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I know that the first page of the bulletin says, “The Sixth Sunday of Easter.” I know that I’m wearing a white stole and surrounded by white altar hangings. I know that we’ll say and sing plenty of Alleluias during the course of our time together this morning. I know that everything we’re doing screams EASTER SEASON and JOY OF THE RESURRECTION, but I need you to forget all of that for a few minutes. For, you see, there are scant few post-resurrection stories available in the Gospels. For some unknown reason, the Lectionary refuses to give them all to us in the course of a year, so that here in Year C, we only had three weeks of actual Easter in Easter season. The pickings are so slim, in fact, that here, at the tail end of Easter Season, we find ourselves in the second of three straight weeks of lessons from Jesus’ last Supper!
So, if you could, please ignore everything around you that might make you think that Jesus is resurrected from the dead and place yourselves back in the midst of Holy Week. Settle in to the upper room, prepared for the Passover Feast by Jesus’ disciples. It is late in the evening. Dinner was served several hours ago. In the midst of supper, Jesus had done the unthinkable: he got up from the table, tied a towel around himself and washed his disciples’ feet! Judas Iscariot has already left the room; off to do God knows what, and Jesus has launched into a sermon to beat all others. It begins with the lesson we heard last week, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus has foretold Peter’s three-fold denial. He has uttered several of his famous lines: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works than I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Among them.
Have you forgotten all the Easter trappings? Are you settled into the scene? Do you get where we are in the story? Good. Now, can you take stock of how you feel? Or, how the disciples must have felt? Things are really getting hairy. Jesus sounds like he’s going away for good. This has all the makings of a great farewell speech. He tells them, again and again to not let their hearts be troubled, but troubled hearts are exactly what the disciples are dealing with at this point. They don’t want Jesus to go away, so they invoke a classic four-year-old stall tactic, they ask lots of questions. Peter wants to know where Jesus is off to. Thomas wants directions on how to get there. Philip hopes that maybe Jesus can just show them the Father; then everything will be OK. Today’s passage begins just after another question, this time from the lips of Judas, not Iscariot, who asks Jesus, “How is it that after you leave, you will be able to reveal yourself to us, but the world won’t be able to see you?”
This is a great question. It is, perhaps, the key question of faith. How is it that we can know the presence of Jesus even when he isn’t present? How is it that, even now, some can know him so intimately as to count him as their best friend, and some refuse to even know him at all? Jesus’ answer is as beautiful as it is impossibly simple, “Just love me.” Here’s how it works.
Those who love Jesus can’t help but follow his commandments: they will love one another, they will wash one another’s feet, and they will serve the world in his name. And, it just so happens, that God loves to hang out where people are loving one another in acts of service with joy and humility. God loves it so much, Jesus says, that he’ll go ahead and build his house right in the middle of it. As the old hymn we sang a few weeks ago says, “Where true charity and love dwell, God himself is there.” On the other hand, those who don’t love Jesus, won’t follow his commandments. They won’t live lives of self-giving love and charity. They won’t serve others with joy and humility. And, because God prefers to spend his time in places of love and joy, He won’t be visible to those who follow the selfish teachings of the world. Eugene Peterson, in his translation, The Message, sums up this word from Jesus quite nicely, “A loveless world… is a sightless world. If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him—we’ll move right into the neighborhood!” Which, you might remember, is exactly how John describes what Jesus did in the Incarnation in his great Prologue, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
It is a great cosmic circle of love. God came to earth to abide with us. He invites us, in return, to become disciples of love and abide with him; an activity which God will support through the indwelling of a friend, a counselor, an advocate, intercessor, helper, and guide. The Holy Spirit will be the one who whispers words of encouragement in our ear when the going gets tough. The Holy Spirit will be the one who gently (and sometimes not so gently) reminds us that loving God and loving neighbor are commandments and not suggestions for “your best life now.” The Holy Spirit will help us sort through all the religious stuff that can bog us down in order to find the way, the truth, and the life. The Holy Spirit will be the bringer of peace: not as in the absence of conflict, but the gift of peace even in the midst of conflict.
In that upper room, as the darkness of that particular night became more and more apparent to the disciples, they needed these words of comfort and encouragement from Jesus. Little did they know how much they would need it over the next few days, but I can imagine Judas, Philip and the gang, huddled up on Holy Saturday saying, “Remember how he told us to follow his word? I wonder what he meant by that?” I can just see Thomas, after the rest of the disciples had seen Jesus, pondering just how he might get a portion of that peace that Jesus promised to leave behind for them. I bet Peter breathed in deeply as Jesus offered the Holy Spirit to his disciples on that first Easter night.
I bet most of us can relate as well. When the unexpected diagnosis comes from the oncologist, peace can be hard to find. When children have financial struggles it can lead us to wonder where that promised companion is. It can be really hard to see the face of God in the world around us: a world that at times seems so unloving and so cold. Most of us understand the fear that the disciples felt as it became clear that Jesus was getting ready to leave for good. Most of us have felt the absence of God in our lives. Most of us have spent plenty of time in a Maundy Thursday world.
The Good News, for us and for the disciples, is that we can’t stay there. Today isn’t Maundy Thursday. It’s the Sixth Sunday of Easter! Today is one more in a long and never ending series of celebrations of resurrection. As the Burial Office says, “even at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” The promise for the disciples, looking square into the face of a future without Jesus, is that if they follow his word: if they love God and love their neighbor as themselves; then through the power of the Holy Spirit, the incarnation will be in them. Emmanuel, God with us, who took on flesh, who became incarnate, who moved into the neighborhood at Christmas will do the same thing in and through and for every disciple, who, living in the Spirit of God, seeks to do his will with love and charity. The promise is secured, “God pours into us our love for him, and in loving him, we obtain his promises.” Alleluia! Amen.