Category Archives: Festivals

Forsaken

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 3 o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which means, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

There is a mystery behind this cry of Jesus from the Cross that we have not been able to penetrate. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus utterly forsaken by God. We ask – how could it be? Jesus, always so sure of the presence of his Father God, how could it be that he should feel so abandoned by Him, just at the moment he needed Him most? In the course of my ministry I have watched people die and sometimes not without considerable suffering. There has been on their faces a light and a peace that spoke more eloquently than any words of assurance promising that God does not forsake us even as we draw our last breath; that He may be closer to us in death than we have been aware of him in life.

We are surprised and puzzled by those words of dereliction that reach out from the Cross. Very difficult to explain. So difficult some people say those words could never have crossed the lips of Jesus, that the writer of the Gospel, to make the quotation from Psalm 22 more palatable, has deliberately inserted it in the editing of the Gospel with the intent of giving it a more dramatic ring to impress upon the reader and listener how much was the cost of our salvation to Jesus. In one early manuscript, for example, the words are altered and read Why hast thou taunted me? The explanation for this change is that the copyist took offence at the words of the orthodox translation and edited it for what he considered a more appropriate utterance. There are biblical scholars who solve the problem with the theory that, since it is impossible to think of Jesus being left in the lurch by his Father God, the quotation from Psalm 22, this cry of dereliction, was appended to the story of the Cross by the Gospel writers to underpin the sentiment encapsulated in the words of a well-known hymn: what pains He had to bear and it was for us He hung and suffered there. Well, maybe to quote from the same hymn – we may not know, we cannot tell.

You knew something was troubling my old landlady when you heard her quietly reciting the words of Psalm 23 – The Lord’s my Shepherd, a favourite passage of Scripture for her because, she explained to me, of its soothing and assuring effect, it lifted her up! Perhaps Jesus was similarly reciting the Psalm to ease the pain, the agony of it all. Who knows? Dr Vincent Taylor, Principal of Wesley College when I was a student, presented the evidence for and against the authenticity of this saying of Jesus, and said: It is improbable that tradition would have assigned to Jesus such a saying, except under warrant of past testimony. What he is saying is that, for a moment or two, as He hung on the Cross, Jesus did have a feeling of being abandoned, not only by His nation and His friends, but even by His Heavenly Father.

Christmas 2014

Gerard Van Honthorst: Adoration of the shepherds Image credit: Wikimedia

Adoration of the shepherds. Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas comes but once a year. When it does it brings good cheer. Is it true?

I write one week before Christmas. Already I have heard it said more than once, Christmas has come too early, you get tired of it, not least the noisy music blasting out over the tannoy in shops and public places heralding the arrival of the new-born king. It is sad to hear it said, we will be glad when it is all over. Christmas is meant to be a time of great cheer. I have a certain sympathy with the point of view that questions the justification for anything resembling the Nativity event. For example, Christmas shopping promotions and bargain hunting aside, what Christmas are we celebrating in those weeks before with our trees and lights and parties, our scurrying around for presents for friends and family hoping we have got the right gift for everyone? How much does Jesus the babe in the manger, the Lord Jesus Christ, feature in it all?

While my mind was centred along those lines, I thought you might appreciate the message on a card that came to us from an American friend: Care deeply, think kindly, act gently. And be at peace in the world, for this is the spirit of Christmas.

On the evening before we broke up at the end of term, there was a tradition in my college for the students to visit each of our tutors to sing a couple of carols for them and to wish them a happy Christmas. The visit concluded with us singing the tutor’s favourite. Each of them, with one exception, requested a traditional carol. The one exception always chose one of the Advent hymns that are sometimes not given fair treatment in our acts of worship in the four weeks prior to the big event. The one who did not conform insisted, quite correctly, that he was right in the stance he took – Christmas began at twelve midnight on the 24th December. And he was right!

Be of good cheer …….

Be not afraid; I bring you good news; news of great joy for the whole nation. Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer – the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2: 10-11)

Wishing you all Joy this Christmastide.

