When I was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, the preacher was the late Bishop Cedric Mills .
Bishop Mills knew a few things about life’s bumps and bruises, having ministered as a black man in a very white church, and, by the time he preached at my ordination, lost his eyesight. (It was an honor to serve as his deacon at the altar. He’d memorized the Eucharistic prayers in both traditional and contemporary language, and seldom missed a beat. If he did, it was my job to whisper the next word, which was all he needed to resume the prayer in his great, deep voice).
At the ordination, he preached from Isaiah 40:1,
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Despite whatever indignities and maladies he’d known, his main point was that Biblical exhortations to comfort God’s people do not mean to coddle them. The word means to strengthen and encourage them. The message of comfort in Isaiah’s later chapters is about moving defeated people to get up and rebuild from the rubble.
This morning’s reading in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours was 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, in many English translations a passage loaded with the word comfort or consolation,
Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. (KJV)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (ESV)
The New American Bible (NAB) renders it in language that would please Bishop Mills (my emphasis added),
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.
The Greek word that comes out comfort or encouragement is paraklesis, the same root from which Jesus describes the Holy Spirit in John 14:15-17. Some English versions of that passage call the Spirit Comforter, but there are others (and plenty of footnotes) pointing out more assertive translations like Helper, Counselor and Advocate.
The word is about coming alongside of another person to help them. The shades of meaning have to do with the content or character of the help, ranging from coddling to cheerleading.
I have to confess that over almost thirty years my keeping of Bishop Mills’ charge is hit and miss. I’ve often given in to the heavy pressure to coddle people who really needed a whack from the pastor’s staff. On the other hand, I’ve watched God do some spectacular things when I’ve been faithful to the Word and encouraged the people to be about His work.
Reading the 2 Corinthians passage, I realize that the comfort of which it speaks, even at a coddling level, can only confuse a non-believer. The charge in the passage it to encourage Christ’s people, to share in His sufferings and know His comfort. The Isaiah passage in Bishop Mills’ sermon was directed at God’s people, not the pagans all around them.
Take a passage like I Thessalonians 4:13-18, in which Paul addresses concerns about life after death. It ends with an exhortation to comfort or encourage (parakaleite) one another with the hope of eternal life in Christ.
To a non- believer, this is neurotic behavior. It is coming up with a coddling myth to take the edge off of the finality of death.
Paul likewise assumes that his message holds value only for the believer, distinguishing Christians from the pagan neighbors who grieve without hope.
When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in John 14, he makes clear that the comfort, advocacy, help or counsel of the Spirit is not available to non-believers (my emphasis again),
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (ESV)
Reading these various passages and giving prayer and thought to them makes me realize that I need to find a church again – by which I mean a group of people gathered in worship. I’ve let that slide for a number of reasons, none of which amount to much next to the clarity of God’s Word. The comfort and encouragement passages are all about Christians living together as disciples.
If you are reading this I would invite your prayers that the divine Counselor guide me to a local gathering of disciples with whom the Lord Jesus would have me bring glory to our heavenly Father.