During this time of social isolation (as I write this, who knows what the future will bring?), conducting worship with our family is necessarily simple. We have two children under 5 years old, so our songs and prayers are short, yet earnest. I’ve come to treasure even more the Holden Evening Prayer livestreams shared by various friends and colleagues. Frequently my minister friends who also happen to be gifted musicians will add music from the Taizé community before or after the service. One song in particular brings me to tears every time I hear it these days: “Stay with Me.” The lyrics are simple, so my sons have no problem singing along: “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.” The text comes out of the mouth of Jesus, as he asked his disciples to keep watch with him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26).
These days, I am borrowing these words from Jesus and making it my prayer to God. When life is disrupted, when community becomes complicated, and when I feel like I just can’t take working from home anymore, I need God to be present with me. Happily, this is a prayer that God is always eager to answer in the affirmative.
“Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.”
In John 14, Jesus was in in the midst of a long swath of dialogue and prayer. The short section that we read for the weekly lectionary is interesting, in that it is bracketed with Jesus drawing a connection between loving him and keeping his commandments (John 14:15, 21). In the middle of those verses, Jesus assures the disciples of two things: he won’t leave them alone, and he will ask God to send the Spirit. Jesus poignantly declares that he won’t leave the disciples like orphans, but that he will come back for them (14:18).
Even after his ascension, when he has gone away from the world, the disciples and those who follow him will still be able to perceive Jesus, even as the rest of the world cannot. In discerning Jesus’ presence among us, we will experience mystical indwelling communion among Jesus, God and each other (14:20). But even as Jesus foretold his ascension to the heavens, he promised that presence of the Spirit.
When Jesus talks about requesting the Spirit to come be with the disciples, he uses two titles—the Advocate and the Spirit of Truth. Both terms are unique to John’s Gospel. Both are important. The disciples will face many human accusers, and most of them would eventually be martyred, according to tradition. But more than the human threats, they would also face the accuser, Satan (Hebrew’s ha-satan is translated as “the accuser”). When Jesus’ followers are accused of wrongdoing or are punished for doing the right thing (1 Peter 3:14), the Spirit stands as an advocate, or a defense attorney. The Spirit argues on God’s behalf that we have been found not guilty and, by God’s grace, are innocent.
The Spirit’s other role in this passage is to be the Spirit of Truth. Jesus promises that we will know the Spirit because she will abide with us and remain in us (John 14:17). I find this assurance to be great comfort. I don’t know about you, but when I read the news or, to be honest, scroll through Facebook and see many posts that are probably not high-quality journalism, I rely heavily on God’s Spirit of Truth that lives within me. The world is a confusing place—maybe even more so during this time of disruption. It’s in this context that we need to treasure truth over fiction that comforts or enrages us. Jesus promised that the Spirit would be a source of truth within his disciples and advocate for them when they faced accusers.
But the promise of God’s abiding presence was not for Jesus’ original disciples alone. This week’s lectionary reading from Acts tells us about Paul’s mission work in Athens. Amid his sensitive, contextualized appeal to the religious Athenians (Acts 17:22), Paul points out that God is not far from anyone, and that all humans are God’s children (Acts 17:27-29). The good news is that God is lovingly and intimately present, even before we come to recognize that fact. The even better news is that God abides with us and remains with us—always.