Sermon, 5/5/24. Jesus’ Valedictory: John 14: 23–29

Posted on ; Filed under News

6 Easter

Psalm 98; Acts 10: 44–48; 1 John 5: 1–6; John 15: 9–17

Currently, the news, on television, in print, and on social media has focused our attention on the demonstrations and encampments on our university and college campuses in protest against war in Gaza.  You will surely recall the name Gaza from our reading last Sunday from the Acts of the Apostles.  Gaza was until recently for many in our churches merely the name of some distant, historical biblical place. 

But suddenly, the Bible becomes real, becomes alive.  The biblical Gaza becomes an actual place, home today to real people who live and breathe, as do you and I, but under conditions of war.  I mention this not to lay upon you a monologue which, given our liturgical tradition, would not allow an actual dialogue with you about currents events in Gaza, but only to help us to make real what we read in Holy Scripture and to encourage thoughts on how we might best respond to what is laid before us via modern technology.

One television commentator’s solution to the problem of war between the State of Israel and the people of Gaza, at least to resolve the demonstrations and encampments on our universities and colleges, was to suggest that students ought not to be thinking about ending war and violations of human dignity so far from the shores of the United States.  Rather, they should be thinking about their graduation and the money which their parents have paid to witness this milestone in their children’s development.

As someone whose entire life has been connected with education, a thought swirled around in my head that perhaps, just perhaps, there is indeed a direct connection between commencement, i.e. graduation in the time of peace, as well as in the time of war, and that the words of Jesus Christ that we have read, marked, and inwardly digested both in the classroom and in our religious ceremonies, are especially applicable in these unsettled times.  Are, perhaps, some of the student demonstrators graduates of years of church school and its Godly Play curriculum, Vacation Bible School, attendance at mass, at Eucharist, at Shabbat Services?

There is a word in the English-speaking world that is rarely heard these days.  That word is “farewell.”  That word, “farewell,” has its origin in 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 during my time there.  Its form was “far väl.”  Travel well!

Whether in English, German, or Swedish, farewell, fahr wohl, far väl was uttered as a prayer, when two parties parted from each other, when highways and byways were not as well attended and patrolled as today.  That greeting of leave-taking was the more secular version of “God be with ye,” which has itself morphed into our contemporary “goodbye.”  The Latin languages have their “adieu” and “adios,” which is “go with God!”

However, even before its version 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.  Four years of high school Latin taught me that “vale” was the word employed in the Latin world, when taking leave from another being.

You are, of course, familiar with the Latin because … that word … is the root of the English “valedictory” and “valedictorian;” … it is during graduation season, such as now approaches in our schools and colleges, that we honor our valedictorians and listen to valedictory speeches.  You may ask yourselves, why this history of language?

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 took leave of his disciples, ascending into heaven.  However, days before his ascension, indeed, prior to his crucifixion, Jesus gives a valedictory speech.  And as much as some would claim that his farewell speech has nothing to do with politics, I argue to the contrary.  The valedictory speech of God’s Messiah addresses head-on the demonstrations on our campuses.

You will recall, in that speech, Jesus promoted his disciples from the rank of servants to that of friends.  “No longer do I call you servants, but friends.”  Today’s gospel reading is a continuation, with examples, of that valedictory. 

The disciples were no longer students.  They understood that they could never claim equal status with the master, but as friends they could claim associate rank.  The disciples have graduated.  Jesus has given them the basic instruction that they will need to continue the work that they began in his tutorial.  That basic message of love of God and of neighbor as self had been taught, reiterated with various examples and with a different vocabulary.  At its foundation, it is and would remain always the same.  However, it would now have to be stated and demonstrated using life example, re-stated and demonstrated over and over again by the former pupils in such a form as to make the new disciples.

Like the valedictory speeches we have come to expect in our high schools 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 grapple with feelings of hostility toward the cause of the oneness of humanity.  They were going to be the ones who would have to articulate what the kingdom of God is like.  They were going to be the ones to have to assume leadership roles in their respective communities.  They were, each in his/her own way, to become the shepherd of their flock, not the hired hand.  

You are surely 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.”

Scriven wrote this song, during a time of extreme religious pietism.  I do not disparage the fervor of his religious belief.  In an era of uncertainty, Scriven sought and 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.

I live, you and I live, in a different era, in the 21st century, but no less one which so desperately needs to be made familiar with the valedictory speech that Jesus delivered.  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 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. 

However, the biblical text teaches that Jesus was not seeking their ease; on the contrary!  Jesus was not asking his disciples (and nor is he asking us) to curl themselves up in him as if he were a cocoon!  Jesus must surely have understood that if his message of LOVE, writ large, was to flourish, the disciples could no longer 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 is one long valedictory, a valedictory that demonstrates to you and me the love and concern which Jesus had for those closest to him.  They (and we by our baptism) needed to be prepared to proclaim the Good News of God, often when the odds were against them, often when they felt perhaps that they had no faith, when they were exhausted, when their numbers were low, when their budget was not balanced, when their tents did not keep out the rain and wind, when society set lions upon them, figuratively and literally. 

As people of faith, we have a commencement speech by Jesus, which reminds us that commencement is not the end goal, but rather a beginning.  In that valedictory, as well as through and in every action that Jesus, God Messiah, undertook, one thing is clear: Friendship, to be friends with Jesus does not define a state, but is an actional noun. 

Jesus said: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Vale!  Fare-well!  Be strong!  Amen