“I Will Not Leave You”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 21, 2017
6th Sunday of Easter
We are nearing the end of Easter season. In fact, on the Christian calendar, Thursday marks the Ascension of our Lord. On this 6th Sunday of Easter, our focus begins to turn from the resurrection of Jesus to the approaching Holy Spirit. The setting is the Upper Room; the occasion—the Last Supper; and the program is reminiscent of a professor offering his last lecture to his faithful students.
What makes it into this farewell address which extends over 4 chapters? Prior to our reading for today, Jesus washes the disciple’s feet, and then he foretells how he will be rejected and denied—even by dear Peter. Jesus provides the new commandment—love one another as I have loved you. Following today’s text, again Jesus will mention the need for love. We might say that Preacher John—well, he shows up every Sunday preaching the same message—the message of love! Love resounds in Jesus’ words for us today: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…” and, “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.”
Jesus is moving on and he knows it. When he does, his followers will be troubled and Jesus knows it. But, even though his followers may feel alone when Jesus departs—they will not be alone.
Jesus holds the key to abundant life and he’s about to make it abundantly available. “I will not leave you…” is his promise. Jesus is sending another Counselor, another Advocate.
The Holy Spirit is coming—but when? The gospels don’t agree on precisely when the Spirit will be given to the community. Mark barely mentions the theme, saying only that when believers must give testimony before the authorities, the Holy Spirit will provide the words.[i]
Matthew promises the presence of Christ rather than the Spirit as Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[ii]
John mentions the promised Spirit in today’s reading, but later, on Easter night, Jesus comes to the disciples, who are gathered behind locked doors, and says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.[iii]
The writer of Luke and Acts delays the coming of the Spirit until some 7 weeks after Easter. The disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem for the blessing God will send. In Acts, Jesus’ last words before being taken out of sight are: “…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[iv]
While told in a different way, with a mixture of history and metaphor, each gospel expresses the truth of a particular, life-altering religious event. In the end, all of the Christian community understands that they are recipients of the same Holy Spirit.
We are nearing the end of Easter season but the message of Easter lives on. It is a message that life rather than death has the final word. It is a message about an ongoing relationship with the One who lives. If not, our faith is reduced to the memory of a Jesus who died once upon a time, long, long ago.
But how is it possible to relate to the living Jesus when he’s no longer here? The answer is that once Jesus leaves, his presence is made known in a different way—through the person of the Spirit. Jesus calls this person “Paraklētos.” The word “Paraclete” means “someone called alongside” to help or assist. “Paraclete” is also translated as Advocate, Counselor, and Comforter. Thus we can safely say that the Holy Spirit—is our counselor, advocate, intercessor, comforter, strengthener, and helper. Jesus says, “I will not leave you…I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” What comforting words!
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not say that the Father will provide “an Advocate,” but “another Advocate.” In other words, Jesus is also a Counselor; an Advocate. Indeed, the implication is that Jesus has been God’s Counselor for believers up to this point. “God will give you another counselor.” It’s true that Jesus and the Spirit have some similar functions. They both come from the Father and are sent into the world. Both teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world. Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” doesn’t mean the Spirit is “another Jesus.” Rather, the Spirit continues Jesus’ work of love in the world. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit will continue the work of Jesus—with the same challenges—the same blessings—the same provision for a full life, a whole life—shalom—in this life and in the life to come.
God’s Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—is something our world needs now more than ever. Even though we may think of ourselves as so modern—so progressive—so educated—where has it all gotten us? As one author notes,
The world has in fact begun to crack. The moment of truth for humanity seems to have arrived. We seem destined for destruction at our own hands. But behold, miracle of miracles, out of the cracks a light shines. The venomous snake has not crushed the light. The light burns. It gives warmth. It gives hope. And as the dreamer timidly advances towards the light, he discovers that there are many, many others who are also moving toward it from different directions—from behind iron curtains, from across human barriers, from behind the walls of our own frightened souls. Yes, we all need that light, for that light is the only hope…[v]
We all need that light—it is our only hope—still this third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—is not often a topic of discussion, is it? I once read somewhere that if the influence of the Holy Spirit were removed from the early church, 90 percent of the work would have ceased. While if the Holy Spirit were removed from most modern day churches, 90 percent of the work would continue. How incredibly sad, and I fear, how incredibly true. On our faith journey, do we even recognize the Spirit as our guide, our comforter, our constant companion? Have we fooled ourselves into believing that we can do this on our own? Or is it the case that we are afraid of power that blows like the wind—wherever God chooses—whenever God chooses?
Understandings of the Holy Spirit often fall into one of two camps. On one extreme, the work of the Spirit leads to highly excited worship like speaking in tongues—and we are not “those” people. On the other extreme, the Spirit is some vague something out there—beyond us—that can’t be named—that has little to do with us in this day and time. Surely there is wiser path to tread. Surely there is a way to embrace this Holy Being that Jesus says will be here with us in his stead. We want that! Don’t we? The promise Jesus makes, “I will not leave you,” do not our hearts yearn to be on the receiving end of that promise?
In a couple of weeks, on June 4th, we will celebrate Pentecost. As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, it puzzles me why the church goes to such lengths to celebrate the seasons of Christmas and Easter while barely giving a nod to Pentecost. Pentecost marks the birth of the church—the arrival of the Holy Spirit for the Children of the Way. Shouldn’t it be celebrated with as much gusto as Christmas and Easter? I believe so! I hope you do, too!
Pentecost is a critical event in our faith story so folks, get ready! In two weeks, we are going to have a party. You will need to get all dressed up in red or orange or yellow—festive colors of flames to mark an extraordinary day. Our sanctuary will be decorated beautifully. I know this is true because Becky and Jeff Stewart are in charge of the sanctuary décor and since they are the founders and organizers of the Father Daughter Valentine Dance—they have been checked off on all things red!
There will be balloons and cake and punch and we will sing “Happy Birthday” to the church. It is a celebration you do not want to miss—make plans to be here—spread the word—bring a friend! The chosen frozen are thawing out!
We are Easter people, nearing the end of Easter season and looking ahead to the Ascension. It is good that we have taken the incredible journey from resurrection to this moment in time. It is good to begin looking ahead to the promise of another Advocate, who leads us into all truth and equips us for the work ahead—the work of God’s love! And make no mistake, we need the Advocate, the Counselor, promised to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. For, in the words of Charles Spurgeon, “What can a hammer do without the hand that grasps it, and what can we do without the Spirit of God?”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] See Mark 13
[ii] See Matthew 28:16-20
[iii] See John 20:19-23
[iv] See Acts 1:4-9
[v] Choan-Seng Song, The Compassionate God, 260.