Koinonia

Lazzaro Bastiani - Pentecost - WGA01497

Lazzaro Bastiani: Pentecost [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you. Amen.

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In the days following his death, Jesus is reported to have appeared to the disciples many times. On one occasion, just before his last appearance, when they were together, Jesus reminded them of a gift his Father (God) had promised and instructed them to be ready for that promise to be fulfilled. And it happened at what has become known as Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the demoralized disciples and life was never to be the same for them. We read all about it in the Acts of the Apostles. And there Pentecost is many things: fire, wind, ecstasy, renewal and more. I cannot think of many scenes quite like it in the Bible. Artists in mediaeval times painted pictures of it, strange pictures. They show great gusts of wind sweeping through large cathedral-like buildings, flames of fire hovering above the heads of the apostles like gas jets, one description of them. Pentecost was nothing like that. At Pentecost a new kind of community or fellowship among Christians sprang to life – the work of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the church was born. I prefer to date the birth of the Church to Pentecost rather than to the occasion when Jesus informed Peter, the rock, that on him He was going to build the Church. Believers were drawn together in close fellowship for the breaking of bread, sharing blessings with one another according to one another’s need. The work of the Holy Spirit – fellowship in the Holy Spirit. We are reminded of it and promised it each time the Benediction is pronounced to bring our act of worship or devotions to a close. Fellowship – Koinonia – a beautiful word. A word that does not always translate into English, because in the original New Testament it has a depth of meaning our word fellowship does not provide. The original text could mean “a common participation in the Holy Spirit”. We might translate it as Pentecost transformed the lives of those first disciples.

One further and final comment . . . . I was present at a lecture given in one of our churches, the guest speaker a former Moderator of the Assembly of the Church of Scotland. At the close of the gathering he was invited to dismiss us with the benediction. When he came to the third phrase, he prayed, “The companionship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” I do not think he was being politically correct, avoiding giving offence to those who might be sensitive about the use of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. I believe he was of the opinion that companionship was a better word to describe the blessing in the gift of Pentecost. Koinonia – in classical Greek it was used of marriage, a partnership between two people, a relationship in which everything is shared, love, care, support, friendship, companionship. Share in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and life can be enabled and enriched with Jesus our constant Companion on the way. Sharing in our joys and our grey days; sharing in our grief and our pain; sharing in our disappointments and our headaches: sharing himself with us. Koinonia – the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.

Celebration

Easter Lilies-Lilium longiflorum

Easter Lilies by Cliff from Arlington, VA. [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons

Across the world two Sundays ago the majority of Christians gathered in churches, many of them gaily decorated with appropriate banners and, even more delightful to the eye, a gorgeous colourful display of spring flowers. Bells will have pealed their clarion chimes, with organ and voices attempting to raise the roof with their resounding songs of praise. In my earlier days of ministry it was not unusual for choir and guest soloist to perform a favourite cantata at this momentous time in the Christian year. Children played their part, they came in their new attire to celebrate the Anniversary of Sunday School. In more recent times, if you could overcome your inhibitions, you might swing a bit trying to keep up to the rhythm of the praise band. For Christians, Easter Sunday is the most glorious day of the year. A time to celebrate, Christ risen, Jesus alive – as close to us as he was to his broken mystified disciples that first Easter Day. Nowadays we tend to be more restrained in our worship at Eastertide, the format more or less the norm for an ordinary Sunday. However, drop in to any church on the great day and it could not be mistaken for anything other than Easter worship, the hymns alone would guarantee it and maybe a vase of white lilies competing with the Cross for a space on the Communion Table.

