I Will Not Leave You Orphaned
By Hilary Wenzel, May 14 2023
In the Spirit of Mothers’ Day, I want to think of the Holy Spirit in a feminine way. This is challenging, given the male characters and pronouns in Jesus’ last supper with the disciples. But even John has a mother image in
chapter 16:21. So I ask you to keep in mind that Spirit includes both male and female.
Today’s scripture continues from last week, when we explored Jesus’ “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” passage. John’s account of the Upper Room experience is quite long, and the verses flow together and build on each other like the tide….Jesus is speaking with, teaching and praying for his closest friends,...on the eve of his, and their, greatest trauma.
In John 13, last week, Jesus gave them his new commandment to love one another, just as he has loved them. In today’s reading, he gives them the promise of the Holy Spirit, to guide and comfort and strengthen them.
In chapter 15, he continues that the Advocate / the Spirit of truth will testify on Jesus’ behalf. And he tells the disciples they too are to testify. (that is to declare to others what they know to be true).
In chapter 16, Jesus tells them he has many things to say, more than they are ready to bear. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide them into all the truth. He will not speak on his own, but what he hears. He will take what belongs to Jesus, and declare it to them.
And in John 17, Jesus prays to God for his friends, not only on their behalf, but for all those who will believe in Him through their word, that all may be one.
John used the Greek word “Paraclete” meaning Advocate, and “Pneuma” meaning breath to describe this gift of the Spirit. In Greek culture, an advocate was a counselor or helper in a legal setting. In John, I imagine the advocate using breath to testify in words to the truth of Jesus and God. The disciples will be able to breathe in, to be in-spired, by the Spirit. With the Counselor at their side, they will be able to use breath to speak without stumbling,...even in the face of persecution and the threat of banishment from the synagogue or death. This is a fortifying Spirit.
Another word John chooses to introduce this gift of the Spirit is the word “abide.” The disciples will know the Advocate, Jesus says, “because he abides with them, and he will be in them.” He tells them, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."
In John 15, ‘abide’ is used 11 times in the passage “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Abide means ‘to dwell, to remain, to stay.’ His phrase here is ‘abide in me,’ rather than ‘abide with me.’ It is intimate and it is two-way, reciprocal. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
To me, it means when we act courageously and tenderly from God’s love as known through Jesus, we are abiding or living in that love and that love is living in us. And I firmly believe that love that lives within us is not conditional….
John 14:18 is what drew me into this part of Jesus’ story, for Mother’s Day….”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” It is short, but it speaks volumes in tenderness and reassurance.
It is a unique choice of words in the Bible. Traditionally in the Bible, orphans are called the fatherless….and the God-given responsibility for their care was often linked with care for widows, perhaps their mothers. Only in David’s Psalm 27, known as “My Stronghold,” do we hear “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me.”
To my modern mind, an orphan has neither a father nor a mother. They are twice traumatized. I think of orphans as children or young people without shelter or a reliable source of emotional and physical support. They need a secure dwelling place, and the wisdom of loving caregivers in order to heal and grow strong. Their lives are precarious. They are vulnerable.
Jesus knew that their distress from his capture and death would leave his followers like vulnerable children. He spoke to them as their parent. “I will not leave you orphaned.” He told them what was in store and what he planned for their future….And in chapter 16, verse 21, He told them that like a mother experiencing birth, they would have pain, but their pain would turn into joy.
How many of us, even growing up with both parents, don’t feel like vulnerable children at times?....or have we ever felt despair, like a motherless child?
Last year, Anne Megan introduced some of us to a book called Freeing Jesus, by Diana Butler Bass. One chapter was about experiencing Jesus as “Presence.” In it, we learned that one of the biblical names for the Spirit is “the shekhinah, the dwelling.”...and that this sense of the Spirit is the feminine presence of God dwelling with the world, the homeplace of the divine. And “in Judaism, shekhinah is sometimes expressed as ‘God’s daughter,’ fiery female wisdom.”
As Christians, we are certain that Jesus the man was filled with the holy spirit. So we can trust that he also embodied the sacred feminine. Julian of Norwich, a visionary mystic who writes to us from the troubled 14th century, received visions of God’s maternal love. She spoke of our true, our tender Mother Jesus. “In this tradition,” says Bass, “motherhood represents nurture, security and comfort.”
So when we look for the Holy Spirit in our own lives, we can trust that it will nurture us, strengthen us, guide us and comfort us.
Happy Mothers’ Day