This is a difficult text to preach, and you know why. It seems to make everything rest on our love for Jesus. If we love Jesus, we will obey His commandments. Whoever has and does His commandments is the one who loves Him and will be loved by His Father and Him. What comfort is there in this? What hope? What a message to leave disciples who are already feeling orphaned!
The disciples are feeling like orphans right now. It's Maundy Thursday. Jesus has just told them He's going away and they can't come with Him. The Jesus whom they had spent the last 3 years with virtually day and night was going. The Jesus on whom they had pinned their mistaken notions of an earthly Messiah would not be there to lead them. The Jesus whom the crowds on Palm Sunday were just beginning to accept was telling them He would not be around to reign in the way they thought He would.
Jesus let the wind out of their sails, but as we heard last week, He also told them they don't have to be troubled by this. Would a Jesus who had just finished telling them, "Let not your hearts be troubled," put everything on their heart's ability to love and keep His commandments? When your child is upset and anxious do you calm him by saying, "Everything will be all alright if you love and obey me?" If even us sinful parents don't do that, let's not think our perfect Lord does.
Furthermore, would the Jesus who had just finished telling them that their love for Him would falter, i.e. they would desert Him, now pin everything on their love? Would the Jesus who had for the last 3 years watched His disciples time and again break His commandments now pin their comfort and hope, their certainty of being loved by Him on their ability to keep His commandments? I think not.
What's happening is that Jesus' disciples are feeling orphaned, and Jesus goes from the one thing orphans have to all a disciple really needs. Orphans have love for their parents. It may be weak; it may be even be wrong, but orphans have love for their parents. They may make their parents into something they were not but they love them. Such intense love for Jesus burns within the hearts of the disciples. Even when they fail to understand, even when they fail at doing what He says, they still love Jesus and their heart breaks at His going.
Jesus comforts them based on the one thing they still have, not faith, not confidence, not obedience, but love. He says, "If ever you love Me, no matter how weakly or misguided, My commandments you will keep." Jesus doesn't say, "You must keep them; No, Jesus says you will keep them." This is not a command; it is a promise. "This love for Me that burns in your orphaned heart is enough. This love that breaks your heart and just wants Me here is enough. In My view, it's enough. Put out of your head your fears and troubles, and know you're really not orphans at all. I still claim you as children."
Now isn't this the kind of thing you say to your kids when they're sad about you going? You don't cheer them or comfort them by pointing to all that they need to do while you're gone. No, you recognize their love for you, and you assure them that their love isn't too weak or too wrong. Their love for you is enough for you to recognize them as your dear children.
Having dealt with the apparent harshness of this text, we turn now to its substance: to the fact we're not orphans when it looks like we are. It looks like we're all alone here. All human relationships run smack into the high wall of death. We see our relationships one by one dissolve without fail in death. As Gilbert O'Sullivan sings, we end up "Alone again naturally."
Orphans are considered the most helpless of all people. No father or mother to take up for them. No parent to provide, guide, or guard them. And isn't that how you feel in this world? Big Brother government can't protect us from senseless violence. All knowing science can only do so much against disease and nature. Eventually Science throws its hands up the air and says, "There's nothing more I can do." Yes, there is only so much we can do against sin, sickness, and evil in this world and it's never enough. Like orphans we feel we are at the mercy of forces bigger than us.
Alone and helpless, however, aren't the worst of being orphaned. No, far worse is feeling unloved. The world only offers conditional love. The kind of love people think Jesus is offering in this text. If you love me and keep my commandments, then I will love you. Yes, that is how it is with the world. The world loves you if you show by your dress, behavior, or language that you keep it's commandments. The world loves its own; all else are orphans.
In the face of a world that has abandoned us, we're left folding our arms across our chest, jutting out our lip, stomping our feet, and saying, "I'm not an orphan." And the more we stomp, the more we protest, the more we assert we're not orphans, the more apparent it is that we are.
No orphan became un-orphaned by pouting, or by positive thinking, or by anything he or she did. Someone else had to act to un-orphan them. Jesus is acting in this text. He deals with this orphaned feeling we have in this fallen world. Because we don't see God except in weak things like Water, Bread and Wine, and we only hear Him in the still small voice of preaching which is all but drowned out by the din of the world, it's so easy to feel orphaned.
