Many years ago, when I lived in the Chicago area, I served for six years in a parish called the “Church of the Holy Comforter.” Since it is located in Kenilworth, which at the time was the richest suburb in the United States, some people referred to it rather irreverently as the “Church of the Wholly Comfortable.” “Holy Comforter” is rather unusual as church names go, and I often wondered, but was never able to discover, why the founders of that parish chose that particular name for their church.
“Holy Comforter” is, of course, once of the titles for the Holy Spirit, at least in the Gospel according to John. It is based on the King James Bible translation of the Greek word, “paraclete,” which means “helper” or “counselor” or “comforter.” In an earlier chapter from John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “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.”
In our contemporary translation of John’s Gospel, this word “paraclete” is translated as “Advocate.” It is a word meant to characterize that dynamic life of love and witness which God will live within the disciples after Jesus has returned to the Father. Unfortunately, when you and I hear the word “paraclete” translated as “Comforter,” we are apt to think of something warm and cozy, something outside ourselves that we find soothing, like a fuzzy blanket or a stuffed animal. But be assured, that is not what the word “Comforter” meant in Elizabethan English.
I once saw a marvelous woodcut of a renaissance bishop visiting one of the parishes in his diocese. The bishop is on horseback, astride a charger, and his pastoral staff is lowered and he is brandishing it like a lance. People are running back and forth in front of him trying to keep out of his way. The caption underneath the woodcut reads (apparently without irony!): “Bishop Odo, comforting his people.”
This is the kind of comfort which the Holy Spirit brings! In the Acts of the Apostles we learn that the Day of Pentecost was anything but cozy and warm for the first disciples; in fact, it appears that things got rather hot. Luke tells us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem soon after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. This is now the second time Jesus has been parted from them, and it looks like this time it’s for good. Once again the disciples are left alone, perhaps confused and afraid. They long for God to console them, to comfort them.
Then what happens? The Spirit rushes in upon them like wind and fire! It drives them into the streets of Jerusalem where they begin to preach the gospel in many languages, representing all the nations of the earth. The Spirit comes, not to bring them security or protection, but to strengthen them, to enable them to carry on Jesus’ work of bringing the good news of God’s salvation to women and men throughout the world.
In this morning’s gospel, John gives us a quite different version of the bestowal of the Spirit upon the disciples; but note that the point is the same. The setting is the evening of that first Easter Day. Only a few of the women have seen Jesus raised from the dead, and the other disciples simply didn’t believe them. Instead, they have locked themselves into an upper room out of fear that the Jewish authorities might do to them what they had done to Jesus.
Then Jesus suddenly appears in their midst and says, “Peace be with you.” But what is this peace? Jesus apparently explains by showing them the wounds by which he has reconciled humanity with God. And then he sends them forth, breathing on them the Spirit, the breath of God, and giving them authority to forgive sins. They are to carry on his work of reconciling the world to God.
This is what we are doing in our liturgy when we share the peace of the Lord with one another. We are not sharing some Christian version of “Good Morning.” We are acknowledging that together we share in the reconciling work of Christ in the world, the work of forgiveness and love. That is a very difficult task in a world which is not willing to admit that it needs forgiveness, and which doesn’t understand the kind of sacrifice which real loving involves. That reconciling work, that task, cost Jesus his life. And if we would enter into it, then we also must be willing to give up controlling our own lives. That is the peace and comfort which the Spirit of God brings!
Pentecost is one of those times throughout the liturgical year when baptisms are especially appropriate. And so, today at the conclusion of the sermon, in place of the Nicene Creed, we will reaffirm our own baptismal vows. We believe that in baptism God has bestowed upon each of us the forgiveness of sin and has promised to sustain us throughout life with the Holy Spirit. We pray that we will find that dynamic living peace given by the one we call “the Holy Comforter.”
That is why we will ask that all those who are baptized be given an inquiring and discerning heart. That is why we will ask that they have the courage to will and to persevere. That is why we will ask that they be granted a spirit to know and to love God, and that they will receive the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. And that is why, at the end of each service, we pray that God will send us out into the world, to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
We gather as the people of God each week, not to escape from the world, not to feel warm and cozy, not merely to be “comforted.” Rather we come together as a community of faith to experience the comfort of the Spirit made manifest in wind and fire. We come together as the Church to seek the Spirit who gives us the strength and courage to transform our lives and, by God’s grace, to share in the transformation of the world. Come, Holy Comforter! Come, Holy Spirit, Come!