Throughout this week, as I reflected on the lectionary text of Scripture from John 14:15-21, my thoughts kept coming back to my late brother-in-law, Todd Dawson. In the Fall of 1992, Todd was on his deathbed in a small sterile hospital room at the University of Iowa, his body ravaged by AIDS. At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation. My parents came and stayed with our girls as my wife and I went to be with Todd since we were told he did not have much time left. As it turned out we were in Iowa City for a week, spending our days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit during those days to rise about 5am, make my way to Todd’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before other family members arrived. Todd was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. But those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship. To think that only a year before Todd and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and very much a person who had given up on the church. Yet, here I was with him; we were now devoted brothers to one another. Through a series of circumstances that can only be ascribed as God’s gracious hand, Todd had given his life fully to Jesus Christ just six months before his hospital stay (that conversion is a lengthy story for another time).
In that week I watched in the background as day after day, cousin after cousin, and relative after relative came into Todd’s room to see him for the last time. The majority of those cousins were much like Todd before giving his life to Jesus – having made a profession of faith as children they had long since outgrown their belief and lived for the most part as they wanted. With each and every person, as frail as Todd was, he would grab a hold of the relative, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?” And then he would say this to each and every one: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”
Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove. Chapters 13-17 of the Gospel of John are our Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – this is quite literally Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. In other words, these are the words that Jesus did not want his disciples to forget. Those disciples were distressed and troubled over the reality that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some words of both comfort and focus in order to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.
The job of obedience is so importantly huge that Jesus did not ascend to heaven and leave us like orphans wondering where our next spiritual meal is coming from. Instead of leaving us to fend for ourselves, Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit in order to help us have the attitudes we are supposed to have, and live the way we are supposed to live as commanded by Jesus.
Jesus has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever. The term “Counselor” here is translated in various ways in different versions of the New Testament. The reason for this is because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with just one English word. So, we get terms in other versions like “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.” They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit. Yet, I think the best term to really portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is the term, “True Friend.”
A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen. A true friend is the kind of person you can contact and they will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need. A true friend is the kind of person that will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them. A true friend is there for you and maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you. And, a true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life. That is what the Holy Spirit is – He helps us when we need help; He encourages us when we are down; He comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, He gives us good loving kick in the pants when we need it. The Holy Spirit is our True Friend, our Best Friend in the world. And that is the best way to understand Him as being described as “the Spirit of Truth.” That is, the Holy Spirit is true to us and constantly speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. It is the Spirit that will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.
Christianity, then, is neither just a warm-hearted love with obedience as optional, nor is it a life of drudgery in just gritting-out sheer obedience with no love behind it. Instead, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together with perfect harmony.
On June 18, 1993, at 29 years of age, Todd Dawson went to be with his Lord. Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a man in whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission. And never have I had such a relationship that was totally changed from one of distance and animosity to a relationship that could be characterized as “true friend.” Todd lived through his deathbed experience in the Fall of 1992 by the gracious hand of God who was not quite finished with him yet. What Todd’s Christian life displayed to me more than anyone I have known is that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a radical no-holds-barred obedience that is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances. And because of his love for God he has seen Jesus. I look forward to seeing Jesus with him someday.