Day of Pentecost.21 “Staying Connected” John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Staying connected. It’s a crucial yet difficult thing in so many areas of our lives, starting with family. A strong, loving connection with father and mother gives a child a strong identity, love, confidence that spills out into all areas of life. Which is why orphans (like Dickens’ Oliver Twist—that’s a documentary, right?) face such a tough road. Some find surrogate parents who carry out the role better than many biological parents. But some never do. The loss of parental connection can lead to a life filled with all kinds of griefs, sorrows, troubles.
But you can fall off the horse on the other side. This is why the term “helicopter parents” has come into vogue. Fun fact from this week’s New Yorker: did you know human lifespan doubled from the 1918 Spanish flu to Covid 2020? Doubled! Went from just under 40 to right at 80 (I didn’t finish the book review to find out if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or just: yes!—it’s a thing. I suspect the vicar, on his recent death kick, would look at it with a more jaundiced eye than many of us do?)
Anyway, the doubling of average life span really cut down on the whole orphan thing! Oliver Twist came to seem more a picture of an exotic alternate universe than a typical slice of life. And with a tremendous increase in standards of living, after 1918, life seemed less a daily struggle for survival and more a quest for personal fulfillment, comfort, safety, health, and wealth. Children kind of became projects for parents to work out their own unfulfilled dreams, hopes, aspirations (sure glad that’s never happened to any of you!). So, the parental connection can become too close, smothering, never letting the baby birds quite take wing on their own. Which the little chicks can come to resent. Quite a lot…
Nice talk, pastor, but what does this have to do with the Day of Pentecost?! Everything! Because, while the main thrust of the Gospel is still, of course, death and finding how dying with Jesus turns our sorrow into joy, the particular focus of this little talk Jesus has with his disciples is how his going away and leaving us quite bereft (when we weren’t really ready for that!) will actually be a Good Thing, and help us quite a lot.
Now, I will grant you that this sounds uncomfortably close to one of the saddest scenes in human life: a disheveled young dad sits at the edge of his 6 year old son’s bed, rubbing his back gently, trying to explain how he and mommy need some “time apart”—that they have some “grown-up things” they have to “work-out” so that daddy has to go away and the little boy isn’t going to see daddy much anymore; but it will be “better for him that dad isn’t around anymore”—helpful, actually—a Good Thing, for everyone. Because only if daddy goes away will the family’s problems get solved, and the little boy find the necessary Helper.
And we quite naturally go: “What kind of “Helper” is this?! The only thing I need, as a little child, if you ask me, is for daddy and mommy to love me, stay with me, raise me right. And abandonment doesn’t seem to be good, right, or salutary!”
No getting around it! This is a very uncomfortable Gospel. But isn’t the Gospel itself a little troubling—if we don’t read it through the filters of a comforting “missional” theology, and Sunday School lessons with “life-lessons” as clear-cut as Jesus’ six-pack abs? If we read the bible as “a loosely organized non-fiction novel from an edgy, independent press” (as my old teacher Hans Frei, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, liked to describe it—“an old, old story, so history-like and true”—which after reading it myself, a couple times, seems not too terribly far off) we too might find much in the Gospel of Jesus that is flat-out troubling!
But the resemblance to the troubling scene of a father leaving his young son is superficial. Because, in that picture, the child has done nothing wrong and only wants his dad and mom to stay. But in our case, while I admit Jesus’ line: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” sounds too close to a Hollywood absentee’s father’s excuses, the situation is quite different, in our case…
Because we aren’t innocent little children anymore. In the Garden of Eden, our first parents ran and hid when God came walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening breeze to tell them a bedtime story and tuck them in for the night. They couldn’t get far enough away from him, fast enough! Because they’d rebelled against him. They didn’t believe the Story he’d been telling them—of Jesus and his love, that old, old story, that personally I’ve come to love to tell. They thought God was lying to them, deceiving them. So they ate the forbidden fruit. It made them smart (and God dumb!) so, like Huck Finn, they lit out for the territories. And the sight of God coming to wrap his arms around them seemed too… controlling for them. They needed space.
Simply put: they thought God was smothering them, being a helicopter parent. Being Oliver Twist sounded like an improvement. So, God lets us go, because in a case like ours, only absence makes the heart grow fonder.
This is what the Helper, the Holy Spirit bears witness to: the sad truth of our story which, as Fred Buechner well said, is equal parts “Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.” We try to skip to the Fairy Tale part, but the Tragedy part is where we need to start and keep coming back to.
The tragedy is we were the ones who walked out on Dad, ran away from home in the middle of the night, rebellious teens, when we just weren’t ready. And when God came seeking us, we turned and ran faster. So he lets us have a few millennia of “me-time”.
Then, God shows up again, in a very different form—in our own flesh and blood, helpless, humble—a little baby, lying in a manger; then as a homeless hobo wandering the roads but doing some cool stuff, walking on water, stilling storms, telling great stories, feeding us Food we never knew we liked or wanted. And we were drawn in a little closer.
Until… the cross and death thing! Jesus says: his dying and rising is the only way to fix the gulf sin has made between us. That’s a lot to take in! Sounds a bit… abusive. But he promises: sharing his suffering and dying is the only way to share his rising, to bridge the gap all the way and truly make our hearts yearn for him to move back in.
He goes away to the cross so that we will gladly follow! Absence does make the heart grow fonder (!), and there is no more powerful absence than that of God on Golgotha, Friday afternoon, 30 AD, 3 pm.
The Spirit convinces us that sin is losing the plot, forgetting the old, old story of Jesus and his love; that righteousness is found only in Jesus, and if he is found only in the darkness of the cross and the depths of the grave, then that is where we yearn to be—a mature judgment that makes us cut ties with the Serpent, and cling to Jesus for dear life.
Today, 5 young people confirm that they’d rather be with Jesus than be happy. Join them in this confession—for it alone renews your connection to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit + grants Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.