Over against that feeling, Jesus promises that He has not left us alone in this world. He has asked the Father and the Father has sent another Counselor. When Jesus left the earth visibly, we didn't lose a Counselor, we gained one. Jesus asked the Father and the Father sent the Spirit as another Counselor. But the idea of this Greek word doesn't make the Holy Spirit a divine "Dear Abby." The word translated Counselor is also translated Comforter or Advocate. It refers to one who comforts and aids the guilty in particular.
Jesus promises that even in our wretched sinfulness, He won't leave us alone. Even though our sins warrant God abandoning us, He won't. He'll stand by us in our sinfulness. He'll take up our cause even though we're guilty. His love and commitment to us is stronger than our sins. What else could Good Friday mean? He wouldn't come down off the cross then; He wouldn't let us pay for our own sins then. Surely, He won't do it now or ever. Jesus has already decided to stand by us. Not even our sins can orphan us now.
We're not alone or helpless in this world. We're not orphaned at all says Jesus. His going doesn't leave us orphaned but gives us another Advocate, another Counselor, another Comforter. Notice the word another. Jesus isn't playing "tag-team" with us. He doesn't ascend to heaven, slap hands with the Holy Spirit and leave us to Him. No, right after Jesus says, "I'll not leave you as orphans," He adds, "I come to you." He doesn't say as the bulletin translates, "I will come to you." It's all present tense. Jesus says even as He goes away from them, He comes to them.
When Jesus walked the earth visibly, He could be away from His disciples. He was at Mary and Martha's; they were in Jerusalem. He was on the shore; they were in the boat. But not anymore. Jesus promises that He comes to them. In the waters of Baptism, they actually put Him on. Jesus always comes to people in their Baptism. The preaching of the Word and the pronouncing of absolution is the voice of Jesus Himself. In preaching and absolving sins, Jesus still speaks to sinners. And in Communion, Jesus says He comes to our physical space and time. Far from being away from us, Jesus is as close as that Bread and Wine. His Body and Blood are on the altar, in our hands, in our bodies.
Jesus doesn't tell you He is coming. Jesus doesn't say He will come. Jesus says, "I come." If Jesus comes to us always, then we are never, ever alone. Not in sickness, not in sinfulness, not even in death. He can be no farther away from us than the heavenly Father could be away from Him. He's in the Father; we are in Him, and He is in us. Friends, this isn't a divine physics lesson. It's a divine promise that as there can be no space within the Holy Trinity, so there can be no space between the Holy God and unholy sinners because when Jesus ascends to the Father He takes us with Him.
Jesus closes His anti-orphan sermon by assuring us that we are literally under the Father's love. In the beginning He assured us fearful orphans that in His view our timid loving hearts keep all His commandments. He ends by saying, "As surely as I have said you have and keep My commandments, so surely do you love Me and are loved under the Father." The Father loving us is in the passive. That means nothing in us or about us causes us to be loved. Not our love, not our faith, not our commandment keeping. God's love gushes from God's heart for Jesus' sake, and Jesus says we're under the waterfall.
The love of God is unconditional. He doesn't love us because of something about us or something we do for Him. No, He loves graciously, freely, without any merit or worthiness in us. We are not orphans who have to worry that if we don't please our new Father He will kick us out. No, for Jesus' sake the Father has set His love on us and nothing in all of creation, not sin, not death, not the devil can separate us from this love.
Friends, the world looks at us and sees orphans. Orphans left alone in the world, helpless against sin, sickness, and death; unloved and uncared about by our heavenly Father. The world taunts us to prove we're not orphans, and sometimes we try. We stand their stomping and pouting saying, "I'm not an orphan." But here Jesus reveals to us what we could never know by looking at the world. We're more children of the heavenly Father now that He has ascended and sent His Holy Spirit than we ever were before. No pouting, no stamping, no asserting, just the sweet realization, "Hey, I'm not an orphan after all." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter VI(20080427); John 14: 15-21