From the Lectionary: “I will not leave you as orphans…”

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Sufjan Stevens, "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti"

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's Gospel reading comes from John 14:15-21: 

“If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” 

After all the controversy of last week, it’s tempting to turn this post into a discussion on gendered language around the Holy Spirit (feminine in Hebrew and Aramaic, typically neuter in Greek, masculine in this particular text), but that’s just not how this passage is “singing” to me today, so instead I’d like to focus on Jesus’ stirring and tender words in verse 18: “I will not leave you as orphans.” 

This strikes me as a fitting and profound way for Jesus to introduce the Holy Spirit as Paraclete—Comforter, Intercessor, Advocate—because it stands in the context of vast biblical testimony regarding the importance of defending orphans and widows. 

In Jesus’ culture, (and indeed in many cultures today), the fatherless were especially vulnerable to poverty, exploitation, and injustice, often left without an advocate in the courts or a protector to guard them against hunger, slavery and trafficking. Throughout Scripture, God shows special concern for orphans (Deut 10:18; Ps 10:14—18; 68:5; Prov 23:10-11), and instructs His people to protect them (Deut 14:28, 29; 16:11, 14; 24:17-22; 26:12-15). The brother of Jesus defined true religion as caring for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27), and from the perspective of the prophets, few things stir God’s righteous anger more than neglect of vulnerable children, as Isaiah’s call to repentance reflects: 

Learn to do right; seek justice. 
Defend the oppressed. 
Take up the cause of the fatherless; 
Plead the case of the widow
(Isaiah 1:17). 

So when Jesus tells his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” and then promises them the Paraclete—the Holy Advocate and Comforter— he is both acknowledging their impending vulnerability and reminding them that they are not alone. 
Indeed, just as Jesus predicted, the world didn’t recognize the Spirit of Truth, and instead of protecting the disciples, persecuted them. One wonders if in those dark days spent in hiding, the disciples held each other close and whispered to one another, “Remember, we are not orphans. We are not alone.” 

The world does not always advocate for the vulnerable among us, and too often, the Church fails in this regard too.  This week I think especially of abuse survivors who feel they have been orphaned by the Church, their oppression ignored, covered-up, and disbelieved, their cries for justice silenced.  

Words alone just don’t have the power to alleviate so many layers of pain, but I hope in reflecting on this passage, victims of every kind of abuse will be reminded:  

You are not alone. You are not orphans. You have not been forgotten.  

That stubborn voice inside of you that comforts you, that champions you, that is angry on your behalf, that calls you beloved, that tells you not to give up but to name all that ugly shame a lie—that is your Advocate, your Paraclete.  Listen to Him. Believe Him. Obey Him. 

You have not been orphaned—not by the Spirit, and not by those in whom the Spirit has made a home. 

May all of us who feel vulnerable, for one reason or another, be reminded this week that we have an Advocate and Comforter, and that sometimes the hardest, most liberating thing to do is to listen, to obey, and to actually believe He’s in our corner. 


If you too are blogging with the lectionary, or have written about this passage in the past, please leave a link to your post in the comment section

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