I Will Not Leave You Orphaned

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The last time I preached on this gospel reading was my first Sunday back in the parish after my father's death -- Mother's Day weekend, 1996. Perhaps you know that these readings come around every three years so it's not surprising to hear the same reading on Mother's Day, 1999. (If you didn't know about this pattern, don't worry about it.) Mother's Day really has nothing to do with it. This reading is appointed. Though my mother was and is very much alive, I felt I was halfway toward becoming an orphan.

Mother's Day may be a hard day for you, too -- and it doesn't matter to you that this is the Sixth Sunday after Easter. I know the calendar of the heart is often more important than the Church calendar. Perhaps your mother died not long ago and this is your first Mother's Day without her. Perhaps you wanted more than anything to be a mother, but you were never able to bear a child. Or it may be that your memories of childhood are filled with unforgettable pain. You may have felt like an orphan for a long time even though your parents are alive. "I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus said. This is not a word in the past tense. It is a word for today, for any time we feel abandoned

Were the disciples worried about becoming orphans? Perhaps Jesus' words haven't yet sunk into their minds and hearts. They may still be holding out hope that Jesus won't leave them -- even though he had said it plainly as they sat at the table. Even after Jesus had said, "One of you will betray me," even after Jesus went out into the night, still the disciples didn't understand what Jesus meant when he said, "Where I am going you cannot come." In John's gospel all this takes place as the disciples sit with Jesus at the Passover table. They sit there a long time --- three chapters pass between the meal and the walk to the garden of betrayal. These three chapters are a bit like the "last lecture" series at some colleges. Do you know what I mean? A beloved professor is invited to give a lecture -- "as though it is the last lecture you will ever give." What will you say? What do you want to leave with us? Chapter 14 of John's gospel is the beginning of Jesus "last lecture" --- what will he say? What does Jesus want his closest friends to remember?

"Do not let your hearts be troubled." That's how Jesus began his last lecture -- "Believe in God, believe also in me." Today's reading comes about halfway through the fourteenth chapter. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." The disciples had heard those words before, not long after Jesus had knelt down to wash their feet. "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Did Jesus think the disciples had already forgotten what he said a few minutes before? Did the disciples wonder why Jesus was repeating himself? They didn't ask. This second time, Jesus goes on, connecting the love commandment to a promise: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever." What did Jesus mean? Who or what is this "Advocate"? Some versions of the Bible translate the Greek word as "Counselor." The word comes from the language of the courtroom --- an advocate who will stand with you, who will speak on your behalf. Jesus goes on to call this Advocate "the Spirit of truth" and a bit later "the Holy Spirit." Advocate and Holy Spirit seem one and the same in this gospel. This Advocate/Spirit will abide with them, will make a home with them. This Advocate will empower them to love one another even as Jesus has loved them. But more than that: through the presence of the Spirit Jesus will be with them even after he goes away.

"I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus said, "I am coming to you." The disciples must have been as confused as we are when we listen to these words. They could see Jesus -- he was sitting at the table with them. They could feel his touch when he bent down to wash their feet. They could hear his words now as he talked to them. But how would they see or feel or hear this strange Advocate? How could they believe they would not be orphaned?

How can I believe, how can you -- sitting a long way from that table where Jesus sat with his disciples? If Jesus' words are true, then this same Spirit was not limited to the disciples. The Holy Spirit is also our Advocate, that is, the promise is good also for us in whatever abandonment we may feel." "I will not leave you orphaned," said Jesus.

But it is not easy to talk about the Holy Spirit. It hasn't been easy over the centuries since Jesus' time. The Spirit almost always comes in last place, behind God and Jesus. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson ventures a light-hearted guess to explain the neglect of the Spirit. "Perhaps toward the end of their long constructive treatises theologians simply got tired." But she is very serious in lamenting our neglect of the Spirit for ...what is being neglected is nothing less than the mystery of God's personal engagement with the world...." No wonder we often feel like orphans! Jesus didn't want it to be this way. The promise of the Spirit-Advocate was at the heart of Jesus' last conversation with his disciples. Through the Spirit Jesus would continue to be with the disciples even though he would soon leave them. The language of John's gospel often sounds circular, almost convoluted: "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." Even Jesus had a hard time describing the Spirit in human language. Often, he used images, pictures of something people knew to help them understand what they could not see" "I am the vine, you are the branches," he said later as they sat at the table. The Spirit will keep this close relationship alive after Jesus has gone away.

One of the ancient Christian teachers talked about the relationship this way. God is the sun, source of all light and life; Jesus is the beam of that same light streaming toward earth; the Spirit is the point of light that actually arrives and touches the earth with warmth and energy. The Spirit is the point where God "actually arrives," God's active presence in this world. Perhaps you have known the Spirit's presence in your own life. You felt the warmth of God within you or the comforting assurance that you were not alone.

A few years ago a young woman told me about such a time in her life. She had not gone to church much even as a little girl. But as she told me the story, she remembered clearly that it happened on Good Friday. Not long before, she had broken up with a man she loved and her life seemed in shambles. She got off early from work and went home. She didn't want to see anybody or go any place. Even the daylight was too much so she went into her bedroom, pulled the blinds, and turned off all the lights. A love of music, she lay in the darkness listening to Bach's B-minor Mass. Suddenly, she sensed that the room was filled with light. Unexplainable light. Light surrounding her with a presence she could not name. Words were inadequate to describe the experience to anyone else, yet the experience was as real as her own breathing. That Good Friday was the beginning of her journey into the community of faith. A year later she was baptized at the Easter Vigil. In the eyes of memory I can still see her standing at the font in the circle of candlelight. The Spirit that filled her lonely room with light had led her to the water.

Perhaps you have had an experience like that. Or perhaps you never have. You stand in good company, my friend. If you cannot name a time or a place or an experience of the Spirit, it doesn't mean the Spirit has passed you by. Dr. Joseph Sittler was a pastor for many years; he also taught theology at the University of Chicago. Dr. Sittler longed for an experience of the Spirit's presence in his own life, but it never came. In one of his sermons he said, "It is only honest to say that I have never known fully that kind of life withintimes to declare what one does not know -- in obedience to the bigness of God's story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this." Joseph Sittler trusted that God was present even if he couldn't name one particular experience of assurance. The Spirit touched him in the words of scripture, in the hymns and in the liturgy. He knew he was not an orphan.

We aren't left on our own to imagine the Spirit. You and I have the gospel stories of Jesus showing us where the Spirit was blowing, hinting at where the Spirit is moving into the future. When people talk about their own experience of the Spirit without using our language, it may be that God's wind is blowing also in their lives. Some of the strongest testimony to the Spirit's power comes to us from sisters and brothers who know they could never make it on their own. Leonardo Boff is a Roman Catholic priest who has spent much of his life working among the poorest of the poor in South America. The Spirit remains the source of hope for him and his communities working for justice. From Boff's words about the Spirit can be words of assurance for you and me when the Spirit seems to have gone away. "The Spirit is that little flicker of fire burning at the bottom of the woodpile. More rubbish is piled on, rain puts out the flame, wind blows the smoke away. But underneath everything an ember still burns on, unquenchable. The Spirit sustains the feeble breath of life in the empire of death.

"I will not leave you orphaned," said Jesus, "I will come to you." This promise remains for you and for me. When it seems that the rubbish and the rain have destroyed the spark of faith within you, may the wind of the Spirit blow the dying embers to life again and again.

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