Presence in Absence

todd steele yosemite

Yosemite National Park. Photo Credit: Todd Steele

Some thoughts on this week’s Gospel Lectionary reading: John 14:23-29.

After the Last Supper, only in John, we have Jesus’ farewell discourse where Jesus talks to his disciples. And talks. And talks. And talks. For four chapters. John 14:23-29 is from the beginning of this speech. Jesus tells his friends that he will have to leave them, but promises that the Father will send the Advocate–the Spirit. While Jesus must leave, the Spirit will be with them forever. The Spirit will live with them and in them. The Advocate will remind them of everything they have experienced with Jesus. And so, in a way, Jesus promises that he will continue to be present with his friends even after he is gone.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it? For those we love to continue on with us. To still have Grandma in the kitchen, showing you how to roll out the dough. To still have Grandpa there beside you in the boat. To still be able to call Mom up and ask for advice when you don’t know what to do. We want that aching absence we feel when someone we love dies to be replaced by a living presence. Somehow. Any way we can manage. We want the emptiness to be filled.

A wedding I officiated a couple of years ago took place on a beautiful piece of land owned by the bride’s family—the same piece of land where the bride’s father is buried.

dads benchI thought of my own dad—who had been dead for about a year—when the groom’s uncle told me: “It’s really nice to have a professional here. You know, someone who knows what they’re doing.” My dad, also a pastor, came with me to the rehearsal of the first wedding I ever officiated. I had no idea what I was doing, and Dad told me, “You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You just have to act like you know what you’re doing.” Turns out he was right.

At this more recent wedding, I stood confidently in front of the gathered congregation and watched the groom walk down the aisle with both of his parents. Then the bride came with just her mom.

Somehow my dad and her dad were both painfully absent and comfortingly close all at the same time.

When someone loves us, mentors us, walks with us through life, the thought of their leaving us–the thought of them not being with us any more–is heartbreaking. So we can understand that during the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples are distraught. Jesus is saying that he must leave them, and they do not want to lose their dear friend and mentor; they do not want to be without the one who called them; the one who loves them; the one they love.

They long for his presence; they fear his absence. Jesus’ promise of the Advocate, the Spirit, is a source of comfort for the disciples even as their hearts are breaking.

For the full text of this sermon, click here.

You might also be interested in this call to worship based on Psalm 67 and Acts 14.

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