Sermon for May 21 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Pet. 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
WE HAVE NOT BEEN ABANDONED (John 14:15-21)
By Martin Manuel
On the night before Jesus died, some 40 days before ascending to heaven, our Lord’s apostles were confronted with a troubling question: What would they do after Jesus was gone?
That night in the Upper Room, Jesus shared what was for his followers very distressing news—perhaps the worst of their lives. Jesus, their hero, leader and inspiration—their teacher, Messiah and Savior would be leaving. What would these disciples, who had left their homes, families and vocations to follow Jesus, do after his departure? Jesus had turned their lives around completely—giving them peace and joy; giving their lives purpose and value; giving them the hope of the resurrection and life everlasting. How could they possibly go forward without him?
That night Jesus answered that question. He promised that they would not be abandoned—that he would send them help to proceed forward—all the help they would need. Though they did not fully grasp what Jesus was promising until later, that night they learned that the first step forward for them into an uncertain future was to heed Jesus’ admonition to trust God and love one another. They also learned that Jesus would give them the help they would need, and that help would be the Holy Spirit who Jesus would send to fill the gap left by his absence.
Today, on this the sixth Sunday of Easter, as we approach our observance of Jesus’ ascension, these admonitions and assurances of Jesus apply to us as well. We have not been abandoned!
Words of encouragement
The disciples were deeply distressed upon hearing from Jesus that he would no longer be with them, as he had been for the past three years or more. Had we lived through that experience we, too, would probably feel the same way. In entering their lives as their Rabbi, Jesus had fulfilled their hopes and dreams for the Messiah’s arrival. The Deliverer was here! To them, that meant that freedom from Roman tyranny was right around the corner.
Not only had Jesus given them this great anticipation of a better future, he had meant everything to them. He was their advocate, their source of comfort; he was always beside them, helping them, no matter what they encountered. Whether in a furious storm at sea, or intimidated by the aggressive insults of Jewish leaders, they could always rely on Jesus for the help and guidance needed to get through life safely and peaceably.
To them, it had been worth it to leave their former lives to follow him. That night in Jerusalem, in the Upper Room, they were not expecting Jesus to inform them that his time with them was about up. He would soon be leaving them to return to the Father.
Jesus, of course, understood their consternation and fears. He realized they needed assurance that their sacrifices in following him thus far had not been wasted, and their hopes and dreams would not go unfulfilled. So Jesus spoke words of encouragement—assurance concerning their futures, and reassurance of his intentions to bring that future to pass.
Jesus explained that for that future to be fulfilled, he must leave them. But that explanation only magnified their concerns and fears.
“If you love me, keep my commands.”
Jesus responded to their fears and objections by helping them look into the future, and their part in it:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15-21)
“If, you love me,” says Jesus. Why the “if”—hadn’t these disciples proven their love for Jesus? Why now bring that into question? Jesus was using their unsettledness as a “teachable moment.” It was as if he was saying to them, “Capture this passionate love that you are feeling and expressing toward me, and let it always motivate you to observe carefully all that I will tell you to do.” Their motivation was the key issue here because Jesus was challenging them at a very high level—going forward, they must keep his commands.
Already he had shared his first, most basic command: “Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1), and he had already made plain what was contained in the phrase “my commands.” After washing their feet, Jesus had said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Jesus’ enigmatic statement “If you love me” was thus a firm reminder of what he had already commanded. These commands would, in some ways, serve as the standard in the minds of the apostles concerning what Jesus meant by love. They knew they loved Jesus, and they knew Jesus loved them. They could relate to the power and warmth of this love relationship. Thus they already had a mental picture of what such love looks like.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)
Pulling out all stops to ease the tension, Jesus promised to send the disciples a replacement for his role as their “advocate,” meaning guide and counselor—their fearless leader. He understood the disciples’ concern and their need—they needed him to continue to be with them, to never abandon them. So he promised to ask the Father to send them another advocate. This advocate would be no less to them than Jesus had been. Jesus called this advocate “the Spirit of truth.”
Although the disciples were familiar with teachings about the Holy Spirit, this phrase introduced to them a new concept. “Spirit of truth” appears here in John’s Gospel for the first time and is used several times later in that Gospel by Jesus as this conversation continued. Although they had heard Jesus speak about the Spirit before, this was different because of the addition of the word “truth.” It pointed back to the same word “truth” Jesus had just used about himself, where in v. 6, he said “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
By saying, “Spirit of truth,” Jesus thus equated this advocate to himself. However, he distinguished between himself and this advocate by calling him “Spirit of truth.” Jesus was not a “spirit,” and so he adds that the world could not see or know this Spirit, although he promised his disciples that they would come to know him.
