When we began meeting for worship online in the middle of March, we were just getting started with Lent. Right up to that moment we had high hopes for our Easter celebration. We looked forward to our Easter breakfast, singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and hearing Pat close the service with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” We were also getting ready to welcome our interfaith friends from the Troy-area Interfaith Group to an experience of Easter worship. But, Easter came and went and we were still worshiping online. Now it’s the Sixth Sunday of Easter and we’re still worshiping online while sheltering-in-place. Although Pentecost sits on the near horizon, we still don’t know when we can safely regather in-person as a community.
As time marches on and we continue to live through this season of uncertainty, we’ve heard a word from the Gospel of John that takes us back to a moment of uncertainty and anxiety for Jesus’ disciples. If we go back to chapter thirteen of John, we’ll find Jesus concluding his final meal with the disciples by washing their feet and giving them a new commandment to love one another as he loved them. Then he took one last opportunity to give instructions to his followers.
We pick up the story right after Jesus answered Philip’s request that they see the Father, by telling them that because they had seen him, they had seen the Father. That’s because, as Jesus then told them: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn 14:8-11). Our reading begins with Jesus telling the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Among these commandments is the command to love one, which serves as a sign that they are his disciples (Jn 13:34-35). If they keep his commandments, then Jesus promises to ask the Father to send another Advocate who would be with them forever. This Advocate is the Holy Spirit who will abide in them. Even though the world at large can’t see the Advocate, that is, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate will be with those who love Christ by keeping his commands. With this promise comes a word of encouragement that is reflected in this old hymn of the faith: “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, God, with me abide; when other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” Yes, as the darkness deepens, may the Spirit abide with us, even when other helpers fail.” (Henry Lyte, 1847, Chalice Hymnal, 636)
Not only does Jesus promise to ask the Father to send the Advocate who will abide with them, but he promises not to leave them as orphans (vs. 18). Even though he will depart from them, he’s not abandoning them. Though the world might not see him, they can take comfort in knowing that because he lives they will live. In other words, he promises that they will share in his resurrection.
Do you think that the blood pressure of the disciples went down when they heard this promise? Did Jesus calm their anxiety? As we ponder these questions, consider this word from 1 Peter, in which Peter tells the churches in Asia Minor to “throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern” (1 Pet. 5:6 JB Phillips). Is Jesus saying the same thing with this promise?
We hear this promise that we will share in the resurrection of Jesus, as the drumbeat of death continues to be heard each day. Although the number of reported COVID-19 cases continues to go down here in Southeast Michigan, people are still dying. Their deaths remind us that life is precious. We grieve the deaths of children and the elderly alike. Every one of these lives matters. We also have to take into consideration the reports that this virus is affecting people of color more than White folks like me. These reports call for important conversations about access to health care and much more.
As we live in this moment, with the threat of COVID-19 ever on our minds, may we take hold of this promise that as Easter people, the Spirit abides with us and in us. Therefore, we can throw our cares and our anxieties on our God who walks with us as we enter dark valleys. We needn’t live in fear, because Christ abides in us forever through the Spirit. Since Pentecost is near at hand, we can take hold of the promise made here in John and at the moment of his Ascension in the Book of Acts, that God will send the Spirit to be with the followers of Jesus, empowering us to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:6-11). Yes, we can be bearers of good news that is rooted in the command to love one another.
The reading begins with the call to love Jesus by keeping his commandments. It closes with Jesus’ promise to reveal himself to those who keep commandments by loving him. I would say, following his earlier command, that we love him by loving one another. In the Gospel of John that act of revelation begins with Mary Magdalene and moves onto the other disciples, male and female, including Thomas, who had his doubts. Yes, it’s okay to be Thomas, especially right now! Don’t worry about your doubts, just throw your anxiety on God, for God cares for you and for me. Thanks be to God.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 17, 2020