This is the season of the year when we have a lot of endings. Many college and university graduations are happening this month. And high school graduations are not far behind. And even the school year ending for the summer is its own ending, as classmates disband, and will be reconfigured in the new school year, with different teachers and different arrangements. So there are a lot of good-byes. And by the same token, families who move often do so over the summer so that kids can get settled into new houses and neighborhoods and communities before September. More good-byes.
Many people have a hard time with good-byes. They are painful and awkward, even when they can’t be helped, and some people would rather just walk away than confront difficult and uncomfortable feelings. The rituals that many schools engage in – signing yearbooks; having parties, presentations, and award ceremonies; even the time-honored elementary school practice of a child making a card and giving a small gift to a teacher who was particularly helpful or kind or insightful – all help students and teachers alike bring those relationships to a close. But adult life seems to do those good-byes less well, I think – particularly as the stakes get higher and more painful.
The Gospel passage for today comes from what is called the Farewell Discourse – John 13:31-17:26. Jesus and the disciples have been celebrating the Passover meal. He has gotten down and washed the disciples’ feet, taking on the role of the servant, providing them an example of service and humility. Jesus has identified the treachery in Judas’ heart, and Judas slips off into the night to betray his Lord and sell his own soul for thirty pieces of silver. It must have been excruciating for Jesus to let Judas go, and yet he turns to the remaining Eleven and tells them that he is giving them a new commandment – Love one another, even as I have loved you. This is how the world will know that you belong to me. In the wake of Judas’ departure, Peter protests that he will be loyal to the end; yet Jesus has to tell him that before dawn he will deny knowing his friend and rabbi three times. The disciples must have been confused and hurt and scared, sensing something big and dangerous on the eve of the Crucifixion. And Jesus does his best to prepare them for what was to come, beginning with the words we heard in today’s Gospel.
These words are very familiar to us, as they are often read at funerals, and if you were here on Thursday afternoon, you did indeed hear the first six verses. But it is important to realize that Jesus wasn’t just saying good-bye. He was also trying to prepare the disciples for life on the other side of the Crucifixion and Resurrection – even though they could not imagine it while they were sitting there. Jesus was saying that there is more than good-bye; there is life, and joy, and hope….and work and ministry to be done in Jesus’ Name, for which the entire previous three years was a run-up and a preparation.
One of the ways that Jesus tried to reassure and prepare the disciples was by telling them that he was not abandoning them; that they knew the way to place where he was going. Thomas (and I’m sure some of the others) heard that very literally: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Thomas was looking for a map; Jesus was offering him a relationship: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” By knowing Jesus, by following Jesus, by acting and speaking and loving in His way, the disciples would know God, would find and be found by the Father – even when Jesus was not physically present with them.
The readings from the Book of Acts and the First Letter of Peter both touch on this. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the Christian community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, spoke with strength and wisdom about the history of God’s people reaching its goal and climax in Jesus; and for that he was stoned to death by the religious authorities. And the Gospel spread; and the Church grew in strength and numbers. Peter, in his first letter to a group of Gentile converts who were experiencing persecution for their loyalty and faith, encouraged them with these words: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
In all three Scripture passages – Acts, 1 Peter, and John – there is a background of difficulty, of danger, of sorrow, and in each case the expectation and the encouragement is for Jesus’ followers to persist, to look forward, not to accept a good bye as an end to faith and mission. In fact, the Farewell Discourse goes further – in words we will hear next week, and the week after that; Jesus prays for the disciples and for those who will come to faith through them, who will learn Jesus’ Way because of their words and the quality of their community life. Jesus’ mission is finally launching. The preparation is over; the mission now truly begins; and the followers are the ones who take up the reigns and find themselves saying and doing things in Jesus’ name they never thought possible.
What sort of things? Engaging the world with the hope, and justice, and joy of Jesus. Finding ways to make life here on earth as much like heaven, like God’s realm, as possible. These aren’t things we can do alone, but we are each called to play our part. When we, as a community, as a church, as the Body of Christ reflect the will and work and quality of Jesus’ presence in our midst – to each other and to the world around us – we will offer to others a picture of who God is, what God is like.
The English bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says that there are seven qualities that Christian communities display – or at least work at keeping front and center – when we are walking and working in Jesus’ way. They are:
- Justice – the world as envisioned and promised by God from the beginning; putting things right in each local community as we care for the poor, the sick, the down-trodden.
- Spirituality – bringing heaven and earth together as God has always intended; knowing that prayer is powerful, and that it matters in daily life and in community.
- Relationships – are based in God’s love, which transcends human frailties and difficulties; making new cross-cultural families of parish and community that go beyond old boundaries and enmities a reality.
- Beauty – all present human, artistic, and natural beauty – at once tender and majestic – are sign-posts of God’s greater beauty yet to come; and this shows itself in Christian life in the springing forth of new art and music and creativity in many different ways.
- Freedom – God’s freedom is true freedom, to do what is right and good; to be free from those things and forces and habits that enslave us and our communities, so that we may live in the Light.
- Truth – far more than facts, Truth is about the reality of God’s New Creation that began on Easter morning, is spoken and sung into increasing existence whenever Christians pray, sing, and proclaim the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.
- Power – this is Jesus’ power which was made perfect in weakness; it is the power of love which overcomes the love of power.
All of these qualities can be twisted, corrupted, misused – and when they do, that’s when people and churches and societies get into trouble. But when we work to express, and show forth, and make real these values, these aspects of Jesus’ life and God’s purposes, we will be fulfilling our mission; we will be accomplishing that for which Jesus prepared, and prayed, and sent us to do.
Jesus says to us: I am the way, and the truth, and the life….Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these… so that the Father may be glorified.
Let us pray.
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after you and find you, bring the nations
into your fold, pour out your Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten
the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017