One characteristic of American culture today is its love of courtroom drama. There are whole television series that revolve around brave lawyers (perhaps assisted by indefatigable detectives) who manage to prevent a miscarriage of justice. The courtroom scene in which the wrongdoers are routed is also a staple of American films. The ancient world at the time of Jesus would have understood this fascination with impassioned oratory leading to justice. In that world great stress was laid on rhetoric, that is to say, the ability to marshal facts and present a convincing case. It was seen as an essential part of life in a civilised society.
When Jesus tells us that he was sent us the Advocate, it is a promise that God is on our side. There is one who presents our case with a power and conviction that we could not bring unaided. Jesus says that this Advocate will be ‘the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father’ (John 15.27) –this divine power, divine presence, will be active in the world on our behalf. It would be remarkable enough to think that there was the persuasive power of God, ready to present our case.
But there is more than that. Because through baptism we are in Christ, and Christ is in the Trinity, this power and presence of God is at work in us. It touches our tongues to give us courage and boldness in expressing our faith. If you doubt that, remember how the martyrs of England and Wales were able to endure great fear as they faced a terrible ordeal, strong in their conviction that they could not deny the faith of the ages. Invited to deny what they believed, they restated their faith, quietly and firmly.
We might ponder also how in the gospel today Jesus speaks of the Spirit being 'the Spirit of truth' (John 15.26, 16.13). We are reminded here that the Spirit is the enlightener, the one who opens our eyes and helps us to understand more. This refers to the work of the Spirit in leading the Church as it grew over the centuries from a tiny handful of disciples to a world movement. The same Spirit of truth is the one who stirs up the prophets. Prophets speak the truth to tyrants and oppressors who would often deny truth. The Spirit raises up these bold people who speak out what would otherwise be denied and covered up, especially the truth that people are suffering. Here, today, in our world, we have our prophets.
The gift of the Spirit is also a gift of unity. Our first reading from Acts (2-11) is full of amazement. If you look at the account of that first Christian Pentecost you will find that despite different languages there was one common message. All those seized by the Spirit were preaching ‘about the marvels of God’ (v 11). This was the awestruck experience of the early Church. Just look at that list of places in the reading: if we were to give them today’s names, they would include Rome, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Iraq. Many cultures, many languages.
Yet it was the experience of the early Church that they did not fly apart into a cacophony of sects. Rather, the developing early Church found a deep unity in Christ, through their conviction that in Christ God had reached out to bring them back to himself. They knew that this unity was itself a sign of the power and presence of God in the Church, bringing order out of potential chaos, an eternal Advocate who not only spoke up for his people but spoke up within his people, so that they might know that God was still with them, and always would be.
Fr. Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.