I don’t know what the student film night is showing next, but may I suggest they view ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ if they have not already done so. In fact, I would go so far as to recommend this film to any of you, even if not a student.
At the very beginning of the film, Red an old prisoner describes how he first meets Andy (the hero of the film) as this new prisoner comes into the prison yard. In a voice over he tells us that Andy seems to have an invisible coat which enables him to withstand the rigours of prison life. (He certainly will need some protection in the face of the violence, attempted sexual abuse by fellow inmates, and the expoitation by prison officials from the lowest warder to the Warden himself). I won’t spoil the ending for you; suffice it to say this ‘cloak’ enables Andy to come through all the terrible things that befall him and to experience redemption, freedom and peace.
Thankfully not many of us have to go through the traumas that Andy experienced in prison. But we all have issues to face which test our faith in God and where we feel to be naked without that invisible cloak that Andy had. And yet Jesus promises his disciples that they shall not be left bereft when he tells them that he is leaving them with his peace and that unless he go away, then the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, cannot come. This word advocate – paraklete in Greek – that John uses for the Holy Spirit is peculiar to him. It literally means one who is called alongside; someone who will be with us to plead our case for us, someone who is with us in our time of trial, someone who, no matter what, is on our side.
And yet for many Christians things happen which lead us to question whether this promise of an advocate, a comforter is really true. We only need to think of the dreadful persecutions happening to Christians today in Syria or Egypt for this question to arise. But it is not only persecuted Christians in the Middle East that might cause us to question Jesus’ promise of comfort and peace that the Holy Spirit is to bring.
A few years ago at the clergy conference held by the Intercontinental Church Society one of my colleagues gave a lecture in which he gave three examples of where Christians seemed to have be deprived of this peace that Jesus promises.
- He mentioned a woman in his first parish – a housing estate in London. Jean, was the heart of her family, and the church. But as age advanced and health deteriorated, she found she was no longer to be active and do all the things she wanted for church. Her arthritis got so severe that she couldn’t even hold here knitting needles. There was nothing she could do any more to help either church or family. So, where was God’s peace for Jean?
- Then Geoff spoke of his own experience of burnout, when in 2007 he was simply unable to minister as he wanted; he was depressed, life was pointless and the more he worked hard to compensate, the worse things went. Only after therapy was he able to get through this time. But while he was going through it his faith did not offer him the support and comfort he needed. So where was God’s peace then?
- Thirdly he spoke of another parishioner – an intelligent man, loving husband, father and grandfather, one time church treasurer who got Alzheimers and became so violent that he had to be institutionalized to protect him and his family. As the disease progressed he did not recognize his wife and family and even did not know who he was himself. So the question raised itself here; when I don’t know my loved ones or even who I am myself, how can I know God and his peace?
The religious life, the life of faith may be viewed in two ways. Both acknowledge that this world we share is full of tumults and challenges, of sometimes seismic ups and downs.
One view of the life of faith assumes that when you come to faith, things settle down, stop shaking, and make suddenly sense. The other view of faith, however, doesn’t promise an end to the tremors but does enable you to keep your footing amid them.
I think that’s what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel passage today (St John 16:5-15). After all, the Spirit he promises comes as the Advocate — the one who takes to our defence when we’re accused — and the Comforter — the one who will not leave our side during trouble. Understood that way, there is nothing about Jesus’ words that would suggest either that he’s promising us an end to problems or that he’s inviting us to ignore them. On the cross, Jesus spoke the beginning words of Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He knew real desolation and abandonment, betrayal and desertion by his closest followers. Yet, that same psalm 22 ends with words of promise for the future. Jesus promises peace — not merely the cessation of disturbance but instead a confident expectation and hope about the future.
This is the kind of peace that comes only from God. Even if we forget him – he does not forget us.
A friend of mine (tragically killed in a road accident) once said she would be happy just knowing that she was remembered by God, if she were just a tiny spark in God’s memory.
I don’t know what the new heaven and the new earth will really be like. I don’t know what form it will take, nor indeed, the specific details of the resurrection life, but I do like my friend Else’s deep conviction that we are all remembered by God, and if remembered then loved, and if loved then alive with him.
The peace that Jesus offers is our homecoming to God. He will never abandon us either here or in the future. So even better than Andy’s cloak, we can be sure that our cloak of comfort and support is that Paraklete/Advocate/Holy Spirit which Jesus promised to all those who follow him. Circumstances may change and be hard or easy but his love for us is constant and eternal.