Sixth Sunday of Easter
“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 for ever. 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. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
—John 14:15-21 (NRSV)
Have you ever seen the musical, “Camelot”? In the last scene, King Arthur spins out a poignant song filled with memories of what had been the most idyllic place on earth. Alone on stage, the broken king begs us to remember:
Ask ev’ry person if they’ve heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if they have not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.
Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.
Keep the story going, Arthur begs us. Pass it on to your children and your children’s children; and in the very remembering, you will keep the dream alive. In the midst of the despair around you, recall this golden time, this special place. And, perhaps—who knows—perhaps this one brief, shining moment will come again.
As Jesus gathers with his disciples for his Last Supper, we sort of expect to hear him singing Arthur’s song. Jesus knew he would soon be betrayed by one of his closest followers, then arrested, and finally killed. Here at the Passover table, Jesus spins out his last words to his closest friends. We can well imagine Jesus calling them to remember the marvellous wisp of glory they had shared, when light had come into the darkness of the world. With such a memory, perhaps the disciples could go on, sustained by the vision of this one great life, waiting and hoping that Jesus would soon return.
The entire Gospel of John could be a melody from Camelot, for John wrote these words many years after Jesus was gone. This gospel is written backwards, in the midst of a community for whom Jesus was only a memory. In fact, most of those in John’s community had never met Jesus. Almost all of the original disciples were dead. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed—a sign, they had thought, that the end-time would soon come.
But the end-time did not come. Life went on. And that was, in many ways, the hardest part of all. Jesus had not returned even when all the signs seemed right. This community of believers felt pushed to the brink of despair, and despair was the thing which could defeat them. The gospel writer knew the dangers of such despair. And so it was that John pulled together many of the things Jesus said into this one section known as “The Farewell Discourse.”
It runs from the middle of chapter 13 to the end of chapter 16, and it’s a bit like “The Last Lecture Series” in some universities, where professors are asked what they would say if they knew it was their last opportunity to speak. Here at the table, Jesus says the same things over and over in different ways—but his central theme is love.
- “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (13:34)
- “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (14:15)
- “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” (14:21)
- “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (15:9)
- “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (15:17)
“But how can we do that?” the disciples must have wondered. Knowing they had a difficult time loving each other even while the Lord was with them, how could believers love like that in John’s community, where Jesus’ memory was fading? “Let’s just keep singing about that time when Jesus was here,” they may have thought.
“Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment…”
But Jesus did not sing that song. Jesus did not call the disciples to hold up his life as memory, but as presence. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. “I am coming to you.” (14:18)
What a strange thing to say on the night of his betrayal and arrest. He should have said, “I am leaving you!”
Jesus did not deny what was going to happen. He said: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” (14:19)
Jesus was calling his disciples to live and love in ways that seemed impossible. And without the Spirit, it would have been. And there’s the other theme repeated over and over around the table—the Holy Spirit. Sometimes Jesus calls him “the Advocate,” like someone who stands beside you in a court of law. Sometimes he says “Helper,” sometimes “Spirit of Truth.”
When Jesus said, “I am coming to you,” he did not mean he would return like an old friend from a long journey. Jesus would be with believers in a different way. Or perhaps we could say that God would be with them in a different way because Jesus had been there. The eternal, cosmic Word of God became flesh in Jesus.
That’s what John wrote at the very beginning of this gospel. The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep in creation, took on flesh in the one who now sat with them at the table. This Living Word had just bent down to wash the disciples’ dirty feet. You can’t get much more down-to-earth than that. Jesus was very clear: “The Spirit that dwells in me will abide also in you.”
Shortly before this, Jesus had said something outrageous: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (14:12)
If anyone other than Jesus had made such a claim, we would call it blasphemy! Yet, that’s what Jesus said that night at the table; even as God breathed into lifeless clay to create a living person, the Spirit will breathe the presence of Jesus into you. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus will continue to be present with you. “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.” (14:18)
Love and the Spirit—these two themes are at the centre of Jesus’ farewell message: “Love one another as I have loved you” and “The Spirit of Truth will abide with you when I am gone.” A little later in this same chapter, Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (14:26b)
That is, Jesus was saying: You don’t know everything yet. You have more to learn. In every generation you will be faced with new questions and perplexities. Does the sun revolve around the earth or is it the other way around? Should nuclear weapons ever be used against an enemy? Is social welfare the best way to bear one another’s burdens? Jesus knew there were some questions the sacred writings did not address. Jesus also acknowledged that there were some things he had never talked about. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” he said. (16:13a)
The late Rosemary Radford Reuther (1936-2022) once said there are two things the church must do. One is to pass on the tradition from one generation to another. We might say this is like King Arthur’s song: “Ask ev’ry person if they’ve heard the story, and tell it loud and clear if they have not”—tell the story of Jesus to your children and your children’s children. But that’s not all, said Reuther. There is a second thing the church must do: remain open to the winds of the Spirit by which the tradition comes alive in each generation. That is different than Camelot; it is much deeper than memory.
At the very end of this chapter, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” (14:31b)
You can almost see him getting up from the table, then realizing that he forgot to say something. “I am the true vine,” he says, sitting down again, “and my Father is the vinegrower … Abide in me as I abide in you.” (15:1, 4a)
But how can we abide in Jesus? Well, he has told us how—over and over again, repeating himself at the table: “You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another.”
The Spirit will keep us connected, says Jesus. You to me, all of us to God—each sibling to each sibling.
You know, I once heard someone say that the reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home! Of course, we know that mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff—but there is a piece of truth in that wry statement.
When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many a climber is surely tempted to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” The life of faith can be like that; doubt sets in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy.
Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them we’re tied together like branches on a vine—or like climbers tied to the rope—bound together by the Spirit, to trust in One who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said. “I am coming to you.”
This promise is far more meaningful than a song from musical theatre. And it was meant not only for Jesus’ first disciples, but also for you and for me. The Spirit binds us to Jesus, and whenever we are tempted to settle for answers that cannot give life—even if they seem to make more sense—well, that’s when we feel a tug on the rope.
May God, who breathed life into inanimate clay, breathe life and hope into us—now, and in all the days to come. May the Holy Spirit bind us to Jesus and to one another—and breathe into us not only blessed memories, but also the very presence of Jesus, that we may love one another, even as Jesus has loved us. Amen.