Sermon: 6 Easter, May 14, 2023

Over the two and a half decades that I have served parishes as an ordained person, I have had the privilege of being with many people at the end of their lives. I have seen people die suddenly whose family and friends were completely unprepared for their death. And I have been with people who have known their death was coming, because they had some condition that was incurable. It was the latter kind of death that I found myself thinking about as I read our gospel reading from John. Last week, this week, and next week our gospel passages come from what is often called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. It is the very long speech he gave to his disciples at his Last Supper with them before he was arrested and crucified. It was Jesus’ attempt to care for, comfort and prepare his followers for his departure from their lives.

A lot of time, energy and thought has gone into considering the grieving process that people go through when they lose someone they love to death and for good reason. Every human being will experience this kind of grief. We will all experience the profound pain and change that the death of a loved one brings to our lives. We often don’t know how we will get through it and need to hear the wisdom of others who have been through it themselves to find our way through.

What hasn’t been written about quite as much is the process that a dying person goes through as they approach their death. There are a few books, but most of them are about the bigger philosophical, psychological, and spiritual idea of accepting our mortality that we might live more fully right now. Unlike grief, there aren’t a lot of books that have been written by people who actually know they will die soon. Perhaps this is because there are too many other important things for those diagnosed with a terminal illness to focus on and do. Or perhaps it is because it is a little too frightening for us to contemplate our actual deaths. We can focus on theoretical death, but reading the experience of someone who is actually very close to death is a little bit too much for us. Or maybe it is both of these things.

I therefore feel fortunate that I have been alongside a few people who had received a terminal diagnosis, not because I was glad they were dying, far from it. I am glad though that I had the privilege from learning from them, for we will all experience what the terminally ill have experienced. We will all die. And while each experience was as unique as the individuals going through the experience of dying with knowledge of their death, there were some commonalities. You will have heard them before, as this is what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about. She didn’t actually study and write about those grieving after someone has died, as most of us have commonly been told. She actually studied and wrote about the stages that a dying person goes through as they approach their death. She found 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The various people I have been with who were aware of their terminal diagnosis went through these stages, though not all of them made it to the acceptance stage. Those who did reach the stage of accepting that they would die soon, usually came to a place where they were not so much concerned about their own death, but instead about those they were leaving behind.

One woman, who had courageously fought cancer for 18 months and would leave behind a five-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter, spent a lot of time writing down anything she thought they might want to know about her or themselves in preparation for the time when she would no longer be there to answer their questions. A man with a wife and two teenaged children, who had always handled all the finances and bills in his family, meticulously organized that part of his family’s life, and walked his wife through it all step by step so that she would be able to take care of this aspect of their family’s life when he was gone. A grandfather who loved birthdays and Christmas bought presents for the next few years for his grandchildren, so that he could still be a part of their celebrations even when he was gone. A sister comforted her twin brother and assured him that he would be able to live without her. Every time I witnessed a dying person caring for those they were leaving behind, my heart was both broken and expanded at the same time. I was witnessing true love, true generosity, true gift.

And this is the gift that Jesus is trying to give his closest friends and companions. He has been honest with them. He has told them that he is going to die very soon. They are confused and scared. It doesn’t make sense to them. Jesus is God’s chosen. How can he die? And if he dies, what will they do? They have given up everything to follow him. They thought he was the way, the truth and the life. Who do they follow now? How do they live their lives now? And will they be arrested next? Will they be the next to die?

And Jesus loves them. He cares for them. He shows them the way.

“Wash each other’s feet as I have washed your feet.” John 13:14

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. John 13:34

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:1-3

11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:11-12

15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ John 14:15-21

And at the end of chapter 14:

25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. John 14:25-29

The one through whom they have experienced real life, real peace, real love is telling them that he is going to die. And he is reassuring them that they will be ok. He will ask the Father to send them another Advocate when he is gone. I would like you to notice the word “another.” Jesus is their first advocate. “Another” will be sent to them to live within them. Their relationship with this soon to be sent advocate will be even more intimate than their relationship with Jesus, with whom they have been living, sleeping, eating and travelling for the past several years.

And what does Jesus mean by “Advocate”? The Advocate in John is the Holy Spirit, but with a little different flavor than the Holy Spirit as described in the other three gospels. The word translated “Advocate” is the Greek word “Paraclete.” There is a legal sense to this word. An Advocate or Paraclete is one who defends an accused person in a court of law, who tells the defendant’s side of the story to the judge and jury. But the word “Paraclete” also has other meanings—one who brings help, consolation, comfort, and encouragement and one who “comes along side.” Jesus also adds that the Advocate, the Paraclete will “teach them everything,” and remind them “of all I have said to you.”

Jesus is leaving them, but he is not leaving them alone. The Advocate, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit will come alongside them to defend, help, console, comfort, encourage and teach. Indeed, the Advocate won’t just come alongside them, but will abide in them. And when the Advocate abides in them, they will come along side others and do greater works then Jesus was able to do when he walked with them, because Jesus the mortal human was one person in one location. The Advocate can abide in any and everyone, particularly those who love—love God, each other, and their neighbor—in all times and places.

Now we have not experienced the loss of the earthly Jesus. We did not walk on this earth with him when the word was incarnate in the human Jesus. But that does not mean the Advocate, the Holy Spirit is not available and abiding in us as well. We may not know the particular loss of Jesus’ first followers, but we are human, so we do know loss. And we are called to love each other, God and our neighbor just as Jesus’ first followers were called to do. And we also frequently feel that we are not up to this calling. So, these words are for us as too. We are not alone in times of loss. We are not alone when we struggle with the challenging way of love that we are called to as followers of Jesus. The Spirit, the Advocate abides in us too.

Now, it can often be hard to feel that spirit within us. I find that I have to spend time in quiet every day to sense its presence. The noise of the world can easily drown its voice out. But I am very aware when I experience the presence of the Advocate coming along side me in someone else. I am sure you have had this awareness too. May the Spirit abide in you and may the Holy Spirit abiding in you inspire you to come along side another who is in need of all the Holy Spirit has to give. Amen.