As human beings we are simply not wired to be alone. We are wired to be in, to live in, relationship, and I mean that in the broadest sense. There are many of us who, for various reasons live by ourselves. But we are connected through a broad range of threads drawing us to other people, and linking us in profound ways to each other. Regardless of which Genesis creation story you read, we are told that once God had labored to produce the magnificent creation, and before God was truly done with that original creative work, God went about creating humankind. First, God created Adam. And once God had set the first human in the garden, God decided that it wasn’t good that the man should be alone with only animals to keep him company, so God created woman.
For better or worse, from that time forward the nature of human kind has been that we are made for living in relationship to one another. We are connected. Even more importantly, we are made for relationship with God. Of course God envisioned and designed the perfect kind of relationships, and though we have challenged God’s vision and design over the ensuing millennia, still, God persists in building, creating and sustaining relationship with us and for us. And because connectedness is our nature, the opposite condition – being alone - frightens most of us. In fact the thought of being left alone, of being isolated and abandoned terrifies us.
It is that fear, I think, that drives us to thoughts of boogey men and monstrous creatures lurking around us when as children- or adults - we lay alone in our beds at night – that and a hefty dose of Grimm’s fairy tales, Disney movies, or whatever the conveyors of evil and malevolence are for you these days. There is security in numbers; there is safety in company; there is confidence within supportive relationships and networks.
In her book, Gospel Medicine, Barbara Bradford Taylor shares her experience of being the eldest of three daughters, and therefore the designated babysitter in the family from about the time she was twelve years old. Each time she would be left to care for her siblings, more or less the same scenario would play itself out. After receiving from her parents both the pep talk about how much they trusted her because she was so responsible, and then all the necessary instructions, including emergency numbers and protocols for what to do in case something should go wrong, she would walk with her parents to the door, where everyone would kiss goodbye. Then, Barbara writes, “the lock clicked into place, and a new era began. I was in charge. Turning around to face my new responsibilities, what I saw were my sisters’ faces, looking at me with something between hope and fear. They knew I was no substitute for what they had just lost, but since I was all they had they were willing to try.”
Taylor then describes how everyone would be agreeable for a while, as they played games and ate their snacks. But eventually, as the night went on they all got crankier and crankier. “Where are mommy and daddy?” the younger girls would ask. “Where did they go? When will they come back? I told them over and over again,” Bradford Taylor says. “I made up elaborate stories about what we would all do together in the morning. I promised them that if they would go to sleep I would make sure mommy and daddy kissed them good night when they came in.”
What made Bradford Taylor and her sisters fearful, was that something might happen to their parents while they were out. What if something bad happened to them? What if they were in an accident? What if they never came back? What if we are left orphaned? What will happen then? And that age-old, primitive fear took over – what if we are left alone? Alone to fend for ourselves in the world, alone without a safety net, alone without the guidance, love and support of the ones who have been the center of our universe? Abandoned and alone, what will we do?
As Bradford Taylor explains, as the sister-babysitter, it was hard for her, too, because of course she had her own fears. She was a potential orphan too, with as much to lose as her sisters. But she couldn’t give in to her fear because she was the one in charge, the one who was supposed to be cheerful and confident and sure of the future for her sake and for her sisters’. She was supposed to know all the answers. But fear stalked her, too. I think that there are so many parallels to our lives, too. I wonder what instills that kind of fear in you?
This is the question that is at the core of our text for today. It is the question that certainly was on the minds of the disciples as Jesus is telling them that he will be leaving them soon. How can Jesus leave us alone? What will happen to us? What are they going to do without Jesus there leading them, guiding them, teaching them all there is to know about God and about this new life that Jesus is offering them? Keeping them safe?
What is it that the disciples need to hear from Jesus?
They need to hear that they will not be left alone. They need to know how they will live. They need to know how they will continue in this relationship with God, how they can be disciples once Jesus is gone from them, and how they will do all that they need to do as disciples of Christ. They need to know how they will exist once he is gone, and is no longer there to teach them, guide them, and accompany them. And, crankily, they want to know, how could he be leaving anyway?
Jesus knows what is in the mind and hearts of his disciples. He knows what the challenges of the next days will bring as he faces his arrest, passion and death. Jesus knows the confusion that will follow the discovery of the empty tomb. Jesus knows how frightening it is to be left alone.
What Jesus offers the disciple both then and now is the promise of “another advocate”. Jesus himself, “the first advocate” is God incarnate, who came so that we might see and experience God – and for the disciples, that is exactly what Jesus has done up to now. But now as Jesus is preparing to leave, he gives his instructions and he makes these promises; his beloved disciples –we – will not be left alone; he will not abandon them, but instead, through the Spirit, will continue to abide with them - us. Jesus will not leave these children of God orphaned, without an anchor. Rather, Jesus will give an advocate, who will stay with them.
In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost. We will celebrate the special gifts and tools for ministry they received, similar to the gifts we receive through baptism. But in these verses before us today, Jesus is promising the disciples that through the love of God, their allegiance to Christ is a sure foundation, and by their love and their dedication to the mission Christ has set before them, they will be blessed. And this is a word of grace and gospel for us today as well.
On Pentecost the Spirit descends to equip us for mission, too, but for today, the purpose of the Spirit is to advocate for us, to accompany us, to bear out the words of Christ, that although the cross and the tomb and then the empty tomb await, Jesus is not leaving us alone. Rather, in love and mercy Jesus is ever and will ever be with us. This week we celebrate Ascension Day – the day on which the disciples witnessed Jesus physically ascending as on clouds, up into heaven. It is the final “leave-taking” of Jesus, so to speak, and once again it may feel like Jesus is abandoning us as he shed his earthly bonds and ascends into heaven. But as Jesus has promised, there is life after Easter; there is abundant life in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus accompanies us throughout our days.
As Bradford Taylor comments, as Christians, we may sometimes feel like the babysitter left in charge, the responsible elder children trusted to carry on in Christ’s name, and “everywhere we go,” she writes, “we see the faces of those whom he has given in our care.” They come from different places with different expectations and different needs and wants. They may still be waiting for Jesus to return or they may have given up. “Where is he? Where did he go? And when will he be back? It is hard, being the ones in charge, because we are potential orphans too, only he said he was coming back again, and not only at the end of time.”
Jesus promises that through the Spirit, this advocate, he will be with us, he will accompany us, and will make a home with us. Jesus promises that there is life beyond Easter because the power and presence of Easter persist beyond the empty tomb. Jesus promises life beyond the boogeymen and monstrous creatures and the fearsome evil we confront in daily life. As David Lose puts it, there is more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead. Our Easter reality is that we are alive for Christ, we are bold to live without fear, because Jesus does not, and never will, leave us alone.
Jesus will soon ascend into heaven, and the post resurrection visits that we have read about will come to an end. But God’s presence, God’s abiding with us, will not end. God has made us God’s dwelling place. God will continue to make Godself known to us, through advocating, accompanying, comforting, constantly creating and inspiring Spirit of God. God will never leave us alone, for in life, in death, and in life after death, we will ever be in the power and presence of our Lord. Of this we can be sure. Thanks be to God! Amen.