April 28, 2016 by jmar198013
My sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016. Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
Uglier than a monkey’s armpit
John’s Last Supper is a long, long affair.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke each devote several verses to it. Half a chapter, perhaps a little more or less.
But in John, the Last Supper starts at the beginning of chapter 13 and stumbles along to the end of chapter 17.
In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper is only incidentally about food. It’s five chapters of near wall-to-wall conversation. Heartbroken conversation. Sometimes it sounds more like a breakup, where one partner is resolute about needing to go; but the other half keeps begging them to stay. As I read these chapters I feel—as Bob Dylan once put it—“a corkscrew in my heart.” Hearing Jesus trying to say goodbye to his disciples provokes something downright visceral in me. Forgive me for waxing Disney on you, but it messes with me like that scene in “Dumbo” where his mama’s singing “Baby Mine” to him from the mad elephant trailer. Or when the Widow Tweed leaves Tod in the forest in “The Fox and the Hound.” You don’t want to walk in on me watching those movies. It ain’t pretty. When I get to bawling, I’m uglier than a monkey’s armpit.
The tone is urgent. Jesus tries to cram several years’ worth of teaching into a few hours. The disciples move from panic to frustration to bewilderment. And back again. Several times.
By the end of John 14, whatever food there was had gotten cold, I guess. That’s when Jesus spoke up abruptly: Get up. We’re leaving this place. But they don’t actually go anywhere—Jesus and his disciples—until chapter 18 dawns. For three more chapters Jesus and the disciples play ping-pong over the abyss of his coming departure.
Don’t go, Jesus!
I have to.
But we’ll be lonely, Jesus!
No you won’t. You’ll have each other. And I’m leaving my Spirit with you.
We won’t know what to do, Jesus. We need you!
You’ll know what to do. I promise.
That’s totally what the long, long conversation that is John’s Last Supper sounds like to me. All that. On a loop. Except for chapter 17, where Jesus is praying: Father, I’m kind of tore up about leaving these people. Make sure they’re not lonely. Help them get along better than they have been. Please: show them what to do.
Anyway, somewhere in the middle of all this, Judas (not Judas Iscariot) asked, “Lord, why are you about to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” Of course it wasn’t Iscariot. He tore off during the last chapter to rat out Jesus. Shaky snitch.
And our Gospel lesson today—John 14.23-29—is Jesus’ answer to Judas (not Iscariot’s!) question.
Looking at—but not seeing—the same thing
Judas’ question had cut Jesus off mid-idea. Jesus had been saying, Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them. Judas had gotten hung up on Jesus revealing himself to those who already love him.
Well, Judas (not Iscariot!) raised, I think, a mighty important question. Basically, Jesus just said that he would reveal himself—his glory, his grace, his truth—to those who love him and keep his commands. But Judas knew that was pretty much limited to the little flock gathered around the dinner table. (I guess the sheep Jesus had left dotted along the way all across Galilee and Judea didn’t count to Judas.) And they weren’t always very good at loving Jesus. Or following his instructions. But at that moment, they were what Jesus had to work with. They were the ones who already believed that God sent Jesus into the world to make everything right again. Shouldn’t Jesus be more concerned about revealing himself to the ones who didn’t already believe? In light of all that, Judas (not Iscariot’s!) question is a matter of due diligence: Jesus, we already know who you are. It’s not us you need to prove anything to. It’s the rest of the world you need to convince!
Whoever loves me will keep my word, Jesus replies. Sound familiar? My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.
Still wondering how that’s any kind of answer to Judas’ question?
I think Jesus is saying that the truth of who he is can only be seen by those who have already made room for him in their hearts. If someone has already opened their heart, Jesus says: My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. In other words, Jesus reveals himself to those willing to receive him.
In John 14, Jesus says: Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me; and, Whoever loves me will keep my word. We learn to love Jesus by following him. We follow Jesus because we love him.
So what Jesus is saying is, The world has seen—and will see—the same things you do. I’m not showing them anything any different than I’m showing you. But two people can be looking at the same thing, and not seeing the same thing.
Some people hear what Jesus taught, and it’s just impossibly high ideals to them. Some hear lovely ideals. Others hear stupid, dangerous, and irresponsible ideals. But either way, they don’t hear a word they should heed. Others listen to the Sermon on the Mount, and just know it’s the voice of God. Speaking directly to them.
