When we knew we would be back in Iowa for two months this summer, I reached out to my Iowa clergy friends to see who might need some supply preaching done during that time. One colleague booked me for two Sundays in a row at her church, and I am excited to be back in the pulpit again even for a short time. The following sermon was preached at Center Chapel UMC in Indianola, Iowa on Sunday May 26, 2019. Thank you for reading!
Scripture: John 14:23-29
Over the last two weekends I have had the distinct pleasure of getting to watch two of my nieces graduate from high school. Both of these nieces became my own when I married my husband almost six years ago, which means I met these girls when they were about twelve years old. In a lot of ways, they are still twelve years old in my mind. Does that ever happen to you with children? They sort of get stuck at a certain age in your heart, and your memories, and every time you see them you can’t help but have that shock of surprise that they have grown so much!
So even though I have watched these girls grow up, it’s still kind of hard for me to believe that they have actually grown up - and now have passed one of those great milestone markers of life - graduating high school. As I watch them go through it, it feels like such a momentous occasion. It seems like something this big, this final, should feel somehow life altering in the moment. So I asked each girl after the ceremony - how does it feel to be a graduate?
I’m not sure what I expected, but the answer I got, almost verbatim from both was this - It feels exactly the same as before I was a graduate. They were kind enough to restrain their eye rolls at their aunt who was asking such a silly question, but I could feel it. And let’s be honest, I’m sure I gave a similar answer to any adults at my graduation who were silly enough to ask me the same question.
Sometimes we don’t realize the importance of something we are going through until after it is finished. I’m not quite sure they can understand just exactly how vastly their lives are going to change now that graduation is over. But maybe that’s a good thing. If they could see the precipice they are on as their whole world shifts around them, it would be rather terrifying. So maybe it’s a good thing that sometimes in the midst of massive change, we don’t always see what’s coming.
In today’s scripture passage, Jesus and the disciples are on the precipice of a massive change. This passage from John is a part of what is known as the “Farewell Discourse”. Jesus is gathered with his disciples on the night of the last supper, they have broken bread and shared the cup together, and now Jesus is giving the disciples his final teaching. Jesus knows what is going to happen in the next 24 hours. He has already dismissed Judas to “do quickly what you are going to do.”
He knows what’s coming. He can feel the change that is coming. But the disciples can’t. This, despite the fact that all throughout his ministry Jesus has been trying to prepare them for this moment. He has told his disciples over and over again exactly what is going to happen - that in Jerusalem he will be tried, and convicted, and crucified, and rise, and then ascend into heaven. But they didn’t want to believe it. They didn’t want to face the fact that they might lose Jesus actually with them.
I’m sure at some point over the years, on the head level, the disciples got what Jesus was saying. He repeated it often enough I wouldn’t be surprised if they started to respond the way teenagers do when you tell them something important over and over again - “yeah, yeah, Jesus we get it, you’ve told us this already. You’re going to die, then come back, then leave, blah, blah, blah.” But Jesus kept telling them over and over because he knew they didn’t really understand on the level they needed to in their hearts, and in their souls.
On this final night, Jesus is trying one more time to impress upon them the importance of what is going to happen. He is giving them his final teaching as their earthly rabbi, the last chance that he has to stand before them in his fully human body and teach to them as he always has. When we think about the importance of this final night, it becomes clear that the words Jesus says on this evening must have extreme significance.
Think about it. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, and tonight you had all of your family and friends, the most important people in the world to you gathered around you, what would you say? You probably wouldn’t spend time chatting about the weather or the score of last week’s ball game, you would try to cover the most important stuff. The stuff about love, about the future, about your hopes and dreams for your people.
So what does Jesus tell his people on this final night? He speaks about love. He gives them the new commandment - to love one another just as I have loved you. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” As people who attend church, who attempt to follow Christ in our daily lives, I’m sure we have often wondered, am I doing this right? Am I getting this disciple thing down? Sometimes it seems so hard, so complicated, when the church and the world and all the voices around us give us different on answers on what it really means to follow Jesus. But Jesus gave it to us here very simply - it is all about love. Are we showing love to all of those around us? If yes, then we are following his commandment. If not, then we have some work to do.
Jesus also teaches about the Holy Spirit on this night. He has already taught the disciples much about God the Father, about his special relationship with God. But now he begins to introduce the third aspect of the trinity, the more nebulous, ephemeral aspect of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit hasn’t come yet, won’t come until later, after Jesus is resurrected, after he has ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. But Jesus tells of the coming of the Spirit and gives us some very important information about the Spirit.
He says that God the Father will send the Spirit in Jesus’ name, and the Spirit “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
I want to focus here on that one little phrase - will teach you everything. Can you see how momentous that is? What Jesus is saying here is that he has not already taught us everything. He has only been in ministry with the disciples for three years, so it stands to reason that he can’t possibly have taught them everything already. (Especially with how dense we know the disciples to be sometimes.) Jesus is assuring them that their time of learning is not over. Just because this big shift is happening, this big change is coming, doesn’t mean that they are done. It doesn’t mean they can say “I graduated from the school of Jesus and now I am the expert.” The Spirit is coming to continue to teach them, and to remind them of all that Jesus has said.
If we encountered a high school graduate this weekend, who walked around with their cap and gown on saying, “I did it! I’ve learned everything and look I have this diploma to prove it!” we would all laugh at them, right? Or perhaps have some pity on them for we know how much they don’t yet know. Just because the big change has happened from high school student to high school graduate doesn’t mean they are done learning.
But really the same is true for all of us. Hopefully there is never a moment in our lives when we feel like we have learned it all. One of my previous appointments was to Friendship Haven, a retirement community in Fort Dodge. There, all of my ministry was with people many decades older than me, most of whom had been attending worship, teaching Sunday School, and leading the church in various ways for more than twice as long as I have been alive. It would have been so easy for them to look at me and think “What could you possibly have to teach me?"
But I was always humbled by their willingness to learn from me, to learn with me really as we explored the ancient stories of the Bible over and over again. One of my favorite moments in my time there, was when a woman almost one hundred years old said to me, “You know, I’ve been going to church my whole life, since before I can remember, yet every week now, I learn something new about the Bible, about Jesus, about God.”
She embodied this spirit of the Spirit - the idea that the Holy Spirit will continue to teach us, will continue to remind us of what Jesus said and lead us into new ways of living the truth of Jesus Christ in this world. Hopefully, we are never done learning. Hopefully, we are never done growing. In an ideal world we will always have our hearts, our minds, and our doors open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of those around us.
So this weekend, I encourage you to remain a student your entire life - a student of Jesus Christ, informed by scripture, led by the movement of the Holy Spirit, and living out the teachings of Jesus to the best of your ability. You might never get your diploma, your picture perfect cap and gown moment, but you will experience the joy of learning, and moving one step at a time closer to the perfection of Christ. We won’t ever get there, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
May we learn, may we live, may we love, as Jesus Christ taught us to.