I have been thinking this week about Jesus’ promise: ‘I will not leave you orphaned: I am coming to you.’ (John 14:18) I want to explore this promise with you.
Jesus makes this promise as he sits around the supper table with his disciples, his friends and followers, just as we are doing today at our Eucharistic meal. Judas had already left this last meal with everyone together, to betray Jesus. The time of reckoning with the powers and principalities of Jerusalem and Rome was only a few hours away. The people in the room were trying not to imagine the unimaginable. The gathering over food, the conversation replete with reassurances, instructions and love, their stillness as they listen, is intimate and personal. Jesus is trying hard to comfort them in the time he has left, knowing hell is coming towards them like a freight train.
The word ‘orphan’ evokes the child in all of us, whatever our age, echoing the cry of Jesus from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46) The fear of abandonment and the sense of it is strong for us all.
In my preparations for this sermon, I came across a story about a woman who was trying to cross the checkpoint from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, as a visitor; wanting to catch a bus to a meet a cousin on the other side. As an outsider, she found herself caught up in the experience of abandonment for those on the ‘wrong’ side of the wall. She described it like this:
Normally, the solders on checkpoint duty let visitors through, on an erratic but discernible process of prioritising and security assessments. They let those who worked for NGOs through with the right ID, they let cars through if they had foreigners inside, they let ill women through who were getting regular treatment or who were pregnant: but on this occasion the gate was closed. No-one knew why it was closed. No-one knew when it might be opened. Those with work on the other side were anxious about being late and losing jobs and income; those who were ill were frightened about dying; the men felt threatened, shouted at with rifles raised and pointed at them; the women felt afraid, scared about their safety. The sense of abandonment increased as the crowd of people waiting to cross grew. People yelled, they stopped being polite, people felt humiliated, felt shame at their powerlessness, their vulnerability. The aggression of the crowd continued to increase perhaps because of this shame and powerlessness, anger at the lack of response to their anxiety. No explanation. No compassion. (Alexander 2011:67-71)
Jesus said: ‘I will not leave you orphaned: I am coming to you.’
I wonder about that experience of orphaning which is so strong in us, and when and where it happens, as with the people locked out at the gate. I suspect everyone here has felt orphaned on occasion. I did when I was sent to boarding school at a young age. I know we have people here who were orphaned or fostered, or perhaps your experience is one of enforced isolation, unexpected, unplanned aloneness at times in your life. To become an orphan, to be orphaned is such an emotionally significant and life-changing experience. Age has nothing to do with our response.
Being ‘orphaned’ brings with it a story of ‘before’ and ‘afterwards’ which we can’t avoid. Life changes and will never be the same again. It is a watershed between the ‘befores’ and the ‘afters’. It sets a marker for the future.
As I think about the story I’ve just told you, and the experience of abandonment, arbitrariness and powerlessness, I know some of you will have been on the ‘wrong side’ of a gate or a wall somewhere in the world; including here in Australia, for arbitrary, cruel and judgemental reasons. The walls and gates are everywhere. It just depends where they catch up with you and how we respond. Orphaning comes in many guises. Consequently, we lose our trust and faith in the world to be just and predictable.
As think about our Gospel text, we know Jesus is going to be leaving us and the disciples seated around the table. We are about to be orphaned. What will happen to us? What side of the wall are we going to be on? Jesus tells us our experience of orphaning doesn’t have to be the end of our story. Jesus looks at each of us, at them, directly, eye to eye and he says:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You will know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you. (John 14:15-17)
God’s promise of abiding with us is real. Whatever else happens, whatever the world throws at us, wherever we are, whatever side of the gate or wall we happen to find ourselves, God is real. God is with us. God abides. However high the wall and solid the gate, God abides with us where we are, on that side of the wall. Jesus tells us the hard, dusty, unforgiving reality of this world: it will never welcome the Spirit of truth. But just as God abides in us, so does the Spirit of truth, the reality of God’s love, through Jesus, now abide in us. Walls and gates become irrelevant.
Love is what breaks walls and gates down. Love is what reveals Jesus as alive in our world. The Spirit of truth dwells not just within the individual, but as importantly, she dwells within the communities of those who love Jesus, as we do this sacred work together to break down the experience of orphaning for everyone, and to know God’s presence. So, there will be no need for guns or violence, for abandonment or fear, for shame, hatred and powerlessness.
The gifts of the Spirit are Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal.5:22-23) When you see and experience this reality individually and as a community, then we can be certain, there are no walls, no gates, and, as Jesus promised, we are not orphans anymore.
The Lord be with you.
Alexander, I. 2011. Practicing the Presence of Jesus. Contemporary Meditations. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, USA.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels John, Vol. 2 Chapters 10-21. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.