A courtroom dramawhether it is a John Grisham novel, a prime time TV series or one of a host of films from To Kill a Mockingbird to Philadelphiaprovides enduring fascination. Especially common are plots pitting a little-known lawyer, defending a victimized client, against powerful adversaries. This appeal is as old as the biblical stories of Susannah and the elders and of the woman judged for adultery in John. In fact, John’s Gospel has been described as a long trial narrative in which the powers of the world are arrayed against Jesus, culminating in the carefully orchestrated appearance before Pilate. On the evening before he departs this life, Jesus warns his disciples that a fate similar to his awaits them. The world that hated him will hate them (15:8); they will be rejected, and the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God (16:2). They will be hauled before the court of the world to be witnesses to the teaching of Jesus.
Yet Jesus will not leave them orphans; he will provide a defense attorney for his followers when they are brought to trial. Older translations, following the Greek, called him a paraclete, literally one called alongside of, an advocate (a legal metaphor). This advocate is also the Spirit of truth (14:17) and the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, who will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have taught you and be both advocate and defense witness (15:26). As Jesus has come into the world, so too the Advocate, who is teacher and guide, as was Jesus. The Advocate will likewise bear witness in a situation of hate, as did Jesus. The Advocate (Paraclete) is, then, the enduring presence in the church of the departed Jesus, who prolongs his life and teaching through history.
Karl Barth is reported to have said that as Christology was the focus of the 20th century, the role of the Spirit will be the focus of the present century, a prediction verified by renewed interest in both theology and church life. Too often in the past, the Spirit has been invoked as either the guarantor of fixed teaching or even a fixer behind the scenes, who will remedy human error (I hope the Holy Spirit knows what he or she is doing). Jesus promises the Advocate to those who keep his commandments, which in John are not primarily moral precepts but the call to radical faith and radical love. The Holy Spirit is present when the kind and quality of life embodied in the Word made flesh are visible to the world. Such is the best legal advice as we prepare for our trial.