The Paraclete: Closing Doors since B.C.
The Paraclete: Closing Doors since ∞ B.C.
May 17, 2020
Acts 16: 6-15 —>
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them;8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
We are now five weeks from Easter on what the church calendar calls the sixth Sunday of Easter. In the buildup to Pentecost, there is some helpful symbolism that remind us how it fits together: there are 40 days of Lent (although technically 46 if we count Sundays) from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday; from Easter, there are 40 days to Ascension (of the Lord) Sunday and 50 days to Pentecost (10 days past Ascension Sunday). Today (May 17) happens to be the wedding anniversary for my wife, Julie, and I, and so yesterday I was explaining the concept of an anniversary to Elias – that it’s like a birthday but it’s different, what husbands and wives are, etc. Well, Pentecost is traditionally considered to be the birth of the church…something like a birthday or an anniversary…certainly just as special. We will be celebrating the Pentecost Offering on May 31, as well. This offering goes to ministries with young people throughout our denomination and in DUPC’s own local ministries.
Earlier this year in January and February, in what somehow feels like many years ago, one of our adult education classes was studying the Apostles’ Creed as one model for articulating what most Christians would say with conviction about their faiths. As we spent a week or more on each aspect or person of the Trinity, I asked each member of the class if they had a favorite element of the Trinity: God the Father and Creator, God the Son and Redeemer, or God the Holy Spirit and Sustainer. Of course, it was one of those questions where there is no wrong answer, but I was surprised how many people shared that the Holy Spirit was their favorite. After all, the Holy Spirit is often the vaguest and hardest to grasp in our minds, whereas the Creator made the world and all that is in it and we live in that world every day, and whereas Jesus Christ became a human being just like the rest of us and so the stories about him feel so personal and intimate, the Holy Spirit is, well, different. The words for it in Hebrew and Greek can also mean things like “breath” and “wind.” Again, there was no wrong or right answer that day or any day, but I think the reason so many of us said that the Holy Spirit was the part of God we often felt closest to is because it is the part that we are most likely to have met in our lives, spent time with, been touched and inspired by, been taught by, and the representation of God that we are most likely to have led us in our lives.
It is with that in mind that we turn to our scriptures for today. We have already heard from Acts 16, where we saw the Holy Spirit in the story and the spirit of Jesus referenced as acting upon Paul, Silas, and Timothy in their travels through Asia Minor. With a reminder about the sermon title and the new vocabulary word that may be there for us, let us hear now from the gospel of John in chapter 14.
Read John 14:15-29
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and he will send another Paraclete, who will be with you forever. 17 This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.
18 “I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. 19 Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
22 Judas (not Judas Iscariot) asked, “Lord, why are you about to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?”
23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.
25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you.26 The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.
That translation is mostly from the Common English Bible, but I did choose to replace the word “Companion” that appears twice with the word “Paraclete.” It’s not a typo, but it’s also not a word we see very often in English; and that’s because it’s really a Greek word that has been put into Roman letters and an appropriate English form for a noun. For us today, Paraclete is our $64,000 seminary vocabulary word! So what in the world is a Paraclete, or more precisely, the Paraclete?
Paraclete is a word that we see only five times in the Greek New Testament, and each time it is used by John. Two of those are here in today’s passage. The translation of this word gets repeatedly attached to the Holy Spirit. I read from the Common English Bible this morning but I replaced its translation of “Companion” with Paraclete. The Good News Bible translates it “Helper;” NIV makes it “Counselor;” New Revised Standard Version uses “Advocate;” if you grew up with the King James Bible, you are probably accustomed to it being “Comforter.” So which of these is the best translation? The answer is: Yes. Yes, they are all good translations…and yet none of them standing alone is sufficient for conveying the multi-faceted meanings on the Greek word. That word is ‘Parakletos,’ and so in English we transliterate that into ‘Paraclete.’ This word means many things all at the same time; listen to all the different meanings that are found in this one word: ‘the one who exhorts and encourages,’ ‘the one who comforts and consoles,’ ‘the one who helps,’ and ‘the one who makes appeals on our behalf.’ The Greek reader or listener of this word would have heard all of these meanings at once, so there is no one translation that can capture all of the nuances that ‘Paraclete’ brings in Greek.
