After our Holy Shift last Sunday, today we’re returning to the lectionary, and resuming our post-Easter journey through the gospel of John. This season of Easter, this seven week season that goes from the Sunday of the resurrection to the Sunday of Pentecost in two week’s time, is a bit unusual in the lectionary, the lists of Bible readings that are set out for each Sunday.
In the season of Easter, the readings from the Old Testament are replaced by readings from the book of Acts, and the gospel readings are normally taken from the gospel of John. The stories from Acts are usually stories about the growth and the spread of the early church, as in today’s story of a vision that leads Paul to travel from Asia Minor—now Turkey—to Europe for the first time. The readings from John’s gospel come from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ last words preparing his disciples for the time after he is taken from them. These last words continue over three chapters in the gospel of John.
Today’s reading comes from near the beginning of Jesus’ speech. And there is a lot in this short passage, much of which only makes sense within the larger three-chapter section. I want to touch on three things in this reading, in the hopes of shedding some light on them.
keep my word
So the first thing: in the opening verse Jesus says, “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 is making a connection between keeping his word—following his teachings—and loving Jesus: those who love me will follow my teachings. And then there’s a kind of reciprocal response, that God will love those who love Jesus and follow his teachings, and God and Jesus will come to those who do this, and will make a home with them.
This reciprocal language, the language of interconnection and interrelationship, is typical of John’s gospel. There’s a complexity to it, but essentially the idea is that if we love Jesus, we will do as Jesus teaches; and as we do as Jesus teaches we will experience the presence of Jesus and of God in our midst.
I think we can all agree that this is what we are all trying to do in the church: we’re trying to do what Jesus teaches, we’re trying to follow Jesus. Perhaps we can even say that we are trying to love Jesus; certainly we say that we are trying to love like Jesus. That this is our calling. I think Christians everywhere, Christians of every denomination and of every persuasion, would say that they are trying to follow the teachings, the ways of Jesus.
when we don’t agree about what Jesus teaches
Where it gets kind of complicated is when we don’t agree about what Jesus teaches, or about the implications of Jesus’ teachings. So throughout the church, throughout the world, Christians can take diametrically opposed positions while claiming to follow Jesus. In just over a week, our southern neighbours in the United Methodist Church will gather for their General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Amongst the most contentious issues they will discuss are issues around human sexuality, including same sex marriage, and the ordination of people who are gay or lesbian. Both sides in these debates claim to be following Jesus’ teachings. It can be difficult for us to know what it means to follow Jesus.
Even when we have settled some of these hot-button issues, as we largely have done in the United Church, there are other ways that we might disagree about what it means to follow Jesus. Some people express their understanding of Jesus’ teachings through a call to social justice work; for others, following Jesus means being drawn more deeply into spiritual practices and a deepened prayer life. And there are other ways of following Jesus as well.
People in these different groups or different camps might look down their noses at the others, with a sense that one way of following Jesus is better, or truer, than the others. One thing’s for sure, however: looking down our noses at others is not a way of following Jesus!
When we are doing that, or when we are engaging in hostile combat over issues like sexuality in the church, it’s a sign that we may not be listening to Jesus, but are instead following our own agendas, our own ideological commitments. If we are treating other people badly, it’s a sign that we may have lost our way.
That leads me to the second thing I want to say about this reading. Jesus is leaving his disciples, and he has a pretty good idea of what might happen. He knows that over time, they’re going to lose their way, they’re going to get into squabbles about what exactly it was that he had taught them. They’re going to disagree, and take sides, and look down their noses at those they disagree with.
It’s not easy to follow Jesus. It never was. The gospels tell us that those closest to Jesus—those who shared meals with him, and travelled with him, those who had a front row seat to every amazing thing he did, and every remarkable thing he said—they all abandoned him when they heard the soldiers coming for him. In the gospel of John, Jesus knows that it is going to be even harder to follow his teachings after he is gone.
So he makes a promise to them that the Holy Spirit will come to be with them, to take his place after he is gone. The Holy Spirit will be their teacher in an ongoing way, and will be a presence reminding Jesus’ followers of everything that he taught them.
The Holy Spirit is Jesus’, and God’s, way of helping people in the church stay true to Jesus’ teachings, throughout all of history, over all the world, wherever Christians gather, including right here in this room this morning.
We pray for the Spirit’s presence in many ways: in our opening song this morning, River; in our opening prayer and prayer for illumination before Scripture. Soon we will pray for God to send the Holy Spirit upon us and upon the bread and the wine at the table.
We pray for the Holy Spirit because following Jesus is hard. We become forgetful, and descend into our own agendas. Or we become so wrapped up, even in doing the right things, that we become difficult to be around.
We pray for the Holy Spirit because at the end of the day, being the church, and living in the kingdom of God is not a product of our efforts. On our own we can’t do it. We pray for the Holy Spirit to enable us to do what we cannot do on our own. Like following Jesus!
Last weekend at the Holy Shift event one of the speakers, Jason Byassee, was asked to define sin. He said simply that sin was our capacity, our tendency, to hurt other people, perhaps also to hurt ourselves. Sin is our tendency to cause hurt. And he said, If you’re over that, if you’re no longer causing any hurt, then you don’t need Jesus. So we can imagine Jesus saying, Hey, if you’ve got this all worked out, and you’re not causing any problems, you don’t need the Holy Spirit. But who here has got it all worked out? So we continue to pray for the Holy Spirit.
The question is, Do we expect the Holy Spirit to answer? That leads me to the third thing I want to say about this.
If we pray for the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit shows up, we should be able to tell. Jesus says, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. The peace that Jesus is talking about is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s a sign that our prayers have been answered. It’s a sign that we are connected to the ways of Jesus; it’s a sign that Jesus and God are indeed making their home with us.
When Jesus says, I do not give to you as the world gives, it’s an indication that the peace he is talking about is not the world’s idea of peace. It is not a cease-fire; it is not a cessation of hostilities; it is not a cold war, or an unresolved standoff. He’s talking about a peace that transforms us, that changes us, that enables us to do that which would otherwise be impossible for us to do.
He’s talking about a peace that enables us to love our enemies, to put into proper perspective the things that divide us. A peace that enables us to open ourselves wider to those we care for, to put into proper perspective all of the things that we spend so much of our lives chasing after, and to hold more dearly the one thing that matters, love.
I wrote this sermon this week mindful that someone dear to me is dying. Death has a way of focusing our minds, and even better, our hearts, on what really matters. We suddenly realize the priority of telling others we love them, each time we talk. We give of ourselves, and drop what we are doing, and do what is needed. We get perspective on what is important and what isn’t.
And it’s certainly occurred to me that I ought to be living like this more of the time, and not just when death looms. There’s a kind of truth to living this way, a sense that this is how life is supposed to be. It seems to me that this is what life in the kingdom of God is supposed to be; it seems to me that this what following Jesus is like: a pulling away from things that matter less, and a drawing close to things that matter so much more.
I think this is what Jesus is calling the church to be: a place where life is lived at greater depth; a place where we dare to pray for the Holy Spirit, and where we expect the Spirit to answer; a place where we dare to love our enemies, and to love our friends more fully; a place where we learn the true worth of things, and learn what it is we ought to give our hearts to. A place where we welcome God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to dwell among us, and continue to teach us, and transform us to become the people we were created to be. Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.
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