John 14:15-21              Abiding Presence, Abiding Love                  Susan J. Barnes

Commitment Sunday May 21, 2017                                                   St. John’s, Minneapolis

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 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. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 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.”

Today we have much to celebrate!

We honor and thank our Sunday school teachers, and youth leaders.

In a few minutes we will celebrate and give thanks to God for the pledges that are the fruit of our Keeping Faith Centennial campaign.

Today, we say congratulations to all graduates!   Graduation ceremonies are rightly called ‘commencements’: after completing a course of study, the graduate commences, begins, a new stage of life.

Commencement speakers usually share practical wisdom drawn from their own life experience.   Often called valedictory addresses, they are implicitly a kind of secular blessing.    Valedictory (from the Latin) means to say “fare well”, good bye.    And as you know “good bye”—is an English contraction of “God be with you.”

Jesus gave a long good bye to his disciples. Today’s gospel passage is a small part of that.  Unique to the John, the whole “farewell discourse” fills five chapters: 13-17.

It’s a very different kind of commencement speech, of course.     Anticipating his own death, his own “departure,” Jesus comforted his closest friends and followers, and tried to equip them spiritually for their future life–as individuals and as a community of faith.

Many scholars doubt that these are actually Jesus’ words—attributing them, instead, to the community itself.   We’ll never know.  But I don’t care who wrote it.   I’m just grateful that these early Christians passed on their own faith, their experience of the Risen Christ.   Thanks to them we have texts whose poetry, metaphor and mystical truths are the unique in scripture.

In today’s excerpt we heard two of the most sustaining messages of all.

First there is the promise of God’s eternal presence.   Jesus phrased it in several ways in this brief passage.

…the Father…will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

This is the Spirit of truth…. 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.

….you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

…you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

This multiplicity of persons and images may touch and comfort each of us differently at different times.     Now an orphan for ten years myself, for instance, I am so moved to read “I will not leave you orphaned.”

At the same time, if we take it too literally, the same multiplicity can be confusing: is Jesus speaking about the Advocate, the Spirit, is it the Father, is it himself, the Christ?

The answer is ‘yes’.   Father, spirit, Christ all are one; all abide in one another.  And all abide in us.

It’s an inexplicable, ineffable mystery—a truth beyond human understanding.

But it is not beyond human experience, human knowing.

After all, our deepest human relationships defy explanation.   No single word, no constellation of words can ever encompass the richness we KNOW in lives of shared adventure, intimacy, work, success, sorrow with our companions on earth.

Relationships are complex, multi-faceted.   And they evolve.  Parents know this best of all.   I never had children.  So I observe with awe the way my friends and siblings grow and change constantly in relationship to their children’s expanding knowledge, interests and growth.   And change they must: as yesterday’s elementary school child becomes today’s college graduate and tomorrow’s parent herself.

My longest relationship began when I was 3 and our next door neighbor Toddy was in her early twenties. Over these 65 years there have been so many facets of our friendship: de facto godmother, a confidante, playmate, mentor, advocate, counselor, spiritual sister, companion in grief, guardian angel.    Relationships like ours–kinships of the spirit–can be as strong as or stronger than kinships of blood.

We know, we experience, those intimate relationships in our very bodies. Jesus’s language invites us to relate to the divine in the same way–as an abiding presence within us and among us.   This personal, physical sense of union with God, with Jesus and with one another can be like our feelings about those people whom we love the most.

“Love”.   That’s the second, central message of today’s passage, and indeed of this whole gospel.  Jesus speaks about love more in John than in the other three.  And it’s this same author–in the epistle 1 John–who wrote “God is love”.

As you well know in the original Greek this isn’t eros, sexual or romantic love.   It is agape, the love that Jesus embodied: unconditional love, self-giving love, the love that is free of judgment, that embraces all of creation, all of humankind, every one of us in our imperfections.

It’s the love that calls forth the best in us. It’s the love that humbles itself to wash another’s feet, that humbles itself to allow its own feet to be washed.

It’s the love we most long for, the love we receive from God, the love that we can share because we have received it first.

It’s the love we know here at St. John’s: as we join in song in prayer, in small and large gatherings, as we greet one another at the Peace.   We experience God’s love in one another, in this community.  That’s what draws us back week by week, year by year to worship in this sweet space.

St. John’s warm, dark wood interior reminds me of my home parish, Christ Church Cathedral, Houston.   Like St. John’s, Christ Church is a healthy community, where the Spirit of love abides, where trust and truth are kept.  In both, God’s love binds people across all manner of differences and calls us to service in the wider world.

Christ Church Cathedral is a container of God’s spirit for me, a place where I recall loving and caring relationships spanning my entire life.   There I was baptized and reared through high school.  There I returned as a new reconvert to the faith in my late 40s.  There I received my call to ordination.  There I was raised up.  There I was ordained.

We all take part in many, many communities over a lifetime: schools, teams, clubs, charitable institutions, professional organizations, places of work.   All of them will form us in different ways.  All hold a greater or lesser place in our memories.

Church is the only community that is dedicated to forming us as loving human beings.   It’s the only one whose purpose is to contain and nurture the experience of God’s love: love known between individuals, love shared within the community, love taken out into the world.

Like Christ Church, Houston, St. John’s is more than a structure of brick and mortar and stone. It is a container of the Spirit, a repository of loving memories, a haven for growth, for trust, for truth.   It has been such a place for 100 years.  And—God willing—it shall be for 100 years more.   It is our privilege to see that it is.

Our gifts, our pledges to the Keeping Faith campaign help insure that future.   Keeping Faith began as the Centennial challenge–addressing urgent deferred maintenance needs.  Blessed by the Spirit, it has blossomed.   Our collective generosity means that we can do that urgent work, do more, have some savings for the future AND a fine fund for Social Justice.

Thanks to you all. Thanks be to God!