This morning at the announcements the congregation presented me with a balloon and sang "Happy Birthday" to me. Church was followed by a special coffee hour in my honor; yes, gentle reader, it's true. Papa Time is nudging me ever that much closer to the big five-oh. Today I turned 47. It was a great birthday!
April 27, 2008
6th Sunday in Easter
Sometimes, someone says something so well, it’s just silly to try to say it differently or better. I read a sermon by a good friend last week. And I loved this gifted pastor’s opening paragraphs so much, I just have to share them with you.
Famous last words. Ceasar said, “Et tu, Brute?” Churchill said, “I’m bored with it all.” Elizabeth I, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” Louis B. Mayer, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters.” Saint Oscar Wilde, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” Charles Foster Kane said “Rosebud.” Jesus said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” or “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” or “It is finished.” Pancho Villa said, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
Last words were a big deal in the ancient world and I would argue now. This is the last chance to sum everything up, to capture the meaning of life and death in a few, brief syllables. There simply isn’t time for epic speeches, unless you’re Shakespeare.
Here we are with Jesus, and once again our lectionary cycle does this seemingly strange thing, which actually makes a lot of sense once you understand what’s going on. In today’s reading from John’s gospel, we are hearing what scholars call Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” the words, John tells us, that Jesus shared with his disciples at their last gathering, the night before he died. Now that seems strange, to put these words before us during this resurrection season. But this is John’s attempt to have Jesus summarize in a few chapters the resurrection reality that followers of Jesus were already living and experiencing by the time this was penned. And so we have these haunting words.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” ~ John 14:15-18
I am going, Jesus has said. He has said it every way he knows how by this point. “Soon I will be gone, and I have some things I want to say to you. I have these ideas about how you need to live in my absence.” I think it’s helpful to remember that we’re in the same boat as John’s audience. This gospel was written in the very last years of the 1st century CE (“common era”). Those who first heard and read this gospel are followers of Jesus’ way who never saw the earthly Jesus, never walked the roads of Galilee with him, never sat at table with him. They never watched in awe as he healed children and elderly people and people possessed by demons, never listened in rapt attention as he told them his vision of God’s kingdom. They never shielded their eyes from the horrors of his crucifixion, and they never rubbed their eyes and pinched themselves in wonder at the sight and presence of him, risen. The people John was writing this gospel for, that early Christian community from the late 90’s… in this respect, they are a lot like us. And they want to know how to live, now that Jesus is gone.
This is a question that is relevant for those of us who strive to follow Jesus in 2008. How do we follow someone, let us be frank, who lived 2000 years ago, in a culture utterly unlike our own? How do we live, in view of the fact that Jesus is no longer visibly and tangibly among us? What famous last words does he have for us, to help us figure this out?
If you love me, says Jesus—and I need to stop right there, without allowing that clause to flower into a complete sentence. The answer as to how to follow Jesus is connected to this question of “loving” Jesus, and that’s not an automatic, easy concept for us. I belong to a kind of online bible study of people writing sermons on the lectionary texts, and we write to one another, discussing the readings, all week long, leading right up to Sunday morning. Someone wrote this week about hearing a speaker proclaim that he was “crazy in love with Jesus.” Now, this list I belong to has pastors mostly from the mainline churches… Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ/ Congregational, Lutherans, Episcopalians, a smattering of Catholics. And this one quote—someone proclaiming that he was “crazy in love with Jesus”—generated more discussion and debate than any other topic this week.
For those of us in the mainline churches, this kind of comment tends to be a little outside our experience. Our worship services tend to be more on the thinking side of the spectrum, and less on the feeling side. To hear someone say that they’re crazy in love with Jesus… I’m guessing that not a lot of us can relate to that statement. We might even be just a bit uncomfortable with it. Is this the necessary definition of being a Christian? One pastor sent in this little anecdote, musing on our collective discomfort:
I went to the great cathedral of basketball in Chicago when Michael Jordan was the high priest of basketball worship. The roaring enthusiasm of that crowd even drowned out one of the best sound systems in existence when Jordan was introduced. Such idolatry! Jordan was great, and Jordan is past tense. Jesus was great, and Jesus is present tense…
A good friend who happens to be an observant Jew asked me to tell him what is a Christian anyway. The best I can answer is to say that a Christian is someone who takes Jesus very seriously.
I think this is a good place to start. Being a Christian means taking Jesus seriously. And if we take Jesus seriously, that has all kinds of implications for our lives. One way we take people seriously is by learning all we can about them, trying to understand them. I assume those of us of voting age in this congregation take the candidates for president seriously enough to try to really understand where they stand on all the issues that matter to us. We who consider ourselves Christians ought to have at least that level of engagement with who Jesus is, what his positions are. Sometimes, to know someone is to love someone.
I guess I’m ready to make this “True Confession”: I do love Jesus. I love everything he did: proclaiming the reign of God, preaching the good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, calling all to repent and believe the gospel, living faithfully through death and back into life again. I love that he took women seriously in a culture that marginalized and disempowered them. I love that his favorite activity seems to have been gathering around a table with friends old and new. I could go on and on… obviously!... but I will stop there, and say, simply, I love Jesus. But I don’t think people have to feel exactly the same way I do about Jesus in order to be faithful or godly people. I think taking Jesus seriously is faithful. I think wanting to know more is faithful. I think being willing to have a conversation about who he is and what that means is faithful, whatever your thoughts at the end of it.
So, to paraphrase, Jesus tells his friends: If you take me seriously, you will keep my commandments. Ah. Here’s the rub. I may have all those good feelings about Jesus I just described. But for Jesus, the definition of “love” has nothing to do with feelings. The definition of love—just as in marriage, in family relationships, in friendships, in loving our neighbor—has to do with actions. And the verb used for love here is a present subjunctive, meaning it’s a continuous action. If you are still loving me, Jesus says, this is what you will continue to do. Jesus issues two central commandments in the gospel of John as far as I can tell: The first is, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Again, love as a present, continuous verb, rather than love as a feeling. The second commandment is, “Go, and make God known.”
Jesus issues a directive to his followers: love me by loving one another. Love me by sharing the love of God with those we meet. But famous last words are more than “directives.” Jesus offers assurance, as well. He says, I will send Someone to be with you. I promise not to leave you alone.
The Greek word for the one whom Jesus sends is “Paracletos”; it is essentially an untranslatable word. Our bible translates it “Advocate,” which is a kind of legal term… counsel for the defense, that sort of thing. Other versions of the bible translate it as Helper, or Counselor, or Comforter. Comforter, in the original understanding, might be the best choice. We tend to think of “comfort” as having to do either with overcoming sadness, or with physical ease. But the word’s original sense from the Latin is “being strong or brave together.” The Comforter is someone who helps a dispirited person to be brave. Jesus will send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. We will have the very Spirit of God with us, so that we can be brave together. And Jesus promises, we will recognize him when we see him. We will have no doubt.
I will not leave you orphaned, says Jesus. You think I’ll be gone for good, but guess what? You will see me. You will see me. I will have a continuous presence with you. If you love me, if you take me seriously; if you do the work of love wherever you can; I will be with you. You will see me because you will burst into a new kind of life, just as I will. You won’t be desperately clutching for your own memorable words at the end of things. You will already know my continuous presence. You’ll know endings for what they are: beginnings. Amen.