It must be vacation time.
All of my twitter friends that either live in or have been to New York lately
seem the be head-over-heals for this musical The Book of Mormon.
It’s a commentary on the lifestyle and religiosity
of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints,
and it won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
I admit to some jealousy, and I’d like to go see it.
Maybe someday I’ll get the chance.
It’s a rather unique art form, the big-production musical.
I can’t say that I’ve focused too much on the genre, but I have
seen a few myself, Miss Siagon,
my favorite being Les Miserables.
Sometimes, even here, with these dramatic productions,
we can find tools to understand our life of faith.
Take, for instance, the observation by
Union Theological Seminary professor Barbara Lundblad
who highlights the last scene of the 1960s era musical Camelot
when she meditates on this text before us this morning.
In that musical, King Arthur spins out a song
filled with memories of what had been the
most idyllic place on earth.
Alone on stage, the broken, forgiving 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
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, begs King Arthur.
Pass it on to your children, and your children’s children;
and in this very act of remembering, you will keep the dream alive.
In the midst of the despair around you, recall this time, this special place.
And, perhaps – who knows – perhaps this one, brief,
shining moment will come again.
* * *
We’re tempted to hear Jesus singing something like Arthur’s song
as he gathers with his disciples for the last time.
Jesus knew he would soon be betrayed by one of his closest followers—
betrayed, 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 wondrous wisp of glory they had shared,
when light had come into the darkness of the world.
With such a song, the disciples might be able to go on,
sustained by the memory of this one great life
waiting and hoping Jesus would return soon.
* * *
Sometimes I feel like the whole Gospel of John could be a Camelot song,
for John wrote these words long after Jesus was gone.
Again: this gospel, like all the gospels, is written backwards,
in the midst of a community for whom Jesus was only a memory.
Most of those in John’s community had never met Jesus.
Most, if not all, of the first disciples were dead.
The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed again—
a sign for many that the end-time would come soon.
But the end time…. it 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 very edge of despair,
and as we all know,
despair could defeat them.
* * *
The gospel writer knew the dangers of such despair.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons that John pulled together
many of the things Jesus said into this one section of the Gospel
known as the “Farewell Discourses.”
We mentioned last week how this section
is John’s beautiful work of comfort, Jesus’s grand Goodbye.
Here at the table, Jesus says the same things over and over,
in different ways.
Listen for it: the central word is love:
— If you love me you will keep my commandments.
— A new commandment I give you, that you love one another
as I have loved you.
— Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.
–I am giving you these commands so that you may
love one another.
“But how can we do that?” the disciples must have wondered.
Knowing they had a hard time loving each other
even while Jesus was with them,
how could they do so now with him in their distant past
where memory of him was fading?
We might remember King Arthur, on stage,
urges those who hear him to keep his song going,
and with that to keep the memory alive…
“Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
for one brief shining moment….”
….But note well: There’s an important difference.
Jesus did not sing that sort of song. Not quite.
Jesus didn’t 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”
What a strange thing to say on the night of betrayal and arrest.
One might think he should have said: “I am leaving you.”
Its not that Jesus denied what was going to happen:
“In a little while the world will no longer see me,” Jesus said
“But you will see me.
Because I live, you also will live.”
Jesus was calling on his disciples to live and love
in ways that seemed impossible.
/ / /
They couldn’t do it, not without some help,
not without the Spirit.
The Spirit: the other theme repeated over and over
around the table in this text.
Sometimes Jesus says “the Advocate”,
like someone who stands beside you in a court of law.
Sometimes Jesus says “the Helper”
Sometimes he says “the Spirit of Truth.”
When Jesus said, “I am coming to you,” he didn’t 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.
Its hard to see it, because there are so many disparate parts,
but John is trying to tie all these pieces of the story together here,
in this farewell discourse of Jesus:
The eternal, cosmic word of God became flesh in Jesus—
that’s what he wrote at the beginning of his gospel.
The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep at 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, John says, is being direct:
the spirit that dwells in me will abide also in you.
* * *
There is one thing we should note here:
Shortly before this, Jesus says something audacious:
“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.”
