In February, my mother died at the ripe old age of 100. A couple of days later I went to help remove her possessions from the care home where she had been living. While there, my sister made the comment that “we are now orphans”. Of course, that is true. We no longer have living parents, but the statement didn’t really mean a lot to me at the time.
In today’s Gospel reading, we continue to find out what Jesus said to his disciples in his last long conversation before his arrest. He was trying to prepare them for his absence and to give them hope in the face of such a huge change. Perhaps because of that statement by my sister, what stands out for me is the statement: “I will not leave you orphaned.”
In the Bible, and in other writings from the ancient Near East, orphans and widows are mentioned together. The word used for orphans in Hebrew is ‘yatom’ which means fatherless. It could mean that a father had died or for some reason he was unavailable to the family. If a family became fatherless, that left behind a widow and orphans who were going to struggle to survive without the breadwinner of the family. In the Old Testament, God used the treatment of the fatherless and widows as a measure of right living for the people of Israel. The fate of these powerless members of society was of utmost importance to God. He warned the people that if he heard their cry for justice, he would take action on their behalf. God is called “the helper of the fatherless” in Psalm 10 and “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” in Psalm 68.
An orphan became very vulnerable on the loss of his or her father. With little income available, there was the very real prospect of dire poverty – loss of home, little food, dependence on begging. There was loss of status as the father was the head of the household and a child gained status through the father. There was loss of security. With no one to stand up for an orphan or widow, unscrupulous people could take advantage, perhaps taking away property or possessions. There would be little recourse to law. Jesus told the story of the persistent widow who had to go again and again to the judge until she was treated fairly. There was also the loss of advice and guidance through life which a father would be expected to give.
Young people today who find themselves fatherless by whatever means, are also very vulnerable, despite the fact that many countries have systems in place which are meant to protect them. In the UK we have had children who have been placed ‘in care’ sexually exploited by gangs who groomed them. These children had no one to speak up for them, so the law did not support them until recently. We read of refugee children, travelling thousands of miles without parents. Although they may reach the relative safety of Europe, they are prey to trafficking gangs and many disappear without trace. We know that children of single parents often live in poverty and fail to fulfil their potential.
In the light of what it means to be orphaned, what was Jesus offering to his disciples when he promised that he would not leave them orphaned? They were not children, but young men. James and John at least still had a living father so they were not all fatherless. Nevertheless, Jesus knew that his disciples would be vulnerable when he was no longer around. All the disciples had left their families and livelihoods to follow Jesus. When Jesus was no longer there, it would seem like the end of their new family and new way of life as Jesus was effectively the head of the family of disciples. While Jesus was there encouraging them, the disciples had gone out preaching, healing and casting out demons. They would never have done that without the knowledge that Jesus was there for them. One of the tasks of parents is to be there as a support while children try new things, secure in the knowledge that someone is available to help if things go wrong.
Knowing that he would not be around in the same way as he had been, Jesus promised the disciples a replacement for himself. The Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, Comforter, Helper, one called alongside, would come and would stay with the disciples for ever. Unlike human parents who die at some point, this one would remain always, never leaving them to be vulnerable. He would be there to give advice and encouragement, to care for them as Jesus had done, to speak for them in the face of accusation.
From what Jesus said, the Spirit was already with the disciples – “he abides with you” – but naturally they would have focussed more on Jesus whom they could see, hear and touch. This reads to me rather like an introduction to someone who has been there in the shadows and is brought into full view.
Jesus went on in this short passage to explain a whole new family relationship that was about to become reality. The Spirit would continue to stay with the disciples and also be in them. The disciples would understand that Jesus was in the Father, they were in Jesus, and Jesus was in them. The disciples’ love for Jesus, shown through obeying his teaching, would mean they were loved by the Father and loved by Jesus, who, despite his physical absence, would still reveal himself to them.
This complex intertwining of relationships is like a net, to keep the disciples safe, belonging and connected. The relationship between the three persons of God is described by the Greek word ‘perichoresis’ which means that each person is an individual and yet also shares the life of the other two. It’s like a weaving, divine dance of great intricacy. And the good news is that the disciples then, and we now, are invited to join the dance. Hands are held out, inviting us in. Paul picked this up when he said to the Athenians: “In him we live and move and have our being”.
Although we cannot see God, we know that we are his children. Even better, we are in God. He is not a deceased, distant or missing father. By the action of the Holy Spirit he is in us and around us. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we remind ourselves that Jesus was speaking the truth: we are not orphans but part of God’s family forever.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor