(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on May 21, 2017)
What encouragement might Jesus have for us in this difficult time as a church?
One of today’s verses from the lectionary, from the group of Sunday bible selections that are used by churches around the world, comes from John 14. They are the words of Jesus to his disciples on the night before he was crucified, the night before their world was turned upside down.
I chose to speak about these verses today, because I think they offer us hope, too. Turn with me to John 14, verse 15.
‘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. Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.’ (TNIV, John 14:15-21)
Aubrey and Elaine and I have watched the first couple of episodes of the new version of Anne of Green Gables that’s produced by Netflix.
(I’ll leave out any comment about comparing it to the other version, as we really don’t need any more tension in our lives, do we?) But I bring it up because one of the things this new version does really well is make you feel how awful and abandoned the experience of being an orphan can be-the pain of not having a home, of being alone and having to fend for yourself.
Jesus knew his time with his disciples was coming to an end. He knew the disciples were going to experience what it was like to be alone, to have to fend for themselves. What we know from the biblical record is that the disciples were afraid and hiding for quite awhile, even after the resurrection. And we know that they also experienced persecution and had to leave Jerusalem and were scattered all over the known world.
What leaps off the page to me is verse 18: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” It leaps off the page for what it doesn’t say, and for what it does say.
It doesn’t say, “You’ll stay together and have each other and be a community.” It doesn’t say, “I’ll protect you from disappointment and persecution.” It doesn’t say, “Everything’s going to be ok.”
But it does say the disciples will not be abandoned. They won’t be orphaned and left to their own devices. It does say “I will come to you.”
Once again, like a familiar musical theme in a symphony, the promise of hope we have is the presence of God.
God comes to us in our times of distress and struggle. From the garden of Eden through Abraham’s journey to Canaan, from slavery in Egypt through corrupt kings and exile, from an intimate supper with Jesus through the pain of crucifixion…God comes near to us. God’s promise is that we will not be left alone and orphaned, no matter what we go through.
This is what I cling to. This is what we have to offer each other. On the night before Jesus died, he promised that the disciples would not be orphaned, that he would come to them. This is also our hope.
As we look at the whole passage, this of course is the promise of the Holy Spirit of God.
Jesus says he will ask God for another advocate. Just as Jesus has been their defender, their protector, the one who has stood up for them, another advocate like Jesus will be sent. This section is one of the parts of the bible that develops our idea of God as Trinity, because there is such a clear sense that the Holy Spirit whom all can experience is an advocate equivalent to Jesus. Jesus and the Spirit and the Father are all bound together in an eternal relationship of love, an idea hinted at here and explored in detail in chapter 17.
It’s there in verse 20, where it says: “You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Our hope is that God comes to us and doesn’t leave us orphaned…and not only that, but because of Jesus we are actually drawn into that eternal relationship of love that IS God: Father, Son, and Spirit.
This kind of presence of God in our lives, this kind of union with the Godhead…it’s such a deep love that it pulls us, draws us, compels us to obedience and truth. This active participation in God’s love empowers us to keep God’s commands, to live in line with God and with truth. It’s all woven in here so beautifully, with verses 15 and 21 like bookends to this section.
God’s presence with us; living in love and truth and obedience; being “in” Jesus and therefore “in” God is all beautifully and organically pulled together; love and union with God and obedience and truth. This, also, is our hope and our goal.
How does God’s presence, how does the gift of the Holy Spirit help us to be obedient to Jesus and keep his commands?
One legitimate way to read these verses is that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth helps us to keep Jesus’ commands. And there are so many expressions we have that speak about this idea. People talk about their conscience nagging them to do something or to make something right. Quakers talk about allowing our lives to be exposed by the Light of Christ.
The Psalms offer a prayer for God to search and know my heart, and see if there be any wicked way in me. The gift of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, God’s presence in our lives brings awareness and conviction for the ways we are not being obedient to God…and I believe also actually loves through us, empowers us with God’s life and power.
Sometimes that awareness and conviction of how we are not keeping God’s commands comes loud and clear even with a simple thing. I was talking with Elizabeth at the office this week, and I said something, something that she actually received well. But it wasn’t long at all before I felt the Spirit’s nudge that something was wrong in what I’d said. It wasn’t in the content, and it wasn’t in the effect. Instead, it was what had prompted me to say it.
