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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Called Alongside

The Holy Spirit, the One called alongside us, accompanies us by strengthening us, guiding us, bringing us to faith, transforming us to be Christ, and revealing Christ in our midst. Today, the Spirit calls us alongside others so that we, too, may accompany a world that longs to see Christ. 

Vicar Emily Beckering, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, year A; text: John 14:15-21.

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

If you have ever served as an accompanist to a soloist, ensemble, or congregation, then you know that there is a great difference between accompanying and performing on your own. It is a difference that is essential for musicians who are new to the art to learn. Even if we have not been an accompanist, we all know what difference the cantor makes as we worship together. The accompanist is sensitive to the needs and gifts of the other musicians, supporting them in phrasing and expression, prepared to bring them back in if they get lost, leading yet moving along with them, thus strengthening and empowering those whom she or she accompanies.

In the gospel today, we hear just what difference the Holy Spirit, whom we have received in our baptisms, makes for our daily lives. The work of the Holy Spirit, and in turn the work that the Holy Spirit equips us to do, is not unlike the work of the accompanist.

Today Christ promises, “The Father will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. You know him because he abides with you and will be in you.” 

“Advocate” could also be translated “Comforter, Helper, Counselor.” The trouble with each of these names is that there is not a single English word that encompasses the full meaning of what Jesus tells us about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Each of these names gives us a glimpse of the Holy Spirit but ultimately falls short of expressing the full extent of the Holy Spirit’s power.

The Holy Spirit is an advocate in the sense that the Spirit speaks for us when our own words fail us, for we know from the gospels that we can be confident when we witness because the Holy Spirit will give us just what we need. We know from Paul that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words when we pray. The Spirit is not only an Advocate, but also a Comforter who encourages us in times of distress and gives us faith when we doubt. And the Holy Spirit is also a Counselor who guides us along the path that God desires for us, reveals to us when we are living contrary to how God would have us live, and teaches us to follow Christ.

The Spirit does all of this, yet even more because the name that Jesus gives to the Spirit here literally means “the one called alongside.” Here is where the image of the accompanist helps us: the Holy Spirit is called alongside us for the journey, accompanying us, not guiding from far away, but right there with us in the very midst of the journey, working for and through us.

The Holy Spirit is sent to dwell with us, to accompany us along the way because God the Father will not be separated from us and God the Son refuses to leave us orphaned or abandoned. The very presence of the Holy Spirit makes communion with the Triune God possible: we are invited into an intimate relationship with the Trinity where we are brought into the very presence of God. Just as Jesus promises, the Holy Spirit reveals that Christ is in us and we are in Christ. In this relationship, we are never without our Lord. We never journey alone, but are always accompanied because the Triune God so desires to be with us. In that accompanying, the Spirit will comfort, and counsel, and speak for and through us.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Christ’s promise to us today is, in fact, that it is a promise. 

The power and presence of the Holy Spirit is not a condition based on our own abilities. The Spirit’s effectiveness in us or in the world does not depend on us. It is the Spirit’s power, not our own. The Spirit’s ability to reach us, to guide and transform us, extends beyond our feelings, beyond our intelligence, our limited perspectives, our tendency to miss how God is at work, and even beyond our sin which causes us to get in the way. The promise of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling with us, coming alongside us, assures us that God will be with us and at work as we seek to make decisions, to follow Christ, and to live as faithful servants.

Because the Spirit’s work and presence are promised, we need not fear as the world fears. We do not need to live in a state of worry, feeling the pressure that it is all up to us to figure everything out. All the “what-ifs” in this world have no power over us: what if we don’t know enough, have enough, aren’t enough? The truth is that we aren’t, but Christ is, and the Holy Spirit unites us with him.

Now we can actually live with hope: with the hope that the Spirit who dwells within us is always beckoning us, always opening us up to one another, always guiding us and transforming us to live as Christ in the world. We do not live with fear, but with expectation: every moment could be a moment when the Spirit leads us to someone, brings someone whom we need to us, shapes us to live anew as Christ, or reveals how Christ is already at work in the world around us. We live listening and on the lookout.

If we are oriented to view all of life this way, wondering how God is at work in us and in the world, then the question naturally becomes: what does it look like, sound like, feel like when the Spirit is moving in our midst? How do we know when, where, or into what the Holy Spirit is calling us?

Recognizing how the Holy Spirit is working may not be a matter of having an intense spiritual experience or of knowing something with absolute certainty. We may not always feel the Holy Spirit’s presence or know exactly which decision to make, which is why we cling instead to Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, is by our side working through and for us—even when we make mistakes—and will be there to call us back when we go astray.

Sometimes this happens in the form of a gentle tugging, or a nudging: like when someone is continually brought up in our minds and hearts and we know that we need to reach out to them. Other times, the Spirit’s voice comes to us through our brothers or sisters in Christ when they encourage us, remind us what is true, or tell us honestly when we have been going down the wrong path. We know for sure that the Spirit speaks through scripture, the preached word, and the bread and wine in order to reveal Christ. The Spirit, however, is not limited to these mediums; God finds many ways to reach us. We cannot control or predict how we will be reached; we only know that the Spirit will find a way.

Though it happens many ways, one thing is clear from Jesus’ words for us today: when the Holy Spirit is at work, it always looks like Christ. This is why we often don’t recognize the work of the Spirit until after the fact, until the presence of Christ has already been revealed. The reason that the Spirit is “another Advocate” is because Jesus was the first. We see the Spirit at work whenever someone acts like Jesus, shows Christ’s love, offers forgiveness, gives of themselves for the benefit of someone else: every time that Christ is seen.

This is what the Holy Spirit is always at work doing, always beckoning us into, and always transforming us to be: Christ. 

Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what is his command but to love one another and the world as he loves us. The Holy Spirit makes that possible. The work of the One who is called alongside us is to call us alongside the world in order to be Christ’s presence, to show Christ’s love, and to offer Christ’s forgiveness.

We are not sent to quiet people’s fears by dismissing them or avoiding them, thus saying “Peace, peace” when there is not peace. We are not sent to speak for our neighbors without taking the time to listen to them. We are not sent to help our neighbors by attempting to solve their struggles our own way.

Being called alongside is very different from any of these approaches.

An accompanist neither overpowers nor abandons the soloist or ensemble when it is struggling, but instead strengthens them by moving with them and giving them the support that they need. God does not deal with our brokenness or our suffering by punishing us, avoiding us, abandoning us, or taking us out of harm’s way. Instead, the Triune God enters into the very midst of our struggle, strengthening us, guiding us, and transforming us from the inside out. As God dwells with us, so we are to dwell with one another.  As the Holy Spirit accompanies us, so we are sent to accompany one another and all of our neighbors: to walk alongside each other, to stand in solidarity with each other, to enter into one another’s pain, to listen so deeply to each other and the Holy Spirit who speaks through us, that after we have listened, we all understand ourselves and God’s desires for us all a little more clearly. We will even be accompanied as we accompany, for it is the Spirit who empowers us to love this way.

And so the Holy Spirit looks like you, dear sisters and brothers, when you accompany a broken, hurting world. 

Every time that we meet evil and injustice with unwavering love and peace, every time that we seek unity out of division, ever time that we are turned from commending ourselves or getting our own way and turned toward listening to the needs of those around us and lifting them up, every time that we choose forgiveness instead of revenge, and offer relationship in the face of rejection: the Spirit is at work to show Christ. The Holy Spirit poured out onto us in our baptisms, who is called alongside us, will be at work, forever opening our eyes to see Christ again, and transforming us to be Christ for all whom we are called alongside.

This peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard and keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.


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