The world—the ones who don’t love Jesus yet—looks at the cross and some of them see a tragedy. Others see a troublemaker who got what he deserved. But, mainly, the world stands at the foot of the cross and sees a naked, mangled victim; humiliated and defeated. But all who follow Jesus and who have fallen in love with Jesus also stand at the foot of the cross. And they’re also looking at a naked, mangled, humiliated man. But they have learned to see the glory of God in this crucified man.
Anyone can hear what Jesus had to say. Everyone can look at the man on the cross. But these only reveal—they only show the truth about God—to people who hear Jesus say, Love your enemies, and hear the voice of God. Because they’re the ones who look at the cross of Christ, and see God doing just that.
Jesus reveals himself as God’s Word to those with ears to hear. He reveals the glory of God in himself to those with eyes to see. The world hears the same words, sees the same sights—but for them, nothing is revealed.
Father, Son, and Holy Companion
Jesus promises to return to the disciples, with his Father, God! He reassures them that the Son and the Father will make themselves at home in the hearts of those who have made room for them. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them, he says. The disciples, I’m sure, had no idea what he meant by all that. So far, they had steadfastly refused to believe that their friend would be taken from them and hung on a cross. Denial is, after all, part of the grieving process. They certainly weren’t prepared for the shock of the resurrection. Nor were they ready for Jesus to return to the Father.
How does the glorified Christ return to his disciples? How does he bring the Father with him? A little while earlier in the conversation—before our Gospel lesson today—Jesus had said: I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you. Did you notice that Jesus just told his disciples that the Companion, the Friend, the Advocate—the Holy Spirit—lived among them already? He also said that, just as the world cannot see Jesus for who he really is, the world also cannot recognize the Spirit’s activity. The Spirit is always at work in the world. But most cannot discern the Spirit’s leadings and movements. Those who love Jesus can.
Now Jesus again reassures that he will be always be present with his disciples through the Holy Spirit. The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
Jesus says that the Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. This is one of those times where it’s essential to note that the you is plural. The Spirit will teach you all. The Spirit will remind you all. Together. Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit guiding the gathered church to discern God’s will and make faithful decisions. Together.
Listen carefully to what Jesus says. He does not say that the Holy Spirit gives new revelations to super-spiritual Christians. He says that the Spirit reminds the church of what Jesus has taught us. Later on in this same conversation, Jesus promises that when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth (John 16.13). As the world goes on about its way, and the church is confronted by complicated issues, the Spirit will show us how to remain faithful to Jesus. If we continue to be people who are hospitable to the Spirit. People who leave room for the Spirit to work among us. People who are patient, and listening for the Spirit not only in our own hearts, but speaking from the hearts of our sisters and brothers. Then we will be able to faithfully discern God’s will for our particular community in our particular place and time. Not because we are receiving exciting new revelations. But because the Spirit is teaching us—often quietly and gently—how to live out Jesus’ words where we are. We must also be quiet and gentle to receive what the Spirit is showing us.
The Spirit is the ongoing voice and presence of Jesus among us. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus promises his church: I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age (Matt. 28.20). According to our lesson today, Jesus is with us until the end of this age through the Holy Spirit.
Hopefully you noticed that the whole Trinity showed up in this turn of the conversation. Jesus is saying that the love of the Father will live in the church through the life of the Son, who is always among us in the Holy Spirit. The church is privileged to be God’s dwelling on earth, even during this age.
The peace Jesus gives
So the church is the household of God. We are God’s beloved community. God finds a home among us, because we have made room for God. The Father’s perfect love expressed through the life of the Son is present among us in the Spirit. God’s perfect love finds a home among us. And we know that there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4.18). This is why Jesus could tell his disciples—and tells us now: Don’t be troubled or afraid.
I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me not to be afraid, it usually has the opposite effect. Sometimes I would not even know to be afraid, unless someone told me not to be afraid. So I hear Jesus tell me don’t be troubled or afraid, and I just go away feeling guilty. Oh, here’s another way for me to let Jesus down! Because I often find myself afraid of so many things. I’m sure you do, too.
But Jesus says these words to people who already are afraid so that they will know that they don’t have to be afraid anymore. Jesus invites us to rest in the Father’s perfect love, and in his own perfect love, which is always with us through the Holy Spirit. And God’s perfect love with us and among us will drive out our fears. Everything Jesus has said in our reading comes down to this: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives.
