When I was in seminary, I had a professor who was a force to be reckoned with. Joanne Lindstrom stands no taller than 5 feet, she’s a white, Baptist preacher in a primarily African American congregation, with short, dark red hair and a fondness for wearing bright purples – most would call her a ‘spit-fire’. She loves pugs and Jesus and you won’t ever catch her without her nails done beautifully, nor will you leave a conversation with her without hearing one or more of her catch-phrases. As the professor of Experiential Education and Field Studies at my seminary, you can imagine that most of her catch phrases related to that area of study and the top two were as follows: 1. Always wear foundation garments to work. And, 2. It’s not about you. The first one – was meant to be more practical – whether interviewing for a job or working day in and day out, always remember to wear foundation garments. She did not want to hear back from supervisors of her students that they were dressed inappropriately. But, the second one – that one is not only practical, it’s theological.
It’s not about you. Joanne would use this phrase like most Chicagoans vote – early and often. If a student sits in her class and tells some story about how they felt slighted because they didn’t get to do exactly what they wanted to do, she would quickly respond with a ‘it’s not about you’ and the conversation shifted. To paraphrase a typical conversation, a student would start by saying something like, “This is about my education, my spiritual development, my personal experiences and the church where I serve isn’t teaching me what I want to learn!” To which Joanne would respond, “My dear, it’s not about you.”
Not only did I experience this conversation myself, but I was also her teaching assistant, so I witnessed this conversation – this negotiation – time and time again. The student would start off the year believing it’s all about them – they’re paying for this education and they’re entitled to the experience they paid for, they would say. Joanne would start off at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from them saying that it’s not about them – at all. And, eventually, by the end of the academic year, the student will have discovered that she wasn’t being the insensitive jerk they believed her to be at the beginning of the year, but that she was helping them to see that it’s not only about them. Yes, it is about both them as individuals – their spiritual development, their education, their experiences – and it’s about the church or community they serve.
As I was reading the texts for this morning, I couldn’t help but hear those words of Joanne ring though my mind. It’s not about you. Well, it’s not only about you…so, let’s get to it.
Let us pray: God of Love and God of Truth, startle us. May we know more of your love through our study of your Word. Amen.
Our Gospel lesson comes to us from the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 15 through 21. Let us listen for a Word.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This 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.
18I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They 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.
This is the Word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Our pew Bibles are not red-letter Bibles so at first glance, it is hard to tell, that these words are spoken by Jesus to the disciples. They come in the midst of a long conversation known as Jesus’ final discourse. After Jesus washes their feet but before his trial, Jesus is trying to help the disciples understand it all. But, as is often the way with the disciples, and with us, the disciples have a hard time understanding what Jesus is talking about so they ask similar questions in several different ways. The disciples asked questions like, “Where are you going?”, “Why can I not follow you?” or “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” and “If you just show us the Father, we will know the way.”
Our text this morning comes at the end of Jesus’ response to a question from Phillip. Philip said to Jesus that if Jesus could just show them the Father, then they would understand better the geography of their relationship with Jesus. And in response, Jesus throws them for a bit of a loop and tells them about another Advocate – the Spirit of truth – and tries to help them understand what he’s been talking about all along.
With this first mention of the Spirit in this Gospel of John, dynamic layers are wrapping around the story of Jesus, and the relationship between Jesus and the disciples grows more complex. In this moment, though he reaches out to them with touching language of intimate relationship, Jesus is helping them understand that, and in the words of Joanne, “It’s not about you.” Or, at least, it’s not just about you.
The lived experience of the disciples to that point, was being with Jesus, physically – they followed him, listened to his teachings, witnessed him move from place to place as he touched lives, healed, and served – they learned, experienced, loved and served. To them, their relationship with Jesus was about the personal, intimate relationship they had with the Divine in many ways. They were known by Jesus, called by him to follow, and that relationship was vital to their well-being. And here in this passage, Jesus speaks to this – he acknowledges their private relationship. The image of an orphan is conjured. His relationship with each disciple had grown so intimate that upon his death, he knew they would feel as abandoned and alone as an orphan. It’s quite powerful imagery, and intentional, as he implores them to understand that each one of them is a child of God. ‘I will not leave you orphaned,’ he tells them. It won’t be like it is now – exactly. But, Gods love for you is as my love for you – it has been all along and it will be forever more.
