Warm and Wooly Spirit

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is often overlooked when the church celebrates, as we do today, the feast of Pentecost. The story we usually hear comes from Luke and the Book of Acts. You know, that seriously weird account of the disciples gathered in the upper room and the unexpected arrival of the Holy Spirit, manifested in spectacular pyrotechnics and accompanied by eerie sound effects. A gale force wind knocks the disciples’ socks off and a kind of St. Elmo’s Fire burns above each of their heads.


What’s more, those timid and confused disciples become transformed into powerhouse preachers—speaking in tongues and strange languages. You can read all about it in the second chapter of Acts—where the first Christians experience Jesus’ lingering presence with them in the world through the infusion of supernatural power.


But there is actually another Pentecost story and another entirely different take on the Holy Spirit found in the Gospel of John—


It’s in this Sunday’s lectionary reading (John 14:8-17, 25-27) where Jesus is gathered with his disciples, and they have just eaten the Passover dinner together and he talks openly about his death—and he tells them, that in his absence, he will ask the Father to send them the Paraclete— to come and be with them, forever. Only John uses the word, Paraclete, in the New Testament, five times in all; I’m sure you’ve heard its various English translations from the Greek—Advocate, Counselor, and Comforter.


In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises that the Holy Comforter would come— a Warm and Wooly Spirit.


Can you see the enormous difference between how the Spirit is portrayed in Acts and here in the Gospel of John? John’s Paraclete is intimate and personal. Not the lightning bolt and thunder—but a quiet, almost hushed presence of comforting grace that is yours, personally. A presence that makes you feel loved, cared for, embraced.


Years ago, before Gary and I moved to Hawaii, my ministry focused on distributing humanitarian relief during global disasters. By far, the most important durable gift you can send to people in dire straits around the world—is a blanket. Something we likely take for granted as a decorative item meant only to match the bedroom décor. But to a refugee, a person displaced by violence or war or drought, or religious persecution—a blanket can transform your life.


Strung over a taut rope, a blanket becomes a tent, or a room divider providing privacy. It’s a cradle; protection from sun and rain. Twisted, it becomes a rope—a lifeline. It hauls your rice or doubles as a makeshift  stretcher—And of course, a blanket keeps you warm.


Our modern lives may not be transformed by blankets, but we need the Holy Comforter to warm us nonetheless—the Spirit’s job is to heat us, when we’ve gone cold—when our hearts have turned to stone and we just can’t find a way to forgive or forget—when we’re cold to the pain and distress of others, when we lose touch with our sense of compassion—the Holy Spirit warms our hearts.


The Holy Comforter makes it easier for us to remember that we are just little ones—like the Peanuts character, Linus Van Pelt—and his security blanket. In one of Charles Schultz’s cartoons, Linus is mercilessly teased because of his unwillingness to let go of his blanket. The mean kids keep taunting him and won’t stop, so Linus takes his blanket and turns it into a bullwhip. Snap! That blankie put all the bullies in their place!


The Holy Comforter is a reminder that all of us have our insecurities and all of us need to be embraced, protected, encircled by the loving arms of a warm God. Like the UCC prayer, You O God are close to us as breathing…


Five years ago I fell and shattered my left wrist in a million pieces. I was lucky to have an emergency surgery scheduled at the Mayo Clinic. But it was late November, 50 below in Rochester Minnesota. Gary couldn’t get a flight out and I traveled alone, from the Kona airport nonstop to the Mayo O.R. for an 8-hour surgery to reconstruct my wrist. After I was wheeled into the recovery room, I remember my whole body was shaking—trembling like a leaf—and a nurse came and draped a heated blanket over me. In the moment, I just about mistook her for God—my shaking stopped—I was warm, safe and surprisingly not alone.

The Holy Comforter communicates God’s near presence in your weakness, in your fears.  Jesus says in John 14:25, ”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Here’s a story from Jon Walton, former minister at First Presbyterian in New York. It’s about Angelo Roncalli, better known as Pope John XXIII.

After his devotions at night, when Pope John had had a particularly worrisome and difficult day, and after he had prayed for the church and all the nations at war, and all the leaders of the world, and interceded for the poor, the sick, and the dying, Pope John said that as he rose from his kneeler having called to mind all these monumental concerns, he would feel anxious, so he would ask himself the question, “Who runs the church, Angelo, you or the Holy Spirit?” And the answer that would always come back to him were God’s words even more than his own, “(Get under your cover and) Go and sleep, Angelo, go and sleep.”

These days of Pentecost, may the warm and wooly Spirit of God comfort you.