The text for this morning is taken from John 14:15-21. I am reading from the New International Version. If you care to, you can follow along with me with one of the Bibles in the pew holders.
“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him or knows him. But you will 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 obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
The speaker at our one day Pastor’s Seminar was also a counselor and he started one of his presentations by saying there are four “S” words, four subjects that we find very, very difficult communicating about. Very difficult at a feeling level, an emotional level or even at a communicative level talking about it. He said the first “S” is sex. As soon as he said that I said, Ooh, he hasn’t been watching many talk shows lately. But I think what he meant was it is really difficult in a civil setting to talk about that. Beads of perspiration break out on the foreheads of fathers as they think about preaching this subject to 12 year olds. That’s a tough one. The second “S” he said is suicide. And we know from experience it’s those who are family survivors of those who have taken their lives, it is very, very difficult to communicate around them, they are so complex, so many feelings. The third he says was stigma. He didn’t explain what he meant by stigma, but I just took him to mean any negative thing that’s maybe in the family system. You know, grandfather was a horse thief or maybe you get on the police blotter in the newspaper; that’s a stigma and it’s very awkward. It’s very tough to approach someone and speak to them, but he said far worse than any of these three is the fourth “S”. He called it the worst “S” and that’s why I titled my sermon that way. And he said that “S” is separation. Separation. How hard to talk about at the feeling level and at any level, the painful separations of our living. Whether that separation be the outgoing of a family member off to college, a person getting married, someone who dies or perhaps, an angry cut-off that happens not even in our generation, but in another generation and we can’t talk about what happened back in the family system from before.
Separation is the worst “S”. The fear of separation, the experience of separation, the aftermath of separation can take it’s toll in powerful ways. Think about it, we came into this world separated. We were separated from our mother’s womb and we cried. And then we lost the breast or the bottle and we cried. And let me say at this point, separation is healthy. It’s good. But I am talking about the kind of separation that’s not healthy. And if you grew up and lost the lap and even more than that, experienced abuse or shaming, and you didn’t understand what was happening, you were separated from yourself. And we learn somehow to stuff all of our feelings and take them and just shove them way down deep inside and we are kind of cut off from ourselves. Separation is the worst “S”.
You know for some, there are hints that this is true. Especially, I speak to men about this a lot. The refusal to feel one’s feelings is a sign that separation has taken its toll. That we are unable to even articulate what is going on is probably a product of some sort of separation. For others, addicted living is the hint that separation has happened in their life in a powerful way. Someone once said that an addict is a person who is frightened about the nature of reality and so they seek to alter it. Again, a person cut off from themselves. Could this be the reason, this worst “S”, why people, some people, refuse to go to funerals? Could this be the reason that some people enter into relationships on the rebound? Because it is so difficult to feel the pain of separation.
I think the way we even relate to each other when we meet reflects the way we deal with separation. When you meet someone for the first time, do you interact with them by thinking about what’s right with them or what’s wrong with them? In the last interim that I had at the end, a couple of people came up to me, a couple of men actually, and said “You know what, I really am sorry that I didn’t get to know you better. It’s just that the leaving of the pastor affected me so much that I didn’t want to go through it again.” And I think it was great that they were even aware of those thoughts and of those feelings, but it is indicative again that separation and the pain of separation is indeed the worst “S”.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book entitled “A Grief Observed”. He wrote this after his wife Joy died. And as he does so often, he puts words to feelings that help us understand our own. He said during the early stages of grief, the heaviness that he felt was almost unbearable. He said he felt as if he were drunk or concussed. It was as though he were wrapped in wet blankets that separated him from the rest of the world. And the worst part, he said he could not even pray. He felt cut off from God. And every time he tried, it was as if a door were shut in his face and he could hear it being bolted from the other side.
It is this sense of isolation, aloneness and pain that Jesus addresses in John 14. He says “I will not leave you orphaned”. The Greek word is orphanuse. I will not leave you deprived of parental love. I will not leave you, I will not neglect you, I will not abandon you, I will come to you. And he says how he does that. He will come to us by the Holy Spirit who lives in us as a constant reminder of God’s nearness. But sometimes we are out of touch with even feeling the Spirit. And so he comes to us through other people. He comes to us in many ways. He comes to us through worship. He comes to Central Church, perhaps, through me to say it’s okay. The best is yet to be. I’ll come to you. I will not leave you alone. I will not leave you desolate, as the RSV says. And he not only says I will not leave you alone, that I want to have a deep relationship with you in those times of loneliness and loss, but he goes on to say the level that he wishes that to be at. Listen to verse 20 “On that day when you realize that I come to you, you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you”. In other words, Jesus just doesn’t want to hang around with us, he wants us to understand that the level of relationship that we can have with God is equivalent to the level of relationship that he has with the Father, which is a powerful understanding. The immediate context of John 14 is that Jesus is leaving his disciples to go to his death. And he knows that they are sad. The historical context of John’s Gospel is that the Gospel of John was written in the late First Century and there was a whole community of believers who were saying “I thought Jesus was coming back.” And so John is trying to speak to his audience. So Jesus speaks to his people, John speaks to his people and today in 2000, here were are speaking to one another. How is it that we can get over the painful separations of living? By telling that he is here for us, that he has come to us, that he died on the cross so that he might bring us to God. He assures us that he is with us and that if we will focus on him, somehow the pain that we go through will be lessened.
