Paraclete: Peace Through Presence

Jesus does not leave his followers alone and abandoned, but gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will always be present with them (and us).  The Spirit provides a peace that is not like that of the world; we can experience it even in the midst of chaos, confusion and fear in our lives and in our world.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: John 14:25-39


Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

These words of Jesus to his disciples came at a time when they had much reason to be troubled and afraid.

These words are part of what’s known as Jesus’ final discourse, or we could say his farewell speech that’s found in Chapters 14-17 of the gospel of John.  If you have a red letter version of the New Testament, it’s one big sea of red for several pages.

Jesus has a lot to say here for good reason.  He had just finished his last supper with his closest friends, and it’s the last time he is with them before he will be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, put to trial, and crucified on a cross.

So Jesus spends a lot of time encouraging them, comforting them, and praying for them.

In fact, all of chapter 17 is a prayer by Jesus, asking God to protect his followers, unify them, and give them the strength and the courage to be faithful and persevere.

Jesus’ disciples could sense that things are going to get difficult for them.  For three years they had been “all in” with Jesus their rabbi, their mentor, their Messiah.

But now what would this community be without the one who started it, who invited them into it and who risked his life for it?

They were no doubt scared, afraid, and confused about what the future would be like without Jesus their leader.  Maybe they couldn’t even imagine a future at all.

We’ve all been in that situation before to some degree, right?

Where we lose a beloved leader, who’s a key to the organization, or the business, or the school, or the team, or the family.  And we know that things are going to be different and we aren’t sure how we’re going to be able to carry on without them.

I can remember like it was yesterday way back in high school in California, when our beloved choir director Bob Engle sat us all down one day during the last week of school, and he said, “I love you all, and I’ve had such a great time being your director.  But for a long time I’ve dreamed of starting a choir in Hawaii, and the opportunity has come up so I’m moving there this summer.”

The news shook us like a California earthquake—we were devastated. We sat there in the choir room in shock, we couldn’t imagine having a different director, certainly not one as great as Mr. Engle.  We felt abandoned and lost, and anxious about the future.

I imagine that Jesus’ disciples also felt the same way—abandoned, lost, anxious.   But he didn’t leave them there abandoned.

Yes, Jesus in the flesh was leaving them, but they would not be alone.  Jesus promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit, the very spirit of God would take his place, and accompany them and be present with them wherever they went, whatever they were going through.

This should not surprise us because, you see, we have a God who always promises to be with people.  Rich Villodas in his book The Deeply Formed Life says,

“From Genesis to Revelation, we come across a God who refuses to be without a people.  God comes to be present and available, offering unlimited love to the world.”  (p. 182)  He says that “God is always moving toward the world in love.”

We see this kind of God in Psalm 46 which we recited to begin our worship service:

God is our refuge and strength, our helper when we’re in trouble.  When the world is shaking and teetering around us, God is with us and we have no need to fear, the psalmist says.

It’s so applicable today as well:

When the nations are at war, and in uproar, like our world is experiencing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when countries are in chaos, like we are here in the US with a pandemic that just won’t end, skyrocketing inflation, where racism and white supremacy are rearing their ugly heads, and so many lives lost to gun violence, like those in Buffalo last Sunday, in a country where political polarization and culture wars are dividing us, where election integrity is being challenged and democracy seems to be threatened, the psalmist reminds us that “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge”, the God who will one day end wars, who will destroy weapons that rob humans of their life before their time is meant to be up.

We sang earlier, “longing for peace, many are troubled…longing for hope, many despair.”  But the good news is that in the troubling times back in biblical times, and the troubling times today,

And in the despair that the trouble causes, there is hope.  There is hope because God will never abandon us or the world He created.  God has always showed up in history to accompany, to be present and accompany His people:

During the journey of the people of Israel toward the Promised Land, God showed up a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, then in the presence of the traveling tabernacle, and then inside the Temple after they arrived in Israel.

Then with the coming of Jesus, God becomes a human being to dwell among us in the flesh.  The mysterious and beautiful incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us.

And now, in Jesus’ final days on earth, he promises to be present with his disciples after he is gone and with every generation of his followers after them.

It’s through the Holy Spirit.  The Greek word is paracletos, or paraclete in English.  I keep wanting to say “parakeet”.  Well, often the spirit is depicted as a dove, so I guess it’s not too far off!

Paraclete literally means “one who comes alongside”.  Like a friend or a family member who is always by our side no matter what.

I spent some time looking at the different Bible translations to see how they translated paraclete, and these are some that I found:  I found the word “friend” and “companion”, and “advocate” and “counselor” and “comforter” and like the version we heard says “helper”.

