Texts: Zechariah 3:1-5; John 14:15-26
One day, not so long ago, a woman walked into a grocery store. While there, she slipped one of the items under her jacket and tried to walk out with it. It was a frozen chicken, so it was hard to hide. A security guard spotted her, detained her, and called a police officer. The officer searched her and found the frozen chicken. He ordered her to accompany him to the police station.
Lots of people saw this happening. One reacted differently than the others. Standing in line to check out, he told the cashier he wanted to buy that very chicken the woman was holding. He then brought the receipt to the officer, who reluctantly agreed to let the woman go.
If this story sounds familiar, you must be a regular reader of the CMC Lamplighter, our monthly newsletter. Or at least you read the May edition. This story was told to Phil Hart, who wrote the article, by Yasir Makki. Yasir lived and studied in Columbus in the late 90’s and early 2000’s before returning to his home in Sudan. He now leads a school and church network. We help support this work financially through our church mission budget. Some others of you give individually. Yasir was the guy at the check out counter who saw all this unfolding, bought the chicken, and enabled the woman to go free of charges.
It’s an advocate story. Through his actions, Yasir became an advocate for this woman he’d never met.
The presence of an Advocate shows up in John chapter 14. This is a continuation of the passage from last week, the new/old commandment – that the friends of Jesus are to love one another. It’s part of the larger farewell discourse of John 13-17, addressed to this small group of companions who had accompanied Jesus through his ministry. But now the end is closing in, and Jesus has a lot he needs to say.
Here, in chapter 14, he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, (Jesus’ intimate name for God), and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the spirit of truth.”
Jesus’ promise of an Advocate shows up three more times throughout the farewell discourse, each time referring to what we more commonly call the Holy Spirit. John’s is the only gospel to use this term for Holy Spirit. John’s gospel, very likely the last in our scripture to be written, is less emphatic than the others on Jesus’ return to his followers in bodily form, the second coming. Instead, John emphasizes this Advocate as bearing the name of Jesus, sent by God as a continuation of Jesus’ presence. The Advocate will “be with you forever’ Jesus says. It’s the ultimate parting gift that keeps on giving and giving, without end.
An Advocate is someone who is for you. They’re on your side. They speak up on your behalf. They use their power for your good.
Here’s more to the frozen chicken story: There’s a lot of political unrest in Sudan these days. We don’t hear much about this in the US news cycle. Street protests are common, kidnappings have increased. Prices for food and basic goods have spiked in the past year. Poor folks are desperate for food.
A couple months before the grocery store incident Yasir had a conversation with a friend, a former police officer. The officer estimated that 99% of women taken into police custody get raped while there. Also under Shariah law, theft can be punishable by cutting off a hand.
All these factors were in the mix in the grocery store line, when our friend was in a position to be an Advocate by purchasing a $5 frozen chicken.
Shift now from this present day scene in a distant place to this strange and fascinating scene in the book of the prophet Zechariah. That story seems to be taking place on some spiritual plane, in a divine courtroom of sorts. Zechariah sees, in his mind’s eye, Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel of Yahweh, wearing filthy clothes. Alongside Joshua and the angel of the Lord there is another character which in Hebrew is Ha-saTAN, the Satan, which means, the accuser, or the adversary. The adversary is standing at the right hand of Joshua, ready to accuse him in the Divine court. Joshua and his people have been through quite an ordeal. Wearing filthy clothes to court, as far as I can tell, rarely increases one’s chances for a good verdict. The accuser may have a good case here.
But the angel of the Lord gets the first word. Speaking directly to the Satan, the angel says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser.” The angel then commands that Joshua’s filthy clothes be taken off of him and clean ceremonial clothes be put on – a fine new turban for his head and a priestly robe. The Accuser’s case is not even heard. He gets outmaneuvered by the angel of Yahweh who becomes an Advocate for Joshua and the people he represents.
The story is similar to the story of Job, where this same spirit, the accuser, goes before God to accuse the righteous man Job of being probably-not-so-righteous since he’s had a pretty easy life and anyone can be thankful to God when things have gone well for them. The adversary, the Satan, comes against Job to accuse him.
In Zechariah and Job, the NRSV doesn’t translate the Hebrew word for Accuser. It leaves it in its Hebrew form of the saTAN, Satan. Whenever the satan gets mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures it is an adversarial spirit that sets itself up against someone or a community. Like an obsessed prosecutor convinced of the guilt of an adversary, bringing up its case against the defendant.
The Satan is never used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures. A being named Satan. That was a later development. But it is recognized as something real. There is a certain accusatory and adversarial spirit present in the world that sets itself up against us. We experience this energy within us, in the incessant conversation we have with ourselves in our head. And we experience this energy around us coming from all different sources. The accusatory voice or spirit that is against the well-being of us and our community. It sets itself up in systems of racism and sexism which are, in the Hebraic sense, the work of the Satan.
In John 14, Jesus speaks of another voice, force, spirit whose presence he is celebrating and whose continuing presence is his representative after he’s gone. The Advocate, “who will be with you forever.” “The spirit of truth.” And while we’re paying attention to original languages it’s worth noting the Greek word for Advocate, paraclete. It’s a word that had a secular usage at the writing of the New Testament which basically meant “lawyer for the defense.” The paraclete is the one who defends the one being accused and speaks on their behalf.
Everyone needs a good defense attorney in this world. A paraclete.
Everyone needs an Advocate and everyone can be an Advocate. Being an advocate is holy work, Holy Spirit work. When you are an advocate, you are by the very definition of John 14 doing the work of the Spirit, who is doing the work of Jesus.
If we think about our own stories, I’m guessing we can each think of someone who has advocated for us at some point, and how much of a difference that has made.
There was a rather remarkable example of this last Sunday when the commencement speaker at Morehouse College pledged to pay off the entire student debt load of the graduating class. Imagine that. Imagine how that’s going to alter the course of those roughly 400 graduates. The logistics of this are yet to be worked out, so watch for how this is actually going to work, and the wider discussion of the ongoing crippling effects of student debt.
That’s a headline story, but the grand scale of a gesture like this might distract from the more common ways the Paraclete works. Jesus also said that the world neither sees nor knows the Advocate. As if there’s something subtle and entirely un-grand about the way the Paraclete operates in this world. Something that, in the words of Jesus, simply abides with you, and will be in you.
It makes all the difference to know that someone/something is for you. Sometimes as a Presence abiding with you. As the inner voice advocating for you. Speaking a better word than that accusing adversarial spirit that also inhabits our inner world. Sometimes the Advocate speaks for us through the voice of another – a mentor, a parent, a teacher, a friend. Sometimes an advocate finds you wearing filthy clothes and, rather than asking in an accusatory tone, “now how did you get so dirty?” Rather than that, says, Here, it looks like you could use a fresh robe.
What is remarkable is that even if we fail to be the kind of advocate we’d like to be for others, that the Paraclete abides with us, is still for us. Even if you don’t know what you believe about Jesus or God, the Advocate believes in you. And you can take that on a theological or human level.
And if you do have a strong conception of God, part of that conception might be mixed in with God actually playing the role of the Satan, the accuser, the one always looking for faults and shortcomings, pointing the finger, highlighting how you don’t measure up. If this is your conception of God, the Paraclete is here to offer some good news. The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the continuation of the presence of Jesus among us, is for you. Is for you. Is your defense attorney. Is your Advocate. Is God among you who has overcome the Satan.
This is the parting gift that keeps giving. The Advocate will be with you forever. It’s sometimes hard to see or hear. But it abides with you and in you and among you.