The words we hear today from Jesus to his disciples come from a portion of John’s gospel known as the farewell discourse. Despite this formal/academic, somewhat highfalutin term, the act is familiar to anyone who has ever said goodbye, even if only temporarily, to a dear person or place.
- A parent dropping a child off at sleepover camp or college
- A soldier bidding farewell before leaving on deployment
- A sailor embarking on a solo cruise round the world
Structurally, the typical farewell discourse is made up of instructions and promises — reassurances. For example, before I left for sabbatical, I prepared a farewell discourse of sorts — letting the house sitter know when to put trash out, how to contact neighbors, and various household anomalies. I included information on the date of my return and how to reach me in the meantime. I’m certain that at one time or another each one of you has created some sort of farewell discourse of your own, or has been the recipient of one.
Most of us have learned to do this — to offer instructions, promises, and reassurances — because we have been the recipient of such a discourse at some point in our lives. Or, we have encountered the structure in someone else’s life, or in literature.
Jesus would have known very well the structure of a farewell discourse, and its importance, through his knowledge of scripture — most particularly, I suspect, of Moses’ farewell discourse as presented in Deuteronomy.
One commentator notes, “…both [Moses’ final speech and Jesus’] are … spoken by leaders who are about to be separated from those they have led. …they are spoken to groups who are about to lose the leaders on whom they depended. The immediate future of these groups is also similar: the Israelites are about to enter Canaan to establish themselves as [God’s] chosen people; the disciples of Jesus are about to become his definitive community. Both the Israelites and the disciples are in need of consolation in their loss, and of encouragement in the struggle against their enemies that is about to begin. Finally, both groups require instruction and warning about how they are to act towards one another within each group … and toward the enemies who will surround them: the ‘nations’ for the Israelites, the ‘world’ for the disciples.”
With that in mind, let’s zoom in a bit, and consider what we’ve heard about Jesus in the weeks of Eastertide, leading up to today’s story — the times he appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection. First, the encounter with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Then, eerily, behind closed doors — twice. Then, offering breakfast sustenance to his disciples, on the beach, after they spent a long night fishing.
Unlike us, the early followers of Jesus didn’t have a calendar to tell them, this is Lent — this is Easter season — Ascension is right around the corner. They were in the thick of it. We have both the disadvantage and the benefit of distance. We are removed in time and space from the immediacy — and uncertainty — of the events that shaped the belief of the early disciples and those whose lives they touched directly. But we benefit from the readings appointed for this season, and thousands of years of history, as we witness how the revelation of the resurrected Christ — wounds and all — moves seamlessly, inevitably, into the establishment of his (new) body on earth — what we know as the Church. How does this come about? “Love one another, even as I have loved you…by this all men [everyone] will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus. “…the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”
Knitting this knowledge, this unity, together is the Counselor — the Holy Spirit, who, says Jesus, “will teach you all things and will bring to your remembrance all I have said to you.”
The promises and the instructions Jesus gives are intertwined. Pray, and I will hear you. Love one another, and I will be with you. Believe, and that belief will be informed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.
Three simple words: Pray – Love – Believe. But simple does not mean easy! Each one of these, at one time or another, can present (at least to me) nearly insurmountable challenges. And while there’s no simple — or easy — way to rise above these challenges, we are regularly offered a means of confronting and responding to them. What is this means? It begins with what we’re doing here today. It begins with liturgy.
Writing in his Ponder Anew blog, Jonathan Aigner relates how he faces these spiritual challenges with boldness and fortitude: “In the liturgy, I find grace to make up for whatever my spirit is lacking.…there are times when I feel disconnected. I don’t always feel my faith. I don’t always feel God’s presence. I don’t always believe. But I still go, and with quivering lips and stammering tongue I say and sing and pray what my heart is often unable to.
Even when I don’t believe, I say it anyway. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…”
Even when I don’t feel, I sing it anyway. “…then, adoring bend the knee / and confess the mystery.”
Even when I don’t mean it, I pray it anyway. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”
Even when words fail, I listen anyway. “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.”
And I know that I’m no longer alone. It’s restoring. Renewing. Reconciling.
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Is there anyone among us who is not in need of restoration, renewal, reconciliation? The profound deficit of our lives on earth springs into sharp relief when we hold John’s description of the heavenly city up against the reality of the world.
The heavenly city “has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb…the river of the water of life, bright as crystal [flows] from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life … the leaves of the tree [are] for the healing of nations.”
Now, the world. The Telegraph reports: “The last paediatrician in rebel-held Aleppo has been killed in a Syrian regime air strike on a Red Cross-supported hospital which claimed the lives of more than 50 others. Dr Muhammad Wassim Maaz, five colleagues and at least four children being treated at the hospital in the district of Sukkari were killed when it was hit by four direct strikes just before midnight yesterday.”
The executive director of Doctors without Borders describes the the scene: “It’s been a horrific night for our colleagues. They witnessed barrel bombs exploding close to the hospital, and then they started to take in patients. Then shortly after as patients have gathered in the hospital and being treated, a barrel bomb exploded at the gates of the hospital itself.”
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Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” How are we to find, to play a role in creating, that peace? In our hearts? our homes? our communities? our nation? our world? And if we find it, if we play our role in creating it, how can we not only hold it fast, but share it, share it with a world so desperately in need of peace. Of love.
We start small, of necessity — peace cannot be imposed, it must grow. And growth starts with seeds. So we begin: A hot meal for Tuesday night guests, or students at Epiphany School. A ride to church. A walk to bring attention to and respond to the needs of our hungry neighbors, or to advocate for the safety of our neighborhoods. But we must start, and we must carry on.
We can take pride in what we do, even while we acknowledge that it will never be enough. No matter how sincere or sustained our efforts, the realities of the world will keep us humbled. Not all our efforts will succeed, no matter how well-informed or well-intentioned. But we must try, again and again we must try. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “The difference between the damned and the saved is that everyone, except the damned, gets up and stumbles on.”
And so we stumble on. We return to the place that sends us out and calls us home, we come back to liturgy. Liturgy is the place and the act that gives us the strength and courage and will to go into what is often a hostile and hating world and offer love. Peace. Reconciliation. Renewal. Jonathan Aigner again:
[Liturgy is] life-giving. Even if all I can do is muster the energy to show up and do my job. The liturgy, the Word and Sacrament, nourishes my faith at its weakest points, and gives me strength to carry on.… As I speak and sing and pray and taste, I’m filled with awareness that the meager groans of my spirit are increased on high by the deep groans of another Spirit.
And I find the strength to go on.