No Orphans Here
Do you love Jesus?
Do you love Jesus?
Do you love Jesus?
My apologies to revered preaching professors from days past who taught me not to begin a sermon with a question. My apologies to you, members and guests who are worshiping with us this morning. But, I will ask it again,
Do you love Jesus?
It seems like a simple, maybe even simplistic, question, but it is one that we could debate for years. And, even if we do love Jesus, what does that mean? What does that look like? Half the time you and I are unsure whether or how we love the people living in the same house with us. How are we supposed to figure out whether and exactly how we are to love Jesus?
The fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel circles around and around that question. In these winding verses, John asks and answers what it means for anyone to love Jesus. Gathered for their last meal together, Jesus tells his road companions, that his time with them on this good earth is almost over and then he says to them, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”
Listen carefully. Jesus does not ask his disciples to have warm feelings for him. Feelings are beyond even Jesus’ ability to command. No, the love that John writes about in his Gospel, the love Jesus embodies is far beyond feelings. It is about doing our absolute best to care for, defend and support both friends and foes.
And if you ask me, it took some nerve for Jesus to announce in one breath that he was about to leave his friends forever and then in the next breath to demand that they exhibit self-sacrificial love. What was he thinking? Did he suffer a mental lapse in the heat of moment and forget his audience? After all, the disciples didn’t exactly have a stellar record of humble service and their faithfulness to Jesus had been spotty at best.
Nonetheless, Jesus leaves his friends with a farewell command, but even more, he leaves them with a farewell promise. Jesus promises that he will not abandon them, but will send them a Paraclete, a Comforter, an Advocate, a Helper. However, we translate that Greek term, Jesus says to his flawed but beloved followers, “There will be no orphans here.”
Jesus promises his living, abiding presence even in the uncertainly of the days ahead. His promised Comforter will stir them to love the creation Jesus loves, to love the people Jesus loves, to love even those who are nearly impossible to love and to love until there is no room left for anything else but love.
I am amazed at how many Christians of national repute claim to love Jesus and yet consider his command to love as optional equipment. They excuse their hatred and bigotry toward whole categories of people as righteous and fully sanctioned by Jesus. They excuse massive moral failures by their elected leaders with hollow rhetoric about everyone is flawed. These so-called “lovers of Jesus” excuse their greed as sanctioned by a Lord who wants the faithful to have more than anyone else, as if Jesus would sanction that others suffer to sate our greed. I listen to them sing the praises of Jesus and talk about their deep love for Jesus and I wonder what Jesus they are talking about?
The late Roman Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen tells the story of a young fugitive trying to hide himself from the enemy in a small village. “The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn.
“The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words, ‘It is better that one man dies than the whole people be lost.’
“Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room.
“That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy’. Then the angel said: ‘But don’t you know that you handed over the Messiah’? ‘How could I know’? the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known’.”
If you and I love Jesus, genuinely love Jesus, we will read and study Scripture to learn the story of the faith that names us. We will worship regularly because we were made to give God our thanks and praise. We will give generously to the ministry of the church because we know that all that we have and all that we are is on sacred loan from God. We will center our lives in prayer because we need to hear a voice of divine clarity above the din of human madness.
We will do all this, but if you and I are to love Jesus in the way that Jesus asks for us to love him then we will also look into the eyes of those that our world leaves orphaned. Growing up in solid white blue-collar suburbia, I never understood why so many people live in such substandard conditions in the U.S. Then, I started hanging out with residents of a Night Shelter in Atlanta. When I looked in the eyes of those “housing orphans,” I knew that I couldn’t love Jesus by basking in the spiritual haven of my nice home while letting decent and affordable housing be a worry for someone else.
I knew that I couldn’t love Jesus and be satisfied that in this land of rich and plenty that grown men, each one created in the image of God, each one a brother in Christ, had no other shelter that night than the one offered on our fourth-floor gym. Just as Jesus promises not to leave his followers orphaned, so you and I are commanded to pray and worship and work for the day when there are no “housing orphans” here.
Some of you read the books and essays of the somewhat mouthy, Presbyterian elder, former anti-church recovering drug addict, Anne Lamott. In one of my favorite stories that she tells, Anne laments going to the grocery store on her birthday, feeling the weight of our society’s social needs, especially hunger, despite our nation’s overwhelming affluence. She feels guilty fueling her cart with food when so many have no food. Finally, she makes it through her shopping ordeal only to have the clerk tell her that she has won a ham.
Well, she knows that she has no need for a ham and she does not even like ham. In her fluster about this unwelcome gift she ends up crashing her ham-laden grocery cart into a slow-moving car in the parking lot. At this point, she writes:
“I started to apologize, when I noticed that the car was a rusty wreck, and that an old friend was at the wheel. We got sober together a long time ago, and each of us had a son at the same time . . .
“She opened her window, ‘Hey’, I said, ‘How are you – it’s my birthday!’
“’Happy Birthday’, she said, and started crying. She looked drained and pinched, and after a moment, she pointed to her gas gauge. ‘I don’t have money for gas, or food. I’ve never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I’m asking you to help me.’
“’I’ve got money’, I said.
“’No, no, I just need gas’, she said, ‘I’ve never asked anyone for a handout’.
“’It’s not a handout’, I told her. ‘It’s my birthday present’. I thrust a bunch of money into her hand, everything I had. Then I reached into my shopping cart and held out the ham to her like a clown offering flowers. ‘Hey!’ I said, ‘Do you and your kids like ham?’
“’We love it’, she said. ‘We love it for every meal’.
“She put it in the seat beside her, firmly, lovingly, as if she were about to strap it in. And she cried some more” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, pp. 10-11).
Do you love Jesus?
Then look into the eyes of those people sitting next to you in the pew this morning, some of them are worried sick about money or their job or their health or their children or you name it. Look into the eyes of those you hit with grocery carts in parking lots or whom you stumble upon at a soccer game or sit next to waiting to have your car serviced or who are listening to music so loud that it makes your head hurt. Look into their eyes. Listen to their stories. Don’t dazzle them with your piety. Simply assure them that for the love of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, there are no orphans here.
While you’re still thinking through my opening question about loving Jesus, fast forward with me to the end of John’s Gospel. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus asks this of Peter – this arrogant, disappointing, denying, disciple. Three times he asks it of Peter and finally, Peter says, “Enough already, you must know that I love you.” Jesus looks Peter in the eyes and says, “Then you know where to find me.”
Now, fast forward with me to April 16, 2023, in the year of our Lord, and I will ask it for the last time,
Do you love Jesus?
Wouldn’t you hate for this sermon not only to begin but also to end with a question?