May 21, 2017
View a video of this sermon here.
We are drawing near to the end of this season of Easter. Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Ascension, and the week after that will be Pentecost, the birthday of the church. But today, it is still Easter, the season when we’ve been learning what it means to follow the risen Christ.
It is also Aldersgate Sunday, the day we remember how John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” as he suddenly felt sure of his own salvation. This event in his own spiritual journey led him to develop a way of discipleship that would become the United Methodist Church.
Throughout this Eastertide, we have been examining what discipleship looks like through the theme of Awakening. Thomas awakened us to the realization that doubt is a necessary element of real faith. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, maybe Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, awakened in us the need to be together: to break bread together, to examine God’s Word together.
Jesus awakened us to recognize him as the Gate to salvation, and last week, we were awakened in the Upper Room to the realization that following Jesus means surrendering ourselves completely to him, just as he surrendered himself completely to the Father’s will, and for the Father’s glory.
Each of these awakenings has highlighted a different element of discipleship:
- Followers of Jesus experience doubt. They ask hard questions.
- Followers of Jesus stay connected to the community of faith, depending on one another for encouragement and accountability
- Followers of Jesus listen for his voice, and follow Christ into the fold for safety, and out into the world
- Followers of Jesus surrender themselves to lives of service and humility, to bring glory to God alone.
These are all important elements of discipleship. Today, we examine one more. And really, all the others are bound up in this one thing. Our reading today picks up right where we left off last week, in the 14th chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus is talking to his closest friends on the night of his betrayal.
“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. 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.”
Last week, we heard the verses just before this passage, and I mentioned that they are very familiar to many of us, because we hear them at funerals all the time. “Let not your heart be troubled… in my Father’s house are many rooms … I go to prepare a place for you…” These are words of comfort. They give us hope for what lies beyond death.
The words in today’s passage may not be quite as familiar, and they may not carry the same kind of comfort we hear in “Let not your heart be troubled.” I wonder if we don’t hear these words as often because they require something more of us. While it’s clear that Jesus intends them to be comforting, it’s also clear that they issue a challenge to his followers. Jesus calls his disciples into a deeper understanding of what it means to follow him, even after he is no longer physically present.
How do we keep following Jesus after he is no longer among us? The answer is simple, and extremely difficult at the same time. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus says. Note that this is not a conditional imperative statement. Jesus isn’t saying, “If you really love me, you’d better keep my commandments.” He is simply stating a fact. It might be easier to grasp if we translate that first word as “since” instead of “if.” “Since you love me, you will be keeping my commandments.”
But what are those commandments, exactly? As we heard last week, there is really only one: love one another, as I have loved you. (John 13:34) And it’s that “as I have loved you” part that gets us every time. How on earth are we supposed to be able to love the way Christ loves? What does that kind of love even look like?
The Greek language doesn’t have a lot of words. Because the Greek vocabulary is so limited, some words can have a whole host of definitions. The word that means to loosen or untie, for example, also means to destroy. This presents a challenge to the translator of scripture. The translator has to determine which meaning applies to a word in its specific context. It’s important to know if you are being told to untie your shoes and destroy an enemy, or if you are supposed to untie the enemy and destroy your shoes!
It’s interesting to realize, given this limited vocabulary, that there are no less than six Greek words we translate into English as “love.” The word we find here, repeated at least four times in verse 21 alone, is agape. Agape is perhaps the most radical version of love expressed in Greek. This selfless love was extended to everyone, from family members to total strangers. C.S. Lewis “referred to it as ‘gift love,’ the highest form of Christian love.” (Roman Krznaric)
It is this self-giving, indiscriminate love that Jesus demonstrated to his disciples when he knelt down to wash their feet. It’s the kind of love he showed on the cross. It’s the kind of indiscriminate, selfless love he offers to us, and commands us to offer to each other. It’s a tall order. Jesus knows this. That’s why he tells us that we will have some help. He says, “I will ask the Father to give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (v. 16).
