Never Alone

Never Alone May 21, 2017

John 14:15-21ghostbusters

In the summer of 1984, everyone I knew was preoccupied with the blockbuster summer movie: Ghostbusters.

In addition to sporting a very catchy theme song, the movie was the hilarious story of three unemployed paranormal psychology professors starting a business to help people deal with ghosts or spirits causing problems in their lives.  Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray created the perfect comedic vehicle by which they could perform such scenes as confronting a ghost in Sigourney Weaver’s refrigerator, slamming the door in utter fear and commenting matter-of-factly: “Generally you don’t see that kind of behavior in a major appliance.”

The movie was such a hit, for one thing, because it tapped into the parts of human living that we experience as spirit-filled but we can’t, for the life of us, explain logically.  We Christians call this “the Holy Spirit,” but beyond that theological moniker, we can’t really explain it, either.

So it’s not too surprising that we humans resort to explaining the unexplainable with the help of Dan Aykroyd and friends—and more recently a remake of the movie with the amazing Melissa McCarthy and others—running around with strange contraptions strapped to their backs making jokes, or even by using theological language to try to explain the utterly inexplicable.

In a two weeks we will celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church (don’t forget to wear red that day!), when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit.  But today we are still navigating aftermath of Easter, trying to figure out how we live in the light of resurrection, and stumbling around in a new reality like the first disciples did, looking for signs of life.  And one of the signs of life Jesus told his disciples to be on the lookout for was the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Our gospel reading today is the second half of the gospel of John, chapter 14, which you might remember is part of what scholars call Jesus’ farewell address.  In these chapters of John’s gospel, Jesus is taking his last opportunity to both comfort his close friends and disciples…and remind them again of what really matters, what their true work in the world is.  Think about it this way: if you knew you only had a few hours left with the people you loved the most, what would you say?

Well, in the first part of John chapter 14, which we read last week, Jesus did his best to comfort his disciples, to encourage them that even though the world around them was telling them they were crazy to be preaching the gospel, that the way Jesus had been teaching them was indeed the way to life.

This week we’re in the second half of the chapter, when Jesus announces the coming of the Holy Spirit.

My father’s (not so) secret hope for me was that I would . . . become a lawyer.  I remember in the predictable angst of college years, how I went back and forth on whether or not to change my major to Religion.  I finally did, and when I announced my decision my poor Dad asked me to please at least double major in Political Science, or some other field that would help, “just in case you ever decide you want to go to . . . law school!”

Poor Dad.

Well maybe my Dad would be glad to know that in order to make any sense of today’s gospel lesson, we’re going to have to take a detour away from traditional theology and venture into the realm of legal inquiry.  There you go, Dad—it’s the closest I’ll ever get to the bar exam.

This is a curious situation, as most of us who work at scripture translation and interpretation are not trained to think in legal terms.  But John’s passage we just heard about the Holy Spirit calls this mysterious revelation of God the “paraclete”—literally translated as “called to the side of” or, “called alongside.”

Jesus says to his disciples: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate . . .”.  The advocate, the paraclete—this word is a very distinct legal term, a formal legal role that one would find in a court of law.  The word means something like a defense attorney, or maybe an expert witness called by the defense, someone who will come in and steady the rocking boat, beef up the argument, solidify the case, keep things on track.

The Advocate Jesus is speaking about is the Holy Spirit, sent by God to walk alongside you and me as we make our way through this world.  Which is all well and good, but if you look at it either from the standpoint of the disciples, who were listening to Jesus tell them about the Holy Spirit, or even if you look at these words from our perspective 2000 years later, there’s more that Jesus is telling us about God’s ongoing engagement and partnership in the work of the Church, the work of the gospel, in the world.  In other words, we’re not alone.  The Spirit is here, working through us and with us as we try to figure out how to live in the new reality of resurrection.

From a textual study perspective, we’ll want to note that when Jesus talks to his disciples about the coming of the Spirit, the advocate, he uses a very unusual word here: “orphaned.”  “I will not leave you orphaned.”  He doesn’t say “alone” or “all by yourself” or “independent.”  He says, “orphaned,” which is a word with a slightly different nuance.  An orphan, in fact, is usually not physically alone.  The word is commonly associated with parentless children who live in institutions—along with a lot of other people.  The word means less being alone, and more a lack of attachment, no healthy connection to others, not belonging to a family.

