6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:15-21;
Acts 17; 1 Peter 3:13-22
COUNSEL FOR THE DEFENSE
Jesus said to his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” — John 14:16-17
Jesus promises the Advocate to his disciples, to you and to me — to abide in us, no less! Right here, living inside you and me is the Advocate! Pretty cool, heh? … But who’s the Advocate?
We might even ask: who is the Paraclete? That’s the Greek word behind our translation into the word “Advocate.” And Paraclete has been so difficult to translate that often it is simply left untranslated, or transliterated: Paraclete. Have you heard that word in your bible studies? So Jesus tells us that we will receive the Paraclete. But what does that mean?
Well, these days more and more of the commentators all begin at one place. The Greek word Paraclete was most often used as a title of a person. If we had to translate that title into today’s world, “Advocate” comes close, but more specific might be something like “Public Defender.” Yes, the Paraclete is a lawyer! Can you believe that? More specifically, the Paraclete is the lawyer for the defense, the Defense Attorney. And, in the days of Jesus, the law profession was not quite like today, in which we have scads of lawyers to choose from, so we typically go out and hire our own lawyer. No, if you found yourself dragged into court into Jesus’ day, it was more typical that someone was appointed to defend you. That person was the Paraclete.
Now, does that help us translate Paraclete in this passage? As I said, most bible commentators begin with this meaning of a lawyer for the defense, but they generally go off in another direction. You can see why, can’t you? Why would Jesus be promising us a defense attorney to live inside of us? It doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? So most commentators go on to something more general, like advocate. The Paraclete is someone on our side. Another translation has been Counselor. It begins with the sense of counsel for the defense, perhaps, but then you can go on more generally to Counselor. And Counselor is someone we can more easily relate to these days. A counselor is someone who helps us get through the rough times in our lives, someone who gives us advice, someone who listens and encourages us to do what we might be afraid to do. Yes, if the Paraclete is the Counselor who abides within us, then that seems a more comforting thing that Jesus is promising us. Some commentators even translate Paraclete as Comforter, with a capital “C,” or as Helper, with a capital “H.” Counselor, Comforter, Helper — those are all helpful images for us to think about, with this wonderful promise from Jesus.
Yet I’m not sure that those things are what Jesus really meant. The basic meaning of Paraclete was as the Public Defender of the accused. What if he really meant that? What if that is the image he meant for us to have, in receiving this promise? I would like to explore that possibility for a few minutes this morning. After all, it is an image we can relate to, even if it isn’t the first one we might choose.
We do know what lawyers are. We know what it would mean to have an advocate defend us in court from our accusers. We even must like that general scenario, if judging by the popularity of such TV shows and movies. The Paraclete is sort of like a cosmic Perry Mason who gets all his clients off the hook, or a Matlock who always discovers the real culprit. We flock to movies like “A Few Good Men,” which has also recently been at the Racine Theater as a stage show. We especially like to see those who are the accusers have the tables turned on them by a good Paraclete, who can turn the accusers into the accused. We like those shows, don’t we? We can relate, can’t we?
The problem, of course, is that few of us have ever been in that situation ourselves. Many of us have never even been to court ourselves, and have never hired a lawyer for anything more than say a will. We certainly haven’t been on trial for murder, or something as dramatic as a Perry Mason or Matlock show. So what would this promise of a Paraclete living inside of us possibly mean to us? Is it just nice to have a lawyer tucked away for a rainy day, should we need it some day? That can’t be it, can it?
Let’s begin to get at the meaning of this by generalizing just a bit. Few if any of us have ever literally been on trial in an actual courthouse. But think of the ways in which we face trials almost daily, the ways in which we feel called to justify ourselves to others. If Ellen says to me, for example, “I really could use some more help with the house work,” I can feel on trial. Even if she says it to me nicely, which she usually does, and even if she is justified in asking me, which she almost always is, I still often feel the need to defend myself. How much of our lives do we spend trying to justify or defend ourselves with others? We desperately need the approval of others, and so we are always trying to justify ourselves to them. Perhaps it’s your boss or co-worker. Your parents or your spouse. Do you find yourself sometimes laying awake at night, thinking up the big speech you’re going to deliver in order to defend yourself the next day?
And now what sense does it make to think of the Paraclete as the one who is always there to defend us, to justify us? What would it be like to not have to feel like we need to defend ourselves all the time, to justify ourselves to everyone else? Wouldn’t that be a load lifted? Wouldn’t that be a peace of mind, the kind of peace that the world cannot give us? Jesus came to give us such peace, to show us that there is another who does not require us to justify ourselves. That other is God, who created us and loves unconditionally, so that there is no need to justify ourselves to this Other, God. This, I think, was the basic insight of Martin Luther at the Reformation, when he lifted up justification by grace, rather than by works. We are justified before God by sheer gift, through faith in Jesus Christ.
This is the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, that is promised to each of us in our baptisms, as it is promised to little Adam this morning. In this world which constantly calls us to justify ourselves, to defend ourselves, there is a Paraclete, a Counsel for the Defense, who reminds us that we don’t need to do that. So when Ellen innocently remarks to me that she could use some help with the housework, I don’t need to respond as I’m otherwise conditioned to do in this world. I don’t have to get embroiled in trying to defend myself. The Paraclete reminds me, and I can simply respond to Ellen’s request by sitting down with her to fairly negotiate our common chores. No need to argue, just to communicate and cooperate, to live in love — which is the other part of our gospel text this morning, the commandment to love one another. We are free to love one another as we should when we aren’t constantly defending ourselves to one another. Now does the promise of the Paraclete make sense?
I would like to briefly push this image of the Paraclete just a bit further, by going back to the specifics of a trial, a time of judgment. Like we said earlier, most of us haven’t gone through an actual court trial as a defendant. There is this image, however, of sort of a cosmic courtroom scene someday, when all the people of the world will be judged. Judgment Day, we call it. A scary thought, one which is relieved somewhat by the thought of the Paraclete, a Defense Attorney who will get us off the hook on that big day. It even sounds like Peter is alluding to that day in our passage from Acts this morning, calling people to repentance for the day of judgment.
But I think that the New Testament, and especially the evangelist John, is trying push us in a bit different direction. It’s not some cosmic courtroom that’s at issue in the gospels. No, it is the very real and earthly courtrooms where Jesus was declared guilty and sentenced to be executed, even though he was innocent. In chapter 12 of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And standing before Pilate, on trial, Jesus says to him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What is this truth that Jesus, and the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, came to reveal to us? This is what is more difficult for us to see, more difficult for us to hear, because it means, I think, the judgment of our entire human way of doing things. The Day of Judgment came when Jesus was judged by our human authorities. But he was the first Paraclete by turning the tables on them. The Accusers became the Accused! What Jesus came to show us was that our whole human way of doing things is infected with the need to justify ourselves with one another, creating conflict, and accusation, and unjust judgments. He came to call us to a whole other way to live.
I don’t want to spend much time with this today. But let me ask you just one question as an example. What if, instead of simply building more juvenile detention centers, like the one in our neighborhood right over here on Memorial Dr., we were to find some new ways to reach out to these kids who end up there? What if, instead of just judging them and putting them away, we found some new and creative ways to show them God’s love? Do you see what I mean? We don’t need to get into specifics here, but this is the kind of ministries that I think you and I are called to. We are called to be Paracletes to others, to show God’s unconditional love to all, even as it has been shown to us, promised to each of us here, that we might live new lives of love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 11-12, 1996