Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
You know that last week Don and I traveled to Texas to visit family. In a tour around central Texas, we stayed with my parents and my two brothers and their wives. We ate ourselves from one place to another—all of those foods we love from our childhood. We talked a lot and laughed a lot, catching up with each other and reminiscing. And one subject that came up more than once was music – singing, in particular.
I come from a singing family. You’ve probably heard me mention that before—my love of music comes from singing with my Dad. We would sing on car trips, (growing up in Texas, we spent a lot of time on the road!), in church, and at family gatherings. In those moments singing together there was something magical and deeply, deeply spiritual. There was an indefinable love and joy that shone through the very act of singing together—it was so much more than just making music. The music was, in many ways, a manifestation of our love for one another. I cannot adequately explain the deep mark that singing made on my soul.
Most of the music we sang came from the early part of the 20th century—they were the songs my Dad sang with his parents. They were mostly country songs or folk songs, ones that you could really croon. There’s one I remember especially well; a song called “The Orphan Child.” Rev. Andrew Jenkins, a Georgia-based Methodist preacher who was known for his singing family in the 20s and 30s, wrote the song in November of 1929 for Jimmie Rodgers, “The Father of Country Music,” The original song included a yodeling lick or two, since Rodgers was celebrated as a yodeler.
The song is from the point of view of the orphan child, who talks about how she and her parents once had a happy home, broken up when her dad started drinking and gambling. Her mother has died of a broken heart, and the poor abandoned child pleads for someone to help her father. At the end of the song the child says, “I’m awfully cold and hungry,” and then, somewhat suddenly, and certainly devastatingly, she dies.
I remember that song particularly well because my grandmother would cry every time we sang it. It seemed to really touch something in her. I don’t know if it was a memory of an orphan she knew from long ago, or even the story of her own mother Myrtle, whose father died when Myrtle was very young. Whatever it was, she always cried—often laughing at the same time, feeling silly about her reaction.
It is a sad thought – being left behind by a parent who dies, the aching feeling of abandonment when a person who loved you deeply and unconditionally is gone. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is continuing “The Farewell Discourse” – his last address to the disciples on the night before his crucifixion. He has told the disciples that what is about to happen, and in this reading he is consoling the chaos and confusion that has filled the room. He knows that they are scared to lose him, and that they are unsure what they will do without him.
It’s easy to relate to the disciples’ fears—many of us know what it is to lose someone we love, someone who has been at the very center of our lives. And there are other losses that can be equally devastating: As you may have heard, Don and I lost our little Scottie dog Sean a week ago today, when he died suddenly. We are still feeling the sadness of that loss.
There are many other losses too: the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship to divorce or break-up, the loss of someone to the ravages of dementia, the loss of our own health. To be human is to experience loss—and many of us can’t cope with it. Often we simply don’t know how to fill the void that is created when someone, or something important, is lost.
As a culture, we are not terribly good about talking about loss. Perhaps that is because loss challenges the eternally optimistic stance we are encouraged to take, or because it counters our celebration of youth and opportunity, or because it reminds us of our own mortality. Often, when confronted by a friend who has recently suffered the loss of a loved one or gone through a divorce, we don’t know what to say. So we simply turn away, leaving the friend feeling all the more isolated.[i]
How can we learn to cope better with loss? How can we help each other? How might we acknowledge that loss is a part of living, and learn to reach out to one another so that no one has to go through such loss on his or her own? Perhaps this gospel reading provides clues to learning to live with loss.
Certainly the disciples are already grieving their loss. Before this passage, in what we read last Sunday, Jesus says they should not worry, and that he is preparing a place for them. And in today’s gospel he addresses their biggest concern: How they will manage without them. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.”
Jesus explains that he will come again to them through the Spirit. This passage is, at its root, an assurance of the Trinitarian nature of God. Jesus the Son explains that there will be another Advocate like him—another way the disciples will be in relation with both Christ and with God the Father. In many different ways in these seven verses, Jesus explains how he, the Father, and the Spirit are one, and how they are all able to exist as one, and not only that, but also to be in us even as we are in them.
Undoubtedly these words confused their first hearers, as they do us. Trying to explain God in finite human language is never quite possible. And yet, I find great comfort in these words. Christ promises that, even as his earthly life ended 2,000 years ago, he remains present to us through the Spirit. We are assured of God’s presence in our lives even today.
OK—fine. But how can we identify the Spirit? How can we know the presence of something that, by definition, has no bodily form of its own? Sometimes we equate the Spirit only with a specific kind of religious experience, usually characterized as “evangelical”—being slain by the Spirit, or speaking in tongues. Or we think of the Spirit in strictly mystical terms, as some vague thing out there we cannot really identify, but which we know when we experience it.[ii] I have to say that I find neither of these definitions of the Spirit completely satisfying.
But in this passage John gives us two clues as to what the Spirit is like. First, there is the description of the Spirit as an Advocate. The Greek word that we translate as “advocate” is parakaletos, or paraclete. One scholar explains the nuances of the Greek term in this way:
“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.”[iii]
And the second clue is that promise of another Advocate. By saying “another” Jesus identifies himself as the first Advocate; therefore we can assume that the Spirit is much like Jesus. And only a few verses after this passage Jesus says that the Spirit will take up one of the primary tasks that Jesus leaves behind: He says, “The Holy Spirit…will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14:25-26]
So the Holy Spirit is an advocate who will be like Jesus, teaching us how to have abundant life. And the key to that abundant life is also provided in this passage. The first verse says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The commandment that we are to keep is articulated only a few verses before, when Jesus says, “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]
Theologian David Lose summarizes the Good News revealed in this passage in this way: “We’ve actually seen the Spirit lots of times. Anytime, in fact, someone stands up for another… Anytime someone acts like Jesus… Anytime someone bears the love of Christ to another… we’ve seen the Holy Spirit.
“No wonder, then, that Jesus says [of the Holy Spirit], “you know him.” Because, as it turns out, the Holy Spirit at one time or another has probably looked a lot like you, even a lot like me, and definitely a lot like each and all of us when we do these things.”
Life brings difficulties. Undoubtedly we will have times in our lives when we feel abandoned by others, and we will have people in our lives who feel bereft and without support. But Jesus reminds us that the Holy Spirit lives in us, and that we are called to be manifestations of the Spirit for one another. Jesus calls us to honor the love of God we receive by loving each other—that is the work of the Spirit in us—in fact, that is what the Spirit looks like.
Jesus assures us that we do not go about in this world alone. We have an advocate in the form of the Holy Spirit always with us. And we must obey the simple commandment to love one another—in doing so, we reveal that Spirit at work in us. Jesus calls us to order our lives after the example of his love, that God the Spirit might shine forth through us into the world.
Just as the singing I cherish from my childhood is impressed on my soul, the Spirit longs to make a deep penetrating mark on each of us. May our hearts be filled with that sweet, sweet Spirit, and may we each find our way to love one another in the profound and life-giving way that God first loved us. Amen.
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3226, accessed May 22, 2014.
[ii] Koester, Craig R. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=934, accessed 5/22/2014.
[iii] Cornwall, Bob. http://www.bobcornwall.com/2014/05/were-not-orphaned-lectionary-reflection.html, accessed 5/22/2014 [This quote comes from his book, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, p. 28]