20th May 2024

The Paraclete: a sermon for Pentecost

The Paraclete: a sermon for Pentecost by Kenneth Padley

19th May 2024

Acts 2.1-21; John 15.26-27, 16.4b-15

Come, thou holy Paraclete,
and from thy celestial seat
send thy light and brilliancy:
Father of the poor, draw near;
giver of all gifts, be here;
come, the soul’s true radiancy.



What do we think of the Holy Spirit? If on this feast of Pentecost we are to celebrate the Spirit, we need to know something of the Spirit’s identity and purpose. But getting a handle on the Spirit’s identity and purpose is easier said than done. We wonder what the Spirit is and where it fits into the story. There are at least three good reasons for this.


Firstly, the Spirit is that aspect of God which gets talked about last. Here we are, halfway through the Christian year: we have recounted the whole story of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection – but only now are we getting round to discussing the Spirit.


Secondly, the Spirit is that aspect of God which gets thought about last. We term the Spirit the Third Person of the Trinity, don’t we? This language has led some to suppose that the Spirit is subordinate to the Father and the Son, or that Her activity is successive to that of the Father and the Son. But both these ideas are heresy: the Church maintains that the Persons of the Trinity are equally and fully God; and that their outward actions are one – they always work together. This means that the Spirit is neither lesser nor later than the Father and the Son.


Thirdly, the Spirit is that aspect of God which is the hardest to articulate. She’s tricky to pin down. It’s like herding jelly or nailing cats.

  • It’s not easy to associate her with a particular job, as we do with the Father and the act of creation, or with the Son in winning our redemption. However, these associations between the first and second persons of the Trinity and the great events of salvation history are a matter of perception. Given what I have said about the divine persons collaborating together, the Spirit must be just as much involved as the Father and Son in making us and saving us.
  • The Holy Spirit is also unlike God the Son because we can picture the Son as one of us, through his incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. I say ‘picture’ because all three divine persons – as divine persons – are incorporeal. It’s just that, in the case of the Spirit, we are more confronted by a sense of that invisibility.
  • And then the Holy Spirit is unlike Jesus because we can’t read a discrete account of Her from the Bible. She has no continuous biography akin to the four gospels. This means that our doctrine of the Spirit, our ‘pneumatology’, needs to be pieced together from excerpts in Scripture – a little bit here, a little bit there. All the major New Testament writers speak about the Spirit, but you have to scrabble around to garner what they tell us.


The usual springboard for pneumatology at this festival is the dramatic account of fire and wind from Acts chapter 2. However, among the other important passages is what we heard from the gospel of John:

Jesus said, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father – he will testify on my behalf.’


This passage is one of five famous occasions in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John chapters 14-16 where Jesus uses a unique title for the Holy Spirit. Behind that English term ‘Advocate’ is a Greek word which frustrates and illuminates in equal measure. It is the word with which we began our sermon in prayer, ‘Paraclete’. Paraclete is a compound noun, literally meaning ‘beside-called’. A Paraclete is one who is called-to-be-beside another. That is how John understood the Holy Spirit, and what he thinks the Holy Spirit does for us.


In ancient Greece before the time of Jesus, a Paraclete was a legal advisor, an intercessor, an agent who gave guidance, support and encouragement to those accused in a court of law. A Paraclete was a go-between, mediating between the defendant and the judge, a helper in time of trial. I think we can start to see how this might to feed into Christian ideas about the Spirit…


In addition to this Greek legal background, the use of Paraclete in John was also informed by more religious ideas of advocacy, ideas originating in Jesus’ Jewish heritage. Peering into the Hebrew Scriptures we read about Moses, a leader who stood in the breach between God’s anger and the wayward people, successfully imploring the Almighty to turn aside his intended wrath (that’s Exodus 32.11-14). And we encounter Samuel, a Judge sought out by the people to, quote, ‘cry out to the Lord our God for us, [praying] that he may save us from the hands of the Philistines’ (that’s I Samuel 7.8). And then there were prophets who beseeched Yahweh for the rescue of Jerusalem from besieging forces (for example in Jeremiah chapter 14). The Spirit as Paraclete is like all of these.


Given this diversity of conceptual background, the English Bible tradition can’t make up its mind about how to translate ‘Paraclete’. Early Protestant Bibles such as the King James rendered the word as ‘Comforter’; the Revised Standard Version talks about the ‘Counsellor’; the New Revised Standard (as we heard) refers to the ‘Advocate’; and other Bibles go simply for ‘Helper’. Some Bibles find the choice just too difficult and retain the original word ‘Paraclete’ – but that seems a bit of a cop-out.


Whatever the semantics, across those five references to Paraclete in John chapters 14 to 16 we discover at least three things about God’s Holy Spirit.

  • Firstly, that the Paraclete, is an authoritative teacher of believers. John 14.26: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
  • Secondly, that the Paraclete is a witness to revelation. As we heard, John 15.26, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father… he will testify on my behalf.” In other words, the Spirit supports and reinforces what Jesus does.
  • Thirdly, that the Paraclete stands alongside Christians in the trials of this imperfect world. As we also heard, John 16.8, “when [the Advocate] comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”


We need a bit of all that: authoritative teacher, witness to revelation, and companion in trials – God’s Spirit standing beside us. Seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick sought all three when he prayed his Litany to the Holy Spirit:

IN the hour of my distress,
When temptations me oppress,
And when I my sins confess,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When I lie within my bed,
Sick in heart and sick in head,
And with doubts discomfortèd,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the house doth sigh and weep,
And the world is drown’d in sleep,
Yet mine eyes the watch do keep,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the tapers now burn blue,
And the comforters are few,
And that number more than true,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the priest his last hath prayed,
And I nod to what is said,
‘Cos my speech is now decayed,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the Judgment is revealed,
And that opened which was sealed,
When to Thee I have appealed,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!