Asbury First United
Text: John 16
It is both the acute memory and the actual experience of the early Christian community for whom John is written, that the nature and measure of love are given, unexpectedly, in the hour of departure. We hunger for this good news! We long to discover, as did the ancients, that we may know love, best know love, when life is moving away from us.
Vernon Jordan stood surrounded by suitcases, on the steps of Depauw University. He was 19. He watched his mother and father and many siblings depart, driving an old station wagon out the drive in Greencastle, Indiana. He was weeping. Moments before, his father had said, through his own tears: “Son, we are going now. We won’t be coming back. You know how much we love you. But now it is up to you. Read, Vernon, read. When others are playing, you read. When others are drinking, you read. When others are partying, you read. This is your life now. We will be back when you are finished.” Did that feel good? No. Was it good? Yes. It was love in an hour of departure.
Throughout this year we have been learning together from the Gospel of John. We are almost through. Some will be sad, others glad. Some will arise inspired and others awake refreshed, as we like to say. Our passage today emphasizes the process of learning. Hence, the sermon title, ‘catechesis’, or teaching. It is not a very good title. But it does begin with the letter ‘c’. Which is why it was chosen! In the spirit, we are learning together. We may isolate three modes of teaching and learning offered us today.
One is everyday experience. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Our Gospel neither fears nor disdains our daily experience. In fact, John lets into his teaching (or catechesis, the word beginning with ‘c’) all manner of experience. He happily pirates for use the religious, but not yet Christian, experience of his time. He steals the thunder of the Gnostics, his main competitors. His figure for Spirit, “Paraclete” or “Advocate” or “Counselor”, is probably in origin a Gnostic figure. John takes this figure from his culture and uses it to preach his gospel. The language of John, especially through all these five rare chapters, 13-17, he steals from the same Gnostics. This language is departure language: leave…leave you…return…house…many mansions…rooms…go to prepare…knowledge…truth…way. It would be as if someone took the pervasive technical language of our time and filled it with good news. Our language is technical: connection.. network.. workstation.. download.. bandwidth.. virtual.. reality.. cyberspace.. web. It would be as if someone today wrote a cybergospel, a modern, strange, technical proclamation. Maybe someone will.
Your acute memory and your actual experience matter. Your grief matters. Your loss matters. Your intimate longing matters. Your everyday hurts matter. Somehow, by a miracle, they are the medium, though not the source, of learning about love, especially as they are taken seriously, biblically, spiritually. Think this week about what you are going through. Monet was asked: “What do you mix with your paints to produce such beauty?” He answered: “brains”. Where your deepest passion meets the world’s greatest hunger—especially at the point of your own strongest talent—there you learn your calling. Sometimes this comes right in the heart of grief, loss, longing and hurt.
Every day we die a little bit. Something departs. Someone departs.
Some bit of life moves away from us. We experience some denial, anger, bargaining, and then, perhaps, acceptance. Remember. For the disciples, and so for us, “Jesus is always the one who is taking his leave. If we do not know the grief of being left, we can never know the joy of union.” (Bultmann). Every day experience is catechesis.
A second mode of learning we may call, for our thought about this passage in this historic week, the mode of ecumenical experience. We learn from the globe. John did not fear his culture. He decorated his home with Gnostic symbols. Then he subtly changed their meanings. It is a big world. And Jesus, or as John calls Jesus’ Presence, “Paraclete”, is not stable, not isolateable, not confined. He is not confined. He is not confined to a Petri dish, nor a dusty tome, nor a precise dogma, nor a particular sect, nor a single form of service (not even your favorite or mine), nor to a single issue. He is risen! He is not here! In this season we have witnessed the departure of one Pope, and the arrival of another. What do we learn? Our sister church, the Roman Catholic communion, a billion strong across the globe, seems to be moving farther back, departing back into a certain form of tradition. We could continue to raise the doctrinal arguments that are as old as the Reformation. About the celibacy of the priesthood. Are the gifts of celibacy and ministry always conjoined? About the sacrifice of the mass. Is the Lord’s Supper a matter of substance or of spirit? About the infallibility of the Pope. What does this mean? About the sub-ordination of women. Are orders limited to just one of the genders? Maybe, though, we ought to think ecumenically….
Maybe we also ought to look at ourselves. Maybe the problem with Catholicism is Protestantism. Maybe the Roman Church has just not had a strong enough dancing partner, a compelling enough competing perspective, a shining and imaginative enough alternative. Fifty years ago young Catholics were eagerly studying Protestant theologians. My mentor at Lemoyne College studied Tillich. Young Protestants were studying Catholic writings and events. So Robert McAfee Brown’s bestseller, The Ecumenical Revolution. Today fewer folks from either flock are jumping over fences, not because the fences are higher, but because the grasses are not so compelling and tantalizingly green. There is less to jump to.
We learn ecumenically; we learn together. “The Spirit is the power of proclamation, grounded in Jesus, and at work in the community.” (Bultmann). Ecumenical experience is catechesis.
A third mode of learning is existential. Existence involves choices. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood and sorry you could not travel both and be one traveler. . . long you stood and looked down one as far as you could to where it bent in the undergrowth..
Existential choices are hard to make. They always carry cost, risk and uncertainty. The good news from antiquity, and in the spirit today, is that we do learn in our decisions. The grief, which drenches these chapters, John 13-17, harbors a beautiful insight. Jesus had to depart to make faith possible. Jesus’ departure—his leave taking and his present absence—is the basis for our real freedom. The fact that the disciples no longer have him is his real victory.
You are a resurrection people! So you anticipate the future in faith not in knowledge. And that is the thing about faith. There is always, finally, a leap involved. Faith gives you the courage to discern deep love in the hour of departure. Faith gives you the courage to hear and heed a new calling. Faith gives you the courage to see and do the right, without primary regard for who will be disappointed, or what the timing is like, or whether others will understand. Faith gives you the courage to improvise. Generalize if you want. Specialize if you must. But existence, choice, means to improvise. Faith gives you the courage simply to be, and to have the daily stamina to peel off the false name tags that life pins on your sweater. Faith gives you the courage to change, to travel, to choose, to grow. Faith gives you the existential courage even to endure departure, even the departure of loved ones: parents, friends, lovers, children. Faith gives you the courage to discover there, in the grief of departure, the promise of learning in love. Existential experience is catechesis.