Of Pandemics and Paracletes, by Scott Donahue-Martens - Winner - 2020 Donald A. Wells Preaching Prize


John 16:7-15- NRSV

7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go

away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he

comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin,

because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and

you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been


12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the

Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but

will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will

glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is

mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”


Of Pandemics and Paracletes

In adapting a line from the great poet Robert Burns, John Steinbeck wrote: “the best-laid

plans of mice and men go oft awry.” Besides being read in high school literature classes around

the country, the line is quoted in numerous works of television and literature. It’s often said after

careful planning failed to yield the desired result. Since the start of the coronavirus, the line has

been in my mind because it captures recent events. In the past few weeks, plans have gone awry

and plans have been put on hold. Schools have shut down, businesses are closed, the market lost

about one-third of its value. In the past few weeks, new words and concepts have come into our

vocabularies. We cannot open up Facebook or turn on the TV without hearing Covid 19 or

coronavirus. Introverts are teaching us about surviving social distancing. We must learn new

internet platforms and remote ways of communicating. It seems that we live in a different world

than the one we lived in just two months ago. We are in the midst of pandemic and in pandemics,

things rarely go as planned. Pandemics are not easy. They are not a comfortable place to be in.

They are marked by a sense of uncertainty and urgency. It seems as if the very fabric of society

is thinning.


While it may be true that the fabric of society seems to be thinning and that it appears that

we live in a different world than the one from two months ago, this is not the whole truth.

Society is experiencing chaos but the world has seen chaos before. There have been pandemics

in the past, there have been wars, and there have been shortages. In fact, you could find health

crises around the world before the virus, there are ongoing conflicts, and nearly half of the

world’s population lives on less than 3 dollars a day. Those who live in relative safety and

privilege have caught a glimpse of how the world is for most of its inhabitants. Scary, insecure,

and chaotic.


The virus has also exposed ways in which the United States is divided. The rich and

famous are able to get tests and treatment while the poor are left untreated. Those with greater

access to health care and resources may be inconvenienced for a bit, while the virus threatens the

very existence of those who live on the margin. When you live on the margin, there is not much

space left before the edge. When you live on the margin dropping off the edge is a constant

threat. Coronavirus reveals that too many people around the world and in this country are living

on the edge. While right now, our primary focus has to be getting through this situation together,

we must also ask ourselves what needs to be done to keep people off the margins in the long



In many ways, the world and the country are divided by bars. These bars keep humanity

separated. Sometimes these bars are visible and other times they cannot be seen. Even the ones

that cannot be seen though, exert their influence with great potency. Pandemics have a way of

rendering invisible bars visible and so this is an opportunity to reflect on the structure and fabric

of our society and the world. This is a time to consider whether the bars that separate people also

keep God out. Sometimes actions that benefit us as individuals end up hurting the community.

Those who have bought toilet paper, food, and cleaning products beyond what they could

possibly use have left others without. Certainly, we should strive to have needs met but we must

recognize that our needs are not the only needs in the world.


After the fall of Rome in the 4th century, Augustine quoted an earlier writer who believed

that a Republic with walls but no morals was not fortunate. Walls and bars may offer some level

of protection and isolation but at what expense and to what effect? Mountains of toilet paper and

nonperishable cans may offer a sense of security and protection but when greedily hoarded, they

shut out God. If we separate ourselves off from the cries of the hungry, sick, and dying in this

time, then we have set up bars between God and ourselves. This would not only be unfortunate,

in the words of the quote, it would be unchristian. Too often bars meant to protect and divide

prevent God’s grace and love from freely flowing.


Ultimate protection and safety do not come from walls and bars that shut others out. They

partially come from love and care for each other. There is no hope of individual thriving when

the world is suffering. This may not make sense. It seems counterintuitive but that is the

economy of the Kingdom of God. If this pandemic teaches us anything, it is that we should strive

to live under the economy of God rather than the economy of the world.


