Homily: I Will Not Leave You Orphans

In his farewell address, as Jesus summarizes his teachings one last time, he also reassures his bewildered disciples that they will not be left on their own, to fend for themselves, to rely on their own resources and their own wits. Undoubtedly this was a good thing; they couldn’t have managed any better than we could on our own! He will not leave them orphans, Jesus tells them, without a loving Father/Mother God to care for them. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Good News for Orphans” she expresses the feeling of security that children long for when they’re left alone. They want to be reassured that someone greater, stronger, smarter is not only present but in charge. And they want to be reassured that this someone loves them.

On the other side of both Easter and Pentecost, at the Last Supper, Jesus says good-bye to his followers. now that his ‘hour has come’. The longer he goes on, the more anxious and perplexed they are. The way he tells it, he is heading off to a family reunion with his father that no one else is invited to, and he is leaving them in charge while he is gone. And with centuries of faith between them and us, from where we sit it has been so long a time that some of us wonder if we have not been orphaned after all.

It reminds me of the spiritual, ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’. Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt, how terrified they must have been, after leaving everything behind for this Teacher, and then finding themselves outside “the mainstream” because of that decision.
They couldn’t just slip easily back into their lives; things would never be the same. And yet it wasn’t clear to them exactly how things were going to be. It was beyond the power of their imaginations. Even our imaginations, too, often fall far short of the dream of God, and Jesus’ words about love and obedience may seem like just that: words in a lovely speech long ago.

But they aren’t just pretty words. Jesus backs up his claims with a promise to send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to be with these disciples, and with all of us today, two thousand years later. The word ‘Paraclete’ means ‘someone called alongside to help or assist’, and this helper is our Advocate and Counselor, Intercessor and Comforter. He (or She; many consider the Spirit to be described in Scripture as a female presence) is a Comforter, giving strength and courage. We can turn to this Paraclete, then, as a source of what we need as disciples of Jesus, to compel ourselves to reach out to comfort a hurting world.

We don’t often enough speak of the Holy Spirit. It’s easier to imagine directly a Father God, or Jesus, the man of Nazareth than it is to imagine and relate to a Spirit who has defied our attempts to shape or describe Her. The Spirit remains a deep and often inaccessible Mystery, one that is nevertheless at the heart of our faith, a Mystery that never abandons us, just as Jesus promised. Because of the gift of the Spirit, we can live as people of hope and trust. We may be considered foolish by those who live without this hope, but it is the foolishness of the Spirit of God.

In two weeks, Pentecost Sunday will provide ample opportunity to reflect further on this Holy Spirit, but for now, we return to that hushed conversation between the departing Teacher and his anxious students. They are the future of the church, such as they are, and Jesus speaks to them not as individuals, each with his or her own private relationship with him, but as the church, the community of faith that is not timebound or limited to one little group of disciples, but includes all those generations, John’s community and ours as well, who are listening in on the conversation.

So we are not left alone; we are not orphans; we are ‘Easter people’. And a church full of ‘Easter people’ will be a place where grieving or searching souls can be comforted, encouraged, and strengthened” because they sense God’s presence and God’s Spirit in our midst, inspiring and sustaining the life we share together, nourished for ministry in the world God loves If we want to know whether we are truly living out what it means to be a church that loves as Jesus does, perhaps we can hold up our life together in the light of this claim.

There is one phrase here that, no matter how difficult it may be to understand, brings us right back to the heart of the message, in fact, we might say, brings it ‘home’: “…and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). Not visit. Not pass through from time to time. Not send a postcard. John only uses the word ‘home’ twice in his gospel, both times around the supper table. Is it any wonder that our church home has a table at its center, at the heart of our sacramental life together? This permanent home is a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites. It is John’s idea of heaven to move in with the God who has moved in with us. Does your church, and mine, the church of Pope Francis, does the Roman Catholic Church, look like “a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites”?

Mother Teresa, that great model of God’s non-discriminatory love, once said, “There is a light in this world, a healing Spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly, the Spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer it in extraordinary ways.”  (Kathryn Matthews Huey)

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