Wednesday, May 28, 2014

We Are Not Alone!

When I looked at the gospel passage from John 14:15-21, verse 18 was like a neon sign and I knew that was the message for the folks at Bethel Lutheran Church  in Portville, NY. This is my sermon based on the gospel passage:


What comes to mind when you hear the word orphan? Maybe you think of the TV ads for various organizations that ask you to support an orphan who lives overseas. You may be supporting one of those children. The story of Jane Eyre may come to mind or Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Or maybe you know someone who as a child lost his or her parents thereby becoming an orphan.

We typically think of children when we hear the word orphans, but any of us can be orphaned at any age. In Jesus’ time, orphan was a common metaphor to describe disciples left without their masters. The phrase “leave you orphaned,” could also be understood as an idiom meaning, “leave you helpless.” One who was orphaned was without the aid and comfort of those who serve as associates or friends—like children deprived of their parents. Being orphaned is being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die. 

We can be orphaned in spirit. What is Jesus’ message for those who feel desperately alone and afraid? 

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (v. 18). 

This promise is right in the very middle of today’s gospel reading. Jesus is about to be crucified and will no longer be walking with his disciples in the way he has for the past three years. He will rise from the dead and return to his Father. He will be alive, but his relationship with the disciples will be altered.
Change can be scary. 

However, the disciples are part of a new community of faith -- a family of brothers and sisters, born of water and the Spirit, with God as their Father. Jesus’ departure does not change this new reality that has come into being. This is a concrete truth in the world of the Christian community that finds its life in Christ. “Relationship with Jesus does not depend on [Jesus’] physical presence, but on the presence of the love of God in the life of the community” (Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX). Not only will the disciples not be abandoned, but with Jesus’ return after the resurrection, they will enter into the new kind of life he has been revealing throughout his ministry (v. 19).

In the second half of that verse, Jesus said, “I am coming to you” (v. 18b). His promise to return, immediately counters any possible perception of Jesus’ death as his abandonment of his own. We see Jesus coming to his disciples and others in his Easter appearances in the gospels (O’Day) that we have been reading throughout these weeks of Easter.

How would Jesus be with his disciples after his ascension, when he returns to his Father? Jesus promised his disciples the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus remains in communion with his disciples through the presence of the Paraclete. There are many meanings for the Greek word translated in our gospel text as “Advocate,” such as “the one who exhorts,” “the one who comforts,” the one who helps” and the one who makes appeals on one’s behalf.” 

The English word Paraclete best expresses these various shades of meaning. Paraclete is not just another name for the Holy Spirit, but is a particular way of describing the functions of the Holy Spirit, which are functions of Jesus as well. Paraclete is used to describe both Jesus and the Spirit. God through the Holy Spirit dwells in believers—then and now. He is in them and is known by them (v. 17). 

In John’s gospel, to know is to be in relationship. This knowledge is not a mere intellectual understanding of a truth. It comes from participation in the divine reality itself. Not only will Jesus’ disciples not be abandoned, but they will enter into the new kind of life Jesus has been revealing throughout his ministry. 

The Spirit abides in God’s people as well. in John’s gospel, abiding is also one and the same as relationship.

As the divine presence among believers, the Paraclete enables them to be God’s presence in the world. He is in and with disciples, glorifying Jesus by revealing the truth about him (vv. 16-17) to believers. The Paraclete mediates the presence of Jesus to the community of faith. By the presence of the Paraclete, God’s people bear witness to Jesus, continuing Jesus’ own mission. Thus the disciples are led into all truth and the world is convicted for their rejection of Jesus. This is how the early church grew exponentially. It is how God grows his church today through us.

What does it mean to have a relationship with Jesus in his absence? One answer is that while Jesus may be physically absent, God is not. 

God’s message to us today is the same as it was for the first followers of Jesus. We are not left alone. We can have intimate fellowship with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. The love John’s gospel speaks of is a reciprocal love—those who keep on loving Jesus will be loved by the Father and Jesus. When Jesus loves us, he reveals himself to us.

            How should we respond to these overtures of God’s love? Jesus said we are to keep his commandments. The epitome of the commandments is to love one another as Jesus loved us. This is not some warm fuzzy kind of love towards someone. Rather the emphasis is on showing or demonstrating one’s love—sometimes without the inner feeling. Jesus says that we are to love one another to the point that we are willing to lay down our lives for each other.   

Last Thursday, I had a meeting with Lenore, the director of Genesis House. I had an opportunity to discuss the current goings on at Genesis House and heard many stories of desperate people in need, who felt like no one cared about them; and who felt like they were all alone—like orphans. Through the various support services provided by this ministry, many lives have been changed. 

Did you know they have only 2 ½ paid staff positions? All the other work is done by volunteers of all religions and denominations. If you have a chance, please stop by sometime and see what God is doing through this ministry. 

We live in a world of hurting, broken people. God’s word to us is to trust in the abiding presence and love of God, and to remember that we are never alone, no matter what.

Our response to God’s love and presence in our life is to get involved in our community; and to take care of those who are less fortunate. There are plenty of organizations in Cattaraugus, Allegheny, McKean and Potter counties that are in need of volunteers to aid in their missions.  Over the years, we here at Bethel have supported the ministries of Genesis House and the Portville Food Pantry. But we can do more.   The opportunities are endless. There are children of single parents who need mentoring. There are elderly who would enjoy a visit or a phone call, or who might need a ride to the store or the doctor. There are veterans who are in need of the same. 

As we celebrate Memorial Day tomorrow, let us not forget why we are having a holiday. It is not to kick off the summer tourist season; and it is not simply to kick off the summer barbecue and grilling season. But we are to take the time to thank those living veterans who put their lives on the line so that we could remain free. Most importantly, Let us never forget those veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice, with their lives. Please take the time tomorrow, or during the week to visit a cemetery where a veteran is buried, and say a prayer of thanks for that individual.

No wonder then, in the midst of this life, orphans all, we can and must proclaim with the joy of our faith: God is with us. We are not alone.
Amen!


Resources used:

Fred B. Craddock, M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary.
Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX.

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