Reading and understanding the Greek of the New Testament have never been strengths of mine. My seminary professor of New Testament Greek accurately predicted that I would forget nearly everything she taught me, except how to use a few reference books. I can’t say I’m proud of this, I’m only being honest.
But sometimes I sit alone in the church here, when no one else is around. Sometimes I am praying, or thinking, or sometimes my mind just wanders; sometimes I am just looking around, listening. And sometimes I hear in my head the words of the Gospels, like words Jesus spoke to his disciples in the Gospel reading today - “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” – and I think to myself, What are you going on about Jesus?
Today is the Feast of Pentecost – the very day that we rejoice that the Holy Spirit has come into the world and filled God’s people with power! Today is about wind and fire and the force and majesty of the Divine Presence that transcends language, nation, race, color, or culture. Today is about BIG THINGS!
But I hear Jesus preparing us for it, and all I hear is this: “I will ask the Father, and he will send you an Advocate.” To my ears it sounds as though Jesus is promising us that in time God will provide us with a court appointed lawyer. And this is not the biggest wish I could hope for! To my ears, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “I will ask the Father, and he will send you a Public Defender.” And I think – that’s Nathan! We already have Nathan. Is this the best God can do? So I assume that something gets lost in translation, when we hear Jesus say that God wills end us an Advocate or a Comforter.
I mean, we live in a world that is full of uncertainty and anxiety and fear. And I myself am not without my own uncertainties, anxieties, and fears. Couldn’t you and I use more than an Advocate, more than a Comforter? It makes me wish I knew more New Testament Greek. But I only know enough to look up the words in some reference books, where I am told that the word translated as Advocate or Comforter is, in its Anglicized version actually the word, “Paraclete.” And I think, Wow, big help!
If I look up “Paraclete” I find out that the word means something like, “one who is called near.” And I think of Jesus promising to his followers, his friends that God the Father will send to us one who is called near, and I start to think maybe we are getting somewhere. (And I should have worked at my Greek when I had the chance.)
For reasons that I can’t recall, my mind drifts to the Oscar-winning film, Argo. Even if you didn’t see the movie, you probably know something about the story of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The movie tells the improbable tale of the rescue of six American diplomats who managed to avoid being taken hostage and were secretly given refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s home. The movie – which is by no means a strictly historically accurate account of what actually happened – depicts a CIA operative, Tony Mendez, who comes up with a plan to rescue the six diplomats by getting them to pose as a Canadian film crew preparing to shoot a film in Iran.
In the film, the six Americans are going a little stir crazy, holed up in the Ambassador’s residence, and they are reluctant to go along with Mendez’s plan, because it seems far-fetched to them, with a pretty good chance of failure. They are gripped by uncertainty, anxiety and fear, taking the specific shape that they might end up being caught and executed in the heated anti-American atmosphere of Tehran at that time.
In one scene, Mendez is explaining that they will each have to pose as a different member of a film production company, they’ll have to learn their fake identities, and stick to their cover stories, no matter what. One of diplomats most opposed to the plan objects, “We can’t stand up to that. We don’t know what the hell movie people do.”
Mendez, the CIA agent replies, “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.”
As the film unfolds (and indeed as history did unfold) Mendez manages to shepherd the six safely out of Iran, just as planned, using the slightly goofy cover story he’d cooked up, and some really helpful passports provided by the Canadian government.
Whatever other merits Argo may or may not have, it does a good job of depicting the atmosphere of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear among the six Americans hiding inside the Ambassador’s home. You have no trouble believing that they are really afraid for their lives, and have reason to be. You can feel the tension build, the longer they are in hiding, and the more likely it becomes that they will be found out. But the only thing more frightening to them than remaining hidden is taking the risk of leaving their fragile sanctuary under any circumstances whatsoever. Their dilemma is not helped by the measure of the resources sent to them: a guy with a flimsy cover story and some Canadian passports. No Marines, no stash of secret firepower, no helicopters to whisk them away. Only a guy urging them to play along with a fairly outlandish cover story, and who promises, “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.