For the record, only one translation of the Bible that I know of actually uses the word “Paraclete” and, while I have an embarrassing number of translations of the Bible at home and in my office, I do not own that one. It is the New Jerusalem Bible – I came close in that I happen to own its predecessor, the Jerusalem Bible, most famous for having J.R.R. Tolkien as one of its contributors. What I like about that translation, and the reason I inserted the word into the Common English Bible translation today, is that it gets you to ask the important questions about what Jesus is saying with the word, rather than simply settling for one of its many definitions.
I think that the closest comparison for us today that I could come up with is our concept of ‘President of the United States.’ Let’s imagine a world 2000 years in the future where English is no longer the predominant language and the word ‘president’ is no longer found in common usage, just as Greek is no longer widely spoken and ‘Parakletos’ is no longer used by us today. If someone were translating an American document that discussed the President of the United States and the word ‘president’ meant nothing to their contemporaries, they would want to make it something else to convey the meaning of the word. If I remember my grade school civics class well enough and not at all needing the internet to look this up, there are 7 broad roles that the President of the United States serves: Chief of State, Chief Executive, Chief Diplomat, Commander in Chief, Chief Legislator, Chief of Party, and Chief Guardian of the Economy. If our future translator used any one of those roles to translate the title of ‘president,’ they would be both correct and very wrong at the same time. The president is indeed each of those, but, more importantly, he or she is all of them. In the same way, I think, the Holy Spirit is ‘the one who exhorts and encourages,’ ‘the one who comforts and consoles,’ ‘the one who helps,’ and ‘the one who makes appeals on our behalf,’ but it is all of those roles that makes the Holy Spirit such a vital part of our lives as Christians.
When Jesus says that he will send another Paraclete to be with us for ever, one that is the Spirit of truth, he implies that the Paraclete that is the Holy Spirit will replace him once Jesus departs bodily. So it is like we have Jesus at our side to guide us, even though, as Jesus says, we in the world cannot see him.
That leads us right into the passage from Acts because just as Jesus led his great crowds of disciples all over Palestine, at times avoiding some places and seeking out others, we see Paul being led all over modern day Turkey as he embarks on his second major missionary journey, this time primarily to the Philippians.
We start today’s passage in Lystra, where Paul has just added Timothy to the troupe. Then “they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” Then they came opposite Mysia and attempted to go into Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” So they passed by Mysia, down to Troas, Paul has his vision of a man of Macedonia, and then from Troas to Samothrace to Neapolis to Philippi.
So Paul and friends deal with a series of “no’s” until they finally get the unexpected “yes” to go evangelize in Europe, a place that has thus far not heard the good news of Christ’s gospel. Luke kind of glosses over it to get to the meat of the mission in Philippi, but that journey is not insignificant because it can speak to us today even through what is not written.
How has God closed doors in your life in the past and to what end? Of course, until Virginia began Phase 1 on Friday, there were literally a great many doors closed around us, and we look forward to even more doors reopening as soon as reasonably possible. For Pastor Deborah and I, the church doors opening are at the top of the list of what we look forward to.
Beyond the pandemic, some may be in the middle of a door-closing journey with God right now…it can be very frustrating and feel like God is ignoring/rejecting/dismissing/fighting you and the way in which you are trying to be obedient to God. But that is the beauty of the work of the Holy Spirit: it is the great corrector of directions, calibrator of wills…the HS often acts like the checks and balances system of our relationship with God and the (often delicate) balance we always strive to hold between our will and God’s. Ultimately, yes, it is hard to know if we aren’t just imposing ourselves on God (always one of my great fears), but I think Paul’s journey from Troas to Philippi is a great example of how God makes God’s self known.
