We’re Not Orphaned! -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6A
John 14:15-21 (NRSV)
15 “If you love me, you will keep[a] my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,[b] 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[c] 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.”
As Easter marches on we continue to fill in the meaning of resurrection, and the Gospel of John is a good source of input. While Good Friday is a point of demarcation – the cross puts an end to the earthly life of Jesus -- that’s not the end of the story. Jesus’ death doesn’t end the relationship established prior to Good Friday. According to John, Jesus will continue to be with them forever. The means by which Jesus will continue to be with them as they continue their earthly journeys is by way of the Advocate -- Holy Spirit. Therefore, they needn’t worry about being left orphaned.
As in Luke’s gospel, it is the Holy Spirit who mediates this post-Easter presence for the long haul. While John doesn’t have a Pentecost story, he does have what we could call a Pentecost moment. This occurs when he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23). In this reading from John, we go back to the night of Jesus’ final meal. Jesus is in the midst of his last pre-Easter teaching session, providing them the needed guidelines for life after the cross.
Jesus knows that his disciples must be feeling anxious. It’s a normal reaction when uncertainty is in the air. We’ve all felt it from time to time. Jesus has made it clear that his days are numbered, that his time of departure is at hand, and so he makes every effort to prepare them and affirm them, so they’ll be ready. Of course, no one is ever fully prepared for such a moment, and this is true of the disciples as well. Despite their unease, Jesus wants them to understand that he’s not abandoning them. He’s not going to leave them orphaned. Thus, there is the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which in John’s Gospel is known as the Advocate or Comforter (parakaletos). It is this Advocate who will come to their assistance.
This word – parakaletos – is intriguing because it has a number of nuances that help us understand the nature of this divine presence that Jesus promises to send to be with the disciples. In my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening I have explored these nuances, writing:
As helper, the Spirit empowers members of the body of Christ to serve and care for their neighbor. As comforter the Spirit comes alongside us, bringing hope to the hopeless and comfort to the grieving and suffering in our midst. In this idea of the Spirit serving as advocate, we see the Spirit giving witness to Jesus, putting forward his case to humanity. The image of counselor speaks of one who offers guidance and direction. It is just one Greek word, and yet it offers so many possibilities for us to engage one another in Jesus’ healing presence. [Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, p. 28].
Thus, we can take comfort in the promise that we’re not alone. By the Spirit Jesus is present with us as one who helps us help others and as comforter when we struggle and suffer. He is there by the Spirit encouraging us in bearing witness to the good news, and as Addison Hodges Hart reminds us, this doesn’t mean polemics. We’re not proving anything – we’re bearing witness to this news with our lives. The words we share will follow the course of our lives [Strangers and Pilgrims Once More, p. 120-121]. The Spirit offers us counsel – wisdom for the road.
In this conversation Jesus speaks of keeping his commandments. Those who keep the commandments of Jesus demonstrate their love for Jesus and for God. It is obedience to the commandments that show that one abides in Jesus. The question is – what are these commandments that Jesus speaks of?
In our modern context, with this strong desire to be free from constraints, obedience to commandments seems backward and not keeping with the times. Are we not free from the Law in Christ? Isn’t that what Paul told his readers in Galatia and in Rome? Don‘t we live under grace? Of course, Paul did say that while “’all things are lawful,’ not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23). It is good to note here that the phrase “all things are lawful,” appears to be a slogan of the Corinthian church that Paul needed to modify. Not only that – but not everything builds up/edifies. So freedom does have constraints.
So what are these commandments that we’re supposed to obey? Jesus has already given it in the previous chapter. The commandment that he has given requires that they love each other, even as Jesus had loved them (John 13:34-35). By living out this command we demonstrate that we are abiding in the Spirit.
In the reading from 1 Peter 3:15-22, we are to be ready to make a defense of our faith, should that be required of us. This passage is often used as support for engaging in apologetics/polemics. It is seen as the call to give proof or evidence that our belief system is true. But can we do this? Can we really offer a sufficient defense to the “cultured despisers” of the age, or are we merely playing into their hands? Could it be that the key here is the life we live before God? Is this not the proof? Turning again to Addison Hodges Hart, who calls for evangelism rather than polemics, we read:
My contention here, aimed only at confessing Christians, is this: Engagement in polemics with non-Christians, regarding matters we hold to be sacred, is “good” for only two dubious results. It makes of the faith a systematic body of logical assertions and casuistic theories, and it makes of “God” and “Christ” merely the premises, articles, and conclusions of an intellectual dispute. As with dogmatism and Biblicism above, it flattens the faith and complicates the teachings of Christ unnecessarily. Spiritually speaking, it’s sterile. [Strangers and Pilgrims Once More, p. 124].
Jesus tells the Disciples that they will not be going into the world alone. They will have a responsibility to the world – to bear witness to the truth – but it is the nature of their lives, the way in which they (and we) obey the commandment to love one another that will show forth the divine presence to the world.