I know you heard a beautiful retelling of John 14:15-21. I love the way that retelling makes the story so vivid. I want to read it now from the NRSV.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask God, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees the Spirit nor knows the Spirit. You know the Spirit, because the Spirit abides with you, and 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 God, 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 God, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
This version begins: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And then it ends: They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by God, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’” Which commandments? Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John does not have Jesus commanding us to go the second mile or turn the other cheek. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, we are not commanded in John to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, there is no commandment in John to keep awake, praying at all times.
No in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives only a single commandment and it occurs in the chapter just prior to our scripture lesson for today. John chapter 13, verses 34 and 35 read: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
And then if anyone is confused, in the chapter following today’s reading we find: John 15:12-13: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” and my commandment is that you love one another - that you love one another as I have loved you. Love. That’s it. That’s the gospel: love.
William Sloan Coffin wrote: “We are as we love, for if we fail in love, we fail in all things else. There is no smaller package in the world than that of a person all wrapped up in himself. So look out preachers who dangle your hearers over the flames of hell. You may scare them but you can’t save them, and you probably can’t save yourselves either, for it sounds as if you hate evil more than you love the good. And if that’s true you’ll only end up very good haters. Look our scholars who’s truths are not rooted in compassion. You may be very clever but you’ll never be wise. Look out patriots. Though American blood be shed, that doesn’t make the cause one whit more sacred, for in and of itself sacrifice confers no sanctity. Look out parents, more interested in discipline than in good old body warmth. And look out kids. You may have been abused by your parents; you may have been hurt by discrimination, unemployment, gang warfare, teachers - you name it. You don’t hurt back. Not if you know who you are. For we are as we love. . . . Who says Christianity has been tried and found wanting? It’s be tried and found difficult. Only the strong can be tender.” I wish I could read you the entire sermon. I won’t but as Coffin continues, and this is a sermon about 1 Corinthians 14, he writes this: “The trick is not to hand over your identity to others. Some people - too many in fact - need enemies to tell them who they are. One of the beautiful characteristics of Martin Luther King, Jr. was that he did not. His identity was a matter between God and himself; white folks didn’t enter in. Therefore King was free to love white folks because he didn’t have to hate them. He was free to rejoice in the right. You rejoice in the wrong only when you need enemies to tell you who you are.”
We are as we love. Only the strong can be tender. We are only able to love when we don’t need to hate. Is this perhaps what Jesus is getting at when in Matthew he tells us to love our enemies, to do good to those who persecute us?
In John, Jesus gives one commandment: to love. And that’s it. But that is far from easy. In fact some days it feels impossible. For John, there’s only one question: In what ways did I love today? And for me, there are some days that my answer embarrasses me. “We are as we love for if we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”
But that’s not the end of it. Thank God, this commandment to love is not the end of it because some days I can’t and some days I won’t and some days I don’t and sometimes I need help, most of the time I need help! “‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask God, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees the Spirit nor knows the Spirit. You know the Spirit, because the Spirit abides with you, and 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.’”
We are not abandoned to do this love, not left alone. In the Gospel of John it is clear that the Spirit will come only after Jesus departs. God will send another advocate - for John, Jesus is the first advocate and while Jesus was physically present another advocate was not needed. Jesus embodied the love he asks of each of us: providing a model, a teacher, a way.
While Jesus walked the earth, his ministry was limited by time and space, limited to his embodiment of it. But when he physically leaves, we are given the Spirit: the comforter, the advocate, the counselor, the helper. The word here for Spirit can be translated each of these ways. The word is paraclete and it only appears five times: four times in John 14-16 and once in 1 John 2:1. The Spirit is specifically said to do the following: teach, remind (14:26), abide (14:16), and testify about Jesus (15:26).
Jesus is preparing the disciples for when he will no longer be present in a physical way. They have become accustomed to him appearing here and there offering words of peace, cooking breakfast on the shore over a fire, walking along the road, being made known in the breaking of bread. But these appearances will stop. Jesus is leaving. And they, and we, are not left orphaned, not abandoned to figure out this way of love on our own. Another advocate is coming, indeed, is here, among us, in us and with us, urging us in paths of peace and justice, compelling us to love.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask God, and God will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 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.” This is an exacting commandment and a powerful promise. Love. You are not abandoned. You do not do this love alone.
Sometimes I feel abandoned. Sometimes I feel like an orphan - like a motherless child a long long way from home. Jesus certainly knows what it is to feel abandoned. Before we can get to the stories of Eastertide, we have the stories of his arrest, trial, and execution, we have his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’ promises are from a fellow struggler, from one who knows what it is to suffer, from one who knows what it is to be abandoned, to feel completely isolated. Jesus speaks from a place of deep empathy.
These words about love and comfort, these promises of connection: “I am in God, and you in me, and I in you” - they don’t take the pain away. This is not the comfort of everything is okay or even that everything will be okay.
These words are part of Jesus’ farewell speech. Jesus is leaving. The disciples are going to be forced to face their grief and anguish yet again. These promises are born of the pain of coming separation. We are to love and we will not be abandoned and we will be given a comforter and everything is not okay.
How do we love when everything is not okay? How do we love when according to Johns Hopkins University, as of June 17 116,963 Americans have already died of the coronavirus? And that’s just the number we know, that’s the number with completely inadequate testing. The virus has claimed 435,000 people around the world. How do we love when everything is not okay? How do we love when unemployment claims continue to climb? How do we love when we are being pushed to return to normal when the virus continues to rage and people are not taking needed precautions? How do we love when we are being pushed and threatened to return to normal when the normal we once knew will never exist again? How do we love when racism rages in our country and people are murdered, abused, maligned? In John, Jesus gives us one commandment, to love, but how do we do it?
Surely part of how we love is modeled in these words attributed to Jesus. We love by advocating, by comforting, by joining. We don’t pretend everything is okay. We walk the path of love led by divine mystery knowing we are not alone.
This is not easy love. Not emotional bosh. This is the love of resistance, this is the love that demands our courage, our strength, our willingness to see what is happening. Because of systems of oppression and entrenched racism this pandemic and economic collapse are targeting people of color disproportionately. The way of love resists any narrative that suggests that people who are suffering are to blame because they didn’t work hard enough. The way of love demands that we see what is happening and then refuse to ignore it, and not just see, but act. The long and murderous history of seeing black bodies as a threat must be interrupted. No more. We must speak and work with outraged love for justice.
Jesus was executed, slaughtered on a cross. The disciples saw it. They were there. They believed he would change things, bring justice and peace and instead he was murdered. Peace and justice did not happen in the ways they expected and then Jesus was gone. They were devastated, full of despair. In this resurrection appearance, Jesus is assuring the disciples that Jesus will continue with them, that they will in mystery abide together through time and space.
Jesus, a murdered black man, speaks from the grave. He tells us after death what he told us in life, that love is what matters, that God’s kingdom is up to us: God’s kingdom of peace and justice will only exist if we live the way, the way of love.
Men who look more like Jesus than any white person are being slaughtered. Who is Jesus? Jesus is George Floyd. Jesus is Breonna Taylor. Jesus is Ahmaud Arbery. Jesus is Tamir Rice. Jesus is Travon Martin. Jesus is Sandra Bland. Jesus is Emmett Till. Jesus is the millions of people of color slaughtered. Jesus is murdered again and again by prejudice and power and each time he begs us to change, begs us to follow in the way of love. What if we finally listen? What if we finally follow the commandment to love?
“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by God, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”