15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that dayyou will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
I remember making a pastoral call to a man whose wife – a colleague of mine – had been killed in a plane crash. It was his second marriage and things hadn’t been easy, but life was beginning to show much promise. Then came the news of the plane crash in New Guinea.
As I spoke with him and tried to express my condolences for his loss and loneliness he turned to me with a look I’ll never forget and said: ‘I don’t feel lonely; I just feel so alone.’
I’ve never forgotten that statement and the way he said it. Up till then I’d always assumed that feeling lonely and feeling alone were the same thing. But now I realize it’s one thing to cope with loneliness. But feeling ‘so alone’ as he put it, is probably the worst thing in life
It’s significant that Jesus identified that this is exactly how his disciples would feel when he was taken from them; they would feel so alone - shattered, their world and their hopes in ruins. And to make the point, he used the term orphans to describe how they would feel.
Even if we’ve not had much direct contact with orphans, we all instinctively react to the term with compassion and deep sadness. And when we think of the possibility of our own children or grandchildren becoming orphans that reaction becomes one of acute anxiety.
Because we have an innate sense of the sheer terror that grips a child that suddenly finds itself totally alone, separated permanently from its parents who provide its life, security and love.
It’s no wonder that the Old Testament emphasizes God’s concern for orphans, and the Law of Moses made careful provision for them. Throughout Christian history the care of orphans has continued to be a major part of social concern. But even the provision of food, shelter and clothing cannot replace the terrible feeling of aloneness.
Rene Spitz provided compelling evidence of what happens to children deprived of emotional contact in her observations of a South American orphanage. There weren’t enough staff to adequately care for the 97 children under the age of three. Nurses changed nappies and fed and bathed the children. But there was little time to hold, cuddle, and talk to them as a mother would.
After three months many of them showed signs of abnormality. Besides a loss of appetite and problems sleeping, many of the children lay with a vacant expression in their eyes. Often, when a doctor or nurse would pick one up, it would scream in terror.
Almost a third of the children died the first year, not from lack of food or health care but from a lack of touch and emotional nurture. Only 21 of the 97 survived, most suffering serious psychological damage.
The fear of being all alone is, of all fears the greatest. It starts soon after birth with the separation anxiety babies have when separated from their mothers. It moves on to the terror felt by children when they get separated from their parents in a shopping centre. It reveals itself again in the grief felt by those who have lost a spouse.
Throughout life it’s a fear that’s always just below the surface and reveals itself in a persistent yet inexplicable sense of unease that we learn to live with, and hope will never happen.
And it’s this that makes today’s reading so precious. Just before his death Jesus tried to tell his disciples that they were about to lose him, and he knew that this would shatter them. However, he then went on to tell them that he would not leave them as orphans but would send a helper who would be with them always – the Holy Spirit.
What Jesus promised his disciples is something that we often take for granted; but when our world comes crashing around our ears we learn that it is the most precious gift of all. ‘I will not leave orphans,’ he said: ‘I will come to you…the Father… will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever- the Spirit of truth…’
What he was saying was that that the Holy Spirit would not only come to them, but would dwell within them and would be to them – and to all believers - a comforter, a counsellor, a teacher, a guide and a source of power for whatever life might bring, bringing Christ’s presence, which is the very life of God, into their lives, and ours.
In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was seen as the mighty power of God that brought Creation into being and sometimes came upon the servants of God to empower them for certain tasks. All through their history the Jewish people looked for the time when God’s Spirit would come among them and they would know God’s presence.
Then came John the Baptist, who, speaking of the promised Messiah, said: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’
The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach and it also means breath. The New Testament uses the Greek word pneuma which means the same. Breath, means life; and the promise of the Spirit is the promise of life. When the Holy Spirit enters our lives, it is as though God had breathed his own life into us – they’ve been ‘born again.’
The Hebrew word ruach also meant the wind, and to the Jews it signified the mighty power of God that is so often seen in the wind. Wind, of course, is one of the oldest forms of energy, and can be terrifyingly powerfully when it reaches hurricane force.
Well, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of power, and when that Spirit enters our life the power of God enters our life too. That’s what Paul refers to when he says: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ and what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples: ‘the works that I do shall you do, and greater than these.’
And finally, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would bring insight and knowledge of the truth. He will lead you ‘into all truth,’ he said, bringing to our hearts a true understanding of God and God’s will.
And so, for the disciples – and for us - the Holy Spirit would be the power of God that has come into all our lives to empower us continuously for everything God calls us to be and do.
Gradually, as the New Testament books were written, Christian understanding of this developed to the point where the Holy Spirit was seen as more than a force, but a person and a manifestation of God. This led to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which says that God, though one, exists in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I don’t want to get caught up in the complexities of that doctrine today; all I want to do is tell you that if you have faith in Christ then you will never ever be alone; just as he was present physically with his disciples during those three years of his ministry on earth, now he is spiritually and powerfully present in you through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever- the Spirit of truth…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.’ In other words he was saying: you’ll never ever be alone again!
In the original Greek the word advocate was parakletos. Some versions use the word comforter or helper. Unfortunately, there’s no word in English that translates it fully. In Greek it literally meant someone who is called alongside to help –always there when needed.
What Jesus was saying is that the Holy Spirit has been given to us to take away our own sense of inadequacy and aloneness; to always be there for us and enable us to cope with whatever life may bring.
I have a minister friend who once served as a junior officer in the navy. He told me about an incident when he was officer of the watch on a World War 2 vintage corvette just before it got de-commissioned. They were in the Coral Sea and got caught in a cyclone with hurricane force winds and mountainous seas.
Now corvettes were quite small ships used during the war as convoy escorts and minesweepers. They were amazingly sea-worthy and could keep going in seas that would cause larger vessels to turn back; but you had to have a strong stomach to survive on them because it was claimed they’d roll even on wet grass.
Well, my friend tried to describe what it was like standing on an open bridge, soaked and freezing, beating into those gigantic seas with the wind shrieking and every wave threatening to roll them over.
His assistant was a young midshipman – a trainee officer – and he could see the terror in the young man’s eyes as he gripped the rail – a terror he also felt but tried not to show -especially to the sailors.
Suddenly, the midshipman ran to the rear corner of the bridge and curled himself up into a ball, cowering on the deck. At that moment a head appeared coming up the companionway to the bridge. It was the ship’s captain – a tough old veteran of the wartime Atlantic convoys.
He saw the terrified boy cowering – almost catatonic – in the corner, and said to him: ‘What’s the matter, snotty – which is the navy’s term for a midshipman.’ ‘I’m scared, sir,’ the boy said. ‘So am I, snotty, he said. ‘But you and I are going to get this ship home, so, on your feet and back to your station.’ And he did and they did get home.
My friend then told me that the moment the captain arrived and said those words both he and that young man suddenly found themselves filled with a confidence they’d not had before. They no longer felt alone with only their own resources. That old seaman had seen it all before. With him on the bridge they knew all would be well.
And that story illustrates what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples ‘I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you’ He comes to us and is with us continuously through the indwelling Holy Spirit, our advocate, our helper, our counsellor and our guide through all the changing scenes of our lives, and never again need we feel alone. We are orphans no more.