May 14, 2023
John 14: 15–21
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he 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 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.’***
It was my first trip to Haiti and within hours of arriving I knew it would unlike any other place I had been in the world. The focus of this trip was educational and each day the leader of our group introduced us to an NGO (Non-governmental organization) that aimed to improve life for Haitian people.
Throughout the trip, my mind was stretched trying to grasp the multi-faceted dimensions behind the poverty, chaos and hardship that was everywhere. My gracious Haitian host tried many times to explain, but still I left the country confused and unsettled, so much that I made two more trips there in subsequent years trying to understand.
Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Maybe you or someone you know has enjoyed vacationing there in one of those all-inclusive resorts on the beach, where every taste and sip is delicious, every smell a pleasure and every view spectacular. Little of that exists on the other half of the island. In fact, when flying into Haiti’s international airport, the dividing line between the two countries is visible from the air. The Dominican Republic is green and lush and Haiti is brown and nearly barren. The reasons are plentiful and go back 300 years when colonials enslaved the local population to clear land for coffee plantations. Other crops followed and then the Haitian Revolution, which left Haiti in debt to France for $90 million franc. The debt was based on the claim by France that it had lost land and their enslaved population. With little ability to pay, for more than 100 years, Haiti made payments to France in the form of timber. The land was nearly deforested and Haiti has never been the same. Today hurricanes, soil erosion and need for wood to fuel cook stoves challenge all efforts to reforest.
One of the most impactful events of this first trip was a visit to a local orphanage run by Catholic sisters. The small structure housed about 40 children in metal cribs divided between two rooms, one for babies and one for toddlers. A playground outside offered two swings.
A kind Sister gave us a tour and explained their mission and then left us alone to either gaze at the children, choke back our emotions or play with the children. I did not know what to do with the feeling of disorientation so, one by one I took each big, brown-eyed toddler out to the swing. Holding them while I spoke gentle words, tears formed in the corners of my eyes and sometimes in the little one’s, too.
Nearly every morning when the Sister on duty would open the door and unlock the gate that surrounded the orphanage, a baby would be there, left in less than swaddling clothes. No note. No name. Another woman desperately hoping someone could care for her baby. Another orphan.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” This piece of Jesus’ words to his disciples has been on my mind this week.
Jesus was gathered with his disciples for the Passover meal. This was an evening of significant disorientation for the disciples. So much was changing. Their world was falling apart.
What started out as a normal Passover meal had become something quite startling. One of their number had slinked out of the room only minutes earlier with plans for betrayal. He had just been informed that soon the main thing he would lead were the rats who would be jumping off Jesus’ sinking ship. Yet, Jesus kept speaking with words about death and a departure soon to come.
This scene looks to me like a family dinner that starts out well, but then devolves into something quite different when one person announces a divorce in the making. Around the table smiles give way to tears and glassy-eyed stares resulting in confusion and disorientation, almost too much to bear.
The upper room that night must have been like that.
As Jesus continued, he talked about the Holy Spirit while staring into moist eyes, looking at Peter who could not keep his chin from quivering with emotion; and Philip who looked about as befuddled as a human being can look. There was fear in the room. Very nearly panic.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” At some point we all want or need to hear these words. They speak directly of some of our greatest fears and challenges; abandonment and isolation, loneliness, vulnerability. They remind us that we are not destined to walk this earth without an identity or direction. We do not stand alone.
To be sure there are seasons of life, moments, when transitions, changes, and tragedies can leave us feeling like orphans. Whether spoken or unspoken, the questions begin: What will I do now? Where do I go? What happens next? Who will love, nurture, and guide me? Who stands on my side? What will become of me? Those are the orphan’s questions.
The questions the disciples asked at that Passover meal were orphan’s questions when Jesus, the one for whom they had left everything behind, announced he is leaving. “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” “Show us the Father.” More orphan questions.
Anyone who has ever loved and lost — a spouse, a child, a friend, security, health, hope — knows the orphan’s questions.
We fear becoming orphaned. We fear we are not enough by ourselves, not due to some deficiency, but because we were never intended or created to be self-sufficient. We were never intended to stand alone as individuals. We were created to love and be loved, to dwell, abide, and remain within each other even as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father; the antithesis of being orphaned.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” That is the promise. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, storms, death, separation, we have never been and will never be orphaned by God. How strange that must have sounded to the disciples. In the same conversation Jesus tells them that he is leaving and coming. ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’ Leaving and coming sure sound like opposites and one gets stuck trying to reconcile these realities. It is not, however, something to figure out. It is a means to see and live in a different way.
Leaving and coming. Presence and absence. These must be held in tension, not as mutually exclusive. That is what Jesus has set before us. That tension confronts us with the question of whether Jesus is a past memory or a present reality; a sentimental story that makes us feel good or a living experience that challenges, guides, and informs our life.
According to Jesus the answer to that question is determined by love that is revealed and fulfilled in keeping his commandments. The commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love our enemies, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Whose feet do we wash and whose feet to ignore? What are the boundaries of love?
Do we keep the commandment? Is our love growing, expanding, transformative of ourselves and the world? If so, Jesus is for us a present reality and we know the fulfillment of his promise that we are not left orphaned. If, however, our love is self-centered, enclosed and marked with many boundaries, we relegate ourselves and each other to being orphans.
Keeping the commandments is our access to Jesus’ promise that we will not be left orphaned. Keeping the commandments does not make Jesus present to us. It makes us present to the already ongoing reality of Jesus’ presence. The commandments do not earn us Jesus’ love, they reveal our love for him, a love that originates in his abiding love and presence within us.
Every time we expand the boundaries of our love, we push back the orphanages of this world creating space within us where God and Jesus make their home.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” Over and over, day after day, regardless of what is happening in our lives — that is Jesus’ promise. We have not been abandoned. Do not abandon yourselves or others to the orphanages of this world. Love with all that you are and all that you have, even as God and Jesus love us with all that they are and that they have.