Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
Recently, Jodi and I had a good conversation with the parents at the weekday school about how to talk with their children about death. One parent struggled explaining to their child that that while Grammy is away in heaven, she won’t be coming back. That little boy just couldn’t understand. Another parent said that when they tried to talk about death or grief, their child would just stare at them with lost eyes. Needless to say, Jodi and I gathered as many resources as we could and passed them on to the parents at the WDS. We could almost hear a sigh of relief from that building. These conversations got me thinking about my own childhood who experienced loss. My parents, well, they didn’t use a book or a movie, like what Jodi and I passed on, they used a song from the band, Queen. Yes, Queen. Our family experienced quite a bit of death when I was younger. It was a big part of my childhood. And Mom and Dad, they tried their hardest to prepare Ben, Anna, and I for those hard times. I have a core memory of sitting around our kitchen table, relaxed in my dad’s arms, as they tell us that our Aunt Rie had cancer again and it’s not promising. Then, when we least expect it, Dad quotes the lyrics of We Are the Champions by Queen. I never thought that I would use this in a sermon, but it has stuck with me for over 20 years. As the music crescendos, the lyrics go like this, “But I’ve come through and we mean to go on and on and on and on. We are the champions, my friends, and we’ll keep on fighting till the end.” There are lots of interpretations of this song, but to me it’s a reminder of my parents taking the time to prepare us for what is about to come. That we can lean on each other, and it will hard and it will bring its challenges, but we’ll still go on and on and on together. Whether we’ve been a child, a parent, a guardian, an aunt or uncle, close friend or teacher at some point in our life, we’ve done this work of preparing our beloved little ones for what is about to come – grief and death, something we barely understand as adults.
Jesus is doing the same in our text today. He’s a parent preparing his children for his departure and I’ll be frank, Jesus doesn’t have a good bedside manner when he starts out. Up to this point, Jesus’s ministry has been public and then in chapter 13, his public ministry comes to an abrupt halt. He takes his disciples, his closest friends to a closed room and invites them around the table to share his last supper with them. It’s there that he begins his farewell discourse. Jesus doesn’t ease into the news of his death. No, he’s not available for sympathy. He doesn’t start out with everything will be okay or don’t worry, I’m sending the Holy Spirit to be with you. No, that comes later. Not long into the meal, Jesus identifies his betrayer, Judas, and shocks Peter with “yes, Peter, you will deny me.” The disciples are understandably distraught. Not only will they hurt Jesus on his last days, but they are distressed that those last days are just around the corner. No, Jesus, we’re not understanding you.
After the fear and shock and anxiety pulses through the disciple’s bodies and minds finally, finally, Jesus comforts his friends. In our passage today, he assures them, encourages them that they will not be alone after he’s gone. He says, “I will ask the Father, and God will send another Companion, [the Holy Spirit] who will be with you forever.” Jesus explains that this “companion,” this “Holy Spirit” will be an advocate. The Greek word is paraklētos, which literally means “called alongside or a helper” like a lawyer who comes alongside a defendant or a teacher who comes alongside a student. The assurance of an advocate, a companion means everything to the disciples. Jesus just drilled the emotion of fear into them that his death is coming, but don’t worry, the best is yet to come. He says, while I’m leaving you, you are not alone. I’m not abandoning you. The Spirit of Truth will be with you.
This promise, this assurance was not just for the disciples around that table. The author of the Gospel of John included this long farewell discourse for a reason. This is important for us to hear. The first century church, the church that was developed long after Jesus’s death with Paul and Peter and Lydia and hundreds of thousands of Jewish-Christians spreading the word, well, they had a rough and violent start. They were under the powerful, indestructible Roman Empire. And so, while the Roman Empire allowed the freedom for Jews to practice their religion, the Jewish Christians, those in the first century church, were not given the same luxury. It must be understood with our modern, first amendment ears that “their religious, economic, and social life took place under the reality of imperial domination.” That there was a threat and a tension between Rome and the Jewish Christians because of the Christian belief that God reigns, not Rome. And so we read this text in that light.
