Near Cowra, NSW 2011.

Inside the church, and outside

Week of Sunday May 9 - Easter 5
Gospel John 14:23-29

18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’

23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.

Where do we find peace and security? John Shearman says that these “final parting words John had Jesus speak have brought peace and security to countless distressed Christians.” Skeptics speak of crutches and opiates for those who cannot cope with real life.

I once took the long train journey to my girlfriend’s home, unknowingly collecting a dose of food poisoning courtesy of the cafeteria car. That night I collapsed, weakly scrabbling against her parent’s bedroom door, in more pain than I had ever experienced. There is great value in being enamoured with a doctor’s daughter!  Doctor Erskine gave me a draught of some kind of morphine derivative. Within two or three minutes the cramps ceased, and the roaring, spinning world came back into focus.  In fact, I felt rather better than I had been for a long time! Great stuff, whatever it was, but dangerous if I kept taking it. Shearman goes on to say

The closer he came to the cross, the greater was Jesus’ sense that his ultimate security lay in loving obedience to God’s will, not in his own desire for a longer life. This did not in any way remove him from the consequences of what others like Judas Iscariot, Caiaphas or Pilate would do.

Jesus does not take us out of the world. His peace and security lay in his obedience, not in insulation from the reality of the world. The same is so for us.  If we seek to stay in the moments of relief that his words bring, we seek to stay in a drug induced unreality.

Some have found his words are impotent drugs, mere delusions with no power of peace and security. Jesus promises the disciples, and thus John’s readers, that He and the Father will come and make their home with them. How is this not a delusional mind trick, a sort of baseless positive thinking?

The answer John gives is that he comes when we love him and keep his word.  He says

23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words….

John emphasises the importance of this by adding “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.”

I found the commentary of Brian Stoffregen insightful here.  Brian lists the likely meanings of “keeping” Jesus’ word, concluding that the phrase means to “observe, fulfill, [and] pay attention to.” This perhaps implies the meaning we often discern in the reading, namely to “obey.”

Brian says he paraphrases “keep my word,” as “hold my word dear.”

This interpretation goes beyond mere obedience. One may detest the words that one is hearing and obeying. One may detest the one giving the orders, but to avoid punishment, one obeys them. In contrast to this, phrasing it, "Holding Jesus' word dear," implies having a positive attitude towards that Word and the Word-giver. That is, wanting to hear and obey it out of love for the speaker.

My life experience is that the power of Jesus’ words to comfort and secure, and to enable me to get up and go on, come from the doing of the gospel.  Holding the words dear implies that I will live them out. The spirit in which I have lived them out has been crucial. I have found more comfort, and more inspiration as I have moved further from obedience to avoid punishment, (ie following Jesus to get saved) and more to following Jesus because of the inspiration and rightness of what he points to.

I have also experienced something else, which is well summed up in a joke I remember from Rev Brian Ashdown, when I was in Grade 5.

The man was desperate for God’s help. So he pulled out the bible and stuck a pin at random in a page.
“Judas went out and hanged himself.”
Unimpressed, he tried again. “Go and do likewise.”
In desperation, he tried one more time. “Whatever you are about to do, do quickly.”

John’s words have a basis in reality, and cease to be empty positive thinking, or a mere linguistic opiate, only when we live the faith.

Living the faith is the act of faith, or the act of believing, in this part of the gospel. We can only prove this text true by living it.  It is not a technical instruction sheet, that has been proven true by someone else.

So far we have been reading “inside the church” in our own language and paradigm. What happens when we walk outside the door?  Is any of this real after Sunday morning?

The situation to which John wrote was of lonely Christians, who were a minority group, subject to persecution. Jesus was not visible to them.

In that context the exclusive nature of John is understandable. What prevents us from taking the words of a struggling group of people, encouraged that “no one comes to the father except by me,” and turning them into a curse which fences the majority of the world off from the love of God? And what will let us experience that Jesus and the Father come to us on Monday, at work- and are still there on Thursday afternoon when Sunday is long gone?

In verse 27 Jesus speaks of giving us his peace, a peace not “as the world gives.”

Stoffregen reminds us of the meaning of peace.

In lectures given in the early 1980s, philosopher Arthur Holmes summarized that prophetic vision [of the reign of God] as shalom. It envisions a world characterized by peace, justice, and celebration. Shalom, the overarching vision of the future means "peace," but not merely peace as the cessation of hostilities. Instead, shalom envisions the full prosperity of a people of God living under the covenant of God's demanding care and compassion are rule. In the prophetic vision, peace such as this comes hand in hand with justice. Without justice, there can be no real peace, and without peace, no real justice. Indeed, only in a social world full of peace grounded in justice can there come the full expression of joy and celebration.

When we walk outside the church—in fact, before we leave, we should ask, are we reading John’s words as a defence against the world, or are we reading them for the sake of becoming shalom in the world? By all means seek comfort from Jesus’ words.  But ask if the comfort is to enable us to continue to seek peace/shalom, or do we seek it to remove us from the world and to insulate us from our responsibility.

Sometimes I imagine John is written in the language of love; the extravagant and sometimes strange language of the bedroom.  We only know the truth of the words our beloved speaks, when they translate to reality in the rest of our life together. When we talk back to Jesus, will our actions show “we holding his words dear,” or are we merely engaging in bedroom talk for our own gain and comfort, and not truly loving the one we are with?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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