A Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter
Year A – 25 May 2014
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
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.”
This time of year can be particularly bittersweet for families who have children graduating from high school. All graduations signal transitions but I think the hardest may be for the high school seniors and their families. The Fall will mark the first time that most of these 18 year olds will be on their own for an extended period of time.
In some contexts, these graduates are considered to be adults in that they are old enough to serve our country in the armed forces, and they can vote. To their parents’ way of thinking, though, they’re still kids.
The reality is that no matter what the context, they are teenagers which means that they are making decisions and judgments with a teenage mindset. And that’s scary for any parent or grandparent to realize!
Even though we do our best to raise our children well throughout their first 18 years of life, we know there is still much that they can learn from us before they head off to college. And that makes us feel anxious.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could somehow beam ourselves to be by their sides before they let their peers pressure them into doing something they’ll regret? I’m sure they’d love that…
Anxious is the same way Jesus’ disciples were feeling when they learned that their mentor and Teacher would be leaving them. They still had so much to learn from him. Why was he abandoning them?
Anticipating their anxiety, Jesus promised his disciples something to help them when he would no longer be physically with them. We heard about it in this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus promised them an Advocate.
What is that, or maybe who is that? Another word for Advocate that we hear just in John’s gospel is Paraclete from the Greek verb meaning to comfort or console; to encourage or call on for help. It’s not an easy word to translate into English and may be better understood in the context of what was going on at the time John wrote about it.
Promising his disciples an Advocate was part of the same Farewell Discourse that we heard a portion of last Sunday. In some ways, it’s comparable to the last gathering around the dinner table that families have before their 18-year old leaves for college. All of a sudden it seems as if there is so much to say and so little time to say it all.
After Jesus had gathered his disciples around him and shared his last meal with them in what we recall as the events of Maundy Thursday, he then rose from the table, took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. Then he said to them: “I have set you an example…Love one another as I have loved you.” Then he told them that he was going to the Father (John 14:3). That’s the context of what was going on.
“If you love me” Jesus continued, “you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever” (John 14:15).
Jesus, being the first Advocate perhaps, went on to describe the other Advocate as “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him,” he told his disciples, “because he abides with you and he will be in you” (John:14:17).
And then comes my favorite part of the passage. Jesus told his disciples that he will not leave them orphaned (John 14:18).
I usually think of being orphaned as something terribly sad that happens to children but the truth is, as soon as we lose both of our parents, we adults become orphaned. And any of us whose parents were our Advocates in being by our side through life’s experiences, knows what suddenly being orphaned feels like.
What usually happens, however, is that one or more people step in and help fill the gap left by our parents’ death. These people may have been part of our lives all along or they may have been people on the periphery. They may even have been strangers.
When both of my parents died, there were and are people here at St. Mary’s who are still helping to fill the gap – and I’m guessing they don’t even know it. My best friend’s mother died two weeks ago and I’ve marveled at the way her circle of friends has tightened around her like a huge hug.
That’s the context that I use to help me define the word Advocate, or Paraclete – the Spirit that stirs up compassion in people and causes them to act out of that compassion on our behalf.
Laura was one of those people. She was living in a small row house in Alexandria in the year 1918 when a terrible plague called the Spanish Flu claimed the lives of millions of people. During the 2nd week of October in 1918, Laura was taking care of 5 boarders in her small row house: a 1-year old boy named Charlie, his mother and his father and his grandparents.
Just one week later Laura had only two boarders left: little Charlie and his grandmother. His mother and father and grandfather had all died. Laura took one look at that tiny boy and knew what she had to do.
She scooped him up in her arms and loved him as her own. Whether she spoke the words or not, she knew in her heart what Jesus had meant when he said: “I will not leave you orphaned…I am coming to you.”
Charlie grew up and married and had children of his own. And it was his daughter who wrote the following: “Laura died long before I was born; so it’s only through the way my father loved me that I have a glimpse of the woman who did not leave a little 1-year old boy orphaned and who loved him with a mother’s heart.” (The story of Laura is paraphrased from Lectionary Homiletics Volume XIX, Number 3, pg. 30).
So back to those children who are transitioning to living life on their own. Where is their Advocate, their Paraclete? Who will step in to fill the gap between good and poor judgment or between experience and inexperience? Who will step in and stand up for them?
The answer is: we don’t know. And that’s where trust comes in – which is always the hard part.
The disciples had to trust what Jesus was telling them about the Advocate that he was sending to them, that as you remember, was not anyone the World could see or know. We have to trust that the same Advocate which Jesus sent to his disciples is available to us and to our children as well.
It won’t prevent them from making bad choices, but it will be right beside them if and when they suffer the consequences of their own or of others’ poor judgment. That trust is really about the only thing that helps us let them go.
And when we do let them go, we may feel alone, even disoriented, and whether they would admit it or not, they may, also. But it’s only a feeling. The reality is that the Counselor or the Paraclete or the Holy Spirit is always acting in ways to move people with hearts like Laura on our behalf and on our children’s behalf.
And it’s that reality that we appeal to when we pray for the comfort of the Holy Spirit to be near us to defend us, within us to possess us, around us to preserve us, before us to guide us, behind us to justify us and above us to bless us. (St. Catherine’s School prayer).