If we were to think of the lectionary as a type of spiritual narrative, the last three weeks leading up to Pentecost would function as a type of flashback.
A flashback is a narrative device, “by which an event or scene taking place before the present time in the narrative is inserted into the chronological structure of the work.” It is an insiders perspective, where the viewer can go back in time to focus in on some detail or event that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but now makes a world of difference.
Eastertide is the fifty days between Easter Day and Pentecost, and during this time we hear not only of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, but also rewind to recall what Jesus told his disciples shortly before his death.
The Gospel of John devotes four entire chapters to what is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. It takes place in the upper room just before the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And in it Jesus seeks to comfort and strengthen his confused and fearful disciples.
One can almost picture this small community of disciples, following the disorienting events of the resurrection, struggling to makes sense of what has happened, and recalling these things that Jesus had told them in advance of his death and resurrection. “Ah, yes. Do you remember when he said…”
In one of the most compelling images in Holy Scripture, Jesus comforts them, telling them that there will, indeed, be another advocate. Another advocate, because Jesus has been their first friend and guide – the one to nourish and encourage them along the way. This is not a different advocate, but another advocate who will stand in continuity with the Jesus they knew from the very beginning.
All of this, of course, is looking forward to that great feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples in a dramatic and vivid way – transforming their fear and uncertainty into hope and concern for the world. Despite the baffling phenomenon of Pentecost, the disciples were clear that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the spirit of Jesus, who promised to remain with them.
I wonder what it might feel like for you to recall someone who has been an advocate in your life. Perhaps this person was a parent or coach, a teacher who made an impact on you at an impressionable age. An advocate is someone who has our best interest at heart, who challenges us to grow in ways we never thought imaginable.
For me, one such advocate was a professor I had in college, who challenged me to think and learn in new and exciting ways. Growing up as the second child, I always played second fiddle to my older and smarter sister. In truth, I never minded this too much, because this meant she carried the burden of expectation, while I could slip under the radar with “B“s and “C“s. It was quite clear, to me and to my parents, that she was the one who’d shoulder the burden of great expectations. She made straight “A”s and was part of the popular crowd at school. I, however, never gave my parents any illusions that I’d be that straight “A” student. They had my sister to carry that banner.
And so, I sort of went along with this narrative all through high school – never really studying or stressing much over my schoolwork. When I got into college, however, this all began to change. By my sophomore year my academic adviser, Dr. Penny Marler, had taken me on as a research assistant, and asked me to copy more articles and request more interlibrary loans than I thought one could possibly ever read in a lifetime. She challenged me to take classes that were more challenging than what was merely required by the curriculum, and when I ran across something interesting in my research, she would gently encourage me to continue to pursue a particular line of reasoning, or to avoid that bunny trail or dead end. When I conversed with Dr. Marler I felt something I had never felt before. I felt smart. And making good grades suddenly became not the goal, but the natural result of this newfound intellectual curiosity.
This culminated in my Junior year, when she surprised me one day by showing me an article of her’s that had been published in the journal of the American Academy of Religion. In her notes, she thanked her research assistant – a young twenty year old – who had never really thought of himself as very smart, yet whose name now appeared in a peer reviewed academic journal (even if it was a footnote).
Dr. Marler would continue to challenge and guide me through my senior research project, applications and recommendations for graduate school, and even into my journey to apply all that I had learned as a congregational studies major in the context of a local parish.
She was, undoubtedly, an advocate and guide. She did not do the work for me. She simply showed me what I was capable of achieving when someone believed that I could.
We need advocates like this. And we need to be such advocates for others. We need such people to be able to envision what we are not yet able to see. We need those who have the experience we have yet to gain, to accompany us through unchartered waters and steer us clear of ruinous rocks.
We are always in need of another advocate.
And so I wonder, how does it feel to you to hear this promise of Jesus? We will not be left to our own devices. We will not be abandoned. I am with you always. How does it feel to know that you have just such an advocate?
In our current political climate it is easy to want to duck and hide, and simply look out for our own. When we feel vulnerable, powerless, and afraid of what the day’s news might bring, it can sometimes feel impossible to reach out beyond ourselves.
And this is exactly why we need to hear these words and take them to heart. We are not alone. We needn’t be afraid. We have an advocate who will not leave us or forsake us. Because Jesus is alive and advocates for us still, so too can we be fully alive and look out for those are vulnerable and alone.
Being given this gift of advocacy is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the world. We are not alone, and our advocate sees more in us than we alone can envision. And that is a flashback worth remembering, and retelling to all those who feel alone. You have an advocate. You are an advocate. We, together here, are not alone.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry