May 10, 2020
It’s probably universal the way children interrogate their parents before they leave the house: We’re going out for a little while, say the parents. Where are you going? Can we come? Just out on a little errand, no, we won’t be gone long. Who is looking after us? When will you get back? Behind these questions is a deep-seated worry that when parents leave, they may not come back. That may explain John’s concern in today’s text: to explain an absence that the disciples haven’t actually felt, Jesus’ imminent departure.
Actually, it’s Jesus’ topic for three long chapters. Frances Taylor Gench calls these chapters the Farewell Conversations. And in these conversations, Jesus speaks to a community about to undergo prolonged separation.
We know about that, don’t we? Someone posted on Facebook saying that he had not touched anyone or been within six feet of anyone since March 15: Please, he said, someone, tell me that the curve is flattening. As in, when is the world we love coming home, so we can hold it again, be embraced by it again? A child told his father that he was afraid of having bad dreams. His father assured him saying, You don’t need to be afraid. Jesus is always with you. The child said, Yes, Dad, I know, I know that Jesus is always with me. But I want Jesus with skin.
John’s Jesus is all about being with us, the Word made flesh, tenting with us. Jesus with skin. That feels inclusive, something we can embrace in a pandemic, which does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or creed.
However,we may resist today’s text for other reasons, saying no, Jesus here does not help community, particularly in the, I am statements.
The I am statements are John’s way of saying that Jesus is identical with the Lord God. Thus, in John, Jesus does not say,
I am like the way;
I am similar to the truth;
I am much the same as life.
I could feel much more comfortable talking about Jesus with my Muslim or Jewish friends if Jesus weren’t so darned literal. Don’t even go near, “No one comes to the father except through me.” On the one hand, it would be dishonest to say that this exclusivism doesn’t exist in John. It’s there. But, on the other, it would also be intellectually dishonest to enlist Jesus in the western story of Christian imperialism or narrow evangelicalism, where these statements end up being battlelines. John’s Jesus doesn’t do empire; no national crusade for Christ in a packed football stadium; no prayer breakfast for the emperor of Rome.
Rather, Jesus speaks to people embedded in complex communities — remember Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, who comes to Jesus under cover of night, secretly, with questions that had roiled his soul; or the Samaritan woman who came to Jacob’s well and then returned to her village and told her village everything about Jesus who knew everything about her; or the lengthy story of the person who was born blind and how, in stages, he came to see more and more of Jesus and how everyone else came to see him as more than a disability; or how Jesus meets Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, and she doesn’t recognize him, thinks he’s the gardener — and she runs back to the disciples to tell them she has met the risen Lord — it’s all very personal.Maybe it would be like saying,
I am the way;
for you, I am the truth;
for you, I am life.
That’s a form of subjectivity I can live with.
What about, “No one comes to the Father (or divine parent) except through me”? Most theologians will say that this is a distinctly Christian form of God-talk, a unique contribution of Christianity to our knowledge of God.
This is definitely one of the markers of God in the Christian dispensation, and certainly in John’s gospel. But that’s not the only kind of language John uses. John will also use the generic word, God, particularly in the prologue, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God.” Not the father; not even Jesus, but God and the word and light that came into the world; universal rather than particularistic.
Matthew and Luke, with their birth narratives, are far more Jesussy than John in this regard. It’s not often noted, but there is a kind of non-prescriptive hospitality in John’s God-story. And at the same time, it is not only a story of all people, but our story — Christ is our way to the heavenly parent.
Maybe we should say, for you all, the beloved community, I am the way. Because even though Jesus speaks directly, and intimately, and personally, it is not simply to individual experience, but directly focused on love within the community. For example, in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching is heavily freighted with specific ethical duties, especially to those outside the community of faith: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. By contrast, John’s emphasis lays elsewhere. In John Jesus says, abide with me. Stay with me. Jesus says, Love one another. That’s as close as John gets to an ethical imperative — love one another.
This is one possible insight into how Jesus answers the question of his absence. Continue my presence by loving one another, in this community.
Perhaps that’s what Jesus means when he says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas says I don’t know the way you are going. This is classic John: words carry two meanings at once. Thomas is thinking literally, as in Jesus is taking a road. Jesus is in fact talking about himself, which is to say: You know the form of life I keep with God the Parent and the kind of community I have kept with you. I am bread, wine, light, vine and vineyard, sheep and shepherd.
Can you imagine a world without bread? Or wine? Or running streams? Or caregivers? Can’t imagine it because the world isn’t complete without these things. And yet, Jesus is leaving. Bread, wine, light, vine and vineyard, shepherd of the sheep. The I am is leaving. Divine distancing, if you like. And he says, in my absence, don’t let your hearts be troubled. The Greek could be translated don’t let your hearts be agitated, frightened, or terrified. It also suggests mental agitation. Literally, it means shaken together, stirred up.
