“If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with”. So sang the folk-rock singer Stephen Stills in his 1971 hit single “Love the one you’re with”. “If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with” on one level is a glib expression of a certain sort of post-1960s male sexuality that doesn’t have anything much to do with the gospel. So why am I talking about it? The phrase came to my mind because it says something about the relationship between love and presence, which gives us a point of connection both with today’s gospel, and also with the situation many of us find ourselves at the moment as we are physically separated both from the corporate life of the Church and from the people we love.
Today’s gospel is a short passage taken from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John’s gospel. The Farewell Discourse in John’s gospel comes at the end of the Last Supper. We are in the time before Jesus’ crucifixion, and Jesus is trying to prepare His disciples for what is to come; the emphasis is not so much on the suffering which He is to undergo as on the coming of the Holy Spirit and the life of the Church. This discourse includes Jesus’ commandment that the disciples should “love one another, as I have loved you”, repeated in slightly different forms three times. It also includes the promise of the Holy Spirit, as we heard in this morning’s passage. The discourse is presented in John’s gospel as coming before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, but because it points to Ascension and Pentecost, to Jesus’ return to the Father, and the giving of the Holy Spirit, we are encountering it in our worship today to prepare us for the Ascension which we celebrate on Thursday, and for the approaching feast of Pentecost, at which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with” – these words speak in a rather crude way about the relationship between love and presence. Because the writer of the song appears to be thinking about love in a largely physical way, the relationship between love and physical presence is understood to be very direct. And we cannot get away from the fact that we are physical creatures, and our physicality is an important aspect of our being. Many of us will be feeling this acutely at the moment. Yes, we can speak on the telephone; yes, we know that we are thinking of our loved ones and that our loved ones are thinking of us. But still we want actually to see them, we want actually to touch them. And Jesus understands this. John’s gospel after all is the one in which the doctrine of the Incarnation is the most clearly articulated. It speaks of Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, who dwelt among us full of grace and truth. God created our physicality and God understands our physicality and God in Jesus embraces our physicality and enters into our physicality and becomes tangible to us.
And yet, is there not also a sense in which love generates its own presence? It is not a physical presence, but if you really love someone, there is a sense in which that person is always present to you, in your mind, in your heart. That is why “If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with” is ultimately a glib and superficial account of love. If you really love someone, there is a sense in which you are always with them and they are always with you. It is not the same as physical proximity, and as physical creatures we long to be physically close to the people we love, and yet our loved ones do have a kind of presence with us even when we cannot see them, and this presence can be very real.
And if that is true of human love, how much more must it be true of Divine Love? We can only imagine that the disciples must have missed Jesus’ physical presence among them in the time after His physical departure. We can only imagine how they must have treasured His memory in the sharing of stories and precious memories. And yet there is actually very little sense of this in the biblical account. The time after the Ascension as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles is not a time of sadness and nostalgia, but a time of expectation and excitement, leading to a time of energy and boldness as the Apostles in the power of the Spirit begin the work of spreading the gospel ever further afield.
Jesus’ promise is clear. He does not leave us orphaned. We may not be with Him physically, but we are not without Him. We have received the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, and in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is in the Father, and we are in Him, and He is in us.
He does not leave us orphaned, and yet many of us are struggling at the moment. The closure of churches has been hard. The loss of our fellowship with one another, the loss of the sacraments, the loss of the multi-sensory experience that our worship usually offers us, reaching us through sound, sight, taste, touch and even smell – at least on those days on which we use incense! We miss all those things. Some of you perhaps are even feeling let down by the Church. It may be that we could have responded to this situation better, it may be that some of our decisions have not been the right ones. Certainly for my part I am sure there are things that I could have done differently and better. And yet Jesus’ promise is clear: He does not leave us orphaned. His love for us generates its own presence with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. He is with us. He is with us in our fears and in our isolation, and He is with us as we struggle to find ways of expressing our love for Him and for each other in our radically changed circumstances.
But just as for the first disciples the time after Jesus’ physical departure does not appear to have been a time of sadness and nostalgia, but rather at time of expectation leading to a time of energy and boldness, let’s hope and pray that at this time the church may be renewed in that same Spirit. No doubt we will emerge from this crisis somewhat broken and wounded, and yet still we trust in Jesus’ promise that He does not leave us orphaned, still we trust in Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit is with us for ever. We are called to love one another as He has loved us, and that love continues to be needed in our families and communities, in our nation, and in the whole world.