I experienced this in my own life a little over a year and half ago. I guess I have experienced it in a number of ways, but I am thinking now on when I was closing out an 11 1/2 year pastorate in Sunberry. The date was December 20; it was the next to the last Sunday of being the pastor there. Now, it wasn’t the last Sunday, but it was the last Sunday that I would be working with the organist, who had to go and visit her family during Christmas and with the choir director. And so, I was feeling very, very vulnerable. Half the service I could just tell that if God didn’t help me, I was going to lose it right in front of everybody. And there were sniffles and half a box of Kleenex that I was going through trying to get over it. At the end of the service, the hymn that I had selected for the last hymn as we concluded was “Jesus Shall Reign Where’re the Son.” Because I wanted all of these services to be not about my leaving, but to be about the fact that Christ is constant and will never change. And so, towards the tail end of the service, they surprised me and the choir director who has a beautiful voice, got up sang “Friends” by Michael W. Smith. Now you’ve heard that song, right? And that’s a song that in the context of leaving one another puts you into a puddle, right? And yet you know what? I was so focused on that last hymn that even though he surprised me with his song, the hymn was in my head: “Jesus shall reign where’ere the sun on its successive journeys run, his kingdom stretched from shore to shore, till moon shall wax and wane no more.” I was focused on that hymn and he was singing “Friends” and you know what, I was coping. The executive presbyter of our presbytery took us out to lunch afterward and he said “You know, I knew you were struggling during the whole service, but I thought when he got up there and sang “Friends”, they were going to have to pick you up with a spatula”. And I said “You know what David, that probably would have been the case, but I was so focused on that last hymn, I was so focused on the power and might of Jesus, it somehow closed the gap.” And that is what Jesus is saying here: I will come to you even in your deepest separation, even in your deepest isolation, I am coming to you. And he comes to you today.
Don’t fear separation. Someone once said that we never really grow and change until we realize how alone we are. Do you think that’s true of your own life? The times that you have grown as a person, as a Christian because you come in touch with your sense of aloneness before God? And think about this from a congregational perspective. If God didn’t take a pastor and move them from time to time, we could start getting dependent and get our eyes off of the fact that it is Jesus who is the one who keeps coming to us. I will not leave you along he says.
Scripture teaches that here. And I cannot think of another passage that more clearly states how much God wants to have a love relationship with each one of us. This passage is probably read at more funerals than any other. And I want to say a word today to those of you who may be here and not quite sure about your relationship with God. Today, the candle is lit because someone this past Tuesday, I think it was Beachmont Christian Camp, a young man gave his heart to Christ. That candle stands as a symbol that God calls us into a relationship because apart from Jesus Christ, we are separated from God. That’s the worst separation of all. You can be as whole as you think you are and as happy as you think you can be, but if you are separated from God, that’s the worst separation of all. If you want a sense of aloneness, take the scene from the Wizard of Oz where they are approaching the wizard, okay. And you are in Dorothy’s place and you don’t have any friends and magnify that by ten thousand times as you stand before God stripped of everything. That’s alone. But now listen, the reason that Jesus left his disciples is that he was going to a cross and not only a cross, but a resurrection and he said “Because I live, you will live also. I have provided a death for you, I provided a resurrection for you. All you have to do is love me, is trust me and you will be in me and I will be in you.” And here we are standing before God and Jesus comes along and he puts his arm around us and he says “Father, he is in me, she is in me and I am in her or him and there is no condemnation.” Jesus has bridged the separation by dying on the cross, rising on the third day and coming to us and to all who will listen. Here is his promise – “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” That’s the door of your heart. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to them and sup with them. I will sit down and dine with them. Figuratively, I will have an everlasting relationship with them.”
If you are here today and you’ve wandered from the Lord, he says “Keep my commandments.” What are his commandments? What is the first sermon Jesus ever preached? Repent. Turn back to God and he will come to you. And you can do that today. After we finish here, there will be some elders up front, I will be up front, others who perhaps would be willing to volunteer to come up front, if you would like to come and talk to someone about how you can bridge that sense of separation you may feel today, then today is the day to do it. Don’t wait. Come and you will experience his promise. He will come to you.
Let us pray. Oh Lord, we give you thanks for your great love, which is higher, and wider, and broader, and deeper than anything we can imagine. We thank you that even when we were sinners, you died for us. Before we ever thought about you, you were dying for us. Providing a way for us to come back to God. Oh Lord, let no one leave this place with a feeling of separation from you so that they might be one with you and with others for now and eternity. We pray it in Christ’s name, Amen.