Which is precisely what may happen to us when we contemplate a prolonged absence . . . maybe why some of us feel the way we do these days.
What Jesus wants to avoid is what most parents have heard about when they come home from that errand. A terrific fight broke out. Of course, you know, we’re not talking about children. We’re talking about the church. A Sunday school teacher asked a girl in her class whether she wanted to have one of the rooms in God’s house and she looked around the room at her classmates and said, no, not really, I don’t want to have anyone here as my roommate.
Maybe we have our own version of this. That’s Jesus’ concern in John, that we love one another. And that our love finds real expression in how we care for each other. It’s not about feeling love but doing what we know love requires. Left to our own devices, we self-sort according to political tribe, or ethnic identity, or gender, or social, economic, or educational background. Most churches, including ours, do it every Sunday.
But, in John, Jesus calls the community into being by a command, love one another.
Only by doing what love requires will our feelings catch up with acts. That’s inspired by the quote from Henri Nouwen: “If we wait for a feeling of love before loving, we may never learn to love well. . . . Mostly we know what the loving thing to do is. When we ‘do’ love, even if others are not able to respond with love, we will discover that our feelings catch up with our acts.”
We’re experiencing a kind of absence of community right now. We feel troubled in heart; agitated; downcast. And perhaps we long for something like the assurance of the Spirit, which Jesus promises. When I think of this, I think of how I haven’t seen you all in person, many of you, the vast majority of you, for the past seven or maybe eight weeks. You haven’t seen me either, with a few exceptions
And yet, there are ways in which we sustain this community. Becca Hollaway has been sewing masks.
She made a mask for each member of our family. And when I wear it, I feel that this is an extension of this community of compassion. I know it’s not limited to this community, and she would gladly give out masks to strangers. Knowing Becca, I’m sure she has. But when I’m wearing that mask, it’s not a face mask or even a colorful face mask. It’s a mask that Becca made by hand. It’s not Jesus with skin, but it’s a quite moving feeling to know that the community is close by, near at hand, as a compassionate presence.
We’re not together. And there’s grieving. But there’s also a sense in which through small gestures of community care, we are actively restoring one another to peace, to assurance.
I was talking to one of the people who received one of Becca’s masks. He was like, “Who is she? I’ve never met her!” And he was eager to reach out to her. What’s interesting to me is that as we’ve undergone this prolonged absence, we seem more alert to the acts that love requires.
Calling others who might be complete strangers, except that we’re part of this community together.
Here’s my first prediction: when we come back together, we’re going to see each other with new eyes. We’re going to say, You’re the one who called me? I never met you before. You’re the one who wrote to me? Yeah, you usually sit near the front, right? You’re the one whose absence I didn’t know before but whose presence now is so beautiful and powerful . . . did you know, you were for me as light, you were for me like living water, you were for me, in that moment, something like bread for the hungry?
Maybe the farewell conversation of Jesus anticipates not only Jesus’ absence but the beauty and sweetness of his return. Cards written by an unfamiliar hand; banana bread left on the front stoop of the house; a phone call; a friend from another time decides to join us in worship or invites us to a live concert in Rome.
And there’s also this — we could turn inward in this pandemic, after all, we have urgent concerns, financial emergencies, but the Spirit of God continues to have us pray with compassion and look with confidence towards God our redeemer.
We look up, even though the world looks down. Our church will be hosting a joint service with the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in the 21217-area code, the first African American Presbyterian Church in the State of Maryland. And we’ve been orphaned from our common humanity, from our rainbow of different skins, from at least 1850, when our two communities split. And, you know, their pastor says that we live at the two far ends of Madison Street, a form of social distancing that has nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with systemic racism and white privilege. It’s time to do what love requires, demonstrating a capacity for humility, a capacity for listening, a capacity for vulnerability in the name of community. That brings me to my second prediction: our church isn’t going to grow by attracting more of the same, but by growing deeper in mutual affection. That’ll be on Pentecost Sunday.
We can’t very well cry against the injustices of the world — the killings, the profiling, the senseless violence — if we haven’t loved one another, literally our neighbors, as we ought, or acknowledged the absences with which we’ve grown too familiar. Love requires acts of reconciliation. Love requires acts of humility. Like a healthy world requires streams of water, vines and vineyards, bread, and light, and the fruit of the vine
How can we know Jesus without skin? Without complexions of every hue? Color of every family? Accents of every tongue? Aromas of every kitchen? Without the medicinal balms of care, stitched together for a time such as this, where we long to be clothed with Christ? Maybe this too is part of what it means to be the way of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the truth of Jesus, where we are to be like Jesus for one another, like bread, wine, or as running streams, as vine and branches . . . for we, too, are a part of the world God so loves. Amen.
Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus (2007).
Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (1995).
NT Wright, John for Everyone (2004).