Scripture can be found here...
The summer when I was seven years old, people all over the world were packing into movie theaters to watch and hear the cast of “Oliver!” tell the story of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist through song, dance, and the unforgettable face of a little boy.
The story starts in a bustling dining hall where thin, dirty children are being given a tiny portion of something called “gruel.” (Personally, I’d never heard of “gruel” before seeing this movie, but it sounded a lot like the word “cruel,” so I got the idea.) All the while they are singing their hearts out about real “Food, Glorious Food,” the likes of which they apparently haven’t seen for a while. After they eat, still hungry, the children engage in an old-school hunger game: they draw straws, and choose a boy to send to the front of the room. He is angelic-looking, a big-eyed blond child who is trembling in terror, and it is his job to stare up into the eyes of the enormous and mean looking man-in-charge, Mr. Bumble, and to say, on behalf of the others, “Please sir, I want some more.”
Of course, the wrath of that terrible man is visited on that little boy. Before long he has been dragged out of the orphan asylum, sold to an undertaker, and hurled down the mortuary steps into a basement where he perches next to a casket. Alone, desolate, he sings,
Where is love?
Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath a willow tree that I’ve been dreaming of?
Where is she?
Who I close my eyes to see?
Will I ever know the sweet ‘Hello’ that’s meant for only me?
Oliver is an orphan. He has suffered the worst of losses. He is a child with no parents, no known living relatives (not yet, anyway), in a society that considers him disposable. Children like Oliver may be bought and sold for profit, but they are not considered to have any sense of human dignity or value.
Our scripture passage this morning is from a portion of the gospel of John known as the “farewell discourse,” and it, too, has loss as its theme. This passage, which covers several chapters, takes place after the last meal shared by Jesus and his friends, before Jesus is arrested. In one way, it’s odd that we are reading this now, during the Easter season, as we celebrate the resurrection week after week. Since Easter Sunday we have continually reminded ourselves of the fact that God has the last word on death, and stands firmly and dramatically on the side of life. But the resurrection, eventually, leads to another conundrum. At some point, Jesus is no longer visible to his friends on earth. In some gospels he ascends into heaven like Ezekiel; in others, the gospel-writer is silent on exactly how this happens. But the end result is the same: it’s a loss. A different kind of loss than a violent death, to be sure. But a loss. all the same.
Here, in chapter 14, Jesus is anticipating that loss his friends will feel. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” In “Oliver Twist” Charles Dickens writes about the plight of orphans in nineteenth century England. And—spoiler alert—even though things work out alright for Oliver, we can see through the dozens of other characters described, that this particular boy is in a very tiny, very lucky minority. For most children in his situation, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
If anything, life as an orphan in Jesus’ day was even worse. The most dangerous thing to be in the biblical era was a child or woman with no adult male to claim you as family. When Jesus says those words, “I will not leave you orphaned,” he is doing two things. First, he is recognizing that those in his new faith community experience a connection to one another that is very much like a family. Jesus is the head of this family. His disappearance might well leave his friends feeling as bereaved as a child with no parents. But Jesus is doing something else as well. He is explaining how it is that his friends won’t be orphaned: he will be sending his Spirit to be with them, the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the word he uses is Parakleton, or “Paraclete.” It is translated in many, many ways. Our bibles use the word “Advocate,” which makes it sound a little like Jesus is sending us a good attorney. The King James Version translates it “Comforter,” which I like much better, because it seems to work nicely with the idea of not being orphaned. Other versions translate it “Companion” or “Helper.” But the root meaning of the word is elusive in English. It means, literally, “one who is called alongside.” And here’s the most important part. Jesus promises to send us another Paraclete/ Advocate/ Comforter/ Companion/ Helper. In other words, the Spirit will be there for us in many of the same ways Jesus is. Professor Karoline Lewis says this is the best description we have of the work of the Holy Spirit:
At the same time Jesus is saying goodbye, he promises the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time Jesus anticipates his arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, he assures his disciples that his presence will still be known in and by the Holy Spirit. At the same time the hearts of the disciples are troubled, they hear that the Comforter will come and be present with them always.[i]
We are still a few weeks away from Pentecost Sunday, which is the day we celebrate the sending of the Spirit and the birth of the church. But Jesus is getting the jump on our celebration. He’s sending the Spirit right away—to walk alongside us, to give us comfort, to help us, to be our ever-present companion. Jesus doesn’t want us to be bereaved. He wants to be with us.
And there’s another thing Jesus is doing: He is modeling for us ways we can be with one another. I have a question: When have you experienced the work of the Paraclete, the Comforter? Have you experienced someone walking alongside you at a difficult moment? Maybe you felt the Spirit’s presence with you in prayer or while meditating, lying on your bed in the night, or watching the sun as it rose in the morning. But maybe you felt it in the neighbor who brought you a bottle of water when you were overheated from mowing your lawn. Or maybe the Spirit drew alongside you in the co-worker who brought you some tea and asked if you needed to vent. Maybe you saw her in the nurse who adjusted your pillows just right, so that you could truly get some rest in a hospital bed. Or, maybe, the Spirit is made known to you consistently through one particular person—friend, partner, spouse, parent, child—who draws alongside you on an almost daily basis, listening, speaking the truth in love, and sharing life’s joys as well as its challenges.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our Presbyterian faith—tells us that the Spirit is, indeed, at work, with us, in us, alongside us, throughout our lives. The “Brief Statement of Faith” describes the actions of the Spirit, and they are many…
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believersin the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spiritwho inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.
In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace… [ii]
Jesus sends us the Spirit—he reassures us, and says, I will not leave you orphaned. And because he does that, literally everything that happens in our lives of faith has the Spirit as its author, its initiator. And, perhaps the most profound work of the Spirit is made possible through the friends whom God puts in our lives, the ones who really see us as we are. Who are the people in your life whom you can count on to tell you the truth, especially when you aren’t living into the fullness of who you are? And who are the ones for whom you can do that—be their Advocate? Be their Comforter? Be their Paraclete, the one who comes alongside and listens, and speaks the truth in love?
Even Oliver Twist has his Advocate… Nancy, who sees him as he really is, inside, and who gives everything—even her life—to protect him and see him safely to his true home. When have you felt the presence of the Comforter? And who is in need of that Comforter, right now, maybe, right next to you? How can each of us let the Spirit work in us, and through us, so that none of us will ever truly be orphaned?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Karoline M. Lewis, “A Paraclete Kind of Life,” Dear Working Preacher, Sunday May 14, 2017, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4886.
[ii] “A Brief Statement of Faith,” Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part I: Book of Confessions, 10.4, 53-71, p. 304.