As I serve this interim period for Trinity Church, I am reminded yet again of how important, and potent, a good and healthy set of goodbyes are for a faith community. This is a truth at all levels, from the departure of leadership to the decision to move on made by an evanescent parishioner who attends worship and fellowship events only from time to time. To make a good goodbye is more than just an alliterative statement. How we say farewell to each other, particularly when we are bound up in the spirit to each other in worship and service to God, figures in our walk with both the human and divine communities we inhabit no matter where we are, or who we are with in a given moment in life.
Books have been written on the subject, my favorite title being "Praying our Goodbyes," which talks as much about the dying process as it does about "simple" social departures as well.
It isn't easy saying goodbye to anyone, or anything. You can have the most beastly of relationships and experiences in a given community and yet still mourn leaving it. Any person leaving fellowship leaves a human-shaped hole in the heart of the community. There can be no doubt about that. Could it be any different for us and the disciples in the Gospel of John as Jesue begins to speak, quite explicitly, about the hour that is coming and about his imminent fate-a departure that will only be brought to fullness by his own death on the cross?
Shakespeare is right, parting is a sweet sorrow.
This came up in our Bible Study yesterday morning. We were just two, and though small in numbers we resolved to be open to the Spirit and see where God might take us in the conversation on what has been called in the past Jesus' "Farewell Discourse."
My conversation partner stepped off the mark by offering that she is thinking that she might be starting to "get" what Jesus and John are up to in this Gospel account. Something is happening, to Jesus, to the community around him and to us as he prepares to meet a fate WE know means not the end of things, but rather a new beginning.
Still, this section of the Gospel is about endings. It is about taking all the loose, challenging and dangling ends of discourse and exposition that we saw earlier in the text toward what for humanity will be the penultimate denouement in our walk with God.
Jesus is the living bread. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the true vine. Jesus commands us to love one another-not just in word, but also in action. Jesus is the "way, the truth and the life." He is going to his Father in heaven, both to prepare a place for us and also to be able to send the Advocate to be our help and our guide in the years to come; and until he comes again in glory.
All of this plain-spoken truth comes at a price: the life of Jesus, handed over and given up. He spends these chapters attempting to place in us a confidence that what is about to happen is not only bound to happen, but has to happen in order that life, and the Word, can triumph over death and division.
Where our conversation took us was into a deep exploration of the significance of the Cross. The cross that Jesus was hanged on was not just a singular innovation of a crafty Roman governor wondering how best (and iconically) to dispose of an awkward prisoner. It was a well-enginered and effective tool of the public expression of the power of Rome. Resist the Empire, blaspheme the order of the Roman way of being and face the consequence of being lifted up as a sign of what it means when someone chooses to walk apart from the Emperor's and the Senate's will. The Cross was a scandal of the most profound and terrible elements of oppression. Hundreds, thousands of people who resisted Rome were placed in public venues on crosses, with spikes driven through them-bound and broken bodies contorting in agony-as a sign that when it comes to efficient and effective expressions of power and control, no one can beat the legions at their own game.
How does a "king of kings" and "lord of lords" triumph without a host of soliders on his side against that might? There aren't enough human beings on hand in Israel for a Messiah to fight that earthly battle...but really, there never was one in the first place. You don't triumph over the cross by tearing it down, but by taking it and transforming that symbol of scandal and violence into one of reconciliation and new life. And, to dial it up from there, the Cross and Jesus' death on it-as he reframes LIFE for us-is not just overthrowing the ability of Rome of control us, but also the very burden of sin itself is about to be lifted from our shoulders for all time. "For as in Adam, all die; so also in Christ shall all be made alive." Jesus' death addresses and heals the rift between us and God, even as we look at earthly emperor's and realize that they may demand our obedience, but they cannot ever coopt our soul-or our relationship to God and to each other.
So, as the discourse draws to a close, Jesus enters into a prayerful reverie. This chapter (17) is often called the "High Priestly Prayer" in that is mirrors the intercessory prayers offered by the high priest during the annual liturgies of the Temple cleansings. The high priest stands in the gap between the people and God, and prays for them, that God will forgive and restore the nation. Jesus' prayers goes a step and more past that. His prayer is at first on behalf of his disciples, but then expands to include ALL who will follow. This prayer sums up both Jesus' perception of his relationship with the Father and also how John sees him relating to us (and commanding us to relate, and offer love, to one another).
My experience of reading and re-reading these passages gives me a sense of being "topped off" with the love of Christ and the investment of the Spirit. These passages are meant to prepare us for the events to come (both Jesus' crucifixion in the narrative AND the oppression and persecution of the Church by the principalties and powers of the world), and for our benefit as we struggle to be the Church without the physical, human presence of Jesus leading and guiding us.
This is not just a "third-quarter speech" by a divine coach. It is Jesus offering us a grace-filled and graceful assurance that WHATEVER life brings our way, even sin and death, God will never take away the Love and the Word. They are with us always...and not even the Roman cross can destroy or dominate that power, because that power overcomes with love, and leaves violence on the sidelines.
Next week, The Passion.....