In the church, we often cling to the idea that the feast of Pentecost is a stunning moment of dazzling effect: a rushing wind, and divided tongues of fire resting over the heads of the disciples of Jesus. We are willfully in denial that this image is merely quaint in a world that has known the battles at Gettysburg and Normandy, or that has sent rovers to Mars, or that has pulled bodies out of wreckage in Haiti or more recently in Bangladesh, or that has watched the footage of an un-manned drone doing its work, or that can recall the implication of the mushroom clouds we caused to rise over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or that is still coming to terms with the destructive potential of a pressure cooker.
The church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost – which is the very day, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to our spiritual ancestors. This Spirit is supposed to be our promise, our power, the source of what will sustain us through good times and bad. This Spirit is God’s power moving through us – the power of the almighty, the maker of heaven and earth…
… and we get what – a strong breeze and Bunson burners? Speaking in tongues? Like that is going to help? The Spirit is supposed to be our Marines, our firepower, our helicopters, not just our translator!
The disciples were gathered together in one place – probably more or less in hiding – but a crowd gathered at the sound of the wind, and the din of voices grows. And even in that moment there is skepticism about what this event might have meant. Is it a wonderful sign from God, a manifestation of his amazing power? Or is everyone here just drunk?
It’s easy for us to forget that the disciples were huddling together, probably to deal with their uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. By no means was it clear that having followed Jesus and cast their lot with him had been a good idea. He had been hung a cross; who was to say that others among their number wouldn’t be next to be marched up to Calvary, especially after the word of his supposed resurrection spread?
Were they reminding themselves of what he had said to them – “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever”?
Now, I’m thinking that their Greek was better than mine. So I’m thinking that this promise spoke to them in ways that it may not immediately speak to us. I’m thinking that, yes, they were uncertain, anxious, and afraid. And when they heard Jesus say that God would send them an Advocate, a Comforter, a Paraclete, they heard something like this: “That’s what I’m hear for. I’ll be with you. This is what I do,” except the voice wasn’t the familiar voice of Jesus, it was, rather, a voice carried to them on certain breeze, speaking to them in a tongue they could clearly understand.
For reasons known only to God himself, the days of rushing winds, divided tongues of fires, and multi-lingual confabulations seem to be well and truly over. Not that those particular forces would do much these days to quell our uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. But what isn’t over is this gentle and confident promise of Jesus’, whenever we tell him we can’t do it, we are afraid to go outside, we are too weak, or too scared, or just too ready to give up: “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.”
And the promise comes to us not so much from the lips of Jesus, as from a certain breeze, that is probably blowing through the pews right now. Maybe you can feel it rustling the hairs on the back of your neck. And maybe you can hear it in a language that is crystal clear to you – clearer than anything I could ever say to you: “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.”
This is the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to you. It is the voice of the one who is called near, the Comforter, the Advocate. “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.”
And this is a big promise, a big thing for God to say to us, because, of course, our greatest fear is just this: that God is not here, that he won’t be with us, and that he is not doing anything at all… which would mean that all our uncertainties, anxieties, and fears are amazingly well founded.
Maybe the world we live in has made puny the power of a Spirit who arrives on the breath of the wind, and alights with tongues of fire, and takes over the tongues or ears of those within a certain radius of his voice. It can certainly seem that way. But there is nothing puny about this promise from the one who is called near: “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.”
It is the promise that once turned the whole world upside down – for the better.
The powers of this world keep asserting themselves, as they try to keep the world in an alignment that suits them best. And this leaves many of us with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.
But to the church, God has sent an Advocate, a Comforter, one who is called near to you and to me in our time of trouble. And when we object that there is no way this can work, that we can’t do it, then he smiles, and says to us, “That’s why I’m here. I’ll be with you. This is what I do.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of Pentecost 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia