This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday May 21, 2017. The text for the sermon was John 14:15-21.
In our scripture for today Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
And like every child of the 80s, the word orphan first brings to mind one very famous little red-headed orphan. Do you know who I mean?
Yep. The little orphan Annie. The movie came out in 1982. If you haven’t seen it in one of it’s many versions, the story centers around a young girl living in an orphanage in the 1930s who gets plucked from obscurity to live with a rich benefactor, Oliver Warbucks, in order to improve his public image.
I saw this movie so many times as child (and I think I had a record of the soundtrack, too) that I still get songs from it stuck in my head. The song that pops into my head most often isn’t the more famous “Tomorrow” but the song “Maybe”.
“Maybe” is the opening song of the film. Picture little Annie perched in a windowsill of the Hudson Street Home for Girls, singing a song that envisions the life of her absent parents.
She sings, "Betcha they’re young. Betcha they’re smart. Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art. Betcha they’re good, why shouldn’t they be? Their one mistake was giving up me…"
Despite the peppy packaging, the film is about a little girl who is abandoned and vulnerable.
Like most six-year olds, what I could sympathize with in the film was the loneliness of the little girl in the window who had lost her parents. I think most human beings of any age share a same great fear of abandonment and isolation, loneliness and vulnerability.
As we are born, we all are dependent on other people to care for us and love us. As we age, there are times in life when transitions or tragedies occur, and we feel orphaned, like Annie in the windowsill, wondering “Am I all alone? What will become of me?”
Jesus knew people experience this kind of emotional distress. So, in our Scripture from the Gospel of John for today, Jesus is preparing his disciples for a time when he will leave and they may feel all alone.
At this time in John’s gospel account, we are still pre-Easter. Jesus has just washed the disciples feet, and shared his last meal with them. These disciples have left everything they have to follow Jesus, and now he is telling them he is leaving them soon. The one person they’ve built their lives around is going away. Just imagine how that must have felt! All the questions they must have had, “Will we be all alone? What will become of us?”.
These kinds of questions linger for many generations of Christians.
Speaking of generations of Christians, when we read the gospel of John, let’s note that the gospel came together in two stages. This will help us understand why the gospel story is still relevant today.
The first stage of development has it’s origin in the public ministry of Jesus. Meaning, people saw the events and heard the words Jesus spoke when he was alive and began telling each other stories about it. The second stage is later. The gospel was finally written down several generations after Jesus’ death.
The Gospel of John was probably written down in the late part of the first century, at a time when people may have been feeling bereaved and comfortless, wondering if they had been abandoned by Jesus. Wondering, like spiritual orphans, if they should hold onto their faith, or let it go.
But Jesus was nowhere to be seen. He had left the first disciples, and had not come back. So, to give themselves hope, the early Christians may have looked to Jesus’ reassurance to those first disciples that he would not leave them orphaned.
Jesus said, “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.”
(There are two Greek words to look at before we go forward. The first is “orphaned” and the second is “Advocate”: The first word “orphans” - orphanous - means parentless, yes, and also bereaved, desolate, or comfortless. The second word - the one that is translated as Advocate - “Paracleton” which means helper, counselor, encourager, or comforter. This word “Paracleton” is the first mention in the gospels of an advocate or helper that will remain with the disciples after Jesus is gone.)
To speak plainly: Jesus promises that he will not leave the disciples orphaned. Jesus promises a Spirit of truth that will take his place to be a helper, counselor, encourager, and comforter. The early church eventually understood this helper as the Holy Spirit, God’s constant presence in and with God’s people.
Today, for those of us hearing Jesus’ promise that he will not leave his people orphaned, the themes of the gospel tale remain the same. Like the disciples, and the early Christians, we have seasons and transitions in life where loss can leave us feeling abandoned, wondering, “What will I do now? Who will love me? Who stands on my side? What will become of me?”
The good news of the gospel story is that God keeps God’s promises. Like the first disciples and the early church, we have not been left orphans. The Holy Spirit abides with us to guide, help, comfort and encourage us.
I believe one of ways the scripture calls to us today is to remember Jesus has not left us orphaned. God is present in and among us. When life hits us hard, and we begin to feel like spiritual orphans, we can trust that we have an Advocate to comfort, help and encourage us in scripture, in prayer, and in a community of faith.
Speaking of communities of faith, another way the scripture may call out to us today is to help us have eyes to see that there are many people in our lives that feel like spiritual orphans, floating without spiritual anchor, who are looking for a safe harbor to connect with the Divine.
People are meant to be in loving community with one another. Jesus’ command is not an individual command of “Love God, and yourself”. Jesus said, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”'
Consider little orphan Annie on the windowsill. Her longing for a home and family was fulfilled in a most unexpected way. Maybe now it’s time for us to open our eyes to the spiritual orphans in our lives and to share with them the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.