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If ever we needed John’s pneumatology, it’s now.
Into troubled hearts and heart-wrenching questions; into abandonment and loss; into despair and grief; is assured another advocate, the Spirit, who walks alongside us—everywhere and always.
Remarkably, this “advocate” is who Jesus has already been for his disciples—guiding, teaching, reminding, abiding, witnessing, interceding, comforting. What they have known in Jesus, and fear losing in Jesus’ impending absence, they will always know in the promise of the paraclete.
Jesus promises the Spirit just when the disciples, just when we, are most in need of pastoral care. Yes, there are a few references to the Spirit here and there in the Gospel of John up to this point. But it is at this moment, the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ last night with his disciples, that the promise of the Spirit’s presence is vital. Jesus knows that what lies ahead we cannot do on our own; that what we will be called to face we cannot do without his help; that in our temptation to do all the things, reminders will be necessary that it’s not our job to do everything.
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” So simple, really. The Spirit will accompany us. The Spirit will be our companion. And yet, in these times, when a “new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in,”1 accompaniment is just what we need and perhaps just what we need to do.
So first, dear Working Preachers, let this be your reminder. The Spirit indeed walks alongside us, our ever-present companion embodying Jesus’ very presence. And as leaders in the church, accompaniment is our unique gift—it is a way of being that sets our leadership apart from other kinds of self-professed and self-absorbed leadership.
We are worried and troubled by many things right now, too many things to count; because when we do start counting, the hopelessness is staggering. And I know somewhere deep inside of us one of those worries goes something like this, “What does it mean to be an effective leader?” When all of the leadership duties that validated your ministry, that were deemed the essential tasks, have either been upended or learned anew, what does our church, your church, need in a leader right now?
My prayer is that we hear good news in Jesus’ words—good news of Jesus’ presence but also the good news that should free us from the traps that bind us. Jesus’ first act as a leader was to accompany his disciples. When we recall that the fundamental meaning of paraclete is the one who is called to be alongside others, we realize that the first principle of Christian leadership is not a characteristic, a determined trait, an expertise to list on a resume, but is a way of being. When Jesus says to his disciples, “I am sending you another paraclete,” not only is it a statement about his own ministry, but also it indicates the principle reality of what a leader who claims to be Christian then does. The promise of the paraclete suggests that essential to Christian leadership is not a set of skills but being a consistent presence.
Accompaniment, theologically speaking, intimates a distinctive kind of leadership—the particularity of the promise of God’s accompaniment. Over and over again, God’s accompaniment is reiterated in those times when God’s presence appears to be most needed or most questioned. It seems that accompaniment becomes necessary especially in periods of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty. As a result, the kind of accompaniment in which the church leader engages is not a mere ministry of presence but is a true sense of an embodied divine pathos. It is a kind of accompaniment that is not only about being present but is about recognizing that this moment might indicate a theological crisis: Is God really here?
Accompaniment, therefore, is not simply something that we do, but it embodies who Jesus was for his disciples and then who the Holy Spirit was, and is, for believers, both then and now. We embody accompaniment, commit to accompaniment, and do accompaniment because this was who Jesus was as a leader. Accompaniment is central to Jesus’s mission and vision, in part because accompaniment is born out of relationship and thus also maintains relationship. Beginning and encouraging relationship, therefore, appears to be a hallmark for how Jesus understood his ministry and himself as one who leads.
Accompaniment is not simply having someone beside you. Accompaniment is not a mere ministry of presence. Accompaniment means active and assertive abiding—an abiding that enters into places of fear and discomfort, uncertainty, and troubled hearts, and speaks the truth freely.2
You can do this, dear Working Preachers. And you can preach this. Preach that the same Spirit promised to the disciples in one of their darkest hours, is our promise as well.
- Sabrina Orah Mark, "Happily" column for May 7, 2020, The Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/05/07/fuck-the-bread-the-bread-is-over/
- Portions of this column are from my forthcoming book, Embody: Five Keys To Leading With Integrity (Abingdon Press, August 4, 2020)