The Jewish Christians (a religion so new that there were those still trying to decide if they were Jewish or Christian) those Jewish Christians reading the Gospel of John, were faced with social choices. Do we stay in the synagogue, as Jews, as a member of a religious group officially recognized by the Roman Empire and thereby avoid the empire’s scrutiny or potential persecution? Or do we break with the synagogue, worship God, with Jesus as our Messiah, openly, and take the imperial consequences? For the author of John, he considers the third option as the only real choice. As one theologian, Gail O’Day, writes, John “calls his readers to do exactly what Jesus did – live one’s faith and love of God publicly, even if the cost for that is execution at the hands of Rome.” And when they did that, the Spirit went go alongside them. The author of John was not just telling the disciples that an advocate, a companion, the Spirit will be with just the disciples. The Spirit is with the church, the future of the church, the growth of the church. This church included.
I came to Trinity in August of 2020, months after the pandemic hit and you were worshiping outside under the oaks. For three years now, while getting to know you, I’ve heard stories with tears in your eyes or a glimpse of a smile on your face of how things used to be. And when I hear those words, “used to be” or “this is how we’ve always done it” or (and I’m guilty of this too) “how was the turn out?” what I really hear and see behind those tears and distance smile is anxiety, distress, and of course, grief. If there’s anything we’ve learn from the disciples in this story, those emotions are only normal. The unknown, the wondering why, the holding on to the past, it can sometimes bring out the worst in us. Like the disciples, it may bring up a sense of control, apathy even, denial, betrayal, disagreements, isolation. Again, that’s only normal. These liminal, unknown times, we tend to circle around fear focusing on everything that feels wrong or different, instead of sensing everything the Spirit is pointing us towards. You can take it, you can leave it and I would love to hear from you where you’ve seen the Spirit at work. This is where I’ve seen Spirit at work in this congregation. And I’m not mentioning numbers because the Spirit moves beyond numbers and right into those who are present here in this church to find to something from God and each other.
I’ve seen the Spirit create a community at the WDS, teaching our children about love and kindness. A community that cares for their WDS school director and teachers under stress. And it’s simply become an environment of joy in that building. The Spirit has moved around pizza and a playground, where parents can relax into a Friday evening, catching up and commiserating as the end of the school year approaches. Last week, with awe and deep love, you watched your youth lean with courage into this community, their home and express how mental health has affected their life, as I’m sure it affects many of us. We house a school where differently abled children not only come to learn how to live in an abled world, but come to this campus knowing they are safe and belong here. If you don’t know, we have a prayer team that prays for each of you every single week, writing cards to the homebound and hospitalized, concerned for our students in college, and then lifting you all up in prayer, inviting the spirit to surround you as you head to appointments or drive down the road. Where do you see the Spirit moving here at Trinity? Where is she pushing us to dance and reminding us to walk? Maybe it’s not how it used to be, but she’s there. I argue, that while that anxiety and fear bubbles underneath the surface, this is the best time to lean into the Spirit and walk along side as she walks with us. For the we know the Spirit can move us to tender tears and then push the church in bold directions.
This passage it speaks to the church as old as the first century and as new as today. While Jesus assures the disciples that they are not alone, the Spirit is with them, Jesus also assures them that he has taught them everything they need to know. They are prepared. John breaks it all down to love. Jesus doesn’t say, Keep my commandments, and then I’ll let you abide in me. Rather, he says, Abide in me, as I abide in you; love me as I have loved you; come close to me and live in me in love, and you will, by virtue of that closeness, keep my commandments. So often, we are looking for the next event that will bring everyone back, the next good idea, the big decision to establish and grow our community and church. And that’s normal and necessary and it’s happening here, it really is. And while I’ve preached a whole bunch of words this morning, it really all comes down to love. Love first, authentically love first, and the church will grow. Love first, authentically love first, and the community here at Trinity will become exactly who God wants you to be. Love first and we’ll forget about the numbers and be present with our friends who are here for a reason. Love first and our children, the lonely, the lost, the forgotten will know they belong here. When you love first, trusting the Spirit will be alongside you, helping you along, I assure you, all that we long for – the numbers, the families, the hope – all of it will follow.
Pray with me. Loving God, we believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.
 Queen, We Are the Champions,
 Gail R. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” in Women’s Bible Commentary Revised and Updated, ed. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 518.