These are all different metaphors that give us a glimpse of who the Holy Spirit is and the many ways that we can experience the Spirit’s presence in different times in our lives.

But no matter what word we use to describe the Holy Spirit, what Jesus says next reveals to us something about the essence of God’s Spirit—it’s a Spirit of peace.

Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you”.  I take this as an essential part of who this Holy Spirit is.  It’s a spirit that surrounds us, covers us, penetrates our innermost being with peace.  And not just any peace, but God’s peace.

Jesus says it’s a peace “not as the world gives”.  The apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians says it’s a “peace that is surpasses all understanding.”  Or as we sang, it’s a peace that the world cannot understand.”

When Jesus spoke these words, the known world was living under the grasp of the Roman Empire and what was known as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace.

Historians tell us that the Pax Romana began when the Roman Empire replaced the Roman Republic when Caesar Augustus became emperor after he defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium in 27 BCE.

Caesar Augustus united all the different military leaders and factions into one coalition, and this had the effect of ending the civil wars that had been taking place and thus created this sense of “peace” for about 200 years.

As long as you played by Caesar’s rules and didn’t rock the boat, you could experience this “peace”.  This was the peace that the world gives, that Jesus was referring to.

At the same time, the Roman Empire was still an oppressive system to those who refused to bow down to Caesar and worship him, to those who pushed up against the brutality and the injustices of the empire.

So to people like Jesus and his followers who did rock the boat, the Pax Romana was anything but peace and calm.  They were seen as a threat to the established order, and there was tension, and and intimidation, and persecution, and as we know, crucifixion.

But the peace that Jesus promises is not dependent upon having peace and calm in our country or our community, or our family for that matter,

The peace that Jesus gives is not dependent upon an absence of wars or the absence of conflict, as we sometimes define it.

The peace that Jesus gives is not dependent upon how the stock market is doing, or the price of gasoline, or the current number of cases of COVID 19, or how much baby formula is on the shelves.

The peace that Jesus through the Holy Spirit gives in not dependent upon our latest medical report, or anything else that can raise our blood pressure and our anxiety.

As one commentator I read this week put it, “Jesus’ peace is more than the absence of something negative”. (David Lose)

It is a peace that comes through presence, knowing that we are not alone, knowing that the paraclete is always alongside us, no matter what we’re facing.

It’s a peace that comes through knowing that God is ultimately in control of our lives and of the world.  And when we know these things, deep in our heart, we can experience God’s peace and lean into the psalmist’s call to “Be still, and know that I am God.”

When Karen and I first went to serve the Mennonite Church in Bolivia, we were fortunate to have several others as colleagues as part of our mission team.

One couple, Gerald and Geraldine Mumaw, had served with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia for several years before we arrived.  They took us under their wing and Gerald became a really important mentor to me.

After we returned to the US eight years later, Karen and I went to Elkhart so I could finish my seminary studies, and Gerald was working in a director role with the mission board in Elkhart, so we were reunited once again.

But soon after we got there, Gerald was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer.  The news shocked everyone, and it seemed so unfair because Gerald was still so young and had taken such good care of himself—he never smoked a cigarette in his life, he had a healthy diet, and he was an avid runner.

He was the last person you would expect to come down with lung cancer.

Over the next year or so, Gerald got progressively worse and he got to a point where he knew that his days on this earth were numbered.  He started giving away his most cherished possessions, and one day when I was over visiting him, he gave me a set of his favorite Bible commentaries.

Aside from being humbled and touched by Gerald’s gift to me, there’s something that moved me even more as we sat there in his living room together.

In the midst of the grief that we were holding together in that room, I felt this peace, a peace that I can only describe as being the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, accompanying us and comforting us.

I think that peace was so real because I could sense that Gerald was at peace, even in the midst of his suffering and his fear of death.

He knew that he was God’s beloved child, and he knew that death did not have the final word, that he would forever be in the presence of God. He could be still and know that God is God.

Gerald was at peace because he knew that he was not alone—he was surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he was surrounded by the paraclete, the God who was at his side through the Holy Spirit.

Rich Villodas said in his book that because of all the suffering, pain and injustice in the world, we often assume that God is absent and nowhere to be found.  How many times have we shouted out loud or inside our heart, “Where is God in all this?”

But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we know that God is not absent, but always present.  We know that even in the midst of chaos, fear, and despair, we can experience God’s peace, because it’s a peace that is not like the peace of this world.

So let us be people who get up each day looking for signs of God’s presence around us— in small ways and big ways, when there is relative peace in the world, and also when there is chaos and confusion; when life is relatively calm and when life gets crazy and overwhelming.

Let us approach each day with the expectation and the hope of the psalmist who said “I believe that I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living”.  AMEN.