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:8)
That statement must have both comforted and confused. Unlike readers of John’s Gospel today, the disciples had no precedent for comparison. He is leaving, but will not leave. Heads must have been spinning. To us, with the New Testament available to explain, we realize what this means: after he left, Jesus would come to be with them but in a different way; this new way of being with them through the Spirit of truth would satisfy their need for Jesus’ presence.
Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. (John 14:9)
As was often the case with Jesus, his words were profound yet cryptic. Later, he was asked and did clarify this statement, but he continued here without leaving an opening for interruption. The disciples did not understand that evening what this statement meant, but after Jesus’ resurrection and post-resurrection appearances they began to understand.
In this sermon, we won’t dwell on the effect of Jesus’ resurrection on his followers. Instead, we’ll consider this immediate lesson—our need for the presence of Jesus.
Later in the conversation, Jesus says this;
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:20)
Jesus knew that full understanding would come only later. Following his ascension and his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, their understanding would grow concerning the astounding, startling, and marvelous truth of the reality of the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit, and the implications of that triune communion and their inclusion in it through Jesus, their Lord and Savior. Even after the dramatic events on Pentecost, they did not fully grasp all this, though their understanding, like ours today, continued to grow.
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)
Reminding them of his opening words in this passage, Jesus here restates the correlation between loving him and obedience to his commands. Jesus is not saying that obedience is a condition of his love. The Father, just like Jesus, already loves humanity (remember John 3:16!). What Jesus is referring to here is the reciprocal love of his followers—their love in response to the love already shown them by Jesus, the Father and the Spirit. To those who accept and respond to that love, an intimate, reciprocal relationship of love, somewhat like that between parent and child, exists, and the result is that Jesus’ presence is experienced by those who are participating in that relationship.
What about us?
So, what are we to do? What do we do as individuals when we feel alone? What are we to do as a church community when we know we need the leadership of Jesus, but feel alone? What are we to do when we feel abandoned in a world that is often hostile to all we believe and embrace?
Jesus has answered these questions. His exhortation is to trust in the unbreakable promises and commitments of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and to hold tight to the communion of love into which the triune God has placed us in and through Jesus and by the Spirit. Instead of withdrawing into lonely isolation, Jesus tells us to trust him—to be assured of his presence, and to hold on to love.
It is easy to preach this message, but it’s not so easy to live it! Thankfully, Jesus has taken care of that too. Jesus, with the Father, sends us the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth, to help us. Living in us individually and collectively, the Spirit is with us and in us always, serving as our Advocate. He is as much the truth as is Jesus and the Father, and he promises to always be at work in our lives personally and communally, leading us into the truth, the way and the life that Jesus is.
We are not to look at the Holy Spirit as something to add spark and interest to our meetings for our enjoyment. In the way Jesus led his first disciples, so the Spirit now leads us—purposefully, yet gently. Like Jesus, the Spirit does not force us, but he is persistent!
Prayer is an important factor in following the Spirit’s leadership in our lives. Indeed, in all good relationships there is communication. Prayer to the Father in Jesus’ name is helped by the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, we experience intimacy with the One who has not left us alone. Also, in prayer, we experience his guidance according to the will of God revealed to us by the Spirit in the written word of God, the Bible. In those words we are reminded of Jesus’ commands to trust (have faith) and to love. Last, but certainly not least, we experience the love of the Father and the Son through the indwelling of the Spirit who fills us with Jesus’ love, peace and joy, along with his perseverance and courage. The Spirit, our Advocate, knows what we need, and he provides.
Though upset at the time, the apostles remembered Jesus’ words to them that night in the Upper Room. After Jesus’ death, as our Lord had commanded, they waited patiently. They continued, though imperfectly, to trust him to lead them in taking the next big step into what surely seemed an uncertain future.
After they were sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the disciples continued to stick together in love for Christ and for each other, as they responded to the Spirit’s lead in all aspects of their lives and mission. Consequently, they rarely, if ever, gave in to the temptation to think of themselves as being alone. Instead, realizing that Jesus was present with them through the Holy Spirit, they pursued their calling and mission boldly. Today, we have Jesus’ words to remind us, and the apostles’ example to encourage us to go and do likewise.