There’s something almost instinctive about our need for companionship. It starts at birth, when we seem to know that we can’t make it on our own. It doesn’t take us very long to bond with our parents, especially our mothers. But that longing for connection that begins at birth never goes away. Although most biblical images of God are set in a masculine tone, there are a few feminine images available. While these occasions remind us that God transcends gender, they also tend to affirm a sense of bonding and connection between God and us. Consider the Deuteronomy 32:1, which pictures God as a mother eagle hovering over her children, protecting and caring for them. It’s an image picked up in the hymn "The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young."
In the second stanza, the author, Deane Postlethwaite writes:
As when the time to venture comes, she stirs them out to flight, so we are pressed to boldly try, to strive for daring height.1
While mothers may push us out of the nest, they don’t abandon us. They watch over us and encourage us as we take those first steps on our own. And when we struggle, God is there to lift us up on eagles wings – as we hear in the third stanza:
And if we flutter helplessly, as fledgling eagles fall, beneath us lift God's mighty wings to bear us, one and all.
In John’s gospel we find Jesus in the garden telling his disciples that although he was going away, he wouldn’t abandon them. Even as he left, God would be sending them another Paraclete.
I don’t usually spend much sermon time focusing on Greek words, but this word is so rich it deserves our attention. If you look up the passage in different English translations, you’ll discover that it can be translated in different ways. Each translation picks up a nuance that help us understand who and what the Spirit is.
I. The Advocate
If you look at the New Revised Standard Version, you’ll notice the word Advocate. The RSV and the NIV have a similar word – Counselor. Both of these words – Advocate and Counselor – speak of the legal profession. Think of a court of law, being represented by a skilled attorney, maybe someone like Perry Mason. If you remember him, you’ll know that he always found a way of getting to the truth of the matter. He never failed in his job because he never gave up his quest for truth.
In the same way, the Spirit stands before God and the World to defend us. This Advocate intercedes with the words we don’t have the courage to say to God. We get a sense of what this might mean in the first letter of John, which says that "if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous." In 1 John, Jesus is the Advocate, but in both cases – whether it’s Jesus or the Spirit – there is one who will defend us and will bring reconciliation to our lives.
II. The Comforter
The second translation is Comforter. That’s the choice of the King James Version, and you get a sense of what John is after if you listen to Isaiah 66, where God says: "I will comfort you there as a child is comforted by its mother" (Is. 66:13). Since God is specifically identified with a mother comforting her child, it’s appropriate to envision God holding and rocking her young child, trying to calm it after some traumatic incident. Perhaps it was a scraped knee, the loss of a pet, or a high fever.
The image of God as comforter could make God seem passive and weak, which is how many people think of women. But if you look at the women of the Bible they were neither weak nor passive; most were active and strong-willed. As the divine Comforter, the Spirit of God is acting for us, intervening on our behalf, providing the care we need when in trouble. Theologian Michael Welker speaks of the Spirit as being the Comforter who gives us "strength in unfamiliar situations, and acts out of them for my benefit." Not only that, but the Spirit empowers us to bring strength and steadfastness to others who are "distant, foreign, even hostile."2 Thus, having been comforted by the Spirit, we can comfort others.
III. The Helper
A third translation of parakletos is Helper. It’s the choice of several translations, including the Good News Bible, the Contemporary English Version, and the New American Standard Bible. But what does it mean for God to be our helper? Genesis 2 could offer us some insight. In that passage, God sees that it’s not good that Adam is alone, and so God creates a "helper fit for him." This "helper" is a partner who would complete Adam by helping him tend the garden and share his life. Although the passage has implications for marriage, it also speaks of a more general need we have as humans for companionship. In this context the Spirit is the one who brings completeness to our lives and provides companionship so that we’re never alone. What our families, our spouses, our closest friends provide us at a human level, the Spirit provides us at a deeper spiritual level.
The Spirit or Paraclete, is the one who comes alongside us, to guide us, nurture us, and empower us for service to God and humanity. As Martin Luther wrote in his hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," God is "our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing." Just when it looks as if we will falter, God's Spirit comes alongside to hold us steadfast. Like the mother eagle, teaching her chicks to fly, lifting them up by the power of her own wings, the Spirit holds us up as we learn to use our spiritual wings.
As we go forth from here this morning let us think of the ways that our mothers have served as our advocate, our comforter, and our helper. As we do this, let us then think of how their actions may help us understand the ways in which the Spirit acts for us in those same ways. And when we feel alone or discomfited, let us remember that Jesus promised us that we would never be alone. As the "Footprints" poem reminds us, when we find only one set of footprints, that is when God has carried us. Even when we think we are alone, let us remember that God is there with us, serving as our advocate, comforter, and helper!
1. R. Deane Postlethwaite, "The Care the Eagle Givers Her Young," in the Chalice Hymnal, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995), 76.
2. Michael Welker, God the Spirit, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 226.
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Sixth Sunday of Easter
April 27, 2008