Certain sects of Christianity are sometimes accused of being a lightweights when it comes to championing a robust theology of the Holy Spirit.
This morning’s Word of the Lord tearfully reminds the faithful how vital the Holy Spirit is in our lives and precisely why we need the Spirit of God in Christ.
Understand, first, the real dynamics – and the original acoustics – of this tender scene from John’s Gospel. In the ever-darkening days leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus tries to breathe comfort into hurting, confused, and disoriented souls. For us to avoid such similar heartfelt anxiety and genuine brokenness, you and I need the Spirit now as much as ever!
Which is why I’ll be preaching about the Holy Spirit for these next six Sundays leading up to Pentecost, the annual feast day of the Church when we revel in amazement of the sparks that fly as the Spirit descends upon a group of Christ’s early followers.
Rising from a handful of Old and New Testament readings will be lessons on the Holy Spirit’s role in quickening our faith, providing re-birth, and guiding our way. As we’ll re-discover, those blessings come through the gifts of the Spirit whose identities are many: Advocate, Guardian, Counselor, Guide, and Friend, to name but a few.
Let the story of God and us continue with this morning’s Good News: Jesus promises never to leave us orphaned. Those ancient, ever-true words blossom from the Word of the Lord. Listen, now, with heart and mind, soul and spirit.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus said.
“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.”
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:15-27)
Long before gender pronouns became one of the farcical battlefields in our ever-waging culture wars, I engaged in my own bit of fire-fueling – poking the bear, as it were – when I started referring to the Holy Spirit with the pronouns “she” and “her.”
My choice of spiritual pronouns has nothing to do with being “woke” and everything to do with my very first, tangible experience of the Holy Spirit at my side and doing her thing.
The Spirit began her marvelous work – or better said, the first time I realized the Holy Spirit was engaging in marvelous work – was revealed, in hindsight, over a business lunch with two clients of my freelance photography business, a side gig back in the day that supplemented my entry-level income as a freshly minted newspaper photographer. After the three of us had taken care of business, the conversation turned personal with the usual, get-to-know-you sharing of where each of us grew up and the family members we cherished.
Turns out, one of my hosts – a woman, Laurie – knew of my mother, who with my father lived in retirement about 75 miles away. Like my mother, Laurie was active in church choir circles, and she was pretty sure her vocal path had crossed with my mother’s at some time or another. Go figure! Small world, eh? After dessert, the three of us parted company to return to our respective workplaces.
I easily remember that crisp-but-sunny midwinter day, February 26, 1985 – because it was the day that my mother died, quite unexpectedly, at age 62, just a few weeks after cashing her first Social Security check. I was devastated, for as is so often true, mothers raise their sons. And mine was a great blessing to me, my dad, and many others.
Laurie, my business-lunch acquaintance, read my mother’s obituary in the paper and reached out to me a week or so after the funeral. Laurie and her family invited me to their home for dinner. Over our meal, knowing that one of the loves I shared with my mom was singing, Laurie invited me to join the tenor section of the choir she directed at the local Presbyterian church.
Thus began with Laurie and her family a close, nurturing, and loving relationship that helped soothe and heal the gaping wound that my mother’s death inflicted upon my heart.
Thus began my spiritual transfer from Roman Catholicism to Presbyterianism.
Thus began a very-real sense of God the Spirit working together unto good in my very own life!
The whole tearful drama surely rang with a certain irony.
At virtually the same moment as Laurie, her colleague, and I were having that business lunch, my mother’s soul was departing the bounds of earth. But when I aloud labeled it all an amazing coincidence, Laurie quickly refocused my understanding.
What I at the time considered a fluke she called “Holy Spirit stuff” – the Spirit working the midst of tragedy to create new life or point in the right direction when the way forward seems impassable: In this case, for me, being adopted like the quasi-orphan I’d just become into a new family who made my mother’s loss a whole lot more bearable. And much more hopeful. And way more spiritual. It was my a-ha moment of the Lord’s presence in my shattered life, and his hand upon my weary shoulders, and his love upon my broken heart.
“Holy Spirit stuff” – a first-person lesson learned from my friend Laurie, a woman, who by grace became my advocate, guardian, guide, and friend – all names that Scripture places upon the Holy Spirit. By my theological calculus, that adds up to the Holy Spirit being a “she.”
For me, God is neither male nor female yet both; Jesus is definitely a man, and the Holy Spirit – fair or not – embodies the characteristics I enjoyed first in my Mom and later in my friend Laurie. It was the promise of God in Christ, “I will never leave you orphaned,” and it was “Holy Spirit stuff” that cemented the Lord’s promise in my heart and mind.
“I will not leave you as orphans.” What prompts Jesus to say that?
That’s why understanding the dynamics and acoustics of our Scripture lesson is vital. Think about it:
The disciples are experiencing significant disorientation. Their little world is falling apart. The grim shadows of a death by crucifixion are drawing longer. Even Jesus no doubt is a sad-sack of a man, tears forming in the corners of his eyes; perhaps, chin and lips quivering. The Gospels all record that, on this night of his betrayal, Jesus is “troubled.” Um, ya!
What begins as your standard Passover meal becomes something quite jaw-dropping! One of their number has slinked out of the room only minutes earlier with the storm clouds of betrayal hovering above his head. The leader of their little band of followers has just been informed that, soon and very soon, the main thing he’ll be leading are the rats fleeing the sinking ship of Jesus Christ. And in and through it all, Jesus liberally peppers his speech with red-flag warnings of a sudden departure.
Maybe think about it like last weekend having Easter brunch with all your family. The gathering begins as a lovely affair but then flies far off the rails when suddenly Dad uses the occasion to inform everyone that he’s having an extra-marital affair, that he’s in love with another woman, and that he and Mom will soon be divorcing for the good of all. Ringing the rim of your Easter table would be tears, glassy-eyed stares, confusion and disorientation almost too great for anyone to bear!
The Upper Room that night must have been like that.
And so, as he talks about the Holy Spirit and everything else, Jesus is staring into moist eyes, gazing sadly upon Peter, who cannot keep his own chin from quivering with emotion. Jesus is looking at Judas, not Iscariot, who appears about as befuddled as a human can look. Thick fear pollutes the upper room air, very nearly to the point of instilling panic.
And out of that tense atmosphere, deep love and everlasting compassion motivate Jesus to promise, “My friends, I will not abandon you. I will not leave you as orphans. Please stop crying, please stop being so afraid, as I know you are. It’s going to be OK. Really!
“I know this looks and sounds bad – and parts of what is to come will be nasty-ugly. But in the end I will be with you in a way you cannot even fathom right now. The Holy Spirit really will help. Through the Spirit you really will understand, and you really will still be connected in an absolutely real and living way to me. It’s gonna be OK!”
As in that Upper Room long ago, so also now: Jesus understands our loneliness, and our fears, and our grief, and our sense of abandonment – not by some divine, all-knowing power devoid of personal feelings or experience. Jesus feels all our pain from the inside out as the loneliest man who ever lived – the One who utterly died alone, orphaned for a short while from even the presence of his Father and Spirit.
When this One tells you that you are not abandoned like some orphan, he means it.
Even all these centuries and millennia later, we still are not orphans. We are never alone. Jesus forever is as good as his Word. It’s Holy Spirit stuff.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, April 16, 2023, the second Sunday of Easter at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the first of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Gail R. O’Day inform the message.