I received the church newsletter this week from my home church in Rochester, NY where I’m still an associate member. In this newsletter I learned of the death of my friend Ellen’s husband Harry.
As Ellen and I talked together on the phone, she told me she’d lost her best friend. She feels like there’s a big hole in her heart that will never go away. Ellen thinks she’ll learn to navigate around that hole, that she will rebuild her life and go on, but that the hole will remain. We cried together.
Ellen is a woman of faith who loves the Lord Jesus with all her heart. Because Jesus lives, she can continue to get up every morning and try to create a new life for herself without the human love of her life, Harry. Harry left her through death, but Jesus, will never leave her. Because Jesus lives, Ellen can face tomorrow and all its uncertainty.
In today’s gospel, as in last week’s, Jesus continues to comfort and encourage his followers. Remember, they have been told that he is going away. Jesus is going to die. He will no longer be with them, at least not in the same way he had been for the three years they journeyed together.
The changes the disciples will experience without Jesus’ physical presence among them would be scary, except for one fact. Ringing out from the middle of the gospel text are these words of hope, “because I live, you also will live.” Every other point in this gospel story revolves around and emanates from this truth that Jesus lives. He is risen. The affect of those words “because I live...” is “you also will live.” Because Jesus lives, Ellen will get past her pain and you and I will get past ours.
Just how does Jesus manage this? He did die and he rose from the dead. It is true that Jesus ascended into heaven and He isn’t living on this earth in the same way he did 2,000 years ago. So, how does he live among us today? Jesus promised the disciples that he would send a teacher. This teacher is also known as the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete, and in modern translation, the Holy Spirit. The Paraclete is a comforter who is called alongside to help. The term has a legal sense to it as well. In a court room, the Paraclete would be the defender of the accused, their intercessor and counselor who gives protection, help, and security (Friberg Lexicon, Bible Works).
The Paraclete not only helps us, but helps Jesus as well. The Paraclete comes to speak to us for Jesus. Later in this chapter of John, we’re told that the Holy Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of all Jesus said. In John 15, the Holy Spirit will testify on Jesus’ behalf. It is through the Holy Spirit that we experience the presence of Jesus, the Living Word in us. Because Jesus died and lives, the promised Holy Spirit is with us forever.
I like that word “forever.” Some of us may be a bit insecure when it comes to relationships, when it comes to connecting with people and enjoying being together. We know this wonderful exchange and interconnectedness won’t last. Friends and family move, people die, we have disagreements. Perhaps you have a perception that “the other shoe is going to drop.” Things are going really well now, but you never know when “the other shoe is going to drop.”
God not only gives the Holy Spirit to live WITH us forever but to be IN us as well! How’s that for not being left alone???? That’s something I can appreciate as an extroverted people person. Not being alone???? I like it.
Our society today is one of increasing means of communication at any time of the day or night from anywhere. Even in the seminary library, students are in constant contact with one another. They’re on Facebook. They’re tweeting and emailing. Especially toward the end of a semester, the tables are full of those typing away on their laptops. Everyone seems to be working so hard...until you hear the laughter break out. Someone decided to take a break and instant message a friend across the room at another table. Another puts a plea on Facebook for other students to come and join them in the library. There’s almost a seamless web of communication happening.
Despite the contact made by so many people in so many places, we live in a day of profound isolation and loneliness. We can see this reflected in the suicide rate. According to one expert:
Suicide ranks as the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States. Globally, an estimated 700,000 people will take their own lives annually. In certain [age groups] such as adolescents and young adults, suicide constitutes 1 of the top 3 causes of death. (http://fwd4.me/02Xs)
We isolate ourselves from others as we wrap ourselves in the cocoon of our private cell phone conversations in public. Or as we’re out walking or exercising we have our music along with us via a Walkman or Ipod or some other device. We’re plugged in, but not to those around us.
Our experience as God’s community of faith should be just the opposite however. God, the greatest communicator has spoken to us. He has called our names. He has visited us. He remains with us and in us because of the Holy Spirit.
Are we aware of God’s living presence in our lives? Do we live in such a way that those who are close to us may feel God’s presence through us? Do we pick up the phone to talk with the friend or family member we’ve been thinking about, wondering about, praying for? Do we check on and visit those who cannot leave their homes? Because Jesus lives in and through us, God visits when we visit.
Jesus says, "I will not abandon you as orphans" (John 14:18 NET). It is overwhelming at times to see the devastation in our land from recent tornadoes and flooding. People have lost their homes and belongings and family members and friends. There was a remarkable story of survival that was highlighted on the news the other night. In Joplin, MO, during the tornado a mother and her infant were shopping at the Walmart which was destroyed by the tornado. While the building was being ripped apart, the mother and her baby were separated. Out of nowhere came a stranger who shielded the baby with his own body. Miraculously mother, baby, and the stranger all survived. It was amazing that in the midst of the surrounding destruction, this little baby lived.
The living, risen Jesus does not leave us as orphans. God does not leave us alone. Even if our parents have long since passed away, we’re still not orphans. If all of our siblings are gone, we’re still not alone. If we are a widow or a widower, we are not alone because Jesus the risen one lives and he lives in us, the people of God.
Let me tell one more story about another family. As a young couple, Bill and Gloria Gaither were experiencing a tumultuous time in their lives. Expecting their third child, the timing to bring another child into the world didn’t seem right. Bill was sick with mono. The country was deeply divided over the war in Viet Nam. Drug abuse was on the rise. Sexual mores had shifted. On top of that, a friend had suggested they were using their singing/song writing ministry just as a way to make money.
This plunged Bill into depression. The idea of bringing another child into the world was taking its toll. Perhaps we can identify with the couple’s fears. Just look around at our world today. It is no more of a welcoming, safe place to bring a child into than it was in the early 1970s for the Gaithers. The world was no better when God sent his son into the world.
Things changed for the Gaithers when a friend prayed a simple prayer for Bill and Gloria. The strength of the promised Holy Spirit seemed to come to their aid. They experienced the work of the Comforter. It is out of this time of upheaval and answer to prayer that the song “Because He Lives” was born. Out of God-given hope, they were able to pen these words following the birth of their son, Benjie:
How sweet to hold our newborn baby,
And feel the pride and joy he gives,
But greater still the calm assurance,
This child can face uncertain days because He lives.
As a conclusion to today’s message, we will sing the chorus of “Because He Lives” through together a couple of times. You’ll find the words on the sheet in your bulletin. Marie will play the melody once before we begin to sing.
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives.