Meg Peery McLaughlin
May 17, 2020
Though it will be a long while before we are back together in person, your staff has been about some preparations. We’ve removed the hymnals and bibles and friendship pads, anything that can be touched in the pews. We’re ordering hand sanitation stations and offering boxes for the narthex.
To gather, we are considering which bathrooms will be opens, and which closed. There is a lot to prepare for.
Jesus knows about preparations.
In these chapters of John’s Gospel, that’s what he’s doing for his disciples. Preparing them.
But instead of for a gathering, Jesus is preparing the church for his absence. This chapter is often called the “Farewell discourse.” Listen to these words of Jesus from John chapter 14, beginning at verse 15.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
This is the Word of the Lord.
I suppose it is because we are in a global circumstance where people are literally fighting to survive—on ventilators, in ICUs, sometimes all alone. And I suppose it is because we who are stuck at home, distancing and homeschooling or missing the feel of human touch, are counting down how many days we’ve been at it. (And by the way we are on day. . . ) But I’ve been dipping into survival stories recently. Remember that Gary Paulsen’s novel, Hatchet? I’m reading it aloud to Naomi. And last week, I watched Tom Hanks in Cast Away. You know this genre, don’t you? (Insert picture) Where in each story, the characters have to figure out how to make it on their own.
As popular a genre as this is, going it alone is never part of Jesus’ plan.
Making it on our own was never in Jesus’ plan. Not at all.
God created us for community. Remember back to Genesis,
it is not good for the human to be alone.
I think this is why this physical distancing is so difficult.
But even when we find ourselves completely isolated
Jesus makes a promise that we are not alone.
And I can’t think of a more important promise to hold onto right now.
In late January Cigna Insurance published a study that showed that 3 out 5 Americans are lonely, a 13% rise since 2018. The NPR science desk put out an article[i] on it, similar to ones I’ve read in the past. The data relies on a standard measure called the UCLA loneliness scale. Is that not the sad fact? That there is need for an official loneliness scale. Men are more lonely than women, heavy social media usage makes it worse, and the feelings are prevalent across generations. No one is immune, the research shows.
Jesus may not have been addressing 21st century loneliness, or a pandemic that’s keeping everyone isolated, mind you, he was preparing his friends for grief, for what was about to upend their lives.
But he knew that in every time and place circumstances conspire to cut us off from everyone and everything – and so he explicitly promises us that he will not leave us orphaned.
He promises the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The very presence of God that mysteriously abides with us,
thus locking up loneliness all together, for with the Spirit of God abiding among us,
it is impossible to actually be alone.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson acknowledges that it’s hard to speak about the Spirit,
for the Spirit has been neglected, always coming in last place, behind God and Jesus.
“Perhaps,” she jokes “toward the end of their long constructive treatises, theologians simply got tired.”[ii] How do you describe the Holy Spirit?
Here is what Jesus says: that God sends an Advocate to be with us forever. (Jesus is the first one!)
This advocate language is quite legal. One who stands up for you in court.
And not that the legal language is bad, but the greek is helpful here.
The word is Paraclete, whose etymology is para—alongside; and klete—called.
Paraclete literally means the “one called alongside.”
And as if this promise of never-being-alone weren’t enough—it’s as if John falls all over himself in circular, almost convoluted language to make the point even more strong. Jesus says “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” and that’s how you’ll know the Spirit is there, abiding in you. Even Jesus had a hard time describing the Spirit in human tongue. If I understand it, though we, like those first disciples have to grapple with not being able to see Jesus, but we never have to doubt that the Spirit is alongside us, even within us. We are not alone. Ever.
I’m struck that this beautiful promise, this promise that I am holding onto especially right now,
this life-giving, comforting promise is bookended by an imperative: Keep my commandments.
At the beginning of the passage: If you love me, Jesus says, you’ll keep my commandments.
And then at the end: They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.
It makes me wonder, as the gospel always does, if the good news isn’t just a form of comfort, but a way to form, and reform us into people of active faith, not just apathetic feelings.
What if this beautiful promise could form us into those who are also called alongside others? What if this promise encourages us to be paracletes to each other?
Might then the church truly be a community of the Spirit?
Might we recognize that the very best way to love Jesus is to come alongside each other?
What would that look like?
For us to show up and simply come alongside someone else? Like Wilson in Cast Away?
Right now we’re all trying to survive.
That’s what one of you asked me last week: just checking in, one of you said:
How are you and Jarrett surviving with your little ones? Is it like Lord of the Flies over there?
I chuckled knowing that story of young lawless savagery. Truthfully, I never read William Golding’s classic though it sold tens of millions of copies. Lord of the Flies paints a dark picture of humankind.
And while it is most certainly true that, as the apostle says it, all sin and fall short of the glory of God, Golding’s story of these boys is fiction. He made it up.
Golding struggled with addiction and depression and abuse, and out of his “sad-self knowledge” wrote that book, now translated into 30 different languages. Recently I read about a real-life Lord of the Flies story[iii]. On September 11, 1966, an Australian sea captain named Peter Warner discovered six boys who had been stranded on an island completely alone for 15 months. They were students at boarding school in Tonga, and sick of school meals, they decided to take out a fishing boat. It was the start of one of the classic survival stories, but with no hatchet this time.
Warner’s memoir describes finally finding the boys on an uninhabited island, but his account was far from Lord of the Flies. He said: “by the time I arrived, the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and they tended a flame so that it never went out, for more than a year. The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. One of them fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat and played it to help lift their spirits. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like a community of the Holy Spirit,
of brothers coming alongside one another to make it through, sounds like church.
And friends, what if our survival story was like that?
How the church couldn’t get together in the sanctuary to worship,
but it figured out new ways to come alongside one another.
Alongside lonely ones and little ones.
Alongside the grieving and grateful
Alongside people of color scared to go for a run,
and people of courage running against the wind to tell the truth
Alongside the poor and the privileged
Alongside one another
by phone or note or vote, by prayer or care.
Alongside each other,
just as the Spirit is alongside you and me, forever.
We’d make it, don’t you think? May it be so.
[ii] From Barbara Lundblad’s Day 1 Sermon