We’re never alone … even during “social distancing”

 

Many of us have it easy during this period of social distancing.  Grace and Rob are home from college, and so the Blyths are isolating as a family.  Others are not so fortunate.  This week I spoke to a congregant who is about to celebrate an incredibly significant birthday.  She is safe and comfortable in her Assisted Living Facility but misses fellowship terribly.  The food is good, but it is not fun eating alone.  The dinning hall is a source of good company three times a day, and eating alone in one’s room is just not the same.  That awful feeling of being alone is one experienced by so very many people in the course of this pandemic.

Finding oneself alone or without the presence of a supportive loved one is the meaning behind the word ‘”orphaned” in verse 18 of this Sunday’s Gospel text: “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus tell his disciples.  (In the Ancient Near East, a rabbi’s disciples were frequently described as orphans after his death.)  This is a continuation of the Farewell Discourse, and one that gets to the heart of a crucial question: will the disciples be without the presence of God when Jesus is no longer with them physically?

Jesus assures his followers that the Father will give them “another Advocate (vs. 16).  The word Paraclete here translated as Advocate, means “called to the side of,” just as a counsellor or lawyer stands by his or her client, serving their best interest, and defending them from accusations leveled against them.  (In Scotland to this day, senior lawyers are called Advocates.)  1 John 2:1-2 describes Jesus as the first Advocate: “… if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…”  So, the Holy Spirit is the second Advocate: the continuing presence of God in the world, and in the midst of the followers of Jesus.  This Advocate will be with them forever.  

Jesus tells 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 (John 14:15-17)  …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” (vs. 21).

Now, on the surface, this looks like a quid pro quo, a precondition to God’s love and grace.  But, look a little closer.  Jesus is not referring here to the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments).  Rather, he is speaking about his Gospel, the way of life that is lived in union with him (in other words, The Way).  Jesus’ commandments are acts of love: foot washing (John 13:1-20); laying down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13); and faith lived out in love – fed my lambs – as Jesus directs Peter (John 21:15-17).  It is love that connects Jesus to the disciples (they abide in him and he in them), and to the Father (“… those who love me will be loved by my Father,” vs. 21).  It is through the Johannine formula of believing, loving, abiding and keeping Jesus’ commandments that we share in his full identity with the Father.  However, therein is an implicit warning: turn away from the Son, and one turns away from the Father.

So, that which appears at first glance to be conditional (do this, and…) is actually a relationship of mutuality.  The Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit) are in relationship with each other in one person, and the believer is brought into that relationship of love through the Son, and experiences the ongoing presence of God through the Advocate.  This is the Divine Dance of which scholars such as Richard Rhor have spoken.  And, it is a gift (vs. 15) from God through faith.

And so, like the disciples, we never alone.  We are never apart from the love and the presence of God.  As Paul powerfully declares:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).