Pentecost B: Come Alongside, Holy Spirit!

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I’ve written three or four introductions to this letter now, and none seems quite adequate, so I’ll just come out and say it: I think we’ve misnamed the Holy Spirit. The word Jesus uses in John’s Gospel, as you know, is Paraclete, which we sometimes translate as “Advocate” and often translate as “Comforter.” It’s this second name in particular I’m calling into question, as I just don’t think it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us feel better.

Yes, I know, it’s not that simple. The Holy Spirit as Comforter eases our distress, encourages us, and comes to us in times of trouble to remind us of Jesus’ presence and promises. And it’s just that kind of comfort, I imagine, that is at the heart of Jesus’ discourse to his disciples in the Fourth Gospel. They were distressed, feeling orphaned and abandoned, and so needed that kind of comfort and advocacy.

Why, then, do I think the Holy Spirit is misnamed? Because everywhere I look in these familiar Pentecost texts, the Holy Spirit isn’t comforting anyone or anything but instead is shaking things up. Since we’ve already mentioned John, let’s start there: the Advocate comes to testify…and to prompt the testimony of the disciples. It’s Jesus’ testimony to the truth, of course, that got him in trouble in the first place, and the Holy Spirit comes to prompt the disciples to make the same disturbing, disruptive, and world-changing testimony that calls into question the values of the world.

In Acts it’s even more pronounced. I mean, goodness, but there’s nothing particularly comforting about the rush of a “violent wind,” let alone descending tongues of flame. And once the disciples take their new multi-lingual ability into the streets of Jerusalem, pretty much everyone who witnesses their activity is described as “bewildered,” “amazed” and “astonished.” Again, the Spirit didn’t comfort anyone but instead prompted the disciples to make a very public scene with the troubling good news that the person the crowds had put to death was alive through the power of God.

Romans is pretty much the same. The Spirit doesn’t take away our problems or make all things right. Rather, the Spirit instead helps us name the inward hopes, desires, and longings that attend anyone who is waiting for God’s redemption. The pain of creation can seem so great and the coming of God’s redemption so far away that the Spirit intervenes, interrupts, and intercedes by giving voice to our deepest needs.

Do you see what I mean? The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, as much provocateur as comforter. Do we have a word or phrase at our disposal, I wonder, that can capture all these dimensions of the work of the Holy Spirit? Actually, I think we do, and it’s Paraclete!

Okay, so if you’re a tad confused, I sympathize. After all, didn’t I start this letter by calling into question the word Paraclete as adequate? Well, not exactly; actually, my complaint was about our tendency to translate Paraclete as “Comforter” and then to reduce the work of the Holy Spirit to making us feel better.

But Paraclete is a compound Greek work that literally means, “to come alongside another.” In this sense, the Paraclete can be an advocate – to come along side to defend and counsel – or comforter – to come along side to provide comfort and encouragement. But the one who comes along side might also do so to strengthen you for work, or to muster your courage, or to prompt or even provoke you to action. Which is why I think the Paraclete as the one who comes along side of us to encourage and equip us for the task of ministry is such a perfect name for the Holy Spirit.

But take note, as in the readings today, so also in our world: if we heed the word and work of the coming-along-side Holy Spirit, we will inevitably be pushed beyond what we imagine and end up stirring things up. We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem: that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’ve done so!

As far as I can tell, nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus command us to go out and build churches, take care of old buildings, and devote yourself to crumbling institutions. No, Jesus says “go and make disciples” and “when you care for the least of these you are caring for me” and “love one another as I have loved you.” And this kind of work is inherently disruptive, difficult, and at times even dangerous. And so Jesus sends the Paraclete, the one who comes along side us to encourage, equip, strengthen, provoke and, yes, at times to comfort us so that we can get out there and do it all again. So perhaps this Pentecost, we might substitute the traditional petition, “Come, Holy Spirit,” with one more suited to the name we’ve discussed, “Come alongside, Holy Spirit!”

But I’d go one step further, Dear Partner. I’d actually suggest that our job also is to “come along side” our people to encourage and equip them as well. In a culture that no longer has a vested interested in encouraging congregational participation, our faith communities will only flourish when we stop imagining that it is the pastor’s job to teach, preach, interpret, share faith, pray, give witness and more for the sake of the Gospel. Instead, now more than ever it is, I believe, the pastor’s job to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12) by coming along side our people with words of instruction, inspiration, and encouragement that they may themselves witness through their words and deeds to the grace and goodness of God.

So perhaps this Pentecost, Dear Partner, it’s time to shake things up by letting folks know that we are all part of a “mutual ministry committee” – and that doesn’t mean having the pastor over for coffeecake! Instead, we have been joined by our Baptism into communities of faith that look for – and expect! – the Holy Spirit to come along side us and shake things up, preparing and equipping each and all of us to share the disruptive, surprising, and life-giving word of grace of the God who will not rest until all people enjoy abundant life.

It’s this word you preach, Dear Partner, and for your fidelity and commitment I am so very grateful. Preach on, as you do not preach alone, but rather are accompanied by the One who comes along side to encourage, equip, and testify to the truth we have in Jesus. Thank you for your testimony.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I’ll post below a video Ben Cieslik and I made a few years ago that also tried to get at some of these themes. You’re welcome to use and share it as is helpful, and if you want to download it you can find it here.