Lent 4: The Farewell Discourse

April 13, 2003



Lent 4: The Farewell Discourse (4/13/03)

Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Plato once wrote that people should be thirty years old before they are permitted to study philosophy. Ideas are dangerous things, and ideas that deal with the most serious matters we face—good and evil, love and hate, life and death—are not subjects for immature minds.

As we make our walk through the season of Lent—that time of the church year when we are asked to be introspective, and to look closely at all those things within us that fall short of what God calls us to be—we must examine a portion of scripture that Plato would probably acknowledge as too powerful and too dangerous to be left in the hands of the philosophically—or spiritually—immature.

I’m talking about those four chapters from the Gospel of John that are known as the Farewell Discourse. In my mind, these chapters—John 13 through 17—contain one of the most powerful passages in the Bible. It is also one of the most abused, misused and misunderstood passages in the Bible.

Because I believe the season of Lent should be a time for spiritual growth, and not for academic studies of the Bible, I will have to be careful as I discuss this passage. I don’t want it to lose its power beneath layer after layer of analysis. Still, as powerful as it is, there are certain things about this passage that people should understand before they read it.
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First, none of the other three gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—contain anything like this passage. In those gospels, Jesus always speaks in aphorisms and parables. Aphorisms are those great one-liners Jesus loved to use to make people stop and think. For example, when confronted with people who were overly concerned with the little rules and regulations of the faith, but who seemed unconcerned with helping the poor and oppressed, Jesus said to them, “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” Or when asked what a rich person must do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Those are the types of one-liners that stop us in our tracks. Along with those aphorisms Jesus taught with parables—short stories. And we’ve all heard his parables—the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin—there are dozens of them.

According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, that is the way Jesus taught. And he almost never talked about himself. He always used one-liners and short stories to talk about life in the world, and how to enter God’s kingdom, which he claimed was spread not just across eternity, but right here, right now, in this world we share.

But the Gospel of John—that is a whole different story. The Gospel of John contains almost no aphorisms and parables. And without a doubt the favorite subject of Jesus in John’s gospel is…Jesus. He talks about himself, and what his life means. With the exception of the Sermon on the Mount, in which all of his sayings are strung together to form a continuous sermon, the other gospels never have Jesus speaking more that a paragraph or two at a time. But in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks in long theological discourses, including the one we look at this morning—the Farewell Discourse, spoken to his disciples at the Last Supper. This particular passage has Jesus speaking four solid chapters while barely taking a breath.

Most modern scholars tell us that it is unlikely Jesus actually said the things John attributes to him. They tell us that if we want to find the authentic Jesus—the Jesus of Nazareth who walked the earth and taught his disciples about the Kingdom of God—our best bet is to spend our time reading Matthew, Mark and Luke. And there is a good reason for this, because Jesus is portrayed differently in John.

Consider this: In John’s gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He adds, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Marcus Borg, one of my favorite scholars, points out that people who make such claims seldom gather much of a following. They are usually considered egocentric and perhaps demented. And compare the way Jesus speaks about himself in that passage from the Gospel of John with his words as found in the Gospel of Matthew. When asked about what is good and what is not, Jesus replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” That doesn’t sound like the same guy who said, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.”

What is the answer to all of this? Are we to reject the Gospel of John? Or are we to use it in the way the fundamentalists do, and use those sayings of Jesus to threaten people with hell unless they accept him as the one and only way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

This is why I began this message by citing Plato’s belief that philosophy is not for the immature. The same can be said of theology, and that is why we must be careful when we read and interpret the Gospel of John. Yes, it is different. Yes, we see a somewhat different Jesus there than we do in the other gospels.

Why? Suspend your disbelief for a moment, and imagine this. Imagine that there really is such a thing as the Risen Christ. This Risen Christ is very closely associated with Jesus of Nazareth, but the Risen Christ is much more than the 5’7” 150 pound man who walked the earth two thousand years ago. The Risen Christ is the eternal spirit that he embodied. Imagine that the Risen Christ does not presently exist in some human form on some physical plane just beyond the dome of the sky. Imagine that the Risen Christ is a spiritual reality that permeates the universe, and exists in the minds and hearts of believers.

Now, imagine that a man named John opened himself completely and without reservation to this spirit—to this Risen Christ. Imagine that John then looked back on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, realized that Jesus was the human embodiment of the Risen Christ, and re-interpreted the story of Jesus’ life in light of that knowledge. Imagine that this writer named John was unconcerned with the details of Jesus’ life, and entirely concerned with the meaning of Jesus’ life. What would you have then? Well, you would have the Gospel of John.

Now, when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” we can accept that as true—a spiritual reality—without necessarily believing that Jesus of Nazareth ever said such a thing. Now, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” we don’t’ have to believe Jesus of Nazareth insisted on a specific confession of faith in himself as a pre-requisite for being in God’s grace. Now we can recognize that Jesus was the embodiment of God’s love, and that his message was that it is only through God’s love that we enter into God’s grace. We can’t earn it. We can’t knock down the door to heaven. It is a gift from God, and we enter into communion with God not through our own efforts, but rather through the free gift of God’s love.

The Gospel of John is dangerous in the wrong hands. In the wrong hands, it can be used to prove that anybody who worships God in a way other than that established by the conservative Christian church is bound for hell. In the wrong hands, this proclamation of God’s love becomes a weapon! But in the right hands—in the hands of a person who is open to the truth of the gospel and who is open to the unfathomable depths of God’s love, the Gospel of John can lead us directly into the heart of God.

