Called Alongside

Called Alongside

May 21, 2017
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, May 21
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Focus Theme:
Called Alongside

Focus Prayer:
Living and gracious God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have brought us out to a spacious place where we are called to live as those redeemed. Empower us by your Spirit to keep your commandments, that we may show forth your love with gentle word and reverent deed to all your people. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 14:15-21

[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; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 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."

All readings for the week:
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Focus Questions:

1. Why do you think the disciples were anxious and distresed?

2. What difference does your hope make in the world?

3. How are personal faith and public love related?

4. What do you think an extraordinary life looks like?

5. When has your church been "a giant heart of a place"?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

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.

According to Richard Burridge, the word "orphan" can also refer to the disciple of a departed teacher, but Barbara Brown Taylor's beautiful sermon, "Good News for Orphans" (in Gospel Medicine), uses the parent/child image to describe 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.

The time for saying good-bye

As usual, we get the sense that the disciples are as lost as we would have been, back there, on that side of both Easter and Pentecost. John, by the time he writes his Gospel, does know about both the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit (John's "Pentecost" actually occurs later on the same day as the Resurrection). Here, he tells the story of Jesus saying good-bye to his followers, now that his "hour has come," before he goes to his death.

The longer Jesus goes on (and it is a very long farewell speech), the more anxious and perplexed the disciples are. As Taylor says, "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 even with Easter, and Pentecost, and centuries of faith between them and us, Taylor says, "from where we sit it has been so long that some of us wonder if we have not been orphaned after all."

Things would never be the same

Taylor's words remind 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 definitely "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: that was beyond the power of their imaginations. Again, even with Easter and Pentecost, 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.

Not just pretty words

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. Burridge says that "the word 'Paraclete' means 'someone called alongside' to help or assist," and this helper is our "advocateÖCounselor and IntercessorÖComforter." But he draws on the original meaning of the word "to comfort," which is to give strength or courage, and we can turn to this Paraclete as a source of what we need as disciples of Jesus, in ministry to a hurting world.

We don't often speak of the Holy Spirit in many of our churches today. It's easier to "access" a Father God, or Jesus, "the man of Nazareth" (and "our crucified and risen Savior"--see the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith) than it is to imagine and relate to a Spirit who has defied our attempts to shape or describe "Him" or "Her" (many consider the Spirit to be a feminine presence). 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.

Reading the signs of the times

Dianne Bergant explores the role of the Spirit in our lives as S/He "enables us to interpret the signs of the times in ways very different from the ways of the world. It is the Spirit who works through us for the transformation of the world." Because of the gift of the Spirit, she writes, 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: it includes all those generations, John's community and ours as well, who are listening in on the conversation.

What is expected of us?

The little band of John's community would also be an embattled and uncertain little church, in need of reassurance and promises and yet, in need of a challenge, too. Maybe, though, we all need to know exactly what the expectations are. We want to measure up, fulfill our obligations, make the grade, do what's right, please God (and maybe others, too).

So what does Jesus tell his disciples to do? He tells them to keep his commandments, and we all know what those are. What mattered to Jesus was love, and it's no surprise that "love" is right there, in the very same sentence with "obey my commandments."

Love and grace

The scholars seem to wrestle with Jesus' command, or better, his observation that "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." It almost sounds as if all our talk of grace is meaningless in the face of a requirement like that. Does it really all come down to this--that we need to obey the rules (to love) and earn our way to heaven?

We might respond, first, that the commandments that mattered to Jesus were those two about loving God and loving our neighbor. And, we might add, he expanded (by his words and deeds) our understanding of those commandments to include things like forgiveness, praying for our enemies, caring about the poor and the marginalized, and ordering our lives well, including our use of money--the thing we mostly don't want to talk about in church; none of this is easy!

As simple as this

Second, perhaps Jesus isn't making a conditional statement but instead is putting forth an obvious fact: when you love someone, really, really love someone, doing what is good and right comes so much more naturally and easily. Parents can be a good illustration of this: it may be a challenge at times to be a parent, but the love one feels for one's children makes it a "no-brainer" to do what's good for them even when it's not easy.

It's obvious (in every age), even natural, that if you love your children, you're going to take good care of them. Think of the story of King Solomon and the two mothers in 1 Kings 3. It was clear to all gathered which woman really loved the child, and therefore who the mother was. Perhaps Jesus' statement is in that same spirit: if, then.

Change is coming

In any case, he's speaking to a group and not to an individual, and preparing them for what is to come. Things are going to change, and change fast, and, Gail R. O'Day says, that will affect how the disciples will carry out Jesus' command, even how they will show their love for him after he's gone, neither "by clinging to a cherished memory of him nor by retreating into their private experience of him," but by "doing his works (vv. 12-14) and by keeping his commandments (vv. 15-24)." When the disciples walk the talk and "live what Jesus has taught them and demonstrated in his own life, then they will find themselves once again in his love."

