Orphaned? Reflections on John 14:15-21

by Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler

“I will not leave you orphaned…” Thus says the Lord.

Orphaned. Alone. Without guidance.

Without support. Without parents.

Without anyone.

Mostly, “orphaned” means being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die.

Orphaned. Really depressing. At least, it can be—and terrifying, too.

Although an image of children first comes to mind when we use that word, any of us can be orphaned at any age. In fact, on any given day, a lot of us are orphaned, at least in spirit.

I lost my father to cancer when I was eight years old, and so became a “half-orphan,” and thus appropriately half-terrified.

I became a child who on the surface was fine, but inside was frantic in my love for my mother, always on the edge of panic where her well-being was concerned, desperately afraid that something would happen to her and I would be completely alone in the world. Anxious fear was a constant childhood companion. There was no way around it, it seemed.

Nothing did happen to her, thank God. She lived a good, long, and faithful life and died when I was an adult with little children of my own. By then, the panic had somewhat subsided, mostly because I had grown up, and had grown stronger with the constant gift of her love.

But, if we really look to see, we find orphans of some kind every day.

There are thousands of children alone in this world due to the AIDS epidemic, and yes, it is an epidemic, still.

There are thousands of children left to their own devices because of abuse and neglect or, best-case scenario, poor, poor parenting, or self-centered parenting.

If we really look, we encounter people every day whose primary fear is that they are unlovable, and thus, will always be alone and isolated in the world because the world tells them they are.

People we encounter every day if we choose to see them deal with so much—financial trauma, job loss, physical illness, spiritual desperation, emotional isolation, instability, want, disrupted relationships, abandonment, violence … the list goes on. Any one of those things not only can make us feel abandoned by the very concept of love, but also unworthy and for sure unlovable by anyone.

Interesting that Jesus uses the word “orphaned” in this week’s text, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples and go and die.

He surely knew that his death would—and rightly so—strike fear and terror in those who loved him, those he loved so closely and so well, so sacrificially.

He surely knew they would be left vulnerable.

He surely knew they would panic.

He surely suspected they would turn and run for their own lives, abandoning him the very moment things got rough.

He surely knew all of these things but loved them anyway.

Yet his words in this passage reveal none of his own sense of loss and panic, his own sense of being orphaned. He speaks only of love of God, the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will never leave, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive … (who) abides with you and in you.”

Whether they heard him or not, he only speaks words of hope.

He speaks of complete union in him with God, and the grace that comes within that union forever, grace that never ends.

Jesus made a promise then that is still alive today. In these few words from the Gospel of St. John, we seem to have the sum total of how to claim a full life in the face of the fear, terror, panic, isolation, loss, and grief that comes simply from living, that comes simply by the very nature of our existence in this world.

We get from him—straight from the horse’s mouth as it were—what it means to live faithfully in the midst of life, and that is to live as though we know with full assurance that we are loved, no matter what.

His word to us is to trust in the abiding presence and love of God, which is unceasing, and to remember we are never alone, no matter what.

Echoes of “I am with you until the end of the world” rise here, in his words.

Remnants of “I am your God, you are my people” resound in his voice.

God is a God who keeps promises. We know this because of Christ.

Jesus has kept this promise and will continue to keep it, and in doing so, calls us every day to grow up, to grow stronger by the constant gift of God’s love that we know so clearly revealed in him.

No wonder, then, in the midst of life, orphans all, we can and must proclaim with the joy of our faith:

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

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