May 14, 2023

Someone has said recently that if you are not anxious about the future, you are not paying attention to the news!  -From our tensions with Russia and China, to lingering issues in the Middle East, and of course the prospects of Global Warming, -not to mention the uncertainty in the economy, whether inflation or recession. –If that’s not enough there’s the ongoing saga of mass shootings! –Or maybe you’re just worried about the specific threats like the proposals from some politicians to cut your Social Security and Medicare benefits. –I don’t mean to depress you this morning, but I think these are all things most of us have on the back of our minds.

You can count on some politicians trying to manipulate the anxieties.   They will be saying something like “Vote for me, I’ll save you!” -Whether they have any real answers or not!  And surely, there will be some Christian doomsayers who take it all as a sign of ‘The End.’

Anxiety in John’s day was perhaps spread over fewer issues but no less pervasive for early Christians.  By the time the gospel was written there had been state sponsored persecution of Christians for around 40 to 50 years, -resulting in the torture and death of many believers and certainly almost all of the disciples. Not to mention the war between Israel and Rome which had ended just 20 or 30 years before.  That war had destroyed Jerusalem and killed up to one million people.    Folks were wondering where God was in all of this. Believers were asking –Why hasn’t Jesus come back to straighten out this mess?  John wanted to offer some comfort and reassurance.

John reminds them, And us, that they were not orphaned, not abandoned, just because the world is not what they expected or hoped.  He recalls Jesus’ words “I will not leave you orphaned”  as words of assurance and  promise for God’s comfort and grace.  It was a reminder that God is still God and that Jesus brought God’s presence into the world. It was an affirmation that God has not given up on us or simply left us to our own devices.

John says Jesus promised the Parakleitos, (in the Greek) (advocatus) in the Latin.  English translations vary: Advocate, Counselor, Helper, Friend, Comforter, depending on what translation you use.   In John’s time The Paraclete, or Advocate, was the one called on in behalf of the prisoner, or the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, or to act on his behalf. The Paraclete, then, is the universal advocate, the one on your side, to support and comfort, to stand with us in the trials of life.  This Advocate/Counselor/ Comforter will be present for us in the midst of the world’s chaos and trouble helping us in all the tough times.

The image John uses is a powerful one: Jesus is leaving this world but he will not be abandoning us.  Jesus will not leave us orphaned! Being orphaned, then, as now, was a tragic kind of aloneness that brings  a special vulnerability.

I remember one young woman in my first church, she was in her 30’s, as I remember, and married, but when her parents were both killed in a tragic auto accident, she kept saying, in her grief,  “I’m an orphan now.”  -It was an expression of her sense of aloneness, of being cut off from her roots and those she had counted on and relied on for advice and nurture in her life.

-Not only in childhood but in different ways even in adulthood. She could hardly fathom not having them in her life. The old spiritual catches the feeling as it wails “I feel like a motherless child,” depicting the special aloneness and defenselessness that is imaged.

John is writing to a church experiencing some of those same feelings of abandonment.  Christians were in fear of being found out. Kind of like illegal immigrants in our world. You only needed someone to accuse you of being ‘one of those’ to be accused of being disloyal to the empire –or the emperor- by virtue of your Christian faith and you could be hauled before the court with an uncertain fate. Those experiencing such hardship and pressure couldn’t help but ask themselves: –Why hasn’t Jesus returned? –Why hasn’t God done something?  — The feeling of abandonment was real. Life had become precarious. Christians had real reasons for questions and anxiety.

John tries to reach out to them with words of assurance –from his own theology and from the promises of Jesus. –John’s promise is that Jesus has not left them, or us, orphaned, alone and isolated.

Just as Jesus was in God and God in him –so God’s Holy Comforter, Counselor and Advocate  now is promised to be with us,  helping us, supporting us, and strengthening us as we seek to persevere in perilous times and enabling us to continue the work of Christ.

John’s Gospel seems less concerned about expectations of the second coming or the end of the world than some late first century Christian writings  because John has such a sense that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit is still with us, inspiring, supporting and  renewing us, as well as at work in hidden ways in the world.

During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport.   He was the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives in the late 1700’s. Not only was this nation trying to get on its feet, the Second Great Awakening had begun and some very strong voiced preachers were making a mark on society. Many of their sermons were what you might call “Fire and Brimstone” sermons calling people to a religious reckoning.   One day in 1789, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously, as the Conn. House gathered for debate. Some of the representatives, glancing out the windows, feared the end was at hand. Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment, Davenport rose and said, “The Day of Judgement is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.” Something like that might have been John’s thought too.  The sky may be sometimes dark and ominous but the gift of God’s Spirit is still with us calling us to faith and duty.

As we reflect on this Mother’s Day weekend, celebrating mothers and praying for a world that is safer for mothers and children; still called to work towards Gods Kingdom, John would remind us that we are still in a struggle to bring God’s redeeming grace into a world that is not always ready to receive it. Indeed, the world is often obsessed with its own agendas of power and domination, as it was in John’s day.   And the powers of violence and destruction may seem to hold sway –as they did in his day, – but John wants to bear testimony that God has not forgotten us–and Jesus has not abandoned us. –Notice John doesn’t say life is going to be easy, or that life is always going to go the way we want. –He was too much of a realist to do that.  John just wants to reassure us that however difficult and fearful life may become — God’s Holy Spirit still stands with us, and in the end, God’s love is the final and most important force in our world.

Albert Schweitzer as he comes to the conclusion of his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, ends his scholarly work with an almost poetic affirmation of the mystery of Jesus continuing presence. I’ve always felt it was a powerful summation: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

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