“I will not leave you orphaned,” says Jesus in today’s gospel. “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come back to you.” He is going away.
Jesus went away a first time in his death on the cross. And though he came back from the dead, he came back changed. He didn’t just come back to life, he came to a new life that kept startling the disciples. In our Resurrection stories Jesus is always coming and going through locked doors, appearing and disappearing, and his own friends don’t quite recognise him or are afraid to ask who he is. And yet he’s quite real: he eats fish, and holds out his hands to touch and be touched. Above all he is present with a job to do—a simple job—to console his friends.
But Jesus went away a second time, too. This time not through death. He went away to be with the Father. His friends, full of the strange joy of his Resurrection, must have felt that second leaving terribly. John’s gospel says that if we loved him we should be glad he has gone, gone home to make a home for us. But we need Jesus to be present to us—with us. We don’t do well on our own. Today Jesus tells us that though he is going he will not leave us on our own. He will come back to us in another way. We are not to be orphans. He has left behind someone else to be an even more intimate presence. This presence, this spirit, remains to continue to do for us all that Jesus did—and more. The spirit remains to bring joy, to bring health, to bring hope, to speak with gentle reverence. The spirit is brings life where there was death, and above all love where there might be indifference.
Which faces us with a challenge. If life and, above all, love are the mark of the Spirit of Jesus, do we bear that mark? Jesus says, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Do we know that? Or have we been left as orphans?
According to John’s gospel, the way to tell is through love. “This is the command I give you, love one another as I have loved you.”
How do we love one another? Particularly when, in our world, love is so often praised and so rarely encountered. How can we love each other when so often we don’t even like one another. Perhaps we can manage to feel positively about most people. Maybe. But there are always some who, try as we might, we can barely put up with, let alone like, let alone love.
But Jesus commands us to have a special kind of love—the love that he has had for us. Love shows itself, not so much in feelings or words, but in deeds. We love each other, and reveal the presence of the Spirit, when we do what Jesus did: lay down our lives for each other. Love happens when we give what we have to someone who doesn’t. Love happens when, even though we might not understand someone, even when we might dislike someone, we still offer them the hospitality of our lives.
The Community of John discovered this sort of love among themselves and because of it they believed that though Jesus had gone away he hadn’t left them orphans.
It’s fitting that on Mother’s Day we should have the Holy Spirit being described as a Mother. It is because of Her we are not orphans. She is the living presence of Jesus in our community. She is both the sign of that presence and she is what makes that presence possible.
Love is not easy. We all know the sort of love that sweeps us off our feet and carries us away. If we’re very lucky it lasts a lifetime and is deeply productive. But often such dizzy love fades and has to grow into a love that can last. Romance is not the best model of love we have. The Holy Spirit is not our Lover but our Mother. A mother’s love lasts a lifetime. It is deliberate and protective. It persists through pain and struggle. It would gladly lay down it’s life for it’s child. Mother’s day often drips with sentimentality. But the strange truth is that Mother’s don’t choose their children and children don’t choose their parents. A Mother learns to love what God has given her. Sometimes the learning is a hard one. Sometimes the love a mother has continues even when she has begun to dislike her children. Although the feeling of love can vanish altogether what cannot vanish is the relationship. It is in the blood. It is in the genes.
This is the love we are commanded to have for each other. For the person next to you, and the one in front, and the one way over there. A love that lasts and is shown in deeds.
If it is possible at all—if Jesus is with us at all—it is because we have the Holy Spirit, like a Mother, so that we will never be orphans.
May 12th, 1996