In a sermon by The Rev’d Alisdair Smith of Christ Cathedral in Vancouver on this very text we hear about General Romeo Dallaire and his impossible mission in Rwanda. “While he did all he could to save lives, he was forced by inactive governments and the UN to face this genocide with a small band of lightly armed soldiers. He was forced to stand by as 800,000 people were hacked to death. The population of Vancouver proper is about 600,000 people. Dallaire tells the story of standing in a dark office, lights out to hinder snipers. Extremists were about to attack and Dallaire and his men had enough ammunition for a 2 – 3 minute firefight. He stood at the window, reflecting on his almost impossible position and a slight breeze blew by his nose, just as he breathed in. And breathing in that slight breeze, he found a shift in his thinking. He chose to be positive. His paradigm shifted. He had experienced the Presence of this creative, comforting, courage-building Spirit. Now this is not a pollyannish kind of positive thinking. Dallaire is the first to describe his subsequent battles with depression and has attempted suicides. His mental and psychic wounds have scarred him deeply. And he stands as someone who has experienced, first hand the Advocate, the Spirit, the Breath of Life, the courage-builder.”
Wes Howard-Brook’s provocative Becoming Children of God offers a fresh and original commentary on the Gospel of John as a narrative inviting readers -- both in the evangelist's time and our own -- to a radical commitment to follow Jesus from within a spirit-filled community. Howard-Brook says that the Gospel was specifically written for the collective church, much less individual disciples. That’s quite a shift for believers today who are so used to seeing the text exclusively through their own perspective, as if the Bible were written just for them. In point of fact that interpretation of the Bible is very, very recent, that is seeing faith through our own eyes as opposed to seeing it through the eyes of a person intimately connected to a community.
I think that is why Dallaire experienced the Spirit as Advocate in that specific moment in Rwanda, he was part of a community that was collectively trying to sort out their response to evil. The Spirit as Advocate came to Dallaire, but it also came to all of those trapped in that moment, defending the innocent and the vulnerable. And the Advocate gave them peace and it gave them courage.
Hear the text again.
1) If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
2) Know the Spirit of Truth, because she abides with you, and she is in you.
3) I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
Whenever I have spoken to people who have been involved in causes to defend their community in times of crisis they describe a moment of profound stillness, a moment when things move into a slow pace and they are reassured of the rightness of their effort, they feel a peace in spite of the risks they face and they are suddenly stiffened in resolve to move forward. People often ask me “where does the church go from here?” We look around us and we see decline; fewer people, fewer churches, fewer leaders, fewer resources, fewer younger people… And we get discouraged. Traditionalists in our church say, “if only we stick to the way we did things in the 1950’s, when we were building new churches every month, all will be well. Conservatives in the church say, “if only we believe what they believed in the 1950’s, when everyone went to church, all will be well.” Progressives in the church say, “if only we change everything to how we do things in 2017, what we believe in 2017, all will be well.” But my friends the early church certainly did not believe or organize or worship like we did in the 1950’s or in 2017. Instead they were small, they were passionate, and they believed they were all in it together. We can’t go back to the year 70 AD, when the Gospel of John was written. Nor do I believe that is what God wants. But I do believe God is calling us to a more courageous path, not a more comfortable or nostalgic one.
I believe the Advocate is among us. But we need to meet the moment, discern the Advocate’s call, and be prepared to be wise and to be courageous. So let me be blunt. I don’t think trying to go back to the 1950’s is going to bear any fruit for this church. Churches that are comfortable museums are churches that close and no one other than the members of it even care. Nor do I think looking around at other churches with a spirit of envy and saying, “if we did that, we had that, if we had a shiny church, with shiny things, with shiny programs, all would be well” as if being the church was like going to Home Depot and picking out the right colours and furnishing. Churches that live have a reason for being, they have things they believe God is calling them to do and be, they believe God has called them together to be more than a social club and more than a Holistic Wellness Centre that caters to your every need. A church is a place where people feel the presence of God, together, and in solidarity and mutual care feel compelled to share with others a love that knows no end, a love that knows no boundaries and a love that can cost, even hurt.
When Jesus died he did return to a select few and gave them courage. But he also sent the Advocate to encourage the rest of us, to embolden us to not give up, to press on, and to make real the Kingdom of God we know is here even if the world around us does not. Whether we are large in number or only a few, whether we are young or old or somewhere in between, whether we have plenty of resources or only loaves and fishes, we can make a difference. Together with the Advocate we have courage, we have commitment and we have a vision for the way things ought to be, now. Let’s get to work. Amen.