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1. The Paraclete – What’s in a Name?
“Whenever the Paraclete comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Genuine Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, that one shall bear witness concerning me; and you also shall bear witness, because from the beginning, you were with me” (John 15:26-27, my translation).
In the Gospel of John and the First Letter of John, we encounter the “Paraclete,” John’s take on the Holy Spirit. How shall we translate that title or name or office or, whatever it is? Shall we translate the word at all, or just leave it transliterated as the English version of the Greek word? That’s the fashion for translators these days, but that seems to me like punting the issue rather than dealing with it.
I can understand the rationale for this decision. The word lends itself to a variety of English translations, just in John 15:26 – Advocate, Friend, Comforter, Helper, Counselor, Companion, and Encourager. Some translations include additional terms in parentheses to clarify and amplify the potential range of meanings and connotations for the word. No one English term covers the necessary ground, so perhaps sticking with a transliteration and assuming an explanation by the preacher makes some sense (even if it’s of little help to said preacher).
Luther translates the Greek into the German “Troester,” which means “comforter” or even something like “security blanket” (but more on that below). The Kiswahili translation is msaidizi, which means “helper” or “assistant.” So, there’s not much insight from those translation attempts, at least for now.
What’s in a name?
I went to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament for more information (see Behm’s article in Volume V:800-814). Outside the New Testament, the word means a legal advisor or helper or advocate in court. The Paraclete can be someone who actively speaks on behalf of another before a tribunal (page 803). The fact that the context in chapter sixteen has the atmosphere of a courtroom is worth noticing here.
In the New Testament, the title shows up only in the Gospel of John and the First Letter. “The only thing one can say for certain,” Behm writes, “is that the sense of ‘comforter,’ favored by, e.g., Wycliffe, Luther, and the A.V. in John’s Gospel, does not fit any of the New Testament passages” (page 804). In a footnote, he argues that the sense of “convincer” favored by a few scholars won’t work either.
In an additional footnote, Behm tracks down Luther’s translation in a bit more detail. Modern German usage is rooted in Luther’s German, but has developed and changed in the last 500 years. When Luther chose “Troester,” he was using a word that conveyed “one who gives protection, help, or security, with concrete reference to an act or intervention for someone” (page 804).
We can think about Luther’s love for Psalm 46 – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” Behm notes that Luther often combined “Troest” and “Trotz,” words meaning confidence and strength, as found in Psalm 46. So, Luther’s translation seems to have much more the sense of “protector” than that of “helper” or “comforter.” I want to stick with that sense of “Protector,” or “Defender” (contained in the translation as “Advocate”) as we reflect on the person and work of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
“The Paraclete’s return in 15:26,” Karoline Lewis writes, “is a direct response to Jesus’ words in 15:25, ‘They hated me without a cause’” (page 201). The context is that of threat and persecution. That context continues in the verses which the lectionary committee has omitted in the Pentecost gospel reading. “‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them” (John 16:1-4a, NRSV).
Those verses describe the threat under which John’s community stood – that they would be identified as heterodox Jews, subjected to the judgment of some type of tribunal and expelled from their synagogues (or perhaps even stoned for the crime of blasphemy). This threat is in response to their testimony that the Messiah is Jesus, and that Abundant Life is to be found in him. The images of protector, defender, and advocate make sense in such a context (and would, not coincidentally, provide some measure of comfort for those who were under such a threat).
Lewis walks us through the descriptions of the Paraclete in John’s gospel, beginning in chapter 14. She notes that the Paraclete – the Holy Spirit – has not appeared in the gospel account until the Farewell Discourse. Jesus notes that he will send “another” Paraclete to the disciples. This means, of course, that during his time with the disciples, he was the Paraclete for them.
That’s important to keep in mind as we seek to understand what’s happening in our text. “If the Holy Spirit is another Advocate, then that means there has been an Advocate already, Jesus,” Lewis writes. “As a result, we are invited to conceive of the fact that one way of understanding the role of the Holy Spirit is to reread the Gospel up to this point and notice what Jesus has done” (page 192).
“Paraclete” comes from the Greek verb which in its most basic form means “to call alongside.” Lewis writes, “The Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us. This unique interpretation of the Spirit alone is worth a sermon or ten” (page 191). She suggests that the title should be translated in different ways within the Gospel of John, depending on the immediate context. “How the term is translated in each circumstance,” she argues, “has everything to do with the function of the Paraclete in that moment” (pages 191-192).
I certainly understand the value of Lewis’ proposal in this regard. I am concerned, however, that it can produce confusion in both the interpreter and the listeners. I think that as a translator I need to pick a consistent term and live with its limitations. I lean, in John’s Gospel, toward “the Protector,” given the fraught circumstances of the first listeners to that gospel. Jesus has served as the Protector for the disciples to this point. And he will continue in that role both in his Farewell Prayer and in his actions during his arrest.
Lewis lists the multiple aspects of the work of the Paraclete in the Gospel of John. The Paraclete reveals and bears witness to the Truth (the focus of another post this week). The Paraclete abides in the disciples as Jesus breathes his Spirit into them in chapter 20. Therefore, the Paraclete ensures that the disciples (then and now) will not be alone or abandoned (pages 192-193). These aspects can certainly be meaningful to Christians just coming out of the isolation and anxiety of Covid-tide.
John’s Gospel can remind us that Easter is the beginning of the New Life rather than the conclusion of something old. “All too often, the resurrection is preached as a culmination rather than an inauguration,” Lewis notes, “the believer’s ultimate reality rather than the penultimate promise, especially for the Gospel of John. A primary theological assumption throughout the Farewell Discourse is that there is more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead” (page 194).
This is the case in all the gospels, although it is not as visible in Mark and Matthew. Luke produces a second volume, Acts, in order to make this point. In Acts, Jesus is present by the power of the Holy Spirit in everything the nascent Church does. Sometimes, as Matt Skinner notes in a recent “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, the Book of Acts is portrayed as everything the Church does after Jesus leaves. But that’s not helpful. The Spirit, the Protector, is the abiding and life-giving presence and power of Jesus, always with the Church.
Even though that is true, however, let’s remember that we are in the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is preparing his disciples for when he will not be with them. For that reason, Lewis argues, the translation of “Comforter” might be most appropriate in some of our verses – especially in verses 4-6. Of course, the function changes a bit in verses 7-19, where Lewis suggests we use “Advocate.”
How might the preacher find the Good News here? In this time of isolation and alienation, of anguish, angst, and anger, the promise that we will not be abandoned can have some particular resonance. It may be easier to contemplate the losses and transformations called forth in our time if we know we can count on the abiding presence of the Protector – the loving and lifegiving presence of Jesus in us and among us. We can be comforted and strengthened knowing that we are accompanied on the journey.
More than that, however, the Paraclete “calls us alongside.” We will hear more about the Paraclete’s mission in the world, but we should know that we are part of that mission. It is a mission that will involve naming sin, seeking justice, and calling the “rulers of this world” to account. Parenthetically, that’s a good description of what advocacy looks like when dealing with white supremacy — naming it as sin, seeking the justice of repentance and repair, and calling the institutions and systems of white supremacy to account.
That mission, both then and now, will often result in risk and even danger. We may be cast out of our own “synagogues” – our places of privilege, position, and power. Whenever (by the way, that’s how verse 26 should start) that happens, we can be sure Jesus sends us the Protector who proceeds from the Father into our hearts and into our communities.
Next – “The Spirit of Truth.”
References and Resources
Behm, TDNT V:800-814.
Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M.. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail. “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/21-4_John/21-4_O’Day.pdf.
Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16). https://press.palni.org/ojs/index.php/vision/article/download/238/194.