A few months ago, my son Stanley hurt his foot. The kids were playing, as they normally do, but in the process, something fell on the top of Stanley’s foot, just above his toes. We didn’t see exactly what happened, but the symptoms were obvious. He didn’t want to put any weight on it, and when he did, he would start to cry in pain; he just wanted to lay in my lap, which is completely unlike him. Concerned, I called the urgent care facility just down the street, and they told me to have him come in for an X-Ray.
Kathy (my wife) had been away for most of the morning running errands. I got Stanley dressed. We got our coats on and were ready to go. Stanley and I were waiting by the door to the garage so that as soon as Kathy got home, we could hop in the car and head to the care facility.
My daughter saw all of this going on, and she began to cry. To her, it looked like we were leaving, and that she would be left at the house by herself. She didn’t fully understand that only after Kathy got back would Stanley and I leave. “Where are you going?” she cried. “I can’t stay here by myself. Someone needs to look after me.” I assured her, “We aren’t going to leave you by yourself. We would never leave you alone without someone to take care of you.” I hugged her, and she made peace with that. A couple minutes later Kathy arrived home, and Stanley and I left for the doctor’s office.
In the gospel lection the disciples are wrestling with heavy questions. They’d been with Jesus for a long time, they’d gotten to know him and to love him. They’d seen him do amazing things. He’d changed their lives. And now he was leaving.
“You mean you’re leaving now?” They wondered. “What about us? Who’s going to look after us if you go away?” Their hearts were filled with sorrow.
Maybe some of us have felt this way before too. Maybe someone had to leave, due to circumstances beyond either of your control, and it was hard to let them go. Maybe you weren’t ready for them to go. Maybe you were left to wonder, why is this happening now? Maybe you wrestled with the change, and how different things would be, and whether or not that change would be for the good. Or, if it was someone especially close to you, maybe you wondered how in their absence, you would ever be whole as a person, without them beside you.
This sentiment is reflected in the experience of the disciples. Scripture says that “sorrow had filled their hearts,” similar to the way that sorrow and grief fill our hearts when we must say farewell to a close companion.
Biblical commentator Emmanuel Lartey reflects on this passage from John’s gospel in these terms:
One of the losses we humans feel most keenly is that of human companionships. When a person we have been close to leaves “for good,” we experience grief and sorrow. In John’s gospel the essence of love is to be connected to and [to] share deeply in the presence and work of Jesus. In [this passage, which is known as] Jesus’s farewell discourse [to his disciples] we see him dealing with the disciples’ love and sorrow [at] his impending departure. Jesus, anticipating the grief they will inevitably feel, prepares the disciples for his return to the Father. (Feasting on the Word, B3, 20)
But as he prepares to leave his disciples, Jesus assures his followers that he will not leave them alone. “If you love me, then keep my commandments,” it’s said in John 14:15. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter, who is the Spirit of truth… And when the Advocate comes whom I will send to you from the Father, who is the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf…” He will further teach and guide the church, so that God’s people might know that they are not alone, and that their Messiah has not left them, though we can’t see him with our eyes or touch him with our hands.
In other words, Jesus promises his followers that even though he must leave, he will not leave them by themselves.
I think there are times in our journey, where it feels like we are left to fend for ourselves. Maybe when a person we’ve loved or admired in the church leaves unexpectedly, or perhaps, when a particular group which we’ve taken part in changes or morphs into something else. Or maybe, for some of our students, when we move up to the next grade level and we no longer have the same teacher or classmates. Sometimes the changes in our lives can seem overwhelming, and they can make us feel like we are left on our own.
In moments like this, we wrestle with trust.
The promise of our Lord Jesus Christ to his followers is that we are never left on our own. We always an advocate, a comforter, and a guide, who is the Holy Spirit. And though change is something of a constant, it’s through the changes in our lives that God brings about new opportunities for us to grow as persons and in his likeness.
Indeed, if it weren’t for change and new opportunities, and if there were no such thing as good-byes or fare-wells or even disappointment, then there would never be growth, or hope, which the apostle Paul connects to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Paul says in Romans chapter 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit… For in hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope. On the contrary, if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience.”
Change can be painful. Sometimes we desperately cling to how things are, and we are resistant to change (or accepting change) because we’re afraid that if change happens (or if we come to reckon with it), then the things we’ve come to know and love, and which have become so much a part of us, will fall by the way side, and we will be less than our full selves.
This was certainly how the disciples felt.
They didn’t want Jesus to leave.
They wanted him to stay.
But Jesus understood what they had yet to fully grasp.
Were there no such thing as change, there would be no need for a Comforter. Hope is a virtue that is birthed when we come to terms with the “unseen” nature of this life. Our world is such that we sometimes find ourselves blindsided by “unseen” or unexpected things—a disease, a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one, a final “good-bye” to a companion—and these things make life hard. But in those moments when our trust and strength are shaken and uncertainty and change reign, we can be sure of this. We are not left alone.
What better image for this than the day of Pentecost itself, described in Acts chapter 2. Not long before, the disciples had bid their final earthly farewell to Jesus. Change was coming. And yet, as a direct result of this change, something mighty would happen, and the people of God would experience God’s power in a new and hopeful way: The sound of a mighty rushing wind. Flaming tongues descending from on high. People from all over the known world, speaking in different languages and dialects, and yet, each one being heard and understood. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the one who comes to us and who remains with us, so that we might never be alone.
So it is for God’s people. Let the Spirit of Pentecost, let the presence of the Comforter whom Jesus leaves with us at his departure from this earth, let the Spirit of God invade your heart. Let the Spirit of God testify with your Spirit, that through Christ Jesus, you are made whole.
It’s through the changing circumstances of life that hope is forged as a virtue. And it’s through life’s many changes that we are made into who we are persons in God’s image. Be assured that there is one who goes with you and before you and on your behalf, so that you are never left on your own.