassioned, confident army. 

William James once characterized the modern world with one German word.  He said we are suffering from Zerishensheit, which means “torn-apartness.”  Surely the disciples experience Zerishensheit in the days following the Crucifixion.  Guilt about their past with all its betrayals, fear about the future with all of its dangers, and alienation from everyone else in the city of Jerusalem – this is the condition of the pre-Easter Church.  But when the Holy Spirit comes, this torn-apart community is healed and united and made strong and confident.  They unlock the doors of the house where they are staying and go out into the streets to proclaim the healing and the power and the love and the joy they have just received.  Such is the effect of the Paracletos. 

As St. Paul notes in today’s New Testament reading, the Paracletos manifests itself in a variety of ways.  Some are spectacular, most are not.  The English bishop John Taylor concludes his book on the Holy Spirit, which he entitles The Go-between God, with this story:

A West Indian woman… was told of her husband’s death in a street accident.  The shock of her grief stunned her like a blow.  She sank into a corner of the sofa and there she sat rigid and unhearing.  Friends and officials came and went [but no one could reach her].  The school teacher of one of her children, an Englishwoman, called and seeing how things were, went and sat beside her.  Without a word, she threw an arm around the tight shoulders, clasping them with her full strength.  The white cheek was thrust hard against the brown.  Then as the unrelenting pain seeped through to her, the teacher’s tears began to flow, falling on their two hands linked in the woman’s lap.  For a long time that is all that was happening.  And then, at last, the West Indian woman began to sob.  Still not a word was spoken and after a little while the visitor got up and went, leaving her contribution to help the family in its immediate need.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes in tongues of flame.  Sometimes it comes with a mighty wind so strong it shakes the pillars of a house.  And sometimes, Bishop Taylor concludes, The Holy Spirit comes to us “in the straining muscles of an arm, and the film of sweat between pressed cheeks, the mingled wetness of clasped hands.  The Holy Spirit is as close and unobtrusive as that and as irresistibly strong.”

Encountering fear and torn-apartness, the first thing Jesus says when he appears in that locked room is “Peace be with you”.  The second thing he says is, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Now, you can’t be sent if you are shivering behind locked doors.  And then he breaths on them the Paracletos – the Encourager.  And the rest, as they say, is history. 

May the Paracletos fall anew on each of us.  May it unlock whatever is holding us back.  May we know ourselves as one with one another.  And may we understand we are sent, just as the Father sent the Son.