Last words well Chosen
Rev . Andy Ferguson
As you know, Annual Conference for United Methodists is coming; this is the meeting of representatives from every church in our Holston Annual Conference. One of the tasks of that conference is to recognize and give a moment to those who are retiring. It happened about a month ago that all the retiring pastors came to Church Street to record a video message that will be played at the retirement service.
After talking with a few of them, I was moved with nostalgia for the good old days, before video recordings, when each retiring pastor got up to do the speech live. I loved those speeches. Few were read from a prepared text. Those who did prepare usually rambled off-message. They were funny and affectionate and grateful. They talked about little churches I never heard about and bore witness that those little churches were the finest places in all of Holston. They spoke of fiath in Christ that had been tried and tested and found strong enough to bear the weight of their lifetimes.
Each speaker identified some quality or task that had been essential to their ministry. In their own way, they would point to that quality or task to say, “Don’t forget this. Get it rigfht. It has been important.” In a way, he was saying, “Keep these moments and the accomplishments with you always. Keep in mind what was most important in our time together. Even though I am leaving the formal ministry, these things mattered; we must make them last.”
Well, Jesus delivered a *Farewell Address* of his own. John’s gospel records his words in the time after the *Last Supper*. According to John, Jesus knew what was about to happen when they went out to the Garden of Gethsemane. He expected the betrayal by Judas Iscariot; he expected the arrest in the Garden; he expected the Cross. So, as the time around the Table was coming to a close, he talked to his disciples in a very personal way. You might say that his purpose in talking with them was similar to President Regan’s purposes as he spoke to the nation for his last time: “Keep in mind what was most important in our time together. Even though I am leaving you, these things mattered; we must make them last.”
Scholars consider the verse which opened our reading this morning to be the core claim of the *Gospel according to John*. It is a claim that is breathtaking in its reach; it defines us distinctly as Followers of the Christ; it has also been the source of controversy. Let’s talk about it.
In 14.7, Jesus said to his disciples: 7** “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”** The core claim of the Gospel according to John is that in Jesus Christ we have encountered and now see the Father in a way that the Father was not seen before. To see Jesus is to see the Father in a distinct and vivid way that no one, no religion, no experience of God has provided before or since. We do not claim that the God whom we worship is the generic God that sort of gathers up the gods of all the religions and peoples of the world. We realize that following Jesus marks us as distinct from every other religious claim on this earth, distinct even from Judaism. You see, as Followers of Jesus, we press the point that the God whom we worship is particularly the one revealed in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
What then about the claims of other religions? What about the fact that religious differences have been used as the motivation or perhaps the excuse for much evil done across the ages?
Dr. Gail O’Day, Dean of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, who was with us in worship a few years ago, said in her commentary on John’s Gospel:
The Fourth Gospel is not concerned with the fate… of Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity as they are configured in the modern world.
These verses are the confessional celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. The fourth Evangelist’s primary concern was the clarification and celebration of what it means to believe in Jesus. The theological vision articulated here expresses the distinctiveness of Christian identity, and it is as people shaped by this distinctiveness that Christians can take their place in conversations about world religion (2).
Thus, we of this church do not proclaim a generic god guaranteed to be offense-free regardless of any belief people may bring. Instead, we proclaim the God so distinct that he could take flesh and be recognized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – the one who suffered on the cross, the one who rose again on Easter. It is with this clarity that we engage the world in a conversation about the God and the gods that shape this world. It is with this clarity that we point the world to realities that call us beyond the limits of human sight and reason.
To say, “I am a follower of Christ,” is not the excuse to treat people who follow other faiths or no faith as if they are less than we are. Indeed, to say, “I am a follower of Christ,” is bind ourselves to Christ’s ways with the stranger, the needy, with those whose lives and reputations offend our sense of right and wrong. To say, “I am a follower of Christ,” is to treat everyone as Christ would treat them. With a Christ-like approach, we engage the world in conversation about the God and the many gods of this world.
