My friend and neighbor Russ May tells a story about the early days of Anthony’s Plot Community, my neighbors and partners in covenanting with the Sunnyside neighborhood and with the most vulnerable populations in Winston-Salem.
Anthony’s Plot hold regular meals and gatherings in the downtown area that are designed not only to feed the hungry but also to make space for relationship-building and advocacy for and with the homeless and marginalized peoples in our city. At one of these gatherings, they met a man who needed to be in treatment for an addiction but simply could not get into a program—the staff at the center would literally turn their backs on him when he tried to get help.
The Anthony’s Plot community encouraged him to go back and say that if they would not help him, he would go get some people who would have his back. The man went off to try again, and a few hours later he came running back to the group to tell them the good news that he had been accepted into the program. The tipping point came when he was able to say that he had people who would speak up for him, that he was not alone and that if they wouldn’t give him the time of day, he would come back with a community that would offer support and solidarity.
This story highlights the importance of having an advocate. This is what the Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit—the Advocate, which means to call to one’s aid or to speak up for someone. The disciples don’t know it yet, but Jesus is telling them that he will not be with them much longer—yet even when he is gone, the Spirit will be the presence of God advocating for and with them, teaching and reminding and speaking to and through and for them.
The Greek word that is translated “advocate” here is parakletos. If you checked out a few other translations of the Bible, in addition to “advocate,” you might find “friend,” “comforter,” “helper,” “companion,” “counsel”—even “attorney.” Insert bad lawyer joke here.
But sometimes, a Bible translation will just make it this word “paraclete,” since no single English word can really capture the meaning of parakletos. At its root, this word means “called to one’s side.” So whether it is an advocate, a friend, a comforter, a helper, a companion, or even legal counsel, the paraclete is the one who is at your side in times of need.
We Christians often make mistakes in the way we expect the Holy Spirit to show up, and that’s understandable—she does indeed move in mysterious ways, and there are many different interpretations of how and when and where and why the Spirit is at work today.
But one very common mistake is to believe that the Holy Spirit is all about feeling. In some traditions, being caught up in the Spirit means experiencing the Spirit’s presence in intensely emotional, even physical ways. But even outside more Pentecostal and charismatic traditions, we tend to assume the Spirit is there to give us warm, fuzzy feelings about God. We might not say it this way, but in practice that’s what we believe. We think that if we are emotionally moved by worship or some spiritual experience, that’s the Holy Spirit, and if we aren’t, then the Spirit must be out to lunch.
But anytime we identify faith too closely with feeling, we swim in dangerous waters. Feelings are fickle things. They can tell us a great deal about what it true and good and right, but they can also lead us very far astray. And love, though often thought of primarily as a feeling, is so much more than that.
We’re in the midst of exploring the Apostles’ Creed, and I’d wager that most of us don’t feel or even think much about every word in the creed every time we say it. But my dad uses a very helpful image—picture a married couple who every morning says “I love you” and gives one another a quick kiss as they head out the door. They may not feel the depth of the love they profess or of the connection that kiss holds every single time they do it, but it is a sign and symbol of a commitment that goes deeper than passing feelings.
And the Spirit in many theologians’ thinking is itself the love of Christ. The Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, the bond that holds the Trinity together and the gift that invites us to receive and participate in that divine love. The love that the Spirit embodies can feel like the giddiness of a new crush or the deep emotion that follows a marriage proposal—you should have seen me 2 weeks ago when Colin asked me to marry him, I was a hot mess—but more often, more truly and more deeply, the Spirit is the bond that holds steady when feelings fade, when hard times come, when doubt creeps in and reminders are needed of the deeper love that stays around when the honeymoon ends.
The other mistake we make is confining the Holy Spirit to the “spiritual.” I’m aware that sounds ridiculous—of course the Holy Spirit is spiritual. But here’s what I mean. We tend to think of the Spirit’s work as supernatural, maybe even magical, as something ethereal and otherworldly. But throughout Scripture and in our world today, the Spirit does her work in and through the material, the natural, the worldly. As Eugene Rogers puts it, “The Spirit befriends matter.”
This is from the very beginning—I mean the very beginning. Before creation even begins, the Spirit is there, hovering over the waters. It is through that Spirit--ruach, in Hebrew, meaning breath—that everything is created, all matter, this whole world. And from then on, the Spirit appears not as a specter or hologram but in the waters of baptism, in the waters of Mary’s womb, in the bodies and speech of men and women, in relationships and communities, in bread and wine.
When the Spirit comes alongside us, the Spirit does so not just in spiritual ways but in material ways, not in magic tricks but in works of mercy and healing and redemption. Yes, the Spirit descends from heaven as a dove and gives visions to some, but more often the Spirit speaks to and through humans beings in their own languages as on the first Pentecost.
It is in that presence, that coming alongside, that befriending of matter that we find, at last, peace. And we participate in the work of the Spirit whenever we allow ourselves to be used to advocate, to befriend, to comfort, to help, to accompany, or to counsel another person in need.
In a meditation on this passage from John 14, writer and artist Jan Richardson recalls a time her husband, Gary, helped her work through something difficult and reminded her: “I am on your side.” That is what God says to us when God sends the Spirit to be with us: “I am on your side.” And Jan asks this question: “Who might need to hear those words from you?”
When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we give thanks that we have a paraclete, an advocate, a friend, a comforter, a helper, a companion, and a counselor. We hear that the Spirit is God’s love always with us, and we trust that it is there whether we feel it or not. And we respond in kind by coming alongside and speaking up for those who have been left alone, speaking to them the truth that has been spoken to us: “I am on your side.”
Sarah S. Howell