Many years ago I stood in a court in North Perth charged with ‘Reversing Without Caution’. It was a nerve-wracking experience for a naïve 17-year-old. I felt sick. I shook. I was told, ‘Stand there!’ ‘Don’t speak until the Magistrate asks you to.’ When I did speak, I squeaked. I could not find the words. I felt like a sheep being pushed through a race without really understanding what was happening, except I knew that the stakes were high.
The Police Prosecutor eventually told me that he was withdrawing the charge and I was free to go. I went. It took me some time to work out that I had persuaded the court that another driver was at fault. Lawyer friends later told me how lucky I was.
What I needed that day was someone with me who knew the courts who could stand next to me, plead my case for me, to explain the proceedings and to re-assure me. I needed an Advocate, or in Greek, the language of the Gospels, a Paraclete. The word literally means ‘someone called to be next to you’.
At the Last Supper, Jesus reassures the disciples that he will continue to be ‘next to them’ after his coming death. They cannot envisage a different mode of presence than the bodily presence of Jesus, the face to face encounter that they had enjoyed to that point. After our self-isolation in the past weeks we may imagine diverse ways of being present one to another a little better than the disciples could.
One thing we have learned in these strange times: whether we are naturally inclined to solitude or we are party-loving people, we all need someone really present to us, someone ‘next to us’. Someone who can be with us in good times and hard, someone to speak up for us, someone to reassure us. Our need for a companion goes deep within us. Our lovers and friends provide this need, but like us they are mortal. There are limits to their companionship. Saint John tells us that Jesus is offering the ongoing, never-ending, companionship of his Spirit.
For the disciples about to be bereft of face to face contact with Jesus, this was good news indeed. For us, especially in times of need, it is also welcome news. We might be waiting anxiously by the phone for the results of medical tests. There might be parts of our family where people are splitting apart. We might be lonely and alone, longing for contact with a loved one outside our region. For all our needs, Jesus has provided the Paraclete, the comforting and strengthening presence of his ever-living Spirit.
This sounds too good to be true. There is only one way to test it: that is, to reach out for it, trusting that God is as a good as God’s word. There may be times when the Spirit’s presence is mediated by a human being’s presence. There may be other times when we just know deep in our hearts that God is with us and God is for us.
The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is our model for loving one another. Our plan should be to find ways to ‘stand next to’ another person, to reassure that person. The more we are ‘paracletes’ one to another, the more we will be able to experience the Holy Spirit standing next to us.