“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I wonder what images come to your mind when you hear the word “orphan”. Perhaps Little Orphan Annie, or a character from Charles Dickens – his stories are full of orphans like Oliver Twist or Pip from Great Expectations. Orphans are common in Victorian novels, partly because there were so many of them, in an age when parents died of many things they would now easily survive. I’ve looked back into my family tree, and found my great-great grandfather in a workhouse at the age of 5 with his older sister. His mother had died of cholera, and I've never been able to trace what happened to the father. At 13, he was working as a farm labourer, then became a navvy, and died in his 40’s of pneumonia after an all-too-short life of hardship which would seem unimaginable to most of us. What chance did he have?
Or perhaps when you hear the word “orphan” you think of the many orphans there are around the world now in places where life is still fragile and perilous. Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge population of orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS. 11 million children under the age of 15 in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease; some are being cared for by their wider family, others have no family to support them.
The word “orphan” is a powerful and somewhat terrifying one. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to think of their children having to navigate the world alone, and every small child’s worst nightmare to find themselves alone without a friendly adult to help them.
But of course Jesus isn't speaking to small children when he speaks those words we heard today. He’s speaking to his disciples on the night before he dies. They are grown adults, burly fishermen who've sailed boats through gales, tax-collectors who've had to deal with the Roman political and military machine, women who have lived on the margins of their societies, and had to develop quick wits and courage. Yet he recognises that when they lose him, first to crucifixion and then as he ascends to his Father in heaven, they will feel lost, bereft, uncertain. They will have to make their own decisions, take on the work he has called them to. And it won’t be easy. They will face persecution. They will feel orphaned.
The fact is that, however old we are, however much we’ve been through, we all come to points in our lives when we realise we can’t face life on our own, when we look around for someone who knows what they are doing or who at least looks as if they do. We may be grown up chronologically, but there’s a small child in each of us, looking for help and guidance.
“I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus. What does he mean? The rest of the reading makes it clear. Through his Holy Spirit, he say, they will feel his presence in an even deeper way than the way they have until then. Up until now, they have had to physically be with him to see him, hear him and feel him. But the Spirit of God will be within them, like the sap that rises through the grapevine, like the blood that circulates through their veins, closer than their own heartbeat. And the Spirit will be known too in their community – the Spirit isn’t some personal possession, but will be in the love that draws them to each other.
In our first reading, from the book of Acts, St Paul stands on a well-known debating place in Athens, the centre of philosophical learning in the ancient world. Athens was home to people of every philosophy, every religion and none. He had walked there past a bewildering array of shrines to this god and that goddess, and had even found one to “the unknown god” – a way of hedging your bets just in case you’d forgotten one. The shrines were mute testaments to the human longing to reach out beyond ourselves, to find support and care in a vast and sometimes lonely universe. But Paul is confident as he talks to these people that he has found the source of the love that is really needed. “We are God’s offspring” he says, his own children, known, loved and held in his safe embrace, children of a God who loved us so much that he came among us himself, served us and died for us.
“I will not leave you orphaned”. Whatever we face, we do not face it alone, but surrounded by love that nothing can destroy.