Craig Koester writes that we may get the “impression that the Spirit is the Advocate who brings our case up before God in the hope that God will do something merciful for us. But here the direction is the opposite. God has already given the gift of love unstintingly through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and such love is what creates genuine life. The Spirit is the Advocate who brings the truth of that love and life to people in this time after Easter, which makes faith possible.”
Since Jesus calls the Spirit “another” Advocate, it’s clear that Jesus has also been an Advocate, or Paraclete – one who comes alongside us for support (14:16). Just as Jesus is our advocate before the Father, the Spirit is our advocate before the world.
And we need one, badly, because the world does not recognize Jesus as Christ, and because of this, the world cannot see the Spirit of Truth. On the night before the crucifixion, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), and Jesus didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. The answer was standing right in front of Pilate.
“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life,” Jesus had told Thomas earlier that evening (14:6). And now, Jesus says that the world “neither sees [the Spirit of Truth] nor knows him. [But] You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you (v. 17).” You have the Spirit of Truth in you.
I think this is the crux of it: Because we know and see Jesus in such an intimate relationship, it’s up to us to show him to the world that can’t see him. It’s a world that does not know the deep intimacy with God for which we were created.
But “you know him, because he abides with you.” Abiding creates intimacy – this kind of love is stronger than a “relationship.” Anyone can be in some sort of relationship – just look at Facebook – but true intimacy, knowing “fully, even as we are fully known” (1 Cor 13:12), is what God has always desired for us.
Are we cheating God and cheating ourselves by failing to engage in that kind of intimacy with God? Isn’t this what the last several weeks of “Awakening” have been about? How to be disciples who grow in intimacy with the risen Christ?
That’s why Jesus makes the greatest promise he can make, right here at the heart of this passage. He says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (v. 18). You are not alone as you follow Jesus in this world.
Christ does not abandon us; in the person of the Holy Spirit, he stands with us and is known to us in ways the world cannot see or know him. But we can know him, and because we see him and know him personally, intimately, we can show him to the world.
Craig Koester writes, “Jesus … refers to ‘the world’ as the realm where people are alienated from God. ‘The world’ consists of those who are hostile to Jesus and his followers (15:18). Saying that the world cannot receive the Spirit does not mean that an unbeliever cannot become a believer. Rather, it means that ‘the world’ estranged from God cannot receive the Spirit while remaining unchanged (emphasis mine).”
Next week, we will celebrate the Ascension, that moment when Jesus left his disciples on earth as he ascended to his Father. “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live,” Jesus tells us. It is this life of intimacy with the Father and the Son, through the Holy Spirit, into which Christ invites us. It is a life of transformation.
Karoline Lewis writes that, “there’s more to being a child of God than being raised from the dead. The crucifixion will indeed bring to an end the incarnation, but the resurrection is not the end all of eternal life. For the Gospel of John, the ascension is the final surety that secures every single claim about abundant life.”
We need to get out of the rut of thinking that resurrection is all God has in mind for us. There’s more. There’s an abundant life of intimate relationship with God available to each of us.
The Easter season may be drawing to a close, but the reality of resurrection is that there is more beyond “Christ has died, Christ has risen.” We also proclaim the mystery that “Christ will come again,” and in the meantime, he calls us into intimate fellowship with himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
The early Pietists always asked three questions of scripture: What does it teach, what does it command, and what does it promise?
What does this passage from the Farewell Discourse TEACH us? We know Christ intimately because he abides in us and we abide in him. By abiding in Christ, we also abide in the Father, because Christ is in the Father and the Father is in him.
What does Jesus COMMAND, or tell us to do? Demonstrate your love for Christ by keeping his commandment to love one another with agape – selfless, indiscriminate love. Show Jesus to the world through your love.
What do these words of Christ PROMISE? Jesus will not abandon us, but leaves us with “another Paraclete” or advocate who remains with us forever: the Holy Spirit (of Truth)
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed! But that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. Alleluia. Let it be so.