Sixth Sunday of Easter A
I Will Not Leave You Orphans
Jesus said to his disciples, “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.” John 14:15-21
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples. He says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” At some point, do we not all want and even need to hear these words? They speak directly to some of our greatest challenges and fears – isolation, loneliness, abandonment and the feelings of vulnerability that these engender in us. These words of Jesus remind us that we are not destined to walk this earth alone, without family, community, and the comfort, assurance, identity and direction that come from these.
Of course, there are times and seasons of life, when transitions, changes, and tragedies can leave us feeling as orphans. As the pandemic reigns with impunity, the experience of being orphaned, in various degrees, is ubiquitous, is it not? A nursing home room, an intensive care bed, or living alone in one’s home or apartment, can come to be experienced as akin to being sentenced to solitary confinement in a prison. How many report loosing track of days and times.
The need for social distancing, isolation and quarantining for our physical well-being can wreak havoc on our psycho-spiritual needs for touching, holding, hugging, contact and community. Except for those few called to be hermits, even those fortunate enough to be quarantining with a mate or with their nuclear family, feel deprived of the others with whom they ordinarily gather for one reason or another, and the comfort and reassurance that community affords us. And while virtual contact can be better than nothing, is it really that much better? Many report being zoomed out and wanting what zoom cannot give us.
When we have that experience of being orphaned, whether spoken or unspoken, the questions begin. What do we do now? Where do we go from here? What happens next? Who will provide the love, nurture, and care that we need? Who stands by our side? What will become of us? These are the orphan’s questions. These are the questions that the pandemic is raising in most of us. These were the very questions running through the heads and hearts of the disciples at this point in the gospel.
Again, it is the last supper. The Disciples have been fed. Their feet have been washed. The betrayer has left. It is night. It is dark, and Jesus announces he is leaving. The One for whom they left everything now says He is leaving them.
As narrated in last Sunday’s gospel, the questions of the orphaned fill the moment. “Where are you going?” “Show us the way!” Thomas pleads. “What will we do?” “Show us the Father!” Philip entreats. The orphan’s questions are real and beg to be answered.
Following catastrophic events like fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and in the throes of a pandemic, the orphan’s questions rise up. How do we move forward and rebuild? Who will be with us? What’s next?” Anyone who has ever loved and lost – a spouse, a child, a friend, a clean bill of health, a job, security, or hope – knows the orphan’s questions.
That fear of being orphaned points to the deeper reality that by ourselves we are not enough. We are not enough by ourselves because by ourselves we are deficient. We are not enough by ourselves 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, and to dwell, abide, and remain within each other, even as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father- this is the antithesis of being orphaned.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” That is the promise. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, storms, 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 sure sound like opposites. 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.
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, is for us, 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 the love that is revealed and fulfilled in keeping His commandments – The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, even our enemies, and to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Whose feet do we wash and whose feet do we refuse to wash? What are the boundaries of our love?
Do we keep these two commandments? Is our love growing, expanding, transformative of ourselves and of the world? If so, Jesus is probably for us a present reality, and we know the fulfillment of His promise that we are not left orphaned. If, however, we are not that loving; 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 simply have not claimed it for ourselves.
Keeping the two great 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 the Lord’s presence. These commandments do not earn us God’s 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 loving, we dismantle the orphanages of this world, creating space within us where the Father and Jesus make their home. And if the pandemic is not a call to expand the boundaries of our love then what will it take to move us beyond self-involvement, self-concern and self-protection? Social distancing does not preclude the possibility of reaching out and touching others in ways that make a difference, it simply requires more creativity.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” Over and over, day after day, regardless of what is happening in our lives that is the promise of Jesus. We have not been abandoned. Let us not abandon ourselves nor others to the orphanages of this world. Let us love with all that we are and that we have ever loved, as God love us with all that He is and with all He has have ever loved us.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
May 17, 2020