Hearing the “no” from God or, worse yet, hearing silence, can be tough. I will never forget one of my early lessons from God in hearing “no.” It is frustrating, to be sure, especially when – like Paul and his companions – you are trying to do God’s work and God makes it harder, but the Holy Spirit works in the world in a variety of ways. I got to thinking about the blessing of closed doors in my life. I remembered applying to colleges back in high school. I was dead-set, dead-set, on going to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I was convinced it was the school for me. I loved its campus, its academics, its size, its location; I loved it all. Then I applied early decision and got deferred; then I applied for general admission (along with 10 other schools) and again, deferred. I was shocked and dismayed and confused. I was so sure that Furman was where I’d be headed, I didn’t know what to do. But, in the end, I wound up at a school I hadn’t even visited or seriously considered when I applied and I think that that school was better for me, in the end, than Furman would have ever been. Consider the doors that God has closed off to you, even when you felt sure that you were headed through the right one. Did a new path open up after the first one closed and you looked around with fresh eyes? I don’t mean for this to turn into one big message about ‘when God closes one door, he opens another one,’ but there is a strange power in being attuned to how God is working through us, even when it is through a “no.” I have had other experiences of discerning God’s will through “no”: in ministry, in relationships, and elsewhere, but that first big one has always stuck with me.
Which brings us back to Paul and how the series of no’s from the Paraclete so carefully laid out for us in the passage affected his ministry and outreach to the Gentile world. Philippi will become the base of operations for Paul’s mission in the region. Even though Luke tells us that Paul went to Macedonia “immediately” after receiving the vision of the man, when they arrive they remain in the city for “some time,” which is a wonderfully vague marker of time. “Honey, when are you going to do that thing you said you’d do?” “In some time, dear, give me some time.” The Paraclete was closing doors along their journey and they finally came to the open one and they go through it and…some time passes. But maybe it was just a few days, because on the sabbath day they go down to a place of prayer outside the city gate by the river. Perhaps Paul is the guest rabbi and worship leader, but regardless Luke notes that they went and spoke to the women who had gathered. Luke’s gospel and its sequel in Acts often emphasize the countercultural quality of Jesus’ mission – and in fact, Luke’s narrative world is a location where females are given greater prominence and independence in comparison to his social world.
Now several details of Lydia’s professional resume indicate her success: She owns her own business and her own home. Luke does not feel the need to identify her by her husband – or the absence of one. She is a “dealer in purple cloth” from Thyatira, a city well known for its textile industry. Purple clothing was destined for the rich and royal in the Roman world, where it symbolized power and influence. A merchant in purple cloth, then, is someone who rubbed shoulders daily with society’s rich and famous. Luke’s use of Lydia’s personal name in his story may well indicate her social prominence. In his narrative world, however, even the socially prominent are spiritually impoverished without Jesus; Lydia’s eager response to the gospel is another illustration of this reality.
And that brings us to the pinnacle of the story that these two passages tell. The Paraclete, as Jesus says, serves to remind us of all that Jesus has said to us. And sometimes Jesus said no and closed a door so that we could make our way to the open one he is leading us to. Led by the Paraclete, Paul travels, sees visions, travels some more, passes “some time,” leads worship, and more. But the saving grace of God is the real tour de force here. Lydia is saved and then baptized because “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly.” For all of Paul’s abilities in oration and rhetoric and for all of Lydia’s social accomplishment, she had a spiritual need that was satisfied by hearing God’s word: nothing more, nothing less. As we encounter the closed doors in life and search for the open ones, amidst all of that frustration and confusion and, hopefully, prayer, we can have faith knowing that at every turn and through every doorway, God’s grace awaits us. Open your hearts, listen eagerly, and praise God.
Because the Paraclete is for the whole community of Christians, I want us to join together in singing a hymn about the Holy Spirit that recognizes that God’s gift is for all of us together and not just each of us as isolated, quarantined individuals. The experience of personal faith is vital and the cumulative church tradition is wonderful, but it doesn’t account for the experience of a community of faith or the worldwide community of Christians. We are expanding our understanding of what community can mean during this time – car parades for birthdays and emotional support, new and amazing food ministries, improving our online presence that can reach far beyond the walls of this church to our DUPC community around the world – but it is truly wonderful to know that no matter what awaits us in the coming weeks and months, God has given us a helper, a comforter, an encourager, an exhorter, an advocate, a companion – that we call the Holy Spirit – and we are not alone, for God walks with us all. Amen.
Let us join together singing: Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove.