The lectionary readings for Pentecost give us two contrasting stories of the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples. The Acts reading is the familiar Pentecost story: dramatic, and public. The John reading is the resurrection appearance to the disciples as they huddle in the upper room: it’s personal, intimate.
Each reading has something important to say to us. The reading from Acts celebrates the courage and passion and enthusiasm with which the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, how they became more than they had been, fulfilling their potential, becoming fully alive – it’s also about communication, the miracle of being able to find all the right words and have them understood. The John reading is more like simply taking a deep breath and finding that you have breathed in that peace that passes all understanding, right into your innermost being, and that it has brought you to life.
I don’t normally talk much about the specifics of Greek words in the bible, but today’s an exception. The Greek word used for the Holy Spirit is ‘Paracletos’ – Paraclete, and it literally means, ‘one who comes alongside’. The word shows how apt are the descriptions of the Holy Spirit as advocate, comforter, and counsellor. Coming alongside is both about the ability to find the right words, to speak in a way that communicates and is understood, and to listen in a way that enables you to understand, and it is about being a comforting presence to those who are most in need.
In the Holy Spirit we experience God alongside us. Remember what the early church would go on to face after the first pentecost: not only do we read of a church that was growing, thriving and inspiring, but also a church whose members were persecuted and killed for their faith. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just God’s way of empowering his people to do his work – continuing the work of Christ. The Holy Spirit was and is God’s way of being with us and for us and in us, in our deepest griefs as well as in our joys, in our toughest challenges as well as in our triumphs.
Through the Holy Spirit, what we experience most of all is the overwhelming love of God – the sort of love that infused creation, that was revealed in the incarnation, that shone through Jesus’ life and ministry, tested on the cross and proved to be the ultimately powerful force in the universe. When Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians about the fruits of the Spirit, love was the first that he named: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are the gifts of a comforter and a counsellor, of one who comes alongside and stays there. May we each – and all we know to be in special need at this time – know the comforting and strengthening love of God, and may we surround one another with that love, now and every day.