What I had said had come out of my own envy; it had come from a wrong motivation. I knew what the Spirit was asking me to do, so I went and confessed it to her and apologized. It wasn’t a big deal at all, but it’s a recent example of how the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s presence, can challenge me and help me to see when I’ve not been obedient. My experience has been that it takes some effort and intention on my part to pay attention to those nudges. And it’s also been my experience that acting on them, like going right away to apologize this week…acting on these nudges helps me better listen and act the next time.
Some of you might remember Stan Thornburg.
He was pastor at North Valley Friends and other churches in our Yearly Meeting, the son of Hubert and Vivian Thornburg. Almost 20 years ago I went to a conference in Seattle, and I stayed with Stan for a few nights. I vividly remember one conversation with him, because it was about this very thing: how do we human beings pay attention to and accept this amazing gift of the Holy Spirit?
We got talking about obedience to God. Stan was a bit of a rebel-he often broke the rules, he caused grief for his parents and for teachers and for others who wanted him to keep in line. But what I discovered is that Stan took obedience to the Holy Spirit extremely seriously. In fact, he worked at it more diligently than most people I’ve ever known.
“How do you hear God?” I remember asking. “How do you know it’s really the Holy Spirit, and not just your own thoughts?” When he was in his 20’s, he came to a crisis point where he realized he either needed to take faith in God seriously, or he was going to reject the whole thing. And he had that exact question: “How do we really know it’s God and not just our own thoughts?”
So he decided to experiment. Every day, he got up and prayed and asked God to speak to him. He literally wrote down everything that came to his mind in the silence after that. At the end of the day, he would also write down every thought he could remember from the day that seemed like it was God. He emphasized to me: EV. ERY. THING. Tiny things. Big things. Crazy things. Stupid things. He wrote it all down, trying to capture everything that he thought was potentially God saying something to him.
At least once a week, he would read through everything he had written. He’d keep track of what things seemed to come true or be proved right, or that proved to be not true. If it was something he was supposed to do, but he hadn’t done it, then he would use the reminder of reading it again to commit to doing it.
He did this diligently every day for six months: ask God to speak and lead, write down everything he thought, and then read it and test it and notice which seemed to actually happen or bring good fruit in his life. This rigorous intentionality, this daily experiment had an amazing result. He knew it was time to stop the experiment because it got redundant: he knew as soon as he wrote something down whether it was his own thought or something from God, because the experiment had helped him recognize the Spirit’s nudge.
The other thing he said that really stood out to me is that while the experiment of writing and checking was obviously helpful, he thought that what was more helpful was committing himself to do the things he thought the Spirit was asking him to do. Even if it was a risk or a stretch or embarrassing to try. He said it was in the listening and doing, the listening and the obedience, that the nudges of the Holy Spirit became clear.
“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 Holy Spirit helps us, guides us to live in obedience.
When I examine my own life, what I see is this: the best and most profound changes in me have come when I make every effort to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit, the inner teacher.
This Spirit of Truth has often challenged me and convicted me deeply…but it is a conviction that does not bring shame, that does not paralyze me, that doesn’t make me feel my worth has lessened. My experience of the Spirit of Truth is that it convicts me of specific actions rather than vague condemnation, that conviction always comes with a tangible next step to take. Shame tends to overwhelm me and paralyze me that nothing can be done.
This Spirit of Truth is often at work in me in a different way than conviction as well. Sometimes what this Advocate does in me is speak truth to me about my worth as a child of God. This, too, is powerful truth work that God’s Spirit does, and it is a mighty gift. In a world where we receive so many worth-killing messages based on our appearance or our acceptability to some person or group, the Spirit of Truth is there whispering that we ARE worthy, we HAVE value because we are created by God!
In a world where we can feel alone, rejected, confused, oppressed…Jesus’ death and resurrection made possible the gift of God’s presence in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit of truth who will not leave us as orphans! The Holy Spirit who has and will come to us.
Thanks be to God.