Sermon on John 14:15-31

9 April 2017 - Palm Sunday  

So here we are, once more, at the beginning of Holy Week. Once again we have embarked on the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem and have listened to the drama of his passion this morning. From now on every day will bring us closer to the climax of those days in Jerusalem, to the Last Supper, to the trial, the condemnation, the crucifixion and death.

We will fall silent, before we join at last in the jubilant songs of Easter joy.

Many of you have journeyed through Holy Week in Mirfield for many years and perhaps decades. You are Mirfield veterans, moving with great familiarity through the choreography of this week. For some of us this is our very first Mirfield Holy Week and we might face it with some trepidation, wondering whether we can still stand on our two feet at the end of what has been described to us as “intense”.

Yet even for the Mirfield Holy Week novices it is a familiar path we are walking, with few surprises apart from the odd liturgical accident and with plenty of familiar moments, we look forward to: Hymns we love, well known Gospel readings, beautiful liturgies, poignant rituals, which take us by the hand, like trustworthy travelling guides.

In our Gospel reading the disciples, too, are getting ready for Holy Week. Yet how very different their situation is from ours!

The disciples and friends of Jesus who first had to travel this journey alongside and behind their master, Jesus, were certainly closer than any of us to the events in real time but stumbling along without any of the comforting guides, we enjoy. What unimaginable horrors lie in store for them in the next few days: the ir highest hopes and their deepest love - crushed by extreme yet casual brutality. How will they make it through this awful journey without losing their way?

The evangelist John has sometimes been accused of downplaying the horrors and agony of Jesus’ passion. Jesus is depicted as calm and composed as he walks to the cross; he is “lifted up” (John 12:31) and dies with the triumphant words “It is finished” on his lips (John 19:30). There is hardly any pain and anguish visible; instead John seems to paint the passion as a beautiful icon, shimmering golden in candle light.

However, the Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel is not an aloof character, barely touching the earth. He is sovereign - yes - but he fully knows of the anguish and trouble, which can grip the human heart. In his farewell speeches, of which our Gospel is part, Jesus addresses this anguish: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid" (14:27). In a later chapter: “You will weep and mourn" (16:20). “You will be in pain, a pain as fierce as labour pain” (16:21-22). “In the world you face tribulation” (16:33). There will indeed be a deep unsettling of the heart. The re will be an onrush of pain, where life and death are wrestling closely with each other.

Jesus acknowledges that the journey his disciples and friends are to embark upon is a journey into the heart of darkness.

Now Jesus uses his sovereignty to speak words of great authority into this situation. Jesus speaks with the voice, which calmed the storm, the voice, which raised Lazarus from his grave. “Peace I leave to you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27).

The word, which leaps out to me first in this rich text is “I do not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you” (14:18). Jesus announces another Paraclete, an advocate and comforter, sent by Jesus from his Father, who will be with the disciples in all eternity. He later calls this comforter the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of truth (14:17; 14:28).

I do not know about you but I do not really know many orphans in the classical sense of the word, children of minor age, who have lost both biological parents and who are more or less left to fend for themselves.

I mostly learnt about such orphans through fairytales, films and books. When I was a child, there was a TV series which showed the adventures of a group of orphans in Croatia. The y lived in abandoned sheds and ruined castles, catching fish and stealing bread, fighting rival gangs and bravely defying the police. The gang was composed exclusively of boys, save for their leader, a fierce and fearless girl called “Red Zora”, who ruled with undisputed authority over the lads. Needless to say, I was full of admiration for “Red Zora.” Since I was living quite a sheltered life and was a well-behaved girl myself the closest I could get to my heroine was by trying to boss around my younger siblings. I admired the resourcefulness and toughness of the Red Zora and her gang. I admired the romanticism of their wild life but I also realised that if you are an orphan you have to grow up very quickly. You must toughen up fast and either take control or find a pack with a strong leader. Orphans cannot easily let down their guard, they have to use all their wits and grab what they can get.

Jesus does not give an encouraging pep talk for his disciples to function as a tough and smart group of orphans after his death, defying the reality of their great loss and fending for themselves somehow, because they will not be orphans. The y will not be abandoned. In their journey into darkness the disciples will not merely see Jesus vanish beyond reach. They will be met by him in wholly new ways as the risen Lord who will speak peace into their lives and give them life. “I do not leave you as orphans. I am coming to you.”

It would be a mistake, though, to picture this presence of the Paraclete and of Jesus as a sheltering presence from all danger and harm. The comforter and advocate Jesus promises will not run and snatch up the disciples after they have stumbled a few steps onto the road of darkness. Jesus does not promise his disciples and friends the comfortable space of a nursery, filled with bright colours and the warm, comforting smell of milk. He promises the Spirit, who will lead them on this journey into darkness and through the darkness. This Spirit of truth will lead the disciples into all truth as Jesus puts it a few chapters later in the Gospel of John (16:13). The re is no comfortable settling down any time soon.

A friend of mine once said very wisely that there is never any going back in our life as Christians and as the church. We cannot ever pretend that some things simply have not happened or pretend that things are still the same as they used to be. The re will be no going back for the disciples to the time when they were a close-knit group following their Master on his journeys, eating with him and talking to him. Maybe for us this means there is no going back to the time when our faith was a child-like trust and the world was beautifully simple or the re is no going back to the time when the church was an undisputed authority, a cultural force, standing firmly at the center of each community. Being a hopelessly nostalgic person, I find this very difficult but I think my friend is right. If we try to preserve these good things in a thick syrup of nostalgia we are likely to distort them and we lose them in the end. The Spirit of Truth will not allow us to confuse the church with a sheltered space of nostalgia, a comfortable nursery, where we try to boss each other around for lack of further excitement. The Spirit of Truth will lead us onward from where we are now.

Where does the Spirit of truth lead us? Is this just an exciting but rather uninformed journey into the blue, choosing directions and destinations on a whim?

Our Gospel reading makes it clear that this is not the case. This journey, led by the Spirit of truth, is the journey into an ever deepening communion with the Father and the Son. It is not simply about moving on but about going deeper and deeper. “You will know on that day that I am in the Father and you in me and I in you”, says Jesus (14:20). “The Father and I will come and make our home with them" (14:23). “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (14:15). The disciples will not be left as orphans. Instead they will share in the very same love, which unites the Father and the Son. They will dwell in this love, make it their home and this will be their text, their rule of life, their commanding reality: to reflect this love in their life together.

The evangelist John has the boldness to insist that precisely at the heart of darkness, in the midst of horrific and mindless brutality Jesus reveals the mystery, which is at the heart of the universe, which called forth all things and holds them together: the communion of love between the Father and the Son, opening up for human beings (see also John 17:26). The cross reveals Jesus’ love for the Father (14:31). It reveals his love for his own (John 15:13) and it reveals the love of the Father for the whole world (John 3:16). By journeying into the heart of darkness, Jesus will take hold of the darkness, will conquer and transform it. By journeying after him, led by the Spirit of Truth there is ultimately no other truth to be discovered, in good times and bad times, than the reality of this love, which turns around our orphan hearts and grafts us into eternal love.

So there we are, once again, embarking on the journey of Jesus’ last days. Whoever we are, may we be led on by the Spirit of truth, not as orphans but as beloved children. Wherever we come from, may this journey into the heart of darkness become for us the journey into the heart of glory.   

Amen  

Dr Dorothee Bertschmann, Honorary Fellow, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University