Peace - but not as the world gives
A sermon on John 14:23-29 by Nathan Nettleton, 13 May 2007
Jesus gives us a peace that is not secured at the expense of victims, and he sends a Defence Counsel to lead the defence of the world’s victims.
Jesus promises us peace. And when people talk about what they are most looking for in life, peace features fairly highly on the list. “Peace and tranquility.” “Inner Peace.” “World peace.” “Just a bit of peace and quiet.” And finally, “Rest in peace.” So if Jesus is promising us peace, then he is certainly scratching where we itch. But peace is often a rather fraught concept, isn’t it. Our quests for peace often have a dark side. The professional peace negotiators who work tirelessly in the world’s trouble spots will tell you that the name of the game is to find a configuration of agreements where both sides compromise and concede some ground but neither feel they have sold out and lost face. Many of the conflicts that have dragged on for years or even generations have done so because at one or more crucial points, both sides feel they would be selling out if they conceded any more ground, and there is still ground in dispute. Most often, all that is achieved is an uneasy truce, a fragile peace, which is about winners and losers, victors and victims. The losers concede too much in order to survive, but the bitterness remains to erupt another day. The good news coming out of Northern Ireland in recent weeks is all the more remarkable because the hatred and bloodshed had gone on for so many generations without being resolved. Violence and vengeance become an entrenched habit. If there is finally hope for Northern Ireland, perhaps some of the world’s other trouble spots may not be completely without hope either.
What the professional negotiators strive for in the world’s violent hot spots is, in principle, the same thing being sought in difficult industrial negotiations: some compromise on both sides without either side losing face and selling out. And it is also an issue in our personal quests for peace, and this is where some of you may begin to recognise just how fraught the process is. Far too often, in the arenas of our personal lives, there are no skilled and experienced negotiators hammering out the terms. We are on our own, and selling out to secure or preserve the peace is far more common. Far too many women and children live in fear of abusive men, maintaining a fragile “peace” entirely at the expense of their own interests. And actually there is no absolute gender divide on this. Even apart from situations that would unquestionably be labelled as abusive, most of us, men and women alike, know the gutted feeling of swallowing our dignity and settling for some sort of “peace” rather than speaking up for the truth at the risk of further insults and rejection. Most of us know that far too often, we have been the victims who paid the price for a “peace” in which someone else was clearly the victor.
So when Jesus said, in the gospel reading we heard tonight, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, but not as the world gives,” there is clearly an acknowledgement that we hunger for something better that the fragile peace of a grossly unfair ceasefire. What we crave is real peace. Peace without bitterness and humiliation. Peace without casualties and victims. Peace that does not come through the sacrificing of someone’s integrity, interests and dignity. Peace that doesn’t just look good to others; but feels good to be part of.
But if such a peace is what Jesus is promising, how is it to be accomplished? In a world that will mercilessly go on forcing its “peace” on unwilling victims, how can the victims be protected and a new kind of peace be established? Jesus says, “My peace I give you; not as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace without troubled hearts or fear. That’s what we are hungering for, all right. But how will it come? And how will it come when right here in these verses, Jesus is saying that he is going away and leaving us?
Well, there is another promise in this passage, and it may hold the key. It is not only here in the bit we heard tonight, but several times in this parting speech as recorded in John’s gospel. It is a promise that has caused biblical scholars and preachers no end of headaches, though, so you’ll have to bear with me here. Jesus is promising to send the Holy Spirit, but he uses a surprising description. The Greek word is “paraclete”, and some English versions of the Bible have been so perplexed by this that rather than attempt to find an English word to translate it, they have simply put it in English letters and used it as is. And so Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another paraclete to be with you forever.” And a few verses later, in our extract tonight, “The Paraclete, 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. Peace I leave you, my peace I give, but not as the world gives.”
Now, in fact, this word “paraclete” is not hard to translate into English. The problem is not that we weren’t sure what the word meant; it is that what it means so surprised us that we thought there must have been some other meaning that we were unfamiliar with. At the time of Jesus, the word “paraclete” was in common use in the law courts and it was the normal name for the leading defence counsel, the barrister for the defence. In a court case, then as now, the main two lawyers, other than the judge, are the prosecutor and the defence counsel. Back then, the defence counsel was called the Paraclete, and we have not managed to find any other meaning for the word. But, with all due respect to any lawyers here, the idea that the Holy Spirit might be a lawyer was such a shock, that the biblical scholars mostly assumed that it must be some kind of metaphor trying to evoke an image of something that might be good about such lawyers. And so paraclete, when it has been translated at all has mostly been translated as “comforter”, or “counsellor”, or “advocate”. “Advocate” is closest to the normal meaning, but it is still an attempt to generalise a bit more than “defence lawyer”.