We might reflect then on the "public" love of the Incarnation, the promises and challenges given to a community that continues in us today, and the presence of God through the Holy Spirit with us, right now, right here, in our life together as the church. Charles Cousar says, "The relationship between disciples and Teacher is not to degenerate into sentimentality or into a wistful nostalgia once he has gone, about 'how wonderful things were when Jesus was with us.'" No, instead, "Love expresses itself in obedience, in keeping Jesus' words."

Will they know us by our love?

What would this obedience look like in our faith journeys today: would anyone be able to pick us out of a crowd as followers of Jesus, because of our love? This is more than individual acts and momentary flights of spirituality--it's an "extraordinary" way of life, Bergant writes, that follows the way of Jesus (we recall that early Christianity was called "The Way"). If we live and love as Jesus did, we will do so "with clear consciences, with gentleness and reverence. The love that comes to us through the Spirit will overflow into the lives of others. We will be agents of God's love in the world." Indeed, those we encounter will sense that the Spirit animates our individual and our collective lives.

This Spirit-led way of living may not always harmonize with the values of a world that is materialistic, competitive, and often full of empty promises, but then, she writes, there is a "breach," Bergant says, "between the world and the things of God....The world is captive to materialism, open only to what is tangible. It cannot see the Spirit." I just love that phrase, "agents of God's love in the world." It's so active and inspiring for everyday life.

Will they know us by our hope?

When I think about Bergant's reference to a "breach" in this world, between the values of materialism and those of our shared spiritual life, I don't want to pass too quickly by. I wonder, for example, if we have, in our "regular" lives, either avoided speaking of the Spirit that animates those lives and the life of the church, or spoken of Her/Him in ways that put off too many people.

There is a tension here, I think: I would never claim that only people of faith can be loving, self-giving, generous and just. But I do think that talking too much about the Spirit, that is, leading with the talk and not the walk, has sometimes, even often, turned people off. Of course, hypocrisy (in so many forms) is undoubtedly the number one reason people are turned off by religion (or at least by religious people), but I do think that we need to find ways to share the Good News of the Spirit who has been "called alongside" us, to help us when we feel weak and broken and not up to the tasks of healing, loving, and courageous witness that The Way involves.

What is most pressing now

Or perhaps our own lives, at this moment, are so damaged, so hurt, even chaotic, that our call is to live this day in trust, in hope, to persist, one day at a time, even when all seems hopeless around and within us. This may be internal, an inside problem for the church and for us as individuals seeking spiritual meaning. If Jesus has called the Spirit to be "alongside" us, can't we simply ask that Spirit for help whenever we need it? The question is, do we think to ask? We can sing that beautiful song about the Spirit "falling afresh" upon us, whenever we are in need. We will probably find, as we sing, that the Spirit has been here, all along.

When I was growing up in the church, "hope" seemed more obviously a thread in the fabric of faith. Not just doing good works and avoiding sin, but living in hope. (Maybe, if we lived in hope, we would find it easier, more natural, to do good works and to avoid sin.) I once took an entire course in "Christian Hope." It was really about eschatology, but I find myself seeking hope, or seeking a strengthening of my hope, in my life, day by day, right here and now. And I listen as my friends, inside the church and out, describe a fraying of their own hope. What is the response of the church to that fraying? If faith can be described as trust, what is hope to you? How does the Spirit strengthen your hope?

Nourished for ministry

So we are not left alone; we are not orphans; we are "Easter people." And Richard Burridge writes that "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 loving Jesus, perhaps we can hold up our life together in the light of this claim.

Barbara Brown Taylor always brings a text like this one, no matter how difficult, right back to the heart of the message, in fact, she 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, not just architecturally but at the heart of our sacramental life together? This "permanent" home, Taylor writes, 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, does the United Church of Christ, look like "a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites"? May the Spirit make it so. Amen.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, 20th century
"Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance."

Sandy Olson, Alternatives for Simple Living, 20th century
"I read a wonderful quote from the twelfth century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, that gave me pause. She described the Holy Spirit as 'the Greening Power of God.' Of course she did not intend that in the context that we might mean by "Greening" something, that is, making it more environmentally friendly. She meant, I believe, that as plants are greened by water, sunlight, and soil, the human soul is 'greened' by the Holy Spirit's presence in one's life. Because of the Holy Spirit the human soul can 'flower and bear good fruit.'"

The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"My call for a spiritual revolution is thus not a call for a religious revolution. Nor is it a reference to a way of life that is somehow other-worldly, still less to something magical or mysterious. Rather, it is a call for a radical re-orientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self towards concern for the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others' interests alongside our own."

Richard Attenborough, 21st century
"There is a LIGHT in this world. A healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometime lose sight of this force when there is suffering, and too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways."

Jeremy Taylor, 17th century
"Since the days of Pentecost, has the whole church ever put aside every other work and waited upon Him for ten days, that the Spirit's power might be manifested? We give too much attention to method and machinery and resources, and too little to the source of power."

Albert Einstein, 20th century
"My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."

Wendell Berry, 20th century
"The soul, in its loneliness, hopes only for 'salvation.' And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is therefore the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them."

Margaret Mead, 20th century
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

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