Sixth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18). Jesus’ declaration of love and commitment was hardly reassuring to the disciples on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion. He was throwing them a lifeline before they knew they were drowning. In less than twenty-four hours they were faced with carrying on without him. They were in hiding. Some set out for home. They wouldn’t remember his promise that although he was gone, yet somehow, he would also always remain with them.
You can hear the frustration and bewilderment in Thomas’ voice just moments before when he blurts out with the words “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?!” (John 14:5) Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts once said, “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask, ‘Is life a multiple choice test, or is it a true or false test?’…Then a voice comes to me out of the dark and says, ‘We hate to tell you this but life is a thousand word essay.'”
The disciples were feeling abandoned, confused, afraid, and it wasn’t funny. Feelings of abandonment are especially intense. Memories spring to my mind quickly even after many years. I remember feeling abandoned as a preschooler waking up alone in the back seat of the family car. I remember feeling lost and panicked searching for my dad and sisters in a Kmart store. I can still instantly remember when I lost Sam for about 30 minutes at the Taste of Chicago when he was five. In the face of such intense feelings Jesus’ promise of real presence became just words shouted into the wind of their terror and fear. They did not yet realize he had thrown them a lifeline.
I will not abandon you, Jesus said. I will not leave whether in sickness or in health whatever may come. If that sounds familiar, maybe, it’s because this is the vow we make in marriage. Once, we were not related, but now we are family. God declares in baptism we are all children of God. Everyone, each person on the face of the earth is family. Love for family is worth sacrificing for. Defending the wellbeing of family is even worth dying for. God’s gift of love pulls us into loving. Receiving the lifeline of grace makes us more human.
Into our troubled hearts and heart-wrenching questions; into abandonment and loss; into despair and grief; comes the advocate, the Holy Spirit, the comforter to walk alongside us. One contemporary translator of the bible put it this way, Jesus said, “In just a little while the world will no longer see me, but you’re going to see me because I am alive and you’re about to come alive” (John 14:19, Eugene Peterson, The Message, NavPress Publishing Group, 2002).
If ever there was a time when we needed to hear Jesus’ promise to be present, it would be now. Some of you feel listless. Some of you feel harried. Some of you feel cut off and alone. Some I’ve spoken to in nursing homes can’t listen in on worship today. They feel abandoned by the world as the virus closes in. Many are worried about their jobs. Take heart and take hold. Jesus has thrown us a lifeline.
Modern readers of John’s gospel are troubled by that word, “if.” Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:15-16). This does not mean Jesus withholds the rope while we drown until we confess our love- –rather John means to say the lifeline is there, right beside you. Take hold. Like the first disciples, we just need faith to take a breath, open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, like Jake Bland.
Jake is an essential worker. He’s a garbage man in Louisville, Kentucky. On his route, recently, he noticed that, one of his customers, an elderly single woman, hadn’t put out any trash for two weeks. Something wasn’t right. His dispatcher, Bernice Arthur, called the 91-year-old customer and was relieved that she answered the phone but heartbroken when she found out why she hadn’t taken out her trash. She didn’t have any. For more than two weeks, because her caregiver quit over pandemic fears, she had no way to get food or even leave the house. “She has no family, nobody,” she said, to which Jake replied, well, ‘You do have a family now.’ With the woman’s help he made out grocery list, filled her cupboards, and continues to check in. (Kentucky Garbage Man, Tevye, Dailykos, 5/16/20)
When you go to count your blessings and the cupboard is bare. When life is reduced to dust on an empty shelf, or hunger of an empty stomach, or pain of a broken heart, take hold. We find the way out of the prison of our despair by following the cord of God’s grace that binds us to each other.
If anyone learned to find abundance in adversity in the name of Christ, it would be Paul. Four hundred years after Socrates was summoned before the authorities to defend himself against the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens, the apostle Paul was called to stand on the same spot to explain the Christian gospel. Just like Socrates, his words could bring the penalty of death.
The stakes were very high. Before arriving in Athens, Paul had already logged a few thousand miles journeying to cities around the Mediterranean. He spoke in the marketplaces and in the synagogues (Acts 17:7) with anyone and everyone. He was an experienced public preacher, yet, some of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who first heard him, ridiculed Paul as a “babbler” who advocated “foreign gods.”
Life may be a thousand-word essay, but Paul’s defense of Christianity needed only 280 words. According to scripture, most who heard Paul’s message scoffed at it. But others, including Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, along with some others, joined Paul and became believers (Acts 17:34). God is not far from each of us, Paul said, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Take hold.
Once we were not related, but now we are family. Once we were orphaned and alone but, now, we have Christ to walk alongside. The Advocate is God’s own Spirit, God’s own heart, living within us. ‘You in me, and I in you,’ Jesus said. Take hold of grace as one who is drowning clutches a lifeline. More than salvation, here we find strength and courage to face adversity. “This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance. Over and over again. This is where we begin and end and begin again…The love we are commanded to share is the love we are endlessly given.” (Debie Thomas, Love and Obedience, Journey with Jesus, 05/10/20)