The Final Discourse
Sixth Sunday of Easter
6 Easter, C: Acts 14:8-18 ; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:22-22:5; John 14:23-29
May 13, 2007
Rev. Lauran Pifke,
Guest Preacher, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley, CA
Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter – we are more than halfway through the “great 50 days” that stretch from the Sunday of the resurrection to the Day of Pentecost. That fact makes the reading we just heard from John’s gospel seem out of place. Think back for a moment: on Easter Sunday, we heard the story of the resurrection from Luke’s gospel. Then, on the two Sundays following Easter, we heard about the post-resurrection appearances – first the appearance to the disciples in the upper room, when Jesus showed Thomas his wounds, and then his appearance to the disciples on the beach when he fixed breakfast for them. This all makes sense from a timeline point of view. But when we got to the 4th, 5th and 6th Sundays of Easter - this Sunday and the two that preceded it - we heard pieces of what is known as “The Final Discourse.” These are the final words of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, according to the Gospel of John. This discourse took place prior to Good Friday, so why are we hearing it now, after we have celebrated the resurrection and before Pentecost? When I was in seminary, I asked my liturgics professor this question and her response was “It is strange.” Although this was not a very informative answer, it did make me feel free to develop my own theory and so I have.
My take on this lectionary time warp is that a few weeks into the Easter season, having been given time to pull ourselves out of the emotion of Holy Week and adjust to the Easter joy that seems to come a little slowly, we are finally given an opportunity to reconsider the life of Jesus. We have been intensely focused on his death and resurrection – now we pull back and spend some time thinking about his life. We stand poised between the promise of the resurrection and the fulfillment of that promise in the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes with Pentecost. In this context, it is wholly appropriate to hear pieces of The Final Discourse – it is after all, in a dying person’s final words, that he is able to sum up his own life, and have an opportunity to issue any final requests. Our job is to consider that life and that final request and determine what it means for us.
In our culture, with its focus on economics, final testaments – or wills - deal mostly with the distribution of property. But in the Mediterranean world, at the time of Jesus, the focus was on family and kinship. Final words at that time dealt with concern for family – who was to be the successor, and how the family would survive without the dying person. This was the context for Jesus and the disciples because they were the family he had constituted.
So then, how did Jesus sum up his life and what was his final request? Two weeks ago, we heard him tell the disciples “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Last week, he gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another in the way that he loved them. And today we heard him say, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus wanted the disciples to remember his word and continue his teaching. He wanted them to be assured that he was not leaving them alone. And he promised to send them an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to help them understand.
As his death approached, Jesus summed up his life by talking about relationship – it was what he had been talking about the whole time. Love God and love one another. When Jesus told Judas (this, by the way, is the Judas who was the son of James mentioned as one of the twelve in chapter 6 of Luke) that he and the Father would make their home with those who keep his word, he was telling all of them that they did not exist in isolation – they were a part of each other and of God and always would be. He wanted them to remember his teaching and to live in his peace. When Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” he was talking about a quality of life rather than the absence of war or a vague feeling of quiet comfort. The word “peace” in John’s gospel is like the words light and love. They are used to describe the existence of God in creation and in us. In this sense, peace is the light and the love that Jesus brought into the world through the word. And he meant for it to continue in the disciples and through them to us and through us to the future.
This continuation is described in the reading we heard from the Book of Acts. The mission of Jesus was carried by Paul and Barnabas to Lystra, where they healed a man crippled from birth and then told the crowd about the good news they brought of a living God. And from the Revelation to John, we heard about the vision of a new Jerusalem, the future kingdom of God – a city that will shine day and night with the light of Christ, where the tree of life will grow and produce fruit and leaves that are for the healing of the nations. In this vision the mission of Jesus is seen as fulfilled.
The final discourse from John’s gospel is closely connected to what the synoptic gospels position as the Last Will and Testament of Jesus – the Last Supper and the words “Do this in remembrance of me.” There is no account of the Last Supper in John’s gospel. He focuses on word, whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus on sacrament, but they are all talking about the same thing – the importance of remembering our relationship to God and to one another.
And that is why we gather every Sunday to corporately enact this remembrance. We hear once again the words of Jesus and we are taught by the Spirit. We pass the peace and, by doing so, we acknowledge the existence of God in ourselves and in each other. As we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the Eucharistic Prayer, we are reminded of the connection between humanity and divinity. We bid God’s continuing presence by asking the Holy Spirit to come upon the gifts that we receive and, in turn, offer back to God. We bid the Holy Spirit to come upon us also – asking God to make his home in us, even though he already has. We come to this table and receive the body and blood of Jesus and, by doing so, we are choosing to be connected to Christ and to every other person who has received it in the past, is receiving it now, and will receive it in the future. The Eucharist, which has been called the extension of the incarnation, is about relationship.
We become Christ’s Body in order to continue his life and work in our world. That healing work is summed up in words that speak of loving God and one another. It is because of our connection to Jesus, enacted here, that we are able to bear the fruit that creates the kingdom of God – and it is for this reason that the gift was given. God does not mean for us to receive this gift and hold it for ourselves. The incarnation is not extended very far if it ends with us. It is only when it flows out of us and into the world that the last request of Jesus is fulfilled.