As I look back on my pilgrim way I recall occasions when I fondly imagined that living life with Jesus, side by side, face to face, in those far distant days in Palestine would have been much easier than my constant struggle. Hymns for younger people certainly encouraged that perspective; seeing him, being with him. Here is a line from one of them, “I would like to have been with him then!” James Simpson in one of his regular columns for the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work, reckons that the day after the crucifixion, was a very dark one for the followers of Jesus. Peter J. Gomes, an American pastor and preacher, who died a short time ago, speaks much along the same lines; his theme the first disciples and Easter. Their Easter Day, he contends, was far less impressive than ours; their Easter Day was much duller than ours. There were no trumpets on their Easter Day, their Easter Day was far less compelling than ours and the other side of Easter saw them locked behind closed doors, afraid and utterly confused.

Now what if that was how they had remained – self acknowledged failures? What if Easter had meant the end of an exciting venture under the leadership of a charismatic and beloved brother, Jesus? Did God have some other plan? We will never know, happily no contingency plan was needed, a fact that shapes and colours our worship, not only on Easter Day. What we tend to forget is that each time we cross the threshold of our meeting place on a Sunday we are gathered to celebrate the joy and glory of Easter!

On the first day of the week, when the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them “Peace be with you,” he said. (John 20: 19).

For us

Anthony van Dyck - Crucifixion - WGA07434

Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a book of meditations, originally given in a Lenten series, Donald Hilton, United Reformed minister, suggests that Jesus died not knowing the answer to his cry of dereliction, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” If God had given him conclusive evidence that his darkest hour would also be his hour of greatest glory, Donald Hilton asserts, there would have been no glamour in the events that led to Calvary and the gospel would be found on the fiction shelves of the local library! There were no miraculous signals or mysterious voices to answer his cry. Yet, as we observe Jesus’ anguish, we can be sure this awful and terrible experience was no denial of all that had gone before. He, who in his lifetime became the friend of publicans and sinners, to whom people brought their sick to be healed; he who so clearly triumphed over evil when confronted by it, was not at the last reduced to defeat. Matthew, Mark and Luke go on to tell us simply that Jesus gave another loud cry and gave up his spirit. But in the fourth gospel, John contends we should know a little more – that Jesus died with the shout, “It is finished!” Not to be mistaken for a declaration of resignation. Rather, the cry of a man who has been through his hell and accepted the torment and triumphed over it. Light shone in the darkness! God was in it all.”When the centurion and his soldiers who guarded Jesus saw what was happening, they were awestruck and said, truly this man was the son of God.

It is as we see the cross through the eyes of the centurion that we are able to penetrate the undoubted mystery of the crucifixion and see God’s purpose fulfilled and be able to say with Charles Wesley, “didst thou not in our flesh appear; and live and die below; that I may now perceive thee near and my redeemer know.” (Hymns & Psalms: 184) What is important and must be said is that however the cross moves us to respond positively, it may differ from the way in which our neighbours in church have come to understand what it means for them. Dr Sir Alan Walker, the Australian Missioner, wrote a book with the title The many-sided cross, so-called because there is no insight, no doctrine, no school of thought that can possibly express the whole truth of the crucifixion. Alan Walker wrote, “It is like a diamond. Hold the diamond to the light, turn it about in the hand, light will flash and reflect in many colours the beauty of the stone, but what we see will depend from which angle we look at it.” From one angle the cross can be seen as a sacrifice; an innocent young man dies instead of, and on behalf of, sinners. From another perspective the cross can be seen as a demonstration of the love of God: a man dies not just for his friends, but for his enemies; a love that overwhelms and draws our response. So we could go on – there are other theories about the cross sincerely held by Christians, each one touching on a segment of the whole truth. However if it remains no more than theory, the death of Jesus achieves precious little for us. For whatever else may be shrouded in mystery, however much we may be puzzled by it and whatever may be said, one thing is true – in some strange and wonderful way, through the cross the power of God is released among us and our birth right – “made in the likeness of God”– is not just a dream, but a dream come true. The mechanism of the cross may remain a mystery for ever, its power need never be in dispute.

