“Commanded to Love” Colchester Federated Church, May 14, 2023, (John 14:15-21) Sixth Sunday of Easter

In March I led a workshop after worship one Sunday on a unique way to pray called Praying in Color.  Sybil MacBeth came up with this way to pray that’s active, meditative, and playful—inviting us to re-enter the childlike world of coloring and improvising.  You also leave the time of prayer with a colorful drawing that serves as a visual reminder of your prayer.  One way to begin Praying in Color is to write the name of the divine you use in prayer in the middle of a piece of paper and then to fill in names of people you’re holding in prayer from there, focusing on each person through coloring along the way.[1] 

When we pray, some of us may pray to God.  Others may pray to God as Creator or Father or Mother.  Some of us may pray to Jesus or prefer to use adjectives combined with names like Loving God, Merciful Jesus, Redeeming Spirit, and so on.  The point is that it’s personal for people of faith to use names for the divine that mean something to us.  We pray as a way to connect and to deepen our relationship with God.  The names that we use for God in prayer matter. 

On Mother’s Day in particular, it’s interesting to have a scripture passage that refers to God as Father.  Father is a name for God that Jesus used.  Some New Testament scholars would point out that oftentimes the word that Jesus used for God in Aramaic was Abba.  For instance, The Inclusive Bible translation of John 14 verse 21 is: “Those who obey the commandments are the ones who love me, and those who love me will be loved by Abba God.  I, too, will love them and will reveal myself to them.”[2]  Doesn’t it sound different when Abba God is used in this Gospel passage, knowing that Abba is the exact name that Jesus had for God?  Abba is a term of endearment that little children often used for their beloved fathers and it’s better translated into English as daddy.  Abba God.

I cannot remember who said this and give them proper credit (this came from somebody sometime in Seminary in my Andover Newton days), but there’s a theory that Joseph may have died earlier in Jesus’ life.  Because with the exception of Jesus’ birth and Jesus at twelve in the Temple, we don’t really hear about Joseph during Jesus’ ministry.  We hear about Mary showing up, often with Jesus’ siblings.  Yes, Jesus had brothers and sisters.  In Mark’s Gospel we can read people asking about Jesus, “Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon?  Aren’t his sisters here with us?”[3]  And then Jesus proclaims that prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns and goes off to the surrounding villages to start preaching, teaching, and healing. 

So it could be that Jesus especially connected with Abba God because his earthly father was no longer with him.  This is a hypothesis.  But it’s something I have often thought about when Jesus refers to Abba God as he does in this passage in John (in The Inclusive Bible translation, for instance).  Even though we often translate his term of endearment as Father in English.  We may be missing something when we do that.  Perhaps it was a comfort for Jesus to use the name Abba for God. As an aside, these are the kinds of rabbit holes I go down when writing sermons because it endlessly fascinates me and words matter.  Words we use day in and day out can wound and can heal.  Words have power.  We are invited to speak in loving compassionate ways, knowing that there will be times when we miss the mark.

Moving on, this passage also relates a name that Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says to his followers, “If you love me and obey the command I give you, I will ask the One who sent me to give you another Paraclete, another Helper to be with you always—the Spirit of truth.”[4]  What’s especially interesting is that the Greek word used in verse 16 is Paraclete, and it can mean Helper, Comforter, Companion, or Advocate.  The word is the equivalent (and used elsewhere in the Greek world) of a defense attorney. 

This one word—Paraclete—highlights the unique nature of John’s Gospel.  John is the only Gospel writer who refers to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete.  John presents the Holy Spirit as our divine Defense Attorney.  The part of the Trinity charged with defending Christians from the attacks of the world and defending Christ’s cause to humanity. Even though Jesus is leaving and will no longer be with the disciples physically, he reassures them by saying that the Holy Spirit will remain to be with us forever.

Jesus says, “I won’t leave you as orphans.  I will come to you.  Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.  Because I live, you will live too.”[5]  Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable groups in this highly patriarchal society.  This is part of the reason why in a later passage in John, Jesus makes sure to entrust the care of his mother to his beloved disciple John even as he is dying on the cross.  Jesus was making sure that Mary would be cared for, that she would have a home and an older son to be her advocate in a society where she lacked power.  Because again, Joseph was probably deceased, Jesus was about to die on the cross, and Mary was vulnerable.  Mary did not have an easy life it would seem.

It is telling that Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will be with us forever and that we will not be orphans.  These are words of comfort just like it was probably comforting to Jesus to pray to Abba God.  After all, the role of the Holy Spirit as our defense attorney is to provide protection, to clear a path for us to have a clear path to God.  Sometimes the Spirit seems to take us by the hand and lead us to the action.  Sometimes the Spirit is our Defender and blazes a trail to witness the miraculous world we inhabit.  Sometimes the Spirit works through others and inspires people to reach out to those who need help. 

In the end, the role of the Holy Spirit throughout the Bible is all about movement and new horizons.  The Spirit often leads people through the wilderness and reveals the glory of God along the way.  The Holy Spirit works through people, to inspire them to show forth the love of Christ.  As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”[6]  The greatest commandment Jesus taught was loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves.  Maybe the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways to help us see and understand that we are neighbors one to another. 

The Holy Spirit evolved in our Christian understanding to be God’s primary agent in the world and evolved by the time of the Council of Nicaea to be the third person of the Trinity.  The presence of the Holy Spirit points us to valuable ways in which human beings experience God.  We can experience God as an unseen, empowering presence, as a force that compels us forward to do good in the world, as an impulse that opens our eyes and our hearts and hones us in on the divine in everyday living, on the life-affirming wonders of God’s creation we can experience.  The Spirit remains our Helper, the force that gives us courage and sheds light on the interconnectedness of creation and all of humanity.  Jesus commanded us to love and Abba God gave us another Companion to help us on our way.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Sybil MacBeth, Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God.
[2] John 14:21, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.
[3] Mark 6:3, CEB.
[4] John 14:15-17, The Inclusive Bible.
[5] John 14:18-19, CEB.
[6] John 14:15, CEB.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout.