Life in fullness

It was the night of their last supper together. Judas had already left the table and gone out, and the other disciples didn’t know why or where. Then Jesus said, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” I imagine each of them feeling their stomachs tensing up. Jesus also said, “I give you a new commandment; love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” But Peter and the rest of them weren’t quite ready to hear those words; they worried what would become of them.

“Lord, where are you going?” When will you be back? What are we supposed to do without you? Why can’t we come with you?

Little children he had called them, and that’s exactly how they must have felt. Worried kids, not at all excited about the prospect of having the entire house to themselves with no one around to tell them what to do. “Don’t be troubled,” he told them. “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.” And he went on like this for four long chapters, telling his disciples everything they needed to know before he left them. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he promised.

Barbara was the eldest of three daughters and the designated babysitter in her family. “From the time I was twelve, I was the one my parents left in charge when they went out at night. First my father would sit me down and remind me how much he and my mother trusted me—not only because I was the oldest but also because I was the most responsible. This always made me dizzy, but I agreed with him. I would not let the house burn down. I would not open the door to strangers. I would not let my little sisters fall down the basement steps. Then my mother would show me where she had left the telephone number, remind me when they would be home, and all together we would walk to the front door where everyone kissed everyone good-bye. Then the lock clicked into place, and a new era began. I was in charge.”

Turning around to face her new responsibilities, what Barbara saw were her sisters’ faces, looking at her with something between hope and fear. They knew she was no substitute for what they had just lost, but since she was all they had they were willing to try. And so was she.

“I played games with them, I read them books, I made them pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. But as the night wore on they got crankier and crankier. Where are mommy and daddy? Where did they go? When will they be back?”

She told them over and over again. She made up elaborate stories about what they would all do together in the morning. She promised them that if they would go to sleep she would make sure mommy and daddy kissed them good night when they came in.

“I tried to make everything sound normal, but how did I know? Our parents might have had a terrible accident. They might never come home again and the three of us would be split apart, each of us sent to a different foster home so that we never saw each other again. It was hard, being the babysitter, because I was a potential orphan too. I had as much to lose as my sisters, and as much to fear, but I could not give in to it because I was the one in charge. I was supposed to know better. I was supposed to exude confidence and create the same thing in them.”[1]

When Jesus prepared his friends for his departure, he called them little children; he sat them down to give them his instructions and left them in charge. That’s us, all of us. We’re the responsible ones now, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name. But what about the times when we feel not quite grown-up enough for the responsibility we were given, when we feel abandoned, desolate, vulnerable, frightened—in a word, orphaned? What about the moments when the darkness creeps in and our little brothers and sisters look to us for a story to comfort them, for a brave song that will keep the monsters from coming up the basement steps; when they look to us for assurance that all will be well in the morning? What about the moments when we worry about what will become of us, what will become of the church, what will become of this beautiful world—aren’t we supposed to exude confidence and create confidence in the ones who look to us?

The way John tells the story, faith doesn’t begin with intellectual conviction or an act of will; faith is a relationship with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus, because he doesn’t just declare and explain the truth; he is the truth. Jesus not only gives and restores life, he is the very life of God and of God’s creation. Yes, Jesus teaches the ways we are related to God and to each other, but he isn’t just a teacher of the way, he is the way.

Faith is a relationship with Jesus, and through Jesus with the God he revealed and glorified in his life on earth. The first disciples were anxious about the end of the incarnation of God in Jesus, anxious about the prospect of their relationship with Jesus being reduced to mere memories of him. How would they love him after his return to the Father?

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.”

Another advocate, someone like Jesus. Someone who would keep the truth of Jesus present to the world. The word our Bible translation (NRSV) renders as “advocate” has been translated as comforter (KJV), counselor (RSV and NIV), companion (CEB), helper, assistant, broker, and mediator; another contemporary option would be community organizer. The Greek word parakletos has a wide range of meanings, and we must assume that all of them are meant to resonate. All translations are correct, but no single one captures the full range. Many scholars have suggested that perhaps it would be best not to translate parakletos but to keep it in its transliterated form, Paraclete.[2] I’m not sure that’ll help, since lots of folks will wonder what kind of bird that might be.

Jesus promised his friends that he would not leave them orphaned. His return to the Father didn’t mean he’d be absent, but rather that they would encounter him differently, in and through the Spirit. They would continue to love him, not by clinging to their cherished memories of him, but by continuing to live in his love.

While Jesus was with them as the Word of God incarnate, his mission was limited to the one place where he was at any given time, and to the people he encountered then and there. Then he returned to the Father, and a new era began. His friends, the disciples, were given the Spirit and, little children no more, they now became the community of love where the living Christ, the living God is at home. This is us, all of us, every generation of disciples. We’re the responsible ones now, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name, gifted with all that is needed.

We worry, because we think it’s all up to us now, and it’s so much to do, and we already have so many things to do, and how much more can we do, and do we really have all it takes to do all that? We’re so used to letting ourselves be defined by what we do and how much or how little we accomplish. We think we’re supposed to live constantly on the edge of anxiety. We forget that we’re gifted with all that is needed. We forget that faith is not a call to do everything Jesus used to do. Faith is our relationship with the living God, our participation in the life of God, our being with Jesus in what he is doing.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” Jesus says, having already promised the coming of the Spirit, and then he says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

The divine presence the first disciples encountered in Jesus, the divine presence we seek and so often question, that presence is promised to those who love, to those who mirror the divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit in their human communion with one another.

“I give you a new commandment; love each other,” Jesus said to his disciples that night. “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” And he went on like this for four long chapters, with words intertwining like branches on a vine.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Words like music, phrases intertwining like the melody lines in the harmonies of a song, ever new variations on a theme Jesus embodied so beautifully: love in communion, life in fullness. Loving each other the way Jesus has loved us we become a dwelling place for God, a place where God is at home in the world and the world at home in God. I can’t think of anything more awesome.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, pp. 80-81

[2] The New Jerusalem Bible does just that