On a green hill

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

When a convicted murderer is condemned to death in the USA, or any other state for that matter, there is more than one way of doing it. When execution is by lethal injection it is supposed to be a more humane method than any other. Whether it is less barbaric than hanging or electric chair or whatever other form execution might take, are not all executions degrading and inhuman? Death by crucifixion in Jesus’ time, was the method used by Rome when slaves or the worst kind of criminals were its victims. The Romans themselves regarded it as the cruellest and most hideous of punishments. Little wonder the first evangelists ran into trouble when they preached the gospel of Christ crucified. It was absolutely ludicrous to suggest Messiah should be condemned to die nailed to a Cross with two criminals on either side of him. For him to die by crucifixion was beyond belief.

Yet, in spite of the ignominy of it, Christians down the centuries have cast a halo of beauty round the cross. In church they sing of the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died. St Paul explains where he stands in relation to the cross. “I decided to know nothing among you,” he says, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is no attempt to add a touch of glamour to the appalling circumstances of our Lord’s demise on a green hill outside a city wall. What Paul does is to state in the strongest possible terms the centrality of the cross for us. At the heart of our preaching and faith is the good news that Christ suffered and died for our salvation. Of course, the cross in itself cannot save anyone: Jesus himself is saviour. Nonetheless, the New Testament maintains the cross was not only inevitable but essential. If Jesus had said, “Father, you ask too much, I cannot go through with it,” it would have brought the mission to a full stop, there and then. To submit to this heinous act would signal to those who schemed to get rid of him that they held the trump card! It is not easy for us to appreciate how uncertain he must have felt allowing his prosecutors and persecutors to have their way. “Prove yourself, come down and save yourself”, they taunted. And Jesus’ response, “Father, not what I want, let your will be done”. There must have been considerable turmoil within as he considered the possibility that God’s way just might be the wrong way. Think of the terrific struggle he underwent in Gethsemane! Knowing what crucifixion was like, the thought of its excruciating agony and pain, the record tells us, brought the sweat out of him, “like great drops of blood falling to the ground”! At the end of the day, and we are not telling the whole story, the green hill spectacle defies description. We would be utterly, totally arrogant if we did not feel for him.

Attempts have been made to provide a more acceptable explanation for Jesus’ desolate outburst from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – a quotation from Psalm 22. It is difficult to see how they have transformed that agonising cry into a shout of trust and confidence! But if we are looking for further enlightenment, does this form of cosmetic surgery enable us better to kneel beneath the shadow of this instrument of cruelty and injustice? William Barclay‘s reaction to what he labels “this fanciful interpretation” – on a cross a man does not recite poetry, even the poetry of a psalm.

Solace in a garden

Jerusalem Gethsemane tango7174

Garden of Gethsemane
Image credit: Tango7174 via Wikimedia Commons

Asked what he does when activities become too demanding or stressful, someone who lives a full and busy life explained his own personal form of unwinding was to spend time in the garden, sometimes to do a bit of work, other times just to sit quietly and reflect. A good place to be. Indeed, what better place to be?

Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote, “one is nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” You can be close to God in the world of nature – he is its creator – and many do find spiritual solace there. There are places where it is better to be in order to sense the close presence of God. However, there is a garden that is very much a part of the Christian story. All the gospels refer to it. A garden set on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, known to us as Gethsemane. There Jesus chose to spend the final moments before his arrest, unburdening his soul to God in prayer.

Those who remember His personal conflict and his heart-rending prayer, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me,” may be excused for thinking that Jesus felt totally estranged from God in that Garden. As he prayed, “the sweat was like drops of blood falling.” Take a closer look and, in the picture we have in the gospels, we see Jesus and sense the presence of God with him. You do not plead like that to a god who is absent.

A garden, a sacred moment and a sacred place.

A disciple’s prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, at your moment of severe trial, when everything seemed against you and death itself stared you in the face, you found a sacred place, a sacred moment to spend in quiet with the Father.

You prayed to be excused the ignominy and the agony of the Cross. We would do the same. What we would find more difficult is to pray, as you did: “if is your will not to take the cup from me, I will go to the Cross.”