When I think about what it might be to be a child of God, I think about the image of a pee-wee football or soccer game. You know the scene – all the kids clump up around the ball and run around one another, no matter position assignments (most of the time), and at the same time there is both chaos and rhythm – mostly chaos though… But, a parent standing on the side-line knows exactly which one on the field is their child. Do you know what I mean? They’re all dressed alike and generally the same size, but the one who takes care of that specific child knows which one is theirs – perhaps you can relate. You know the shape of their legs running, the sounds of their grunts and hollers, the way their hair bounces when they run – you can pick your kid out of the Tasmanian-devil-like clump that is a pee wee team on the field. And so it is with God. In this wild world, amidst the busy streets and bustling population, God knows each of us and loves us, can pick us out of a crowd and will not abandon us. So much so, that, as Jesus tells the disciples and us, that God will send the Spirit to be with us, to remain in relationship with us. This is important to the disciples, this is important to God, it is important to us. Having not lived in the time of Jesus but desiring to be in such an intimate relationship, to be so cared for and known by God, that we too find ourselves reaching for the tangible evidence of God’s love for us. And, in this moment, Jesus helps us understand what we can hang on to, once he is gone – that we are not abandoned.
You see, when Jesus tells the disciples that we will not be alone, he tells them of another Advocate – and this is a pretty extraordinary development. Another advocate – focusing on the word ‘another’ here. With the word ‘another’, both the disciples and we have an idea of what this Advocate might look like – we have a framework to work with. Understanding that Jesus was the first Advocate, the disciples and we have a reference point to recognize the Spirit.
Out of God’s love, Jesus was the first Advocate – Jesus came along side of us in the Incarnation, and through Jesus, we have come to know and see the otherwise invisible God. And, what’s interesting is that though Jesus came to walk alongside of us, the story of Jesus is not about Jesus and an individual disciple. Jesus walked along the streets, often with crowds, and he sat by wells with strangers. He ate at the meal tables of outcasts and sinners. He wept over loss and he celebrated at weddings. He engaged in theological debates and he spoke up when injustices were witnessed. He loved the servant and he loved the listener and his compassion for those left behind and crushed by the systems of power, as if they were worthless to the world, was constant and acted upon. God, through Jesus, loved the disciples and nurtured relationships with them AND, as we see in Jesus, God loves the world and desires justice and peace for all. Jesus wasn’t exclusively about private relationships with individuals. He was more dynamic than that. Much like we are. He was about both personal relationships, AND serving all God’s people in love; both nurturing feelings of comfort AND action to pursue justice – and this is the framework in which we can understand the Spirit in our midst. Today, as we sit in these pews, we can recognize Jesus in our midst as the Spirit inspires us to love one another and to love the world.
Jesus says, ‘you will be in me and I in you’ – for Jesus to be in me, it is not just be about me feeling good about being loved – Jesus loves me too much to ignore those around me. Jesus is the Savior of the world and therefore, it must be about me loving the world too. If we were able to hold this tension more equally – this balance between personal faith and faith in action – how might it affect us? How might it affect our community? Might we not worry so much about our individual worthiness? Might we focus our energy on an active life of faithful service? What might we achieve when we are less worried with our own selves, trusting that we are known and loved by God, and we take that energy to worry about injustice together?
Take comfort, friends. We have not been orphaned. The Spirit of truth in and amongst us and we are well cared for. We are free from the bonds of self-preservation – the Advocate is with us. Therefore, it’s not just about us. Let’s think about someone else. Let’s think about how we, as a community of faith, can reflect our confidence in the love of God for the world. Let’s think about how we might serve God’s people well – and then, let’s try it. How we might actively move in the world, as Jesus did, loving the world, ushering in justice for all and seeking everlasting peace for the earth and all that is in it. How will we, church, love the world?