When I was kid I remembering my mother talking about John F. Kennedy and the hope he represented for millions of people. She spoke wistfully of the enduring sense of possibility that accompanied what was a very dangerous time in global politics. I was reminded of that recently when watching the musical Camelot on one of the public television stations. This musical was one of Kennedy’s favorites.
In the last scene of the musical, King Arthur spins out a song filled with memories of what had been the most idyllic place on earth. Alone on stage, the broken, forgiving king begs us to remember:
Ask ev'ry person if they've heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if they have not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
Keep the story going begs King Arthur. Pass it on to your children and your children's children; and in the very remembering, you will keep the dream alive. In the midst of the despair around you, recall this time, this special place. And, perhaps-who knows-perhaps this one brief, shining moment will come again.
We're tempted to hear Jesus singing Arthur's song as he gathers with his disciples for the last time. Jesus knew he would soon be betrayed by one of his closest followers – betrayed, arrested, and finally killed. Here at the Passover table, Jesus spins out his last words to his closest friends. We can well imagine Jesus calling them to remember the wondrous wisp of glory they had shared, when light had come into the darkness of the world. With such a song the disciples could go on, sustained by the memory of this one great life, waiting and hoping Jesus would soon return.
The whole Gospel of John could be a Camelot song, for John wrote these words long after Jesus was gone. This gospel is written backwards, in the midst of a community for whom Jesus was only a memory. Most of those in John's community had never met Jesus. Most, if not all, the disciples were dead. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed – a sign for many that the end-time would soon come. But the end-time didn't come.
Life went on and that was, in many ways, the hardest part of all. Jesus hadn't returned even when all the signs seemed right. This community of believers felt pushed to the very edge of despair, and despair could defeat them. The gospel writer knew the dangers of such despair. So it was that John pulled together many of the things Jesus said into this one section of the Gospel known as "The Farewell Discourses." It's a bit like The Last Lecture Series in some colleges, where professors are asked what they would say if they knew it was their last chance to speak. Here at the table, Jesus says the same things over and over in different ways. The central word is love.
" If you love me you will keep my commandments.
" A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.
" Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.
" I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
"But how can we do that?" the disciples must have wondered. Knowing they had a hard time loving each even while Jesus was with them, how could believers love like that in John's community where memory was fading? Let's just keep singing about that time when Jesus was here.
"Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment."
But Jesus did not sing that song. Jesus didn't call the disciples to hold up his life as memory but as presence.
"I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus said, "I am coming to you." What a strange thing to say on the night of betrayal and arrest. He should have said, "I am leaving you." Jesus didn't deny what was going to happen. "In a little while the world will no longer see me," Jesus said, "but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live."
Jesus was calling his disciples to live and love in ways that seemed impossible. They couldn't do it, not without the Spirit. The Spirit is the other theme repeated over and over around the table. Sometimes Jesus says the Advocate, like someone who stands beside you in a court of law. Sometimes he says Helper, sometimes Spirit of Truth. When Jesus said, "I am coming to you," he didn't mean he would return like an old friend from a long journey. Jesus would be with believers in a different way. Or perhaps we could say that God would be with them in a different way because Jesus had been there.
The eternal, cosmic Word of God became flesh in Jesus. That's what John wrote at the very beginning of this Gospel.
The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep in creation, took on flesh in the one who now sat with them at the table. This Living Word had just bent down to wash the disciples' dirty feet. You can't get much more down-to-earth than that. Jesus was very clear. The Spirit that dwells in me will abide also in you. Shortly before this, Jesus had said something audacious.
"Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do
the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these
because I am going to the Father."
If anyone other than Jesus had made such a claim, we would call it blasphemy. Yet, that's what Jesus said that night at the table, even as God breathed into lifeless clay to create a living person, the Spirit will breathe the presence of Jesus into you. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus will continue to be present with you. "I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you."
Love and the Spirit – these two are at the center of Jesus' farewell message, his Last Lecture Series.
"Love one another as I have loved you" and "The Spirit of Truth will abide with you when I am gone."
A little later in this same chapter, Jesus says, "The Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of all that I have said to you." That is, Jesus was saying: You don't know everything yet. You have more to learn.
In every generation you will be faced with new questions and perplexities. Does the sun revolve around the earth or is it the other way around? Should nuclear weapons ever be used against an enemy? Is social assistance the best way to bear one another's burdens? Should women who feel called by God be ordained to preach? Jesus knew there were some questions the sacred writings didn't address.
Jesus also acknowledged that there were some things he had never talked about. "The Spirit will be your tutor," he said, "guiding you into all the truth."
Rosemary Radford Reuther is a church historian. She says there are two things the church must do.
One is to pass on the tradition from one generation to another. We might say this is like King Arthur's song:
"Ask ev'ry person if they've heard the story,
and tell it loud and clear if they have not."
Tell the story of Jesus to your children and your children's children. But that's not all, says Reuther.
There is a second thing the church must do. Be open to the winds of the Spirit by which the tradition comes alive in each generation. That is different than Camelot, deeper than memory.
At the very end of this chapter, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, "Rise, let us be on our way."
You can almost see him getting up from the table, then realizing that he forgot to say something.
"I am the vine," he says, sitting down again, "and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you." But how can we abide in Jesus? He has told the disciples over and over, repeating himself at the table: You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.
Years ago I read something rather odd: "The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home." Whoever said that was joking around a bit, for we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there's another piece of truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, "This is crazy! I'm going home." The life of faith can be like that – doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy.
Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them we're tied together like branches on the vine – or like climbers tied to the rope – tied together by the Spirit, to trust in one who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd. "I will not leave you orphaned," said Jesus. "I am coming to you."
This promise is far deeper than Camelot, and it wasn't only for Jesus' disciples, but also for you and for me. The Spirit ties us to Jesus. We feel a tug on the rope whenever we are tempted to settle for answers that make more sense, but cannot give life.
May God who breathed life into lifeless clay breathe life and hope into you now and in all the days to come.
Let us pray. Come, Holy Spirit, tie us to Jesus and to one another. Breathe into us not only memories but the very presence of Jesus that we may love one another even as Jesus has loved us. Amen.