Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
“What If I Don’t”
John 14: 15-27 – New Revised Standard Version
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask [God who] will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 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 [God], 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 [God], and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and [God] will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from [God] who sent me.
25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom [God] 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.
The text today begins this way: “If you love me…” But the thought crossed my mind, “What if I don’t?”
If you’re interested in the process of developing a sermon – and the thought crossed my mind – you might not be interested! – regardless, the process of developing a sermon begins by reading the text a few times and seeing what pops out. Either because it is interesting or disturbing or confusing or… What strikes you? What questions are raised? Almost never do I have an idea and then seek to advance some theory or provide a rationale for the idea. It always starts with a question and a prayer – what is God trying to communicate to us through this passage of scripture?
Often, the easier the text, the harder to preach. The more clear cut, the more difficult to explain. But then there is the Gospel of John. John talks in such a convoluted way, speaking with circular logic instead of linear, with long run-on sentences and lots of ifs ands and buts. Sometimes it’s as if he is speaking a foreign language in which I can only pick out an occasional word or phrase. If you say to me “Hola! como estas” I can respond “Bueno!” But anything you say after that, you’ll get a big blank stare from me. Kind of like how I feel after reading John.
Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” That seems pretty clear. But then he goes on with such phrases as “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by God, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” To which Judas, not Iscariot, responds “Lord, why are you about to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus answers “Those who love me will keep my word, and God will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words, and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from God who sent me.” If the unloving word doesn’t come from Jesus, why would it come from God? Clear as mud. To me, the whole Gospel of John needs a good editor. It would probably only be half as long.
So, while wandering around, lost in the middle of this circular logic, the thought occurred to me: what if I don’t?
Back to the sermon writing process. I might google a phrase like “What if I don’t” just to see what comes up. In this case? The top results? You know, the autofill feature. What if I don’t have health insurance? What if I don’t file my taxes? Number 3? What if I don’t have baking soda? I can see the first two as frequently searched questions, but I thought the third was pretty funny. And curious. So I clicked on it. Do you know the answer? Use baking powder. As if I’m any more likely to have that around the house!
What if I don’t? Besides health care and taxes, there are a lot of “supposed to-s” in our lives.
And what does happen if you don’t call your mother? “What! You don’t love me?” Why wouldn’t Mother Earth have the same question: why don’t you love me? And immigrants and refugees and Muslims and Mexicans and every other marginalized and vulnerable group of people. Don’t you love me? Or rather, don’t you love Jesus? If you loved Jesus, you would keep his commandments.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can
reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s Most quiet need,
by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs,
and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints.
I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life;
and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.”
That’s a curious way to end such a beautiful poem. “I shall but love thee better after death.” That’s what Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for – what they are “supposed to” do after his death.
Everything is context. We must remember the context. Today’s passage is a continuation of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, part of which we also read last week. These words were spoken on the night before Jesus died; just before Judas Iscariot betrayed him, just before Peter denied him, just before soldiers carried him off to appear in front of the High Priests on charges of blasphemy and in front of Pilate on charges of treason.
Knowing that his execution was looming, he gave his final instructions. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But don’t worry, he said, I’ll send another. Part of the sermon writing process is to compare various translations. In this case, depending on the translation, Jesus promised an Advocate or a Comforter or a Helper, the Spirit of Truth. Don’t worry, I will send another after my death. The disciples didn’t know that would be tomorrow.
When I began, I wondered “What if I don’t” and what the consequence might be of not. But wasn’t Jesus just trying to say, “You already know what to do.” Or “It’s not that complicated?” Was Jesus talking about the consequences to our immortal soul, shaking his finger at us? Is he concerned with “What! You don’t love me?” Or is he making sure we know “You’re going to be OK.” Like a parent on their death bed whose concern is not “why you didn’t do this or do that for me” but rather, making sure you know, for example, how proud they are of you.
When I was growing up, my dad found every occasion he could to try to improve my performance – well, that’s his story. Mine was of what felt like never-ending criticism. Whether it was playing organ in church or singing a solo in a school competition, something could have been better. And when he couldn’t find something to “criticize,” he would say “Don’t get a big head.” In his last years, however, and among his last words, it seemed like he couldn’t say enough how proud he was, his eyes a little teary. “Yeah, I know dad, I get it.” Nevertheless, he would continue, “I am so proud of you.” Was that his way of saying, “you’re going to be OK?” Is that the circular logic of the Gospel of John?
