I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU ORPHANED
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
This passage continues Jesus’ farewell discourse in John. He is warning his disciples about his impending death and preparing them to continue without his physical presence. It is not quite a deathbed speech but it has that flavor. How do you say goodbye to the people that love you? How do you prepare them to take over the tasks of living? How do you teach them what is most important?
Last week, we read that Jesus does not want the disciples to be troubled. He does not want them to imagine that their way of evaluating themselves has anything to do with the way God loves. Jesus wants them to know he knows them and will always be with them. Now Jesus moves on to provide a way to connect with God after his death.
All of us both need to identify what really matters. In that regard, Jesus is our first Advocate. The whole point of the Word made flesh is to show us what God’s love looks like in the flesh—to literally show us that God cares for us and lives in the midst of us. Jesus shows us the way. But Jesus’ mortal life was very brief. He knew that when he was physically gone, it would be desperately difficult for his disciples to hold on to what he had given them. (He had plenty of evidence of their struggle to understand him in life). How much more difficult would it be to live the counter intuitive life we call Christian love without his presence and guidance.
So, anticipating his own death, Jesus tells them the very best way to stay in touch with the power of his love: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The way of knowing God’s love is to practise it. There are light years of difference between understanding cognitively and living viscerally. I can understand the rules and I can understand the tutorial manuels that would teach me to play tennis. But I cannot fully grasp what playing tennis is like until I actually try it. No amount of reading about love, reading the bible or studying theology is sufficient without making the intentional effort to love like Jesus loves. In the Gospel of John, there is only one commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) This is the very specific expectation that Jesus is describing when he says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” This is not an obedience test. It describes the necessary learning step in order to know God’s love. There is an ‘inside out’ quality to learning by doing that cannot be learned any other way. Jesus loves in particular ways and the only way we can experience that love is to practice it.
The way to knowing the Father is to know Jesus is to love like Jesus loved. And to make that possible, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. Christian love is too counter intuitive to do without reminders of what God’s love is. We need encouragement to keep trying when we do it badly. We cannot do it alone. So Jesus promises: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
There is a translation problem with the word advocate. The original Greek is much more complex and textured. The Greek is ‘paraclete’ and is variously translated as Comforter, Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby. The Spirit is all of these things. The Spirit is what allows us to see what God calls us to be. It takes the Spirit to help us bridge the gap between our worldly self centeredness and the agape of God.
I am now living with two of my grandchildren, 7 and 4. I watch them compete in a zero sum world. They both act like the proof of love is ‘fairness’ and if one child gets something the other child feels deprived. They need ‘proof of love’. The concept that a mother’s love is wide enough to include both of them is not something they can trust. That is as human as it gets. I remember fighting with my siblings about who got to sit next to my parents. I remember reading how the disciples argued about who would sit next to Jesus.
When we’re tired, lonely and connection-deprived, it is harder to remember God’s promises. In psychology it is expressed as: “Under stress, we regress.” I can’t tell you how many relationships run into the same human snag. I’m seeing people becoming more and more fatigued—both emotionally and physically. Arguments devolve into score sheets of obligation. People need to be recognized and understood but are much less likely to offer what they seek. A simple chore like walking the dog, becomes a contest over who has more work to do and therefore who is entitled to mindfulness.
Holding on to relationships, regard and reliability cannot be sustained when we are empty. We need to feel cared for; we need to know we are not alone; and we need to know someone has our back in order to sustain loving. Christian loving does not come naturally—it requires learning, intentionality and practice. The Holy Spirit makes that possible.
Learning that relationship is about what we give rather than what we get is a huge paradigm shift for any of us. Quinton, our 7 year old grandson made a special request to have dinner with his mother by himself. She agreed and he planned their outing to the porch. He got a tablecloth and a candle. It was sweet. But as soon as they sat down, he was off. He had good intentions but as it turns out, his goal was more to possess his mother than it was to share time with her. He had the form of relationship but he missed on the substance. He’s 7. He has a lot to learn but this is a lesson most of us are still learning in our 70’s.
Learning that we can only live in the present and must trust God in an uncertain future runs directly counter to our fears and our need to control. A middle aged mother is enormously proud of her daughter. She is a star student, the homecoming queen, fit and active with the whole world in front of her. Then in the middle of her college, she is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Dreams are destroyed—the future unknown and bleak. The emotional and financial costs are exorbitant. Trusting that God is in the midst of this requires her to seek the promised comforter and hold the remembrance that her job is to get through one day at a time. Somehow, someway, she must hold the hope that God will take care of the rest.
Childcare, public gatherings, employment, financial security, homelessness are all up in the air. It seems unimaginable that our worship will include masks, distancing and not include singing. What will our future be as the comforts of the familiar are stripped from us? All of these changes are intimidating but we can rely upon Jesus’ words: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” How that will happen is above my pay grade. My job and yours is to live the gospel today—-“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Of the hundreds of questions we can ask and the many problems we can worry about, the most important is: In what way did I or did I not love today? That is our call. That is our hope. That is the way, the truth and the life.
Live in the promise that you are not alone. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.
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