First United Methodist Church
May 14, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
The Advocate vs. the Placeholder
Today’s gospel reminds me of something that happened when I was in Basic Training. I was assigned to be a guard for our M16s while the rest of the platoon went inside to eat. When everyone started coming outside, we relaxed our guard, because we figured our duty was over. As I recall, I’m not sure we were ever trained exactly how to do this, but I was 18 at the time, so maybe they did and I just wasn’t paying attention – either way, one of the other drill sergeants walked by and picked up one of the M16s. At first we didn’t do anything because she was a drill sergeant, and to us, she could do anything. When she started walking away with it, we realized that we were supposed to react, so we chased her and tackled her.
Of course, we got in trouble for that – not for tackling the drill sergeant, but for not being in position on guard duty.
Our argument – that we were in position because she didn’t get away with it – didn’t hold because she never should have been able to pick it up in the first place. We should have known what to do, the drill sergeant told us, from our previous training. He wasn’t going to be with us telling us what to do for the rest of our lives. We had to be able to adapt the things we learned to the situation that was occurring in the present moment or we wouldn’t survive.
One of the many things I learned during my time in Basic Training was that almost everything we were being taught would someday save our lives, but there was very little practical information that we would actually use. The battle techniques we were learning were designed to fight the previous war, because there was no way we could prepare for an enemy we hadn’t encountered yet. The drill sergeant’s job, as he constantly told us, was to prepare us to be ready for action even when we weren’t being told what to do, because he wouldn’t be with us when we were out in the field.
This is what Jesus was trying to do throughout the Gospels, but especially in the passage we read today.
In the Upper Room, Jesus gives us an image to consider. The disciples have been in “faith training” with Jesus for three years. But now this was coming to an end. Jesus is talking about his own death in terms that the disciples don’t clearly understand. They can’t imagine life without Jesus beside them, telling them what to do, explaining what they don’t understand.
But Jesus reminds them that his job was to prepare them for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He says to them, as they now begin to feel the tension, that he “will not leave [them] orphaned.”(14:18) “I am coming to you,” he says, and his coming is in the form of the Holy Spirit or here called in the Greek, the Paraclete, or the Advocate (14:16).
Here, the Holy Spirit is described as our Advocate. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit will also stand in for us. The Holy Spirit will strengthen us, and keep us on track, because he is the “Spirit of truth” (14:17).
The disciples are being called to get into the action, to take what they have learned and experienced and to adapt it to their present circumstances. But Jesus is there with them. They never could have done it without him. In their faith training, they’ve never been alone. Jesus has always been there. The very physicality of Jesus has been their source of reassurance. The miracles, the teaching, the leadership. These things have been enough to keep them going.
But now he’s talking about not being there. The unthinkable is happening. How are they to proceed? How will they make the right decisions if Jesus is not right there by their side?
Jesus says that even after his death he will still be with them. He will still encourage them, plead with them, pray for them, and teach them.
But the nature of his presence will change. “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me,” Jesus tells them (14:19). He will be present to them in the form of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.
Since Easter, we have been reading a number of scriptures that have helped us to see Jesus through a new lens: through the reality of the resurrection. These readings are taking us on journey to Pentecost, toward the birth of the church, when God is going to recall Israel in the form of the church and constitute a new reality through the giving of the Holy Spirit.
And these readings reveal the passion of the Early Christians as they attempt to live their lives according to their understanding of what Jesus told them both before and after the resurrection. This faith, this Easter faith is both dangerous and demanding. Last week we talked about the martyrdom of Stephen, whose faith and witness collided with the leaders who wanted to keep things as they always had been.
This week we hear Paul confronting the local leaders about their altars to unknown Gods, whom they neither recognize nor understand. Paul boldly proclaims God as creator of all things, as the life-giver to all creatures, and as Lord over all nations. We are all accountable! And we are accountable because through Jesus Christ, the unknown has become known. Jesus is raised from the dead and his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.
Why does this matter?
For Paul, what begins as an affirmation of faith ends in a summons to live an alternative way of life. The “offspring of God” are called to live in a different reality. We are called to live under a particular mandate and that mandate is the command to love one another in self-sacrificial love.
Every choice that we make in this life should be made with the awareness that we are able to have a relationship with God because God has a relationship with us through Jesus Christ. As Christians we need to be honest about the hope we have that Jesus has never left us, that he remains with us by the Holy Spirit, and that he is faithful. He is not a placeholder in our lives, he is an advocate for God’s never-ending love, and it is through us that he continues his ministry.
A lot of people would say that Jesus makes us good and in many ways that’s true, but that’s not really the whole story. God created us to be good, and we have the choice to embrace that goodness or to reject it. Jesus made that goodness accessible. When we place our lives under the Lordship of Christ, we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and that’s what makes us good. What Jesus wants is our full commitment to live a self-sacrificial love that allows him to live in us. That’s what this scripture is talking about.
Through all of this, however, one of the things we have to remember is that change is inevitable. The challenge that faces us today is to recognize the areas in which we need to change, so that our witness reveals our identity as Christians and maximizes our impact in the world as followers of Jesus Christ. What we hear in the Scriptures challenges us to move forward with our hearts led by Jesus so that we carry out God’s will without even thinking about it. Jesus wants us to embrace everything we have learned in such a way that obedience is instinct; because, sometimes we have to trust in the presence and power of God without the privilege of a physical body standing right beside us barking out orders.
When you think about it, parenting is carried out in a similar fashion. We get to lead and teach our children for a limited number of years, and then one day we see adults staring back at us, and we hope and pray that the things we taught them will be present with them even when we are not. On Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day, too) we celebrate this commitment, and we give thanks for everyone here who shares this motherly instinct, whether it’s with your own kids or someone else’s.
Let’s go back into the Upper Room with Jesus and the Apostles. Jesus describes the Spirit as “another advocate,” meaning that Jesus was the first. Jesus came along side us in the Incarnation that we might come to know and see the otherwise invisible God. When we come along side each other to comfort and encourage and when we act like Jesus, we are living into the Holy Spirit’s invitation and very being.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to be in communion with the Holy Spirit so that we can come along side one another not only in times of celebration, but also in times of struggle. In this way we become communities of the Spirit. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” When we come along side to be each other’s advocates we are loving Jesus most fully by conforming our lives to his and keeping his commandments.
We are here. And we are not alone. Things are going to be different…but…the Spirit is with us. So there must be more ministry that God wants us to do. Let us pray:
Call to Discipleship:
As Christians we are called to love one another in self-sacrificial love. Christ makes this possible, not by being a placeholder for goodness, but by being an advocate for peace and love.
As you go out into the community this week make a commitment to love others in the same way. May every choice that you make bear witness to Christ’s never-ending presence in your life. Go in peace!