It’s my first day back, and I thought I’d start with a lawyer joke. (How many lawyers in the congregation? Raise your hands…) There are so many good lawyer jokes. I decided on this one: What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer? A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge!
My father, a retired attorney, doesn’t like lawyer jokes. I thought he was too sensitive until I became a priest, and now I get it. I don’t like priest jokes either. Lawyer jokes tend to depict attorneys as self-serving, callous, or even malicious sharks, looking to take advantage of easy marks. But no lawyer joke I’ve ever heard (even the not-too-biting ones) approximates my experience of my father’s law office in Paragould, Arkansas. Growing up, I was at my dad’s law firm constantly, and in high school I served as his courier and file clerk. In my father’s waiting room, I would encounter farmers anxious about their crops, the elderly and ill desperate to get their affairs in order, and (because my father was also the deputy prosecuting attorney) abused spouses fearful of the wrath of a husband who should be behind bars. Often, the people sitting in my father’s waiting room were furtive, restless, and barely suppressing a flight response. At the same time, they were overwhelmed and paralyzed. They needed help. That’s why they were there. Life had confronted them with something they did not know how, and could not muster the strength, to handle: ruin, death, danger. The people in my father’s waiting room needed an advocate.
In the Gospel today, the disciples are not unlike those people in dad’s office. They are at the cusp of loss. They can feel it. The Upper Room in which they gather with Jesus feels as much like a bunker as a dining hall. The ominous creep of ruin, death, and danger unnerves them. Jesus has told them that he will soon be gone from them, and everything in the atmosphere gives them good reason to believe him. Jesus has been their lodestar. Before, they were fishermen, small business owners, IRS agents, political activists…but Jesus reshaped their lives entirely. They gave up everything for this new venture that was, well, everything. And now everything is about to be lost. Jesus is leaving them, and they must face a ruinous world alone. They need an advocate.
Advocate comes from the Latin advocare. It means “to a call to one’s aid.” When one cries out in need, an advocate responds. When one is silenced, an advocate offers her voice. When threats crowd in, an advocate places himself between the weak one and the danger, fending off the assault. That is what an advocate is. That is what an advocate does.
In the Gospel today, as Jesus prepares the disciples for what is to come, he knows their predicament even better than they do. Jesus knows (as he says) that sorrow already fills their hearts, and that the real test hasn’t even yet come. And Jesus knows that this motley crew is not up to the challenge they will face. So Jesus promises the Twelve what they don’t yet even realize they need: He promises them an advocate.
The Advocate is the St. John’s name for the Holy Spirit. In Greek it is Paraclete, which means exactly the same things as advocare, to call to one’s aid. Jesus promises then, as Jesus promises now, that he will send the Holy Spirit to those who follow him. And if we call that Spirit to our aid, the Spirit will come. Holy Scripture even tells us what that looks like. (You might even jot this down.)
First and foremost, when our circumstances leave us so fearful, anxious, and confused that we don’t even know how to pray, St. Paul tells us in Romans that the “Spirit helps us in our weakness, for when we do not know how to pray as we ought…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for [us].”[i]
Second, in Acts today, when the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost, we see two things: When the fearful followers of Jesus are cowed into silence, the Spirit gives them powerful voice, to speak even in words and ways previously foreign to them.[ii] And conversely, for the those whose impatience or anxiety impedes their hearing, the Holy Spirit opens their clogged ears and helps them listen.[iii]
Third, a bit later in John’s Gospel than today’s reading, when the resurrected Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the Twelve, the Spirit commissions them to go into the world on Jesus’ behalf.[iv] In that moment, they cease being disciples who sit passively and receive and become apostles sent forth and empowered to act.
This is also what the Holy Spirit does for us. When the swirling world upends us, the Spirit articulates the deepest needs of our hearts to God. When the cacophonous world silences us, the Spirit gives us ears to understand amidst confusion and tongues to speak through noise. When the ominous world threatens us, the Spirit empowers us to walk with courage, confidence, and strength, where without the Spirit we would be lost.
My father is a very good lawyer. I realized this when I was his courier. I would visit the courthouse, the jail, the other attorneys’ offices, and it was apparent that everyone had great respect for my dad. Beyond that, some of the other local lawyers held him in awe that bordered on trepidation. They knew that when my father stepped into the courtroom, they had most likely met their match even before the judge banged his gavel. They knew that when my father rose to speak, whoever sat at his table had a powerful friend.
I saw my dad prosecute a case once. One summer afternoon on my rounds, I slipped upstairs and sat in the back of the steamy courtroom, and very quickly I understood why so many revered my dad. I would not have wanted to oppose him. And if I were in need, I would have wanted him as my advocate.
So it is with the Holy Spirit of God. It turns out that, by analogy, the lawyer joke with which I began this sermon holds true: What’s the difference between a good advocate and a great advocate? A good one knows the law, but a great one knows the judge. In the case of the Holy Spirit, this Advocate knows more than law, or, we might substitute, the ways of the world. This Advocate knows the judge, the one on high. This Advocate springs forth from the very heart of God. The Holy Spirit is God, and thus there is no greater advocate. With the Spirit at our table—praying for us when we know not how to pray, giving us ears to hear and tongues to speak, empowering us when the world would sap our strength—with the Spirit at our table, those who would stand against us will quake. The powers of this world will know that we are no easy mark. With the Holy Spirit as our advocate, we ultimately cannot fail and will not lose.
As most of you know, the need for God’s Spirit has been clear and present to me these past few months. My cancer diagnosis at age forty-eight shook me from complacent living and threatened to cast me into a dark place. My surgery and recuperation have forced me to acknowledge my own human frailty like nothing had before. My prospective journey of periodic tests to make sure the cancer is expunged requires that I, like every cancer patient, live with a lack of definite resolution that goes against my nature. I have had to rely on the Holy Spirit and upon you, its apostles, more in these days than ever in my life. I have needed the Spirit’s prayer, its voice, its discernment, and its empowerment. And as always, the Spirit has been faithful. I rejoice at being back among you.
[i] Romans 8:26-27
[ii] Acts 2:4
[iii] Acts 2:6
[iv] John 20:21-22. The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle makes this point in his book The Jesus Heist.