Recently, Bailes and I have been watching the television show Breaking Bad – the AMC series that concluded in 2013, chronicling the metamorphosis of cancer patient Walter White from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to corrupt, meth-cooking drug kingpin. It’s a great show – dark, graphic, and disturbing, but thought-provoking and compelling. As Walter and his partners in crime embark on their scheme to build a methamphetamine-dealing empire, they have numerous run-ins with various branches of law enforcement – everyone from the local police to the DEA to the IRS. There’s a character — Saul Goodman — a kind of bumbling, low-budget, ethically questionable rent-a-lawyer type, who handles the legal affairs of the criminal protagonists and their cohort. Time and again, they find themselves hauled in for questioning, and sooner or later they realize they’re in over their head and call Saul. And as inept as he may be, his mere presence tips the balance of power, shifts the dynamics, offers protection and guidance and safety. He is, to use the term that our Gospel text uses today, a paraklete. And having a paraklete, even a corrupt, possibly incompetent, very much human one, makes all the difference in moments of turmoil and danger.
Paraklete is the Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit whom he will send after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Paraklete, which has nothing to do with parakeets, is a difficult word to translate. Literally, it means something like “the one who is called to one’s side.” Sometimes it is translated as “comforter,” or “helper,” both of which get at important aspects of what the word means. But the translation our text uses, and one that reminded me of that crooked TV lawyer Saul Goodman, is “advocate.” At the time, the word paraklete had a legal connotation: a paraklete could be someone who would stand up on your behalf in court to plead your cause before a judge — what we might now think of as an attorney.
I’m struck by the image of the Holy Spirit as an advocate in the legal sense — it’s a much more forceful image of the Holy Spirit than we might glean from words like “comforter” or “helper.” But the promise of that kind of strength and power is what the disciples would have needed in that moment. Although we are in the season of Easter, our Gospel text today comes from the teaching Jesus gave just before his betrayal and arrest. He and the disciples are gathered in an upper room, sharing the bread and the cup, and he is speaking to them about what to expect in the days and weeks to come. Throughout the previous months and years, as they have been traveling together, Jesus has been the source of wisdom, guidance, and strength, and the disciples have been following as best they could. Now he is about to be taken away from them by the violence of the empire, leaving them terrified, lost, and alone. They will receive a glimpse of hope through his resurrection appearances, and then he will ascend into the heavens, leaving them less terrified but still having to find their own way, continuing his work without his physical presence. And so in today’s text, he offers some words of promise and some words of instruction as he prepares them for the work of being the church of Jesus Christ, after Jesus Christ no longer walks among them.
“If you love me,” he says, “You will keep my commandments.” Of course, Jesus has never given very many commandments — not even ten, like the famous ten commandments that God gives in to Moses on Mount Sinai. Instead, Jesus has given the disciples just one “new commandment”: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And in the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, when asked which commandment was the greatest, he named two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, every time Jesus has given a commandment, it has been a commandment to love. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, love one another. Love, love, love, love, love.
“Love” might not seem like much of a commandment; love sometimes seems weak, in contrast to the violent strength of the powers that be. Love is intangible, invisible, unpredictable, ephemeral. We might be deceived, then, into thinking that what Jesus is talking about is a kind of wishy-washy, pollyanna-ish sentimentality, flimsy and ineffectual, although sweet in its own way. Not at all. The love Jesus speaks of is powerful, interweaving strong bonds between God, Jesus, the Spirit, and the disciples. The love Jesus speaks of is poured out in action: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving one’s debtors. C.S. Lewis once expanded on this idea of love, differentiating between love as a warm affectionate feeling in our hearts and love as action in the world – which he refers to as “charity” from the Latin word for love, caritas. He writes, “it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings…. The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you [feel like you] ’love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love [them].”
“If you love me,” Jesus says, “keep my commandments” — that is, love God, love self, love neighbors, love one another. Those who love Jesus, and who pour love out to neighbors, each other, God, and self — those ones are loved by God and by Jesus, and sent the Spirit, the Advocate, the one who intervenes on our behalf, who is working in the world when darkness and evil are arrayed against us. When we pour ourselves into the work of loving God, neighbor, self, and each other, we are drawn into that holy love which weaves together God, Christ, Spirit, Creation, and Church. It might sound as if Jesus is saying that God’s love is for the faithful but not for others, but that’s not what I see at all: rather, Jesus is showing them that love is the path that aligns our hearts with the God who so loves the world. If they keep Jesus’ commandments to be people of love and mercy, they will be walking with God; they will never be alone.
That is a promise that the disciples needed to hear that Maundy Thursday evening, as they awaited Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It is a promise that the early Christians who first read John’s Gospel needed to hear as they endured persecution and suffering at the hands of hostile Roman imperial authorities. And it is a promise we need to hear today as well.
We contemporary Christians are not a persecuted minority in this country — far from it, despite what some talking heads on tv news might try to claim. We live in a place and time where going to church on Sunday might seem odd and superstitious and old-fashioned to some of our friends, but none of us are going to get executed for it, or thrown in jail; we won’t lose our jobs or our homes or our families. Being wished “happy holidays” is not religious oppression. Other people being free to worship in the way they want to is not religious oppression. Other people being free to marry whom they want, or plan their families in the way they want, is certainly not religious oppression.
So certainly we are not in the kind of situation of danger and persecution that those first disciples, or first readers of John’s Gospel, found themselves, facing oppression and execution for following Jesus. Nevertheless, we need these words from Jesus: this promise that the Holy Spirit is our helper, guide, comforter, and advocate, standing alongside us, and intervening on our behalf. We need this promise that we can be enmeshed and entrenched in the love that binds God, Christ, and Spirit into one Holy Trinity.
We need God’s Spirit to be called alongside us, showing us God’s way of love, because we live in a world that tells us the lie that we win when others lose, and lose when others win. We need it because we live in a world that tells us that our value comes from wealth, attractiveness, credentials, and achievements, rather than from our identity as human beings created in God’s image. We need it because there is so much work to do, so much pain and suffering, in this unbelievably wealthy nation where children go to bed hungry and people sleep on the steps of the church and veterans can’t access mental healthcare. We need it because our nation is still plagued by racism and sexism and classism and homophobia, and afraid to face those sins and make real change.
We need Jesus’s promise that no matter how bleak things might seem, no matter how powerful the forces of violence and oppression might appear, we will never be left alone by the God who made us and loves us. We will always have with us God’s loving Spirit, comforting, sustaining, guiding, upholding, and advocating, standing alongside us. We will always have God’s spirit, leading us along God’s path of love and justice, towards God’s vision for this world, where love and grace flow freely, drawing us all into community with the God of all creation.
Thanks be to God.