Lord Jesus Christ, save us from an hour of so severe a testing, but if it comes, may we find the grace to accept it and the strength to bear it, fortified and strengthened because you share the cup with us.

Lord, this is our quiet moment, our sacred place . . . . be close to us that we may share Your victory.

Amen

The blog will be taking a holiday next week, but will be back on April 9th.

One Christmas Day

Westgate Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Image credit: Geograph

Westgate Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Image credit: Geograph

One Christmas Day at the Mission and there she was sitting on the stone step at Westgate Hall’s side door. She had come to share the hospitality, a meal and entertainment, that the Mission provided for thirty lonely men and women who would otherwise spend Christmas on their own, with little chance of anything like turkey or Christmas pudding. The trouble was she did not have a ticket to gain admission. Tickets were distributed to prospective guests, a precaution to ensure we kept within the limits of our ability to cope. The lady with the bag on the doorstep was determined to beat the system. She was not going to budge. Well, it was the season of goodwill: we could not turn her away and she joined the queue!

A short time after arrival, our guests were invited to take their places at the tables – the time for feasting had arrived. Within minutes we could be excused for thinking a riot was afoot at the bottom end of one of the tables, shouting and gesticulations, noisy protesting women looking ready for a fight, all of them pointing at one of their number – can you guess? – the lady with the bag, by now an open bag. “Hi, reverend, this wumen is filling her bag with the grub on the plates; her bag is under the table, take a look mister!” Sure enough, you guessed rightly. “Pit her oot, Father.” But it was Christmas!

Westgate Hall Doors. Image credit: Geograph

Westgate Hall Doors. Image credit: Geograph

One of my menfolk acted as doorman. Early in the proceedings he sought me out to explain he had a problem, a situation which threatened to escalate. Two drunks were making a nuisance of themselves and were trying to join the party. Eventually, when powers of persuasion failed,  I got them to promise that if I let them in they would be quiet and behave. A vain hope really! I thought they would either sleep during the showing of the film or become bored and leave early. After all, it was Christmas.

At going home time it was my practice to leave the hall and await folks’ departure in the porch with a small gift (chocolate) and send them on their way with a seasonal greeting. I was surprised that our two inebriated brothers had not emerged and a brief look around seemed to suggest they did go early. “Aye, they slipped out before the lights came on again; you know when you spoke that nice wee prayer, minister,” I was assured by a passing guest. Task at the door completed, so I thought, I returned to the Hall to discover two of our male guests, obviously upset by something and one of our members trying to console them. “It’s they drunks that have stolen them.” They were not going home until they got their missing garments, one trilby hat (must be trilby) and one coat. The two were known to me, one a regular at our Luncheon Club, the other a regular at Luncheon Club and worship on a Sunday evening. Alas, our clothing store had been cleared out as was the custom at the end of each year. Anyway, we did not get hats or many coats. I must admit that thoughts of “glad tidings of great joy” were not uppermost in my mind at that point. I got into the car and hurried home to the Manse, where my family were waiting for me to get finished so that presents could be opened and a belated Christmas Lunch put before us on the table. When I got back to church I was able to bid a fond farewell to two “happy bunnies” – one with my rather smart green trilby, the other with the garment which was referred to as my funeral coat!

It was Christmas, was it not?

Gerard Van Honthorst: Adoration of the shepherds Image credit: Wikimedia

Gerard Van Honthorst: Adoration of the shepherds
Image credit: Wikimedia

A joyful and peaceful Christmas and a good New Year to you all

Bonfires

Picture: John Marsh

Picture: John Marsh

When it came to Guy  Fawkes night, mine might have been thought to be a deprived childhood. As a boy I we did not have fireworks and were warned not to go near a bonfire: the first we probably could not afford (almost forgot the sparklers!); the second could be dangerous. There were no organised and supervised bonfires nearby. It was not until I went to college in Leeds that I had my first experience of a real Guy  Fawkes night. It was a tradition at Headingley College to set up a huge fire on the football pitch behind the chapel. There were a lot of broken tree branches around the college and hedge clippings provided by the College handyman. On the week before the event, studies and cupboards, wardrobes and drawers were plundered and anything that had outlived its usefulness was bundled down to the site of the fire. And added to the junk, maybe, were some manuscripts of sermons that failed to fire a much prayed-for mighty converting response!

