It’s relatively easy for us these days to read a passage like John 14 and to read it with a sense of detachment. Jesus packs a lot of theology into these discourses across John 13-17 and it can be a little tough sledding to get through it all. Thus, it is tempting to be a little cut-and-dried, a little analytical, a little academic in our approach to these words. Alas, I don’t doubt that many arid sermons have been preached on these words in which preachers were about as passionate as a CPA doing a dreary tax audit.
But sunk right into the middle of the verses in this Year A Lectionary text is something that ought to pump some blood back into the text: “I will not leave you as orphans.”
I will not leave you as orphans.
What do you think prompted Jesus to say that? Again, it’s too easy to treat this whole incident very antiseptically and clinically. We picture Jesus at a lectern almost, delivering prepared remarks even as the disciples sat quietly taking notes, nodding in agreement and just generally behaving like the good little students they were. But I suspect it was otherwise.
This was an evening of significant disorientation for the disciples. Their little world was falling apart. Even Jesus was no doubt one sad figure, tears forming in the corners of his eyes perhaps, chin and lips quivering.
What had started out as a normal Passover meal had become something quite startling. One of their number had slinked out of the room only minutes earlier with dark clouds of betrayal following him out the door. The leader among their little band of followers had just been informed that soon and very soon the main thing he would be the leader of was being the lead rat to jump off Jesus’ sinking ship. And in and through it all Jesus kept lacing his speech with dark intimations of death and a sudden departure.
Thus, I picture the scene as looking less like a lecture hall with attentive students taking notes on what the wise professor was saying from the lectern and more like a Christmas Eve dinner party that had started out fine but that exploded into something quite different when suddenly Dad used the occasion to inform his children that he was having an affair, that he was in love with another woman, and that he and Mom would soon be getting a divorce for the good of all. At that Christmas dinner table there would be tears, there would be glassy-eyed stares, there would be a confusion and disorientation almost too great for many to bear.
The upper room that night must have been like that.
And so as Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit and all the other things he talks about, he was staring into moist eyes, he was looking at Peter who could not keep his own chin from quivering with emotion, he was looking at Philip who looked about as befuddled as a human being can look. There was fear in the room. Very nearly panic.
And out of that atmosphere—and also into that taut atmosphere—Jesus was motivated in love and compassion to say, “My friends, I will not abandon you. I will not leave you as orphans. Please stop crying, please stop being so afraid as I know you are. It’s going to be OK. Really! I know this looks and sounds bad—and parts of what is to come will be bad, too, I admit—but in the end I will be with you in a way you cannot imagine right now. This Holy Spirit, he really will help. Through him you really will understand and you really will still be connected in a living way to me. It’s gonna be OK, my friends!”
Sometimes certain Christian traditions are accused of being a little “light” when it comes to having a robust theology of the Holy Spirit. Maybe understanding the real dynamics (and the original acoustics) of John 14 can help to remind us how vital the Holy Spirit is in our lives and precisely why we need that Spirit. Jesus spoke these words into hurting, confused, and disoriented hearts. For us to avoid a similar hurt and confusion, we need the Spirit now as much as ever!
Even all these centuries and, indeed, two whole millennia later, we are not orphans. We are not alone.
Jesus has been as good as his word.
Thanks be to God.
Whenever I use the word “Paraclete” in a sermon or paper that I am writing, the Spell Checker on my computer tries to change it to “Parakeet.” It’s a curious possible substitution! Maybe it’s not even too far a cry from the Spirit as a dove! In truth, of course, the word “Paraclete” is from the Greek “para” and “kletos/kaleo” and so means “the one called alongside” of another. It has been variously translated over time as “Counselor, Comforter, Advocate, Helper.” It crops up 4 times in John in chapters 14-16 and has only one other New Testament occurrence in First John 2:1. It is, in short, a uniquely Johannine term. Since Jesus says the Spirit is “another” helper, this seems to indicate that the Spirit comes in addition to Jesus himself, who would presumably be, therefore, our original Paraclete. The Spirit as Paraclete thus continues the work of Jesus. And according to John, although the Paraclete does have the connotation of the attorney in court who stands alongside the accused, the main jobs of the Paraclete according to Jesus in John 14-16 is to lead the believer into all truth and to convict the world of its sin. The truth-dimension of the Spirit’s work is, therefore, key. Both believers and the world need to know the truth about life. The Paraclete comes alongside us to point the way. (My thanks to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three, pp. 659-660, for some of this information.)
Playwright Arthur Miller once wrote that his one-time wife, Marilyn Monroe, knew what it was like to be an orphan, to be abandoned. And her experience with that gave her an uncanny ability: according to Miller, whenever Marilyn entered a room, she was always able to pick out from the crowd those who had been orphans. There was just a certain look in the eyes of orphans that a fellow orphan could always detect at a glance. It was a glint of loneliness, perhaps, of fear, of wariness. Whatever it was, fellow orphans were able to look at one another and share a common bond of knowing and understanding.
I wonder what Jesus saw in the eyes of the disciples that night. Perhaps they had not yet been orphans but spiritually speaking, they sensed they were maybe on the cusp of being orphaned by no less than God. It was something that Jesus quite simply had to address.
And so he did.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2017
John 14:15-21 Commentary