Enduring Witness (May 16 – 22)

Sunday, May 22
Fifth Sunday of Easter

Weekly Theme
Enduring Witness

Weekly Prayer
Risen Christ, you prepare a place for us, in the home of the Mother-and-Father of us all. Draw us more deeply into yourself, through scripture read, water splashed, bread broken, wine poured, so that when our hearts are troubled, we will know you more completely as the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.

Weekly Reading
John 14:1-14

[Jesus said:] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 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. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

All readings for the Week
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Focus Questions

1. Have you ever experienced the “farewell speech” of someone you loved?

2. What do you think you would have been thinking, as you listened to this speech of Jesus?

3. How would you summarize the heart of Jesus’ farewell speech?

4. What are the “august connections” you feel with God?

5. Why does this passage connect so well to Psalm 23?

by Kate Huey

These words of Jesus, spoken at the Last Supper, are part of his farewell speech to his followers, but they’re also heard by us on this Fifth Sunday of Easter, one week after we reflected on the familiar words of Psalm 23 that sing of God’s tender, loving care for us. Holding both of those settings in our hearts and minds, we hear these words in new and more profound ways, not as a litmus test for determining those who’s saved, and who isn’t.

Unfortunately, most of us hear only that one verse (14:6) of a long and exquisitely beautiful good-bye from a teacher who is wrapping things up, in a sense, with reminders and coaxings and reassurances to his much-loved but weak disciples. We know what it feels like to hope for a review from the teacher before the final exam. Jesus the Teacher will face the test himself, and will measure up, but his poor students will fail the first time around. We’re grateful that they, like us, are given another chance, and the Spirit to help them.

Gail R. O’Day provides excellent background on the farewell speech in the ancient Mediterranean world. She reminds us of familiar stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 49; Joshua 22-24; I Chronicles 28-29, and the entire book of Deuteronomy), but we don’t often hear these stories of Jacob, Joshua, David, and Moses in connection with this text from John. Jesus, however, is very much in the tradition of his ancestors in faith as he speaks to his followers before his death, addressing not only those present but also those who would follow them, including us today. 

The farewell speech in John (a very long one, interrupted at least once) brings into sharp focus the theology of the Fourth Gospel–just in case, we sense John is thinking, anyone missed the message all along. O’Day says that John follows in the path of earlier writers, including the author of Deuteronomy recounting the last words of Moses to the Hebrew people, through which “the traditions of Sinai and Moab are given a fresh hearing, a ‘re-presentation’ in a new setting, because they are presented as being spoken in this moment for this people.” Even though Moses’ speech was written hundreds of years after their ancestors had entered the Promised Land, the people of Israel could hear these words afresh, imagine themselves into the story, and understand that God was still speaking to them, in their own place and time. The voice of Moses was powerfully authoritative for the Jewish people, and the voice of Jesus is full of power and authority for the readers and hearers of John’s Gospel in every age. We sense that he is speaking to us, in our moment, as his people: his beloved flock.

A love letter to us as well

As a matter of fact, if we wonder what this last speech is about, we might go back to the beginning of this long evening before his death. John begins chapter 13 with Jesus’ awareness that “his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” And here is the key to what was in the heart of Jesus, in that very same verse: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This speech, in a sense, is a love letter. It reminds us of the words of Henri Nouwen, who urged us to “love Jesus, and love the way Jesus loved.” 

The drama of Judas’ betrayal disrupts the evening, but Jesus still begins his “lesson” by example before beginning this long speech: he washes the feet of his puzzled disciples and tells them that they should also be humble servants of others. The undercurrents of the evening churn up anxiety in his followers, and we hear Simon Peter, Thomas, and Philip trying to make sense of it all. Throughout the entire speech, Jesus reassures them with words of love and care and promise.

However, we usually don’t hear about the love, care, and promise as much as the claim of verse 6, O’Day says, that is often taken as “proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all other faiths are condemned.” On the other end, of course, are those who turn away from the entire gospel (not only John’s Gospel) because they think it sounds “exclusionary and narrow-minded.” O’Day continues: “When Jesus says ‘no one,’ he means ‘none of you’….This is not, as is the case in the twentieth century, the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction of a religious minority in the ancient Mediterranean world. It is the conviction of a religious group who had discovered that its understanding of the truth of God carries it with a great price.” (O’Day’s words really bear reading more than once.) Their faith, she says, had gotten them expelled from their “church home,” so they would have to “carve out a new religious home for themselves, a home grounded in the incarnation.” They were a distinct people now, and John’s Gospel expresses “the distinctiveness” of Christians who find their way to God through Jesus.

The heart of the message

Still, this is a difficult passage. Next week we’ll read “part two,” if you will, of this glimpse (just a glimpse) of Jesus’ farewell speech. It’s important to ask, What is the spirit of the entire speech? What is Jesus trying to tell his followers, including you and me today, the church today, the world God loves? Most of us think that if we knew we had only one day to live, we’d want to find those we love most and tell them important things, even though we may have said them many times before. We parents, of course, would also want to remind our children of more things we think they need to know. We do this out of love, but the love of God, the love of Jesus, far surpasses even the love of earthly parents.

Speaking of tender love and care: there is a moving sermon on this text by the great Gardner Taylor: he sets the scene and explores the insides, the hearts, of those hearing the last speech of Jesus, including the anxious question of Thomas (Thomas seemed to like certainty and reassurance). When Thomas asks how they would find the way, Jesus says that he is the Way. (We might ponder the difference in emphasizing “is” over “the.”) Taylor then expands the words of Jesus to embrace us all: “Jesus is the way out. We are all captives and slaves. There is something wrong with our humanity. We feel a disquiet, a deep and true dis-ease. We are not satisfied with what we are; we sense that we are born for some spacious destiny from which we feel somehow barred. We feel trapped…longing to be free.” Greed and materialism, our “new religion,” don’t provide a way out, Gardner says: “Jesus is the way out of our foiled sense of destiny and purpose. He declares us to have august connections, a relatedness to the eternal God, intimate and binding.”

Jesus is “the way home”

But what about the pain and hardship of life? Is life only about waiting until we reach that place that Jesus is preparing? Has he gone on ahead and left us alone, to our own devices? No, Gardner says, “He is the way through life’s hardness and harshness, its pain and its penalties, its fears and its failings. Jesus is the way through.” What is beyond the horizon, what we long for and are oriented toward, is the grace of a loving God who puts all things and all experiences in perspective. “If Jesus told us anything at all, he told us that this world is not all; we have dual citizenship….He did say that he is the way! The way home! The way to bright glory! The way to sunlit shores of an everlasting country.”

So Jesus was going on ahead to prepare a place for us, and we still forget and lose our way as we attempt to follow in his path. Gardner says not to worry; remember last week’s psalm? The shepherd, tender and good, will come back for us, searching for us on the paths and hillsides where we wander. God’s love, made known to us in Jesus, will seek us out. Jesus will love us “to the end.” Hope is alive, we are not lost, and new life abounds. In this Easter season, that is the foundation and fount of our joy. 

For Further Reflection

Carol Sobieski and Thomas Meehan, “Annie,” 20th century
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. 

Ivy Baker Priest, 20th century
The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning. 

Gilda Radner, 20th century
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

George Eliot, 19th century
Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.