6th Sunday after Easter
Some dates and years stand out with special significance, like the birth of a child, the year you were baptized or confirmed, or maybe a high school or college graduation. Besides those personally significant dates, there are other dates imprinted on our memory, dates that need no elaboration, like 9/11.
Rosemary Beales, an Episcopal priest in Maryland, says 1918 is one of those years.
In the fall of 1918, while the world was still gripped by the war that did not end all wars, another enemy attacked, a vicious and invisible enemy called Spanish Influenza. Like many illnesses, this one struck the weak and vulnerable—infants and the elderly. Unlike most, it also targeted the hardy, people in the prime of life, those who never got sick. Within days—sometimes hours—young workers, soldiers, parents, students fell deathly ill. Defenseless against a virus that led to raging pneumonia, with symptoms too ugly to describe, millions died.
In the midst of this worldwide pandemic, the little row house in Alexandria, Va., was unexceptional. In the second week of October, it sheltered five occupants, and awaited two more. By the third week of October, it held only two — her father, and his grandmother. Gone were his young grandfather; his father, 23; his mother, 21; and the twin girls she carried.
Laura Beales scooped up that baby boy, not yet a year old, and loved him as her own. Having buried five beloved relatives, she might have become lost in unimaginable grief. She might have simply shut down. Instead, she opened a boarding house and made it more than a business, more than a house—she made it a home.
Laura might have said to little Charlie, the baby orphaned by the Spanish flu, the words Jesus speaks today: "I will not leave you orphaned."
Everything Rosemary Beales knew of her great-grandmother Laura, she knew through the love she gave to her father. She died before her parents met, so it’s only through the way her father loved her that she had a glimpse of the woman who did not leave a little boy orphaned but who loved him with a mother’s heart.
It’s that kind of love that I think Jesus demands of his disciples when he says in today’s gospel: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."
The word used here for love—agape—describes the kind of love that Jesus had for his own: self-giving love that seeks the good of the other, generous, sacrificial love. It’s that kind of love he meant when he said, "I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you."
You remember the setting in which he said those words. It was the night before he would die, when the darkness of the world was closing in, and he had gathered his closest friends to share a final meal. Rising from the table, he took a towel, wrapped it around him like an apron, and bathed his disciples’ feet.
It was afterward, after they were all fed and bathed, that he said to them, "I have set you an example…Love one another as I have loved you."
That night, they had yet to see the depths of his love for them, a love that would lead to the cross and the tomb, that would tear him away from them. That night, they could not have guessed that they would lose him twice: that after his death, he would return in the glory of resurrection, and then be taken from their sight in the ascension. That night, they were still basking in his physical presence as he began the long farewell that we hear continued in today’s gospel.
Knowing that they have come to depend on his presence, Jesus wants to reassure this family of his, before he goes away, that he will return. Before he goes away, he tells them, "I will not leave you orphaned."
If that seems an odd phrase to use with grown, probably pretty gruff men, consider that the word John’s gospel uses for "orphan" means "torn away from." For men who had already been torn from families and occupations by their decision to follow him, his going away would be a grievous loss. Sure, they would have each other; he had told them to love each other—but I wonder just how consoling that was. Each one knew in his heart his own inability to love, Jesus-style; and so how could any of them trust the love he might receive from equally imperfect fellows?
But Jesus is giving them more than each other: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever"…to abide with you.
The sending of the Holy Spirit is what helps these disciples, and us, to keep Jesus’ commandment. The coming of the Holy Spirit is not the reward for perfectly following Jesus, but the means by which imperfect people can follow him at all. The Greek word translated as "advocate" or Paraclete —means "one called alongside, to help." How, without divine help, could we hope to love one another as Jesus loves us?
Loving stubborn fellow disciples; loving annoying neighbors and selfish siblings; loving strangers and sinners—that’s hard. But that’s the love Jesus demands when he says, "Love one another as I have loved you." That’s the love the Holy Spirit will help us live.
"If you love me," Jesus says, "you will love one another…If you love me, you will not leave one another orphans." You will not leave one another torn away. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, you will see that I am in the Father, and that you are in me and I am in you. Scooped up into the wholeness of the Trinity, you will know that you cannot be orphaned, that all God’s children are your beloved relatives.
Once you start seeing people that way, there’s no telling where you will be led: to people who have been orphaned in all kind of ways, torn away from people and places they love because of the tragic circumstances of their lives.
The beauty of seeing people this way is that you, too, become seen. Most of us wander around orphaned, at least from time to time, feeling alone in the world, because we are too often afraid to take the hand that reaches out to us, not recognizing it is the hand of Jesus. And in the same way, we are often too shy to reach out to others who might need us, not realizing that our hand is the very hand of God.
Through the example of Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will find that Jesus has indeed not left us orphaned, but loved, in a community where we belong.