An Ultimate Source of Reassurance
May 17, 2020
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 14:15-21
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Jesus’ reassuring words continue today. Last Sunday, we noted that as the disciples faced a time of unexpected events, confusion, and an unknown future, Jesus encourages them with this message: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” Or, do not worry. Trust God. Trust me.
We, too, are facing such a time now, during this Pandemic. But the reality is that we have been through such moments in the past, and we will encounter them again in the future, since our lives are marked by such events to greater or lesser degrees. Because that’s true, today’s reassuring words, spoken by our Lord just before his death, are vital.
Let’s begin by going back to the setting for these words. Jesus has shared a final Passover meal with his followers. Judas has fled to fulfill his role as betrayer, and Peter is tearful over the prediction that denial of Jesus will pass through is lips. Jesus speaks of his departure, but also of a Divine mansion in eternity with room for them all and a day of joyful reunion there.
Yet, the disciples continue to be troubled. And, so, Jesus promises this, from today’s reading: “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. This is the Spirit of truth….”
There are a couple of significant things about those two verses. We will look at the second one first. Did you notice that Jesus refers to “another” Advocate, who will be with them forever? Focus on the word “another,” it implies that Jesus was the first Advocate, which makes sense, although I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of it in quite that way.
Commentator Jaime Clark-Soles notes that for the Spirit to be active among them while Jesus was there would have been redundant. So, what appeared to be nothing but bad news for the disciples - Jesus’ departure from them - turned out to have an element of good news. (Of course, they could not immediately grasp that reality.) While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited to one locale and one person, himself. Upon his departure, his disciples – including us – are given the Spirit and become revealers of God’s love. (1)
Please note that the Greek word translated Advocate, which refers to the Holy Spirit, is also translated as Comforter, Counselor, and Helper. Another definition is “the one who walks alongside,” everywhere and always, a consistent presence, which is needed, particularly during times of vulnerability, fear, and uncertainty. This Advocate speaks the truth and guides in the way of truth.
Let’s pause here to clarify something - when we speak of the Holy Spirit, it is not the “life spirit” within each of us, which some would say leaves us when we die, or the “human spirit” striving to succeed. The Holy Spirit is God dwelling in us. Let me repeat that: the Holy Spirit is God dwelling in us.
The other significant detail about the first two verses of today’s Gospel is this: Jesus declares that if his disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. It’s interesting to note that the only commandment made by Jesus in the Gospel of John is this: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) To be a follower of Jesus, to love him equals desiring to love sacrificially. And, that is possible only because the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is with us and in us.
So, the guiding question for our lives is this: “In what ways did I, or did I not, love today?” When we fall short, the Holy Spirit reminds us and guides us to love better. The long and the short of it is that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is the one who walks alongside us, but also is within us, and makes a difference for us.
In order to make that point – to show the significance of Jesus saying, “I will not leave you orphaned,” the Rev. Billy Strayhorn tells a story, which I am about to re-tell in an edited version. It is supposedly a true story, but I doubt that; nevertheless, there is a message in it.
He writes about a black bear that gave birth to two cubs. One cub died right away. When the mother bear and her cub left the den after a long winter, inexplicably, the mother died, and the remaining cub was left to fend for itself. An orphaned cub is like a walking buffet for predators, so its chances for survival alone were slim.
However, the orphan cub immediately encountered a giant black bear, which seemed to realize that the mother bear was nowhere to be found. The Big Bear gave the cub a nudge and allowed him to trail along after it. So, writes Pastor Strayhorn, the adoption papers were signed, sealed, and registered.
Big Bear proceeded to show the cub how to grub for insects and how to catch fish and how to scratch his back on a tree and what to do when threatened. One day, the two bears became separated; the cub was becoming more and more determined to wander off on his own. But, soon, realizing his vulnerability, he began to look frantically for his new Protector. As he approached a stream where he learned to fish, the cub looked up to see a mountain lion, ready to pounce. The cub automatically mimicked the posture of the Big Bear when threatened. He stood on his hind legs and bared his teeth. Then, in the same way, the Big Bear would have done, the cub let loose a mighty growl that should have reverberated through the forest. But, only a tiny bear cub squeak came out.
Amazingly, the mountain lion lowered his head and ran off in the opposite direction. The cub was astounded and proud. He was more than willing to take credit for solving his dilemma. What he did not realize was that a few yards behind him, not having made a sound, stood Big Bear at full, ferocious height, sharp teeth bared in a snarl.
Even though the cub could not see the Big Bear, he had power available to him that was greater than anything he could produce on his own. In a similar way, writes Pastor Strayhorn, we may not see or hear the presence of God all the time, but the guiding, strengthening power and presence of the Holy Spirit is always available for us. (2)
I’ll admit it, that story is on the “hoaky” side, but it reminds us that was are not alone, ever. The Holy Spirit is our constant companion. Even more important than that, though, is the reality that the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith, which leads to trust, which makes it possible to follow Jesus and to love sacrificially and to face times of confusion and the unknown with confidence.
So, Jesus says, “Do not worry. Trust God. Trust me,” and “…the Spirit abides with you, and will be in you.” What other reassurance do we need than that? AMEN
(1) “Commentary of John 14:15-21” by Jaime Clark-Soles, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) “What Difference Does It Make” by the Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn, 2005, sermonwriter.com