Remember that Jesus was the one who had drawn that motley crew of individuals into a family of faith and started them on the journey that has now become for us the Church.  With his promise of the Spirit, Jesus was telling the disciples that the connection they felt with each other would be strengthened and deepened, and that while he himself would be gone, if they lived connected to each other and to God through the Spirit, they would through their living, show the world who God is.  And the same is true for us.  It’s our connection to each other, facilitated by the Spirit of God, that can reflect God’s highest hopes for human community, that can create for the world around us signs of life, signs of resurrection.

As we know too well, sometimes we succeed at this…and sometimes we don’t.  So before we pat ourselves on the back and leave to head off to annual church business meeting today thinking something along the lines of, “Well isn’t it nice that Jesus promised us we’d never be lonely,” we might want to look a little closer at how this passage is framed.  Both at the beginning and at the end of Jesus telling the disciples that the Spirit, the Advocate, would come to be with them, Jesus reminds his disciples to keep his commandments.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says at the start and at the finish of this passage.  Jesus isn’t here promising the Spirit as a teddy bear to keep us company when we feel alone.  Jesus is saying that we won’t be alone in our efforts to live as if we love God.  In all the ways Jesus had walked alongside his disciples, participated in their lives, taught them spiritual lessons, and corrected them when they got off track, the Spirit will be here, he says, to do just the same things.

The Spirit is here to offer us attachment, to connect us to God and to each other, as together we undertake the work of God in the world.  Take this as a comfort, yes.  And take it as a warning, too.  We’d better be very careful about how we claim to represent Christ in our own lives and in our corporate life as the Church in the world, because the Spirit is here to help us and correct us, living among us as we work to keep God’s commandments and live as if we love him.

In my house growing up it was a rule that we had dinner around the table together every night as a family.  Part of the reason for this, in my mother’s estimation, was her hope that all of us would learn excellent table manners.  For that reason, there was always a lot of: “elbows off the table!” and “do not use your fingers—you have a fork for a reason!” and “Don’t you dare leave the table without asking to be excused!”  You know, the usual.  I recall when I was about ten, my mother must have read about a new trick in a parenting magazine or something, because she introduced a new dinner table rule.  Everyone was required to put their napkins on their laps before dinner began, and if you didn’t and were caught by one of the others at dinner, you had to go to your room and count to 25 before coming back to the table to eat.

Well, as you might imagine, all of us kids latched onto this new rule and started practicing it with relish.  It became a favorite game to watch carefully in case anyone forgot to put her napkin on her lap, so that immediately after the blessing we could “catch” each other and call out gleefully, “go to your room and count to 25!,” at which the offender would have to get up from the table, go to his room, count to 25, and then come back to the table.  Sometimes he’d forget to put his napkin in his lap again, get caught again, and have to go count one more time.

I’m fairly sure my mother soon regretted introducing this new family dinner table tradition, but her intentions were good.  She wanted us to learn how to behave at dinner, so that even when we were away from home, we’d have good manners and everyone would be able to say—“All the kids in that family—they ALWAYS put their napkins on their laps!”

You’ll notice, if you ever have a meal with me, that I’m almost obsessive about this, in fact.

When Jesus tells his disciples here that the Spirit, the Advocate, is coming to be with them, he frames his assurances with reminders to show their love for him by keeping his commandments, by staying connected and attached to each other in ways that communicate to the world around them their devotion to Christ, that show the good manners, if you will, that he came to teach them.

The very same is true for us.

I’m sure Jesus wanted his disciples to feel comforted and reassured by the promise of the Spirit’s presence.  But he also wanted them—us—to remember that the Spirit is here with us, working to keep us on track in our often-flawed efforts at living as followers of Jesus; reminding us who we are and whose we are; and keeping us busy showing the world—through our connections and love for each other—a tangible example of gospel living.  To be sure that when we show up in the world, we will exemplify together all that is good.  This is the gift and the work of the Spirit.

Mahatma Ghandi, though a devout Hindu, was widely known to admire Jesus; Ghandi often quoted from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous teachings. Eli Stanley Jones, an American Methodist missionary to India was a good friend of Ghandi’s and once asked him this: “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”

Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Part of Jesus’ urgent message to his disciples before he left them was a plea to remember who they were, where they came from, what they believed, and how the gospel had changed their lives…and to be sure, whatever they did, that they lived so the world around them would know the transformational power of the gospel.  The Spirit would come, he said, to keep them working to follow his commandments, to live attached to each other with the powerful connection of God’s love.

It’s through this love, this attachment, that we will remember we’re part of a family of justice making disciples who, by our love for each other, will show the world a different way.  This is the Church.  This is how we be the Church, with the help of God’s Spirit.

May it be so.


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