If you could have any person, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be? We have all played the game. Either you were asked the question at a job interview, you used the question as part of an icebreaker, or you shared the question at the family dinner table as a conversation starter. The answers are always telling – some would like to have dinner with their favorite celebrity or sports hero; some would love to talk to a famous figure in history, like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln; while others would want to have dinner one more time with a loved one who has died. Invariably, though, someone will give the answer we all get to eventually. If we could have dinner with any person, dead or alive, we would want to have dinner with Jesus. We could finally ask Jesus all the answers to our questions! We could ask Jesus what that one parable means that we can never figure out. We could ask Jesus what death and eternal life are like. We could ask Jesus why things are the way they are today and what he plans on doing about them! The options are endless and the gift of that time with Jesus seems like the gift a magic decoder ring for life.
Except, I am not sure that dinner with Jesus is the best answer to that age-old question about dinner guests. If you remember, Jesus was not always the easiest to understand.[i] Think about all those parables that no one understood. Think about all those times Jesus said something to the disciples that they could not comprehend. Think about all those times that Jesus was challenged by Pharisees, foreigners, and faithful alike, only to get cryptic, unexpected answers. Though we like to think we would have understood better than all of those, I suspect that even a modern-day dinner with Jesus would leave us with way more questions than answers.
That’s why I love our gospel passage today. Jesus is preparing to leave his beloved disciples. He has gathered them for a last meal, has washed their feet, and is sharing with them all his last instructions and words of wisdom. The anxiety of his disciples is rising as they start to piece together how Jesus is giving what we now call his “Farewell Address.” To those anxious, confused, uncertain disciples, Jesus offers a promise. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” Instead, Jesus will send the Advocate. Actually, he says, God will send, “another Advocate, to be with you forever.” The first Advocate is Jesus himself.[ii] Unlike Jesus, who is limited by time and space, the next Advocate will be with us forever. The text tells us that the Advocate will abide in us – will actually be in us. That word, “Advocate,” is alternatively translated as “counselor, comforter, helper, mediator, or broker.”[iii] The word in Greek is Parakletos or Paraclete, which literally means “to call alongside.” This Holy Spirit, this second Advocate, is the one who is called to be alongside us.[iv]
In just a couple of weeks we will celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise today. The celebration of Pentecost is a significant feast for us because what Jesus promises in his Farewell Address finally comes to fruition. Not only does the Spirit fill for us a spiritual need, the Spirit also fills for us a practical need. You see, throughout his final instructions, through both word and deed, Jesus gives the disciples one final instruction – to love. Jesus wants his followers to embrace, “not an abstract philosophical concept, but the lived reality revealed in the life, relationships, and actions of a simple Nazarene who looks and talks like them and lives simply among them.”[v]
This past week, our Tuesday night Bible Study group invited a Bible Study group from New Zion Baptist Church to join us for a mutual Bible Study. After having talked quite a lot about race relations here at Hickory Neck, and having watched our country struggle with race, our Bible Study group decided the best thing they could do was to start building relationships with people of color. Intentionally or not, the group selected 1 Corinthians 13 as their text for study. Most of you who have been to a wedding will know this text by heart. “Love is patient, love is kind…” On and on we hear Paul talk about the characteristics of love – how love is not envious, boastful, or rude; how love does not insist on its own way, and is not irritable or resentful.” Just like with a wedding, on the surface, the text was quite romantic for what we were trying to do – talk about loving each other and how we could do that as two different communities. But what we realized as we studied and reflected on the text is the more we talked about love, the less romantic love felt. Quite the opposite, we realized the love we Christians are called into is hard work. We talked about how hard being patient and kind are. We talked about how hard not being irritable or resentful can be, and how often we insist on our own way. What seemed like a simple text for a simple gathering – an interracial Bible Study on love, suddenly felt anything but simple. As we shared our stories, we realized not only did we have a massive amount of work to do on ourselves, we would also have a massive amount of work to do if we were even going to attempt to love each other.
That is why Jesus’ promise today, the promise of the one who comes alongside of us, is so incredibly powerful. Because if the disciples recall the ways that Jesus feeds the hungry, touches lepers, heals the sick, speaks and acts with care and regard toward women, shows compassion and fiercely protests against injustice,[vi] and then realize that Jesus wants them to do the same in his absence, they could indeed become overwhelmed. They cannot even seem to get through Jesus’ farewell address without one disciple departing to betray him, and the promise of another disciple who will deny him. How in the world will they manage to master the simple and yet enormous work of love?!?
Toward the end of our Bible Study, as we became more and more sober about the enormity and humbling nature of living a life of love, someone finally stood up and said something quite simple. He confessed he did not have any answers and perhaps was not sure he could do what Jesus would want for us. But what he would do is go and have coffee with anyone who was willing. That’s all. Coffee. It was a simple offer, and maybe seemed like nothing on the surface. But that offer of coffee was profound. In that offer was an unspoken confession of sin and separation, and a commitment to turn toward love and relationship. After over an hour of talking about love, that offer of coffee was a commitment to not just talk about love, but to act on love.
I believe the ability of that parishioner to offer coffee came because the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Spirit was abiding in him. Jesus had not left him an orphan. Jesus sent another Advocate who empowered him to be an agent of love. That is the power of the gospel today. We will never likely get that dinner with Jesus, even though I am not convinced that dinner would help us anyway. But we do get dinner with the Spirit – everyday, offering us God’s presence and spirit of truth, empowering us to be agents of love. We get a dinner with our Advocate, who invites us to pull up another chair, so that we can share that love with our neighbor – one coffee at a time. Amen.
[i] N. T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 63.
[ii] Linda Lee Clader, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 491.
[iii] Larry D. Bouchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 492.
[iv] Karoline M. Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 191.
[v] Nancy J. Ramsay, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 492.
[vi] Ramsay, 492.