(a sermon for May 21, 2017, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:15-27)
It might be the worst feeling of any we experience in this life: to suddenly realize you are completely, utterly and helplessly… alone.
Most of us, I suspect, can name times when it certainly felt that way to us: maybe in those first few awful days living away from home and family for the very first time, and thinking that feeling of homesickness would never go away; or perhaps in moments of overwhelming grief and loneliness after a loved one has passed away; or more than likely, at some point amidst some “bump in the road” in life when we’re absolutely certain that absolutely no one else could ever know or understand what we’re going through! It’s a horrible feeling, to be sure; but thanks be to God (and also that friend who reaches out with a phone call or a casserole), that feeling of aloneness eventually passes
But what if it doesn’t?
Think, for instance, of those who struggle through issues such as financial trauma, job loss, physical illness or mental and emotional health, domestic violence, broken relationships and so much more I could name here; to go through all that, and yet have nowhere to turn in the midst of it all and to have no one who will stand with them in their struggle! Or consider the children, some who live in our own community, who have been left to their own devices because of abuse and neglect, and very poor choices on the part of their families. Or how about those people we all know who go through each and every day and every circumstance of their lives believing that they are somehow unworthy of love and thus utterly unlovable; who have come to see themselves as alone, lonely and forever isolated in the world; where they even come to believe that God has abandoned them?
To be alone like that might well be the worst possible thing to ever happen to us in this life; in the words of Bob Dylan, “to be on your own… a complete unknown… with no direction home?” (I’ll spare you my Dylan impression here!) And so isn’t it amazing then, that during that time we’ve come to know as “the night of betrayal and desertion,” our Maundy Thursday, those moments literally just a few short hours before his own crucifixion, Jesus gives to his disciples and to us a promise: “I will not leave you orphaned.” Or, depending on particular translation of scripture you might employ, “I will not leave you comfortless… abandoned… bereft… desolate… or alone.” No matter how you read the verse, it’s an astounding promise: I will not leave you alone; “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
Our text for this morning comes from the portion of John’s gospel that is known as “The Farewell Discourses,” which represent the conversation that took place at the table in the upper room during the last supper on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. It encompasses four full chapters of John, and one definitely gets the feeling that Jesus, fully aware of what was about to transpire, wanted to say as much as he possibly could to the disciples in the time he had left. This is also, arguably, one of the most deeply theological passages of the gospels; in fact, as the last of the four gospels written (probably 60 years after the resurrection!), it’s clear that John sought for the early church to be able to put all of the events and teachings emanating from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in its proper context; all of which is simply to remind us that Jesus’ words here are meant as much for you and me as they were for the disciples.
For you see, Jesus understood – most especially on this fateful night – that faith can often have a very short memory. Life can seem to have more than its share of struggles; troubles mount to the point of becoming overwhelming, and in the process the strength that comes in believing will inevitably begin to fall away. Jesus knew – and so do we – that it is all too easy for us in this world to feel as though we are all alone; even when the truth is that we never were alone at all. As the agonizing hours leading up to the cross would prove, when things are at their worst even the most devoted of disciples can scatter, or worst of all, begin to deny that which they’ve always known in their heart of hearts to be true. So the question becomes, when our backs are against the wall and our memory of the divine around us and within us becomes faulty, how will we remember? How will we live faithfully in the midst of all the uncertainties of that life; to, as Jesus tells us, to “love [him]… and keep [his] commandments?” How are we to know what that even means moving forward; so that we won’t feel abandoned and alone in this difficult and often cruel world?
And therein comes that incredible promise: for to all these questions and so many more that we ask, Jesus answers that he will not leave us alone; but that he will “ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” An advocate… in the Greek, “Paraclete,” another biblical word that gets translated in a variety of ways: like as a “counselor” or “helper,” a “comforter,” “teacher,” “friend.” …and Spirit. The Spirit of truth, says Jesus, who will abide with us and will be in us; who will remind us again and again, even in those times when it will seem as though we’ve long forgotten, of just who and whose we are; and never, ever alone on the way.
