This week is a steady crescendo to next Thursday, when the Christian world traditionally celebrates Jesus’ ascent to God. In both the Gospels of Luke and John, Jesus assures his disciples — and the whole world, really — that his leaving doesn’t mean that God is leaving. The incarnation of God — God with us in the world right here and right now — continues on, and it continues on through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today, we’re going to take a look at one aspect of what this means for us by paying attention to an important way that Jesus describes the Spirit — as our advocate.
God with us and among us, we come to you this morning thirsty for your presence, eager to learn, and ready to change for the better. Guide us now by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
“It Is Well with My Soul” by Horatio Spafford (Music by Philip Bliss; performed by Chris Rice)
(YouTube video with lyrics for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/VbNm_Kdez8o)
When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” It is well with my soul; it is well, it is well with my soul. Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control: that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul. My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.
When I hear the word “advocate,” I normally think of the legal world. Lawyers are advocates for their clients. Their whole purpose is to support and stand up for the people they represent. Today, it seems the ideal expression of this is the public defender.
I remember a story about one public defender, a human rights lawyer named Bryan Stevenson. In his recent book, Just Mercy, Stevenson tells the story of a man on death row, Herbert Richardson. Richardson was a veteran of the Vietnam War, a harrowing experience that left an indelible mark on his psyche and his life. When Stevenson first met Richardson, it was on the phone. The state had given him an execution date that was hardly a month away, and Richardson was looking for an advocate.
At the time, Bryan Stevenson had just begun to set up shop in Alabama, where Richardson was set to be executed. He explained to Richardson that he had serious doubts anything could be done to stay his execution. The timeframe was just too short. He even confessed that he wasn’t prepared to do so if he could. His shelves were bare — no books, no computer, no staff, no infrastructure — and this was the first he’d ever heard of the case. But, Richardson insisted. “They’re going to kill me,” he said. “You have to represent me. What’s the point of all that other stuff if you’re not going to help people like me?” Stevenson demurred again. Then the phone went dead. Richardson had hung up.
Herbert Richardson had been sentenced to death in the late 1970s for the reckless killing of a child. He had admitted as much, though he always insisted that he had no intention to kill her or anyone else. His call to Bryan Stevenson was a dying man’s final cry for help, and he wasn’t willing to give up. He called Stevenson back the next day. “Mr. Stevenson, I’m sorry, but you have to represent me. I don’t need you to tell me that you can stop this execution; I don’t need you to say you can get a stay. But I have twenty-nine days left, and I don’t think I can make it if there is no hope at all. Just say you’ll do something and let me have some hope.”
Advocacy is not about winning. It’s about empowering. It’s about dignity. It’s about giving someone hope in the face of hopelessness. It’s about coming beside others and standing up for them even when their guilt is obvious or their future is clear and damning. In scripture and Christian theology, Jesus is often described as the one who stands in our place before God, the great judge of all creation. He’s our advocate even when there’s no question about our guilt.
And, in John 14, Jesus assures his disciples that this advocacy on their behalf is not going to end. Even though he will not be there with them in the flesh, his Spirit will be with them even more intimately. Here is something new and even more powerful than his physical presence. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
We don’t do well with the immaterial and the invisible. If we can’t feel it and see it, it’s hard to believe it. But, Jesus insists that we should. We are not alone. God is right here, advocating for us, empowering us, giving us a new identity and a new dignity as the people of God. Even when all hope seems to be lost, we can trust that there is one who stands beside us, never leaves us alone, and gives us the very strength to do those commands with which Jesus bookends this passage.
My favorite image of advocacy comes from an Italian priest named Luigi Orione. It’s my favorite because it highlights how we can share the advocacy that we’ve received ourselves. Orione was an active friend of the poor, and he staunchly opposed his country’s turn toward fascism and the policies put in place by Mussolini at the time. In this way, Orione and Bryan Stevenson both shared a deep concern for the dignity of all human beings. As the Italian priest was nearing the end of his life, he offered a prayer, saying, “Lord, set me down at the gates of hell so that by your mercy I may keep them shut against all comers.” How would you like to spend eternity sitting at the gates of hell just so you could make sure nobody got in? That’s advocacy, and it’s what Jesus promises us in his Spirit today.
Prayers for Our World
Let us pray for our neighbors, our church, and our world:
- For those among us and around our world who continue to live in fear and hopelessness, not only because of this virus but because of other illnesses or poverty or loneliness or injustice or depression or stress, we pray that the Holy Spirit would prove to be their true advocate and bring them hope, healing, and peace.
- For all the violence, injustice, and indignity that continue to plague our world, we pray that God’s Spirit would defend the defenseless.
- For everyone who is going back to work this week and in the weeks to come, we pray for their safety and continued health.
- For our national and local governments, we pray for wisdom as they weigh the costs of reopening and continue to make decisions on how that should happen.
- For the church here and around the world, we pray that we would become advocates ourselves to all who are struggling from illness, pain, depression, hopelessness, injustice, poverty, and death.
- For all those who have died this week because of COVID-19, we pray that God would receive them into his open arms of love.
God, you are our great Advocate, and we thank you for sending us your Spirit to give us hope and to guide us and empower us to be your people. Help us to know how to be advocates for our neighbors as we continue to live under lockdown. Hear our prayers this morning, prayers for our city, our church, and our world, and do so in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, one God with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For further reflection on today’s theme and the power of advocacy, see Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy.