You Are Not Alone
A sermon on John 14:15-21
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here;
Photo by bhuvanesh gupta on Unsplash]
You are not alone.
If you remember nothing else from my sermon, or from our worship today, I want you to remember that. Jesus has promised: “you are not alone.”
Jesus made this promise to his followers when they were feeling desperate, anxious, and grieved – just as many of us probably are today. It was Jesus’s last night with his friends, and he had told them that he was about to leave them. They were facing the disruption of all their expectations and the loss of the one who had been the center of their lives. And as a message of consolation and encouragement, Jesus makes a protracted goodbye speech – his farewell discourse.
We heard part of it last week, in Jesus’ reassurance to Thomas that – despite Thomas’s protest – the disciples do know the way to follow him. They know “the way, the truth, and the life” because they know Jesus. They have only to continue in the path that Jesus has started them on, and he will still be with them, even after he is gone from body.
Today’s reading is a continuation of this same thought that they should not be grieved or distressed at his departure, because he will still be with them, just in a different way. I deeply believe that this reassurance is the center of Christ’s message for his first disciples and for us in a moment of fear and grief…
But I have to admit. The phrasing of this passage gets it my way. The problem is the very first word in the reading: IF
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
I so wish this were not a conditional phrase. I actually looked up the Greek, hoping for some wiggle room in the translation. I thought maybe this was one of those words that can mean either “if” or “because” – ancient languages can be funny that way. But no. There is no wiggle room here: the word is clearly “if”, a conditional particle… a word that “denote indefiniteness or uncertainty.”
But uncertainty is the very last thing we need right now. Almost EVERYTHING else feels uncertain.
Our health, and the health of our loved ones is uncertain.
The economy and when, or even whether, it will recover is uncertain.
Our children’s and grandchildren’s education, and activities – the building blocks for the rest of their lives – feel fragile and uncertain.
When we can return to church… how we will return to church… how many of us will be able to return to church… it’s all uncertain.
It seems pretty obvious to me that what we need from Jesus right now is safety, and security, and assurance, NOT uncertainty. A message of reassurance that is dependent on my entirely flawed and inadequate ability to love God, does not feel like reassurance to me.
Especially when the evidence I am being called to produce to demonstrate my love for God is the evidence of loving others as Christ has loved us. That’s clearly the commandment Jesus is referring to. The commandment that we read on Maundy Thursday, but that Jesus spoke just a few verses earlier in his farewell discourse, and which is, moreover, the only commandment of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel.
Now, I want to be thrilled that this is where Jesus is pointing our energy and attention – not to some list of rules for moral purity, but to how we care for one another. In another time or context, I might be searching for that Chris Helmsworth meme that just says “This.” Yes! This! Love one another. That’s how we show that we love God.
But here and now… I’m tired, and I’m anxious, and I’m overwhelmed. And I know that so many of you are also tired, and anxious, and overwhelmed. And the if in Jesus goodbye message feels like a sentence of judgement:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
If you love me. you will overcome your own fear and needs in order to lay down your life for others the way I did.
If you love me,
you won’t think nasty thoughts about the people reacting to stay-at-home orders differently than you do;
and you won’t ever snap at your family members even though you haven’t had a single momentary break from them in two months;
and you will become a different person than you actually are and be guided by self-giving love in every interaction… because that is what it would mean to truly love one another as Jesus has loved us.
And that feels impossible, which makes the if sound like an accusation; a declaration of failure. If you loved me enough, you would do what you are not really doing, so you must not really love me.
Except…. Except there’s more to Jesus’s goodbye than the conditional “if.”
There’s also the promise:
“I will ask… and God will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.”
“I will not leave you orphaned.”
“Because I live, you also will live.”
In other words: “you are not alone”
If we can lean into these promises. If we can let down our defensive guard enough to trust the Jesus is not offering us a false hope… then we can hear past the “if” to the life-giving support that Jesus is promising.
He promises to send what our reading called “another Advocate”, and here the Greek IS helpful is drawing deeper meaning and hope out of his words. The word that Jesus uses for God’s Spirit is parakletos. At its most essential root it means one who comes alongside to help. The role of the promised Spirit is to be with us; to accompany us; to abide with us.
Of course, in a moment of fear, grief, and uncertainty… that might not quite feel like enough. There’s still the if of all the ways we regularly fail. There’s still the chaos of our world. We might be tempted to ask, how does it really help us to have the Spirit of God sitting with us in the midst of a crisis?
I think there’s a helpful answer to that question in a somewhat non-canonical source: Winne the Pooh.
I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but I think it bears repeating. The story goes like this:
"(One day) it occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore. “Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh. “Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet,” said Eeyore, in a glum sounding voice. “We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”
Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather sad, and alone, and not much fun to be around at all, which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is sad, and alone, and not much fun to be around at all, would you now.”
Pooh looked at Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.
Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?” “We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling sad, or alone, or not much fun to be around at all. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.” “Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better."
I wonder, I wonder if that kind of sitting with is what Jesus means when he promises that God will send us a parakletos, an Advocate, a Comforter whose most essential nature is to come alongside us to help. And I wonder, if that’s true, whether that same coming alongside is what he is asking of us in calling us to love God by keeping his command to love one another.
Perhaps God’s Spirit isn’t the reward we get if we love God, but rather the one who helps us to love God and one another, by first loving us… even… especially when we are feeling uncertain, and anxious, and sad, and “not much fun to be around at all.”
It might not be the certainty that we are longing for in the midst of disruption, fear, and loss. But it’s something stronger. It’s love. It’s the promise and the reality, that we are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
 Author A.A. Milne. Source: Pastor Serve: https://pastorserve.net/the-theology-winnie-the-pooh/