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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although we are still in the Easter season, our gospel readings for both last Sunday and this Sunday take place before the resurrection. We might think of them as flashback scenes. Jesus is preparing his disciples for all that is to come. He is telling them what will happen and what to expect in the days ahead. He is laying the groundwork for what his church will look like after his death and resurrection.
Jesus is also seeking to calm the hearts of the disciples, which, as we heard last week, had become troubled. Jesus had told them that he would be leaving them soon, and this news caused quite a stir. The disciples became nervous. They became anxious and afraid. And so, as we heard last week, Jesus said to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.”
Today we pick up right where we left off last week. Jesus is continuing to speak to the disciples, preparing them for what was to come. He had a lot more to say to them. In fact, Jesus will go on for four entire chapters with his farewell address to the disciples!
In the snippet we hear from this much longer farewell address, Jesus again speaks to the disciples’ troubled hearts. He addresses this visceral, primal fear they have of being left alone. And in doing so Jesus uses a word that is the same in both English and Greek. He uses the word orphanos, orphan – one whose parents have died. An orphan in the ancient world was especially vulnerable, but we know the sting of that word even today.
I felt a bit of that sting last week as, for the second time in my life, I stood before the Mother’s Day cards at Rite Aid and had that stinging reminder that I wouldn’t be needing one for my mom, who died a year and a half ago. I delight in the opportunity Mother’s Day brings for lavishing my wife with gratitude for what a wonderful mother she is to our three sons. I am also grateful to have a wonderful stepmother who I love very much and has been a tremendous blessing in my life. (She got one of the OHLC-made cards.) I also acknowledge that I’m only a half-orphan, and that I lost my mom later in life than some people do. I’m not trying to stir up a pity party.
But, as many of you know, there is something primal about losing your mother, and it reared up in me again as I looked at those cards. There is something existentially painful about losing the one who carried you in her body and delivered you into the world and nursed you at her breast and took care of you when you were sick and always called you on your birthday and was a constant source of unconditional love in your life. Losing that person leaves you feeling a little lost. The world just feels different without that person in it. It feels a little colder.
The word “orphan” captures this experience, and this is the word Jesus uses to name the fear the disciples were experiencing. They were afraid they were about to be orphaned. They were afraid they were about to lose Jesus, the one who gave them new life. They were afraid that that they were about to lose the one who loved them more than anyone else they had ever known.
Speaking to this primal fear, Jesus gave them a promise. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. Jesus promised that he would not leave them alone.
Jesus promised he would send “another Advocate” to be with them forever. This is a vaguely legal term for someone who would defend you and protect you. The opposite of this is the Accuser, the devil, who goes on the attack, trying to drag you into despair. Jesus promised to send the Advocate, someone who will forever be in their corner, defending them from these attacks, protecting them from the evil one.
This Advocate, however, also has a soft side, a tender, nurturing side. In fact, some Bibles choose to translate the word “Advocate” as either comforter or helper. This Advocate both defends and comforts. You might think of it as a Mama Bear, who will both hold you close in the warmth of her love and tenderness and will also rip the face off of anyone who dares to mess with her cubs.
This Advocate Jesus is talking about is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit holds us close in God’s love while fiercely defending us from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. “This is the Spirit of truth,” Jesus says, “whom the world does not know, but you know, because he abides with you and will be in you.” And so they will never be alone. They will always have the Holy Spirit.
Jesus also promised the disciples that he himself will come to them. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, “I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
This refers specifically to the fact that the risen Jesus will literally come to them, and they will literally see him. But it also alludes to how Jesus will come to his church after his ascension. That Spirit of truth will make the risen Jesus known to us. That Spirit of truth is his Spirit, which will be with us forever, giving us life with him. Jesus promises that by this Spirit his disciples will know that he is in the Father and that they are in him and that he is in them. That’s a lot to get your head around, I know, but the essence of this is simply that Jesus will not leave his disciples, then or now, alone. He will come to them. He will be with them. He will not leave them orphaned.
Jesus also says that “those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
It is easy to hear this, along with what Jesus says earlier about how those who love him will keep his commandments, as a litmus test of sorts, as if there is something we must do to prove we really love Jesus before he will reveal himself to us. But that isn’t quite right. Jesus isn’t giving a litmus test so much as he is giving a description of how his disciples will experience his presence once he has left. Those who love him – and it won’t be everybody – will have and keep his commandments. To keep Christ’s commandments does mean to obey them. You can’t say “I love Jesus, but I don’t want him telling me how to live my life.” But to keep Christ’s commandments is so much more than mere obedience. To “keep” is also to preserve. It is to hold close. It is to treasure. This is not a burden or a begrudging obligation. Instead, for those who love Jesus, it is an honor and a joy to hold his teachings close.
On December 31st of this last year I got the shocking news that my beloved professor, Jim Nestingen, had died. Not everybody loved Jim. While he was a world-renowned academic, many of his fellow scholars found him a little too backwater with his thick North Dakota accent and his stories from the prairie. He was always more at home in church fellowship halls than in academia. He could get salty in his language and a little too earthy in his illustrations. He could also be very outspoken in his criticism of certain bishops and the direction of the church. So, not everybody loved him.
But many did. Jim has a cadre of students who loved him, myself included, and in the months following his death we have gathered in various ways to share his stories, to remember things he said, to encourage one another to continue in what he taught us. We’ve all pulled out our favorite books and essays and articles of his. There is an effort to collect and keep and preserve his writings and any videos of his lectures. None of this is done begrudgingly. None of this is a litmus test to prove our love for him. This is all the organic response of students who love their teacher.
How much more, then, do the disciples of Jesus have and keep and preserve and treasure his teachings, his commandments, his words? We will never obey them perfectly in this life, but we have and keep and preserve and treasure all that Jesus has said, all that he has taught, all that he has commanded, as the organic response of disciples who love our Lord. It is what we do in response to the One who first loved us and gave himself for us. It is what the church is and does. And Jesus promises us that as we continue to have and keep his commandments, we will know the love of the Father. He promises that he himself will reveal himself to us. We will not be alone. We will not be orphaned. He will continue to make himself known to us.
The fear the disciples had still shows up among Christ’s disciples today. We are desperately afraid of losing the people we love, the people who love us. When we do lose them, there is a vulnerability, an ache, a sting. We feel a little lost. The world feels different, a little colder.
Jesus speaks to this primal fear we have, this universal ache. In a world where people lose mothers and mentors and all kinds of other people who are dear to us, Jesus promises that we will never lose him. In a world full of loneliness, he promises us that we will never be alone. Jesus sends us the Spirit to be our Advocate and our comforter and our helper. He comes to us himself by that same Spirit, dwelling in and among us as our risen Lord. As we keep and preserve and treasure his Word, he reveals himself to us, filling us with the love of the Father.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promised the disciples.
This is his promise to you too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church