We do not face this time alone. John 16 tells us the promise that Jesus will send the

Advocate. In Greek the word is Paraclete. It is often translated as helper, intercessor,

intermediary, or advocate. It is a compound word meaning alongside and call. It comes from the

legal tradition and was used to describe a person who comes to help in a courtroom. We are not

in a courtroom but we surely need a helper who can provide comfort at this time. In a world of

uncertainty, unknowns, and powerlessness, we have a helper. Yet, the pandemic reveals to us

that the Paraclete is not ours alone. The Paraclete is not restrained by borders or bars. The

Paraclete does not care if you are rich or poor, old or young, sick or well, the Paraclete cares for

everyone. The Paraclete cares for all people, even those deemed non-essential by the economy.

What a joy to know that we are not alone and an even greater joy when we know who the

identity of the Paraclete. The Paraclete is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. God’s continued

presence in the here and now.


The presence of the Spirit is put in contrast with the bodily presence of Christ. In this

passage, Christ gathered his disciples and he tells them that he must go away. His earthly

ministry has come to an end and the shadow of the cross looms large. He warns them of the loss

they are about to experience. He warns them that life is going to change in the blink of an eye but

he also tells them that it is to their advantage that he goes away. The word advantage in this

passage stands out. Is it really better that Christ goes away so that the Spirit could come? Many

of us probably long to see Jesus in the flesh. We want to listen to his words as the disciples did.

We are jealous of those who got to walk along the Sea of Galilee with him or eat the bread that

he made. But this verse should challenge part of that desire. Jesus tells us that it is better that he

go and send the Holy Spirit. Now, it would be poor Trinitarian theology to argue that the Spirit is

better than Christ through this passage, but if we take Jesus’ words seriously, then we must ask

ourselves how is it better?


Perhaps part of why it is better comes from an earlier passage in John. When Jesus spoke

to Nicodemus, he talked about how the Spirit cannot be contained and blows with the wind. The

phrase is a play on the Greek word pneuma which means both wind and spirit. While Christ was

flesh, he could be in one place at one time. Christ came as a Jewish man who lived in the 1st

century. The Spirit’s presence and work in the world are not bound by time or space. The Spirit

blows with the wind. The Spirit is not ours to grasp and is at all times working in all places. The

Spirit is not stopped by the virus.


This passage tells about what the Spirit will do. The Spirit will reveal sin and

righteousness, the Spirit will speak Jesus’ message, guide us into all truth, and glorify Christ.

The Spirit will be a comforter and advocate to all. Outside of our control and power but always

reaching out with grace and love. The Spirit is not ours to possess, but the Spirit is here with us.

The Spirit can help us through these times by reminding us that we are all global citizens. We do

not live isolated from the rest of the country or the world. We are connected and what happens in

one place impacts another place. The Spirit can inspire us to remember that we do not live for the

sake of capitalism but to glorify God. The virus has halted the economic grind and it has given us

the opportunity to reassess priorities. For some, this is the first time of rest and Sabbath in a long

time. For others, this is a time to reconnect with children or parents. It is unfortunate that it often

takes something so consequential to remind us what really matters in life but this is the place we

find ourselves. So today, we need to ask ourselves what really matters?


Pandemics reveal things that we have all agreed to keep a secret. You see there are these

narratives and stories that we tell ourselves in order to get through life. Sometimes they become

so powerful that they start shaping reality and how reality is experienced. Part of the distress of

the pandemic is the actual virus itself but another part is the way in which it shows us how

ultimately we are not in control. Coronavirus challenges the notion that we are the masters of our

fates and the captains of our souls. We are taught this and it can serve good purposes but one day

we all wake up and realize that it is not entirely true. It’s a daunting realization. One that makes

us experience the dissonance we thought we could ignore. No one likes feeling powerless. No

one wants to be uncertain when their next paycheck will come in or whether toilet paper has to

be strictly rationed. No one wants to feel that his or her best-laid plans have gone astray. The

reality is that we face a lot of unknowns. But even in the face of the unknown, we have God’s

love and presence. In the face of the unknown, we must work toward communal thriving for all

and especially for those on the edge. We must tear down bars that separate us and work toward

the good of others. We cannot do this on our own, but we do not have to, because the Paraclete is

with us.




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