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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 29, 2011.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14:15-21

If you read John’s gospel from beginning to end, somewhere around 14th chapter the story slows to a crawl. The last supper is over. Judas has left the room to go do the things that only he can conceive doing, for reasons none of us fully understand. Everyone’s feet are clean and Jesus’ hands are pickled from the foot washing when he begins talking. And Jesus talks and talks and talks; it’s the longest collection of the teachings of Jesus in all four gospels.

Here’s a brief sample of what Jesus says:  “Love one another, do not be afraid; believe in God, believe also in me. Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but I will not leave you orphaned. I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”

It goes on like this for four chapters telling the disciples everything they need to know before he leaves them.

We can’t help wondering:  Where is he going? (He is going to die.) Only that’s not how he describes it. The way he tells it, he’s heading off to a family reunion with his father and he’s leaving them in charge while he is gone. He’ll be back, but meanwhile his list is so long that it raises some anxiety in them about how long he will be away. It all seems so normal the way he tells it. “A little while,” he assures them, “and you will see me.”

They did see him again (later on) but before they could blink he was gone again. A little while became a long while; and a long while became a lifetime. Ten years turned into a hundred years, then five hundred years, and then a thousand years until now a third millennia has been launched.

Every generation since the days of Jesus’ has had its false prophets, mostly made false for their promises of knowing when Jesus would return only to end up in unrepentant embarrassment by their miscalculations.

From where we sit, the promise has hung out there so long, it’s no surprise some of us wonder if we haven’t been orphaned. Is he gone or isn’t he? If he’s gone, where has he gone? In the meantime, what in the world will we do without him? If he is not gone, where is he, and why doesn’t he show himself?

Barbara Brown Taylor tells of being the eldest of three daughters and because of her birth order, she was the designated babysitter in the family.[1] From the time she turned twelve, she was the one her parents left in charge when they went out at night. The routine was always the same. First her father would sit her down and remind her how much he and her mother trusted her not only because she was the oldest but because she was the most responsible. And being the diligent oldest of the three daughters, she would not let the house burn down. She would not open the door to strangers. Nor would she let her little sisters fall down the basement steps and kill themselves.

In the meantime, before leaving, her mother would leave her the telephone number of where they would be for the evening and tell her when they would be coming home. The three sisters would walk their parents to the front door and kiss them goodbye. Then the front door would lock from the outside as her parents left and a new regime would begin. She was in charge! She whirled around to face her new responsibilities and there were her two sisters looking back at her with something between fear and hope. And they would have a ball! They would play games together and read books out loud, acting out the parts if they wished. They made pimento and cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. But inevitably, as the night wore on, they grew more and more anxious and asked: Where’s Mommy and Daddy? Where did they go? When will they ever be back?

Older sister did her best to remind the two younger ones they were just fine and to not worry. She was there to take care of them until their parents returned home again. She promised them if they would go to sleep she would make sure that Mommy and Daddy would kiss them goodnight as soon as they came in.

The only problem came when the questions began to creep into her fearful thoughts. What if their parents had had a terrible accident? They might never come home again and then the three sisters would be split apart, each of them sent to a different foster home so they would never see each other again. When anxiety takes over our thoughts, we are fully capable of creating the most dire circumstances of fear, roiling them over and over in our thoughts until we’re sick with them.

Plenty of you know about that tension as well, not only because you have been a babysitter but because you are a Christian. As Christ’s followers, every one of us has been put in charge as Christ’s elder children in the world. We are the responsible ones, the ones trusted to carry on in his name, and everywhere we go, we see the faces of those whom he has given into our care. Some are hungry to see him and some are not. Some are still open to his return and some have closed their hearts. Some are still waiting and some have clearly given up hope and gone to bed.

In the meantime, tired of waiting, perhaps you’ve asked: Where is he? Where did he go? And when will he come back? It’s hard, being the ones in charge, because we are potential orphans too, only he said we would not be. He said he was “going away,” but he also said he was coming back again, and not only at the end of time.

“Those who love me will keep my word,” he said before he left, “and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23, NRSV). He didn’t say he would stop by every now and then to check on us. He didn’t say he would call every hour or so to see how things are going. He promised he would come in the form of an advocate, or a helper.

This is the first of five passages in John 14-16 that speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit. We’re nearly to the end of the 50-days between Easter and Pentecost and all of these words make it clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit is linked with the resurrection of Jesus. The seven-week season of Easter is bookended by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the promise that the Spirit will come.

Included in this passage is the promise of the Parousia, or the coming of the Lord again. John does not highly differentiate the meaning about the coming of the Spirit. “God with us,” “Christ with us,” or “the Spirit with us” are all promises of power, guidance, and comfort without which the church cannot exist.[2]

While the particulars of just what he means when he speaks about the promise of his return are not fully clear, there is one thing that stands out distinctly in this passage:  He fully intends for us to be faithful about our task. When he stepped out the door, he let us know that we would never be alone. We would never be without the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, we have work to do. We are to be sure to our word that we will be obedient to his word. Everything is wrapped up in loving as Christ loved.

Dorotheos of Gaza, a sixth-century teacher, once preached a sermon for the monks in his monastery who were grumbling they were unable to love God properly because they had to put up with one another’s ordinary, irritating presence. No, Dorotheos told them, they were wrong. He asked them to visualize the world as a great circle whose center is God, and upon whose circumference lie every person we ever have encountered or ever will encounter. “Imagine now,” he asked them, “that there are straight lines connecting from the outside of the circle all these lives to God at the center. Can’t you see that there is no way to move toward God without drawing closer to other people, and no way to approach other people without coming near to God?” [3]

The days between the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his ascension into heaven were days of preparation. In those days he did almost no miracles and made very few public appearances. The days of teaching and healing and works of power were over and instead he put 50 days into preparing his followers, the elder children, to be in charge. All the work of the Kingdom was now in their hands. They were the ones given the authority to take the message to everyone on earth. And from their hearts they handed it off to the next generation.

And those believers kept the words of Christ just as if they had known him personally themselves and perhaps they did because they had the gift of the Spirit of God to lead them and guide them. And when they were finished, they carefully handed it off to the next generation of believers who had no more of an idea of what to do next than we. But the Spirit of God was there once again just as Jesus said and they were faithful. And so it goes, each generation hearing the words of Jesus and finding ways to relate to God through the forgiveness offered through Christ. Each generation is given the gift of the Spirit for power and leadership. Each generation must find his or her own way to be obedient to Christ’s Law of Love.

In the meantime the faith is ours to hold. This gift of the Spirit has been placed in our midst (right here among us) so we might be faithful to God. It is ours to keep and ours to share and all of us are accountable. Christ has left for the moment and has put all of us in charge! But we aren’t left as orphans. We have the Spirit of Christ right here in all of our hearts. We stand on the threshold of the next generation the new millennia.

Don’t forget to keep the tradition alive. Don’t forget to whisper into the hearts of those who come behind us, reminding them: “He’s coming back; he’s with you; be obedient; be faithful!”

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Good News for Orphans,” Gospel Medicine, Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, 80-1

[2] Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching – Year A, Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, 307-8

[3] Quoted by Roberta Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life, Nashville, Abingdon, 1995

 

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