We always had a Guy, and each year our Guy was made to represent someone against whom the students had a grouse. One year it was an official of a Temperance organisation. His offence was to be quoted in the press claiming (erroneously!) that the students of Headingley College drank beer at the end of term Christmas party. (Tut! Tut!) The College debating group ensured that he was duly tried before a jury and sentenced. The accused was always found to be guilty – there was no other option. It then became the College Constable’s duty (the biggest student) to deliver the prisoner to be consumed in the flames. Outrageous conduct, totally inappropriate for theological students was the judgement of those who did not approve. (Spoil sports.) Grown-up school boys we may have been, but it was jolly good fun and, better still, a more relaxed setting for closer bonding. And it gave us the chance to let off steam before Autumn Term exams. It also served a useful purpose getting rid of the rubbish that gathered round the College. (Not a reference to the football team). Those days have gone, I suspect never to return. Sadly, present day students, mostly older, married and non-residential, miss out on this crazy diversion from the regular curriculum.

All very interesting, but I guess you may not expect the eccentric activities of former students training for ordained ministry to be the topic of this piece and you would be right. Yes, there is another reason for my nostalgic skip back in time. November 5th, Bonfire Night, brings to mind something of greater significance. As the days shorten and the nights lengthen and there is nothing worthwhile on the telly, we could spend an interesting hour or so of an evening taking our own trip down Memory Lane. I am sure each one would uncover a rich treasure store of memories, a collection of remembrances, upon which we look back with mixed reactions. Bonfire Night prompts me to suggest that it might be no bad thing for us to ransack the drawers and cupboards of memory, first to be sure that God is given the thanks He is due for the wonderful gift of life which is His to give. Moreover, to see if there is any trash that needs to be taken out and burned. Memory plays strange tricks on us, persuades us to hoard all manner of rubbish: unless we are careful we may discard many precious things. Someone has said, Memory is a crazy witch, she treasures bits of rags and straw and throws her jewels out of the window. (Oliver Wendell Holmes.) If that was memory’s worst offence we might forgive her. But so many of the bits and pieces we decide to keep are like acid which, if we hang on to them long enough, can eat away at our soul. It was a wise man who prayed, Lord, help me to remember what I ought not to forget, and to forget what I ought not to remember. Think, for instance, of the blessing it would be to make a bonfire of the old failures, of secret things we would not want our best friend to know, the hurts caused us by unthinking, inconsiderate colleagues, the unkindness inflicted of all places within family, even in church. The list of mistakes, failure, sins is by no means exhausted; the longer they linger the more bitter and poisonous they threaten to become. So, let us get rid of them – make a bonfire of them. Life can be less burdened and much happier and if conscience remains tainted and there is reason for guilt to persist, there is a voice that speaks with supreme and godly authority and assures us: Your sins are forgiven.

Not a memory – a presence

 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever. John 14: 15-16 (AV)

The Gospel of John is greatly loved by Christians. Cherished because it succeeds, more than any other, to shape our thinking about the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit; concerned not just with what Jesus said and did. John unfolds and shares his understanding of what Jesus in the Spirit has always been and always will be – a contemporary Jesus. A lot of teaching about the Holy Spirit has been a little vague and undefined. The coming of the Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost IS a bit of a mystery. Much easier to understand and to speak of God when we call Him “Father” – although this is a problem for some. Easier still to put a face on Jesus. We are given vivid pictures in the gospels to make Jesus come alive before our eyes. But with the Holy Spirit it is not so easy and our thoughts verge on the vague and nebulous. Perhaps it is because we still hear in some parts of the church the Spirit spoken of as the “Holy Ghost” – a wee bit spooky! This is no ghost story and it is about time that concept was eliminated from traditional liturgies.

