ur Gospel lessons for the Easter season started off with accounts of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, and as the Great Fifty Days of Easter draw to a close, we've been reading from the "farewell discourses" in John. I mentioned last week that these farewell speeches are unique to John's Gospel. They are unique for more than just their ethereal tone. These words are unique in that they are written to be heard both in their context in John's Gospel, but also for their context in the early Church.
Remember that the Gospels were written long after the Ascension of Jesus and perhaps even after most of the original twelve disciples had been martyred. These sayings of Jesus are reconstructed in John's Gospel, probably mostly from oral tradition.
We still have a great deal of oral tradition in the Church. In the last few weeks some of us have been in the initial stages of grief following the death of the Rev. Bill Pendleton—a man who was formative for many of you, a man who represented the essence of this parish. The stories about Bill will be in your minds and on your lips, much like the sayings and stories of Jesus that were finally written down.
Almost a year ago, the Rev. Churchill Gibson died. Some of you knew Churchill. He was another one of those priests who had a way about him that made you want to know him. When Churchill died, the stories started being told—lest we forget them—and one particular joke he told so many times and in so many different ways that everyone knew the punch line, but no one agreed on the body of the joke. The oral tradition was too varied, and it's likely that he told the joke in all of the ways that people remember it. In the same way, the Gospels contain several versions of Jesus' words, but there's nothing to say that he didn't convey the same message many times but organized differently, or with different expressions.
But again, the oral tradition lasted much longer than the original audience for whom Jesus' words were directed; therefore, we read these words as words to the early Church—and then to us.
Most of the language of our lesson for today sounds so sweet, and so tender. "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."
It's a lovely prayer. A lot of "you in me," and "I in you," and "watch over them," and it's kind of like when a long serving member of a club steps down, or when a beloved teacher retires and is asked to give the commencement address. There is some nostalgia in the air. "Do you remember the healing of the paralyzed man?" Yes, yes. "Do you remember the loaves and fishes." Yes, yes. It's the kind of nostalgia that brings faithfulness to mind. "We stuck through the bad times, and now, we're all a little older and wiser for the journey, but looking back, those were the good times, too."
You look out over the congregation assembled to hear John's Gospel being read out loud for the very first time, and you can see the son of a man Peter baptized nodding his head, remembering his dad's stories about Peter. Over there in the corner is one of the congregation's oldest members. Her cousin was one of Mary's best friends. She still knows some stories about Jesus from when he was a boy. John should write some of that stuff down, too, but she wasn't there, and she can't remember all the details.
There's a cozy feeling to all this nostalgia. You know what I'm talking about. The men get together at the VFW and share stories from their years in the Army—things they can't really tell their wives: jokes, stories.
You see them over there laughing at something as if the last forty years where easy-breezy, but in the back of their minds they wonder how they made it through combat. A buddy got shot on this side, and a buddy got shot on the other side, and I survived. Why? He's been living with that question for the last forty years. Easy-breezy?
He came home—couldn't tell his wife what he'd seen, couldn't tell his children, couldn't tell his priest. It has felt like guilt for the last forty years. Easy breezy? No. That laugh—if you listen to it carefully—has a question mark at the end of it. And that question mark is the biggest question of his life. What would have happened if I had been twelve inches to the right, or twelve inches to the left?
Now, you might say to me, "Well, Alexander, that's a different kind of nostalgia. There are no brooding questions in Jesus' words," but I would say to you, "Keep reading." Jesus goes on to say, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."
It is one of those questions that—to my mind—intensifies the feeling of distance between us and God. Jesus came to bridge the gap, to embrace humanity in all its sinfulness and redeem us totally. But there is still the gift of life to be lived…with all its uncertainties, all its aches and pains.
This life is a gift, no question. But it is filled with pitfalls, and illnesses. I don't have to number them. You know what I'm talking about.
This part of Jesus' prayer is very unsettling. "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." It's like the Fall, and the parents have moved their seventeen year old child into the dorm room. The mother has made up the bed, and put the clothes in the closet. Dad has lugged the furniture and the books and odds and ends. Mom and Dad are excited for their child, but they also know that they're going to have to leave the little boy they held on their laps—they're going to have to leave the little girl who was only just swinging on the swing set a couple years ago.
Seventeen years old. He doesn't know anything about anything. He's got that cocky smile on his face—he thinks he's going to make the starting line-up freshman year. She's just a little too pretty. Why doesn't she wear something a little longer? I don't know if she should look that way around all these college boys.
They have dinner at a little cafe just around the corner, and then, the time has come for the parents to say goodbye. What do you say? "Don't get into trouble—but have fun." "Study hard—but make lots of friends." The parents don't want to let go, but they don't want to hold on either. It's time for this. It's time for this.
And what's their prayer? "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." They're going to have to face the real world. They're going to get their hearts broken by stupid and immature boys or girls. They're going to make a C on a test they studied for for hours.
It's not high school. It's college. The training wheels have come off. You're not there to guide the bicycle by the seat. It's time for them to grow up.
Jesus is on his way to the Father. He is saying goodbye, but he will ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to be with us. Dad will send little emails and little messages from home. "Son, you'll never guess what happened today. You remember the neighbor's old gas range we used to joke about? He got a new one today…it's nice. You would have enjoyed seeing that old one getting picked up by the guys from Lowes." Little messages about little tiny things that convey the big message—"I love you, son. I'm with you, even though you can't see me, I'm right here. I think about you all the time. I miss you, son. I am so proud of you."
Mom was going back through the closet and found the shirt that they spent half an hour trying to find. She wraps it up in a mailer with a note to her daughter. "You'll never guess where I found it! It was under the Christmas sweater!" The mailer will arrive and there is the shirt with the note that the college girl will open up. A little thing. She's got a million shirts. Who cares where the shirt was? That's not what the message says. The message says, "I love you, sweetie. I can't stop thinking about you. I think about you learning to walk in heels in our bedroom. I can't stop thinking about that silly little laugh you make when you play with my hair. I miss you so much."
"I don't ask that you take them out of the world. I ask that you protect them from the evil one." I ask that you keep the things that sting from stinging too much. I ask that if he has to be told he's not going to be on the starting line-up that he'll find the girl of his dreams. I ask that you watch over him when it's late at night and he's out at 7-11 getting a hot dog with his buddies.
I don't know why Jesus wants us to continue on with this life with all its sorrows and complexities. I don't know why life itself has to be filled with so many shades of meaning and varieties of experience. But we've been pushed into the world as children of God, as much a representative of God as our own family.
And the world will not understand us—just like no one would understand the little notes that come from home. But the notes will keep coming. And below the surface of what the neighbor said, or what the dog got into, they all say the same thing.
All these little notes that you read in John, and Corinthians, and Ephesians, and Isaiah, and all through the Bible. And all the little notes that God drops into your head—they all say the same thing, really: "I love you, son, and I miss you. Remember, I'm here, if you need me. You know the number. You know the way back home. We'll see you again soon. I love you."
"I do not ask that you take them out of the world. I ask that you protect them from the evil one."