‘You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend.’ Carole King, You’ve Got a Friend
This song by Carole King, which was made famous by James Taylor in 1973, is one of those songs that give me a lot of comfort and strength these days. It is an honest, almost raw song, which captures different moods: Challenge. Comfort. Compassion. Care. And I am not the only one who feels that way – ‘You’ve got a friend’ is a very popular song during the times of COVID-19, and it has been covered by many folks, well known and unknown – if you are familiar with You Tube, just check it out how many versions have sprung up just over the last couple of months. This song has been covered by a variety of folks, from mother-and-daughter duos to entire city choirs, all singing from the comfort and safety of their homes, of course. And now there is yet another beautiful cover by our very own Andrew Birling, which we just heard. Thank you, Andrew!
‘You’ve got a friend’ is, in all its simplicity, a powerful song. It is one of these songs that speak to a deep longing within us, the longing for connection, the longing for relationship, the longing for someone whom we can trust entirely and who has our back: day or night, winter, spring, summer or fall. It is a song that speaks to the longing for something we are missing right now.
And our lack of connection affects us deeply – I listened to a webcast last week, a conversation with former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who wrote a book, “Together”, in which he examines the importance of social connections for our wellbeing – but, and that surprised me, social connections are also important for our productivity.
If you feel sluggish right now, if you feel like you’re not as focused as usual, that you don’t get as much done as usual –blame the Coronavirus, or, to be more precise, our relative isolation right now. Murthy calls human connection one of the essential human needs, beyond the more physical needs like food and shelter. We really need each other. So that’s now scientifically proven.
I hope and pray you have a friend – or more than one. I hope and pray there is someone in your life who has been, who is there when you need them, someone who takes you as you are, loves you as you are, but also calls you on stuff and challenges you. That’s what friends are for – not just to stroke our ego, but to set us straight if necessary. And we all need to be set straight once in a while. I feel blessed that I have such people in my life who are honest with me.
And I hope and pray that you are that kind of friend to someone else. Especially in times like these – times that are difficult and challenging. Times we all need to know that there is someone who has our back, no matter, what.
Today’s gospel is part of what, in the German Bible, is called Jesus’ ‘Abschiedsrede’, a farewell speech. This speech is about 4 chapters long and precedes Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Jesus has a lot to tell his followers – he basically prepares them for what lies ahead: the time the disciples will have to manage without Christ being there, with them, in the flesh. It is a speech that boils down to the importance of relationships: the relationship between Jesus and his followers, the relationship between Jesus and the heavenly Father, the relationship between the followers and the Father, and the relationship the disciples have with each other. And how all these relationships are interconnected.
I have to leave you eventually, says Jesus, but I will not leave you orphaned; I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate, to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth. Here Jesus is announcing the coming of the Holy Spirit, the entity that makes the Holy Trinity complete. But what exactly is the role of this Spirit?
Well, the answer is hidden in the term ‘advocate’, which is from the Latin ‘advocare’ and literally means to call to or toward something or someone, and which in turn is a very literal translation of the Greek term we have in the original version of the gospel of John: parakletos. An advocate is someone you call to be by your side, be it to function as your witness, to help you with something, to challenge you, and/or to comfort you – in fact, Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible chooses this comforting aspect of someone you call to your side when he translates ‘parakletos’ as ‘Tröster’.
So the word ‘parakletos’ or ‘advocate’ is multi-layered. An advocate addresses various needs. In short, an advocate’s got your back. Like a good friend.
And note that Jesus says, ‘the Father will give you another advocate’ – implying that Jesus already is our advocate, someone who has our back, someone who is on our side, who takes and loves us as we are, but who at the same time challenges us and sets us straight if necessary. And nowhere do we see all of that more clearly than in the cross. Talk about Jesus having our back!
Now I know that many folks, including pastors, sometimes get confused by Jesus’ words the way they are recorded in the gospel of John: I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, and if you are in me, you are in the Father, and the Father is in you, etc. But what it boils down to is the following: I’ve got your back, says Jesus, and because I’ve got your back, the Father’s got your back. And to assure you of that, the Holy Spirit will be sent to you and among you. God’s got you covered. God’s got your back. You’ve got a friend.
‘You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, to see you again’ – God is our advocate, the one who is ready and willing to be called to our side.
And God primarily does this now and forever through the Holy Spirit, in and through whom Jesus Christ comes to us and is among us.
In the end, the Holy Spirit binds it all together. The Holy Spirit is the essence of all relationships, like a nervous system that connects all the body parts with each other.
Jesus says in today’s gospel, the Spirit abides with you. The Holy Spirit is there with you, a constant companion and got your back; and through the Holy Spirit, the entire Trinitarian God is with you. So there’s the tie between God and humanity.
But Jesus also says: the Holy Spirit is AMONG you. Among you, as the community of followers of Christ. We are inspired, we experience the Holy Spirit when we are together. And this influences how we are in relationship to each other. By virtue of having the Holy Spirit, the advocate, among us, we become infected by this Spirit, and are transformed into the community where we are advocates, comforters, challengers, friends to each other, people who set each other straight, if necessary. So the Spirit ties all of us together.
But then, of course, the relationship between God and us and our relationships to each other can’t be separated – the Holy Spirit sees to that. God is with us through our relationships. And God can be experienced through our relationships, through the love we have for one another as all those who were lovingly created by God and who, after all, breathed the Holy Spirit into all of us.
Our relationships with ‘the least of these’ say a lot about our relationship with God.
Of course we all know that our relationships are not perfect. One just has to turn on the news and look at the state of the nation, the state of the world right now. There’s a lot of backstabbing instead of back-having going on. But at the same time we see glimpses of the kingdom of heaven wherever someone rushes to the side of someone else, maybe a total stranger, to be there, to help. There have always been such people, there are such people, and there always will be such people. Right now, I have the image of first responders, nurses, doctors and other medical staff in mind. Thank God for such people who have our back – and through whom we experience God with and among us.
Thank God for all those, friends or strangers, who have our back. And may our prayer be that we all allow God’s Spirit, the advocate, to love and work through and among us, so that all may know and experience: You’ve got a friend.
Picture by Helena Lopes on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German