The great lesson of Pentecost is that Jesus is not a memory but a presence. With us now in the Spirit: God’s gift available to us all and not the privilege accorded to some believing Christians and not to others. Something some Christians have forgotten – I was well aware of this in the second half of the last century with an exodus of members departing mainstream denominations because they were persuaded they would be blessed by the Spirit, (“anointing” was a word in vogue) in a more congenial environment. Those days are past, I hope – a work of the Holy Spirit effecting healing and reconciliation. The verse quoted in the heading above indicates how significant is the gift of the Spirit in our midst that John has his own distinctive name for the Spirit – Parakletos – the Greek word which the AV of the Bible translates as “the Comforter.”

Looking ahead to post-Easter, post-Pentecost, Jesus promises his disciples “another Comforter” as the AV translates it. But this word Comforter, hallowed by time and usage, at first glance may leave us with a somewhat inadequate and erroneous impression of what the Holy Spirit is about. A baby’s dummy is a “comforter.” Is this how we regard the Spirit, narrowing the scope of the Spirit’s activity to that of a “soother”- something to keep us quiet, sleepy even? The promise is a good deal greater. As we endeavour to unwrap the potential of Parakletos we will discover that biblical scholarship presents us with a choice of English words to describe it. The Revised Version of the Bible sides with the AV’s preference for “Comforter”; the Revised Standard Version plumps for “Counsellor”; Dr Moffat goes for “Helper”, as does the Good News Bible; J.B. Phillips, not content with one word, goes for “Someone who will stand by you”; the New English Bible has the support of a fairly wide number of more recent translations with its choice of “Advocate.” John’s vision of the Holy Spirit may even be paraphrased as “Friend” or as “One who will befriend you.” Such is the extent and variety of the ’Parakletos’ blessing – almost untranslatable. Who is right? It would take a brave woman or man to rule any one translation to be wrong! A story could be told about all, each one is relevant to our understanding of the Pentecostal blessing (not a reference to what is known as “the second blessing” about which I have little to say!)

At this juncture we go back to John’s preferred description of the gift the Holy Spirit bestows – in the words of Jesus:

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another COMFORTER.”

How did this word “Comforter” get into the English translation of Scripture? Answer the question and simultaneously we will find ourselves in the process of teasing out what the Holy Spirit – the Comforter – can and will do for us. John Wycliffe, the great English reformer, is credited with being the first to translate the whole Bible into vernacular English from the Latin Vulgate – a task completed in 1382. At least six other versions followed and eventually our Authorised Version arrived on the scene in 1611, the forerunner of numerous productions, particularly translating and paraphrasing the New Testament principally from Greek. And in New Testament Greek Parakletos is someone who is called in to help when we are facing personal crisis; someone to help us cope with life’s adverse and testing circumstances. And here is the interesting bit. The word “comfort” in English comes from the Latin word fortis, which means brave and was used of someone who puts courage into you.

Biblical scholars have not found it easy to come up with a single word in our language to equate with John’s Parakletos. On a rare occasion it does mean “comfort” as we understand it, but not the kind of comfort that encourages us to sit back and passively accept whatever fate has in store. Both words, Parakletos and “Comforter” have a common root which in English spells “dynamite” and provides us with a perfect picture of the Holy Spirit at work among us. What Jesus is saying to us is this – The Christian life and the Christian way are no sinecure; it is tough, it is demanding; follow me and you will find yourselves in places where you never dreamed of venturing; doing the kind things that will have you shaking in your boots. But I will send you another Comforter, another Counsellor; another Helper; an Advocate; a Friend; the Parakletos, someone with a power like spiritual dynamite; someone who gives us power and enables us to cope with life; helps folk to stand on their own two feet and face life four-square. God’s gracious and generous gift of the Holy Spirit, Not a Memory – a Presence.