The God who comes alongside

When I was a boy I had a fascination for ‘teach yourself’ and ‘how to’ books. Each week I’d go to the library and come home with titles as varied as: ‘Teach yourself colloquial Arabic in 14 days’, ‘How to build your own astronomical observatory’ and ‘How to win friends and influence people’

I never got very far with any of these books; each week I’d find the going tough and return the book to the library in hope of finding another which would promise a quick result. Eventually I got disillusioned and stopped getting such books out at all. Although I have to say that the urge has never quite left me – I was in a bookshop recently and was intrigued by a book called ‘The power of positive thinking.’ – I almost bought it but then I thought to myself, ‘No, what good would that do?’ But seriously, I’d still be keen to read a book with a title like ‘How to lead the good life’ or ‘Teach yourself fulfillment’. I might even buy one of those.

One of my favourite verses from the Bible comes in St. John’s gospel, where Jesus says, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ That’s the kind of verse that made me want to be a Christian in the first place – clearly Jesus has something important to say about how to live well. We know that Jesus called ‘disciples’ to follow him, and to learn from him how to live life to the full – not by reading self-help books, but by simply being with him and watching him and trying to be like him.

The disciples weren’t terribly good at it at first – in fact they let Jesus down badly. Once Jesus was taken from them and crucified they could, in their fear, have got completely disillusioned and have given up trying to be like him. But they didn’t give up – why was that? Because they continued to find the help they needed. They discovered, in the midst of their fear, that Jesus was with them still, but in a new way. Later they remembered how Jesus had promised them another helper, the Holy Spirit who would be with them always, reminding them of the things he had said and done and strengthening them for the days ahead.

The Christian Church has recently been remembering the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – the wind, the fire, the tongues of flame descending on the disciples. But what or who is the Holy Spirit? Immediately before his death and resurrection, Jesus had said to his friends, ‘It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you.’ By this he meant the Holy Spirit.

The word ‘Counsellor’ is an imperfect translation of the original Greek word ‘paraclete’. This is also sometimes rendered comforter, consoler, advocate or helper. It’s a word that can just as well be translated ‘the one who answers the call’ or ‘the one who comes alongside’. So, for example, a mother may be said to be a paraclete for her child when she answers his cry in the night and comforts him in her arms. The river pilot is a paraclete when he comes alongside the ship’s captain on the bridge and guides the ship through dangerous waters into the safety of the harbour. The barrister is a paraclete when she stands in court alongside the accused and argues the case for the defence. And we become paracletes every time we answer the cry of the needy or when we come alongside others in times of anxiety or fear.

This is what the Holy Spirit is like. The Holy Spirit is God himself, answering the call of our hearts and coming alongside us; inspiring us and urging us forward. He is the one who also holds us, loves us, carries us and gives us new strength and a new love – in order that we might be more like Jesus.

Pentecost is a time to remember that the Holy Spirit came not just to the first disciples, but also to every Christian person. If we truly want to know the good life and discover true fulfilment then we need to go beyond the self-help books and get in touch with the one who says, Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.