“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 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.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you, In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 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.”
The word freedom is defined as: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint ; the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government; the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.”
We’re hearing a lot of discussion about the notion of freedom today, as we witness the tensions between the very American idea of freedom – the ability to walk and to speak and to move and to assemble – against the backdrop of the measures that have been put into place to control the pandemic. The notion of freedom has become a rallying cry of those opposed to what they see as infringement on their right to go to work and gather together. Freedom has always been a major American virtue.
But freedom – the right to act as one wants – can never be a Christian virtue.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is leaving his disciples. Our scripture reading today is part of Jesus’ “farewell discourse” that takes up a major part of the Gospel of John. Jesus is saying good-bye to his disciples. Is he leaving them to their own devices? Does he say to them, “I’ve now given you proper preparation for your roles without me? Good luck. You’re on your own”? No.
He doesn’t leave his disciples alone. He doesn’t expect them to find their own way as best they can. He tells them that a companion, this “advocate,” the Holy Spirit, “will abide with you, and will be in you.” In other words, they will have the same intimate, personal connection with the Holy Spirit that they’ve had with Jesus.
There is a message for us here too, just as there was for the disciples. When Jesus calls us to follow him he doesn’t expect us to go it alone – to be some kind of ethical super-hero or virtuous saint. He just wants us to be obedient to him, to follow him, to love him.
I think here we’re being given a message of obedience and relationship with Jesus that goes against our ingrained cultural inclinations.
Why do students go to college? While occasionally some may say, “to get a good education,” or “to gain wisdom,” often their more common sentiment is, “So I can be out on my own, so I can live my own life and get free of my parents.” (To my own four kids, I say good luck with THAT as you’re all back home!)
What do so many older people fear about getting older? Not the loss of a spouse or even death. They say, “I fear becoming dependent on my family.”
What is one of the main reasons that young people are delaying marriage? “We just don’t want to become dependent on one another. We need to get ourselves established as individuals first. We like our freedom.”
Today’s Gospel lesson depicts another way. Rather than so-called freedom, it’s a way of obedience and dependence. Jesus says that we are to obey his commands. If we love him, then we are to do what he tells us. Then he says that he will give us a gift – the gift of his presence, with us, next to us, and in us so that we will be able to faithfully follow him. He’s telling us that we are to follow in obedience and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
That obedience and dependence are certainly needed today. In the fight against COVID-19, we need to recognize our dependence on God, and our dependence on one another. We need to work together, and admit that we need each other. While political divisiveness is so prominently in the news, surveys indicate that most Americans are actually feeling incredibly connected to their fellow citizens even amidst social distancing.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote the following:
We’re seeing the world with plague eyes now. We’re all going through the same experiences. People in Seoul, Milan and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence…Most of us are self-distancing at the same time. Most of us are experiencing the same pause in normal life, undergoing deeper reflections inspired by that pause, experiencing the same anxieties and fears, reading the same memes. So many human universals.
Brooks goes on to note that “the concept of social solidarity…begins with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation – to one another and to all creation.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that our fates are interconnected. “All life is interrelated…We’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
“We’re all in this together” has become a common phrase. And while we know that the virus itself knows no bounds, we also recognize that it does disproportionately affect the economically unprotected, especially black, Latino and tribal peoples. Again, as Dr. King said, what affects one directly affects all indirectly. We can only struggle and fight against this virus together, not alone, nor from the perspective of our own identity groups. If there was ever an age of independence and self-sufficiency, now’s not the time.
When faced with moral dilemmas, over the years there’s been a popular Christian slogan, “What Would Jesus Do?” The acronym signifying the question – WWJD – has been emblazoned on jewelry, clothes, hats, notebooks, and bumper stickers. It was supposed to be a daily reminder to be Christ-like, to engage in daily situations by asking how Jesus would handle it.
Today’s scripture reading starts off with what I think is a more powerful phrase. “If You Love Me.” If you love me, you will do this. It’s echoed later in John’s Gospel when Christ says to Simon Peter: “Do you love me?” Then “feed my sheep.” The second half of the sentence in today’s passage is “you will keep my commandments.” “If you love me…” is an open-ended phrase that invites us to think about how we live our lives.
“If you love me…” invites us to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit as we figure out what to do in our lives. This passage is a command in itself, a call from God to obedience and dependence on Another. It’s a call to keep up our end of the relationships we have with God and with one another.
Jesus is saying, “If you love me, all I’m asking is that you keep my commandments. All I’m asking is that above all else you try to love one another, if for no other reason than because you love me.”
Jesus commands us to love, to witness to his love for us, and to walk in his loving way, no matter what life throws at us. And life is throwing a lot at us today.
Jesus doesn’t leave us alone; we aren’t left orphaned. And as much as we might want to be free of constraints, Jesus doesn’t want us to be. We are not free. We are bound to one another. We are bound by God’s love, and by our love for one another.
God doesn’t expect us to live on our own. We have the Holy Spirit, that constant, near presence of God to strengthen us, to empower us, to enable us to be more than we can be on our own.
We are living through incredibly difficult times. Many of us feel unprepared and uncertain. We sense instability when we most need steadiness. It’s so ironic that comfort and solidarity come in the form of keeping ourselves physically apart. Yet we ARE all in this together. We are bound to one another, and we need one another – it’s the only way to get through this. So keep holding on to love. Hold on to what binds us together. And remember that you are not alone. Amen.