6th Sunday of Easter 2020 – (Acts 17: 22-31, John 14: 15-21)
“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus in our reading from Johns Gospel this morning. I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear the word “orphan”. Perhaps an orphan like Annie as portrayed in the film or musical, or maybe a character from a Victorian novel like the ones written by Charles Dickens. After all his stories are full of orphans like Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations.
Or perhaps when you hear the word “orphan” you think of the many orphans there are around the world now in places where life is still fragile and dangerous. Those living and sleeping on the streets with no family support at all, or those living in soulless orphanages abandoned and alone, or the places where children have lost one or both parents to some disease or other; leaving them to be cared for by their wider family. The word “orphan” can be a powerful and emotive one.
But in our reading this morning Jesus isn’t speaking to small children when he speaks those words. He is speaking to his disciples. They are grown adults, rough and ready fishermen who have battled the seas to fish, tax-collectors, people of the world living in hard times, women who have lived on the margins of their societies, excluded or shunned. Yet Jesus recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then again as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they will feel lost, bereft, uncertain. They will feel orphaned, just as we can feel orphaned in our own lives too.
So Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” At some point in our lives we all want or even need to hear these words. They speak directly to some of our greatest fears and challenges; those of abandonment and isolation, loneliness or vulnerability. They remind us that we are not destined to walk this earth without an identity or sense of direction. We do not stand alone.
However, there is no doubt that there are seasons within life. Moments, when the transitions, changes, and tragedies can leave us feeling like orphans. Whether spoken or unspoken the questions begin. What will I do now? Where do I go? What happens next? Who will love, nurture, and guide me? Who stands on my side? What will become of me? Those are the orphan’s questions. Those are our questions. Those are the questions I imagine were running through the heads and hearts of the disciples in this morning’s reading.
It is the last supper. The disciples have been fed, feet have been washed and the betrayer has left. It is night, dark, and Jesus announces he is leaving. The one for whom they left everything now says he is leaving. “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” “Show us the Father.” More orphan questions.
Anyone who has ever loved and lost – a spouse, a child, a friend, security, hope – knows the orphan’s questions.
We fear becoming orphaned. That fear points to the deeper reality that by ourselves we are not enough. It is not, however, because we are deficient. It is rather because we were never intended or created to be self-sufficient. We were never intended to stand alone as individuals. We were created to love and be loved, to live in relationship as persons giving themselves to each other, to dwell, abide, and remain within each other even as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father; the direct opposite of being orphaned.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” That is the promise we hear today. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, the turmoils, death, separation, we have never been and will never be orphaned by God. How strange that must have sounded to the disciples. In the same conversation Jesus tells them that he is leaving and coming. Leaving and coming most definitely sound like opposites! How can this be? What is Jesus saying? If we are not careful, we will get struck trying to reconcile or figure this out. It is not, however, something to figure out. It is rather a means to see and live in a different way. What Jesus is trying to tell the disciples is “Even though we are apart I will never leave you.”
Leaving and coming. Presence and Absence. These must be held in tension, not as mutually exclusive. That is what Jesus has set before us in today’s gospel. That tension confronts us with the question of whether Jesus, for us, is a past memory or a present reality, a sentimental story that makes us feel good or a living experience that challenges, guides, and nurtures our life.
According to Jesus the answer to that question is determined by love that is revealed and fulfilled in keeping his commandments. The commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves, to love our enemies, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Whose feet do we wash and whose feet to ignore? What are the boundaries of love?
Do we keep the commandments? Is our love growing, expanding, transformative of ourselves and the world? If so, Jesus is probably for us a present reality and we know the fulfilment of his promise that we are not left orphaned. If, however, we are not loving so much. If we remain self-enclosed and isolated, we relegate ourselves and each other to the orphanages of this world. Jesus’ promise is still real, and he remains faithful we have simply not yet claimed it for ourselves.
Keeping the commandments is our access to Jesus’ promise that we will not be left orphaned. Keeping the commandments does not make Jesus present to us. It makes us present to the already ongoing reality of Jesus’ presence. The commandments do not earn us Jesus’ love they reveal our love for him, a love that originates in his abiding love and presence within us.
Every time we expand the boundaries of our love, we push back the orphanages of this world creating space within us where the Father and Jesus make their home.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” Over and over, day after day, regardless of what is happening in our lives that is Jesus’ promise. We have not been abandoned. So do not abandon yourselves or others to the orphanages of this world. Love with all that you are and all that you have, just as the Father and Jesus love us with all that they are and all that they have.