All Saints Margaret Street | High Mass Pentecost Sunday 9 June 2019

Sermon for High Mass Pentecost Sunday 9 June 2019

Sermon preached by the Vicar Fr Alan Moses  

Readings:  Acts 2.1-21; Pslam 104.25-end; Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17,25-27 

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever” 

Those who have lived in countries, such as Scotland, whose legal system is based on Roman rather than English law, will know that the lawyers we know in England as ‘barristers’ are called ‘advocates.’  While I knew a number of them when I lived in Scotland, I only needed the professional services of an advocate once. This was not because I needed someone to defend me in court, but to persuade the Court of Session that I was a fit and proper person to take over a moribund local charity called the Old Sailor’s Ark, so that our parish could use its premises for our ministry to the homeless. 

This involved me walking up the Royal Mile with one of my Vestry members who was a Writer to the Signet – a grand species of Scottish solicitor – to the old Parliament building near St. Giles, to consult an advocate who specialized in charity law. We did this by walking up and down with him in while discussing the matter. The end result of this was that the Court agreed that I could become what is known in Scots Law as the “Judicial Factor” of the Ark. I suspect I may be the only cleric in the Church of England who number that among his titles. 

I tell you this because the translators of the New Revised Standard Version we use, (a linear descendant of the King James Version), opt for ‘advocate’ to render into English the Greek word ‘Parakletos.’  There is no Hebrew word behind John’s use of this term. It was simply put into Hebrew characters or taken into Aramaic as a loan word. In English, this is often just rendered as ‘Paraclete,’ because it has proved impossible to find a single word which conveys the breadth and depth of meaning in this word which John introduces in Jesus’s last discourses to the disciples, without any explanatory footnote. 

The Greek combines two words: Para ‘alongside’ – and kalein  –  ‘cal’l  – to speak of one called to the side on another.  In classical Greek it could mean an ‘encourager.’ It was also a legal term; for one who enters a case as a friend of the accused or one who entreats or appeals on behalf of another. 

John will use Paraclete in this legal sense later in the Gospel, but other occurrences suggest broader and more personal senses: as one who consoles, befriends, guides and teaches another; one who makes known the truth of things. 

Translators have tried a number of equivalents as well as advocate, to convey this:  comforter, convincer, counsellor, encourager, friend, helper, teacher.   The translators of the King James Version, following William Tyndale and John Wycliffe before him, opted for “Comforter.”  In today’s usage that would seem to suggest the Spirit’s role as the provider of sympathy in times of weakness, sorrow or distress:  such as that of the disciples anxious and fearful because of Jesus’ impending departure from them. 

Translators have moved away from using “comforter”, not because their forebears got it wrong – but because the English language has changed over the intervening years.  Those earlier scholars would have understood ‘comforter’ as it had come into English from Latin via Norman French; ‘conforter’ – which combined the latin words con’  for ‘with’  and  ‘fortis’  ‘strong’ or ‘brave.’ In the English of that period, ‘comforter’ would mean something like ‘encourager’ or ‘giver of strength.’  It would not mean something you give a crying baby if you’re American.   

 In the Bayeux Tapestry which records the Norman conquest of England in 1066 in graphic form, there is a section which shows Bishop Odo ‘comforting’ his soldiers.  He is not distributing comforts to the troops but urging them into battle with the point of his sword. He was clearly a bishop who took the idea of the ‘Church militant here in earth’ rather too literally. 

In today’s passage we this sense of the Spirit as “comforter” heard as Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

It is echoed by St. Paul when he says “you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry. ‘Abba! Father!’, it is that very Spirit bearing witness in our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we may be glorified with him.” 

But this same Paraclete, this Advocate, “the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name,” is also “the Spirit of truth.”  This Spirit, “will teach you everything, and remind you off all that I have said to you.” 

Just as the meaning of ‘comforter’ has evolved over time, so too have understandings of ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual.’  To many people, they suggest something vaguer and insubstantial, less real than the material. People often talk these days of being ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious.’  Spiritual is a good and positive word, while religious is a bad and negative one. It sounds open and tolerant. It suggests a freedom from institutions with their dogmas and hierarchies. Spiritual has the advantage of meaning what we want it to mean or feel. 

Now in John’s Gospel, there is a clear sense of the Spirit’s freedom. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the “Spirit blows where it wills.”   The Hebrew word for Spirit is ‘ruach’ – wind – which is something beyond human ability to control; the Spirit does not blow where we will it to.   

But as we hear in today’s Gospel, it is quite clear that John is speaking not of something ethereal and insubstantial and vague– but of a person, and who is linked clearly to the person of Jesus Christ, sent in his “name”; sent to “teach you everything” and to “remind you of all that I have said to you.”  The root meaning of the word ‘religion’ is something that binds together. The truth into which the Spirit will lead cannot be detached, unhooked from what Jesus said and did; recorded under the Spirit’s inspiration in the Scriptures. 

But that teaching of everything is not mere repetition, rote learning.  What I have said about the complexities of translation, not simply from one language to another, languages that do not stand still but evolve and change, but also reflect changing cultures, suggests that reminding and teaching has to take these into account. 

We see an example of this in what Paul says about adoption; something his contemporaries would understand differently from the way do.  As some of you know, Theresa and I are the grandparents of adopted children. The adoption process is a long and searching one. Its purpose is to provide children with a loving and secure family, a home and environment in which they can grow and flourish. 

The ancient Roman world saw things differently. Adoption was not about the well-being of children without parents, but the keeping of property within the family when there was no son and heir. It was for the family’s benefit rather than the child’s.  So someone would be adopted to fulfil that role of son and heir:  no room for girls so our granddaughters would probably have been abandoned. Famously, Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Octavian – who would succeed him not only in family but, as Caesar Augustus, in the world of power politics, too, as the first Roman emperor. 

But within what Paul says, we see the beginnings of a transformation worked by the Gospel. In that distinctive Aramaic word ‘Abba,’ used by Jesus when he spoke to and of God as his Father, and preserved untranslated by the early Church, we do see the sense of adoption being stretched, just as the word ‘paraclete’ was stretched by John, to convey the meaning of the intimate relationship with God we share in through adoption and grace.  

The Church would wrestle for many years with what the Gospels say about the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, before finding words and concepts in Greek to define the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity.  This then had to be translated from the philosophical subtleties or Greek into the more practical legalities of Latin – and so on in different times and places as human knowledge develops and expands. 

The world, that is all that is opposed to God, cannot receive the Spirit of truth, “because it neither sees him nor knows him.”  The Spirit “who abides with you,” reminding us of all that Jesus has said to us, help us see how the thought and ways of the world affect, often unconsciously, the way we think and act. 

But that vital critical function is only to allow and encourage, to make space for that positive relationship with and in the life of God to which we are called.  And in that relationship, as Peter says in his Pentecost sermon, echoing the prophet Joel, “your sons and daughters shall prophesy,” that is they will speak of and for God.  “Your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams.”  That is, they will see be given glimpses of the world as God its creator, who sends forth his spirit in creation and renews the face of the earth, intends it to be. 

Today, at Pentecost, we celebrate and pray for that same Spirit who creates and renews but also enables us to be advocates and comforters, convincers and counsellors, encouragers and friends, helpers and teachers to each other and to others.