II. What then do we see of God because we follow Christ? We know God with the intimacy of children of a beloved Father. Despite the fact that the scriptures use many names for God, Jesus’ distinct word, according to John, for addressing God is “Father.” O.T. Judiasm taught that God was so very holy that speaking the name of God shold be avoided lest it be spoken without sufficient respect. We were taught in seminary that the ancient name for God, YHWH, is not so much a word to be spokien but a breath to be whispered. In contrast, Jesus addressed God with the name common among children, “Abba,” Father. It is word of intimacy, of respect, and of access.
1. Recall when we pray the Lord’s Prayer in the Communion Service, we are invited to pray with the words: “Now with the confidence of Children of God, let us pray, “Our Father…”
2. I remember my daughter Jane, when she was a toddler, crawling up into my lap to sit herself in the middle of my newspaper, knowing that she had the unique right interrupt my busy mornings.
3. We teach our children something about the Father-Child relationship Jesus had in mind every time we catch our children looking to see if we are watching them playing their best in athletics or doing their best in school or singing their best in the church choir.
Because God is Father, we know we are God’s children. And when we understand that, we know whose we are and therefore who we are.
III. What do we see of God because we follow Christ? Because of Christ, we know God daily through the coming and presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Greek word for “advocate” is Paraclete, formed from a verb that means, “to call alongside.” A Paraclete is the one whose name you call
· when you are hauled into court and the whole country is already convinced that you are guilty,
· when the school bully is beating you up on the playground,
· when you wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night.
A Paraclete is the one who comes to your defense, your rescue, your comfort. Throughout his lifetime, Jesus has been doing that for his disciples. But now, Jesus sends another Paraclete to stand with us.
The Paraclete passage meets the anxiety arising from the departure of Jesus. The work of the Paraclete is within the community of faith, keeping the words of Jesus fresh. The Paraclete is connected with the power of the witness of believers for Jesus. And, the Paraclete leads believers into all truth. With that in mind, perhaps we should “rejoice” as Jesus suggests. We are in good hands (3).
2. [Mayor Richard Daly]
Some of you are old enough to remember Richard Daly who was mayor of Chicago for 21 years (1955‑1976). Mayor Daly was known as a rather forbidding guy to work for. He left stories wherever he went. I’m not sure whether this really happened, but it should have.
One of Mayor Daly’s speechwriters went to see his boss and asked for a raise. Mayor Daly was not in a raise-giving mood. He said, “I’m not going to give you a raise. You are getting paid more than enough already. It should be enough for you that you are working for a great American hero like myself.” And, that was the end of it... or so the mayor thought.
Two weeks later Mayor Daly was on his way to give a speech to a convention of veterans. The speech was going to receive nationwide attention. Now one other thing Mayor Daly was famous for was not reading his speeches until he got up to deliver them. So there he stood before a vast throng of veterans and nationwide press coverage. He began to describe the plight of the veterans. “I’m concerned for you. I have a heart for you. I am deeply convinced that this country needs to take care of its veterans. So, today I am proposing a seventeen point plan that includes the city, state and federal government, to care for the veterans of this country.” Now by this time everyone, including Mayor Daly, was on the edge of their seat to hear what the proposal was. He turned the page and saw only these words: “You’re on your own now, you great American hero.”
I don't know if Daly learned anything at that moment. With his great ego perhaps he did not. But, he should have learned that all of us, no matter how great we think we are, need help. We need advocates who work behind the scenes to make us who we are. God is also the great Advocate for you; God comes to us as the Holy Spirit (4).
As Jesus said to his disciples that night in the Upper Room:
15** "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.**
Jesus’ *Farewell Address* reads like a love letter. Take out your Bible again before the day is over to read it again – more than once. As you read it though, it seems that Christ’s words come alive, and he is there beside you in the reading.
+18 "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
+19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.
+Because I live, you also will live.
+20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
+21 They 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."**
2. O’Day, Gail. “The Gospel according to John,” the New Interpreters Bible, vol. IX, pp. 744f.
3. Somerville, James G., “Who will take care of us?” The Christian Century, May 6, 1998, p. 471
4. Journey Toward God