What the world cannot see

25 May 2014
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Easter 6A (RCL)
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

This week, we have a frustratingly short little snippet of Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John. If we could have added on the end of last week’s lection about doing greater works than Jesus and asking anything in his name, we might have more to work with; or even adding on the next bit about Judas, not Isacariot, wondering how it is that Jesus will reveal himself to us but not the world would help. As it is, we’re left wondering, “What are Jesus’ commandments, and who is this Paraclete?”

The farewell discourse is a fairly common literary genre in the ancient world. Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, Israel’s blessing of his sons, Moses’ speech which is the book of Deuteronomy, and Socrates farewell in the Phaedo are all examples. Plato’s Phaedo is particularly instructive. Socrates disciples feel themselves intellectually bereft of their teacher. Socrates assures his disciples that they are capable of continuing his project. Jesus promises, “I will not leave you orphaned.” The teacher is assuring the disciples that the teaching will remain and suffice.

If we back up and read the last bit of last week’s lesson about doing greater works than Jesus, this begins to make a little sense. Jesus’ work was to show the relationship between the world and the father. While he is in the world, he reveals the father. Once he is gone, that relationship does not change, but now the locus of it is found in the community of disciples who guard Jesus’ commandments, his word, to love one another. We will reveal the relationship between God and the world, that is, we will reveal Jesus, even in the absence of the bodily Jesus (or the individually embodied Jesus). We will dwell in God, and God in us, just as Jesus and mutually indwelt one another.

If we pick up the bit after about Judas, not Iscariot, being puzzled about Jesus revealing himself to us, but not to the world, we can hear the community’s anxiety about how they will recognize Jesus in their new circumstance. The Paraclete will be the new mode of relationship with God. Interestingly, in this passage, in which Jesus introduces the Paraclete (a word used only by John), he says he will send another Paraclete. Jesus is obviously himself the first Paraclete, the person who calls us to his side, or stands by our side and advocates for us.

Because the world cannot receive the Paraclete, the Christian community must always in some ways be out of step with the rest of the world. In the early centuries of the Church, that was quite apparent. It may not be so apparent now. We will do what we do by guarding Jesus’ commandments, by listening to the discourse of the community to hear Jesus’ words to us. Perhaps in recent decades, the Church has bought in too deeply to the world’s way of doing things. Numbers as a measure of success, programs as the measure of vitality, the therapeutic model of ministry, all seem to be attempts to stay in step with the world. None of these things would have made the least bit of sense to John’s little, beleaguered community. Jesus opens the farewell discourse with the statement, “Trust in God, trust also in me.” We are on the way, and God in Jesus is going with us. We are bound to be out of step.

Peter exhorts the newly baptized (or those about to be baptized), “be ready to render an account, when asked, of the hope that is among you.” Of course, he also instructs them to be ready to suffer for doing good, so we can be sure that they were out of step with the world as well. What is our hope? How do we do things differently from the world? We have to be ready to encounter Jesus in the discourse of the community, guard Jesus’ command. This pattern of revelation will take time, it will be messy, and it will aim at the goal of finding the presence of God, rather than at any measurable success. We are out of step with the world.

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