At this time of the church year—Lent—it is important for us to examine the Farewell Discourse from John’s Gospel. And with the academic details out of the way, we can open ourselves to its deep spirituality, without feeling compelled to believe it creates an elite and exclusive club of people who alone have found the keys to the kingdom. Jesus whole message was one of a radically inclusive love. He didn’t hate the rich. He just loved the poor also. He didn’t hate the people who tried hard to live good religious lives. He just loved those who fell short, too. And he didn’t build walls around the path to God’s grace, saying, “This is the one and only way to earn God’s favor.” He simply said, “Here is the path into the heart of God, and it is forever dependent on one thing: God’s love alone.”

The Farewell discourse is amazing. You’re probably more acquainted with it than you realize. Consider some of the following sayings, which are found in the Gospel of John and no other part of the Bible—most of them from the Farewell Discourse:

I am the way, the truth and the life. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. I am the vine, and you are the branches. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world.

Many great theologies are built on the Gospel of John alone, and there are ample sayings within that one gospel, and within the Farewell Discourse, to keep us busy for a long time. But rather than pulling out some of those great passages and taking them apart, as I have a tendency to do, let’s instead consider the four broad, spiritual messages conveyed in the Farewell Discourse.

The first message, which covers the entire 14th chapter of John’s gospel, is: I will not leave you orphaned. This is the part where Jesus says he is the way, the truth and the life. His disciples, many of whom seem to think he is the expected Messiah, cannot understand why he keeps talking about his impending death. After all, his work isn’t done. His work hasn’t really even started. It was common knowledge that the Messiah would be the great Jewish warrior who once and for all conquered evil by re-establishing the Kingdom of David, defeating the Roman army, and securing Israel’s borders. Obviously, if this Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for, he has a fair bit to accomplish before he dies.

Those disciples feel like they are about to be orphaned by the leader for whom they have given up everything. These disciples have left their families, their businesses, everything—to follow Jesus, and now he is talking about dying before their mission has begun. But Jesus tries to reassure them. He tells them he will not leave them orphaned, and that after he is gone he will send a Helper, or Advocate, to be with them. This Helper will be the Holy Spirit of God, and that Spirit will dwell within them, making Jesus present to them always. They don’t understand. And many of us still do not understand. But consider this. How many millions of people over the last two-thousand years have hit bottom—murderers, wife-beaters, thieves, drunks, drug addicts—and have fallen to their knees, envisioning Jesus on the cross—and have felt the Spirit of God move within them? It happens all the time. Different scientific disciplines attribute this to various causes, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that it happens. Jesus did not leave us orphaned.

The second spiritual message of the Farewell Discourse is this: Abide in my love. This is one of the more spiritually powerful parts of the discourse if you can understand the imagery. Jesus says that he is going away, but his love will still be here. His body will be gone, but his love will remain. And this love is not emotional. It is not a feeling. It is something that is as real as the ground upon which we walk. It is as real as the air we breathe. In fact, it really is a lot like air, because we can’t see it, but we can be sure it is there. We live, and move, and have our being within it. We abide in it. And importantly, we are connected to one another with this love.

Jesus uses the image of a vine with lots of branches springing out of it, the branches interlaced with each other, and wrapping themselves around the vine. You and I—we are the interwoven branches, held together and anchored upon that common vine, which is God’s love, as expressed in Jesus. It’s a powerful image.

The third spiritual message is: I have chosen you out of the world. Again, some read this as some sort of claim to exclusivity. They read it as saying that the people whom Jesus has chosen are alone in receiving God’s grace. But what does it really mean to be chosen by Jesus? Are there some obligations involved in being chosen out of the world by Jesus?

This passage makes the implications of being chosen by Jesus pretty clear. I quote: If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own…But I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Why? Why would the world hate somebody chosen by Jesus? A lot of the more fundamental elements of the church say the world hates Jesus’ followers because they are always telling people to convert, to get saved.

But Jesus says people will hate his followers for the same reason they hate him. Followers of Jesus use the teachings of Jesus as their guide through life. They forgive people who everybody knows should not be forgiven. They help the poorest of the poor, even if the poverty is self-inflicted from bad decisions and lack of effort. They love people who clearly don’t deserve loving. When they see injustice and oppression, they speak out. And without resorting to violence themselves, they stand on principle against violence in all its manifested forms.

This doesn’t make people popular. In fact, Jesus says quite specifically that if you do not have the Helper—the Holy Spirit—in your heart, and if you are not firmly anchored as a branch on the vine of his love, you will not be able to take the bitterness the world will feel toward you. As a person he has chosen out of the world, you will probably be hated just like he was.

The fourth spiritual message of the Farewell Discourse is: It is to your advantage that I go away. This is sort of a summary of the other three messages. It’s the reason we call Good Friday Good Friday. Because let’s face it, seeing Jesus hanging from that cross does not appear to be good news at first glance. But what if Jesus had never taken that walk to the cross? What if Jesus had seen what was about to happen, and walked away?

I remember in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas tries to talk Jesus out of his crazy ministry. Judas is frightened by how the crowds are growing, and the way expectations about Jesus are getting out of control. And Judas sings, “Nazareth your famous son should have stayed a great unknown, like his father carving wood, he’d have made good. Tables, chairs and oaken chests would have suited Jesus best. He’d have caused nobody harm, no one alarm.”

Jesus, at this late point in his ministry, wasn’t making sense to his disciples. But as we discussed last week, our world would look different today if Jesus had listened to his followers instead of listening to the voice of God within his heart. So he told them, ”It is to your advantage that I go away.” Two thousand years later, the very building in which we gather this morning bears testimony to the truth of his words. Next week, we will gather to celebrate Easter, and Jesus’ ultimate victory over the hatred of the world, the violence of humanity, and finally, death itself.