+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may have hear preachers say that their job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. It’s a clever juxtaposition, but it is often repeated without reference to the phrase’s originator, Finley Peter Dunne– an American humorist in the late 19th and early 20th century–who used it in reference not to preachers but to journalists. Nor do these preachers often acknowledge the fact that Dunne used the phrase ironically to call out the hypocrisy of the muckraking newspapermen of his day.
In any event, whether or not the preacher can genuinely succeed in this two-fold task is up for debate and, frankly, I think it depends chiefly on how much he or she simply relies on Scripture to do the heavy-lifting in this regard. That said, I believe the action of God the Holy Spirit (not a preacher or a journalist or any other human being) does work to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” or to use the language of the prayerbook, to “strengthen the faithful [and] arouse the careless.”
On this feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of that Spirit and his abiding presence with us, we must be careful to keep both of these divine missions in mind.
Our lessons from Acts and the Gospel for this morning focus on the latter: the apostles are given the miraculous ability to preach the Gospel to the nations in various tongues and Jesus tells the Apostles that the Spirit will come to aid them in doing the works prepared for them. It makes sense that this is our lectionary’s focus; it speaks to our cultural reality of comfortable, nominal Christianity in which we so often need the Spirit to lift us out of complacency and give us power and passion to do God’s work in the world: whether that is the work of evangelization or service to the needy or exercising leadership within the church, or any one of a host of other active vocations within the Body of Christ to which that same Spirit calls us.
But, perhaps this Pentecost the more important focus is that which is somewhat absent from those lessons but is present in our Epistle, in which Paul reminds the Romans that the Spirit will remain with them in their sufferings-that the Spirit has also come to comfort the afflicted and strengthen the faithful. I won’t belabor this, because I said it last week: but between pandemic, war, and mass shootings we may feel very much in need now, as individuals and as a society, of the comfort and peace which the Holy Spirit can bring us.
In the midst of this frightening, gloomy reality there is no doubt that we should pray for and permit the Holy Spirit to stir up in us the will and means to take faithful action. Even so, I think we must first ask that same Spirit to comfort and console us, lest our action be motivated by wrath or judgment rather than literal inspiration (the Spirit dwelling in us to guide us).
So today, perhaps, our prayer should simply be that the the Spirit’s consolation be forthcoming. Jesus promised this during his farewell discourse, recorded in John’s Gospel, particularly in the fourteenth chapter of the same:
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of Truth … I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you … [T]he Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
The word Jesus uses here is παράκλητος (Paraclete), which we might render more literally in English as “the one called alongside.” You see, the Spirit of God, the Church teaches, is not some phantasm or mere force (hence more modern bible translations and liturgical texts preferring “Spirit” to “Ghost” for the third person of the Trinity, though I don’t know whether or not that choice actually succeeds in clarifying the point).
The Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost is, rather, a person, just as much as the Father and the Son, and he comes along side us just as he dwells in us, to help us when no other helper can be found. And St. Paul tells us, in his Epistle to the Romans, in those words with which I ended last week’s sermon, that even when we cannot pray–when we are so sad or angry or frightened or exhausted that we cannot even put our feelings into language–the same Spirit prays in and for us “with sighs to deep for words.”
Come, then, Holy Spirit to us now. Pray for us when we cannot pray. Comfort us when no other comforter is near. Give us strength and courage to meet the days ahead. Help us to trust in the Father’s will, in the Son’s intercession on our behalf, and in your own abiding presence with us now. Give us those gifts that have been promised to aid us in our work for the Kingdom and hope for the Kingdom that has yet to be revealed. At the last, bring us to that place where with the Father and the Son, you too live and reign to the ages of ages. Amen.