15 If ever you should love me, my mitzvot you will guard. 16 I also will ask the father and another similar advocate he will give to you (in order that he should be with you into the aeon): 17 the breath of truth, the one that the beautiful world is not able to receive because it does not see it neither does it know it; you will know it because with you it remains and in you it is. 18 I will not leave you orphans; I come to you. 19 Still a little, and the beautiful world sees me no longer because I live and you will live. 20 In that day you yourselves will know: I in my father and you in me and I also in you. 21 The one who has my miztvot, and guards them, that one is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my father, and I also will love that one and will make myself appear to/in/by means of that one.
Again, I explored this passage three years ago, and was much taken with Sara Miles’ argument that remaining confined inside the walls of our safe sanctuaries and traditions does not lead to life. The events of the past few months (and of the coming many months) make Miles’ insights even more important, I think.
You can find that Provocation at: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2020/05/11/a-provocation-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-21-2017-john-1415-21/
This year another thing has struck me. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphans….”
I wish a nifty little rhetorical flourish could make that so memorable and effective that the sense of being vulnerable and abandoned would just vanish. There is no such rhetorical power.
Every institution, every business, every mom-and-pop restaurant that I know anything about is under serious pressure, and feels exposed and endangered. Because they are. Every young professional I know is concerned about house payments, and every older worker I know wakes up at night doing the math for retirement. And in both of these cases, it is not just that the crashing of the stock market and of the economy in general has made things dicier that at any time in living memory. In both of these cases and in so many more, the crashing of the market has led to corporate talk about layoffs and furloughs, reduced hours, salary cuts, and imposed early retirement programs.
“I will not leave you orphans,” says Jesus, but every person I know feels suddenly unprotected and unsure of what the next steps even could be. (If you don’t feel this way, get quietly to work and find a way to help. All the rest of us DO feel this way, and feel it acutely.) The verse in which this promise appears would seem to imply that the solution to our sense of sharp vulnerability is “Jesus coming to us.” Maybe. But I have yet to hear any explanation of what this could mean that does me any good.
Sometimes it is dressed up as some sort of “spiritual coming,” and so it seems to offer a kind of inner peace. I’m all in favor of any peace, internal or external, that I can find, but I am puzzled as to how inner peace pays the bills or buys clothes for growing children.
Sometimes the coming of Jesus is rolled over into the “Second Coming” (whatever in the world that is). That has been a popular interpretive move at various times in history. So far he hasn’t shown up. So far the expectation of a cataclysmic apocalyptic event has also not covered anybody’s mortgage payment or made it more likely that people whose work sustains the food supply chain get workplace protection, reliable health care, or a living wage. Joe Hill, a labor organizer from about a century ago pointed this out clearly:
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and Pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (it’s a lie)from “The Preacher and the Slave”
So, that’s cheery.
Here is what I hear just now:
21 The one who has my miztvot,
and guards them,
that one is the one who loves me.
The word that I have translated (from Greek into Hebrew, of all things) as mitzvot is usually translated as “commandments.” That’s a good translation, but it tends to lead to interpreters thinking only about the Ten Commandments, or about the (quasi-)Lutheran dogma that “commandments” mean “LAW” and LAW only knows how to kill. Jesus was apparently not that kind of a Lutheran. Go figure.
In the face of a deep running chaos that leaves everyone vulnerable and feeling like an orphan, there is only one solution, says Jesus: do the mitzvot. Ask your Jewish friends what this means. Here is the short version: Look for things that lead to life, and do them. Don’t stop. You aren’t in charge of raising the entire universe to life, but when you see something that helps, protects, nurtures, loves, or just generally gives life to someone who has that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling, do it. Just do it.
I have no idea what those life-giving things are going to be, not for me, and surely not for you. But I do know that this little scene in John’s story links doing those things with messiah coming to people who feel abandoned and turning the world right-side-up. And I do know that talking about messiah coming, while refusing to look for and do those everyday mitzvot is nothing more than pie in the sky. And that’s a lie.
So, get on with it. I’m pretty sure that, if we had to sit down and thrash all this out before we did anything, we’d mostly discover that we disagree with each other about which mitzvot are most important. And then we could argue about who was the only person who was right. We love to do that. It’s a lot easier than actually doing the things that help people not feel like orphans. Use your imagination. There might be a way that your company, or your family, or even just you could give life and hope and protection that you have never thought of before. Can you help prevent evictions? Can you help guarantee medical coverage for people who have lost their jobs? Can you protect people who have no choice but to go to work because there is no other way they can get a paycheck? The mess we are in is going to require everybody’s best imagining. And it is going to require that we just do it.
I will not leave you orphans.