I Will Not Leave You Orphans

I Will Not Leave You Orphans

Robert Hoch

May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21


Jesus says, Because I live, you also will live.

This idea of the living Jesus is really important in John, perhaps more important to John than the other gospel writers. Raymond Brown points out that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you hear talk about the kingdom of God; the kingdom of God is the force of Jesus’ teaching or preaching; the kingdom of God is the yeast in the mass of dough that eventually makes bread — parables illustrative of Jesus but not identical with Jesus. But in John, Jesus is the bread of life. In John, Jesus isn’t the force of the kingdom of God, but the king. With Luke, you have a parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep; in John, you have Jesus, I am the good shepherd, and those who hear my voice, know me and I know them.

John sees Jesus and a personal connection with Jesus’ word and teaching as vital to real and beloved community — that’s maybe why there is so much about coming and going, seeing, knowing, and keeping and doing Jesus’ words.

But now, Jesus is going to leave them. Be absent from them.

Jesus prepares the disciples for the day when they won’t see him anymore. Maybe his continued life with them will be in dispute. We know the world doesn’t believe in what it can’t see. And it’s going to be tough on the disciples, too. Jesus is their teacher, their mentor, their coach, their parent. And yet that vital connection will one day turn into an absence — Jesus will not be with them physically. The disciples don’t really recognize this, but Jesus knows that the day is coming when he won’t be with them physically. Crucifixion is coming. Absence is coming. Jesus speaks for a long, long time, as he seeks to prepare them for his absence, so that even though he is absent in body, they will know him in spirit, and he will abide with them in love.

It’s almost like a checklist for when Jesus is gone. But it’s a global or community-wide checklist. It’s a checklist for the world God so loves. This is how you will continue in my love, through the Spirit.

My dad called me early in the morning on Friday. Too early for my comfort. My parents are on California time, three hours behind us. It was something like 6 a.m. when he called. They never call at that hour. I looked at the number and called back, feeling dread. “Everything okay?” He said, “I need your social security number.” Sigh of relief. He’s setting up his affairs, in case, you know . . . he leaves us. He always assumes he’s going to die first. Always. He tells me, “I’ve set up a checklist so your mom will know exactly what she’ll need to do. Otherwise, she won’t know.”

My guess is that you’ve entertained these thoughts, too. Especially now. Checklists of things to remember when I’m not here to remind you or when you’re not here to remind me.

Jesus speaks to us when he says, I won’t leave you orphaned. This is what will happen when I am no longer with you . . . Jesus answers the question of how we will keep that connection vital when he’s not here with us physically. You who keep my commands; you who believe in my word; I will be with you and you with me, I will send the paraclete to you, and he/it/they/she will lead you in spirit of the truth.

To be honest, I wish John had been a bit more explicit here — it’s not a checklist so much as a promise. But I think Frances Taylor Gench has got it basically right: in this passage, Jesus explains how we will maintain that connection to a living Jesus, how we will continue to live as people who are shaped not by Jesus’ absence, but by the promise of his unending presence with us. He gives us his words and commands as one who is radically different from us and yet beautifully and lovingly and tenderly within us, beside us, like a loving coach, or a teacher who is your biggest fan. The unending presence of Jesus — the living Jesus who comforts us, encourages us, humbles us, and corrects us.

A person of faith who trades in these words actually needs to know and engage with the one who speaks them. If we don’t, it’s like being hungry, talking about the bread, but not eating the bread. If we don’t, it’s like being thirsty, talking about the water, but not drinking the water. You might get some value for your efforts just by saying the words — the peace of God be with you, and also with you — but this is about life, and life in abundance, it’s about defying absence with the personal words, Because I live, you also will live; and even though we die, we shall live.

I think we need a lot of each of those sorts of words today, and we need them, frankly, with or without Jesus — words of comfort, encouragement, humility, correction. But it’s not the words themselves but the Spirit that confirms them, making us alive with Jesus.

That’s why we began the morning prayers. I feel like we need reminders of God’s presence in the felt absence of the pandemic. Our morning prayers have consistently provided a table layered with the bread of encouragement, drink of courage, the sound of loving laughter, a spirit of looking up, and a refreshed focus on what matters most.

And it’s as persons, different, but occupying this public space.

We also know Jesus corrects us and humbles us. Perhaps we have lived as if Jesus left and was never coming back. Maybe we know better, but we’ve lived as orphans anyway. Maybe that’s what the pandemic has exposed. For too long, we have lived as if this economy had made us one rather than mutual love. We deluded ourselves into thinking that somehow everyone was getting a fair shake. That there was no real absence between the words on our tongues and the belief in our hearts.

Jonathan Safran Foer, a novelist and nonfiction writer, calls us out on our assumptions about the most basic thing, what’s on the table or on the menu:

We often hear that people of color are putting themselves at greater personal risk during this pandemic, but the truth is they are being put at greater risk. White people generate 97 percent of all income from the operation of farms. Yet Latinx farmers alone comprise more than 80 percent of farm laborers. The fact that the overwhelming majority of people who will suffer from Trump’s slaughter order [declaring that meat processing plants must stay open] are black and brown, and that the majority of the executives who pleaded with him to do it are white, cannot be ignored. (Jonathan Safran Foer, “Meat Is Not Essential. Why Are We Killing For It” (May 11, 2020) in The Washington Post, accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/11/jonathan-safran-foer-meat-is-not-essential-why-are-we-killing-it/?arc404=true)

It’s not going to be solved by individual actions alone. But our do actions matter. The CDC reports that of the 16 varieties of novel corona virus, all but two gained the ability to transfer from animals to human beings on mega-meat farms. So perhaps we need to think about the unity, and the worker in the slaughterhouse (as well as at the end of her shift, going home exhausted not just by the work, but by the worry), and the chicken on our table or in the restaurant. Maybe it begins with what’s for dinner tonight, how Jesus prayed that we would be one.

And some correction, too. Think of the white people outside of the state capital in Michigan, toting rifles . . . apparently, as long as you’re white you can be armed with a weapon in front of the state capital of Michigan and you’re “a protester,” exercising your First Amendment rights, but if you’re black man out for a jog in Georgia, or anywhere else, you better watch your back.

Yeah. I run, jog. Just like Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered at mile 2.23 on a Sunday afternoon jog. I wonder what his checklist included? What would he tell me to remember before I go running? I guess I’ll never know. My big thing, first, don’t forget to tie my shoes (that’s important); second, stretch (good idea for a 51 year old guy); third, turn on my running app so I can keep track of my miles; and, fourth, note to self, don’t get so wrapped up in my thoughts that I trip over a tree root (happens more often than I’d like to admit). A digital marketing executive in Dallas, TX, runs, too. We are similar. But his checklist is starkly different from my own and it made me stop and think . . . maybe it will you too. Before he runs, he asks himself. . .

  Is my beard too thick?

Do I have my rap music on too loud?

Am I dressed like a runner? God forbid I wear mesh b-ball shorts and a loose T-shirt in the suburbs of Dallas.

Do I open up my stride now or wait until I get out of the neighborhood and into the open roads so I don’t appear to be running away from something or someone?

Turn down volume on music when passing by neighbors. Need to be able to respond if they say something — don’t want to come off profiled as angry black man.

If a raised pickup truck approaches, immediately take to the sidewalk and get a good look at driver. High alert. Ready to dive into someone’s yard in case he swerves into me. (Benyam Tesfai, “I Don’t Smile” in The Washington Post (May 13, 2020) accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/13/running-while-black-checklist/

I guess I really don’t know how to run . . . while black in America. But it also makes me ask: why did he write this? Anger, outrage, yes. But what in him prompted him to say, very carefully and simply, in the form of a checklist, this is what I as a black man in America go through, just to go out for a run? My checklist looks a lot like many of yours; his checklist looks like someone writing in the absence of mutual love, reminding us all of the implications of a world without love. He is publishing for the world to see what it’s like when we don’t live as if Jesus lives.

One way of thinking about John is that this isn’t so much about a private glory, which we see in Jesus, but a public love, where we share burdens and joys, table fellowship and dignity in work. A conscientious love. It includes checklists in case of absence. Maybe our text leaves us with a question: how are we doing with mutual love in this pandemic public, in this experience of Jesus’ absence? Are we living as if his absence were not definitive? If you were to die tomorrow, what would you include on your checklist for the world God so loves? And who would you send it to? Why?