Acts 17: 22-31 & John 14: 15-21
I’m not much of a risk taker. I like to know what I’m doing, what is expected of me, what the expected outcome is going to be. True, I am excitable and often go off on an excited tangent, rather than the planned route. But it’s a safe tangent not a risky one.
Apparently, according to sociologists, this isn’t strange for a woman. They say it is men who are more likely to take risks especially when it comes to the jobs they choose, financial investments and gambling. Some sociologists of religion have therefore suggested this as one of the reasons that women are more religious than men – i.e. that men are more willing to take the risk that there is no god, whereas for women, to be irreligious is to risk divine punishment. Not sure I totally agree with that? In most church congregations there are generally more women than men.
On that basis, perhaps the ‘altar to an unknown God’ that we heard of in our first reading from Acts, that St Paul finds in Athens was erected on the orders of women? We could, I suppose, see it as a fingers-crossed-behind-the-back, self-preservation approach of uncertain agnostics. But Paul sees it as symbolic of the Athenian’s spiritual searching for the one, true God that he worships, but who they do not yet know. Guided by the Spirit, Paul uses their seeking as a way into a conversation about who God is, made known to them in Jesus and particularly in his death and resurrection. So he calls the Athenians to repent, to abandon their false pagan gods, and turn to Jesus.
I meet many people who say they are not religious, or who don’t go to church. And yet they are keen to listen, they are keen to hear more, to learn more. This is especially so when I meet with families planning the funeral of a loved one. They believe there is “something” but not sure what.
In a way we live today in a world full of metaphorical ‘altars to unknown gods’. Many people are seeking after something greater than themselves but don’t know what to call it. They try to fill the void with other things. For some that is through art, or music, or poetry – and that can be an important step on the path to God or a way of refreshing or renewing or enlivening their faith. For others more desperate, they use unhealthy or unwholesome means to dull that every-present ache in their souls, and yet the void is never quite filled.
St Paul used the positive in what he found – the sense of searching for something spiritual – to share the Gospel and call those who heard him to repent and turn to Jesus. Now we’re not St Paul. We’re not all able to stand on a street corner and address those worshipping these unknown gods and bring them to the one true God with simply our passionate words. Although, maybe St Paul felt much the same; a little nervous, a little unsure of himself? It took courage, perseverance and inspiration for him, just as it will do for us. It is only through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can adjust our words to suit the context we find ourselves in. To speak into particular situations in the most appropriate way. It’s the gift of the Spirit which enables us to speak of the gospel today in this generation. It’s the Spirit who gives us the words to say to friends or strangers to speak of Jesus Christ and all that he has done for us, and to encourage them along the journey of faith into a new and deeper relationship with God.
It’s in the reading from John’s gospel that we are told by Jesus that the Spirit is on the way. Jesus promises that he will not leave us orphaned, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit, he will be one with those who love him, and so we are caught up in the very life of God. Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the Advocate. We need to understand what Jesus means by the Advocate.
The Oxford dictionary explains “Advocate” in two ways.
1 is “a person who supports or speaks in favour of somebody or of a public plan or action”
2nd is “a person who defends somebody in court”
If we think of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit in this way, it would be as someone who would stand with us before God and try to persuade God to forgive, love, accept. This advocate would intercede on our behalf, plead our case, and seek a favourable judgment. But maybe we’ve misunderstood. Maybe we’ve gotten it backwards. What if the Advocate’s role is not to change God’s mind but to change our minds about ourselves and each other? That we need an Advocate to change God’s mind about us just doesn’t fit a God “who so loved the world.” Does it?
It’s contrary to Jesus saying that he came not to condemn the world but to save, heal, and transform it. And I don’t think it reflects the Jesus portrayed by the gospel writers: a Jesus who chose the poor, the broken, the sinful; a Jesus who healed and transformed lives; a Jesus who excluded no one; a Jesus who assures us there is a room for us in his Father’s house; a Jesus characterized by love, forgiveness, and welcome. And if that’s who Jesus is then that’s who the Father is too. “Whoever has seen me,” Jesus says, “has seen the Father”
So, what if the Advocate’s role is the opposite of what we often think it is? What if the Advocate doesn’t represent us before God, but represents God before us? After all, Jesus said, “The Advocate … will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I said to you” (John 14:26).
We all need an Advocate. We all need to be reminded, especially when the future is uncertain, when life has been turned upside down, and we’re afraid or overwhelmed. We need to be reminded when we’re angry or frustrated. We need to be reminded when we are sad and grieving. When we’re busy, successful, and self-sufficient. When we’re lost and don’t know the way. We need to be reminded when we feel like an orphan – alone and lonely, on our own, having to look out and fend for ourselves. None of us get through life alone. We need God’s advocacy and reminding.
This Advocate, however, doesn’t just remind us of what Jesus said, Google can do that. And the Advocate isn’t some invisible essence floating around. It is a life lived in and with the spirit of God. This Advocate insists we give existence to Jesus’ words and life in our lives through our thoughts, words, and actions. The Advocate shows up every time you and I embody God’s life and spirit. We are the ones being sent. We are the ones who make God’s life present and seen in the world. For that, we need to allow the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, in to our lives to empower us, give us courage, give us the right words even. We cannot do these things alone.
Jesus knows the task for the disciples – both his own friends, for those who have followed him since, for those of us who follow him now. He knows it’s too much for them to do alone, for us to do alone. So he promises to ask the Father to send us help through the Spirit.
It is the gift of the Spirit that enables us to respond to Jesus’ words: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” According to some theologians, Jesus gave more than forty commandments “pray always”, “repent”, “believe”, “take up your cross and follow me”, “go and make disciples”, “do this to remember me” and so on. But they all come down to love. First and foremost, Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart and mind and strength, and to love one another as he has loved us. To love others was not a new commandment, but to go as far as to love others following the pattern of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us is radical. It means not just loving our own family, friends and neighbours but even those very different to us –
the poor, the homeless, the refugee, those with mental health or addiction issues. It means loving those with whom we might disagree on all sorts of things. It even means loving those we don’t really like. Costly and challenging it may be.
But it is only in this way, guided by the Holy Spirit, that we can become truly a Christ-like community of love, drawing others into relationship with the God who is no longer unknown.