“Keep my commandments.” “They who have my commandments and keep them.” These two lines stand out to me because one commentator suggested that our reaction to reading these lines might be, “What commandments?”
I didn't realize this, but did you know that “Jesus gives only a single commandment in John and it occurs in the chapter just before this one” and “is reiterated in the following chapter.” In chapter 13 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And in chapter 15 Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” “Unlike, say, Matthew, nowhere in John does Jesus command us to go the second mile, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.” John doesn't even talk about the Ten Commandments. The ten commandments weren't Jesus' commandments. Jesus' commandment is only about love.
I'm reminded of those phrases that say “Keep Calm, and carry on.” Or Keep Calm, and let Vivienne do it.” You can get that phrase made into any t-shirt or mug that you want. Or the phrase, “Love God and do what you will.” Or “trust, and do what you will.” These are phrases that suggest one be all and end all thought, and that thought will be the one thing that is at the core of all of your behaviors.
Our text today says, “Love, and do what you will”
But how are we supposed to love? We are supposed to love as Jesus loved us. That sets the bar a little high! I can try, but really, I'm going to have to do a lot of discernment about how to do and what to do in order to show my version of that love to someone. Oddly enough, if the bar is too high for us we might feel like we can never get there so we won't have to try. That might lead to worse behavior as if we're saying to ourselves, “No one can love as Jesus loves, so I don't have to worry about it.” Or, “Jesus didn't mean me. Jesus only meant holy people, like monks and priests, and nuns.”
This text tells us that we can't let ourselves off the hook that easily though. Unlike Luke and all the way through Acts, where the spirit is everywhere and active in people's lives all throughout the writing, in this gospel of John, this reading here in the Farewell Discourse, is the first time it is mentioned. For John, the Holy Spirit will only come after Jesus departs.
This text tells us that we will be promised the Paraclete. This word has been often been translated as either, Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, or Helper. In Greek though, the word Paraclete means all of those things. It literally means “one who is called to be alongside you.” This text also tells us that what is being promised is another Advocate.
Jesus has talked at great length so far in this gospel about his relationship with the Father. Going to the Father, being with the Father, asking the Father. Jesus knows that after he leaves the disciples they will be devastated, lost and alone. Just as we are devastated when someone we love leaves, moves, or dies. There is a hole in us that can never be filled. We may be able to move forward, but not move on as we were.
It's important to remember that the text we are reading today, is from his farewell discourse, which is what Jesus says to his disciples even before he goes to Jerusalem and before the events of Holy Week. They do not know yet of the horror and injustice and death that will come, nor do the know Jesus will come back after the resurrection but before he ascends to God. This scripture is put on our lectionary for today because the church season of Pentecost is coming soon. Some explanation and back story to that season is needed. Today's scripture is where we first learn of the Holy Spirit.
This coming Wednesday is Ascension Day in the church, but we will be celebrating next Sunday. The Sunday after that is Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Reading this text today, puts these three Sundays in order. At the end of Holy Week after Jesus has died, and after the resurrection, there will be ascension when Jesus will finally go to be with the Father. The resurrection and ascension have to happen before Jesus' promises to us will be fulfilled. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, that was promised to us will take over for Jesus. Jesus was our advocate and the Spirit promised today is another advocate. Jesus was constrained by human biology, time, space, psyche, and earthly concerns. The Holy Spirit is the same advocate for us, without any of those constraints.
It is very important to remember that the relationship you and I have to Christ, isn't just a relationship with the remembered man, Jesus. Our relationship, because of the Holy Spirit, is a relationship with the risen Christ. As one commentator said, “the Spirit isn't just a place holder.” Not just an ethereal idea. The Holy Spirit is our lived experience today with the risen Christ.
I've said before that the Trinity is not something that is mentioned in the bible. It's a concept the church came up with to try to help understand these three persons, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. One commentator I read this week, came up with a new word – The Quattrinity. I'm not sure if that word will ever catch on. Many of the comments at the end of the commentary basically said, “Hey, don't mess with the Trinity.” The commentator's explanation is that what completes the work of the trinity is us. The Trinity on its own feels like just a concept unless we include ourselves. In the gospel of John, Jesus insists that the intimate relationship that exists between him, God, and the Spirit also includes believers. The believer doesn't just stand and observe, the believer is an equal part of it. If you think about it, what good is the trinity without us? God could have done anything on his own, right? So God needed Jesus, and the Spirit is what connects Jesus' promises to we who have never seen Jesus.
Going back then to “how” are we supposed to Love and do what we will? How are we supposed to Love as Jesus loved us. What will prevent us from just giving up trying because it's a bar that is set too high?
The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is the thing that removes any barriers to our quest to do the right thing. There are no barriers to stop our honest prayers from being heard and answered, because the Holy Spirit is alongside of us. We were given brains, common sense, an incredible structure of systems in our bodies that help us to think, make sense of things, and perform high level reasoning. There is nothing wrong with any of that. It is all part of the gift of being alive. When we pray, we set in motion a system that is all around us all the time. God is here. Waiting for us to encounter him or her. Every encounter is part of the relationship we have with the risen Christ for all time. The relationship that makes our life abundant.
This is not just a promise for individuals. As individuals who are part of the world, we have the power to change the world. This pandemic has been the great equalizer in some ways. While our struggles come in different forms, none of us knows how to solve our problems, bring life to our lives, meet our own needs while the world is in a pandemic. This makes us need each other even more.
There's probably a facebook group or a youtube channel to help put us in touch with any kind of like minded questioners. Our own conversations with people are more relevant now than ever.
I was on a zoom call with some extended family last night, because my nephew will graduate from high school in two weeks. We were listening to former president Barack Obama give an address to high school graduates across the nation. One thing he said was that what we have to do now is “Be alive to each other's concerns.”
We will do amazing things in the future as we build a society through and beyond this pandemic. What we will do with our brilliant minds and huge hearts, will be great. And if we let the Holy Spirit in too, there's just no stopping us.
In closing, I want to share a poem with you. I'm not sure who wrote it, or maybe adapted an Isaiah passage. This poem was given to me back in 1994 after a weeklong silent retreat where I had my first experience of spiritual direction. This is the poem she gave me on our last day together and it is still framed and is in my office today. The poem reads:
“I am the Lord of Love, The Lord of Peace”
I am the one who is moving gently – leading, drawing on into all that is new and good and lovely
All that I have for you is good – All that you need is available now.
Do not rush – do not fret – do not panic. Just rest and wait – and wait and rest.
Let the water flow on – carrying you.
Leave it all to me for I am the God who comes gently to you.
I am the Lord who loves you deeply.
I died – I went through Gethsemane for you.
How can I lead you into death now?
I am the Lord of life and I lead you on.
Into new and wonderfully green pastures.
There is no need to struggle any more. Just step on gently – in my love.
I have you by the hand – I am not rushing you.
We will go together into tomorrow and all the tomorrows.
I am with you.
Trust me for I cannot let you go.”
(from Sr. Joan Keogh, SM, 1994, Mercy Center, Burlingame, CA)
Reverend Debra McGuire
May 17, 2020