If anyone other than Jesus had made such a claim,
it might be called blasphemous.
In fact, this was one of the charges against him.
But that’s what Jesus says to us: 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.”
* * *
So it is that Love and the Spirit
are at the center 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.”
Jesus accentuates this by saying: “The holy spirit, whom God will send
in my name, will teach you everything
and will remind you of all that I have said to you.”
This is Jesus saying to his followers, and to us:
You don’t know everything yet.
You have so much more to learn.
In every generation,
you will face new questions and perplexities.
Oh how much better off we would be if we reminded ourselves
of this saying of Jesus?
We don’t know everything yet?
Does the sun revolve around the earth, or is it the other way around?
Should nuclear weapons ever be used against an enemy?
Is government welfare the best way to bear one another’s burdens?
Should women who feel called by God be ordained to preach?
All questions we faced that the disciples could never have imagined.
Jesus KNEW that there were some questions
that his time with them could not address.
Jesus ACKNOWLEDGED that there are some things
he had never talked about.
And what does this say to us about holy scripture?
You’ll go digging for hours and come up empty
searching for a direct word about
Public School Funding verses Tax Cuts to Incentivize Business
Fixing a broken 21st century healthcare system
The role of the internet in an increasingly global,
diverse cultural context?
On our own, we feel stuck.
No wonder we feel like this sometimes:
No wonder Paul calls our very human efforts to make sense of all….this
our efforts to put it into some broader context, some ultimate meaning
to connect our deepest values with the divine:
Paul calls it groping in the dark.
What do we do about it?
Paul says turn to Jesus. That’s his suggestion for “climbing the stairs”.
And Jesus. He says: “The Spirit will be your tutor,
guiding you into all the truth…”
* * *
You will not be left alone, Jesus says.
And you will HAVE to grow and stretch and change and adapt,
but the Advocate will help you do that….
I agree with Church Historian Rosemary Radford Reuther,
who suggests there are two things the church must do.
One is we have to pass on the faith 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.
Help them know and see and feel
God’s love and purpose in their lives.
That’s the foundation.
But that’s not all, says Reuther.
There is a second thing the church must do, we must do.
Be open to the winds of the Spirit
by which the tradition comes alive in each generation.
That is different than Camelot, deeper than memory.
Did you note how, at the very end of this chapter in John,
Jesus seems to be ready to leave.
He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.”
You can almost see him getting up from the table,
then realizing that he forgot to say something.
“I am the vine,” he says, sitting down again,
“and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you.”
But how can we abide in Jesus?
He has told the disciples over and over, 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, said Jesus.
You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.
The Spirit the glue that BINDS US TOGETHER,
so we are not orphaned, not alone.
Years ago I read something rather odd:
“The reason mountain climbers are tied together
is to keep the sane ones from going home.”
Whoever said that was playing with us a bit,
for we know mountain climbers are tied together
to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff.
But there’s another piece of truth here.
When things get tough up on the mountain,
when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say,
“This is crazy! I’m going home.”
The life of faith can be like that, sometimes, somedays—
doubts set in,
despair overwhelms us,
and the whole notion of being a community of faith
that loves one another seems crazy.
Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that.
So he told them we’re tied together like branches on the vine-
or like climbers tied to the rope-
tied 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 faith seems absurd.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.”
This promise is far deeper than Camelot, and it wasn’t only for Jesus’ disciples,
but also for you and for me.
The Spirit ties us to Jesus.
We feel a tug on the rope WHENEVER
we are tempted to settle for answers that make more sense,
but cannot give life.
What a wonderful promise that is:
that being bound to one another and bound to God in the Spirit
we might find ways of learning and listening and loving anew
and become the very body of God in this place.
Love one another. Listen to the Spirit.
And in these, you’ll always be children of the Living God,
and enjoying the presence of Christ in your midst.
May God who breathed life into lifeless clay
breathe life and hope into you and to me and to all of us,
now and in all the days to come.
Sermon inspiration credit to Rev. Anthony Acheson and a sermon he wrote called “I will not leave you comfortless” at Greensburo United Church of Christ, and the original work of the Rev. Barbara Lundblad on Day 1.