A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (17:22-31)
Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
7 Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
8 Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.
9 For you, O God, have proved us; *
you have tried us just as silver is tried.
10 You brought us into the snare; *
you laid heavy burdens upon our backs.
11 You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water; *
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.
12 I will enter your house with burnt-offerings
and will pay you my vows, *
which I promised with my lips
and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble.
13 I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts with the smoke of rams; *
I will give you oxen and goats.
14 Come and listen, all you who fear God, *
and I will tell you what he has done for me.
15 I called out to him with my mouth, *
and his praise was on my tongue.
16 If I had found evil in my heart, *
the Lord would not have heard me;
17 But in truth God has heard me; *
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
18 Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, *
nor withheld his love from me.
A Reading from the First Letter of Peter (3:13-22)
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (14:15-21)
[Jesus said,] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Next week, it will be 40 years since I first began full-time work in a parish. As a transitional deacon, I was assigned for my internship to St. Rita’s Catholic Church on North Main Street here in Dayton.
Among my various duties — which became much more various as the time went by — was the responsibility of leading a weekly service known as the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, honoring the reserved Eucharist. This rite (which, by the way, has an equivalent in some Anglican churches) includes a set of acclamations in praise of God. The person presiding says one of them, and the congregation repeats it – at least in theory. There was one older man who regularly attended it, but who didn’t always repeat the phrase exactly – and he was usually a syllable or two behind everybody else. The result was the congregational response: “Blessed be God. God. Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man. True man. Blessed be the Holy Spirit the Paraclete. Parakeet.” And here we’ve always pictured the Spirit coming as a dove!
Now granted, “paraclete” is not a word you use every day. In the gospel reading that we just heard, Jesus promises what our translation calls “another Counselor”; the Greek term used is παράκλητος (“paraclete”). A paraclete was someone who stood with you in court. Your paraclete served as a counselor, a supporter, an advocate, and as someone who would intercede on your behalf. A paraclete was someone who was there totally for you.
That is the role that Jesus plays throughout the gospel according to John. In fact, the First Letter of John (2:1) calls Jesus our παράκλητος, our paraclete, our advocate with the Father. But today’s gospel reading is part of Jesus’ “Farewell Address,” placed by John during the Last Supper. Jesus was no longer going to be physically present with his disciples. But he tells them not to worry, because they are not going to be left alone. He is going to ask the Father who will send then another παράκλητος, another paraclete, another advocate, who will remain with them forever. God will send them God’s Holy Spirit.
The thought of God’s Spirit remaining with us, first of all as a church and then as individuals, can be a great comfort to us. It assures us that, as important as our efforts to do God’s work are, there is someone far greater at work than just us. And, as anybody who has been striving to do the work of God for many years can attest, there are grace-filled things that happen that we can never reasonably attribute to our efforts alone. Somebody greater is clearly at work here.
But, as is the case with everything else that we do, if we just stop with ourselves – in this case, with the Spirit’s role in comforting us, supporting us, advocating for us – if we stop there, we are, to put it bluntly, not acting as Christians; because Christians are people who are following the example of Jesus; and Jesus’ entire life was focused on others, not on himself. He was a paraclete, comforting and advocating for and struggling for others, not for his own interests. And if we are truly following him, we need to take on that role as well. We need to be paracletes for the sake of those who need comforters, for the sake of those who need advocates, for the sake of those who need someone else to stand up for them.
We have to start by knowing what people’s real needs are. But how do we go about doing that? It’s all too easy to spin our wheels and waste our efforts trying to solve the wrong problem, or going about it in a totally ineffective way. So how do we know that we actually understand others’ situations, others’ real needs?
This past Monday, the Dayton Daily News printed a column by one of my favorite commentators, David Brooks. Actually, they abbreviated it to fit in the space they had; his original version, in the New York Times, is even better. He addresses that question of how we come to know deeply and accurately the problems and needs of other people. While acknowledging the contributions of statisticians, academics and journalists, he turns to St. Augustine for the key to real wisdom and understanding.
As David Brooks points out, Augustine sometimes approached ideas and problems from a distance, theoretically, detached from individual human situations. But, as he aged, he came to realize that detached observation can take us only so far. “He came to believe that it takes selfless love to truly know another person.” That type of love leads us empathy that opens us up to a genuine knowledge of other people, “to think as another thinks and feel as another feels.” If we really want to know those whom we are called to serve, he concludes, we need to walk alongside them, to know their names, to know them as unique individuals, not just as members of some theoretical group or class.
I suggest to you today that that same sort of direct, personal knowledge and understanding of those whom we are called to serve is a prerequisite for us if we are going to fulfill God’s call to us: a call to become their paracletes, their comforters and supporters and advocates. Those who do that direct, hands-on work on a regular basis can be effective teachers for us. This includes those who teach in our schools, the workers in our food pantries and feeding programs, those who work directly in nursing homes and retirement communities, and the social workers who serve a great variety of people with a great variety of needs. Their direct contact with those in need can help to counter some of the misunderstandings and distortions that get passed around about those who are in need in our society and in our world.
But the best teachers for those who really want to understand, who really want to become effective paracletes on behalf of those in need, are the people whom they and we are called to serve. That is one of the reasons that this parish has nourished over its history its heritage of direct, personal, hands-on service to those in need in our community and in our world. It is in serving them personally and directly that we really come to know them, that we come to walk their road in life with them, that we come to think what they think and feel what they feel. And it is in that loving and faithful service to them that we come to know Jesus, whose love and faithful service to us has brought us new life, a life that we all share in God’s Holy Spirit.