Part of the sermon writing process involves reading various articles and journals and writings by scholars I respect and trust. Barbara Lundblad reminds us that “the Gospel of John was written backwards, for a community in which Jesus was only a memory. Most of those in John’s community had never met Jesus. Most, if not all, of his original disciples were dead. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed – a sign for many that the end-time would come soon. But the end-time didn’t come. Life went on and that may have been the hardest part of all. Jesus hadn’t returned even when all the signs seemed right. This community of believers felt pushed to the very edge of despair, and despair could defeat them.”
So John pulled together many of the things Jesus said into this one section known as the Farewell Discourse. It’s a bit like what is known in some colleges as ‘The Last Lecture Series.’ Retiring professors are asked what they would like to say since it is their last chance to speak.
This was in fact Jesus’ last “lecture.” And what were his last words? They all had to do with love, circular logic or not.
Love, love, love. When I first started writing, my initial thought was to ask “what if I don’t?” The more I worked with this text, however, I realized my question is really, “what if I don’t want to?” Can you ever imagine yourself asking that question? What if I don’t want to? But sometimes it’s hard to love today.
Lundblad said, John’s “community of believers felt pushed to the very edge of despair, and despair could defeat them.” Despair could defeat them.
What could defeat us? Cynicism. Sarcasm. Hopelessness. Despair about the reign of an Attorney General who seems to delight in cruelty. He has directed prosecutors to ramp up the old War on Drugs. “Lock up as many people as you can and leave them in prison for as long as possible.” Racial disparity in policing? Excessive use of force? Nothing as silly as evidence is going to stop a man whose career has been cheered on by white supremacists.
While little seems to be getting done legislatively, in the area of racial justice and criminal justice reform, one piece of bad news after another keeps getting worse, buried under more sensational headlines. Not to mention, as well, the further erosion of voting rights.
I was curious what some professors have said as their last lecture. Often light hearted and humorous, some are more serious and ominous. Randy Pausch told his students “No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”
Is that supposed to be funny? Or does that ask me to seriously question my part in the temptation. I can make the current situation in our world worse in all kinds of ways, including by disengaging, embracing cynicism, or succumbing to despair. Questions like, “What if I don’t want to love?”
Jesus had faced down his own temptations and knew it would be hard. So, he promised an Advocate. A Helper. A Comforter. A Spirit of Truth. Not to be left orphaned.
But, then I thought, what if the Advocate he really meant, the Helper, the Comforter, was us? His followers – people to speak Truth. The church of Jesus Christ. After he is gone, he said he would send another. What if we’re it?
The temptation, I think, is to write ourselves into position of “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.” But wouldn’t it be more in keeping with Jesus’ commandments to ask, who needs an advocate? Who needs comfort? Who needs help? Who will speak Truth?
One of the articles I read asked, “What does the world see when they see the church?” What do we reveal to the world? Jesus said he would reveal himself to us, not to the world. What does that mean? Well, after wandering around in John’s circular logic, I came to the conclusion that it means the work of revealing Jesus is ours to do. And what does the world see?
From the outside, are we seen as Advocates for marginalized people? Comfort for vulnerable people. Help for the disregarded and disenfranchised? Are we known for our Truth-telling to structures of power, for example, that profit off of injustice?
To this congregation I’m not saying anything new. Yet, the disciples too had heard Jesus say over and over some variation of “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Plus, these words of encouragement, “I’ll help you.”
This present moment in history calls us to keep going deeper in our faith so that we don’t grow discouraged. And when it’s hard, to let Jesus help us. Jim Wallis advises us: “don’t center yourselves in the daily news cycles but instead in God.” Imagine! What if we spent as much time every day with God as we do with Rachel Maddow (or is that just me!)? Every day. Repeatedly centering ourselves in God, asking for God’s help to love, for God’s wisdom and presence, to focus our hearts and minds over and over on love, love, love. And imagine the consequence to my soul of not. What if I don’t. Not because Jesus would wag his finger but because I wouldn’t know the length, depth, and breadth of all the love there is to share, and receive, in the universe.
Are you an Advocate for love? For those it is hardest to love?
Maybe you’re more of a Helper.
Or are you a Comforter, or a Companion, or a Friend?
Maybe you’re a Truth Speaker.
There are many roles. And they all reveal the love of the Christ who still lives because of you.
 My Father
 The NRSV asks how; the Common English Bible asks why
 NRSV, King James, NASB (RSV – Counselor, The Message – Friend, CEB – Companion)
 Barbara Lundblad, “I Will Not Leave You Orphaned,” Day1.org
 One piece of good news: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/louisiana-nations-biggest-jailer-poised-to-overhaul-criminal-sentencing-laws/2017/05/18/
 Ashley Rosser, “Legacy of Love”