Counselor, Helper, Advocate, Companion
The world is entering into a worrying phase. Recently we heard about the tragic news of a grandfather who fatally shot members of his own family in Margaret River. He killed his own wife, daughter, and four grandchildren before fatally shooting himself.
Not long after, we heard about the terrorist attacks in Surabaya, Indonesia, targeting people who worshipped in churches. The suicide bombers were one family: father and mother with their two teenage sons and two young daughters. All perished in the attacks. The world is entering into a new and worrying phase where children are being used in this kind of atrocity.
The vast majority of Muslims in Indonesia, Australia, and all around the world condemn the attacks. For them, the perpetrators have perverted the true teaching of Islam. The President of Indonesia, a Muslim man, called the attacks as blaspheming and defaming Islam. Our Prime Minister called the attacks as “brutal, inhumane, blasphemous, sickeningly cruel”. “It’s a reminder that these terrorists have got nothing to do with God,” he said, “They are not defending Islam.”
Indeed, how could parents who strapped bomb vests to their own young daughters call themselves religious? How could parents who sent their teenage sons on a suicide mission to kill innocent people call themselves religious?
But of course, we are asking these question as outsiders. For the extremists who committed the atrocities, what they did was a religious duty. These people had been taught to believe that what they did was a service to God. Apparently, the children had been indoctrinated with radical ideologies since a very young age. They were shown violent jihadist videos by their parents. And they did all these under the guise of homeschooling the children.
Worryingly, some sympathizers of the terrorists have also used religious language to justify the attacks. One person says that the attacks were justified because these churches were built on what she considered as the “holy land of God”.
I begin today’s reflection with these tragic events to remind us that some will enter into this year’s Pentecost season with wounds on their bodies and souls. I would also like to remind us that Jesus had somehow foreseen such tragedies from happening.
But before we go any further, we need to first put Jesus’ saying in John’s Gospel in the right context. In the last night that he had with his disciples, Jesus warned them about what was going to happen. He warned that some of them would be killed and those who killed them would believe that they were doing it as a service to God. But let’s be clear that Jesus did not talk about Islamist terrorism. By the time John’s Gospel was written, the birth of Islam was still hundreds of years away.
Jesus’ words foresaw the deteriorating relationship between the Christians and the Jews. The Jews saw the Christians as a blaspheming sect within Judaism. Jesus’ words thus warned about the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Jews.
But even though Jesus’ words were directed to persecuted Christians in the first century, the message is still relevant today. We may be able to worship and exercise our faith freely in this country, but many Christians in other parts of the world are still under persecution. While we are able to worship in peace, many Christians in the world are under the threat of religious violence.
One of my friends is an ordained person in one of the church denominations that was attacked in Surabaya. She used to life in Surabaya, but she does not live there any longer. But she is afraid for many of her family members and friends who still live in the city. Indeed, in the wake of the attacks, many of my university friends, who are now ordained ministers in various church denominations in Indonesia, made their mind known on social media. Perhaps, that was the way they channeled their fear and worry, knowing that any church can be a target, including the ones they are serving now.
Now, you may wonder: what do these senseless acts of violence have to do with Pentecost? Well, I think these tragedies are relevant especially on Pentecost Day. Today is the day when we celebrate the presence of the Spirit who comes from God. As such, when we celebrate Pentecost, we are not only celebrating an event that happened in a distant past. No. When we celebrate Pentecost, we are celebrating the presence of the Spirit of God here and now. And exactly in this time, a time filled with fear and anxiety, that we need the Spirit the most.
In our passage from John’s Gospel this morning, the Spirit is called Paraclete. The word has been translated into English as helper or advocate or counsellor or guide or companion. The Spirit is all of them. The Spirit is a companion who helps, counsels, advocates, and guides us in our life journey, especially in times of great adversity.
The Apostle Paul hits the nail in the head when he says that the entire creation is groaning in pain. We who have received the Spirit of God can still suffer with the rest of creation. The presence of God’s Spirit in our life does not stop us from experiencing pain and suffering. The Spirit is with us not to shield us from evil, but to comfort us in times of tragedy.
Paul says that the Spirit will pray for us when words are not adequate any longer. The Spirit will pray for us when the pain we experience is beyond any word to comprehend.
The next day after three churches were bombed in Surabaya, another family detonated bombs in the police headquarter. All of the attackers were killed in the blast, but one girl from the family survived. She was bleeding and crying for help when a police officer courageously lifted her up and took her to safety.
When the officer was interviewed about his heroic action, he said that he only followed his instinct as a father. When he was asked about what he thought about the young girl he saved, he said that he would like to visit her in hospital. When he was asked what he would say to her, he said that he had no word. He would probably just hug her.
In the face of such atrocity, any decent human being will lose for word. When we heard the news about the grandfather who shot his wife, daughter, and grandchildren before shooting himself, the most appropriate reaction was silence.
But in a moment like this; the moment when word no longer suffices, the Spirit will take offer. The Spirit will offer a prayer too deep for words. The Spirit will offer a prayer that will go straight to the heart of God.
Some of the victims of the bombings of churches in Surabaya were a mother and her two young sons. They were in the parking area of the church when a bomb detonated. The mother survived the blast, even though she was seriously injured in her stomach and legs by the metal shrapnel. But her two young sons were killed. They were only eight and eleven years old.
While she was being treated in the hospital, the funeral arrangement for her two sons was underway. She was given only four hours by the doctors to leave the hospital, on a gurney, to see the bodies of her sons and say goodbye to them for the very last time. I don’t even dare to imagine the pain that she is experiencing from losing her sons.
But this mother, this young mother, holds no grudge against those who killed her sons. She has forgiven them. Her grief does not turn into anger. Her loss does not turn into hatred. She wants to follow in the footsteps of Mary whose son, Jesus, was also killed senselessly by strangers. If you are looking for a sign that the Spirit is working in someone’s life, this is it.
Pentecost is not the day when we celebrate the end of all sufferings and tragedies in the world. Pentecost is the day that reminds us of a Friend who walks beside us in the midst darkness. Pentecost reminds us of a Friend who bestows upon us inner guidance that leads us the light. When everything else has failed, the Spirit will provide us with the strength from within to carry on.
So let us be aware of the presence of the Spirit within us. Let us hear its gentle voice, guiding us to the light, comforting us in sadness, and giving us courage in fear. And let us invite others to open their hearts to the movement of the Spirit around and within us.