This is more or less the sermon I gave yesterday at Springfield Heights Mennonite Church. The lectionary text I focused on was John 14:15-21 to which I also added verses 1-14.
In 1917 my great-grandfather, Jacob von Kampen, and his family lived in Chortiza, Ukraine. After the Russian Revolution people with the prefix “von” were identified as “kulaks,” a derogatory term for nobility and the wealthy. “Kulaks” were rounded up and imprisoned under the new communist regime. Jacob soon made the decision to remove the “von” from the family name recognizing that it was a threat to his family.
New immigrants are often given the opportunity to change their names upon their arrival to Canada or the United States in order to foster a more “neutral” or “western” identity. Particularly immigrants from Asia often take this opportunity to re-identify themselves with a new name in the hopes of increasing their chances for employment.
There is even a documented case of a Missouri resident who legally changed his name to “they” in 2004. The online newspaper reads: “A Branson [Missouri] man has put a face to the anonymous references people often make to “they” by changing his name to just that: “They.”
But name changes aren’t a modern phenomenon. The Bible is also filled with stories of name changes. Abraham, for example, was first called Abram which means “exalted ancestor,” and received the name Abraham as a sign of God’s covenant with him. Where Abram was first only the ancestor of a particular group of people, Abraham receives a new name, and a new identity as the ancestor of all nations. (see Genesis 17).
The other prominent instance of a name change in the Bible is that of the Apostle Paul. Originally Saul, he was a zealous Pharisee in Tarsus who had a powerful hand in the persecution of the early church. After his conversion to Christianity, Saul is referred to as Paul. The Greek adjective saulos means proud and exalted, while the new name, from the Latin adjective paulos means small and lowly, suggesting a new character of humility and Christ-like servanthood.
If you haven’t already noticed a pattern, allow me point it out: both in the modern accounts I gave, as well as in the Bible, name changes turn upon the question of identity. Names tell us something (not everything) about who a person is, and a change in their name likewise signifies a change in their character or identity. Sometimes we choose to change our name, other times we are given a new name, as was the case with both Abraham and the Apostle Paul.
In the fourth Gospel, John recounts the words of Jesus to his disciples. The setting is the Last Supper. Jesus has just foretold his betrayal and Peter’s denial when he begins alluding to his mysterious pending departure and return:
Read John 14:1-14
In this passage Jesus reminds the disciples that he has shown them what they need to know, he has equipped them to be Apostles, to spread the good news and to live lives in imitation of Christ. He also reminds them that God the Father is at work in the world through the incarnation of Jesus—his name, Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ And that Jesus the Son and God the Father are one.
Because the disciples belong to the family of God, Jesus tells them that he will do whatever they ask in his name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. Here we begin to hear the theme of adoption. The disciples are followers of Jesus and as such they have chosen to identify themselves first and foremost with the life that Jesus offers them—a Messianic life; a resurrected life.
In the church this kind of choice is represented in the practice of baptism. When a person commits him/herself to a Christ-like life, their old identity is immersed in water and dies with Jesus on the cross, and they take on a new identity that is characterized by the resurrection.
In baptism we are adopted into a new family. This is why we baptise people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And when we are baptised in this threefold name, we receive a new identity, a new life, a new way of living in the world that is characterized by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. French theologian Jean-Luc Marion finds this notion of “in the name” rather important. He writes, “in the name” functions “by inscribing us, according to a radically new praxis, in the very horizon of God. This is exactly what baptism accomplishes when…we enter into [God’s]… Name, with the additional result that we receive our own.” We are inscribed or adopted into the Name that is overflowing with the new life already present in Jesus but not yet fully revealed.
But in the John passage I read, Jesus also tells the disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them. Thomas expresses the disciple’s confusion when he asks: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus’ ambiguous reply is “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it still remains unclear as to what will happen to the early church when Jesus departs. Who then will be their connection to the Father? Who will guide them and counsel them? The response to these questions begins in vs. 15:
Read John 14:15-21
The word translated here as advocate is the Greek word parakleton, literally paraclete. Who or what is this Paraclete? The disciples have heard of the Father and Jesus the Son, but what is this “Spirit of truth” that Jesus will give them upon his departure?
The Paraclete refers to the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and ultimately to all believers. Raymond Brown, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, writes that “the Paraclete is the presence of Jesus while Jesus is absent, so that the [words] “I am coming back to you” in [verse] 18 [are] no contradiction to the idea that the Paraclete is being sent. And since the Father and Jesus are one, the presence of the Father and Jesus (23) is not really different from the presence of Jesus in the Paraclete.” The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three in one.
The word parakleton is also translated as Counsellor, and Comforter. These various translations are not accidental. In fact, I think that they tell us something more about the character of the Holy Spirit. An advocate serves as a voice of support and strength for the weak and vulnerable. A counsellor is a source of advice and guidance. A comforter consoles, encourages, and walks with someone through their struggles.
The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit is a gift from the Father and the Son to the disciples which empowers them to live as people of God, as followers of Jesus, even and especially while Jesus himself is absent. Brown notes that “the Paraclete/Spirit will differ from Jesus…in that the Spirit is not corporeally visible and his presence will only be by indwelling in the disciples. The [Old Testament] theme of “God with us” (the Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14) is now to be realized in the Paraclete/Spirit who remains with the disciples forever.”
The resurrected Christ, the Messianic power, dwellt with the disciples in the human form of Jesus, and will continue to abide within us in the gift of the Paraclete. Where the Messiah was first an external, corporeal, presence, it will now be an internal presence within all believers across space and time. The Paraclete is the non-corporeal, indwelling presence of the Father and the Son. The Paraclete is an advocate, a counsellor, and a comforter for us as we anticipate and prepare for Jesus’ return.
When we are baptised in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are adopted into the body of Christ, the Church. We receive a new identity that is characterized by the life and teachings of Jesus. Because Jesus is no longer with us in bodily form, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, to advocate for us, to guide us, to comfort us as we struggle to live as witnesses of Christ in the world, and as we celebrate the great things God is already doing. Surely, as Jesus said to the disciples, he “will not leave us orphaned” but abides with us, today and forever, in the Holy Spirit.
This was not included in my sermon:
From a more academic perspective, and having read Marion and Derrida together, I wondered whether the Paraclete, as a non-corporeal indwelling presence (or one could even say an absence, the absence of the Messiah Jesus) could be thought of as a non-phenomenalogical presence, and therefore something that is irreducible to the metaphysics of presence Derrida so worries about in Marion’s work. We could then think of the Paraclete as beyond affirmation and negation, a third way, but not saturated phenomenon. The question is, is the Paraclete/Holy Spirit phenomenalogical? I would welcome your thoughts.
 Jean-Luc Marion, “In the Name” in eds. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, God, the Gift and Postmodernism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 38.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII – XXI (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 644.