Our passage this morning picks up the night Jesus is arrested, the day before he is crucified. He has been talking to his disciples, preparing them as best he can for what is about to take place. Today we have the luxury of hindsight. We can read Jesus’ words with more comfort than the disciples probably felt. Judging by the questions that they ask in this part of the narrative, (Lord, who is it that’s going to betray you?? Where are you going?? How are you going to reveal yourself to us??) they seem pretty confused! And who can blame them, really? When I read this part of the gospel story, I sometimes feel that on the surface, Jesus must’ve sounded an awful lot like Mr. Miagi, the guru-teacher from The Karate Kid, speaking in seeming absurdities and complex metaphors.
Let’s try to place ourselves in their situation- here they have been following this Jesus guy for a few years, growing close to him and to each other. They remained faithful in tough scrapes, were continually amazed by healings and other miracles, and always open to being changed, though sometimes it was harder than others to pull them along. When Jesus then tells them that he will be crucified, I imagine they were heartbroken! Jesus- our Rabbi- teacher- friend… He is going to die? Willingly? But… we thought he was the deliverer! We thought he was the Messiah who was going to bring salvation and freedom to the Jews! How can any of that happen if he’s dead? For the disciples, death was the final word. It was the end of the story. But Jesus has other plans in store for them. The story will continue through another advocate- the Holy Spirit.
“I will not leave you orphaned.” The name ‘orphan’ evokes many images. When we think of orphans, we imagine large, stone cold buildings that reach to the sky, resembling prisons. We see a child being dropped off at the gate, the few possessions she has held close to her chest, a cold rain falling bitterly. We see Oliver Twist approaching the Warden, begging “please sir, may I have some more?”
When someone is orphaned, they are alone. Abandoned by death or situation, the orphan is left with no one to care for her. There is no relationship in “orphan.” Any relationship that existed has been broken- cut off. So Jesus’ use of the name orphan accurately reflects the pain the disciples were feeling. In chapter 13, from the first part of what I read this morning, Jesus calls his friends “little children.” If we carry that image with us into chapter 14, orphan carries an even larger sting- it enhances the pain and desperation they are feeling.
But Jesus is not unaware of what his disciples are feeling. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate.” After he is gone, the Holy Spirit will be the one to guide and comfort the disciples. It will continue Christ’s work through the disciples as they spread out, teaching, preaching, and baptizing.
In the Reformed tradition, we don’t generally talk all that much about the Holy Spirit; at least we don’t tend to. We have very few good hymns and songs about the Spirit. There is one Sunday we really acknowledge the presence of the Spirit- Pentecost Sunday, which we will celebrate in two weeks- but how critical the Spirit is in our lives! The Spirit binds us together as a family in God to continue the work of Jesus Christ, to “continue his commandments.” This third member of the Trinity was a gift of the grace of God to keep us together in faith and fellowship. But it was a gift God did not intend for us to tuck the Spirit away for special occasions. Rather, we are called to live in, and be challenged by its working in our lives.
In British Columbia, Canada, there is a species of Pine Tree called the jack pine. As with all pine trees, it has cones that are made up of seeds. Once the cone falls, the seeds disperse by wind, animals, or any other manner, eventually to be buried beneath the soil to grow into a new sapling. The jack pine, however, is unique. Howard Thurman, who was a great preacher and teacher as well as a spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote this about the jack pine:
“The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat. The forest fire sweeps all before it and there remain but the charred reminders of a former growth and a former beauty. It is then in the midst of the ashes that the secret of the cone is exposed. The tender seed finds the stirring of life deep within itself- and what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life- the result? A tender shoot, gentle roots, until, at last, there stands straight against the sky the majestic glory of the jack pine.”
You see, the jack pine will only release its seeds if there is an intense, artificial heat- in other words, heat other than that of the sun. So most of the jack pines in British Columbia are standing because of a forest fire or some similar phenomena. The fire moves quickly across the forest, eating and destroying everything in its path, completely changing the landscape. In the destruction, however, comes new life in a rare way.
Now let’s turn back to the scene where Jesus is telling his disciples about the Holy Spirit. Christ tells us that the world cannot receive the Spirit because the world cannot see or know the Spirit. We know the Spirit because the Spirit abides with us and in us. As I wrestled with this passage, I kept getting hung up on the word “cannot.” The word “cannot” bugs me. I don’t like absolutes like “cannot.” “Cannot” denotes impossibility. The world cannot receive the Spirit? A more accurate translation of verse 17 would read: “The Spirit of Truth, whom the world is not able to receive because it sees Him not, nor knows Him.” If we read it like that, it is an inability of the world to know the Spirit. The world lacks the proper tools to fully understand and know the Spirit, but it is not impossible.
Being in the Spirit and with the Spirit of Christ carries with it some serious responsibility. Jesus states explicitly in chapter 14, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” There is a risk here of making this passage an “if… then” scenario. If you keep my commandments, then I will love you. If you eat your vegetables, then I will let you watch 15 minutes of television before bed. If/ then; this-for-that. Christ’s love becomes conditional.
But that is not what he is saying here. Rather, what we have is a chicken/egg proposition. Which came first? Well, we can’t have the egg without the chicken… but we can’t have the chicken without the egg (I am really trying hard to not tell any chicken crossing the road jokes!). The passage from chapter 14 begins and ends with the correlation between love and obedience. Those to whom the Spirit comes, live in love and obedience to Christ’s teachings, and those who live in love and obedience are persons in whom the Spirit dwells. Whichever way we get there, we are led to love and service of one another. In fact, it’s pretty hard for us not to live that way.
Just before he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment: to love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He isn’t talking about emotional, over-sentimentalized love. Not the kind of romantic movie love where the stunning hero and beautiful heroine fall in love at first sight from across a crowded room. No; this love is self-sacrificing and self-emptying love. It is the kind of love work groups show on mission trips; the kind of love that invites children to summer camp; it is the kind of love the world is not able to understand, that leads ultimately to a cross. When the Spirit dwells in us, we act in love that seeks no rewards. We love for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the orphan, for the sake of love itself.
But again I emphasize: it is not impossible for the world to understand this kind of love. Imagine instead that there are jack pine cones of the Spirit buried all around us: in British Columbia; Philadelphia; Syria; Afghanistan. The Spirit is present all around us. What is needed is the heat of a fire to open up the cones and allow the seeds of hope to spread, to push deep into the soil, and to grow. Jack pine cones often remain closed for years, the seeds retaining their viability. Sometimes our fire needs to burn good and hot for a long time to get the cones to open while other times a few embers are enough.
How do we urge those seeds to open? In our own lives every day we have encounters in which we can nurture the Spirit to be known and seen in the world. A smile, a held door, a conversation over a cup of coffee. Sometimes, no, most times! These make all the difference. When we live into Christ’s mandate to “love one another” then we are doing just that.
This morning, I urge us to remember that the Spirit did not come to us because of something we did or didn’t do. Rather, it is a free gift from God; a reminder of the graceful love of Christ we live in every day. That gift has manifested itself in marvelous ways, but there are many other ways still hidden out in the world: jack pine cones that have yet to open. Let’s go out and stoke the fires. Amen.
Thurman, Howard. Meditations of the Heart. New York: Harper, 1953. Print.