This, beloved, was the promise that would serve to sustain those disciples as they moved from the despair of the cross to the glory of resurrection and beyond to the unfolding of their “Great Commission;” and it is the promise that remains our on-going word of hope as we move forward with our own lives today. The Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler, a Methodist pastor and writer out of Texas, describes this hope very well: in these few words from John’s gospel, she writes, “we seem to have the sum total of how to claim a full life in the face of the fear, terror, panic, isolation, loss, and grief that comes simply from living, that comes simply by the very nature of or existence in this world.” In Jesus’ promise of a Spirit of truth – this “Advocate for the Way” – we will discover “what it means to live faithfully in the midst of life,” meeting every joy, every sorrow and every challenge that comes our way “with full assurance that we are loved [by God], no matter what,” and that because of this love, which is unceasing, “we are never alone, no matter what.”
This is not to say, of course, that by virtue of this Advocate/Spirit, those answers we seek for the way ahead come to us instantaneously and with utmost clarity; indeed, I think we all realize that there are far too many grey areas in this life for that to happen! But even then, you’ll notice that Jesus is clear about faithfulness will come about, and it’s two-fold: first, that “if you love me, you will keep my commandments;” and second, that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit… will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” In other words, to love the Lord is to love his word and to keep his word; and that will make all the difference in what follows. Or, if I might borrow the words of one David Sellery: “Fill your heart with [God’s] love, and there will be no room for hate. Fill your day with [God’s] love and there will be no time for mischief.” But… even if along the way you forget what this love entails, or if it happens that this love may require a broader view of things (or perhaps more to the point a change in our view of things!), here comes the Advocate to teach us everything; to open our minds and our hearts to God’s presence, God’s intent and purpose for our lives, and above all, to bring us a deeper awareness of God’s great and redeeming love, which brings to us not only a fresh understanding of everything that Jesus has said to us, but also in the process offers us a peace that the world, for all of its supposed wisdom, cannot provide!
In that regard, isn’t it interesting there always seems to be this connection between the responsibilities of discipleship and this divine peace? I’m reminded here of the story of Brother Lawrence, an early 17th century brother in a monastery in France, famous for his collection of writings on the subject of “practicing the presence of God” even in the midst of his most routine daily tasks in the monastery; things like baking, doing dishes and cleaning floors. Lawrence saw each one of these tasks as a prayer unto the Lord; moreover as a means of developing “the habit of unbroken conversation with God without any artificiality” and thus discerning the good and proper pathway for his life. In this unbroken communion with God, Lawrence concluded, we are “continually absorbed in praising, worshipping and loving God for his infinite acts of loving-kindness and perfection.”
As a spiritual discipline, it’s a beautiful thing (though I have to confess that I probably wouldn’t be very good at it; I’d likely be far more focused on the inner reflection rather than on the immediate task of getting all the pots and pans clean!). Brother Lawrence’s example serves to remind us that true faith is not so much going to be found in the rush of warm, fuzzy feelings that’ll come to us at the very thought of God, but rather faith will be revealed in the manner of life and living that God’s presence has inspired in us! Indeed, we are the people of a legacy, left by Jesus himself: we are called as disciples to continue loving our neighbor as ourselves; to see our brother and sister as God sees them and sees as all; and to live out of what we know of Jesus both in word and in deed.
Granted, for us to truly embody that kind of love in the world is at best a challenging thing; sometimes it’s even a risky proposition, given the climate of that world these days; frankly, these are times in which it simply seems much easier and safer to just keep silent than it is to act boldly for the sake what we believe. But that is why we have an advocate for the way; a Spirit of God’s own singular truth to keep us “on task” and make us ever aware that in divine love, we keep Christ’s commandments; and as we do so, God is loving us and making a home with us; that we might never, ever be alone… in this life and the life that is to come
It is no wonder that as Jesus himself can say to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
So let us walk and live in faith; and as we do, may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry