Christ’s Farewell to his Apostles from the Maesta altarpiece (1308-11) by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Good-byes are difficult, and I’ve said my share of them. In the Navy I have said good-bye to my family before going on deployments and once when I went off to war. I’ve also said good-bye to friends and loved ones at funerals, which were sometimes sad but sweet, often gutwrenching and painful. When you leave those you love, whether for a little while or permanently, you wonder, Will those I am leaving behind be okay? Will they be strong, stay safe, and keep their faith?
For those being left behind, it’s even worse when the person saying good-bye doesn’t need to leave: when a spouse gives up on a marriage, when a parent abandons a child, when a person commits suicide, when a pastor leaves a congregation for greener pastures. All of these can be bewildering and painful experiences for those who are left behind. Jesus’ disciples faced such a crisis when he announced his coming departure.
In John 14-17, we find Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples. It consists of three discourses (14, 15:1-16:4a, 16:4b-33) and a prayer (17:1-14). From the first discourse comes this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, which you can read here: John 14:15-21. The theme of the initial discourse is comfort in the face of impending loss, and it begins with Jesus saying, “Let not your heart be troubled” (14:1).
There are many people whose hearts are troubled. Some are troubled by the bad economic times and unemployment. It’s hard not to be anxious when you can’t pay your bills or make ends meet. Some are troubled by relationships. Husbands and wives fight. Parents and children don’t get along. There’s conflict and strife in the workplace. Some are troubled by the future. What will I do? Where will I go? Who will I become? Such questions can cause a great deal of anxiety. Jesus says to all of us, whatever our worry, “Let not your heart be troubled.”
Our passage begins with an often misunderstood promise. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (15). Some mistakenly take this as a command, like a parent who leaves on an errand and tells the child: “Behave! Do what you’re supposed to while I’m gone!” But that’s not what Jesus’ words mean. His words are actually a promise in the form of a conditional, if-then statement. Here’s the sense of the original Greek: “If you keep on loving me, you will keep my commandments” (Robertson’s Word Pictures). The disciples’ job is to continue to love Jesus after he has departed. If they do that, Jesus promised they will keep his commandments. And by keeping his commandments, they demonstrate their love for Jesus (21). It is contradictory and sinful for us to say we love God and live like there is no God.
It’s not possible to keep God’s commandments by a sheer act of the will like the Little Engine, who said, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Name-it-and-claim-it theology won’t work either. We can’t simply play mind games by “claiming victory” over sins. Obedience flows from love. When you love someone it’s easier to do what they want. That’s why Jesus summarized the entire law in his twofold exhortation to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34).
Although there is no fully formed doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament, we see all three persons of the Trinity in this passage. Jesus, the Son, asks God the Father, to send the Comforter, who is the Holy Spirit. Some people are bothered by the masculine language for God in the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—either because they think it sexist or because they had absent or abusive earthly fathers. To these people I say, “Let not your heart be troubled.” True, God was incarnated as a male, as Jesus. True, Christians have traditionally thought and spoken of God in masculine terms. However, we know God is a spirit and as a spirit God is neither male nor female.
Jesus calls the third person of the Trinity the “Comforter” (16). The word “Comforter” (Paraclete) means “someone who is called alongside to help,” an Advocate. Although God the Father is enthroned in heaven and Jesus is soon returning to be with him, the Holy Spirit remains with us, helping us. I wrote in a recent blog post, “If the thought of having Jesus alone disappoints us, if we think it’s not enough to make us happy and fulfilled, then we don’t know Jesus.” The same is true with the Comforter: if we are disappointed having the Holy Spirit’s presence instead of Jesus’ physical presence, then we don’t really know the Holy Spirit.
Jesus also calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth” (17). My friend Rev. Abby Thornton at Broadneck Baptist Church reminded her congregation this morning of the unique origin of the word “truth,” which is a form of aletheia in Greek. The word has two parts. The prefix a- means “un-” or “not” or “without” as in the English words “asymmetrical” (not symmetrical), “atypical” (not typical), and “amoral” (without morals). The second part of the word comes from Lethe (LEE-thee), which means “forgetfulness.” It was the name of the mythical river in Hades which caused dead souls to forget their lives on earth when they drank from its waters. So “aletheia” literally means “not forgetting.” The Holy Spirit comforts us with his presence and with honesty, not denial.
When Jesus left his disciples, he promised them he wasn’t leaving for good (19). We don’t know when Jesus will return, and it is misguided to predict his coming. Those who try to predict his return will be disgraced and sorely disappointed like Harold Camping, the preacher in California who said the world would end on May 21, 2011. Jesus said no man knows when he will return (Matt. 24:36, Mark 13:32). Still, I don’t believe all End Times enthusiasm is nutty. The early Christians eagerly awaited Jesus’ Second Coming. We should too. At the very end of the Bible we read the words, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). Both Scripture and all of the great creeds and confessions of church history tell us that Jesus will come again to make all things whole. In the meantime, we should strive to keep his commandments, remembering that the greatest of these is love.
Now that I’ve said a lot about love in the abstract, what does it mean to love God and your neighbor in concrete terms? Here’s your homework assignment. Complete the following two sentences: “If I really loved God, I would. . . .” and “If I really loved my neighbor, I would. . . .” Be specific. Don’t just say, “I’d pray more” or “I’d be a better husband.” Say instead, “I’d spend 10 minutes with God every morning before rushing off to work” or “I’d give my wife flowers once a week to show her I love her.” If we take this exercise seriously, I believe the Holy Spirit will convict us and give us some good ideas of what love for God and others should look like in our lives. Then it’s just a matter of putting those ideas into practice. Try this exercise as an experiment and then let me know how it goes.