How does the world give? The world gives you fear so it can try to sell you peace. Turn on your televisions. The politicians come on and say: Oh, it’s a scary world out there. Vote for me, or terrible things will happen to you. They give you fear so that you will buy into their version of peace. Watch the news. The sole purpose of the evening news is to make us afraid of our world, and each other. They keep us anxiously glued to the screen long enough for the advertisers to get their hooks in us. And what do the commercials do? Make us afraid that we are incomplete. That we are missing out. Try to convince us that we can buy a little peace.
But Jesus says, My peace I give to you. Not the world’s peace. Jesus could be at peace, even in the shadow of the cross, because he trusted his Father’s perfect love. So the cross would not have the final say. His Father will bring him home, because his Father loves him perfectly. This is the peace Jesus leaves with us. The Holy Spirit in us and with us and among us teaches us this peace, and reminds us what Jesus has taught us: We are perfectly loved by God. We are loved completely. Fully. Totally. Fiercely. Stubbornly. Relentlessly. We cannot be loved more than God already loves us. And even when terrible things happen to us, God does not and will not love us any less.
Paul says as much in his letter to the Romans. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children (Rom. 8.15-16). The Holy Spirit—our Companion, our Guide, our Advocate—promises us that we are God’s children. And Father God loves his children perfectly. The Spirit reminds us that Father God brought Jesus safely home. And in his perfect love, he will do the same for us. Each one of us.
This is the peace Jesus gives us: the Spirit’s gentle invitation to be loved by Father God, whose perfect love drives away our fear.
Between going away and returning
Jesus gives his peace to his disciples. And that peace flows all the way to us—his church, wherever we are gathered. As long as we make room for the Spirit—our Holy Friend—in our lives, and in our life together, the peace of Jesus will always dwell among us.
But that night, during the Last Supper, he spoke especially to his heartsick disciples. He knew they would be distraught from Friday until Sunday. They would not deal well with Jesus being taken from them. You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe. Mr. Rogers used to sing a song on his show, called “I Like to be Told.” He sang this to remind the grownups watching with the children in their care that everyone in the family needs to know what’s going to happen. Sometimes especially the children. The song began: I like to be told when you’re going away. When you’re going to come back. And how long you will stay. Jesus was doing for his disciples exactly what Mr. Rogers would have told him to do. Okay, okay—Mr. Rogers learned it from Jesus. Jesus was telling his disciples what was going to happen, so that when it did happen, they would not be caught off-guard.
Well, they were caught off-guard anyway. And sometimes we will be, too. But Jesus also had us—and all future generations of disciples—on his mind during that Last Supper. He was taken from the disciples that night, and came back three days later. But during the in-between time, his absence was all that they could know or feel.
We are living right now in the time between Jesus’ going away and his return. It has been a very long wait.
I’m sure Jesus knew that future generations of disciples would be discouraged by his absence, too. Those first disciples only had to wait three days for Jesus to return. But the rest of us have waited now for two thousand years. I don’t know about you, but there are many days I long for nothing less than to be face-to-face, eye-to-eye, hand-in-hand with Jesus. I grow mighty impatient for him to return. To come again and put an end to injustice and diseases and tears and death. To come back and make everything okay. Some days I listen very carefully for that great, final Jubilee trumpet to blow. I scan the horizon, watching for Jesus returning on the clouds. And sometimes . . . more often than I’d like to admit . . . I lose hope. I decide he’s never coming back. That he has forgotten us. Or maybe he has just given up on us. After all, we have let him down so often. I fail Jesus multiple times most days. I strongly suspect that I am not the only one here this happens to.
And this is when we must be still, and listen to the voice of the Spirit, our Holy Companion. Who reminds us what Jesus has said: You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.
The Spirit breathes Jesus’ peace. Yes, we all fail Jesus. No, he has not given up on his church, or on this world. His disciples all let him down the night he was betrayed. Peter denied even knowing him. But Jesus still came back for them. Even Peter. He will come back for his church.
But until then, we have work to do. Until then, Jesus has left a church in the world, for the world. What matters is that, in a world that rejects her God, we are people who welcome God. Who make room for Jesus and his Father to dwell in us and with us and among us through the Spirit. Whose lives and whose life together show the world—and invite the world—into the love of the Father through the life of the Son by the Spirit within us.
So until Jesus returns in person, the church remains in the world. To make his words and his love become flesh among the world. To give the peace of Jesus—not as the world gives—to those still in the world.