6 Easter, 5/26/2019, Regarding Jesus’ Valedictory

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From Rev. Butler on 6 Easter, 26 May 2019

Jesus’ Valedictory: John 14. 23 – 29

There is a word in the English-speaking world that is rarely heard these days. And that word is “farewell.” It has its origin in the Old High German “far wol,” which can be translated as “travel strong” or “travel safely.” As in English, it is also no longer heard in Modern High German. However, it may still be heard among the older generation in Southern Sweden, in and around Malmö, where I heard and used it regularly in “far väl.” Whether in English, German, or Swedish, farewell, fahr wohl, far väl was uttered as a prayer, when two parties parted from each other. It was the more secular version of “God be with ye,” which has itself morphed into our contemporary “goodbye.” And “fahr wohl” or farewell, with a slight turn of words, gives us the word “welfare.”

However, even before it was common usage in English, German or Swedish, there was the Latin verb “valere,” which means to be strong or well, and the command or imperative form of the Latin verb was “vale,” from which “fahr wohl” or “fare well” is derived. Vale was the word employed in the Latin-speaking world, when taking leave from another being.

You are, of course, familiar with the Latin because it is that word which is the root of the English “valedictory” and “valedictorian,” and it is during graduation season, such as now in our schools and colleges that we honor our valedictorians and listen to valedictory speeches. As an aside, my Latin teacher, Miss Temple, would be pleased that something of four years of high school Latin remains still imprinted on my brain! And now you may ask yourselves, why in the world is Butler giving us a language lesson? Or, colloquially, where is he going with this?

My response, in self-defense, is this: I want to demonstrate to you that even we Episcopalians know our Bible! And I want you to be able to go forth from this sacred place and tell members of your family and your friends that you heard today, the Sunday preceding the Feast of the Ascension, the day on which according to Biblical testimony Jesus ascended into the heavens, the day on which Jesus took leave of his disciples, that you heard read at Eucharist, the valedictory speech of Jesus.

Today’s gospel lesson according to John is a continuation of the speech which we heard these last weeks. You will recall, Jesus promoted his disciples from the rank of servants to that of friends. “No longer do I call you servants, but friends.” Sentimentally and socially, it sounds much more desirable to be a friend than a servant, because as friend one could sit at table. The relationship had changed. The disciples were no longer students. They understood that they could never claim equal status with the master, but as friends they could claim junior rank. The disciples have graduated. Jesus has given them the basic instruction which they will need to continue the work which they began under his tutorial. The basic message of love of God and of neighbor as self had been taught and would remain always the same. However, it would now have to be stated and demonstrated, restated and demonstrated over and over again by the former pupils, in such a form as to make the new hearers understand.

As servants, the disciples understood their role, which was to be supportive in the mission that was Jesus’. They had a leader. Friendship, on the other hand, presupposes an equal or almost equal status to the one who has been leader. A new element had been introduced into the equation, one that required maturity, one that indicated that life would never be the same for the disciples of Christ. If it were not out of mere sentimentality that Jesus promoted former disciples to status of friends, it fitting to ask, why Jesus, the leader, would take such a step? My answer is a simple one. And my answer has to do with the nature of a valedictory and those to whom it is delivered.

Like the valedictory speeches we have come to expect in our high school and on our college campuses, where there is an anticipation of departure or separation, the speech which Jesus delivers goes a step further. It is one of empowerment. Jesus was preparing his innermost circle for his imminent departure, and they were going to have to take up the reins of responsibility for explaining what God wishes for the Creation. They were going to be the ones who, from now on, would have to wrestle with feeling of hostility toward the cause. Now they were going to be the one who would have to articulate what the kingdom of God is like. They were going to be the one to have to assume leadership roles in their respective communities. They were, each in his own way, to become the shepherd of their flock, not the hired hand who flees when adversity comes.

You are all familiar with the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus.” It was written 1855 by Joseph M. Scriven. And he based his poem on the very text that we read today. Scriven wrote:
“What a friend we have in Jesus/ All our sins and griefs to bear! / What a privilege to carry / Everything to God in Prayer.
Oh, What peace we often forfeit /
Oh, what needless pain we bear /
All because we do not carry /
Everything to God in Prayer.”

Scriven continues:
Are we weak and heavy laden /
cumbered with a load of care? /
Precious Savior, still our refuge– /
Take it to the Lord in prayer. /
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? /
Take it to the Lord in prayer! /
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee, /
Thou wilt find a solace there.”

Out of the very depth of his soul, Scriven wrote this song. He wrote it during a time of extreme religious pietism. I do not question the fervor of his religious belief. Scriven found, as do we all, comfort in the fact that God sent the Messiah to lead us into a more perfect union with God and our neighbor, and that no matter where we are and who we are in life’s journey, we can turn to that Messiah and find acceptance. In his poem, later set to music, Scriven describes how many of us so often feel.

Still, I offer a word of caution. This moving pietistic poem/hymn causes many to want to set aside the real, day-to-day existence, for which Jesus in his valediction sought to prepare his disciples.

To be sure, Jesus provided his disciples/servants with a community, and they became like a family with all a family’s quirks, and quarrels, and idiosyncrasies. And there was undoubtedly, despite all that, a sense of belonging and comfort. But Jesus was not seeking their ease. Jesus was not asking his disciples, and nor is he asking us, to curl themselves up in him, as if he were their cocoon! Jesus must surely have understood that, if his message of LOVE, writ large, was to flourish, the disciples could not hide behind locked doors. Rather, they had to be active, alive, out and about. His valedictory speech was intended to reassure them and to instill in them a confidence, that inner peace which only God could and can give.

Taken in their totality, last Sunday’s gospel reading and today’s gospel, now taken as one valedictory, demonstrate to you and me the love and concern which Jesus had for those closest to him. They, and we by extension, needed to be prepared to stand on their own two feet, because they were going to have to proclaim the gospel of God, often when the odds were against them, often when they felt perhaps that they had no faith, when they were tired, when their numbers were low, when their budget was not balanced, when society set lions upon them, figuratively and literally speaking. Servants may be loyal and even sacrifice their very lives for their bosses. However, such servants are the exceptions. They are the hired hands. Friends, true friends, on the other hand, can be counted on to lay down their lives for their friends, to take friends in during adversity, to be there.

As we come to the end of another academic year, we will hear over and over again the word commencement. Well, this is a commencement speech by Jesus. Jesus in this speech reminds us that commencement is not the end goal, but rather a beginning. For his disciples, he anticipated his departure, which we recall and celebrate on Ascension Day. They needed to be prepared, and who better to prepare them than the one who had led them for so long? And for us? A friendship with Jesus does not define a state, but is an action noun. Vale! Fare-well! Be strong!