I am finding myself quite persuaded by some scholars who have suggested that we should stop trying to find wriggle room here and just explore the basic meaning. The Holy Spirit is our defence lawyer. And I’m persuaded because when you put the idea along side this idea that the world usually secures its “peace” at the expense of the rights and freedoms of some victims, it begins to make sense as it is.
Major Michael Mori has been in the news again this week. He was the lawyer assigned to be the defence counsel for David Hicks. If it is not blasphemous to say it, and I don’t think it is, he was David Hick’s paraclete. He was in the news again this week, because he made his final visit to David Hicks in the Guantanamo Bay Prison, and because he has been passed over for promotion and refused admission to a training program for would-be judges. All the speculation is suggesting that he is being punished for doing such a good job of representing David Hicks. And whatever anybody thinks about David Hicks, I can tell you that if I was in serious trouble with the law, I’d be desperately hoping for the likes of Major Michael Mori to be my paraclete, my defence counsel. He knew all along that if he really did his best for Hicks, it would probably cost him dearly in terms of his future prospects with his employer. But it seems he still went for broke and he was the absolute model paraclete.
And whatever wrongs David Hicks and his fellow prisoners may have committed, there is little question that they are among the victims of a quest for an unjust peace. Their treatment is evidence that the “coalition of the willing” is willing to sacrifice the normal legal rights and conventions that we thought were sacred in order to secure their “peace”. Tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis have been sacrificed, and so have the principles of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and the right to a fair trial before a jury of one’s peers. Enter the paraclete - the fearless counsel for the defence - the one who will stop at nothing to ensure that any injustice levelled at us is exposed and seen for the violent abuse that it is.
This name, “Paraclete”, refers first to Jesus, because in his later letter John directly describes Jesus as our paraclete before the Father, and here in John’s gospel Jesus says, “when I go I will ask the Father to send you another paraclete.” In a sense then, we have two paracletes, one representing us before the Judge in heaven, and one representing us here on earth. And you will see that this literal translation of paraclete makes more sense when you remember that the word “satan” means the accuser, or the prosecutor. In the world’s often demonic quest for a “peace”, however unjust, the satan and those who embody his message in the world are constantly accusing, pointing the finger at victims, at scapegoats. They are constantly promoting the idea that this one or that one is the obstacle to peace and security and must be cut off in order that the world’s interests might be protected. But, as all who have ever been victims of such a “peace” know, such a peace is a lie. It is peace only for a few, and humiliation and death for far too many. And even at the personal level, we know that voice - we’ve heard it within us - the voice that accuses, that condemns, that argues that we deserve all we are suffering and should just shut up and submit to it. The voice of the satan, the accuser within. Oh for a paraclete who will speak up for us like Major Michael Mori!
Jesus and the Holy Spirit do not come to us as the more powerful armies of “righteousness’ to sacrifice the oppressors and punish the victimisers. To do that would ultimately only be to reverse the order and maintain the principle of a peace that humiliates and victimises. What we have in Jesus and the Holy Spirit are a new kind of paraclete who reverses our perspective. This kind of paraclete becomes a victim himself and so begins to open the eyes of all to see the structures and processes through the eyes of the victims. The reason Major Michael Mori is so unpopular with his employers is that he succeeded in getting people to see David Hicks as a victim, and to see the actions of the “coalition of the willing” through David Hick’s eyes. And when we began to see the world through Hick’s eyes, and perhaps all the more because we knew he was guilty, we began to see that victimising the perpetrators was simply turning us into perpetrators and would only ever multiply the bloodshed, misery and humiliation.
Clearly this is no quick fix to the world’s problems. Injustice is not eliminated with the appointment of the defence counsel. But what a difference it makes, and as Jesus says, this paraclete will be with you forever (John 14:16). The trial may drag through the courts for a long time, and the satan may continue to accuse us and call for us to be eliminated that “peace” might be secured. Our hunger for true peace in every area of our lives and in all the world may not be fully satisfied for some time to come, but what a difference the appointment of a true paraclete makes. “Let not your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,” for “the paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send on my authority, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said”, and defend you and represent your interests tirelessly and without ceasing until all the world knows the peace that does not sacrifice us and there is life for all. “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” Come Lord Jesus our Prarclete, come!