In the first parish I served as pastor, a member was badly hurt in an accident. For some time, his life hung in the balance, meaning many hours waiting in the hospital for his family and friends. His wife had just given birth to their third child and was breastfeeding him. Because she needed to be at the hospital with her husband, this meant that she often retreated to a janitor's closet there, usually with her sister-in-law, to use a pump to get the milk to be sent back home to her son. While she did this, her sister-in-law read to her from the Bible, Christ in Our Home, and Guideposts magazine. Between readings, they would pray together. The women came to see the janitor's closet as a cherished spot, a place where they were sure they met God. They even gave the small closet a name. They called it The Pump and Pray Room.
Some people may hear that story and dismiss the women’s sense of God’s presence as an instance of two Christians talking themselves into a feeling. The women in their Pump and Pray Room, skeptics are likely to say, simply enjoyed one another’s company and the soothing words of Scripture. But, these skeptics would go on, they didn’t really meet God.
The follower of Jesus Christ would say otherwise.
And our saying so is more than wishful thinking.
Today’s Gospel lesson from John continues the words Jesus spoke to His disciples before His arrest. His ‘Farewell Discourse’ contained last minute instructions Jesus had for His followers as He looked ahead not just to His crucifixion and resurrection, but also to the days and years that would come after He ascended into heaven. Jesus wanted those first disciples—and you and me—to know that He would not leave His followers alone.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” He promises believers like you and me. When we face the uncertainties of life, when we make decisions, when we wonder whether God can love us when we sin, this is an awesome promise to hold onto. God will never leave us as orphans!
But how can it be true?
How is it that the risen and ascended Jesus can actually be with us now?
In our lesson for today, Jesus gives two mega-promises to believers, promises that should tell us that when Christians sense that they’re being helped, guided, or accompanied by God, they’re not suffering from religious delusions. They’re experiencing God’s presence meeting them at the points of their deepest need.
I’ll talk about those two promises in a moment. But before I do, I need to point out something important about this passage. You may have noticed it already. It begins and ends with a condition for the promises Jesus makes. At the beginning, Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” At the end, He says the same thing in reverse order: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.”
Now, folks, I don’t want to go too deeply into the woods of Biblical scholarship. But it’s worth pointing out that whenever you have two similar verses bracketing a section of Scripture like this, it forms what the scholars call an inclusion, or an inclusio. Everything sandwiched between the two verses is related to them or amplifies or explains them. Jesus used this inclusio when He spoke to the disciples in order to make an important point. Jesus wants us to know that He will be with those who keep His commands.
Now, be careful here. Jesus is not rescinding what the Bible calls grace. There isn’t a single one of Jesus’ promises that we either deserve or earn. Every one of Jesus’ promises and blessings are free gifts we cannot earn. So, instead of concluding that Jesus is throwing grace overboard here, we need to pay close attention to the verb Jesus uses in both of those bracket verses. He talks about those who keep His commands as being the ones who truly love Him. The word translated as keep is, in the original Greek, tereo. Among the meanings of that word are: watch over, pay attention to, hold dear.
None of us can perfectly fulfill the commands Jesus or the Scriptures give. But every time...
- you and I confess our sins together or in private, or
- strive to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, or
- forgive others as God forgives us, or
- serve others as Jesus serves us...
We are living out our love and gratitude to the Savior Who died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead to give us life.
We are, simply, giving first place in our lives to the Savior Who puts us first.
We are doing the hard work of loving Jesus, as Jesus has loved us, each day.
All of this--holding Jesus' commands dear, striving to live our lives like Jesus--is the precondition for the two mega-promises Jesus gives in today’s lesson.
So, what are those promises?
First, Jesus says, to those who love Him and keep His commands, He will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as Advocate is paraclete. It means call alongside. The Holy Spirit comes alongside believers in Jesus and makes the presence and love and power of God unmistakably clear to them. Believers in Jesus can experience the presence of the Holy Spirit with alongside of them every single day.
Pastor Craig Barnes became ill soon after being called to serve as senior pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.. “I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” he told a magazine interviewer. “The elders and I were tempted to keep it a secret. But we told everybody, and soon many people were holding me before God in prayer. It was great to be spiritually ‘held’ by a congregation — it cast out fear. My illness has been a tremendous life-changing experience: I try to live in the gift of the day, and not count on tomorrow.”
You see what happened? Barnes owned his need and soon, a whole church was calling the Holy Spirit to come alongside him and his family. The Spirit, in turn, came alongside Craig Barnes and called out God's love and power into his life. The Spirit transformed his response to his illness...and his life!
The Holy Spirit can do similar work in our lives each day, assuring us of the presence and compassion of God whatever the conditions of our lives.
There’s a second promise in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I will come to you.” He goes on to say, “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me…”
At one level, Jesus was telling His first followers that because they had believed in Him, because they had sought to love Him and keep His commands, they would see Him when He rose from the dead. Those who had rejected Him wouldn’t see Him.
But at another level, He was saying that in succeeding history, the people who dared to believe in Him, people like you and me, would also see Him. Not physically. But in their lives, they would recognize His presence. As Jesus told Thomas one week after Jesus had risen from the dead: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
For decades now, many western European and North American Biblical scholars, skeptical about the Bible, have engaged in what has been called “the quest for the historical Jesus.” Some of these scholars claim to be able to decide what portions of the Bible are true and which ones are not.
A few years ago, several of these scholars lamented the fact that, “African-American scholars really have taken no interest in the ongoing discussion of the historical Jesus. A black pastor [at the meeting where this lamentation was issued] got up and said, ‘I have been listening to you worrying about why our people aren’t really talking much about the historical Jesus. You know, it is not a big issue in the black church. Because, you see, we ALWAYS knew who Jesus was!’”
“We always knew,” he was saying, “that the risen Jesus is real and that He will not leave His people orphaned!”
No matter how many well-to-do white scholars with too much time on their hands and too much hubris in their souls to accept God’s ability to bring about resurrections and to give new life, Jesus’ promise stands for all who love Him and hold His commands dear. He will come to us. He will be with us!
Those who follow Jesus see Him working in their lives today because they know Who He is: God and Savior and the lover of their souls. They’ve been comforted by the presence of His Holy Spirit. When they call out to Him, they’ve experienced Jesus coming to them.
Jesus’ message for us today is, I think, simple: Put Jesus first in your life. He will send His Spirit to you and He will come to you. Even on the days when nothing makes sense, He will stand by you, filling you with life and peace. With Jesus, you will never be alone. Amen